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Midara: Requiem [High Fantasy Necromancer fun]

Discussion in 'Creative Writing' started by TanaNari, Jan 15, 2019.

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  1. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    Well... "Academies" were mentioned, but it wasn't at all obvious that they would be so profoundly different. To the extent I thought about it, I had a mental image of a choice like going to one university or another - they can have different focuses, but generally have similar programs. But the authors's note says there's a separate assassin school, and the chosen one was apparently a school for scholars (?), which is a way bigger difference at the school selection stage than I was expecting. I didn't think that Elruin was making any major decisions about the direction of future education at this point.
     
  2. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 21
    TanaNari

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    Now that she knew the stakes, with these Ghosts of Sorvel trying to hurt people, Elruin decided maybe she should accept some help from the twins in spite of Cali's warnings to the contrary. "Lady Juna? I think maybe I should see your music teacher, if that's not too much of a bother, please?" She wanted to work on her magic, and she had a magic violin she knew nothing about. It seemed like the best idea.

    "No bother at all," Juna smiled her best smile and pretended not to notice Calenda clenching her fists. "I'll let her know, and you can have your first session in a few days. I warn you, though, she is a demanding teacher. Best I can name at her craft, but she expects nothing less than your best in return."

    "I thought that's what you hated about her, dear sister?"

    "No, not at all." Lady Juna turned her attention to her brother for just one moment. "What I hated is that she refused to understand that for all my talents, music simply is not one of them. But a Virtuoso like little Elruin should be an ideal match."

    As the conversation was coming to a close, Elruin clasped her hands together. "Thank you again for your hospitality and help."

    "Think nothing of it," Lady Juna said. "We all want the safety of our city and loved ones. One day, you'll contribute to both, and we'd be failures in our duty if we didn't do everything in our power to prepare you for that day."

    Suggested Listening

    Night in the city was beautiful and active. The stone paths of the city began to glow, creating a soft light that illuminated the entire city, or at least the parts anyone looked like they wanted to go. People went about their business on the streets, either socializing or working as if it was still the day. Through her lifesight, she spotted couple hiding behind a smaller wall, doing... the thing adults did that she thought was only meant to be done in bed. Only animals did it outside, to her knowledge.

    Elruin had never considered that people would want to be out at night. Through her life, the sun was what guided her life, and the lives of her family. Be up at sunrise, to start your outdoor chores. Come in when the sun was high to eat, go to bed when the sun began to drop behind the wall. Being outside at night always meant something was wrong on the farm. Which brought her to the problem at hand, that everyone was talking, but not Cali.

    Elruin kept her head down. "Are you mad at me? I know I said I wouldn't take Lady Juna's offer, but I want to be able to help."

    "A little." Cali chose to look up, instead. "More than a little. I'm being stupid, trying to force my choices on you, earth mages are stubborn and water mages want to carve their own path, and I'm worse than most about both. It's your choice, and in the short run it's the smart choice, but I think it's an unwise one in the long run."

    "I'll be careful," Elruin said.

    "I hope that's enough." They spent the rest of the walk home in silence.

    The next two days were a flurry of activity, with Elruin getting a crash course in what her curriculum would look like, though there wasn't much by way of control she could exert on the process. The administration of The College insisted that she spend her days learning basic magic, so that she would possess what they considered minimum skills to participate with the rest of the school once classes started again.

    Other stuff, such as the purchase of supplies, became more complex. Clothes were more expensive than Elruin ever realized, and now she could appreciate why she never owned an outfit that wasn't handed down to her by her relatives. "Does it matter what I wear?"

    "It shouldn't, but it does," Calenda said. "Oh, does it ever. Especially to the types that associate with the academies. Just be glad they're giving you the uniforms for free, not everyone gets that luxury."

    "Oh," it all looked so expensive, but she didn't want to look bad to other people, either. "How will we afford anything good?"

    "Well, there's always the sarite," Cali said. "I still say you're better off trading it for better suited shards, but there's always the coin market, it's just not as ideal."

    "I want to keep them." She didn't know if or when they might be helpful, but they seemed more important than clothes.

    "Well, they're yours to do do with as you please," Cali said. "But I'd trade them out at earliest opportunity, if I were you. Especially since I can't afford to buy you any expensive equipment, and it will be years before you can do it yourself."

    Now that they were talking about it, Elruin recalled the offer Cali made the other day. "You could adopt me like you said before?"

    "I... suppose that would solve the problem." When Calenda made that offer, she'd meant it more as speculation and an amateurish attempt at outplaying the twins at their own game. Now, with the young necromancer considering the idea in earnest, and it having failed at its intended purpose before it began, she was reminded of the other reason she didn't play these games; she was terrible at them. She wasn't about to tell Elruin about any of that, in part because of the same stupid pride that drove her to offer in the first place. "Not enough to afford the best, but enough to keep you taken care of."

    "That sounds good." Now Elruin began to wonder how it worked. "Does that mean I call you Mother, now?"

    This is why Time Mages can't go back in time. Everyone with that power has already gone back and murdered their past selves. "I'd prefer you keep calling me Cali, if you could. If you must tell someone our relationship, say I'm your Elder Sister."

    Elruin's emotions couldn't be more opposite of Calenda's. She hugged the older mage and new adoptive sibling. "Thank you, you're the best Elder Sister ever! You saved me from the woods and got me nice clothes and a school! How can I ever repay you?"

    Cali hesitated, then returned the hug with one arm around Elruin's lower back. "As I walk." Forget past-me. I'd find my Father, then I'd never have been born in the first place. Thinking about the complexities of time travel made for a viable short-term distraction. "Besides, half of that is me doing my job, and you did save my life, so I don't think you owe me anything."

    Elruin squeezed harder, to which Cali just sighed and put her other hand on the girl's head.

    Two more days of chaos was all it took for Elruin to take her first step inside her new dorm room at the school. She had her own room, without a roommate, thanks to being so much younger than all of the other students. To Elruin, the concept of having enough bedrooms that they could afford to have just two children to a room, let alone one, defied her imagination. It would have to remain imagination, too, since the walls were insulated to block her lifesight as well as everything else she knew.

    Suggested Listening

    "Good luck at school," Cali said. Now she gave Elruin a hug. "Do your best, study hard, and I'll be sure to visit any time I'm back in town and can spare the time."

    "I promise," Elruin said. "Be careful while beating up the bad men." While it was possible for Elruin to stay at Cali's place, she didn't want to annoy Lyra any more than she had to, and as Cali said, it felt more like Rena's home than Cali's. So Elruin decided to stay at the school, where perhaps there was something other than cooked leaves for dinner.

    Elruin's first week was pure disappointment, as she spent most of her days learning about simple magical structures that she never realized were unusual or special, like structuring the concept of the spell in her mind, then Revealing the spell, then casting it. It seemed that her tutor expected her to follow through a slow, boring process that took minutes while she talked, instead of the heartbeat and two notes that Elruin required.

    Time and time again, she found herself encountering this problem, as teachers demanded she do a slow, annoying approach instead of her own, instinctive approach. It felt to her like they were trying to teach her how to take her first steps, even though she knew how to walk fine.

    She felt like she learned more at the food hall, which they called a cafeteria. There, she could watch the other students show off the spells they learned in class, or talk about all the teachers she might meet while being trained at the school, or play at the same games that Cali talked about Lady Juna and Lord Garit playing. Compared to them, these students were mere children, but Elruin could still learn from them.

    If most of them didn't avoid Elruin. Not too different from her family back home, none were mean to her, but all had their subtle ways of not including her in their conversations other than as a hanger-on. It didn't take long before she concluded she wasn't welcome.

    It was only then than one of the girls sat next to her. She was tall, and the first thing to come to Elruin's mind was that she was very brown. With large dark eyes, long straight chocolate hair, and the darkest tan which Elruin had ever seen. "Greetings. My name is Lemia."

    "Greetings, I am Elruin." She took the traditional submissive posture. "May I ask why you wish to speak to me?"

    "You can treat me as an equal," Lemia said. "In fact, if you ask the people around here, I bet they'd say I should be subordinate to you."

    Elruin couldn't figure out what she meant. "Why? Are you a slave?"

    "No, nothing like that. I'm what they call aspectless, when they're being polite." Lemia waited until it became clear Elruin didn't know what that meant. "You know how everyone has an aspect? You're negation, most of the people around here are fire or earth, some even have two or three elements? Well, I have no aspect at all, yet can still use magic."

    "I've never heard of that before."

    "And I've never heard of a child who's more powerful than half the teachers before." Lemia smiled. "Not that the teachers here are all that strong, this school puts most of its emphasis on knowledge, not ability. Nobody here knows what to do with either of us, and I saw you at the library trying to make up for the teachers' failure. So I figure we can help each other out. I'll show you some of the tricks the faculty won't get around to showing you until a week before it's time to go on break. And maybe if I watch you, I can learn more about how to concentrate so much strength into one point."

    Elruin hoped, if nothing else, that this would help her get real practice with her magic. She couldn't imagine Lemia would learn much from her in exchange, not compared to some of the mages Elruin had seen. If Lemia wanted to learn about concentrated power, she should go to the church and watch Lyra. "What magic can you do, if you don't have an aspect?"

    Alernia shrugged, then twirled her fingers. A song gathered from nowhere, while she gathered fragments and wisps of energy that wafted through the hall, into a singular cohesive form within the cup of water she brought with her. There wasn't much in terms of real power there, but she'd never seen a song quite like before, with contradictory notes somehow holding in harmony.

    "One of the quirks of my lack of bloodline," she said. "Because I don't have an aspect, it means I'm compatible with all of them. I can apply fundamental magic to manipulate any other type, at least a little. More resistant to magical attacks, too, and I can use any sarite, if I'm strong enough to handle it. It's not enough to make up for a lack of an element, most of the time, but I'm training to be an alchemist."

    "Is that what you're doing, now?"

    "Kinda. It's more like temporary enchanting," Lemia said. "The real stuff requires reagents, and once finished can last for years. This lasts until I stop concentrating on it. There, it's done. Go ahead and charge it with your energy. Fundamental power, if you please. I'm nowhere near strong enough to purify your necromantic element in real time."

    Fundamental magic was most of what the teachers had been showing her, so she dipped into her power and allowed some to be released, absorbed by the water Lemia played with. Moments later the water began to glow.

    "This would take an archmage decades of training to pull off, and then only one with the perfect set of elemental bloodlines. But for me it's easy." Lemia held up the cup, then drank the contents. Life energy surged through her, obvious to Elruin's sight. "A healing spell, powered by a necromancer." She shuddered as the magic continued to wash through her. "Maybe a little too strong, but nobody's going to complain that a potion works better than expected. I'll never be a combat mage, but as an alchemist, nobody can match my versatility."

    "Does that mean you can make healing sarite for me?" Elruin asked. She did still have those crystals that Cali thought everybody wanted.

    "I don't have that sort of skill," Lemia said. "Maybe some day, years from now, but I'm still a student like you."

    The rest of the month went fast, with Elruin working hard to advance her skills with Lemia, while tolerating the instructors until they got around showing her how to use magic more to her talents. What combat training she did was limited to her own time, which she only did once to take a break and rest from all the studying. She knew, even though she was studying as a scholar, that she would need to be ready for the next time the bad men tried to attack her.

    Perhaps that's why she focused on learning fire magic, once she found she had that option. All the frustration of teachers who ignored her insistence that she could, should, do more. While Cali and others fought bad men, she felt like she was stagnating. She poured all that anger and resentment out in one day she found to be alone in a secluded part of the park.

    She would never forget how she overwhelmed the poor squirrel's mind, causing the poor animal to go insane and murder its mate and babies in their nest, before it tore out its own throat with its claws. True, she long lost count of all the rats she'd killed with her magic on the farm, but at least their deaths were clean and painless, not the blood-soaked massacre she inflicted. For that reason, she went back to studying so that she could control her magic better.

    She even got training by real musicians to use her violin, which turned out to be more useful than she ever imagined. As she trained her art, she learned to use it to extend her spells across the area, joining her Revealed music with true music, deadly when combined with the new magic she was learning. If she ever fought morks again, she was confident the outcome would be horrific for them.

    By the end of her short half of a semester, she was beginning to feel like a real mage who knew what she was doing, rather than a child who chased others around hoping they could tell her what to do.

    That is when Calenda came to visit her for the first time since she left. She looked fine on the surface, but Elruin had improved her lifesight in the months since she last saw her, and it was obvious that the woman was injured, beyond what healing magic could easily mend. More than that was the marks that Elruin could only comprehend thanks to the training in fundamental magic that came from using so much magic that it was almost fatal. Past that, a song echoed through her body, with notes that were unlike any Elruin had ever heard before.

    She almost didn't recognize her savior. "Cali?"

    "Hey, Ell." Cali tried to force a smile. "I'm sorry to drop in like this, but I need you to come with me, to outside the walls. Please? I can't explain why."

    =====

    A/N- Achievement Get: Nerdy Ball of Death. Also, I was hoping someone would pair Relax and Private Train votes together... slaughtering squirrels... it doesn't grant any mechanical advantage, but it is a "bonus scene".

    There's our timeskip. Elruin will now have *real* access to her magic, instead of cobbled-together abilities. The next chapter will also be the timeskip, or part of it, this time through Calenda's perspective. And explaining how she showed up in her current condition.

    Then the action part begins for real. If some of the choices made in this chapter seem strange to you, well, take it up with the voters. Caught me by surprise that it played out this way, too. I'm just glad I made Elruin's mindset unusual enough that she can get away with behaving erratically without it seeming too out of character.

    Also: freakin' adore the twins, still. And more, keeping them ambiguous in their motives. Is Cali overly suspicious due to her history and personality, or is she right and they're terrible people? Who knows? ... Well, besides me, of course... perhaps one day I'll tell you...

    And Elruin grew up on a farm. You don't last long on a farm without learning about the birds and the bees. Or, more likely, the bulls and the cows.
     
    Last edited: Mar 28, 2019
  3. Rathmun

    Rathmun Experienced.

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    Yeah... NO. obvious mind control is obvious.
     
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  4. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Or is too obvious, and thus obviously cannot be that? Double-bluff troll maneuver, go!!!
     
  5. Rathmun

    Rathmun Experienced.

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    Eh, go grab Lemia and foot the power bill for her to make a cleansing draught capable of wiping out whatever foreign song this might be. If it was supposed to be there, then "oops, sorry about that." otherwise "Yay, you're safe!"
     
  6. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    That's a great plan. I wonder if that's how the votes will play out.
     
  7. Rathmun

    Rathmun Experienced.

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    Where is this being voted on?
     
  8. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 22
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    "Cali? You look hurt." Elruin was no healer, but even she knew Cali should not be walking around right now. "Perhaps you should rest."

    "I'm f-" she stopped. "I can't even... I'm not fine, but I'll live. Nothing a few days of bedrest won't fix, which will have to wait until after you come with me."

    "I'll go get Lemia, she can help heal you." Despite there being any number of other healers. most of which were older, more powerful, and better suited for the task, Elruin's mind went to Lemia and the opportunity to heal Cali through her own resources rather than going to any of the healers which served the city, and thus were obligated to aid Calenda.

    "Won't help," Cali said. "My problem right now is that I've had too much magic. That and a broken hand, but after I've recovered from mana poisoning. If they haven't taught you about that by now, we're finding a new school."

    "I learned about essence decay," Elruin said. It was one of the big problems for mages, that magic had a habit of causing matter to break down. Living things were the most resistant to the problem, but if pushed too hard, even people would fall apart. Sarite was the exception, which was why it was used as the binding agent for all long-term magical constructs. "We should get you to bed."

    Cali took a pained breath. "Yes, we should, but we can't. Not yet."

    "Why is this so important?" Elruin was worried before, now she was becoming suspicious.

    "I can't tell you," Cali said. "Can we please hurry? I promise you'll get your answers, but you'll have to trust me until then."

    Whatever was going on in Cali, the magic inside her hummed a soft, insistent, almost angry resonance. It was by far the most subtle magic Elruin had seen in this school built around studying the nature of magic. "I do trust you, but I don't trust that magic in you."

    "You can see-" Once again, Cali stopped mid sentence. "Entek! This is now a great deal more complicated than it was a minute ago. I cannot explain what is going on, but you're in no danger. No immediate danger, at this rate everyone's in danger. That's part of why I need you to come with me."

    "Are you being controlled by someone?" The more she looked, the more obvious it became that she was dealing with magic of that nature. What confused her was how it looked like nothing she'd ever seen before. It was fueling itself off of Cali's own mind, as if the girl had created the spell herself, which should have been impossible.

    "If I was, it'd be a terribly designed spell if I could say I was under control," Cali answered. "But I never could have gotten through the gates to the city under such a spell without setting off all the alarms, and I know of no other way to get into the city without either siege weapons or the power of a god. I assure you, I have neither."

    Elruin wasn't certain, but what Cali was saying did make some sense; mind control was a well known and studied form of magic, and the gates were armed with every scanning magic she knew of. "How did you get through, with that spell on you? It doesn't make sense."

    "A spell that I'd be forced to deny exists," Cali said. "But, hypothetically speaking, the gates don't check for certain types of truth magic. They can't, since they're using truth magic at the gates to cut through the possibility of illusion magic."

    Elruin blinked, then began to think back to all her training over the months, and all her independent research as well. "If you use a truth spell on someone while extracting a promise, then the effect of the spell doubles as a Geas. The problem is, the target has to know about the magic and voluntarily make the promise, without any coercion or threat. And it wouldn't prevent you from telling me about it. A truth spell that powerful wouldn't let you lie about anything, unless you were forced to lie as part of the spell, which would either break the spell, or..."

    "Break the target of the spell?" The humming of magic grew louder still.

    "Who would be stupid enough to use the spell that way?" It sounded like a creative form of torture rather than an actual infiltration strategy.

    "Someone much more clever than smart," Cali said. "Now can we please go before I physically drag you through the gates? Which, given my current situation, probably ends with me dying before we get out of this hallway."

    Elruin hesitated for another moment. "Do I have time to get my equipment?"

    "Would I be able to get you to leave without it?"

    "No." She was pretty sure that if there was a threat, she'd need the violin. She could, if nothing else, use it and her new spells to call back to the city for help in an emergency. Or in the worst case scenario, send warning of an incoming attack.

    "Then please hurry." Cali leaned against the wall. The song calmed, but not by much. It seemed that if it was given what it wanted, it wouldn't stress Cali as much.

    Elruin went for her room, then contemplated her options as she undressed and put on her street clothes, complete with Sarite wrappings. The violin and bow would be the most important parts of any decision she made, given their ability to improve all her magic. Fighting Cali would kill her, of that Elruin was certain.

    There were side routes built into all of the dorms, so that students could escape in case of an emergency. Or so the story went. As near as Elruin could tell, their true purpose was so the students could sneak into each others' rooms at night to play without the faculty admitting they knew it was happening. She was pretty sure running would result in the same fate as fighting Cali, with the magic taxing her body until it killed her. Elruin had to admit it was a twisted, but effective, way to use a hostage.

    The last option was to go outside with Cali, and kill whatever it was that would dare hurt her Elder Sister.


    =====

    A/N- Sarite... there's a reason it's used for freakin' everything. And that reason is because I hold the belief that if something in your art serves only one purpose, you should either throw it away or give it more purposes.

    Colleges in our world have plenty of debauchery... imagine what they're like in a world where most of the students know that as soon as they graduate, they'll no doubt be forced into marriages determined by a combination of political convenience and genetic viability. This is quite possibly the first and last time most of them will experience anything resembling freedom. And most of them damn well intend to use that freedom while they have it.

    My apologies for the short chapter, but I am sick as a dog right about now. Still going to write, because Work Ethic, but this has been a miserable week in general.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 23, Ol' Scratch
    TanaNari

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    Suggested Listening

    The girl smelled of fresh flowers after a spring rain, the salt of human sweat, and the subtle metallic tint of fresh blood. None of that interested him, though there may have been a time when her athletic movements aroused other interests even if he appreciated a full figure than her athletic one.

    She dipped under an enemy attack, lunged forward, and struck the poor victim in his groin. The first hit was stopped by the defensive magic, the sick-sweet stench of creation energy wafted over the battlefield from the popping of a magical barrier. The followup blow was hard enough to dent metal and break bones. That, too, might have excited him in a long-forgotten age. He always had a thing for competent women, back when such pursuits were enjoyable. He still liked the dangerous ones, though not quite for the same reasons.

    Behind her, a bolt of energy which reaked of ozone and tears shot forward, and shattered the scents. It was a powerful spell, too, one which would have hurt him, perhaps even destroyed him, had he been close.

    Nobody, on either side of the battle, were harmed. Their magical defenses, including the ones which kept some invisible and others blanketed in magical shield.

    He and the athletic redhead both knew the next step of the battle plan. She through herself to the ground, and with the scent of oleander in the air, she buried herself alive using her earth magic. Lightning washed over the battlefield, replacing the scent of magic with the sour smells of burning flesh and vegetation.

    A count of twelve heartbeats later, and the self-interred girl leapt from her buried position, with all the smells of flower and tree that came with her defensive magic active around her. One of their victims still stood, so she busted his knee backwards, then set about making certain none of their wounded foes would be able to recover.

    "Clear!" She shouted to the others. Her two allies left their protective bubble of invisibility, the scent of adrenaline, illusion and lightning strong on them. They began another set of woven spells, a water-mage to hide their physical signs and a lightning mage to set up the defensive illusions to hide their position on the magical level. Soon, they and their new captives were hidden from him.

    None of that interested him, though such a well-choreographed battle plan was beautiful, and the torture that came next was sure to entertain.The subtle, comforting scent of grave soil which he could smell on the girl for that short period of time when all the defensive magic was down, that interested him, and that was the only reason he followed this girl around the wilderness.

    The snap of bones breaking like twigs, joined by the screams of souls kept on the living side of the great divide by maliciousness alone, echoed through the wilderness.

    Well, maybe not the only reason, he thought as he settled down to enjoy the pungent aroma of a human dismantled piece by piece. He'd been waiting this long, he could wait a little longer.

    His opportunity came some two weeks later, when they bit off more than they could chew. Their opening strategy was sound enough, but this group had warriors with them, rather than the usual rabble.

    Red's opening surprise charge failed when she passed through the target. Dirt and rock exploded beneath her the moment she connected against the ground. Illusionists made great traps if you needed subtlety, volcanists made great traps if you needed to dish out damage, but working together you had a trap that was the perfect combination of subtle and destructive.

    Now, the limbs the girl broke were those of the tree that slowed her momentum.

    Disruptive magic washed through the area, revealing two lower tier soldiers alongside the two true mages. The illusionist began her work, to bring their defenses back up before it was too late. A pair of ice knives shot out, one striking each mage. The volcanist, being an earth mage, was made of tougher stuff than most. He remained standing as he got his own defensive magic back up, while the illusionist fell, unable to move her arms to clutch the hole that entered her throat and exited through her spine.

    She was alive, and would remain alive for some small period of time, wondering why none of her allies tried to heal her injuries or save her life.

    The volcanist retaliated with a wave of cleansing flame that took the redhead team's illusionist out, but the water mage stayed standing behind a shell of ice. As matchups went, she had an advantage; water mages weren't that deadly, but they had more better defense and endurance than fire mages. As bolt after bolt of flame hammered her frozen shield, she remained calm and ready to act on the first opportunity. If it had been a duel, he felt confident she would have won.

    Unfortunately for her, it wasn't a duel. While the volcanist made it impossible for her to move from her position and exploit the agility advantages of a water mage, the soldiers moved to flank her. She evaded both crossbow bolts, while maintaining her ice barrier. She was trapped, but even this wasn't an untenable situation. The volcanist couldn't get past her defenses, she was fast enough to dodge any crossbow, and the soldiers couldn't get close without risking death by friendly fire.

    Sooner or later, the fire mage would tire, and then this ice mage would act. Whether to escape or to retaliate, he wasn't certain and never got the chance to discover.

    The air exploded in a dance of crackling lightning and pain. Nasty trick, using crossbow bolts to help target lightning magic that normally has difficulty hitting with any accuracy. Scratch approved. The woman dropped, motionless. Like the illusionist whose life she took, she would remain there blinded and paralyzed until death's loving caress found her in a minute or so.

    A pity, too, in his opinion. That one had a rack worth preserving.

    In the time she bought, the redhead forced her damaged body to move. She rolled off the branch she was on, trusted her magic to absorb the force of the fall, then began to crawl away. Healing magic only went so far, especially combat healing which relied on raw power instead of taking the time for a gentle, thorough, healing process. Most humans would have given up, accepted capture, or perhaps drove their magic into overdrive in one final act of suicidal defiance.

    This one still believed she could escape, return home, and warn her allies of the threat represented here. She was a fool, but a loyal fool, and he would exploit that while saving her life. If the one who smelled so beautiful could synchronize with her, that was all he needed to know.

    The volcanist felt her move, or at least felt her hit the ground. He wasn't quite able to separate the brimstone and rage that was the volcanist's magic, save to decide that he could have beaten the redhead's entire team, if they were fool enough to stand and fight rather than run. His lack of healing or mobility meant he lacked versatility, but on the measure of power, defense, and skill, he stood far above them all.

    The redhead was too wounded to run, barely strong enough to walk. The best she could do was draw up a protective dome of earth and roots, just in time for another blast of flame to overtake her position.

    The volcanist changed his strategy some, generating a steady but low energy stream of fire magic at one point of the earthen wall. With everyone else dead and one trapped target remaining, the plan was either to force her out as a captive, or cook her alive in her cocoon.

    He respected the strategy, would have applauded it if it didn't hurt his plans.

    No time left to lose. He dipped into the earth, wove through the aromas of magic, and popped up inside the bubble with the girl whose life he would save in the name of his own mission. "Hey, red, is it hot in here, or is it just you?"

    "Y- what are you?" She couldn't see him in the cave darkness of her self-made prison, but she could feel him.

    "Feel free to call me Old Scratch. Or just Scratch for short." He allowed some small amount of power to bleed past his iron grip, to give her a whiff of what he truly was. The volcanist wouldn't notice such a minor flicker of taint, not through his pyroclastic energies and the redheads botanical ones. "I'm here to offer you a deal with the devil."

    "You're undead? But..."

    "But you can't feel the taint unless I allow it." He'd had many a conversation like this one over the centuries. "Yes, it is possible to hide taint. Not easy, but I can do it. And the reason you've never heard about it is because those few of us who know how have a habit of not sharing the one secret that allows beings like us to hide from your exorcists. But you won't be sharing that secret."

    She grunted, forced to put even more effort into her shield. Her sweat converted to as she did her best to slow the heating of her prison. Minutes, perhaps, until the heat grew to the point of fatal for her. Normal people would have already started to fall unconscious. "What do you want, then? To laugh at me as I cook alive?"

    "Tempting, but I'm more interested in the necromancer whose delicious perfume is all over you. You two must be very close."

    "What are you-" she hesitated. "I never did anything like that with her!"

    "I smell her magic on you." It was so fun watching them get flustered, and now he knew the necromancer was a woman. "You've synchronized, to some extent, which means you trust one another with your lives. As a favor to a living abomination by an unliving one, I'm willing to save your life because it will make her happy."

    "Smell magic?" Now the redhead was confused. "Are you claiming to have an olfactory Revelation? That's absurd, nobody has that."

    "Well, as far as I know, no human does," Scratch said. "But guess who is not a mammal and has no opposable thumbs? This guy."

    "I'm going to possess you, now." The longer they delayed, the harder it got. "You could fight me off, but if you do you'll waste what precious strength you have left. If you cooperate and accept my terms, you'll get to live through this battle."

    "By allying with the undead!" Cali grit her teeth, preparing to fight the intruder.

    "You can feel me, can't you?" Scratch moved closer. "The aura of truth that binds me, that is me? I am a creature of order, I cannot lie to you. Reject my terms, die alone. Accept them, and you have my oath that I'll do everything in my power to get you home alive and in condition well enough to report the situation and recover with time. Starting with possessing your body for a short period of time. It's necessary for the negotiation."

    He felt her resolve flicker at the promise. "One condition: should I allow the possession, you must swear to me to deliver a warning to Acheria's leaders even if I die here. Lord Claron is working with the Ghosts of Sorvel. I don't care how you do it, so long as the message is delivered quickly and in a method they'll take seriously. Deliver it as many times as you must until it's believed by someone with the power to do something about it."

    "Worked with Djinn before, have you? For the record, you getting home to spread the warning counts as fulfilling my duty." The scent of binding magic washed through the air, strong enough that the volcanist must have felt it. It was unlikely he'd guess what it was about, however. It was a silent affirmation of the conditions of the contract. "You have my oath, the warning will be delivered."

    The redhead's mind yielded, allowing him access with permission. Possession of someone with power was almost impossible without consent, the clash of their resonance with his own would drive him out, or leave them both paralyzed in psychic battle. A voluntary joining circumvented those restrictions, but even so he couldn't delve deep.

    "Now, I have three conditions, Calenda." Her voice spoke, at Scratch's command. "First, you must swear never to speak of this oathbond, or my abilities, or my existence, to anyone who does not already know of them. Nor may you make any attempt to record such things by any means. My secrets die with you, it's only a question of now or at some as-yet-unknown future moment."

    "Deal," Calenda answered, with control over her own voice.

    "Second, you give me your eternal soul."

    "What? Never! Not even if that was possible, no!"

    "Entek. Well, worth a shot, would have made the rest of this so much easier. How about if I just take possession of your underwear on the trip back to town?"

    "You can't be serious."

    "Wouldn't have felt right if I didn't try. Okay, scratch that offer." He used her to chuckle at his own stupid pun. "What I really want is to know all about your lovely necromancer girlfriend."

    "She's twelve!"

    Perfect. The shutters on the windows of Calenda's mind opened, granting access to the thoughts and memories she had of the girl. "Elruin? Pretty name. He didn't have long, and he'd lose all the memories in Calenda's mind except the ones spoken out loud. Once he lost access to the meatspace brain, he'd lose its knowledge as if it all been a dream. "I don't envy you for a second, Sis."

    Cali's body flinched, in spite of Scratch's control. She did not like being called 'Sis'. "Can we please hurry up before I change my mind?"

    She wouldn't, she couldn't, she had too much to live for, but Scratch had found what he needed to find. "You have fulfilled my second condition. The third condition is that you must, at earliest possible opportunity, bring Elruin to meet me."

    Fear washed through the shared body. "No!"

    "Then you die here, Sis, and I'll find another way to talk to her. Some day, some how. I don't know when, but I have her whole lifetime to figure out how. The difference is that it will take longer, and you won't be there to protect her. I promise I have no intention of harming her, I don't think I could if I wanted to. I wish only to speak with her, one abomination to another."

    "She's not an abomination! She's a sweet child! Weird, true, but sweet."

    "Keep believing that, Sis, it's adorable." Scratch retorted with Calenda's voice. "But we're at the point where this conversation must end. The only thing keeping you conscious right now is me. Accept, and you get a chance to deliver all those messages you want to deliver, to all the people who need them. Reject, and die alone to inconvenience me slightly. You have no time left to decide."

    "I..." Cali closed her eyes. There wasn't enough water in her body to let her cry. "You have your deal."

    Magic washed over the both of them, reinforcing a bond much more complex than the last one. Now Old Scratch could and would act with all his power. First, he used his power to crack the back of the bubble, on the opposite side of the stream of flame. With what little strength Calenda's brutalized body possessed, Scratch pulled her out of the hole and allowed her to collapse.

    "We have her!" One of the soldiers shouted. "She's unconscious!"

    "Hold!" The volcanist who Scratch now knew was Lord Claron shouted his command to the men. "Don't go near her, it may be a trap."

    Scratch had to admit, it was the smart command. Still, Calenda's body was a ruin, with no strength physical or magical to call upon even if Scratch was willing to inflict more harm on her body. Claron was far too strong for him to possess. He had a different plan, however.

    Claron walked a long way around the mound, his hand trained on her general position the whole time. "A pity." His younger brother would be inconsolable for a time, but in the end it was for the best.

    "Sir!" Scratch shouted from one of the guard's bodies. The poor man was a nobody, who had been conscripted from a gang of small time thieves rather than volunteered. "Please forgive me, but I must ask a question."

    Lord Claron didn't so much as look at him, his eyes trained on where Calenda would soon be visible. "Speak quickly."

    "Shouldn't we capture her, torture her for information?"

    "No." Lord Claron had no interest in that plan, nor explaining himself to a subordinate. There was little the Scout could tell him that he could not learn from her superiors through official means, and every second the woman remained alive was a second in which something could go wrong.

    "Then another question," Scratch said. He didn't wait for a response before swinging his hooked sickle as hard as he could at Claron while stepping between him and Calenda. The mage was so focused on his prey that he didn't think to pay close attention to one of his own men, so it caught him off guard when the point of the weapon sank deep into his eye socket.

    "Does this look sharp to you!" A stream of magical flame struck his gut, burned away half of the poor man's intestines, but the pain was for the meat-puppet to feel, while Scratch remained untouched. It was part of why he avoided dipping into the memories of people, so he wouldn't have to feel bad about their inevitable deaths.

    Scratch twisted the weapon, eliciting the cracks of bone popping and the squishy, wet sounds of a human brain being torn apart by good old fashioned steel. Scratch fell atop Claron, forcing his temporary body's weight to land upon the sickle, anything to get that extra half-inch of penetration before this body gave out.

    Then a flash of sarite-infused magic caused Claron's body to vanish. Scratch dropped out of this one's body, two lives taken before he snaked around to take control of the last living witness other than Calenda. Time was not on his side, today.

    Claron was a man of wealth, and had some sort of emergency escape spell prepared, which meant his corpse just landed somewhere he had no hope of finding before some servant got the man to a powerful healer. The damage was deep, however, so it would take a week before the man was alive and conscious again.

    He stopped for a moment, stripping everyone of their sarite save for Calenda. He supposed he'd better not desecrate the bodies of the woman's allies, lest that upset the Elruin by proxy, but from Calenda's memories he knew she had no respect for the bodies of her enemies. At least the ambushers were kind enough to bring horses with them, which made hauling one unconscious woman and two dead ones so much easier.

    Three days later, he got his first look at the child with is own eyes. She marched out of the gates, the scent of graveyard soil and funeral pyres, overwhelming in her magnificence and seeking revenge in the name of a friend she believed was wronged.

    He would be terrified if he still had flesh and blood vulnerable to her magic. He was, admittedly, a little nervous anyway. With time, with training, that girl could send even one such as him screaming into the pit. For now, however, she lacked that capacity. He intended to ensure that when the day came that she could end him, she would not want to.

    It took them some time to reach the edge of the open field around the castle, where Calenda was compelled by oathbond to bring the child who might one day be a goddess. "Well met, young Elruin," he lifted himself out of the ground. Without a possessed body, he was little more than a shapeless black smoke about half the height of an adult man, in a vaguely humanoid shape. "Most who know of me call me Old Scratch. Or sometimes the Black Imp. I prefer Scratch."

    "A dolly? Why can't I hear you?" The girl was stunned only for a moment, before anger returned. "Stop hurting Cali!"

    "As you desire." The goal, after all, was to make peaceful contact. "Lady Calenda, you have fulfilled your agreement, and save for the oath of secrecy, you are released from your service."

    The magic fell apart, and with it the pain Calenda had felt. Pain she wouldn't have had to experience if she'd been more cooperative. The woman slumped to the ground, taking her first moments of true rest since she woke up on the trip to Arila.

    "How are you hiding from me? How did you enforce a truth spell made under coercion?" Both good questions. "I thought such things were impossible."

    "You'll find as you grow older, there is no such thing as impossible," Scratch said. "It's just a question of time, will, and ability. I have a surplus of all three. As far as my Oathbond? Well, I don't know of a way to force it on someone against their will via coercion or trickery, but I did nothing but offer a service to someone who needed my help, in exchange for a payment now rendered. And now, as is custom of my long-dead people, I offer gifts to a future friend."

    Scratch led the way, pretending to walk on his short legs. "My first gift, the treasure I claim by Right of the Kill. You'll like the robes. They may be designed for an illusionist, but they should suit you until you find something better. Might want to clean off the blood, though. Second, a handful bloodstones. I can't use them, even indirectly." Bloodstone was Scratch's preferred name for sarite; he liked to cut through the lies humans told themselves about the power they harvested.

    "Second, the gift of knowledge." Always his favorite hook, the promise of secrets not yet known, and Elruin was such a studious young mage, she wouldn't be able to resist forbidden knowledge. "Within certain limitations, like risking my own existence by explaining how I can hide myself from you, I'll tell you anything you want to know that I can. Also, my existence must remain secret. Which is why I can't go into the cities, I'm sure you understand."

    It made sense to Elruin. Scratch was a powerful undead, or at least a sneaky one, so being around lots of people and their magic might mean getting caught.

    "And third, the gift of revenge." While talking, he had led them to the chained victim he'd been possessing the last few days. His body was decaying thanks to the constant exposure to necromantic energies, but he should be able to survive another day or two. "I can either provide all the information Scout Calenda wants from this sack of meat, or I can use him to get the three of us into one of the Ghosts of Sorvel camps. If we hurry, we can get there and have time to infiltrate before they finish reviving Claron. It would be quite the coup."

    Cali forced herself to sit. "Which means we go now. If I return to the city, and report what I know, there's no way I'll be able to leave again until I recover."

    "Maybe we should go back to Arila," Elruin said. Cali was in bad shape, and Elruin didn't know if she was prepared for a stealth operation. She wasn't opposed to the idea, but it seemed like it could hurt Cali.

    "It will be difficult enough to explain how I collected this information without explaining I have an undead monster doing the work," Cali said. "If I don't report Lord Claron, and we die, then it's possible he'll never be caught. And then there's the rest of my scouts. Lanine and Crela were friends of mine, I'd like to see them buried respectfully."

    "Then I'll just tell you where to find it. They're hiding in a farmstead, I'm sure a strong team can lead a direct assault that would get the job done." Scratch didn't have a single concern to spare for the so-called Ghosts, to him they were but sacrificial lambs to be set before Elruin. "The meat suit's not going to last long, but I personally have all the time in the world to help where I can."

    Elruin was inclined to agree. The necromantic damage to the bad man had gone too far to be reversed by anything she could do. It was impressive enough that he was still breathing. Now that she knew to look, she could even see some tint of taint seeping into the dead man's bones. Were he to be puppeted much longer, there was a chance his skeleton would animate and rip out his heart.

    "Which brings me to my offer, that of my undying service." Scratch believed he had set the stage just right. "But not as a gift, as three is the traditional offer. Instead, I must ask for a song as payment. If you sing for me, I shall aid you for the rest of your life." If not, well, he'd figure something out. She'd have to be utterly insane to reject such a generous offer, regardless.

    =====

    A/N-
    ... A contribution from one of my readers, in reaction to the last chapter.

    I'm fond of "rock paper scissors" magic systems. No type of magic works well against everyone. Cali's team was built to be as versatile as possible for a team built entirely around mobility. But... it was a team built around mobility, not direct combat against an enemy that knew they were there and came equipped with specific anti-Scout weapons like the bolts.

    Scratch is one of a very small number of allies that will join Elruin no matter your path. It's just a question of which other ally he'll approach first in order to get introduced to her her, or if he'll approach her directly. He has no particular moral compass or other factions to concern him- his motivation is the necromancer herself, rather than the cause she may or may not have aligned with.

    I also like writing him. He is not a nice guy, in fact he's very much evil ('Old Scratch' is a folklore name for Satan in our world) but he can say and do things that none of the other characters could or would. It's fun. The asshole with a heart of gold (lifeless, cold, and yellow) who's loyal, and that's about it.

    I wonder if the "this guy" meme reference is a little SoD damaging, but I would argue that humans are known for being mammals and having opposable thumbs, so it does fit. And it amuses me.

    Lord Claron is another of our "possible allies, probable enemies" characters. His theme, when relevant, is This little gem.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 24
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Elruin took some time to think about the offer, but in the end that was a secondary concern. "Apologize for hurting Cali."

    The inky black spirit drifted in place for a moment. "First, I'd like to go on record as saying I did nothing to hurt her, save what was necessary to get her away from the people trying to kill her."

    "Which you used to trap her with a compulsion spell that hurt her."

    "She had a choice," he countered. "I didn't think an introduction was all that much to ask for saving her life, and ensuring she couldn't turn around and have me destroyed afterwards. And don't say 'gratitude', your species doesn't know the concept, not when it comes to abominations like us. Or did you forget Mister Clackybones?"

    Elruin's argument hit a wall, just like that. Even Cali had insisted on destroying her beloved horsey, after it had helped save her life. "No, I would never..."

    She couldn't imagine it would be much different for this ghost, who was so much stronger and smarter than any undead she'd met before. How much knowledge would be lost with him if he was killed a second time?

    "Ell? What is he saying?" Cali asked. She remained sitting, but without the truth spell going out of its way to force her to act, she was recovering rather than getting worse. Still needed days, perhaps weeks, of rest to come back from her injuries.

    It was then that Elruin realized the ghost wasn't speaking the same language as them. It was the same language of the dead that she'd heard before, but from a fluent speaker. "He's not going to apologize." Elruin wasn't about to explain the reason behind that refusal, nor why she stopped arguing for it.

    "Can't say I'm surprised," she said. "You're planning to accept its help, aren't you?"

    "I haven't decided." Elruin hesitated, but decided Cali deserved better. "If I do, I'm sorry. I know you don't like them."

    "That's one way to put it." Cali struggled, forced herself into a standing position by leaning against one of the many trees. "The abominations are hate and cruelty given tangible form. They cannot be saved, they know nothing of love, kindness, or mercy. If you would grant succor, end the twisted corruption which denies them peace at the end of life's trials."

    "Which holy text did you pull that one out of, Sis?" Scratch spoke so Calenda could understand.

    "It's in the Books of the Great Cycle," Calenda answered. "Book Five, to be precise. Are you going to tell me it's wrong, now? Because if you are, I'd like to hear you swear on it. The point is, you can't be trusted."

    This brought up a number of good points to Elruin. "How do I know I can trust you?"

    "You can't." Scratch showed no sign of shame, apology, or even defiance. It was a statement, nothing more or less than that. "Everything your big sister quoted is true, to my knowledge. I cheated nature itself, told both life and death to go shove their heads up their own asses and asphyxiate. What you can trust is my self-interest. I've defied death for centuries thanks to necromancers like you, and I intend to do so until I see no reason to continue. Chances are you'll be long gone by then."

    "This has something to do with the song you want her to sing?" Cali asked.

    "Resonance. You have a way to, umm, hide yourself." Elruin didn't know if there was a word to describe the concept she was putting together. "You're planning to synchronize with me, then use the fact that I'm alive to trick death into thinking you're still alive?"

    "You have learned something in that school," Scratch said. "I was expecting to spend an hour explaining this to you."

    "I have a friend who talks lots about how to play with resonance." Elruin was certain Lemia would love talking to Scratch, if not for the 'undead abomination' concerns. "We've done a lot of experimenting. Will there be any side effects? Will it harm me or give you some sort of power over me, in any way?"

    Scratch drifted up to about Cali's height. "The effects of synchronizing will be weaker, since it's artificial, so don't expect much of the usual benefits." He spoke the language of the dead, denying her information that might lead to guessing more of his nature and weaknesses. "In theory, synchronizing with the undead makes it impossible to use creation magic, but since I only know how to synchronize with necromancers, it's never been a concern."

    Elruin no expert on synchronization, artificial or otherwise. Such a magic sounded fascinating, and difficult, so she wasn't surprised it was limited in scope. In the end, it just made magic easier with one another, and harder to hurt each other. What effect synchronizing with the undead might have on casting life magic, she could only guess at, but since she couldn't use life magic, it was irrelevant.

    "One final condition." Cali would have to live with never getting that apology from Scratch. "You swear never to hurt my friends and allies."

    "I can't make that agreement." No hesitation in his answer, but he spoke so Cali could understand. "My priorities are my wellbeing, then yours. If one of your friends jeopardizes either of us, I will do everything in my power to end the threat. I can promise to do my best to do no more harm than necessary, then you can decide if we should do worse." For his next sentences, he switched back to their secret tongue. "You should be more careful when giving absolute orders with forces that have no ability to consider nuance. Like your dollies, for example. Someone might get hurt."

    It was true, people had died over her lack of foresight. "Acceptable. No more harm than necessary to stop them from hurting us. Talk to them first, if possible. They're not friends if they want to hurt me."

    "You have your deal for as long as I am in your service, I make no promises for after the contract's inevitable conclusion. Is that everything? I'd like to hear your song before you die of old age."

    Suggested Listening

    So Elruin sang. First, she sang to herself, drawing her power out and blanketing the area, then she sang Cali's essence to protect from the necromantic energy of her power, or more to keep the energy from going near her in the first place. She sang around the horses, tied to trees, so that they didn't struggle overmuch when they stepped to the next stage. She sang to the slow taint of undeath seeping through the captive prisoner, to prevent him from dying before he was interrogated.

    Then, with the stage set, she sang to Scratch. The spirit was by far the densest, most complex ball of necromantic force she had ever witnessed. In terms of raw power, he wasn't much stronger than she was, weaker than Cali by a notable amount, but he was by far the strongest undead she had witnessed.

    Then he sang back, twisting her notes into his own. She adapted, adopted, and changed the notes again. The interplay took some time, as they first established, then negotiated, the nature of their shared song. Unlike Mister Clackybones, who had no choice but to allow her access to the totality of his being, Scratch was aware of his nature, and yielded but a small portion of himself in the song.

    He sang of the last month, of watching the risks Calenda took in the wilderness to protect the empire she swore herself to. He sang of the merciless violence of those on both sides of the conflict. He sang of gore, and glory, and it was as if Elruin was there watching as it happened.

    She sang back, of the farm she'd been born on, and the first of the dead who protected her. She sang of her cousins' farm, and the babies she helped save from the bad men. She sang of Mister Clackybones, which she was forced to destroy for Cali's sake.

    The spell Scratch showed her was complicated, but it wasn't complex. Each part had a clean, understandable function. Elruin was convinced that any Revealed mage could follow the general process and get similar results, by sharing their feelings through their magic. Perhaps it didn't require magic at all, an emotional conversation might suffice, were it meaningful enough. Magic did accelerate the process, however.

    In the end, they sang together to the energy they released, and called it back to themselves. In minutes, there was no trace left of their magic that Elruin could detect. This trick, too, seemed like something Elruin could do herself, though it was far more difficult than the synchronizing magic.

    "Ell? Are you okay?" Cali remained against the tree, but reached out to her.

    "Yeah, I'm not hurt." She reached up, touched her cheek, to realize she'd been crying. "It's an emotional spell." What caught her off guard was that Cali was so concerned for her, despite the damage the young woman was in, herself.

    "Felt like it," Cali said. "Reminded me of the first time I saw ballet after having my Revelation."

    "I've never seen a ballet before. Maybe we can go after you get better?"

    "Okay, enough feelings!" Scratch cut in. "You ladies can do that on the other side of the wall where I won't be going. How about we see what this reject of life feels? Get nice and deep in his psyche, learn all his darkest secrets." He climbed into the man tied to the tree, by sliding into his mouth feet first. He didn't have to do it that way, but he liked the visuals.

    "When I was a kid, I loved eating my own boogers." Scratch now had the man's voice. "I never stopped."

    "Ugh," Cali muttered. "He's right, though. We're racing a clock, let's get what we can out of the dead man."

    For the next half hour, Calenda interviewed the mind-enslaved victim, while Elruin had little to do but watch him run down the list of secrets great and small without sign of hesitation or fear while the taint spread from point to point through his body. His extremities died first, then it infected his blood which spread the sickness to his heart, lungs and brain. Soon, every time he breathed, a wisp of taint escaped his mouth.

    Elruin began the process of cleansing as they went, to extend the victim's life and prevent the poison from reaching Cali. Now that she was watching taint in action, she could understand why it was so feared. If left unchecked, it was a threat to all life in the world. Calenda was right about how dangerous it was, but Elruin knew it could be controlled. Scratch controlled it, as could she if given time to learn.

    Her ability to cleanse taint did nothing but slow the man's death, however, and soon the mouth stopped moving. Scratch climbed back out through the drooling orifice. "Hope that's enough, 'cause he ain't up for talkin'."

    "Better than I've gotten from anyone else," Cali admitted. She grunted as she forced herself to stand again. "In part because torture and Truthsaying can do only so much, and in part because this guy was close to Lord Claron, so he's witnessed information few people possess. Going to be interesting, explaining how I got all this info, or survived an assault by Claron, of all people."

    "Is he strong?" Elruin read a little bit about the half-sibling to Lady Juna and Lord Garit, but his personal power wasn't mentioned, just his political position. Still, she kept humming her notes, to the dead man and the taint left behind. Cali couldn't use her magic, Scratch didn't care, and she was going to get a new dolly that nobody would know to take away from her.

    "One of the top ten in the empire," Calenda said. "Maybe the top five, hard to say at that level. Luck and surprise are the only reasons I'm here right now."

    "Don't matter how strong you are, anyone can die if caught off guard." Free of a body, Scratch took to the air again. "And he'll be soft for a while. Dying takes a lot out of you, coming back is worse. If we assume it was Claron in the first place."

    "True, could have been another powerful fire mage, and some more illusions." Cali lumbered over to one of the horses. "Do you know for certain it was him?"

    "Don't think there were any illusions," Scratch said. "But that's not my expertise. Get me in sight of the real one, and I'll be able to tell you for certain."

    "Good, I can use that. Ugh." She began the slow, painful process of climbing onto the saddle despite her injuries. "I'll emphasize that I can't trust what I saw. Any part may have been illusion magic, and I was unconscious for half the fight. All I know to be fact is my team was murdered, there was at least one illusionist, someone who appeared to be Lord Claron was there, and something spared my life. Perhaps it was all a setup to make Claron look guilty of treason?"

    "I'd say I wasn't involved, but you wouldn't believe me."

    "No, I believe you, you're too untrustworthy to be a spy." Cali gasped for breath now that she was on her mount. "And I believe it was him. But no investigator, including myself, would trust my testimony under these circumstances." She began to guide her horse toward the gates, leading the three others and the bodies they carried along.

    "Will Lord Claron get away, then?" Elruin gathered her treasures in order to follow behind. Soon, her new dolly would move, freed from its bonds and obedient to Scratch until she could come visit them again. Scratch would take good care of the dolly, and keep it out of trouble.

    "Either Claron's guilty, or someone's trying to smear his name, either way it's information that will be taken straight to the queen." Calenda stopped talking for some time, in order to catch her breath. They were almost to the gates before she could breathe again. "She'll have him interviewed. He's taken into custody, or proven innocent, by the end of the day."

    The gate opened before the pair made it to the alcove, and several guards rushed out. "Scout Calenda? What happened?"

    "Long story. Alert the generals, all of them." Calenda lay forward on her horse, closing her eyes. "Ell? The seamstress southeast of the park has something for you to pick up."

    Elruin was lost in the flurry of soldiers, healers, and others taking care of the situation. The bodies and horses were taken somewhere, though Elruin would have to wait to learn from Cali where, but nobody thought to confiscate her new magical robe. With promises that Cali would be taken care of, and that there was nothing she could do to help for now, she began the long walk back to the College.

    She did take the time to stop by the seamstress' store that Cali mentioned. It was nothing special, a business being run in someone's home. Elruin tapped on the door, as was custom.

    A young boy, younger than Elruin, opened the door. He put his head down, then turned around and yelled. "Grandmother, you have a customer."

    "Come in!" A woman's voice shouted from inside.

    The boy stepped aside, careful not to look directly at Elruin's face. It wasn't a necessary social custom, so Elruin assumed he was shy.

    The woman Elruin assumed was owner of the shop sat in the living area, near a collection of fabrics and torn clothes. She was perhaps the oldest woman Elruin had ever seen, with deep wrinkles and hair that bordered on white, with enough gray to show this wasn't the hair color she was born with. "My, that is quite the garment. I'm afraid I don't work with magic clothes, nor bloodstains."

    "No, sorry ma'am," Elruin now took the submissive posture. "I'm Elruin. Lady Calenda sent me to pick something up."

    "Ah, Priestess Calenda did make a special request, and mentioned you." The woman remained sitting, but the little boy ran into a side room. "I was expecting her to pick it up herself."

    "She's indisposed." Elruin wasn't sure how much she should tell this woman or anyone else about the events of the day. "Her chores are demanding." Nobody could call that statement a lie, though it told nothing of value.

    "I suppose they are, if she sent you to get your own gift."

    The boy came back, carrying a large stuffed animal in the shape of a horse. He set it on its feet, where it collapsed.

    Elruin picked the soft, pliable stuffed animal up. "It's perfect!" She hugged the stuffed toy and cried for the second time that day. "I'm going to call you Mister Squishybones!"


    =====

    A/N- End of Chapter One, complete with happy ending and the hook for Chapter Two established.

    I swear, all resemblances to Ar Tonelico are coincidental. Those games did not exist when I dreamed up Midara. Though Starcraft did, and Archons were an early inspiration for the first concept of Pairbonding. Power Overwhelming, indeed. In fact, the first first iteration of Elruin was born in a short-lived Starcraft fanfic that made it about 300 words then died because even my teen self knew it was dumb. But I kept Elruin, because I wanted to hug her. And give headpats. And have zombie slaves do my housework for me.

    Love Scratch's personality. Evil. Knows it. Gives Zero Fucks.

    Two new spells. If this was a 4x game, "artificial synchronization" would be the most exploitable spell in the entire setting. A means to give every unit a minor stat buff when near any other unit? Yummy. Elruin's wrong about "any" mage being able to use it... some can't, but most of them are utter sociopaths.

    "Consume Energy" is potentially useful as a way to clear necromantic energies *and* boost mana. Useful for post-battle efficiency. Won't have much combat applicability until later.
     
    Last edited: Feb 11, 2019
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 25
    TanaNari

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    Elruin returned to her school carrying a blood stained robe, a stuffed animal, and a pocket full of sarite. It was a small wonder nobody stopped her until she got to the campus gates.

    The female guard approached her first. "Miss, where did you get that?"

    Elruin held up her new prized toy. "This is Mister Squishybones. My elder sister had him made for me."

    "I was referring to the robe. Where did you get it? And why is it covered in blood stains ?"

    Elruin pulled her horsey back, since it was clear the guard wasn't nice and didn't like her new favorite gift. "It belonged to a bad lady. She's dead. Now it's mine."

    "Entek," the guard whispered under her breath. "Where is the dead 'bad lady'?" As she spoke, she made a gesture behind her back. The male guard responded by generating a pair of quick light bolts at the sky, one orange and another yellow which soon turned pink.

    "She's in the wilderness," Elruin said. "Lady Calenda's friend killed her." Meanwhile, Elruin watched the sparkling magic traveling into the sky. It was more complex than the spells her brother used, and was designed so the light could only be seen from certain angles below.

    "Wait here for a minute, there are people who need to talk to you."

    "But I need to put my stuff in my room," Elruin said. "And talk to Lemia."

    "I'm sure it can wait for later," the guard said. "This is important."

    Soon, Elruin was surrounded by a dozen officers, and had no idea what was going on. "Is something wrong?"

    "We need you to come with us," the woman who now appeared to be in charge said. "Your cooperation, or lack thereof, will be noted." She put her hand on the saber she had at her hip.

    "Yes, ma'am," Elruin knew she was in trouble, even if she didn't know why. She also knew that she couldn't fight her way out, not with this many trained officers nearby. "Please, tell me what I did?"

    Now that she was under control, the officer preferred not to give the girl a reason to resist. "We'll explain once we get to the station. Don't worry, I'm sure it is all a big misunderstanding." No reason to frighten the child too much, and she'd long had experience lying to suspects.

    Soon, they reached the station. The moment Elruin stepped through the entrance of the building, she felt her strength sapped. She was at once rendered weak, slow, and half-blinded. Now she struggled, out of panic and confusion, but it was for naught.

    The soldiers had experience with blanket antimagic, and were adults with combat training, while Elruin without her magic was strong for her age, but was still a twelve year old child. With a woman holding both of her shoulders, the stuff she carried was taken, then she was pushed into one of the interrogation rooms where she spent what felt like all day alone in the room before the door opened.

    Another woman walked in, and now Elruin was glad to know she hadn't been left to die in here. "Can I leave, now?"

    "Leave?" The woman's voice reminded her of Cali's, right before she started to torture someone. "You're a criminal, why would you think we'd let you leave?"

    "But I didn't do anything bad!" She almost began to cry, fearing they might have found Scratch or her dolly while she was in here.

    "Let us suppose you told the truth about how you came into possession of blood soaked magical clothing," the woman showed no sign of caring about Elruin's argument or fears. "The looting of a corpse is a crime. Theft, if you're lucky. Murder if you're found to have anything to do with the prior owner's death, or accepted it from someone you knew was responsible for the prior owner's death."

    "I..." Elruin did know that Cali and her friends killed the woman.

    "However, you are young," the woman continued. "Not so young that you can't be punished by the law, but young enough that we're more interested in who you were involved with that would use you as an accomplice. I know you claimed Scout Calenda provided them to you, but I've known her for years. It's difficult for me to believe she would be involved in such an act. Adopted daughter or no, if she wanted to commit a crime, she wouldn't be so sloppy. Who really gave the clothes to you?"

    "But it was." Elruin lied, but there were no Truthsayers thanks to the antimagic that still suppressed her abilities. She couldn't tell the truth about Old Scratch, not without putting him at risk and facing whatever horrible punishment Cali refused to talk about that might happen to her for working with the undead.

    The woman's face was neutral, but her years of experience interrogating prisoners gave her the certainty that Elruin was hiding something. The first thing an innocent person did when arrested was ask for a Truthsayer to prove their innocence. It was no longer a question of if, but how, the eventual confession would go. "I have sent a messenger to find her, we'll see what she has to say about this."

    She was torn about the assertion that Calenda was involved. On one hand, she knew the woman was good at what she did, and losing her meant losing an important asset for the entire empire. On the other hand, the Scouts played too fast and loose with the law for her preference, and busting even a minor noble served to remind the rest that none of them were above Enge's law. On the balance, it didn't matter. So long as the truth would be uncovered, and justice was brought upon the perpetrators, she would be satisfied.

    They waited in silence, a child losing hope that she'd ever be free again, and an interrogator watching the progression of the breakdown that would see everything revealed. To her, it was far more satisfying than relying on torture, though torture was admittedly faster.

    Both their heads snapped toward the door when it was opened by a younger guard. "My apologies, Sergeant, General Juna is here, it seems there's been a misunderstanding."

    Suggested Listening

    Juna stepped through the door, even as the Sergeant stood to meet her. Elruin felt the smallest flicker of her magic return, as Juna's power was enough to tip the balance and overcome the antimagic which held her own back. So little that Elruin was certain that this room could hold Juna's power if there weren't others in here as well.

    "General, Sir?" Outranked and confused, she wasn't certain what question she should ask. "What is this about?"

    "A series of blunders," Lady Juna said. She looked at the guard who led her into the room. "Some of this is sensitive information."

    "Understood, Sir." the guard backed out, closing the door as she left.

    Lady Juna waited a few seconds. "To start, Scout Calenda returned from a mission earlier today, wounded. She came with several articles of equipment, four horses, and the bodies of Scout Lanine and Scout Crela."

    "They will be remembered." Meanwhile, she was cursing a storm in her mind. Two Scouts lost was a tragedy, both on a personal level and for all of Engeval.

    "We are trying to keep things quiet, for now," Lady Juna said. "We're still not entirely certain what happened out there. It will take some time for Scout Calenda to recover, and some part of it is because because illusion and mind magics were used. Which is where Lady Elruin was caught up in the mess."

    "Right." This was a situation the sergeant was more comfortable with. "She claims Scout Calenda gave her the robes that she got from a dead woman."

    "We have every reason to believe the robes did come from one of the Ghosts of Sorvel who were killed by the scout force," Juna said. "And the girl did help bring the evidence inside the city. Where she got the impression she could keep it, I do not yet know. Perhaps, in her altered mental state, Scout Calenda gave unclear instructions?"

    Pure speculation mixed with half-truths, but truth mattered less to Juna than perception.

    "In any case, the killing was just, as was the taking of the robes for investigative purposes. How they wound up in Lady Elruin's possession is muddled, but as I understand it she took them almost straight to her dorm, with no attempt to hide their origins. I imagine if it were a crime rather than a misunderstanding, she would have been more evasive."

    "It does explain some oddities," the sergeant admitted. "You're saying she walked through the gates carrying the robes?"

    "That I can confirm," Juna said. "I believe the soldiers, in their concern over Scout Calenda's condition, failed to pay proper attention to her adoptive daughter. I consider that a failure on my part to instill proper discipline and situational awareness. This will not happen a second time. But surely the child has suffered enough for my mistakes, wouldn't you agree?"

    "Of course, Sir, we won't keep her any longer."

    "See to it she gets her possessions back, save for the robes. Those come with us, as part of an investigation that cost two good women their lives."

    By the time Elruin's stuff was returned and she was allowed to leave, she expected everyone else to be gone. Instead, Lady Juna stood waiting for her not far from the station. She bowed her head as expected. "Thank you."

    "You get into the most fascinating predicaments," Lady Juna said. "Taking the robes is one thing, I can see why you'd want to keep them, but you should have covered your tracks better. Or at all."

    "You're not mad at me?"

    "Why would I be mad? It gives me an opportunity to get some fresh air and have a conversation with a friend I haven't seen for some time." Juna began to walk, leading Elruin along on a path that would take her to her dorms.

    Something made Elruin suspect she'd have been better off back in the police station with the sergeant. "Sorry, I've been studying hard. I want to be able to help Lady Calenda and you."

    "You're putting too much on your shoulders," Lady Juna said. "You're a child, you should take the time to act like one before it's too late. Trust us adults to handle problems while you learn the way of the world without getting involved in dangerous situations. Your naivety will only get you in trouble, like today."

    Elruin felt smaller with every word, so she just kept quiet and walked.

    "Like today. I'm aware that Scouts and Guards sometimes take... let's call them 'trophies'... from those they have to kill." Lady Juna kept looking ahead. "It's not entirely illegal. There is a process of claiming items for an investigation, then once the investigation's over, we must get rid of the articles somehow. Most is sold or donated, but an officer might request something interesting. Taking something and walking away with it, however? That is a crime."

    "Sorry," Elruin kept looking down. "Does that mean I can have it back after you're done with it, please?"

    "Not now, no," Lady Juna said. "You've been seen by a number of people with the outfit, and the blood which was on it. If we give it back to you, people will start to ask questions, which leads to answers we'd prefer not to give. See, some people want the practice of trophy-taking ended in its entirety, so it's best to not call attention to it."

    "Oh." Elruin wasn't studying law, she'd have to take Juna's word. "What about sarite?" The police gave her shards back to her when she was let go, which seemed strange to her then. Not that she said anything.

    "Still a crime, but impossible to enforce," Juna said. "We can't prove if a stone was taken from a bandit or straight from some slain beast. Wasting Truthsayer time on every shard in the city would be impossibly expensive."

    Elruin nodded along. Practice with weakened sarite shards at her school had made it clear that sarite's natural magic made it difficult to influence with other magic, like scrying.

    "Besides, we want sarite in human hands," Juna continued. "Burying sarite has a nasty habit of, well, back when I was not much older than you, I had to fight a fox that launched acid from its posterior. Don't laugh, people died. Some careless soul died with a powerful shard, which the animal swallowed. I still have that shard, it's one of my best."

    That was good to know, though she still had to deal with the shards in her pocket. Her school was now in sight, a sign that perhaps the conversation would be over soon. "Thank you, again."

    "You'll find a way to pay me back, some day," Juna said. "But while we're on the subject of sharing knowledge, I admit there is one thing I haven't been able to discern. Why did Scout Calenda go to you, first?"

    Elruin's stomach clenched. "Pardon?"

    "She entered the gates, told the Guard nothing, traveled here, found you, and took you back into the wilderness with her for the better part of an hour. Then returned, with the bodies of her team members, horses, and other assorted materials. Why?"

    "I..." Now Elruin knew she was in trouble, since she couldn't shake Lady Juna off so easily. "Maybe it has to do with the mind spell?"

    "Do tell," Juna commanded.

    "I got a look at the spell as it was working," Elruin admitted. "It was really complicated, and I'm not a mind mage." Juna remained silent, while Elruin remembered what Kasa said about Truthsaying being a common spell for the magically skilled. Juna was perhaps the most skilled mage she had ever met. "I think she was trying to trick the spell. I mean, I know she was, she told me little bits the whole way, but I think that's why she didn't tell the guards. She couldn't, the spell wouldn't let her."

    "But she could tell you?"

    "As you said, I'm young, maybe the spell meant she couldn't tell an adult?"

    "Seems like too obvious a loophole."

    It did sound obvious. "She said something about being more clever than smart," Elruin offered. "Or maybe the spell was about not telling. She didn't tell me. She asked me to come outside the walls with her, which I did because she saved me and I trust her. If she asked a guard to come with, she'd want to know why, which Cali couldn't say."

    "And once you saw the bodies and stuff, you'd be the one who brought it in for everyone to see, not her," Juna concluded. "Still, seems too obvious. But go ahead and keep your secrets for now, since you value them so highly. And try not to be such a shut-in in the future, I've come to enjoy our chats.

    "Yes, ma'am."

    Juna turned and went the path that would take her to her own mansion eventually, leaving Elruin behind with her heart hammering in her chest. She would need to be more careful from now on.

    =====

    A/N- Never fails to amuse me when voters forget to consider Elruin's current appearance, even after being reminded. I mean, sure, a twelve year old getting dirty or torn up clothes isn't too big a deal. Children are known for being messy and careless. But carrying around bloody clothing? Raises a red flag or three.

    And unlike a D&D game, Midara has laws against grave robbing and otherwise looting corpses. It's a crime in our world, too. And for much the same reasons. It's difficult to prove you stole change from a dead man's pockets, but when you start stealing his pants... yeah...
     
  13. Threadmarks: The Dark Lord (dun dun dun)
    TanaNari

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    Somewhere, deep in the wilderness, lay a temple of finest marble. Crafted by gods, shaped to be the seat of power to a world-empire, it stood abandoned for centuries, with but automatons to maintain the art, beauty, and mystic mechanisms that could grant one the power to walk from one end of the world to the other with but a handful of gestures.

    Long had it stood, a testament to men who would rule man, nature, and the laws of reality. Longer had it remained in ruin, its makers long since dead and its inhabitants reduced to shadow and mythos.

    A tall, slender woman of ashen skin and wings of smoke walked through this forgotten fane to the wildest dreams of Man. Nearby, the beasts lurked, but they had learned not to approach the being of power which masqueraded as a thing of flesh. The bodies between the portal which brought her to this place, and the throne she approached, were her own shrine to the wisdom of caution.

    A flick of wings took her atop the marble platform once called the Pillar of Creation. She thought little of those ancient mortals, but today was a day of nostalgia for those they left behind. "Oh, Lord of Darkness," her voice oozed with sarcasm. "I bring you news."

    "Ugh, must you call me that every time? It wasn't funny the first time, it hasn't become funny in the centuries since." He shifted, stretching sinuous wings and muscle that had not moved in years.

    "My apologies, would you prefer to be called the Son of the Blighted? Or perhaps He Who Casts Darkness on Darkness?"

    A burst of black lightning shot from his fingertips, missing her by inches. Several deep crevasses were added to the cracked marble floor. They began pulling themselves back together, the shattered stone stitching itself back together one fleck of dust at a time. One day, the magic would deplete itself, and the pillar would crumble as had the dreams of its creators.

    "I told you never to speak those names!"

    "Why, My Lord, I am certain you have not." She appreciated the damage to the stone, dead purity wounded yet struggling to survive. Her opposite in all conceivable ways. "The mortals invented them between my last visit and today."

    "Oh?" He settled back down on his throne of ebony, set atop the pillar of Ivory. "My mistake. There are so wearingly many, I cannot be expected to keep track of them all."

    "You should be more careful, My Lord," she taunted. "Any closer, and you'd be forced to do these tasks for yourself."

    "Here to beg for your death yet again?" He shifted, waking slowly. "I thought you grew tired of this game you play."

    She had, long ago, but it had not yet become the 'game' her master pretended. She swallowed, then called on all her strength for the final act of accusation and hate. "Freedom does not appear possible, which leaves me one refuge."

    "As I told your predecessors, if you can find one more competent than yourself, I shall grant you freedom or death, whichever you desire."

    "I fear you ask the impossible, My Lord." No pride, no anger, she had not the resolve left for more than resignation.

    "I fear the same, and yet I do not stop." He clenched his fingers, crushing the obsidian throne upon which he sat. Its own magic set about repairing the damage inflicted, silent and without judgment. At one time, there was finery on this throne, of deep red and gold, with lush cushions such that even a mortal would not be uncomfortable seated here. They had rotted to dust centuries ago. "I suppose that trait, we have in common."

    "Yes, My Lord." Her wings wafted around her, knowing what would come next.

    Now that he was approaching true wakefulness, he wanted only to get the remaining tasks completed so he could return to his long slumber. "Now, what is the true reason you come to me?"

    "Scratch has found himself a new host."

    "Is that so?" He huffed, what passed for a chuckle. "For a dead man, he has been quite active. This makes one from him per century for how long, now?"

    "Four, if we measure by years rather than turnovers of calendar," she said. "A less cynical person might believe he's trying to kill you."

    "He does have a habit of finding the most fascinating toys, doesn't he?" In spite of himself, he found he was growing someone excited, or at least amused. "I believe the last one was a eunuch, and the one before was the arctic mermaid?"

    The most recent to have inflicted pain upon her in battle. If she had been but a little stronger, she might have been released from this abominable farce. "This one appears to be a little girl of twelve years."

    Another soft chuckle, this one almost genuine, escaped his lips. "I've forgotten the last child we've had. When the decade is up, I'll be ready."

    "My Lord, I don't believe we'll need wait that long. This one is ready for cultivation, now."

    "So young?" He grinned, and acid dripped down from a jaw that might have been handsome centuries prior. "Then we set the stage for what promises to be an unusual Deathbringer."

    "I have prepared the Bean Sidhe in anticipation of your orders. Initial scouting suggests the region has few external threats, but is on the cusp of rebellion. I also located three artifact caches in the region that might play well in our plans."

    "Then fan the flames of revolution throughout..." he hesitated. "Where are they?"

    "The Empire of Engeval," she answered. "The Temple knows it as Ciron's Citadel."

    "Right, the god of the centaurs," her dark lord muttered. At his mental command, the ancient machinery returned to life for a short time, to force open a portal network built by the Goddess of the Void, then harnessed by her descendants. They were long gone, but he would put their work to use destroying all which they had brought to the world. "Such vibrant creatures, perhaps..."

    "I'm sorry, My Lord," she cut him off. "They were unable to adapt to the changes and went extinct almost four hundred years ago."

    "Go!" He shouted, as he swung his fist backward into his throne. The stone exploded with enough power that shards of obsidian sank into the marble pillar.

    For the first time in aeons, she felt fear in the face of the being that she had just tried to goad into killing her. She fled through the opened gateway and found herself standing in the air above a stable, but still-hot caldera.

    "Ciron, awaken." She demanded of the volcanic deity. "The Goddess Kalla demands it."

    A shift of energies, a preparation of defenses and retaliation. With a wave of Kalla's hand, ice coated the interior of the volcano. It was a minor display of power, for either of them. The speed and ease at which she performed that feat marked her as stronger than the being below her. The chaos unleashed by her magic would be felt for years, but chaos served Kalla's purpose.

    "Awaken or I slay you where you sleep and drive what remains of your sheltered children into the true wilderness."

    Shockwaves rumbled across the land, startling civilian and priest alike as Ciron responded to the threat of the interloper with what passed for acquiescence. He would obey her, so long as she left his people alone.

    "Impossible," she said. "But with your cooperation we can limit the casualties to, perhaps, only a million or so."

    More rumbles, more echoes of power, and the stink of priests begging guidance began wafting in on the aether winds. Now that their god served her, it was time to begin her true work.

    =====

    A/N- This guy clearly has no plot relevance at all, and is only here for worldbuilding purposes. You will neither see nor hear from them ever again. :p

    The power to freeze a volcano with casual effort means never having to apologize. Unless you piss off Superman. Then you're boned.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 26
    TanaNari

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    Elruin retreated to her dorm, climbed into bed, and hugged Mister Squishybones. She came close to death today, and from now on she would need to be extra careful not to upset anyone. The wrong question might reveal Old Scratch, or her new dolly, and then guards would kill her. More than just her, since Cali was involved as well.

    If she got in trouble again, for anything, Lady Juna might not save her.

    After a therapeutic cuddle-session with her new toy, she felt better. It was too late to do much tonight, thanks to helping Cali, meeting Scratch, and learning a hard lesson about how people don't like seeing lots of blood. Her nerves, however, would not allow her to sleep so she went to her desk and began to write.

    The desk lamp was a minor magic device that sapped small amounts of the user's magic in order to power itself. According to the instructors, it was meant to train them by maintaining a small, steady, and constant stream of energy. Elruin didn't feel it was difficult at all, and she learned more about balance from carrying buckets of water at the farm.

    She took out her basic calligraphy book and set to work writing letters to apologize to people. Using the ink instead of pencils, since she wanted it to look professional, she went through the process of writing an apology letter to the guards, and a thank-you letter to Lady Juna. A yawn signaled that she'd have to finish Cali's letter later, and then go through the process of figuring out which guard she was supposed to deliver the apology to.

    In the morning, she went straight to find Lemia, to share the treasures of yesterday with the one person in the school willing to spend more time around her than required of them. She was in her usual corner of the alchemy section, toying with the ambient energies of the other students and their experiments, stitching together new magic from the tattered remnants of others.

    "Ell!" She said in a voice half between a whisper and a shout. "Are you okay? I heard you were arrested!"

    "I was." Elruin didn't notice that some of the other students were listening in. "It was a misunderstanding. But that doesn't matter, I have to show you something neat in my room." She couldn't think of anywhere else in the school to display her new spell.

    Lemia looked around, but decided there wasn't much point in avoiding going with Elruin. If she had a reputation to worry about, it was tarnished enough by her own peculiarities that it was more useful to side with the child necromancer everything knew would have dragonslayer potential one day. Besides, she wanted to hear the rest of this story about her arrest. "Give me a moment."

    Soon, the two of them were back in Elruin's room, where Lemia felt comfortable with asking questions. "What was the misunderstanding that got you arrested?"

    Elruin decided there was no secret. "I took a magic robe, but it was evidence in a crime. I didn't know."

    Not knowing wouldn't have saved most people from criminal punishment, this Lemia knew. If Elruin hadn't been connected with some of the nobility, she would have faced an ugly reality. "Where did you get it from?"

    "I'm not allowed to say."

    "Very well," Lemia dropped the conversation, since pressing the girl could cost months of slowly built trust. "So what did you want to show me?"

    Elruin held out her new sarite shards. Five crystals, each no larger than a human finger bone. "I don't know what they do yet. Can you help?"

    Five of them at one time screamed to Lemia that they must have come from the same place as the robe. "Where did you find these?"

    "I'm not allowed to say."

    Thought as much. Lemia held the crystals. She sorted them from worst to best, then held up the remarkably bad one. "I think someone drained it, almost destroyed it. No need to breathe, short range flight. Now all it can do is help you hold your breath. Best used with a mortar and pestle."

    Elruin did not like the idea of destroying a treasure, even one that was more valuable as raw materials for a potion. "Can you fix it?"

    Lemia chuckled. "If I had that sort of power, I wouldn't be here. I'd be the Queen's Alchemist. Or maybe I'd be the queen."

    "Oh." Elruin didn't hide her disappointment well. "I understand."

    Lemia went to the mind shard next. "Oh, I don't suppose I can have this one? You can't use it anyway."

    "What's it do?" Elruin asked. She knew neither she nor Cali could use mind magic. One because it was creation, the other because it was air, but she was still curious its properties.

    "Minor boosts to alertness and memory," she said. "The real power is that it grants mental recovery, about half as fast as you get from sleep. Not bad for a combat mage, amazing for a college student who fears she's going to die of exhaustion during her applied alchemy exam."

    Elruin wanted to help Lemia with her studies, but also didn't want to give up her treasures. She also didn't want to upset Lemia, her only friend other than Cali. "You can borrow it, if you like."

    Lemia set the crystal aside. "Ell, did you get these from outside the wall?"

    "I'm not allowed to say."

    Which Lemia took to mean yes. "Can you say if you'll be able to go out to find more?"

    "I don't think they'll let me go outside, anymore," Elruin said. She wasn't fond of the idea of going out in the first place, with all the monsters and Ghosts of Sorvel in the forest doing bad things like killing Cali's friends. She also wanted to go out, to make the bad people stop being bad. They'd be so much nicer as dollies.

    "Oh, getting outside is easy," Lemia said.

    "Really?" Elruin asked. "What about the wall?"

    "Built to keep people out, same with the sarite shielding." Lemia had put some thought into the subject. "They can't make the barrier too hard, or it'll block out air and burn up its energy in minutes, so weak magic can sneak through where raw power would fail. There are even spots you can go to have luncheons while looking out at the landscape. It's easy to sneak out."

    "How do you get back inside?"

    "I haven't puzzled that part out. Any suggestions? You know the gate and guards better than I do."

    "I don't know, Lady Calenda was always with me. They treat her special, because she's a scout."

    "Well, if you think of a way, please tell me," Lemia said. "I want to see what it's like out there, with all the creatures and adventure. But only if I can come back inside, with my warm bed and fresh food. Sleeping on the ground sounds awful."

    "I can... show you?" Elruin offered.

    "How?" Lemia leaned forward.

    "I found a spell that lets people synchronize," she said. "It's really neat, and lets you show memories."

    "And you can do this? With anyone? No special requirements or side effects?"

    "I think only Revealed mages can do it, and they have to both use their Revelation together. Other than that, the magic relies on fundamental principles to do most of the work. We can do it right now, if you want." Elruin caught on to Lemia's hesitation after a moment. "You don't want to?"

    "It's just, I never thought I could synchronize with anyone due to my nature." Lemia looked away, a light pink creeping to her cheeks. "And everything I've read on the subject makes it sound... intimate..."

    "Is this one of those city people things, like sharing a bed?" Elruin still didn't understand why Lemia thought it was weird that she shared a bed with some of her sisters. They seemed to believe only small children and married people slept together. Which wasn't half as bad as when she said she bathed with them, too.

    "I guess it is," Lemia admitted. "It's just weird, that's all. But, well, I'd hate myself if I turned down a chance to learn magic I've never heard of before. How did you learn about it? Let me guess, you're not allowed to say."

    Elruin considered lying, but the spell she was about to cast didn't do well with lies. "No, I can't."

    "I'll start, and when you're ready you can alter the music, change it to your liking."

    Suggested Listening

    Elruin began her song, a soft and gentle affair, similar but different than with Scratch. She sang of things that better fit what she knew of Lemia, focusing on experiences and her time outside the walls, the sinister affair of nightfall, of cold ground, and of the mockery of the morks.

    Lemia caught on quick, and began to adjust notes with gestures, grabbing them from the air and moving them to a new place as if designing sheet music. Her mathematical Revelation was an unusual one, but it was simple to pair math with music. She drew calculations of frustration, confusion, as siblings surpassed her due to her lack of potential.

    Elruin joined in singing about the betrayal her family inflicted on her, though she took care to hide the nature of why they exiled her to die.

    Lemia wrote of anger, of a desire for revenge which she had never acted upon but sat deep within her.

    Elruin touched on the cruelty of the Ghosts of Sorvel, acknowledged her own desire to seek revenge, but she focused on the morks who offered her the opportunity for revenge, which she rejected. She sang of saving them from Cali, who wanted them arrested and sold into slavery.

    Lemia backed away from the anger, crafted a formula of success by being stronger, smarter, and better than those who've wronged them.

    The crafted song tapered off, and now it was Lemia who had tears in her eyes. "I don't want to sneak into the wilderness anymore."

    Elruin went to the bed and picked up Mister Squishybones, which she handed to Lemia. "Here you go."

    Lemia smiled, laughed, then hugged the stuffed animal.


    =====

    A/N- Mister Squishybones plushies. I wants one. If I can get enough readers to make it cost effective, I'll try to make them happen. I'm thinking the "black body, white socks" look, but instead of the white forehead diamond some horses have, it'll be a cute little stylized skull.

    The lamps are a way to save money by using the students as a power source. I may or may not be joking, but let's be honest, you know if it was possible to get away with, schools would do it in real life.

    Yes, this setting does have pencil. The graphite is magically-altered charcoal, but it's a whole lot cheaper to get large amounts of charcoal than it is to produce quality ink.

    Gifting desirable sarite makes for some major friendship points in the game.

    And the "damaged sarite" thing might be a game mechanic, to reward quick kills.
     
  15. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    The following sentence is clearly talking about her family.
     
  16. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Yes. Each sentence jumps to another event. Remember the morks trying to talk her into letting them in the farm? Where they would presumably eat everyone. These sharing visions are disjointed by design.
     
  17. Tortoise

    Tortoise Getting sticky.

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    Ok, but the next sentence uses "them", and it really looks like it'd refer to the morks. "saving them from Cali" should be "saving her family (or siblings or whatever) from Cali" then.
     
  18. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Fair enough, never hurts to clarify.
     
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 27
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Lemia spent just long enough holding Mister Squishybones to start to feel uncomfortable with her younger friend standing there. She handed the surprisingly well-made stuffed toy back to Ell, then asked the first question that came to mind. "What happens, now?"

    "I don't know," Elruin said. "Other than boosting magic, what does it do?"

    "A lot of things," Lemia said. "But the literature is vague on the specifics. It seems to take everything into account, from the aspects to Revelation, to the strength of the participants and their shared resonance. The obvious part is that I should be more resistant to your magic, which is good since you sort of, well, there's a reason that people avoid you."

    "But I thought this shard was supposed to hide that." Elruin held up the shadow sarite that had been her near-constant companion.

    "Can I see that?" Lemia took the crystal from Elruin. "Entek!" She handed it back. "I knew you were strong, but I thought you were at our teachers' level. You make most of the nobility look weak."

    "But Lady Juna and Lord Garit are stronger."

    Lemia held her breath for a moment, at mention of the future Duke and High General. "I guess it's no surprise they'd be interested in you. I bet they saw right through that crystal." She knelt down in front of her young, terrifying, friend. "They're scions of some of the strongest blood in the empire, and they've been training their skills since before you were born, probably before I was born."

    "Oh," Elruin stopped to consider the gap between them and almost everyone she'd seen thus far. "And they have a perfect resonance with one another, I bet that makes them stronger."

    Lemia felt uncomfortable, considering some of the rumors about the twins. "I guess when you train together for two decades, you learn to work well together."

    "Will we be able to do that, some day?"

    Lemia doubted it, given that her field didn't see much opportunity for combat practice, and Elruin didn't seem suited for alchemy. Although now she saw the logic behind the girl learning here; she had power to spare, what she lacked was knowledge. "Maybe some day, but for now I think all we do make it easier for the other to use magic."

    "I don't feel any difference." Elruin hadn't noticed at all. She hadn't noticed much from Scratch, either.

    "I can. It almost doubles the power I can call on." Lemia wasn't fond of being reminded of the humbling gap between them. "I think you can, too, but it's minor compared to your natural strength. I'm no more than a leaf in your tree."

    That made sense, now that Lemia said it. "Thank you for helping. Do you think this will help you use magic better?" Elruin handed off one of her old sarite, the one that bolstered air magic.

    Lemia held it for a moment. "Hmm, ah, I think I know what you're trying, but it won't work. This shard boosts the strength of the magic itself, which won't help me much. Maybe I could get some use from seeing in the dark, but I'm not strong enough to use it and this recovery shard. Thank you for the offer, though."

    "As I walk." Elruin looked over at her table. "Can we play later? I need to do my chores."

    "Come by the lab whenever you want to see me, because I'm going to live there until the quarter has finished." As great a relief as the extra hours she could devote to her work, was not having to put up with her roommate's constant attempts to find some alone time with her boyfriend of the week. Being stuck in a room with some lesser noble's spoiled daughter was annoying enough without the strangers who ranged from rude to creepy.

    Perhaps she'd ask about rooming with Elruin. She was confident nobody would object. The administrators never liked having a student alone to a room, and now that they had some shared resonance, the constant unnerving aura wasn't so bad. She felt confident the girl wouldn't turn their room into a makeshift brothel, which was more than she could say for most of the students here.

    Something for her to worry about later, now that she was going to be so much more productive. She felt a moment of guilt, cheating this way, only to remind herself that everyone in the school cheated. It was the nature of the beast that everyone cheated, except those lacking the wherewithal to acquire some magic which helped them cheat.

    Meanwhile, Elruin remained ignorant of her friend's thoughts as she returned to writing her apology letters. She read them twice over, then decided they were all complete so she went to deliver them.

    First, the police station was closest, so she went there. The new sarite was fun, letting her move with amazing bursts of speed. She almost giggled when she ran across the park as a blur of black hair and light clothes. This new shard may not have the ability to zap people with lightning or guide her aim, but the speed was amazing. She walked faster with the shard than she could run without it.

    She slowed when she got close to the station, since they seemed like the sort who'd be upset by using magic around them. She approached one of the lady guards. "Hello? Can you help me?"

    "Are you lost?" In this part of the city, with a child who didn't appear to be abused or hungry, it was the best guess.

    "No, I wanted to give a letter to the sergeant," Elruin said. She held the letter out for the woman. "I'm Lady Elruin. I caused trouble yesterday, and wanted to apologize to everyone."

    The woman nodded; she'd heard about that situation, and all the speculation the secrets surrounding it. How could she not, when General Juna herself was involved? "You are a very polite young lady," she said while accepting the letter. "I promise I'll deliver this straight to the sergeant."

    "Thank you, ma'am," Elruin clasped her hands and bowed, before heading off to her next stop. The mansion Lady Juna and Lord Garit lived in wasn't close, but it was along the path that would take her to Cali's home. Juna wasn't home, so she was forced to leave that letter for later delivery as well. She hoped it wouldn't annoy them that she couldn't deliver it in person.

    Last, not least, she stopped by Cali's home. Lyra wasn't around, which meant Rena must be gone as well, so Elruin let herself in. She found the older girl laying in her living plant bed. "Are you better?"

    Cali gave a weak smile. "More dead than alive, I think." Elruin felt weird about Cali not running her mouth. "But I'll get better soon. It's Crela I'm worried about, they're reviving her now, but the process is... it might be better to stay dead. Then I tell her that Lanine was beyond saving before someone else does."

    Elruin nodded; she hadn't considered they might try to resurrect the dead scouts. "What can I do to help?"

    Cali remained still, but her smile faded. "I don't think they want your sort of help, Ell."

    "I meant how can I help you?" She looked around. "Do you need me to do chores? A hug? Anything?"

    Cali opened her mouth, then closed it. "I was about to say you wouldn't understand, but that's not fair. You've lost loved ones, too."

    Elruin sat down next to Cali's bed, unsure of what to say.

    "So have I." Cali stared up at the ceiling. "I never gets easier, but I've learned to compartmentalize. This is different, this is losing a member of my team." She choked the last word out. "It should have been me. I was the front-liner, the one who went face to face with the enemy. They stayed back, relied on me to take the blows so they wouldn't have to, and I failed."

    She huffed, would have punched the wall if she could get her arms to move for more than useless flailing. All she could do now, physically or mentally, seemed to be useless flailing. "I couldn't save them. I couldn't even save myself. You're the reason I'm alive."

    "But Scratch-"

    "Wanted you!" Cali failed to sit up. "He saved me, to meet you. Now you're helping that thing, and it's my fault. I should have told him to crawl back into the pit, accepted my fate. It would have been better for everyone."

    Elruin leaned forward, to lay her head next to Cali and put her arm around the older girl. "Then I never would have gotten Mister Squishybones."

    Cali remained still a full minute, then nudged her arm around Elruin. "Is that what you're calling it?"

    "Uh-huh. He gives the best hugs. I'll bring him next time, then you'll feel better."

    Cali smiled despite herself. "Promise he won't start moving around on his own."

    Elruin thought about what it would take to animate a stuffed animal, but she'd destroy it if she tried. "I promise."


    =====

    Remember kids: winners don't do drugs. Unless they're steroids. In which case, use lots of drugs!

    Teachers frown upon the use of sarite for educational advantage... or they're supposed to, at any rate. As long as a student doesn't make it too obvious, they're not going to look too hard. Higher education is a competitive field in Engewal, and there is no such thing as tenure. Perform or be replaced is the name of the game.
     
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2019
  20. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 28
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Elruin devoted much of the rest of her week's free time to studying the nature of resonance, though she didn't take long to come to the conclusion that nobody understood more than the basics of this field. Which might explain why Scratch was the only one who knew an artificial method, when it was such a simple ability. Or perhaps it was because his version was much weaker than natural synchronization.

    In the end, both literature and her own experience agreed that the best way to improve resonance with a location was to spend a great deal of time tending to that area with one's magic. Alone, if possible, otherwise the jumbled mess of other human essences would cleanse away the effort in hours, or minutes in a city this size. And the best way to improve synchronization was to practice magic with the person you wanted to share resonance with, and more difficult or stressful situations sped the process. Perhaps that was why half the books equated strong resonance with romantic entanglement.

    She had no interest in that outcome, but she wanted as many safe, happy friends as possible, so she found Lemia in the lab with a plan in mind. "Can we practice potion-making?"

    Lemia looked up from her notes. "Ell? Is it morning, already?"

    "Almost noon," she said. "I thought we could practice together with potions."

    Lemia stretched. "Ooh." Elruin's eyesight identified the problem right away: the shard may counter the mind's need for sleep, but it did nothing to help physical recovery. "A potion sound like a wonderful idea."

    Lemia went through the usual process of drawing energy from the environment to fill her cup with enhanced water. As she drank the concoction, Elruin studied the magic rushing through her body and mending all the damage that her days of tireless work had done to the flesh and bone. "Seven above! I think that's the best healing potion I've ever made!"

    Elruin kept watching the whole thing. "You're getting stronger."

    "More like you're making me stronger," Lemia countered. "Don't worry, I'm fine with it. I'm so proud that I can't accept charity."

    Charity. "That's a great idea." Resonance magic worked better in real situations than it did just practicing rituals in the school, else everyone here would have synergized with everyone else in the building. "We should go heal people, for charity."

    Lemia smirked at the girl. "They wouldn't let you within shouting distance of the Respite houses. But, if you don't mind getting a little unorthodox, I can get us somewhere the healers don't often tread."

    "I'll go get my stuff." Elruin went to find her training outfit, since it and her school uniforms were her only clothes that could withstand her magic for long, then met up with Lemia at the entrance to the school.

    Lemia handed her a cheap flax cloak. "Here, when we get out of the noble district, wear this and keep your head down."

    They traveled for some time, as the buildings grew more numerous and less grand, until they reached a point where instead of buildings at all, there were shacks made from scraps stolen from older projects. Elruin looked around as best she could, while obeying Lemia's instructions to continue looking down. She didn't want to get in trouble, but trouble had its way of finding her.

    "What do we have here?" A man, older than her, and quite rude to approach. "The uppity whore returns."

    "We're just passing through." Lemia mumbled. "C'mon, Ruk, old time's sake?"

    "Without saying hello to your old friends," he said. "Guess you're worn out anyway. Decided you'd rather sell someone else? Little young for my tastes, but-"

    "Don't touch her!" Lemia moved, a little too late, as someone grabbed Elruin's arms from behind.

    Reflex, and remembrance of the other bad men who tried to hurt her, caused Elruin to act. What sounded for a moment like a scream of fear evolved into a song of cold, cruel certainty. Black lightning burned away her cheap cloak, then much of the bad man's fingers. His voice joined her song, screams of fear and pain as he flopped on the ground.

    "Merat!" The man who'd troubled Lemia took two steps back. "Enge Protect!"

    "I told you." Lemia sighed, then pulled her cloak down. "I wanted to get through without causing any trouble, Rukan. In, out, nothing more. But now you went and laid hands on Lady Elruin. We all know what happens to men who touch a noble's child."

    The one who Elruin zapped managed to bring himself to his feet, despite both his arms having been numbed to paralysis. He'd recover, but without a good healer he'd lose a few fingers.

    "You brought a noble's brat here?" Rukan hissed. "Are you insane?"

    Lemia looked him in the eyes. "Lady Elruin can defend herself, in case you hadn't noticed. Now be a good little lapdog, run back to Lerulan, and tell him I am heading to the shelter. Any trouble, any at all, and there are only two outcomes. Either she does that-" Lemia pointed at the man stumbling away. "-to all of his men. Or you hurt her, and her family comes looking. No matter how it goes down, he loses."

    "Entek." Rukan backed away. "You better never come back here alone, whore!" He ran into the direction of one of the larger cluster of shacks, ducked through a tight passageway, then zigzagged along in a way that reminded Elruin of the rodents she once hunted.

    "Sorry I ruined your gift. Am I in trouble?" Elruin kept her eyes down.

    "Gift? That old burlap trash?" Lemia smiled. "You've done nothing wrong. It was my fault for thinking we could get through without being noticed. I'm not welcome in this neighborhood, if it wasn't obvious."

    "Why?" Elruin could sympathize, given what happened with her siblings. "Why do they call you bad things?"

    "Not everyone is lucky enough to have rich parents, or incredible power." Lemia gathered herself, stood tall instead of hiding away like she was before. "I was born here, to a mother who died from drugs a few years ago, and a father that I probably passed a thousand times on the street without recognizing. All I had was a strange quirk, and ambition. But without an education, it was useless, and without money I couldn't get that education. Ruk was a former... friend... who I allowed to believe was something more. You were never in any real danger, they just wanted to scare us away."

    "They weren't bad men?" Elruin looked back, still able to spot the damaged flickering lifeforce of the man who grabbed her.

    "No, they're terrible men," Lemia said. "They're men who'd poison innocent children for a sliver of copper. They hate me because I was one of the ones who got away. I made something better of myself, and that makes them afraid and angry."

    "I don't understand."

    "They're afraid, because they don't want others to see me. They think that if I come back successful, then others will realize they, too, can be successful. Then all of their power and control evaporates. They're angry because I'm a reminder of their own inadequacy. If I, a former prostitute, can make it and they can't, what does that say about them?"

    "Like Kasa," Elruin said. Then realized she never told Lemia about her. "She's my sister, she hates when anyone is smarter or better than her. She tried to feed me to morks."

    "Three above, four below," Lemia muttered. "I always thought it was the cities that made people act like this, but even Lerulan wouldn't murder children. Sell them poison, yes, but not butcher them. You're far more merciful than I'd have been in that situation."

    Suggested Listening

    "Lady Cali didn't understand, either," Elruin said. "She said I was a sai- what's that?" Elruin looked forward to the marble pillar which stood out on a literal and metaphorical level, but radiated magic like she'd never seen before. It was some blend of all creation-aspect magics, but also a great deal of fundamental patterns as well. Around the pillar sat many temporary shelters, as they did everywhere else.

    "This is the shelter. All the happiest memories of my childhood happened here," she said. "I've dug through every historical record I could find, but none of them mention who made it or when. I'm convinced it's older than the empire itself."

    As they walked deeper into the field of magic, Elruin observed the dense, intricate patterns. Around them, children poked their heads out of their shelters to observe. None showed any sign of fear. "It reminds me of Lyra. Not the same aspects or abilities, but her level of skill and power. I think I could spend years studying it and not understand everything."

    "So, there still exists magic beyond you," Lemia said with a smile. "I have studied it for years, and all I have are guesses. I think at one time it was a prison, meant to show criminals the path of peaceful reform. For us, it's a shelter from criminals. In here, no one can attempt an act of violence. Even thinking about inflicting harm is impossible. Sadists who hurt others for fun fall to their knees and weep. Doesn't play nice with intoxication or sex, either."

    Out of curiosity, Elruin attempted to consider using her magic, targeting a bad person to harm. The closest she could get was knowing that her magic could be used to kill, but having trouble imagining how it could do so. It was a disorienting experience, so she gave up in seconds. "I think it would be a good prison."

    "I think so, too," she said. "But who knows how ancient civilizations thought? Maybe this was a public bathhouse?" Now they were near the center of the pillar, where Lemia knelt in front of an older woman.

    "Little Mia, what brings you back here?" The woman might have guessed Elruin needed shelter, but the girl was in quality clothing, and had the look of someone who had nothing to fear of the world.

    "Grandmother." The woman wasn't her real grandmother, but here she was everyone's grandmother. "I'm here to provide healing, for a time." Lemia set a her cup and tools in font of her, at the woman's feet.

    "She's with the church?"

    "No, ma'am," Elruin said with perfect politeness. "But my Elder Sister is Priestess Calenda."

    "We're here to do alchemical healing," Lemia added. "We're somewhat limited in what we can do, but when I lived here we needed all the help we could get. Even minor healing will make the task of caregivers much easier. All we need is a place to set up, and water to enchant."

    "We had an outbreak of Seizing Sickness. Can you help?"

    Lemia didn't know how their magic would work on the disease. "Can't promise more than the symptoms, but we'll try."

    "Then lives may yet be saved. Lemia, you know where the sick houses are. Children, spread the word that a minor healer is here, we'll focus on treating the young. Don't get anyone's hopes too high."

    Elruin followed Lemia along until they reached the small shacks that were smaller than many of the sheds they had back on the farm. The essence of death was here, but the pillar's magic somehow prevented the lingering death from blossoming into taint, no matter how rich the metaphorical soil was for it. Even the ground was dry, ashen, and struggling to support life.

    "What is this place?"

    "Sick houses," Lemia said. "When we fear an illness is too dangerous, we erect a little shelter. We pray, the illness runs its course, then we burn the shelter. There is only a question of if it's a celebration pyre or a funeral pyre. All diseases I've ever read about will die in the fire."

    "I see." Perhaps this was where Kasa got the idea that burning the undead would work. Now that she got a look at this place, she was more certain than ever that taint could not be cleansed by physical means. She contemplated explaining the not-taint building here, since these were Lemia's friends. "You should move the sickhouses, never keep them in the same spot more than a few weeks. It creates dangerous death magic."

    A makeshift table was carried in by four adult women, set down so Lemia could begin charging temporary potions using buckets of rainwater. Lemia started working on the first wave of potions as she talked to Elruin. "You're certain? I don't feel anything."

    "I'll show you." Elruin began to sing, drawing upon the vast well of necromantic energy in the region. Water bubbled over the edges of the buckets, unable to contain even a brief exposure to the available energy.

    Lemia looked wide-eyed at the area. "How... how has no exorcist seen this before?"

    "I don't know, perhaps they don't know how to look under the shelter magic?" It was sitting like a plug atop the death energy. "You didn't notice it, and you were here with it for years. It's not dangerous, and I can control it."

    "Then looks like we've got plenty of power to work with." Lemia grinned, as she started to twist the available energies, with Elruin's help in refining and controlling that power for safe consumption. In pure state, the water in those buckets could kill a man in seconds, and have the body walking again in under a minute.

    Soon, a young boy was brought to them, sickly, sweating, and having trouble moving while minor tremors wracked his weakened muscles. Elruin could see the poison inside him, disrupting what Elruin might some day learn was called the nervous system.

    The man who brought the boy held a mouthful of the magic-charged water for the boy. It was enough to cleanse the poison, though it did not dislodge the cause. The woman next to him spoke for them. "Is he better, now?"

    "No, the cause is still there," Elruin said. The disease itself, however, did not seem all that resilient. More than that, it was different than the human essence, and its ability to resisting the life energy of the healing potion made it all the more visible to her lifesight. Combined with her new experience with resonances, she was confident she could target the disease, while only causing minor damage to the boy.

    "I think I can cure him," she said. Unless the illness had a special surprise, it was weaker than any rat she'd ever killed. "It will hurt."

    The woman looked at her husband, then back to Elruin. "It can't be worse than the pain of the disease."

    A soft, targeted burst of death energy caused the child to gasp in pain, forced his father to hold him down as he struggled against the soft waves of death energy that burned his body, but scoured the illness. In time, he stopped, gasping for breath.

    "He'll need another dose of the healing potion," Elruin said. Here, she was the expert, and she had a well of power the likes of which she had never imagined before. Soon the boy, carried by his father, was moved in favor of the next victim of this terrible disease.



    =====

    ... I think I might just go with Arctic Selkies as Elruin's Theme for this part of the story. Weirdly beautiful and off-putting and mysterious. What do you think?

    Compatibility bonuses are designed to grant a mathematical 10% boost at lvl 1 (5% for these lvl 0 setups), but the bonus will be distributed to favor the weaker individual over the stronger. At this point, in D&D terms, Elruin is somewhere in the 6 or 7 range, while Lemia's a lvl 1 NPC class... so our favorite necrololi gets no benefits of this bond. Other than the happiness of having new friends.

    (Order of) Respite houses shouldn't be hard to figure out, but they're charity hospitals. Where those who can't afford real care go if the church is overworked (which is almost always). Healers are common enough (~3.5% of the population have some healing magic). Good healers, less so.

    Engewal's slums are much larger and there's an entire set of plotlines for just the slums of that city. Including the "Slum Goddess" ending. But that's a city with almost fifty times the population of Arila. And one the players of this path have shown zero interest in. Yay, open-world games.

    Spoiler: it actually was just a bath house, from a time that wasn't more innocent, but was still very different.

    Seizing Sickness is their world's name for Tetanus. Even with our modern medicine it's a 10-20% lethality, and caused by a very common bacteria pretty much everywhere that's not the arctic, infects easily in places lacking basic hygiene. Seriously, get your fucking tetanus shots, they can save your life.

    I hadn't expected THIS story path to take us here... it was meant for the "Order of Respite" path missions... but player tosses curveball, and I respond accordingly.
     
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2019
  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 29
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    It was nightfall before the pair finished. Lemia had to take another dose of potion for herself, just to help get home, and even Elruin found herself more exhausted than she'd been at any point since arriving in Arila.

    Lemia laughed as they walked through her former neighborhood. "I can't believe it!" Before she'd walked proud out of defiance, now she felt real pride. "No healer has ever been able to do more than twenty or thirty disease cases without burning themselves out. We did over a hundred, and dozens of broken bones, it's incredible!"

    "We can do it again," Elruin said. It had been a long process, the worst being those suffering from partial starvation. Healing magic was good for many, many things, but it had limits. Everyone knew it was impossible to cure aging, the best that could be hoped for is to alleviate suffering, but starvation and dehydration were also difficult. The seemingly endless pool of death energy helped a great deal.

    There were other ways to deal with hunger. "Maybe we can teach them to make farms?" Elruin didn't think they could get chickens and cows here, but there was nothing stopping them from buying viable beans, and wheat was just grass, it could grow anywhere.

    "I know where you're going with this, it's been tried before, it never works." Lemia kept glancing to the sides. The people stared at them, now, not in suspicion but in wonder. Elruin would get all the credit, even though Lemia's ability did the hard part. She didn't care, their approval wasn't important to her. Or so she told herself.

    "I want to help them."

    "They have to help themselves," Lemia countered. "Let's say your plan works, we get a farm going. Let's say nobody attacks the farm, its volunteer, or their families." With Elruin's reputation and power, it was possible they wouldn't dare. "Where do we put the farm? Is there enough space to feed everyone? What of their houses that have to move to make room for cropland?"

    Elruin had no answer to those questions.

    "Best scenario, we create a new middle-class, employed laborers, who take land and drive off those who were unable or unwilling to work. They form a new camp somewhere else, or get driven into the wilderness to die. Worst scenario, some noble's brat claims the land and the farm. Your connections would probably shield from that, so you become the Lady in charge of the region, and then one day you die, your kids fight over the land, and it becomes politics as usual. Even your power can't stop that."

    "We can teach them to work," Elruin suggested. "Maybe hire some teachers."

    "Some, maybe, but what work do you give to people with no magical potential?" Lemia asked. "Without magical bloodlines, they're not even worth making slaves from. And before you ask, yes, certain nobles have tried the obvious solution. It appealed to nobody except a certain type of nobleman. You won't find those books in the city libraries, I promise that."

    Elruin wasn't quite certain what the 'obvious' solution was, but if others did, then what hope did she have of fixing the world when they couldn't? Maybe she could use her dollies to run farms to feed people, but everyone seemed to think that was a terrible idea. The more she studied the subject, the more she agreed that controlling taint was harder than it looked. She'd need to talk to Scratch about how he accomplished it, some day.

    A day that would have to wait, as she returned to school and had to wait several days for any free time to be available, which she chose to spend with Cali.

    Suggested Listening

    Lyra was on the roof again, when Elruin arrived that afternoon. The dryad hopped down from her perch, then sniffed Elruin. She looked at the squishy horse toy, then gave it a gentle pet while ignoring Elruin.

    "His name is Mister Squishybones."

    Leya looked at her for a moment, then back to the horse, then jumped back onto the roof. A step in the right direction, considering what she could do if Elruin annoyed her. With the dryad neutral to her presence, Elruin entered the house to find that Cali was up and walking.

    "I heard you had a busy week," Cali said. "When did you pick up a healing spell?"

    "It was Lemia who did most of the work. She's one of my classmates, who wants to be an alchemist. All I did was provide power." Elruin looked down. "Did I do something wrong, again?"

    "Wrong? No, not at all." Cali stopped to lean against a wall and breathe. "Some of the movers and shakers of the city are nervous about you, but they get nervous any time a mud-hero shows up."

    "What's a mud hero?" This was the first time she'd heard the term.

    "Anyone with high magical potential who doesn't come from one of the ruling families," Cali said. "Especially the ones who go around helping people without official sanction. They hate it when anyone looks better than them. Right about now is when they'd be making their power plays to win your favor and increase their own influence, or attempting to discredit you, or some combination of both."

    "Nobody's been bothering me," Elruin said.

    "Because you were snapped up early," she said. "Any move on you now could be seen as an attack on me, my family, and the College. And your stunt last week made all of us look good, so they'll be keeping an eye out for you. Plus, Lady Juna's staked her interest in you. You're not untouchable, but if you remain a stable quantity, the worst you have to worry about are nobles watching you for a means to ingratiate themselves with our future leaders. And all the betrothal offers."

    Which would explain why Lady Juna showed up so soon after she got arrested. "Betrothal offers? You mean marriage? What do I do?"

    "Sort of." Cali moved over to one of the large, soft, mostly-moss chairs for a seat. "You do nothing, right now. Since you're so young, the protocol is that families of boys around your age shall approach me to arrange play-dates for you. They figure even if possible marriage never occurs, at least it means networking and contacts for their brat once you're older and taking apprenticeships and leadership roles."

    "Then I get married?"

    "If you want, but I'm not forcing the issue," Cali said. "My parents and siblings want me to, but I told them to go visit the farmsteads and find their own wild talents to auction off if it's that important. And I told the suitors that for now I want you pursuing your education, then we'll worry about suitors. Smarter that way, if you can keep your value going up over time. How would you like to marry a prince? Do they still tell those fairy tales about poor girls marrying princes these days?"

    "Sometimes," Elruin said. "My sisters all wanted to marry princes. I never thought about it."

    "Well, if you keep up like you have been, you might have to think about it. Or maybe one of the Heir Potentials, or one of their children at any rate. It will be years before we have to worry about any of that, but what do you think?"

    Elruin considered it for a moment. "I came over to see how you were doing? Are you feeling better?"

    "I know, and I don't know." Cali admitted. "They've finished bringing Crela back, I'll be there tonight when she's ready to wake up, and I've been doing everything I can think of to not think about it. How do I tell her? What do I tell her? No, I don't expect you to have any answers, I just wish I had some."

    "Here," Elruin set Mister Squishybones in Cali's lap. "Take him with you, he can give Crela a hug."

    Cali snorted. "Wouldn't that be a sight to behold." She put an arm around the toy nonetheless. "Thanks, I'm sure Crela will get a laugh out of it, if nothing else."

    Elruin had to leave not long after, to let Cali go to her friend. Elruin returned to campus to do more study and work. She would have to wait another week to get Mister Squishybones back, but she knew Cali needed him more than she did right now. So after getting her prized toy back, and making sure Cali was feeling better, Elruin took the time to go out by herself.

    She was known, now, with people looking at her wherever she went. Healers were common, healers that could handle as many people as she had that week were not, and ones as young as her were unheard of. She had no understanding of what a celebrity was, but for now she was a celebrity in town, if a minor one. For now, however, she wanted to walk the wall looking for a vulnerability, some means to sneak back inside if she had Lemia help her sneak out.

    Options were minimal, at best. Even in the poor side of town, the wall was designed to withstand assaults from mages, dragons, and armies alike. Even if she found a vulnerability in the wall, there was the half-mile of open prairie between the wall and the forests which she didn't know how she could sneak across. Perhaps at night, perhaps with her magic and sarite, she might get close. She had little hope...

    Suggested Listening

    She spotted the threat moments before the guards atop the tower. Streaks of white flame, pure creation magic slammed into the magical shields that protected the city from the skies. The energy was warped, forced into a new form by the power of a song not unlike Lyra and the shelter. The shield, the city, changed in response to the magic.

    The sky turned orange, then a face formed in the sky. He was a grim man who looked much like Lord Garit, with the same eyes and green hair, though he had a beard. One of his eyes was missing, replaced by a burnt-orange orb which glowed with power, highlighting the fresh scar from the wound which took that eye. At first glance, it appeared to be a one-way projection and nothing more, though the power needed to do so at this scale defied her comprehension.

    "I am King Claron ne Enge, leader of the Liberation Army. To the citizens, the captives, of Arila, I bid you lay down your arms and hide in your home. We are your protectors, and will not harm those of you who do not harm us."

    People muttered in the street, uncertain of what to make of the situation but also unconcerned. To them, the wall was inviolable, and the madman with his declarations was little more than amusing street theater. Elruin knew better- whatever he was, he had access to a scale of magic which could destroy the wall, if he so desired. Worse, the warped bubble was blinding people to the outside world, and all the bodies approaching the city from outside. A thousand soldiers, maybe more, would be at the wall soon.

    She began to run, with the full strength of her new speed-boosting air shard.

    "To my kin, the so-called nobility, the jailers of Arila, I demand your unconditional surrender. Your ill-gotten gains shall be confiscated in the name of the people, and you will be allowed to live amongst those you look down upon. You don't want to resist. You know me, you know what I will do to you."

    Elruin kept running, back to safety, back to friends. She didn't know from which direction the attack would come, but she knew there was no time to spare.

    "To the priests of Arila, know that I am blessed by our Emperor God Enge, Himself." The projection enlarged on Claron's face, specifically the object in his eye socket. "This great artifact is a representation of Enge's own will and power. The unworthy would be struck down by touching it, yet I stand stronger than ever before. All who resist are traitors to the church and to the crown."

    It had been a long time since Elruin ran so hard it hurt, but she hurt and yet she kept running. There wasn't time, there wasn't-

    The earth rumbled, as Claron displayed a similar level of power as the projection. Small mountains rose up around the city, dozens of long ramps which allowed the enemy's army to march right to the shield, and step inside. Those guards on the walls found themselves outnumbered and overwhelmed by an army that appeared out of nowhere through the barrier.

    Enemies started dropping into the city, using magic to launch themselves off of the walls and into combat range of the patrolling officers. Those who dropped their weapons, who showed no resistance, were spared by the Ghosts of Sorvel as they took position in the main streets of the city. It was clear that the ghosts would win with the advantage of surprise on their side, along with the power which Claron held and the larger, bulkier creatures which moved up the ramps he'd made. Soon, there would be monsters in the city.

    The city, or some part of it, fought back, dying and killing in the streets against these outsiders who came to take their homes. Elruin estimated she was a match for any two, maybe three of these fighters at a time on either side.

    She was out of time, and far from safety.


    =====

    Magical Eugenics... This story is a fantasy reskin of cyberpunk, isn't it?

    This is me showing the readers some of the reasons of the rebellion, and a taste of the path Elruin might have walked if she signed up with the Ghosts of Sorvel, instead of the nobility. No heroes, no villains, just people willing to kill and die for incompatible ideals.

    Side note- ius primae noctis - the supposed practice of lords to have sex with women on their wedding night- there is absolutely no evidence of such a practice ever having happened in reality. It appears to be a fiction popularized by 16th century "enlightenment" writers to attack the prior system(s).

    Also, I'm getting the feeling that nobody cares about my music selections. :'( But I'm liking "The White Stag" for Calenda's theme. Still loving Claron's theme music.
     
    Last edited: Feb 17, 2019
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 30
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Elruin weaved her way forward, toward the main gates. Cali's house wasn't far from the barracks, the two places she was most likely to be. Nearby, one of the soldiers was dealing with two opponents. They didn't see Elruin approach from behind, nor did they expect the black bursts of energy that pierced their skulls from behind.

    She had to admit their armor was impressive, though. If she hadn't had surprise on her side, they might have still been standing. Wherever they got this equipment from, it was superior to what the city guards wore. She resolved to ask Juna what the policy was on taking equipment off enemy soldiers, instead of bandits. Or not-quite-dead soldiers, as was the case with the two brain damaged men on the ground before her.

    She didn't have time to take anything now, so she kept running toward where she hoped to find Cali.

    As she ran, she took the opportunity to make pot-shots against any of these invaders that wasn't paying attention. Some fell, others remained standing, she didn't waste the time to see what happened to them next nor was she prepared when a fist came out of nowhere.

    She didn't realize what had happened until she was laying in the dirt, with a dagger wedged into her stomach. Her first thought was how disappointed Cali would be that she ruined yet another outfit. She saw another dagger coming for her, so she brought her hands up, and was rewarded with a knife now sticking into her arm. Better there than the face it would have hit if her reflexes had been slower.

    With little choice, she sang, and blanketed the area in darkness. In the inky blackness, she was safe, though she knew she was drawing attention.

    Agony in her guts, she shifted just enough to avoid a third dagger. She'd seen a fighting style like this before, with Calenda, though this guy didn't seem to have any way to track her in the darkness she created.

    He was, however, invisible to her lifesight.

    In the darkness, she scooted back until she was hiding in the nook under a porch, where at least she was sheltered from flying knives. Hemmed in, she could do little more than wait until someone who could or didn't need to see through her darkness would come. Given what she'd done to several of their men, she doubted she wanted to know what they'd do to her for revenge.

    A thump and the splintering of wood signaled a third knife had been launched. She didn't have time to waste.

    She gripped the weakened air sarite in one hand, and the knife in her stomach. Clenching her eyes, she began to drink of what little remained of the shard's life-giving strength, then yanked the dagger out of her stomach as hard as she could. She cried out in pain and directed the healing magic as best she could to stop the bleeding.

    Wounded, exhausted, but unlikely to die in the next few minutes, she watched two life signatures approach the shell of darkness she'd crafted. A burst of flame streamed through, dispelling much of the unnatural shadow before it struck the building she hid beneath. They were going to burn her out. She'd have to run, while wounded and being pursued, or she'd stay here and die in the fire.

    She glanced around, and chose the most bizarre of third options. Singing the song of anger and rage that she developed using squirrels, on yet another squirrel. The animal was agitated and terrified by the conflict going on around them, so she played on those emotions by reducing the fear and increasing the hate in the rodents tiny mind.

    "Merat!" It pounced out of its tree upon the woman soldier. Enraged by magic, the little rodent proved its nut-eating teeth were for more than just show by biting deep into her eye-socket.

    When her partner turned to help, Elruin fired another death bolt at his back. Not enough to kill this one, but it slowed him down long enough for the squirrel to escape his grasp.

    Another crack-pop of wood, another knife. This one, however, hummed with magic.

    Elruin scrabbled away, right before the dagger exploded into thousands of tiny fragments of metal. They pelted her back, no single one deadly, but only because they hit her back instead of her eyes. Worse, the shattered wood that was formerly the stairs to the porch had been reduced to tattered remnants of that couldn't slow down further attacks and would burn fast once the flame reached it.

    She changed tracks, just some, and sang to her other mind-altering magic, amplifying the power of the shell of darkness she created. It spread outward while she poured everything she had into it. Those with weak minds screamed, retreated. She scrambled from her smoldering hiding place with the hope that the knife-thrower was amongst them.

    The squirrel, driven to preternatural hatred toward all things bipedal, ignored the effect and went for the other victim in easy reach. He, too, screamed when the animal reached his face. He grabbed the animal by the tail, tried to swing it away, only for it to bite his finger and use the momentum to wind up on his back. It ran back around, and up into the protective helmet. More screaming, as another eye was claimed by the demon-rodent.

    She felt a flicker of energy, then sensed a figure appear. Alive, but exhausted to the point of near-death by abuse of magic. She wasn't in much better shape, metal needles wedged in her back, leaving her back wet with blood while the pain in her stomach was not going to go away soon. Perhaps she should have broken the weak shard down for a permanent healing potion, it would have made her life so much easier.

    A surprising burst of speed and power came from the wounded man, who caught her, gripping both her arm and her throat. She tried to kick away, but even wounded, it was still the strength of an adult man against that of a child.

    His song was full of destructive energy, necromantic energy at that. She felt it wrap around her, try to invade her body and rip away her living energy. It licked at her skin, but failed to find purchase save to attempt to steal power from her sarite.

    He realized his mistake one second too late, as Elruin tapped into her magic and gave him everything he asked for and more. Life and death were entwined forces of reality, more alike than different. Nothing could live without death, nothing could die without life, and the use of a vampiric attack on someone who radiated death energy was suicide.

    His mouth opened, a silent scream followed moments later by his lips cracking and falling apart like cheap concrete. Dessicated tissue crumpled away like old mud, leaving behind nothing but a skeleton crumbled into mess of dust, a number of thin knives, armor Elruin couldn't hope to wear, and one shimmering black crystal.

    In spite of her injuries, Elruin grabbed the newborn sarite shard, the first she'd ever seen come from a human. It was a cold, gluttonous thing that would not stop trying to steal her life energies, but it might prove useful. She kept it in a pouch away from her other sarite, just in case.

    As the darkness trailed after the wounded necromancer, a blood-soaked squirrel squinted in the restored light. It reached into the helmet of its own victim, and pulled out the remaining eye. It, too, had been hardened by the power of pain and necromancy, and it was delicious. It went to gather the remains of the other eye for later, as squirrels were known to do.

    Suggested Listening

    In another part of the city, the enemy converged on the green, preparing a united front against their defenders. Dozens of men and women, numerous mages, and two dozen of the gigantic coyote-like beasts known as morks.

    "Men!" The leader of this group shouted to his side, while his female partner stood, arms crossed, the social nicety to their female soldiers that his orders were also her orders. "Form up and create a line around the temple. Do not attack unless attacked, as the Great King Claron has offered amnesty to the priesthood who does not resist." It was an egotistical fiction, the belief that this cluster of rabble stood a chance against an accomplished priesthood. Their goal, instead, was to prevent civilians from retreating to the sanctuary of the church, lure the defenders out, and give justification to future retaliation against the church.

    An old woman walked tall and without fear toward them. "Excuse me, child, you're in my way." She addressed him in the crudest way possible that couldn't be called obscene.

    It was a provocation, and one he had to answer or lose face before all his men.

    The morks saw the trap for what it was, though they could not guess the particulars. "Dangerous." "No fear." "Smells of ambush." "Illusion?" "Impossible." Not known for bravery, they began to back away from the rest of the team.

    "Cowards!" The commander faced the woman, sword drawn. "Leave now, hag, or taste steel."

    "After twelve children, all of whom thought to make their poor beloved mother gratitude meals, I'm sure I've tasted far worse." She stepped closer. "You should take better care of your blade. When was the last time you oiled hunk of rust? And my dear Urst would have a word to say about your poor form." She knew nothing about sword quality or combat forms, she never had, but she did know how to insult a man to violence.

    "Silence!" He brought his sword up in a wide arc, a showy attack rather than an efficient one, so all his men could see the blade when it stopped with a hollow thud against a childlike face.

    Rena smiled at the poor, foolish man. "That was the worst mistake you could have made."

    Lyra was not sapient, but she recognized when someone tried to harm her human. A casual swipe of her hand sent the sword, and limb which held it, sailing off toward the wall. The metal of his armor was gossamer to her talons.

    He screamed, and one of the mages in the crowd made the mistake of launching a burst of lightning at the ancient dryad. Electricity still dancing through her eyes, Lyra hissed at the offending mage, and came to the conclusion that these annoying strangers were unwelcome in her lair. Her hiss expanded outward, became a call to all living things in the city. She was their queen, they were loyal servants.

    She smelled the scent of the necromancer who was friends with her human on some unusual beasts, and determined they would be left unharmed by her commands. Otherwise, all strangers were to be driven from her territory.

    Clouds of insects moved to intercept everyone that smelled of those in front of Lyra, biting and stinging as they could. Most would die in moments, scoured even by weak magic, but in many cases they were the distraction the defenders needed to retaliate. The wind turned arrows back upon those who fired them, pebbles moved beneath their feet, and the horses and war dogs turned upon their masters. Dozens fell, not knowing why nature itself had risen against them.

    Those who stood before her suffered a much crueler fate, when her power rushed through the greenery beneath their feat. Each blade of grass now straighter, stronger, and sharper than any blade of steel. They fell screaming, their feet pierced whether they wore leather or steel shoes. Hands and legs shredded when they, too, met the deadly grass.

    Wounded, maimed, and crippled they were reduced to laying in grass that showed no mercy by allowing them to survive. They would not die, but they would never be able to care for themselves again in their lives. The poison added by the dryad would render healing magic useless upon them forever.

    Those that remained standing annoyed the sadistic bug-plant-monster. With a whisper to the wind, and a sweep of her hand, dozens of leaves shook loose from a nearby elm. Each shot forward with the speed and accuracy of an arrow, slicing their way through armor, flesh, and bone. Those who were standing joined their crippled comrades in the dirt.

    Lyra stood amidst the pile of bleeding, dying bodies while watching the morks flee for the walls with tails literally between their legs. The beasts were just that, beasts, mere creatures of the wild who knew their place in the hierarchy of the natural world. She was the apex predator, they were intruders in her den, and what led them to this place was less important to them than their lives. She would allow them to live, so the stink of their fear would dissuade other beasts from intruding upon her domain.

    Besides, a more powerful beast by far approached. Lyra kicked up a storm of flower pollen, leaves, and bugs to defend her in a cloud of choking death, then turned her head to face the coming threat.

    Suggested Listening

    Claron struck like a comet through the cloud, flaming armor burning away anything that came close to him. His sword struck out, blocked by Lyra's forearm, while the land beneath their feet cracked with the force of the impact. For those few close enough to view the clash, it must have looked absurd to witness a small child holding back the full power swing of an adult man in heavy armor.

    To those who comprehended a fraction of Lyra's power, it was terrifying. The ground had shifted to support the dryad, because she could not stand against the blow without assistance.

    She rushed forward, lashing out with claws while being fended off by Claron's shield. He was on the defensive, but he was a forge mage, a powerful defense was his comfort zone. The shared shockwave of their collision, and the earth magic both called upon to serve them sent ripples across the physical and magical battlefield.

    Pops and snaps signified that the city would cave before either of them did, as a segment of the wall collapsed into a pile of rubble. The sarite shield flickered, weakened but still functional. Both Lyra and Claron decided they could not afford to continue using such attacks; there were beasts in the wilds which matched them in in power, which would come if they drew this out too long.

    Claron swung, Lyra leapt out of the way, and the earth exploded beneath their feet. Claron stumbled back, blinded in the plume of dust and rock.

    Lyra did not need her eyes to fight. She could hear him, she could feel him, and she could smell him. She rushed in, taking enough time to move into a flanking position. Claron howled in pain when her talon slid through his side, rupturing his kidney and leaving her venom inside.

    Then her skin erupted into flame, the man's blood converted into magma powered by expended and lose life essence. The flame spread, grew, and Lyra made the decision that any wild animal in a trap would make: she severed the burning limb from her body.

    The two spun to face one another again. Claron bleeding down his back, while Lyra had her arm amputated at the elbow. As initial exchanges went, Claron suffered the worse for it, but neither was in a strong position.

    Claron glanced around at the gathering forces- allies and enemies alike. He liked to think of himself as a smart man, and one who knew when he was about to make a mistake. He felt he could win against this unholy beast, but doing so would leave him exhausted and vulnerable even to the mere mortals who waited for their chance to strike. Retreat, too, would ruin morale and leave that dryad to continue her rampage through his people. They were the deciding pieces of the battlefield, they would determine the war's outcome.

    He drew upon the depths of his reserves, and the spell he hated more than any other. Sacrificial Flame. His blood erupted into energy, his wounds translated into enhanced magical strength, and the power ripped through his body. He would survive the spell, if exhausted. He was confident the dryad would as well, though he would be happy if proven wrong. The spectators would retreat to a further distance or die.

    He expended his most powerful ability to claim just one life, but it was the one that mattered. Lyra now stood near the other side of the battlefield, her flesh charred by the power of Sacrificial Flame, but it was charcoaled remains of a skull in her hand which had been his goal.

    Lyra held what little remained of her former human. To her, the battle was over, and she'd lost. Still missing a limb, she walked away from the battlefield to find her new human.

    To the men and women who witnessed this event, the battle had only just begun. A stream of lightning in the shape of a woman bolted across the molted soil that had once been a park. Her blade struck Claron's, and he shook in place as all the energy rushed through him to discharge into the ground. "Ugh!" He gasped, but managed to parry the next blow with his shield. "A fine hello, Sister."

    "Traitor!" Juna kicked out, slamming his shield, but it was her knocked back by the force of the blow.

    "Traitor? I am the Chosen of Emperor Enge!" Still bleeding, Claron readied his defense. "To defy me is to defy your god!"

    "Let's test that theory, shall we?" Lord Garit walked onto the crunching glass of the battlefield. "A gamble. The Lords of Arila against a wounded so-called chosen one. If we lose, we acknowledge Enge has chosen you. If we win, you die a dog's death."

    Claron grinned at his sibling's offer. "I admit, I'd be disappointed if this went any other way."


    =====

    ...I don't often do cliffhangers, but when I do...

    Squirrels. Truly the most vicious animal in the woods if given the slightest provocation. Except badgers. Those bastards don't even need an excuse.

    Knife Grenades. If they existed, every military on earth would use them. And they really do have grenade potential... Elruin's enhanced durability is the only reason she's alive right now.

    Funny thing is, if the votes had gone to one of the combat schools, this fight would have been almost a non-issue at this point, of the "go ahead, keep inflicting paper cuts" variety. But then we wouldn't have a squirrel literally eating human eyes right now.

    And then there's Lyra... The power of a dragon. The personality of a cat. And what does a cat do to mice? Do Not Fuck With Lyra. That is all.

    The battle between Claron and Lyra plays out more or less identically no matter what path Elruin takes in the story. Other consequences of this war change based on lots of things (including which side of the conflict Elruin stands on), but this is going to be the "first big cinematic" of the game.

    Investigator: Show us on the doll where the bad man touched you...
    Elruin: Here, here, especially here, and... is something wrong?
    Investigator: Sorry, it's just that usually when I do this, it's not with remains of the man who did the touching.
     
    Last edited: Feb 18, 2019
  23. Threadmarks: Episode 2, Chapter 31
    TanaNari

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    The earth shook beneath Elruin's feet, while the elemental magics screamed in her ears. She stumbled at the pain which overwhelmed that of her back, stomach, and arm. Such power went beyond imagination and into insanity. For a moment, she lost control of her magic and her muscles, collapsing to her knees.

    The local infrastructure wasn't doing much better than the necromancer. As she struggled to her feet, a nearby building collapsed at the foundation. Six glowing auras that were human beings flicked out of existence in a heartbeat, a dozen wounded, and another dozen trapped in what they had hoped was their sanctuary.

    Elruin forced herself to walk, drew upon the power of the fresh dead to restore her magic enough to bring her defenses back up.

    Moments later, her shadows were cut away by the sweep of a guisarme and searing hot air. "Die, de-" The woman, clad in heavy armor of gemstone blue, hesitated for a second upon seeing Elruin without the benefit of concealing shadows. "You're a child!"

    "Please, let me go," Elruin pleaded. "I need to find Cali."

    "No." Her hands tightened on the blade. "Child or not, you've killed too many of us, already."

    Elruin sang to her magic, calling up the shadows to protect her, met with the same fate as the last. This woman's magic was air and fire, normally mages of that sort were fragile, which might explain her heavy armor.

    Elruin took a step back, then fired off a bolt of energy, and another.

    The first, she sidestepped, the other she cut with her weapon.

    She's testing my abilities. Elruin recognized the careful tactic; she was being distracted and slowed, contained, while the battle raged around them. "I don't want to fight you."

    "I'd ask you to surrender to my custody, promise you fair treatment as a prisoner, but we both know that's not possible." The armored woman's weary voice was a whisper, but one Elruin could hear as if it was next to her. "You've killed too many, too identifiably. Emerit wasn't much older than you. Do you even care about the people who died?"

    At this distance, Elruin didn't know if she could hit the woman, and didn't want to waste power on missing time and time again. "We didn't ask you to attack our home." She started walking toward the front of the city, where Cali would be found. If her enemy got closer, then they would fight.

    "No, but you serve those who attacked ours." A healthy adult woman required no effort to chase a wounded child, as unhappy as the prospect of of executing her was. "You're too wounded to run, too exhausted to fight. Lay down your arms and I promise a quick, painless death." She fought down the bitterness. "It's more mercy than you've shown your victims."

    Elruin tapped into her sarite, for the dust storm it could generate. Dirt and debris kicked up, hiding her with something tangible, rather than the ephemeral darkness that was her natural ability.

    The woman did nothing but step closer, her weapon pointed at Elruin. Then she whirled, bringing her weapon up where it made the sharp clang of metal striking metal.

    Elruin guessed it was an arrow or crossbow bolt, but what was more important was that it put her off her guard, so Elruin fired a pulse of energy at the now distracted enemy. It struck home, some of it even got through her armor, but this was a health and trained mage of no insignificant power, much stronger than her enemies thus far.

    "Oof." She twirled back on the necromancer. "I'd accuse you of dishonor, but I am about to murder a child. That you deserve it for your actions notwithstanding."

    She moved with shocking speed, for someone in heavy armor. Elruin had thought the metal-clad warriors would be slow, but not this one. Another bolt of death energy was sidestepped, and only slowed the woman's advance.

    The swing from the guisarme should have been a decapitating strike, but instead Elruin was treated to the foul smell of sweaty unwashed canine underbelly, and the cackling howl of an enraged beast.

    A quick snap, and the weapon broke in two. The mork bolted forward, slamming into the woman and getting a grip on her helmet with his teeth. A burst of flame seared the beast's mouth, burned away its tongue.

    Elruin felt the additional energies of the mork, that of undeath and the sonnet of synchronized power that bolstered her magic in this churning sea of magical chaos. She drew both her hands together, and expended what was left of her strength into the chest of the woman who had almost ended her life. Struggling ceased, and both the woman and Elruin dropped.

    "Just a little longer," Scratch said. His mork body bled profusely, and its mouth was so mangled that Elruin could understand his words only through the power of Requiem. The mork rested next to Elruin. "There is still life in your body, use it to climb up."

    Elruin had to pull on his fur to drag herself to her feet, then struggle her way up on the beast's back. Once his passenger had her grip, Scratch began walking away from the barracks. "Wait. Cali..."

    "Lost cause, kid," Scratch said. "My oath was me first, you second, everyone else distant third if ever. She'll have to find her own way. We need out of the city while there's a chance. Even that's pushing our luck."

    The sky flickered, the sky replaced by the warped dome of a human face. Lord Garit, his formerly handsome now face bloodied and wounded, was visible to the city from above. "People of Arila, I am Lord Garit. On my mother's behalf, I order you to lay down your arms."

    "Merat! Coward!" Scratch didn't care so much about the cowardice, only that it was inconvenient for him and his half-formed plans to escape with the child necromancer that anchored him to sanity.

    "The shelter," Elruin mumbled. Gripping the coarse, wiry fur of the mork was the most effort she could exert at the moment. "It's got nonviolence magic. They can't hurt us, not there."

    "Why don't you ask me to walk into a hell made of flaming dung? At least then I can laugh at everyone else trapped with me." Complaint vocalized, the mork began a swift retreat to the poor side of town, a trail of blood behind it.

    Lord Garit continued his surrender speech. "The battle has been lost. I beseech you, do not add to the tragedy by continuing a hopeless resistance."

    Only a handful of people had the power to keep up with a mork at full run, and those had exhausted themselves fighting other, more immediate, threats. Or were still dealing with the holdouts who refused to surrender. A wounded mork was something to be dealt with later.

    Half-aware, Elruin watched the heart of the mork dying a slow death to injury and the creep of taint through its bones. It accelerated faster in the mork than it had in the man from before. She would have to consider what caused this when she wasn't so tired.

    "Enge's Guard, I have given my Oathbond, as has Lady Juna and Duchess Erta, that there will be peace. Our new ruler, King Claron, has given his Oathbond that the prisoners of war will be treated well, and peacefully released."

    Soon, they were at the shelter, screams of fear and confusion elicited by those of the poor district who were thus far spared much of the violence. Perhaps the only upside of having no wealth, no power, and no strategic value: there was no need for the invaders to subjugate them.

    Suggested Listening

    The mork stopped right upon passing through the barricade, then backed away and collapsed on the less restrictive side. "Go, I'm fine here." The worst case, where Scratch was concerned, was the death of a body he cared nothing for. He'd long ago lost count of how many bodies he'd destroyed over the centuries.

    Elruin slid down the beast's back, miserable about the need to walk, but happy to get away from the stench of unwashed coyote-monster.

    Above them, the face changed, to that of Claron. He held up his hand, showing the magical ink of the official seal of Arila. To those educated on the subject, they knew it should include the magical signature of a voluntary Oathbond. Some closer to the action might also note the lack of blemish and scar on his body, save that of the eye socket and the artifact that it held.

    "I have sworn to protect the citizens of Arila. My citizens. Know that you are all under my protection, and my oath to do what is best for all of you. Those who have fought have done so honorably. Surrender, accept your peacebonds, and you will not be punished for your resistance to this moment. Continue to resist, and know the fate of all murderers and traitors."

    A handful of the shelter residents approached her, once it became clear the half-dead mork would be staying behind on the dirt path. Some eyed it, considering that it was more food than most of them had ever seen at one time, then decided that they weren't that hungry.

    Carried by two girls a little older than her, Elruin was brought near the central pillar.

    Grandmother gasped when she saw the girl. "We don't have a healer, but we'll do what we can."

    They laid Elruin face-down on a table, then went through a long, slow process of pulling shards of metal from her back. "I don't know how you survived those wounds. Erra, get the salve. If we can hold out long enough, maybe a healer will get to us." Grandmother hated herself for lying, but she did so for the sake of all the children here, including the one who might bleed to death on a table.

    Erra arrived soon, carrying a brackish tarlike substance made mostly of pine sap.

    "I know, this stuff feels disgusting, but it will help you," Erra said. Using a wood spoon, she began the slow, careful process of coating the child's back to seal all the wounds she suffered in her battles. "Relax, you're safe now."

    "Thank you." Elruin mumbled, but it wasn't her she was worried about. She wondered where Cali was, if she was alright, and hoped that Lemia would forgive her for going to save her other friend instead.

    Shouting interrupted Elruin's treatment, which had just moved to her stomach.

    A man, Lord Claron, marched into the field of peace, straight for the girl. In person, he seemed both more and less than he had been in the sky-illusion. He was tall, muscular, and reminded Elruin all too much of Father in spite of having almost the opposite hair and beard color. "You are Elruin. You will come with me."

    Elruin looked him in the eye, defiant; he was the man who kept her from Cali and hurt so many. "Merat ne."

    "That was not a request, child." In here, he could not directly threaten, but he was imposing and powerful. "Emperor Enge himself demands you to be taken before his holy presence and sacrificed."

    "But why?" Elruin gasped with everyone else. Did Enge know about Scratch, or Clackybones? She knew others thought the undead were bad, but she didn't think she'd done anything so wrong that a god would seek her death. "You have an Oathbond to serve all citizens of Arila."

    "Because that is what Enge demands," Claron stated. "I did not ask for particulars. I would throw down my life if it means his happiness, as would all true citizens of the empire. Enge's will is Arila, and all who live here. Show your devotion to your lord, come willingly, and accept your fate with the joy that all should feel in the name of serving their god."

    "I don't believe you!" Elruin began to tap into the power of the shelter, or the power trapped beneath it. She couldn't use it as a weapon, but she could make herself look intimidating.

    "Then I see now why Enge demands your death," Claron drew his sword. "You are a traitor and a heretic before our god." His Oathbond pulsed, displeased with him violating his promise to serve the interests of Arila, but it settled itself in moments. Claron was a holy warrior, doing as Enge instructed, and he believed that serving his god was serving Arila, its citizens, and all other cities and good people of the empire.

    That settled, he made a handful of mental calculations as he considered his next move. Severing the magic which forced peace upon this place would be difficult, but not impossible with the powers his god granted him. Taking the child would require little effort after, even if she wasn't wounded.

    The roiling necromantic power that would be unleashed in breaking the pillar, however, would kill hundreds before it could be plugged. More likely than not, the girl he was meant to take alive would not survive. He could not risk her death, but he could take her measure without provoking the peace of their shelter.

    She was tough, an earth mage and a decent one at that. "All those who hide here, know that you may make your choice. In five minutes my archers will pelt this shelter with arrows, flee from this place or die."

    This Elruin would survive, so long as he specified to use only wooden practice arrows. Everyone else would have to flee from the pillar.

    "Enge would never kill a child!" Erra stepped in front of the young necromancer, shaking in rage with tears running down her face. "You don't serve our lord! You serve a fake, an impostor, a monster that murders children!"

    The young woman punched Claron, an act that was possible only because she knew she had no ability to harm him. She could hit him until her hands were nothing but bloodied stumps, and it would not cause a bruise on his skin, let alone when he was in his armor.

    "Then you die as-"

    In that moment, Lyra appeared from nowhere, standing next to Erra. Devout, brave, willing to die for what she believed was right, and who had lived a life of helping others. The dryad found her new person, and woe to any who would threaten her.

    Claron hesitated, reassessed his calculations. To order his men to fire upon Lyra's pet would be to order a suicide attack. Only he possessed the strength to fight that killing machine. With him wounded, and the magic of the tower, he knew he would lose the rematch.

    "Very well." He stepped back, then projected his voice to the crowd. "Know that this is the traitor's prison! Those who leave now are free to go, those who remain commit the greatest of all sins! Treason against our God and Emperor! All who provide succor, aid that treason. Those that remain, can stay here until they starve!"

    Claron walked away, while his men remained behind setting up barricades. It may have been the first time in history that a siege began after the city was taken, but this was the will of their king, and they would obey for the sake of the future they dreamed of.


    =====

    The. Plot. Thickens.

    This chapter makes me sad because Kisadra died without the players even knowing her name. She and Emerit are companion characters in other routes. I promise you, they're quite amicable when they're not trying to kill you. Kisadra would be the frontline tank, while Emerit takes a more stealth-glass cannon role. In the Ghosts path, they're amongst the group Elruin can train with to bring up her skills rather than the schools of the Imperial path.

    I like both characters. Kisadra, despite being a rather destructive and energetic element, is perhaps the most stereotypically "earth aspect" personality in the entire game, teaching a cautious and defensive combat style. Emerit, a bit of a prankster type, who has an emotional breakdown after the Siege of Arila- he isn't much older than Elruin, and this is the first time he's ever had to kill.

    Erra's a character that is a potential friend on many paths, but only recruitable on the Respite/Church oriented path of the game, but I don't see her being a boss fight. Having her as a companion does mean having Lyra as a party member in the late game. It comes with a lot of opportunity costs in other areas, including having to spend two "companion slots" for the sake of one combatant... is she worth two party members? Yeah, probably. Is she worth two members and all the other stuff? Well, I hope to make that 'debatable'. Certainly, a path that players won't feel too put out by pursuing. Also, scenes of Lyra purring while getting scratches.

    This particular set of scenes in the game are part of a 'challenge gauntlet' where our hero fights/stealths/others her way through progressively more difficult battles, and is granted rewards based upon how far she gets.

    Yes, Cali *could* have been saved. Would have required either A: more combat training, or B: consuming some of Elruin's stash of sarite to replenish power and health... would have cost quite a bit of it, true, but it could have happened. My voters chose a different path. Actions (or Inactions) and Consequences. They are the backbone of my storytelling.

    And this is yet another scene where the game will have to censor the fact that Elruin's partially undressed for the sake of medical necessity.
     
  24. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 32
    TanaNari

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    Watching Claron leave, Elruin considered the situation for a moment. Stepping forward, an act which hurt less than it had in the moments before Lyra arrived, Elruin shouted at the retreating conquerer. "Wait!" It still hurt to shout, or to breathe at all, but it was easier. "The people here have nowhere else to go! You'll give them a place to stay, food and shelter. Or..."

    She didn't have much leverage, save that he wanted her alive. "Or I'll kill myself. Then what will you do?" For unknown reasons that theologians and preachers loved to speculate upon, suicides could not be revived by any known means of resurrection magic.

    "A bluff that I'm tempted to call." Claron stopped, but did not turn to face her. He also used some sort of projection magic to carry his voice far further than a normal voice could carry, let alone the voice of a prepubescent child. "No good person in the city need fear me, nor starvation, nor the elements. I have already set my men to taking control of some of the more opulent homes belonging to the unworthy nobles. Hundreds could live in those mansions, no need for a shanty town and begging for scraps from their former enslavers!"

    This was a man who had spent his life as a statesman, he had confidence, charisma, and a message these starving masses wanted to hear. Elruin was losing the crowd, though she didn't recognize it and couldn't have stopped him if she tried.

    Claron spread his arms, as if to hug those gathered. "All are equal before Enge, our Emperor, and our Ancestor. Those who hoard wealth and food do so by stealing from his blessed people, and by his blessings, I shall bring their tyranny to an end!"

    "You said you were going to fire on them!" Elruin shouted, her little-girl voice small and weak against his.

    "I said I was going to fire on you." Claron showed no emotion save passion. "You, who Enge demands be sacrificed. You, a heretic! I offered everyone else a warning, time to get clear so that you could not hide behind them. I suppose I should commend you for allowing your hostages to go free, but would you have done so if you didn't need them? Now that you have that monster as a shield, the rest are little more than extra mouths to feed."

    "Of course I would let them go anyway!" Elruin shouted. This was getting far enough out of her control that now she could recognize it, and so she did as any child would do and attempted to deflect the conversation elsewhere. "You're afraid of Lyra!"

    "I'm afraid of what happens if it goes out of control, again." Claron spoke to the crowd, rather than the defiant young necromancer. "When we clashed, it was for mere seconds, and it brought down a portion of the wall. I doubt the city could survive the violence necessary to kill that thing."

    The people gasped and murmured at the idea that Claron was strong enough to fight Lyra. Few had direct knowledge of the dryad's power, but the Ecrosian priests regarded her as a being of holy power too great for any mortal to challenge. To say nothing of the idea that a segment of the wall was destroyed by accident alone.

    There would be skeptics who believed he was lying, some might even voice those doubts, but they would find hundreds of witnesses to the battle. This would discredit the doubters, call into question the wisdom of the priests, the claims of Lyra's greatness, and much of their accepted worldview. The answer to this otherwise impossible paradox would soon occur to some priest: Claron was a god. A lesser god, perhaps, but still a being which towered over mortals.

    "Blessed by Enge though I am," Claron said, well aware of the sparks of speculation which would soon become a wildfire. He would have his own spymasters spread the desirable message, if it did not emerge on its own. "Even I cannot protect everyone if the walls go down."

    His position solidified despite, perhaps somewhat because of, those who resisted, it was time to leave. Staying longer would accomplish nothing, and may even risk making him look ineffectual. Using a defiant child as an opportunity for an impromptu speech was quite a different thing than actually arguing with a child.

    He walked away, shouting orders to the men and women under his command as he went. Gods need not concern themselves with the sexes of those they address, for much the same reason humans didn't show such deference to animals. Those leaving the shelter, save the necromancer, would be free to go unharmed. Meanwhile, food and medical supplies confiscated from the city's own nobility would be provided in full view of those hiding behind their magical barrier. He could not attack them directly, so he would sap their morale.

    Many within the bounds of the shelter retreated from an area that was the safest place within the city, but a remarkable number stayed behind. Children without parents to protect them, women who feared Claron's men would take the traditional rewards of a conquering army, men who had nowhere else to go. All had their reasons, and even the insistence of Elruin and Erra was not enough to dissuade them.

    Soon, they were forced to address their situation. Food would last a week, maybe two at this rate, and water was unreliable at best. The one saving grace, such as it was, is that they now had plenty of space to work with and an almost limitless supply of necromantic energy to call upon. Not that Elruin knew how that would be useful in this situation.

    Suggested Listening

    "Grandmother, what shall we do?"

    The camp's unofficial leader looked at the young woman. "I should ask you that, dear. You're in charge, now."

    Erra blinked, starred at the woman. "But this is your camp."

    The old woman smiled. "Lyra has chosen you, dear." She reached toward the dryad, who approached and allowed herself to be scratched on the back of the head. This act seemed enough to reinvigorate the woman. "Guide her hand as Rena failed to do."

    "Hey!" Elruin cut in. "Rena was a nice lady!"

    "Rena was a fine woman, a loving soul who never said a bad word about anyone," Grandmother said to the little necromancer. "But she lacked the ambition to live up to her predecessors. I'm old enough to remember some of Lyra's past minders. They were vigorous, vibrant women of boundless imagination and hope for the future. We need a woman like them, today."

    "But." Erra looked at the dryad, which was content to sit and accept her hair being pet. "I don't want that sort of power."

    Grandmother chuckled. "Child, if you wanted Lyra's power, she would never have chosen you. The dryad has never taken a handler who wanted power. The church likes to keep that a secret. No small number of women start 'discovering faith' when a handler grows old. Some, perhaps, are even genuine in their belief that they can do great good with Lyra's help, but the act of wanting that power places it outside their reach forever. I imagine they wouldn't donate so much time and money if they knew that little secret."

    "You have to," Elruin said. "We need Lyra's help."

    "Now more than ever," Grandmother agreed. "But it must be Erra's decision."

    The two dozen people of two hundred who remained had gathered around to listen to the story, or just to see what the excitement was about. Erra looked out at them: some friends, some family, some strangers, but all had chosen to stay in this prison knowing the risk. "We'll start with what we need most," she said. "We have supplies, but without being able to bring in more timber for warmth we only have so long."

    "I can help!" Elruin said. Fundamental magic wasn't great on the offense, but it could generate basic heat. Besides, she still had a sarite shard which could create lightning.

    Erra nodded. "Medicine won't be needed as long as Lyra's around. Our problems are going to be food and water, which we will run low on, especially if Claron orders his mages to prevent it from raining on our shelter." Erra knelt down behind the little dryad, who was content kneeling in front of Grandmother. "Lyra, if you can understand me, can you give us food and water?"

    The dryad's eyes had never closed, for she had no eyelids, but her head did snap up as she considered the emotions of her new human. She flitted into the sky moments later, while everyone in and out of the forming barricade watched. The soldiers reading their spears and bows, as if such weapons were more than mere cobwebs to be brushed aside.

    She flew like a dragonfly around the central pillar, then moved to the far side of the pillar from the bubble of concentrated death energies.

    The soil rumble beneath their feet, as the song of magic rose in Elruin's ears. Lyra didn't sing, she didn't need to Reveal, she used magic the way humans used their heartbeats. Strings of moss that formed Lyra's hair fell and were caught in a whirlwind until they spiraled all the way to the ground. Then they erupted into life, vines climbing their way up into the sky on invisible trellises.

    The pillars of life spread, found one another, wove themselves together, and created a single wall, a broad and squat hollow tree. Long, narrow branches like those of a willow rolled down, curtains of greenery which pulsed with life energy. Lyra, deciding her work was finished, flew into the jungle of soft branches to take a well-earned nap. Her human could have the rest of the tree, but the boughs belonged to her.

    Within, Elruin could see that there was a living floorplan, hexagonal rooms like those of a bee hive. "There's room inside for everyone," she said. "And I bet those vines are edible, just like they were at Cali's place."

    She didn't know it, but the trunk would serve as excellent insulation, enough that they would rarely need to rely on her power to warm the building. Nor could she know that Lyra also mirrored the techniques of termite colonies to cycle dirty air out and fresh air in. It was a triumph of magical engineering built off the triumphs of natural engineering, a perfect home for her human.

    Erra reminded herself to breathe, and fought down panic. To control power on such a scale was something she imagined belonged only to gods, yet here she stood with such a being at her command. She knew now why Lyra chose people who did not want her power; the ones who did could use her to reshape the world.

    Unable to stop her voice from shaking, she gave orders. "Everyone, help one another move indoors. The elders get the rooms nearest the entrance, children near the back. Healthy adults on the second level, unless you need to stay with a child or elder. And with Lyra here, I think all adults will be healthy soon."

    As they went to work, a large gray canine with a burnt mouth limped toward the entrance. "You make all the most interesting friends."

    Erra stared at the beast, her spell of awe broken in the face of the mangled predator. "Is this... yours?" Mork weren't known for their brilliance, but they were intelligent enough to speak, so she didn't want to be rude.

    "Nah, it's mine," a ghostly black face came up through the eye of the beast. "I'm with her, though. Name's Scratch, 'till I get bored with it. Figure if we're gonna be here a while, I'd better get acquainted with the landlady. While her bodyguard is taking a break."

    "I'm not a lady." In one day, Erra had gone from an unimportant woman who was single because she wasn't important enough to marry, to one of the most powerful people in the empire, with all sorts of supernatural beings showing interest in her. "What are you?"

    "You are, now," Scratch said. "As for what I am? Well, that's a difficult philosophical and thaumaturgical question. What I ain't is a philosopher or thaumaturge, that I can say for certain. Suffice it to say I'm a distant relative of your pet. About as distant as a snake is to a dragon. I'm the snake, if that wasn't obvious by me skulking about in this husk while she's bending nature over like a whore."

    "Scratch is..." Elruin was about to say he was nice, but she knew better. "He's helped me lots. I'm sure he wants to help you, too."

    "Like what, exactly?"

    "First, to clear matters up, I work for Elruin, not you," Scratch said. "But since you were kind enough not to truss her up and hand her over like a fresh goose, I'm willing to help with one thing I know she can't do. I can get messages to and from the outside."

    "You can?"

    "Within reason," Scratch added. "I can't use magic to find people, so you need to be clear where I'm going and who I'm talking to. And while I can sneak past these guards, don't expect me to be getting through the wall, or antimagic prisons. Normal people, normal messages. And I need one promise from you."

    "You like being mysterious, don't you?" Erra asked. "I'm not giving promises without knowing what they are ahead of time."

    "Figured, but had to try," Scratch said. "Just convince your dryad to ignore me, is all. I've met beings like her before, they can get territorial, and trust me when I say I don't stand a ghost of a chance against her. I'll stay over on the opposite side of the camp, you come visit me if you need anything, and we'll pool our resources to fix our problems once and for all. Deal?"

    It wasn't lost on Elruin that the opposite side of the camp was where they kept the sick houses, and thus the pooled death energies.

    Erra, too, recognized where Scratch would be staying, which she considered fine since it was the least desirable part of the camp. Perhaps Lyra could fix it with time, but for now it dry, good-for-nothing soil. "Don't pull anything that hurts us, and you have a deal."

    "Deal, but remember, I'm here with Elruin. Betray her and we'll have problems."

    Erra looked at the dark-haired girl who had done nothing wrong save earn the ire of a violent nobleman with delusions of grandeur. "Don't worry, I won't let anyone hurt her here." With Lyra around, Erra could enforce such a promise. "But I can think of a handful of ways to use your abilities. Starting with Priestess Lissa."


    =====

    Charisma battle between skilled aristocrat with godly powers, and little girl who, while powerful, isn't a freakin' god. It was never a fair competition.

    I've always found "chosen one" tropes to be perhaps the most annoying goddamn thing ever. But... it's kinda fun in a polytheistic animist universe, since there can be dozens of chosen ones, all of whom are working against each other. Hilarity ensues.

    Lyra does as Lyra wants to do.

    In the "planned" layout of this story, the 'shelter' scenes were only intended to be part of the "Angel of Death" story path, where Elruin becomes deeply involved with the church and religious activity. Oh well, I like these scenes so I'm glad to (partially) use them here. But the "plot path" was intended for Scratch to come in and escape the city with Elruin in tow, rather than this.
     
    Last edited: Feb 19, 2019
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 33
    TanaNari

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    "Aight, so here's the deal," Scratch said from his perch in the dead mork's eye. It had been dead from day one, else he couldn't have marched it into the nonviolence zone without losing control. Another of his many, many secrets. "Lissa says they ain't gonna do a thing to help."

    "What? Why!" Erra stepped forward, almost put her hands on the monster, then stepped back. She didn't know it was dead, nor what might provoke it to wake up in spite of Scratch's control. "Lissa was always a friend to us."

    "Yeah, you don't hear what's going on in the streets." Scratch leaned back, as if sitting in a hot tub, instead of a dead monster's eye socket. "Half the city's convinced Claron's a god, some are saying he's a Scion of Enge."

    "That's absurd!" Erra shouted. "He can't be! How do the Truthsayers not see it? How is he not cast out for heresy?"

    "Near as I can tell, he never claimed to be a god or scion. Whenever anyone brings it up in his presence, he says he's nothing more than a servant of Enge. Which doesn't refute the godhood theory, but doesn't support it either. Entek na Arila. Which they eat up like the colon leeches they are. Besides, who's going to cast him out? You are the only person in the city with the power to scratch him."

    Erra looked away in shame. "I can't. I'm... I'm not a warrior. I don't know how to use Lyra in battle."

    "You don't need to," Scratch said. "She can rip his head off on her own, then we can take turns shitting down the neck-hole. Well, you can, I'm somewhat limited in that department."

    Elruin reached her hand over to touch Erra's arm. "It's okay, you don't have to fight. It's better if you don't."

    Erra looked back, a doubting but hopeful look in her watery eyes. "How do you know?"

    "I felt them fight, before." Elruin's voice dropped to a whisper as she remembered how their collision drove her to the ground in pain. "I don't know who's stronger, but Claron wasn't lying about the city being destroyed if they fight again. Everyone else will die."

    "We better listen to her," Scratch said. Everything had gone as he'd planned. "She's Revealed, makes her the expert on gaging magic power. Besides, she knows a lot more about the sarite shields than I do. She's helped fix them before." He propped his little necromancer up without a single lie, or anyone realizing that was his goal all along.

    Erra looked at the necromancer in a new light. With Lyra around, it was sometimes easy to forget there was a host of beings between normal people like herself, and godlike powers like Lyra and Claron. "You know how to fix the walls?"

    "A little," Elruin said. "I helped on the farm where I grew up. Before they tried to feed me to morks."

    "That is messed up." Erra gave a small, self-deprecating chuckle. "Look at me, moping about as if I have problems. Overnight I went from a slum girl wondering where my next meal was coming from, to controlling more power than most queens. People would, have, killed to be in my position."

    She stood. "I'm going to take stock of my so-called kingdom. I guess that makes the two of you my Archmage and spymaster, officially."

    "I can help with farming, too!" Elruin offered.

    "I guess it wouldn't hurt to have some variety to our diet," Erra said. "But unless you know a way to carry seeds in for us, there's nothing to farm here. Maybe Grandmother can help us with some wild herbs, but I'm afraid that's all we have for now."

    "I'd love to help, but I'm notably lacking in bodies that can cross the barricades." Scratch left out the part that if he tried to carry seeds, they'd be killed in minutes. "But as your spymaster, let my first advice be the following: never hire advisors who are more loyal to each other than they are to you. Elruin's one thing, but more regents have died that way than I care to name."

    "How many of them had Lyra?"

    "None that I know of, but plenty had something just as good. Claron reminds me a lot of one that I knew personally. To make the story short, she learned the hard way that when people lick your boots, they're looking up your skirt for a place to shove the knife."

    Erra considered that pearl of wisdom coated in Scratch's usual coarseness. It didn't strike her as too different from some of the drama that happened in the camp, especially where romantic entanglements were concerned. "That is something to consider. Thank you."

    "As I float," he answered back. He watched Erra walk away, then chuckled. "When you do things right, nobody can be sure if you've done anything at all."

    "I don't get it."

    "I'll explain when you're older," Scratch said. "But while we're here, got a message through to Lemia. She's got a way to get us back and forth, but there's one small problem. She can use it once, one way, some sort of teleportation trick that'll get plugged right away. She can get you out, or get some supplies in, whatever you need. Up to you if you want to waste it by telling Erra and getting those seeds, but I say we keep it for an emergency. Eating tree grass never killed anyone, I assume."

    "What's happening at the school? Is Lemia safe?"

    "Yeah, she says she's keeping her head down and her eyes open. Smart girl, keep her around, never trust her. Seems like her classmates are terrified, and some have committed suicide. Also, one of the teachers was arrested, official charge was hoarding wealth, but Lemia thinks they're looking for some big secret or something. She has no idea what."

    Suggested Listening

    "I think I can answer that question." Light and magic warped, shimmered, then unwarped. Calenda stood there in civilian clothes, appearing tired but in one piece. "He's hoping our city contains a clue to how the sarite shields in Engewal were designed. Even with his power, he can't break the capital's defenses without a long, protracted, bloody siege."

    "Cali!" Elruin jumped up, to give the older girl a hug. Her lifesight revealed numerous injuries old and fresh in her elder sister. "Where have you been? Are you okay? What happened? I tried to save you! I'm sorry!" She started to cry.

    "Back away! She's an enemy agent!" Elruin stepped back due to Scratch's warning. She tried to bring up her magic to defend herself, but the power of the peace field prevented it.

    "Are you really Cali?" Elruin didn't think her lifesight could be fooled that way. Hiding from her notice was different from creating an illusion that could make someone else look like her.

    "I knew it wouldn't take long for you to figure it out." Cali slid her sleeve up, to reveal an intricate magical ink pattern on her arm. "To make my own long story short, this is a slave bond. I'd give you three guesses, but you should only need two."

    "I'm going with 'not Claron'," Scratch said. "This doesn't come across as his style. And I bet you don't want to hear congratulations on your marriage."

    "Lord Garit?" Elruin took the time to study the markings as they spoke. She had little experience with mind magic, but it was a very complex script. One which she would like to study, to apply to her dollies some day. For now, she was distracted by the sense of betrayal she felt toward the twins.

    "I'm sorry!" She rushed back to Cali, to hold her and comfort her as best she could. "I tried. to save you! I tried so hard, but there were so many and I was tired and!"

    Cali stroked the back of her head, hesitant but gentle. "I know. I know you tried. Everything will be alright, I promise."

    Elruin clutched Cali harder. "I'm going to find him and make him cry forever!" She wasn't sure how, she knew she didn't have the strength to do so, and even if she did the nonviolence aura made it impossible to imagine how she might accomplish her goal.

    "Don't be too harsh on him," she said. "He did it, in part, to save my life. We both want Lord Claron gone, and so long as we're both alive, we have a chance to make that day come. He hasn't forced me to do anything I didn't want, except the vows themselves."

    "Which brings us to why you're here, right, Sis?"

    "I'm under orders to do everything in my power to get Ell to leave the shelter, so she can be sacrificed to Enge." Calenda forced a smirk. "If that sounds familiar, it's because they based the whole thing off the last time this happened to me."

    Elruin squeezed even harder "I'm so sorry."

    "It's not your fault," she said. "I think I would have stumbled into something like this sooner or later anyway. Garit's wanted me since we were children, and I... may have taken advantage of that fact once or twice. This was his chance, and he took it, but if it wasn't now it would have happened some day.Let us focus on taking advantage of this disaster. Based on the last time this happened, the best way to convince you to leave is to be completely honest with you."

    "That is the most ridiculous loophole," Scratch muttered. "It can't be real."

    "The spell's a sloppy expansion made under imperfect conditions stacked on another sloppy spell made under imperfect conditions. The fact that it functions at all and hasn't driven me insane is a mystery. Or maybe this is normal when it comes to mind control magic. I've sometimes wondered why nobody ever built an army of mind controlled soldiers."

    "Not saying I trust you, but let's start with the obvious question. How much of that Chosen of Enge propaganda does Claron believe? I'd like to know if he's a dangerous fanatic or a dangerous liar. Can't deal with one the way you deal with the other."

    "I don't know," Cali admitted. "From what I understand, he was never all that devout, but that was before he died and received that artifact. Whatever happened then is the key to all of this. I can tell you that his artifact is the real deal, however, a true Treasure of Enge, with all the power and prestige it implies. Anyone Enge deems unworthy will die upon touching it."

    "So he's got Enge's left testicle to replace his eye?" Scratch scoffed. "Ain't the first to glimpse beyond, then come back crazy. Or get hold of powerful artifacts to the same result. A double-whammy could break even a strong mind."

    "What I can't explain, is that Enge usually operates through the priests, or the obsidian pillars. He's never sent messengers before. He wrote notes. The smart decision might be to escape, then march to the Throne ourselves. We can ask Enge directly if he wants Elruin sacrificed."

    "Which, if he does, puts us right there where you can push her into the volcano, huh?"

    Calenda sighed. "It would fulfill the slavebond, true. Or it will be revealed that Enge never wanted Elruin sacrificed, and thus break the slavebond. Either way, I'm free."

    "Which I'm sure Claron is waiting for. If we get past him, we all die on the march up a mountain of monsters," Scratch countered. "Myself excluded, maybe. It's a terrible, terrible idea. Even if we do make it to Enge, if the volcano wants toasted necromancer for dinner, he can climb into his own hole and die! The gods may have power and knowledge to spare, but there's nothing special about them. They have conflicts and wars of their own, they fear death, more than one has even pulled themselves back from death as I have. If a god wants to kill Elruin, let him come do it himself."

    Elruin stared at Scratch for a moment. This was the first she'd ever heard of a god becoming undead, or for that matter dying. It was something she'd need to consider in the future.

    "And violence isn't possible, so I can't try to drag Ell out." Hands trembling, Cali pushed Elruin back. "I'll leave now, recover, and come back in a few days. Maybe I can think of a way to convince you to come out by then."

    As her two friends argued, Elruin was busy studying the runes. She had a way to save Cali, but she wasn't certain Cali would want it since it meant she would have to die. Even then, the means Elruin would need to use to bring her back would horrify her adoptive sister, savior, and best friend.

    =====

    Entek na Arila- would literally refer to the sewage system of the city. In the context of the sentence, Scratch is referring to the population of the city as sewage.

    There are no actual colon leeches in Midara. But there are leeches, and there are colons, and both behave as they do in our world. Scratch likes scatological insults, for whatever reason.

    Scratch is also an expert wingman... shadow... ghost... thing... point is, he likes setting things up so that Elruin looks good.
     
  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 34
    TanaNari

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    "You can stay here," Elruin offered. She hoped it wasn't rude to do so, since Erra and Grandmother were charge of the camp.

    "I'm not saying it's a bad idea, but." Cali tried to still her shaking hands. "Will that help? Honestly, will that make it more likely to fulfill this bond?"

    Elruin couldn't answer, since she felt sure the answer was no. Scratch stepped in for her. "Speakin' as someone who's used cowardice to live a long, full life, so to speak, I can't say what you stayin' would do. I can tell you that the current plan is to stay here on our potentially nonexistent asses until we have a plan. Right now it looks like the plan is to wait for the would-be king to die of old age."

    "Won't work." Cali steadied herself. "I guess it won't hurt to stay for a while, if it improves the odds. But I'm trying to convince myself leaving improves the odds because I don't want to Ell as someone's sacrifice."

    "I want you to stay!" Elruin insisted. She hadn't yet decided how to fix what happened to Cali, but her staying would make it better.

    "Leaving means the odds are at zero and stay at zero," Scratch said. "Stick around, and there's a slim chance the odds become something other than zero. Oh, hey, looks like it's time for me to vanish. I'll have Elruin sing me the details later." Scratch dropped into the soil, not moments before the buzz of wings began.

    Lyra landed nearby, then began to sniff the air. She snarled, as much as her insectoid mouth-parts would allow, looking for the infuriating thing which somehow evaded her at every turn. Then she took notice of Cali.

    "I missed you, Lyra." Calenda stepped forward, then hugged the little dryad as hard as she could. The dryad hugged her back, but without such force. "I know, I miss her, too."

    The dryad began the soft humming that she used to indicate contentment, and hugged back. Soon they settled into a pattern of Cali giving scratches in various locations while Lyra moved about to indicate the spots she wanted the most attention at that moment.

    "Priestess Calenda!" Erra had followed Lyra out. Still uncertain of her own position within the church hierarchy, she held her hands together and bowed. "Please tell me, how are you here? Why? I'm sorry, I-"

    "Enough of that," Cali said. "Only the high priests outrank you now. Besides, I'm not even a priestess anymore. They disavowed me out when Claron declared me a traitor and had me imprisoned."

    "They can't do that!" Lyra's head and wings sprang up in response to Erra's anger. Was it the skulking presence? She hoped it was the skulking presence. "No, Lyra, there's no danger." The disappointed dryad curled back up to Cali.

    "I was also discharged from the guard, and it remains to be seen if anything of my noble titles survive. It's the guard that stings most, I think. I suppose I have Garit to thank for stopping the torture and execution. The marriage stunt may have been self-serving on his part, but I he did save my life, at considerable risk to his own safety and perhaps survival.

    Erra said nothing. She knew the unfairness of life, and that everyone had a different view of what unfairness was, but she'd given up on any hope to marry anyone, let alone a future duke. She made peace with a life of celibacy, since the best a poor and less than attractive woman like her could hope for was a lover who didn't abandon her the moment she got pregnant.

    Elruin, too, had no thoughts to offer. She was too young for marriage to be a consideration, and now she was more concerned with the bad man who wanted to kill her in the name of Enge.

    "The church is in chaos." Cali dropped the subject, unwilling to commiserate any further. "Everything's in chaos, but especially the church. Normally the solution would be simple: the high priests hold the moot, then act accordingly. They've tried twice that I know about, but Enge hasn't responded, and they don't know what to do. I think that's why he's so desperate to have you sacrificed. If Enge acknowledges him to the priests, then they will kneel without hesitation. The entire empire becomes his with a single edict."

    "And until an edict comes, they won't stand against him," Erra concluded.

    "More like can't." Cali scratched Lyra harder; she couldn't hurt the dryad if she tried, and it was nice to relieve a little stress. "Carrying one of Enge's artifacts should be proof enough of right to rule, but Claron is giving orders that specifically violate scripture, but he's doing so in ways that provide charity to the poor, so there's confusion in the ranks. More to the point, he's too powerful to oppose. Only Lyra can challenge him, and he's working on changing that."

    "Is that possible?" Elruin asked.

    "I don't know that it's impossible," Cali said. "And he needs it for more than just fighting Lyra. He's already taken Milet and Lesel, and is preparing to move to other cities in the near future. Right now, he seems to want to find some special way to attack Engewal, either by taking control of the Palici, or with a weapon that can threaten them in combat and end the war in a single battle. If that fails, he's going to take all of Engeval except the capital city, and starve it out."

    "And if Claron can force Engewal's surrender, he'll have command over the church, and therefor command of the Palici." Elruin knew Palici were the guarding spirits of Engewal, much as Lyra was here in Arila. Unlike Lyra, they had no human handlers, and remained asleep much of the time. Whether the twins were stronger than Lyra was unknown, but it appeared Claron wasn't taking any chances.

    "The worst part is, Engewal doesn't know there's a threat," Calenda added. "Not to this scale, at least. The rainy season's over, but it will be another month before the crops are ready for transport. If those trade caravans never reach Engewal, they will face shortages by the end of the year. It may take two, perhaps three years for Engewal to run low on supplies, but they will run low. People will die."

    "And they can't send their armies out to reclaim farms, because Claron will know and attack them himself." There were a handful of the strongest dragonslayers who might be able to stop Claron, but they couldn't be everywhere at once. "Luring him into an ambush might work."

    "Which requires someone getting out of here and warning the remaining free cities." Cali squeezed down on the purring Lyra, who enjoyed her vigorous massage. "And making it through the wilderness while Claron's forces hunt them down. The one saving grace would be that they can't send more than a few at a time without the risk of drawing powerful monsters. But none of that matters, since we can't even escape-."

    Lyra roused herself from her comfy spot under Cali's ministrations, then walked several feet away. Earth rumbled and cracked, then a hole fell away, leaving a pit behind.

    "I... think it goes outside," Erra said. "It's difficult for me to figure out her mood at times."

    "Well, that's inconvenient." Cali brushed some of Lyra's moss off her clothes. "Now Claron will know that you have a way to escape the city. He'll have the exit path found, and blocked off."

    Lyra looked back, regarding the girls for a moment before stomping her foot next to the hole. Distant echoes could be heard through the pit she'd made. She then flitted away, back to her nest in the trees.

    "I... think there are now dozens of exit-holes around the city in every direction. I hope they don't last long, or we'll have monsters sneaking under the walls in no time."

    "Then I'm going with you," Cali declared.

    "Sorry, Sis, I see where that goes." Scratch stuck his head out of the ground beneath Elruin's feet. "We go down that pit, then seconds after we climb out the other side, we have an unconscious necromancer being dragged right back to the wall. Claron pisses himself in joy, and I'm back to looking for a new partner. Entek ne."

    Erra stepped toward the ghost. "Priestess Calenda would never!"

    "That's my cue to leave." Scratch dropped beneath the earth followed not long after by Lyra landing near Elruin.

    Erra began to rub the dryad's back. "Lyra, it's fine, nobody's in danger. I promise, I'll call you if I need help."

    "I'm afraid I made you a liar, twice," Cali said. She drew her sleeve back to reveal the magical ink. "Elruin is in danger, because of me. I'm magically bound to deliver Elruin to Claron's clutches, using any method I can think of. Prioritizing the plans I think are most likely first."

    "And telling her that's the plan is your best idea? No offense, but that sounds crazy."

    "Well, I can't force her to leave thanks to this peace magic, so the easiest plan can't work. And nothing's forcing me to think very hard about my plan. Besides, being honest opened a way out of the city, and now all I have to do is convince Elruin to leave with me. If that fails, then I will go warn. So if it's crazy, but it works, then it's not crazy, is it?"

    "Well, then I can have Lyra take you prisoner." Erra stood tall, while the dryad approached. "Don't worry, nobody will hurt you, and we'll keep you comfortable, but you won't be able to do anything to harm Elruin."

    "I'd rather you didn't," Cali said. "But I'd be forced to say that by the spell, regardless of its truth."


    =====

    A/N- Did anyone really think Claron was just going to take one city and stop there? Honestly?

    Also, there are more beings at Lyra's power than just Lyra. Most of the largest cities have at least one such guardian.

    My apologies for not having an update yesterday. It was about 5 different disasters all at once. I was too stressed to think properly, let alone write.

    Which means I had to wait before announcing that one of my lovely, lovely readers has this contribution to show:

    I may be biased, but I think he's the most precious stuffed animal ever made.
     
  27. VociferousVidar

    VociferousVidar Level 8 Flower Snek

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    You're really killing me with this update pace, mate, I have to say. I missed a couple of chapters a little while ago, but I thought "Oh well, I can catch up later quickly enough." But you keep putting new chapters out! Major props to your productivity though, wish I had your work ethic. At least this is the best kind of problem to have with someone's story that you love! I swear I'll get around to it this weekend, honest!
     
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  28. TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Yeah. it really is a work ethic thing, there's no getting around that.

    Though I did have to miss an update yesterday. It was all around crazy, complete with no longer having running water in my house for the near future.
     
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  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 35
    TanaNari

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    "I guess we don't have much choice, then." Lyra was moving before Erra spoke. "Don't worry, I promise you'll be well cared for and kept safe."

    "Would it sound insane if I said I was hoping you'd do this all along?" Cali walked toward Lyra, knowing full well that any attempt to resist the dryad would be futile and unpleasant. Instead, a scratch behind where the ear would be if she had any, and taking a moment to speak to Elruin. "Hey, Ell, promise you'll come visit when you get the chance? I think I'll go insane if I'm cooped up too long. It's not a mind control thing, I hope, I've never done well in captivity. Which is why I joined the Scouts in the first place."

    "I promise," Elruin said. She ran over to give Cali a hug before she left. "Even though you're being forced to try to kill me, you're still my favorite elder sister ever."

    "I think that says more about your family than it does me," Cali said. "Trust me when I say mine's not much better. I bet they're glad Claron showed up, gave them the excuse to disavow me. I bet some of them wrote those speeches years ago."

    "That's horrid!" Erra put her hand up to cover her mouth. "How could they do that?"

    "It's tough, at the top," Cali said. "Always looking above you to find your opportunity to claim more powerful. Always looking below, to spot those who want to take your place. Surrounded on all sides by people who'd throw you to the wolves- uh, sorry, Ell."

    Elruin hugged Cali tighter, while Lyra stood watching. "I'd never do that to you! When this is over, I'm going to hunt all of them down and make them sorry."

    Calenda chuckled. "Oh, they're sorry enough as is. Both of us were part of their house, and after all the praise they gave you after that healing stunt, well, let's just say they've been humiliated, and some lost their holdings to Claron's new plans for the city. Meanwhile, I've got Duchess Consort as a title, which is better than most of them can hope for. So, don't be too hard on them, same as how I let your family walk away."

    "Fine. But I still get to hate them."

    "I'd be disappointed if you didn't." Calenda extracted herself from Elruin's hold. "Now, you figure out what you're going to do while I'm no longer in spying distance, then come tell me something full of half truths and complete lies. Have Scratch make them up. Or better yet, tell me the truth while convincing me it's a lie. That way when I find a way to escape, I won't be able to reveal anything important."

    "I promise everything I tell you will be true." It was fascinating, watching how the tangled mess of a mind control spell was responding to the idea of being intentionally lied to. "Especially the lies." The energy flashed, fluctuated, and drew upon Cali's mind to right itself. It could be broken, if one was to bombard it with enough nonsensical contradictions. She felt confident Cali wouldn't survive, however, and Elruin already knew she could break the spell by overloading it via direct magic, if she didn't mind killing Cali.

    "That's the spirit." Cali put her hand on Lyra's shoulder. "Come on, Lyra, let's go see what sort of prison you dream up for me. Then I'm going to cuddle with you until this headache quits."

    Once she was gone, Scratch poked his head out of the soil again. "Alright, what did we learn?"

    "That nobles are horrid and I can understand where Claron's coming from," Erra muttered.

    "Don't buy into that steaming pile of twice-regurgitated pig vomit, Priestess." The last thing Scratch wanted was to give Claron more supporters, let alone the one holding Lyra's leash. "Your entire species is full of violent, insane, selfish, stubborn monsters. Some rich, others poor, all terrible. You're also creative, adaptable, kind, loving, people who refuse to surrender to the inevitable. It's why you're still standing when so many others have been wiped out by monsters and war. Which is better than my people can claim. But enough about ancient history, let's talk about what we need to do now."

    "We need to get help," Elruin stated. Solving problems here was no different than solving problems at school: break it down into simple, easy to accomplish steps, then put those steps together. "With the tunnels open, we can find people to run to Engewal, get warnings out to the remaining free cities."

    "Sorry, that ain't happenin'," Scratch said. "Our choices are we go, or nobody goes. "Can't take Lyra, or everyone who stays dies. Can't take these people, or the monsters will rip the group apart. Can't get anyone else into the quarantine zone, 'cept maybe one with Lemia's teleport. Can't go straight to Engewal, either, I'm sure Claron and his men are prepared for that. Lifesight and someone like me to go scouting is the best hope we've got."

    "And if we don't go, then we'll be waiting until Claron is strong enough to get through the nonviolence magic and kill Lyra." Elruin didn't want to go back into the wilderness, but the idea wasn't as bad as it would have been before. She was stronger than before, and far more knowledgeable of magic.

    "Such is the nature of mortal life," Scratch said. "Tic tic tic, every tic a little closer to the final moment. The question is not if or when the end comes, but whether you'll accomplish anything of value while waiting."

    Erra considered that bit of bleak wisdom. "How are you so good at finding the most depressing ways to say the most uplifting sentiments?"

    "Years of practice, Priestess, long years of pr- woah, wha-"

    Suggested Listening

    Four long, slender limbs emerged from the earth, each with hands that might be mistaken for human if they weren't the size of a man's torso, emerged from the soil, followed by the face of a misshapen boar. Another four set of limbs, each with another set of hands, followed moments after.

    It may not have been the first to begin screaming, but it was loudest by far. A soul-rending, magical howl that dropped more than a handful of the men at the border to their knees, while those within the field retreated to the safety of the tree.

    It lashed out, grasping for the three nearest the hole. For Scratch, it was a futile attack, and Elruin evaded in part from her speed enhancing sarite of choice. It was Erra who was captured in the grip of the monster, which then lifted her with greater ease than it should have been able to. Its jaws opened, an extra three sets of tusks revealed themselves from within its mouth, while yellow bile dripped from its mouth.

    "Let her go!" Elruin shouted, while blasting the creature with repeated bolts of energy.

    The beast recoiled backward, striking outward at the little girl who inflicted such unexpected pain. It thought that nothing could hurt it, not in the strange magic that allowed it to grasp prey without risk, then drag them somewhere else to consume. Dirt and sod kicked up. The stone bounced off her magic-hardened skin, but the dirt still blocked her vision. Not her lifesight, however, so she kept blasting while it kept retreating.

    It stumbled back for the safety of the tunnel, away from these bizarre tiny monsters, but its strength gave out. Shallow painful gasps of breath became ever more pitiful until they ceased, the monster halfway into the passage that represented its survival.

    Lyra caught Erra as she fell from the monster's grip, then set her down and flew back to Cali.

    "I, but," Erra stared at Elruin, rather than the monster. "How did you kill that thing?"

    "It wasn't that strong," Elruin said. In truth, it was a great deal stronger than the mork she'd had to fight. If she thought about it, the monster was stronger than anything other than those people who stopped her from saving Cali.

    "I didn't mean that part." Erra dropped to her knees, unable to stand after her brush with death. Some people were equipped to deal with adrenaline, but Erra wasn't one of them. "How did you get past the peace field."

    "I saw it attack you, but the magic of the field didn't stop it, so that means it wasn't really a living thing. That means it's okay for me to hurt it. I was surprised that they were vulnerable to Negation magic, but they seem to emulate life magic to move. It's advanced stuff, I wish I had time to study it more."

    "I don't th-"

    Scratch put his nonexistent hand over Erra's lips. "Hush."

    "But-"

    "We just discovered a loophole so dumb that I doubt anyone has ever thought to defend against it. Admittedly, not only do I know no way to exploit that loophole, I can't so much as try to think of one, but I'm going to state that in this case, ignorance is bliss. Specifically, her ignorance and our bliss." Scratch guessed the peace aura would not take well to Elruin realizing she killed something while inside it, even if he didn't know what it might do.

    Elruin, meanwhile, was approaching the slain thing. Whatever it was looked flesh and blood, complete with the flicker-hum of fresh born sarite. It felt strong- not quite as strong as the necromantic sarite she still kept hidden, but strong nonetheless.

    She took her stiletto and pierced through the creature's eye, maintaining her death aura the entire time. Flesh crackled and burned away, blood dried to dust, and she got through without ruining what little clothing she managed to put together while trapped here. She extracted the stone, which thrummed against her energies. This shard would go well with her collection.

    "Maybe you should go tell Lemia we're leaving the city. I'd like my training clothes." Elruin didn't want to ruin her expensive outfit, but if there were more monsters, she needed clothes that wouldn't melt when she used too much magic. "I have to stay here and guard against more of these constructs, in case they hurt someone who can't fight back. Then you'll need to close this passage down. Oh, and if you've got some spare flasks for water, I'd like to ask for some."

    "Sounds like a plan," Scratch agreed. "And, hey, think if we find another of those things down there, that I can take it for a ride?"

    Elruin gave Scratch an odd look "You can control constructs?"

    "Uh, sure, let's say that for the purposes of this conversation, I can control these constructs, but not while inside this bubble. I can't guarantee it'll work on others." Scratch dipped down into the soil, so as to avoid ruining a good thing by running his mouth. He couldn't remember the last time he found a necromancer with Elruin's potential, and now he was set on the most perilous part of the journey.

    How he influenced her over the next few months would shape the future of this empire and beyond.


    =====

    This chapter contains a direct reference to what's probably the best scene in all of Star Trek history.

    Scratch is... many things... but damn is he a treat to write!

    Also... it isn't just our world's software that some stupid bugs and exploits. But to be fair, the creators didn't envision giant freaky hand-monsters using the bubble like their own personal fast food joint.

    In the game, this particular gimmick with this monster will not be so funny. These things (called Snatchers) can and will abduct party members, compelling you to chase them down. If they get away, the character in question is forced into a solo battle for survival. Depending on choices (and thus companions) up to this point, they can be extremely one-sided battles that result in some frustrating game overs.

    Erra's the 'tutorial' captive, because if she's kidnapped, it's Lyra Interrupt. Dice favored Elruin this time.
     
  30. Threadmarks: Chapter 2, Episode 36
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    Two more hand-monsters crawled up the tunnel while Elruin guarded, but both retreated the moment they realized Elruin could zap them. She was a little annoyed that she couldn't destroy them as well, knowing that soon she would be traveling these tunnels seeking a passage to the outside. Besides, this was the first earth sarite she'd ever discovered, and she wanted more in case the others were better.

    Meanwhile, she worked on storing as much necromantic energy from the plug as she could within the water she was given. It wouldn't last long, perhaps three days, before the energies broke down and collapsed. Until then, it was a strong source of spare energy to convert into magic.

    Scratch returned, not long after the second construct had been driven off. "Turns out, Lemia's been busy." He emerged from the ground, not far from the dead monster. It twitched, reacting to his animating taint. "Oh, hey, you've been busy, too."

    "We need all the help we can get." Elruin sang her message, in order to keep the undeath creeping through their bones suppressed as it was in Scratch. She lacked the ghost's skill with the process, but so long as an exorcist didn't come near the bodies, she could hide their taint. It required a great deal of concentration, however, and would be useless once they were on the move.

    "I suppose I should be offended that you're using pieces of me to build your own private army," Scratch said. "You seem to have it under control for now, but don't get too ambitious, or you'll lose your grip on them. It's an embarrassing way to lose a partner."

    It was true, the biggest danger of controlling the undead that Elruin could see was if she tried to control too many and lost her grip upon them. Scratch was loyal for his own reasons, but his nonsapient 'children' were nothing more than killing machines held on a tight leash. All on the same leash, at that. She was nearing her limits, and one slip meant they would all run wild. "I promise I'll be careful. You can control of the hand dolly when we're in the tunnels, so I don't have to."

    "Heh, I remember being told I was all hand back when I had a pulse. She wasn't being this literal." Scratch sank into the comfortable new corpse, getting a feel for its no longer living form. He'd be here for a few minutes. "Now that that's covered, I'm gonna need you to sing. To be specific, your college girlfriend needs you to sing, to establish resonance. She'll handle the teleportation half."

    "I understand." Elruin began to sing, bracing herself for the power drain that would be caused by Lemia tapping into her power for this spell that she expected to be expensive. All scholars agreed that teleportation spells were rare, expensive, and difficult. Near the barricade, half a mile away,

    Moments later a swell of magical song began near Elruin, an echo of her own as well as Lemia's motion-driven Revelation. Elruin sang to it, seeking to amplify the magic until the pattern completed itself.

    Unlike with the hand-monster's magical cry, her own song had a limited range that would not reach the end of edge of the barricade. Perhaps some of them had magically enhanced senses which could extend their view to the center of the safety area, but identifying a complex, delicate, and specific spell from this distance was the sort of power attributed to gods, not mortals.

    Suggested Listening

    Black energy danced across the ground, then dissipated, leaving behind a wooden crate with a woman sitting on it. "Lemia?"

    Lemia coughed, curled up, and fell off the box. "I think I'm gonna be sick." She gagged, but held back the worst of it. "No wonder nobody uses that thing."

    "What are you doing here?" Elruin knelt down next to Lemia, examining her with her lifesight. The damage was minor, but also universal, extending to every part of her body. Painful, but nothing a few minutes around Lyra wouldn't fix.

    "Getting out of this place before it burns to the ground." Lemia gave up and remained sitting.

    "Is it that bad?" Elruin looked at Scratch, wondering if he'd left an important detail out of his reports.

    "What she means is before they burn her to the ground." Scratch remained seated inside the monster, in case Elruin lost control.

    "Not yet," Lemia admitted. "But I can see the writing on the walls. A couple old friends have vanished, along with a dozen more acquaintances. All the first ones to jump into Claron's loving embrace, move into the mansions, or otherwise take advantage of this new situation."

    "In short, you're afraid of your classmates going after you."

    "I'm not popular, never was," Lemia said. "Poor girl with a reputation. How long it'll be before someone decides I'm the next who needs to vanish? A month, two if I'm lucky?"

    "Or you're a spy, and we're all dead the moment we step out of the protection field," Scratch muttered. "You lied to me, said you'd teleport equipment.

    "If I was helping Claron, I'd have just told him something like you is out there." Lemia had given herself enough time to recover, so she stood while holding Elruin's shoulders. "Ell, do you have any idea how dangerous working with the undead is?"

    "But-" Elruin's eyes widened. "How did you know?"

    "She didn't, until this moment," Scratch said. "I'm gonna guess you sampled my magic, found the Negation magic, then dug deeper to discover there's nothing else. Thought I was a necromantic construct, maybe, then realized that is exactly what I am, in the most literal sense. Women like you are far too clever for their own good."

    Lemia took the backhanded compliment for what it was worth. "There were a few other hints, like how careful you were to scrub your tracks. No construct could do that. What I want to know is how you knew I was sampling you. I'm the only person to have a technique like that."

    "You're not as unique as you imagine, Infiltrator," Scratch answered. "Once upon a time entire schools were dedicated to training people like you. Some of them reshaped the world, for better and worse. But those are longer stories than I have time to tell today. Make you a deal, come with us and I'll tell you all I know about the lost techniques of your predecessors."

    "Over a long period of time while calling me a spy?"

    "That's the offer," Scratch said. "A slow trickle of secret knowledge that will prove more valuable than anything Claron could bribe you with."

    "You're bribing me to not do something I was not planning to do in the first place? I'm going to hold you to that deal, Sucker."

    Scratch laughed. "Oh, you are going to be the most precious little morsel I've had in generations. I'll never trust you, but nobody sane would trust those who'd make deals with the undead."

    "And I say the same of those who'd make deals with the living," Lemia shot back. "Adorable necromancer children notwithstanding, of course. Speaking of, I brought this with." She reached into the crate.

    "Mister Squishybones!" Elruin grabbed the stuffed toy the moment it was removed from the collection of supplies. She'd missed the horse doll during her her imprisonment here. "Thank you so much!"

    "I've got your violin, too," she said. "And dried food, backpacks, waterskins, some dyes that we can use to change our hair and skin colors, some changes of clothing, a tent, some blankets, and even a sarite that's made for purifying water. I rescued it from the potion bin a few months back."

    "By 'rescued' she means 'stole'," Scratch said. "That's a compliment, in case you were wondering."

    Lemia put a hand over her chest. "How dare you besmirch my honor, you toad! I would never steal this cheap junk." Then she pulled a well made arming sword from the bottom of the crate. Its magesteel blade and gold trim spoke of opulence over function. "This, I stole. Had my eye on it from the first day I met the Dean of Admissions. Suffice it to say I consider this fair compensation on a debt he owes me, a sentiment he'll disagree with after he wakes up. I know a little about how to wield a sword, and this is the best I've ever got my hands on."

    "Color me impressed." Scratch opted to skip all the obvious comments, on the basis that they were too easy. "What's it do?"

    "Stabs people." Lemia smirked at the ghost. "It's got minor illusions designed to make the user look better, but truth is it's just an expensive decoration made to sit on a wall. And did I mention it's expensive? Even if the fence cheats me, I'll be able to buy a utilitarian sword that's way better with cash to spare for some decent armor."

    Elruin was happy to watch her friends get along so well. "Please, get everything ready, I need to talk to Cali before we go."

    "I guess trying to carry this crate around would be a pain," Lemia admitted. "I'll make sure the backpacks are ready when you get back, but we'll have to work together to carry the tent."

    Scratch bid the freakish limbs of the corpse he hid in to move. "I got that covered."

    Lemia opted to skip all the obvious comments, on the basis that they were too easy.

    Some half an hour later, Lemia and Scratch were packed up, when she noticed something at the other side of the pillar. "That's when Kite realized it was a dog the whole- hey, is that Elruin? Who's she with, and what's she doing with a bucket of whatever that stuff is?"

    "Eh?" Scratch looked the direction Lemia pointed out. "Oh! Merat na! Stop them!"

    "What?"

    "No time! Run! Explain later!"

    Suggested Listening

    Elruin, along with Cali and Lyra, were almost at the barricade on the other side of the camp, far beyond the distance Lemia could cross in time to make a difference. Erra stood further back, watching with concern as the trio carried out their plan.

    Elruin began to sing as her group approached the wall, darkness roiling from her magic to blanket the area. Lyra sniffed at the inky magic, swatted it away from her, but didn't retaliate beyond that. The swelling necromantic magics were cast outward, meant for distraction and confusion instead of causing harm. Harm Elruin could not attempt within the field.

    They reached the very edge, with Lyra taking position in front of them, as if daring the guards to attack. They did not, for they were given specific instructions not to antagonize the dryad.

    On the edge of the field, Elruin set her bucket of magically charged water on the ground, then cupped Cali's trembling hands in her own. "You can change your mind, if you want."

    "I know." Calenda smiled to hide her fear. "You said it won't hurt?"

    "Neither of us will feel a thing," Elruin said.

    "Then I can't ask for anything better." Cali leaned over, picked the bucket up and lifted it over her head, then took the final step outside the magical defense against violence.

    "I choose death on my feet!" She screamed at the crowd as she slammed the full bucket into the crowd. A black storm of raw, unfocused, death magic ballooned from their position, then was guided outward like a wave by Elruin's magic. A song interrupted for a moment when Elruin caught her collapsing body.

    The full passage was 'To die on your feet is better than to live on your knees.', and it was perhaps Calenda's favorite line of any holy text. The reason she emphasized her devotion of Ecross above all other gods. As last words went, they were good ones. At least they were better than the cries of confusion and terror of the twelve she took with her.


    =====

    ... That got dark fast...

    Lemia can be picked up on other paths. She has no particular loyalties to either side of this conflict, and will do what she can to further her own safety and future success. She'll actively seek Elruin out during the Ghosts side of the Occupation of Arila path (spoiler: Scratch doesn't trust her then, either). It starts a good portion of that story's sidequest, with Elruin serving as an investigative enforcer, seeking out those responsible for the vanishings.

    Voice of the Dead sees a lot of use on that path.

    The "Behind Enemy Lines" route of THIS path (splitting off at the invasion, if Elruin chooses to hide instead of fight) would see a lot of the same NPCs involved, but with Elruin assisting La Resistance. Lemia does get dragged into that mess, either way.

    I wanted this game made of replay value.
     
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