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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. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 0
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    [​IMG]

    Suggested Listening

    Morning on a farm was always busy, but this morning was worse than most. Yesterday's storm had come with only minutes of warning, as spring storms were wont to do, but this one had a rare ferocity that ripped shingles from the roofs and saw animals lost in weather that their tenders dared not leave to find them in.

    Kalis, the patriarch of the homestead, sighed. "I've given up on the cows. If we're lucky, they'll find their own way back, but if I were a bettin' man, I'd say they went into the river. Least we kept the bull and calves, but we'll be short on milk for the rest of the season." He rubbed his ginger beard, stroking the whole length, as was his nervous habit. "It's shaping up to be a lean summer."

    Othsa kept her head down, hard at work sewing together new sails for the windmill. They were well off, as far as farmers went, but between themselves, their six sons and three unmarried daughters, and the five farmhands who helped during this busy season, they could ill afford the expenses. "Don't worry, Cal, I can push the oldest along once I'm done here." Forcing cows to mature faster was taxing, but better than borderline starvation.

    She grit her teeth while tapping into her limited magical potential. Soft green tendrils extended on her breath, dancing across the cobbled together patchwork of old cloth. This sort of nature magic was much better suited for living tissue, but it could work on anything soft that once came from a living thing. Hours, perhaps days, of work completed in seconds, but her body paid the price as if she'd spent all night hard at work.

    She shuddered at the chill that extended through both her body and soul, sapping her strength and causing all the aches of age to flare into the forefront of her mind. She cursed her lack of strength, that even simple magic would deplete her stamina in seconds. As she caught her breath, she imagined that several more of her once lustrous green hair turn gray before her eyes.

    Were she better suited to the arts, were her sylvan blood as strong as her sister's, then she could have repaired half the farm by now and have strength left over to make herself look twenty years younger. Then, if she had that sort of strength, she could have had a comfortable life as a healer in the capital or high adventure in the frontiers, rather than the humble existence of a farmer's wife.

    If her husband noticed or cared about her failing youth and melancholy, he gave no indication. "I sent Nasko and Soren out to check the road, clear it if need be. We need it now more than ever."

    Still exhausted from her brief use of magic, she could only nod. It was true, the farm in part survived on the Wayfarers and Reclaimers who passed through on their way to the more dangerous outlands, and those adventurous sorts were prone to cutting straight through the woods if the roads weren't clear enough for easy travel.

    Annoyed with his wife's seeming lack of interest in the farm's needs beyond what her magic handled, Kalis went for the strongbox in the corner of the room. "I'm gonna walk the wall, make sure nothing nasty got through when the shield caved." Not that it matters to you, he added in his mind. Having unlocked the safe while speaking, he extracted his prized possession, a minotaur sarite.

    Othsa eyed the glowing orange gem with fear and resentment; she hated the effect the thing had on her husband. He was brutish and short-tempered enough without the magic of that gem to warp both his mind and body into that of a bestial monster. That fear, more than any concern for her husband's wellbeing, pushed her to speak through her fatigue. "Are you sure it's safe to go now? Perhaps you should wait for our sons to..."

    "And lose the rest of our stock to some monster from the Outside?" Kalis' tone expressed disdain for that idea. "I'll take Elruin with me. She's enough."

    Othsa shuddered, a different set of concerns rising to the forefront of her mind. "Are you certain?"

    It was too late to talk him out of his plan; he'd already bound the leather strap holding the Sarite to his upper arm. Orange light pulsed, then traveled through his skin as if his veins were replaced by glowing liquid flame. A moan of half-pleasure, half-rage rose from Kalis' throat as his face distended forward into a mockery of a bull's snout while half a ton of mass was added to his frame in the form of height and muscle. His hunched position was necessary, lest he break the ceiling with the vestigial horns which grew from his head.

    "Say what you will about the freak, she's a good worker." Kalis seemed to miss his wife's point; were it not such a common event, she might have forgiven it as part of the transformation. "Better 'n most 'f the men."

    Kalis lifted his prize hunting crossbow from the chest as well. It crossed his mind that the weapon might be more valuable than his entire farm. "If she scares the beasts half as bad as the animals, they'll go running 'for we're close. Then..." He lifted the bow to his shoulder, as if setting up a shot. "The right trophy might make up for the cattle."

    Crestfallen, Othsa gave up all hope of a moment's reprieve today. "You know best." Best not to antagonize her husband further.

    An animalistic snort was all she got in return. Kalis ducked to exit the house, then stood to his full height, half again as tall as any man on the farm, and twice as tall as his timid mouse of a wife. His nostrils widened as he sniffed the air for predators, but found no unusual scent. "Elruin! Git yer bony butt out here!" His monstrous voice echoed across the farm, alerting all but those tending the road of the master's presence. Those who'd worked there for some time recognized the effects of the minotaur shard, and in their wisdom warned the others to stay out of his sight for now.

    Meanwhile, a black haired girl stalked the barn while the horses whinnied and backed away as she passed. Through eyes of pure ebony, she watched a world in shades of gray, with flecks of light lining most of the floor. It didn't take her long to spot her target: a creature of soft yellow light not much larger than a human hand, with a long, slender tail. It had fled into the barn during the storm, and if ignored it would reproduce and trouble the animals or steal their food.

    The girl gestured, a stream of black energy lanced outward, and the glowing creature vanished. She turned her attention to another creature nearby, raised her hand, then heard her father's shout for her.

    She blinked, her solid black eyes returning to their normal deep indigo state, then she hopped to her feet and ran out of the barn to learn what task was waiting. The idea of disobeying father, or that she was being called for any purpose other than a new chore, never entered her mind. Nor did the realization that she had been using magic all morning yet felt no fatigue.

    As she left, the rat who came so close to meeting oblivion fled from its temporary shelter, its instincts screaming in terror.

    She spotted her father walking toward her, or rather in a direction that would take him past her. She stared up at his warped and inhuman visage, over twice her height, but stood tall like she was told a good girl should. "Yes, sir?"

    "Come. We're walkin' the wall." Kalis kept moving, both because he had work to do and in order to hide his face from Elruin so he could cringe without notice; the child was unnerving enough without the enhanced instincts granted by the minotaur sarite. For a moment, he wondered if Othsa was right to warn him, but it was too late to turn back now.

    "Okay." Elruin dutifully took up her place right behind her father, alternating between a fast walk and brief moments of jogging to keep up with her now-giant father's long stride.

    The trek through the mud would have left any ordinary person exhausted, but neither of them got tired as they followed the wall which protected the farm from the outside. Every so often, Kalis would stop in order to check the crystal shards embedded in the channeling posts while Elruin looked around for more obvious damage to the stone of the wall.

    "Entek," Kalis muttered, unconcerned that the child hear his profanity.

    Elruin strained to look off in the distance, until she spotted the area where the earth had slid out from under the wall, leaving a portion of it bowed and in danger of collapsing under its own weight. "Can I help?"

    Kalis rubbed his beard, considering all the work that would be necessary to mend the wall. "You pick up any earth-moving spells while killing rats?"

    "No," she admitted before going silent and waiting for instructions. She knew how her father hated to be interrupted when he was touching his facial hair.

    Kalis approached the wall, too lost in thought to consider the girl behind him. This was well beyond Othsa's power, and while he was certain Elruin had power to spare, her magic seemed to be limited to killing small animals and putting the fear of death into every living thing that got too close to her. He'd have to either hire an earth mage, which would set him back a month's income if he got lucky with a Reclaimer, or three if he had to get a city caster to come out here.

    The temporary solution, which was to rebuild the wall around the mudslide, wasn't much more appealing. It would take weeks to finish and require hiring more laborers until the work was done. Still cheaper than a city mage, but slower, and every day the breach was left open increased the odds that wolves or some even nastier beast would get under the barrier and kill more livestock.

    Suggested Listening

    Elruin heard, felt it, before her father saw it. The swell of mystical energy was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. Within the mud, a hand rose, then an arm. Muck dropped off the limb, revealing there was nothing there save for grime coated bone.

    "Mother's Mercy." Kalis spotted the movement, then stepped back. He made no effort to pull Elruin away or shield her from the thing which rose from the landslide. He calmed himself some moments later; it was on the other side of the wall. As worthless as sarite shields were against natural creatures, they excelled at driving back the unnatural. It didn't get much less natural than this thing.

    It gazed at them through empty eye sockets, a reflection in Elruin's solid black eyes. Elruin felt it, felt him, a song she'd never heard before yet recognized as if she'd written it herself. Hatred, pain, revenge, the song of a life that refused to die, that was willing to sacrifice heaven if it meant he could drag his hated enemy into hell itself. A hated enemy that stood right behind her.

    Without realizing what she was doing, the little girl sang the song back to the damned soul before her. Its unheard voice echoed by her own flesh and blood vocal chords, granted strength, a foothold on the other side of the grave. The recognition grew, the connection amplified, and for the first time Elruin knew what it was like to be loved by another person. That the person was an undead abomination did not matter to her. This was the family she never knew.

    "Elruin?" Kalis muttered, recovering enough of his wits to recognize something was wrong other than the skeleton climbing out from the muck.

    Around them, the sarite-generated barrier shimmered, struggled against Elruin's song. It was designed to keep the unnatural out, not to prevent it from escaping. But an opened gate goes both ways, and the skeleton had an opening it could exploit. It walked toward the barricade, hesitant at first but growing in confidence with every step. She knew him, but he also knew her.

    "Quiet!" Fueled by fear and forgetting his own supernaturally enhanced strength, Kalis gripped her shoulder with enough strength that it could have crushed an ordinary child's shoulder. He picked her up like that in order to carry her away from the wall.

    Elruin cried out in pain, her song ended, but not the connection which had been created between her and the skeleton, nor the damage which had been done to the defensive shield in the process.

    The skeleton opened its maw to screech in silent rage and indignation. He leapt at the wall with the greater ferocity than a bear trying to protect her cub, to be pushed back by the defenses that kept the farm safe from the monsters outside.

    Blue flame burned layers of caked mud off the creature as it hammered itself against the shield a second, then third, then fourth time. With each collision, the song dimmed alongside the shield, a race between two unthinking forces to determine which would destroy the other first.

    Her shoulder burning, gasping for breath, Elruin lashed out for the first time in her life against her father. Black lightning danced its way across her skin, up Kalis' hand. First it pushed away the orange power of the Minotaur sarite, then it numbed the limb, then it started to kill the flesh which held her trapped.

    Kalis now roared in pain; a broad, bestial cry to join the enraged shrieks of the undead, crackle-burn of the barrier, and high pitched gasps of a child forced to defend herself against her father.

    Elruin took two steps back toward the skeleton, the song, and the kinship she never knew that she never knew. Despite the pain, she found the strength to sing again. New strength flowed into the skeleton and damaged the barrier further.

    "I said shut up!" Kalis struck Elruin with all his strength.

    She went flying several yards through the air before hitting the mud on her side. In his haste, Kalis made the worst possible decision; he'd batted the girl closer to the wall. Half unconscious, running on instinct alone, Elruin kept mumbling the echoes of the song.

    "Dammit, freak!" Kalis stalked forward. Before, he'd been reacting to the situation, but now his rational mind was starting to catch up. He wasn't much of a mage, but he understood magic well enough to recognize that she was empowering the monster and refused to stop. In his panicked state, the solution seemed obvious: kill the child.

    He never had the chance to try.

    Empowered and enraged to a point no still-living creature could experience, the skeleton broke through the last defenses of the barrier. He was above Elruin long before Kalis could bridge the distance.

    Mud burnt to ash fell, revealing a deep crack across the left eye socket that left one questioning how the bone hadn't fallen off, and scaled silver armor that might once have had padding beneath but was now draped over bones like an ill-fitting tunic. He cut a poor figure as far as guardian angels went, but he would fight to well beyond the death for the little girl behind him.

    Kalis hesitated for a moment. "You!" He took a step off to the side, and the skeleton responded by positioning himself directly between him and Elruin.

    "Khee." How a creature without flesh could hiss such unrestrained malice was a question Kalis might have asked himself later, had upcoming events turned out differently.

    "You're dead!" Kalis recognized how obvious it was the moment after it was said. "I killed you." Two more steps, again testing the creature's behavior; brilliant warrior he was not, but he knew better than to rush headlong into a fight with an unknown foe.

    The skeleton matched his steps to keep Elruin behind him again. "Ehsss."

    Kalis smiled, though it came out more a sneer. "I knew she wasn't mine." He hefted his crossbow, aiming not for the monster, but for the injured child.

    *Crack* *Thump*

    He moved fast, positioned himself in time to block the bolt, but it only clipped his bone before embedding itself into Elruin's side. Her song silenced by the metal which pierced her lung. She had just enough strength to turn her head, to stare at the man who shot her.

    "Kryaaaah!!!" Her failed defender became her avenger, rushing forward on legs powered not by muscle, but by necromantic energies.

    Kalis reacted better than someone so bulky should have, enough to hammer his assailant with his crossbow. Bone and teeth scattered from the blow, but the damage was more cosmetic than actual.

    In return for taking his teeth, for taking his life, and most importantly for taking Elruin, the skeleton took his time. A claw raked through Kalis' stomach, spilling a pile of viscera and guts onto the muddy ground.

    Blood sputtered from Kalis' mouth to join the mess at his feet. "Guhk!" He stumbled back, before his Minotaur sarite compensated for the injury. It couldn't heal him, not so soon, but it could compensate enough to allow a retaliating blow to the skull.

    A blow which meant nothing. In terms of strength, perhaps, they were equal. In all other respects, Kalis was outclassed. He was still flesh and blood, wounded and losing blood fast. His foe was constructed of necromancy, hatred, and a love stronger than death itself. It could not feel pain, it could not tire, and it would never relent. Bestial rage was no match.

    Kalis' arms dropped to his sides, bleeding from the deep gashes where the tendons of his muscles were severed. One more blow folded his knee backward and dropped him to the ground.

    The skeleton didn't waste time to gloat over his bleeding, dying foe. Kalis would drown on his own lifeblood, and that was the best revenge available. That, and to reverse one last act of spite.

    He yanked the Minotaur sarite from its pouch, then ran back to a little girl herself dying a slow death. In life, he'd done quite a lot of wandering the wilderness, and that life began and ended at the power of concentrated magic crystals like the one he now held.

    Concentrated lifeforce cultivated in the flesh of a monster like a pearl in an oyster, then used to grant some semblance of power to those who knew how to harness them. In the right hands, they could allow mere mortals to go to war with beasts that rivaled the gods themselves. This shard was an impressive one, to be certain, but it was by no means the upper limit of what sarite was capable of.

    With his free hand, he rolled Elruin over, then pulled the bolt through her body, rather than do even greater damage by carving through her with the barbs of the weapon. That step finished, he held the shard above her chest. In his undead state, he wasn't suited for this sort of magic, but there was one method still available to him.

    He crushed the crystallized magic to powder in his clawed, bloody fist. Raw magic, transformative energies, and most importantly: regenerative properties. For a few moments, the air itself was alive with magic. In time, that energy would find its way into the grass, the trees, and the various animals of the area. Given time, the magical corruption would likely result in a new monster spawning itself from the native wildlife.

    For now, it meant a little girl, his little girl, would survive.

    He lamented the lack of flesh, the inability to smile, to cry. Instead he stared down at her for his last few moments in this world. He got his revenge, the hatred that allowed him to defy death itself died, and with it the necromantic flame dimmed.

    The construct would remain, fragments of his essence blended with Elruin's Requiem, but its guiding Will left for whatever afterlife was afforded souls like his. From now on, his remains would forever serve as Elruin's silent angel.

    =====

    A/N- You have no idea how excited I am for this.
     
    Last edited: Feb 26, 2019
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  2. Threadmarks: Background
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    NOTICE: As of April 25, 2019, this story ceases to be run as a quest. It took way too much damn work to keep people actually voting, so I've given up on it. Most of Book 3 and all Book 4 is being controlled by me alone.

    Welcome to Midara: Requiem, one of the two more or less complete Midara scripts. What is Midara?

    Well, that's a long story, some of which I won't tell because I'm not sure I'm legally allowed to. To truncate it, I was once a writer for video games for a company that you've probably heard of. Midara was my personal inspiration, my prize, my baby that I was hoping to turn into the next Final Fantasy. Mice, men, and the plans thereof.

    Fun fact, Midara are a genus of moths. This has mad symbolism for the setting.

    Anyhow, Paradox (currently not writing, I shall sooner or later) and Requiem were two of the biggest of the games. Paradox is highest of high fantasy with a JRPG structure, while Requiem is... well, it's an open world gothic horror story with some fun twists. There's also Midara: Dissonance, which tells the story of the cataclysm that fucked over the setting- it's designed to be a 4x game with a playstyle not entirely dissimilar to Age of Wonders 2.

    Part of Elruin's inspiration in particular came from comments a friend of mine made about how all Open World protagonists were basically autists who don't require internal organs to survive. So... I created a main character who, well, is basically an autist who doesn't require internal organs to survive. If it's going to be a game feature, may as well make it a story feature as well. Also... I have an abiding love for Tim Burton movies.

    Plus a handful of others that I've only mapped in the most vague of terms. But Dissonance, Paradox and Requiem are complete scripts. More than enough to be full games... games that are probably longer than any Triple-A RPGs on the market today.

    And, yeah, if you wanna play them as games... you're gonna need to make me famous and popular... or hook me up with some talented developers who like the premise and are willing to take the risk.


    But if you want to enjoy the story, maybe play some semblance of the game itself... jump right on in here. Requiem as a quest will still carry all sorts of story goodness including all the following:


    1- Numerous interesting companion characters. All of whom have their own motivations and stories. Some of whom are mutually incompatible with one another and can either become your allies or enemies depending on the story route you're following.

    2- "Consequence Oriented" gameplay that mean your choices actually do matter. There is no 'optimal' path, each possible ending has its pros and cons. Make your friends and enemies dynamically. Or even betray everyone and turn them into undead slaves. You can play unrepentant evil if you like, the game has an ending for that.

    3- Multiple endings. Real endings, completions of the story that take Elruin's adventures to completely different locations. Inspired, and I'm actually not at all ashamed to admit it, by Princess Maker 2 of all things. Actually a remarkably good game considering its age.

    Possible endings include the following: Farmgirl. Azrael Ascendant. Slum Goddess. The Bleak Empress. Fourth Horsewoman. The Deathbringer. And my personal favorite, because it's hilarious, "Braver Man than I"- which is the possible but unlikely without a walkthrough marriage ending. Don't worry, the story's meant to take place over a number of chapters- by the end chapter, Elruin will be in her early 20s.

    The Deathrbringer is, however, the most difficult and undeniably epic of possible endings. Also the "canon" ending of the story, but don't let that worry you.

    Our adorafying little Necrololi becoming the actual elemental personification of all death in the universe. Before you ask- yes, she'd still reject Thanos.

    Also- in the "game" version, there'd be a "chapter 0 walkthrough" that lets Elruin play around on the farm a bit in order to teach the player her basic mechanics- like her Apoplectic Bolt and Bleak Sight. I don't intend there to be much, no more than half an hour for a thorough playthrough and less than 5 if you're doing a speedrun. Yay skippable cutscenes.

    Incidentally, the play thread is over here: https://www.digitalwildwest.org/threads/midara-requiem-aka-necrololi-quest-playthread.330/
     
    Last edited: Apr 28, 2019
  3. Threadmarks: Reserve post
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    This thread won't need extra reserves the way the game thread does, but I'm reserving this in case it turns out I still need one.
     
    Last edited: Jan 15, 2019
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  4. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 1
    TanaNari

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    Elruin climbed up from the muck, disheveled but unharmed. Confused, she began piecing together what just happened. First, Father was dead. Second, he shot her after saying something about her not being his. Elruin couldn't parse together what that was supposed to mean; she'd have to ask Mama about that.

    Distracted from sorting out the events of the last few minutes, she looked down at the body of her now-human looking father. Not only did he shoot her, he also grabbed her and hit her. She couldn't understand what she did wrong, but maybe he could tell her. Her eyes turned inky black, as she began to hum the song she learned from her new friend.

    Her eyes observed the skeleton, reading its notes and patterns; there was nothing left of the intelligent will from before, merely the strings needed to allow a puppet to dance. It was a doll, nothing more.

    Elruin smiled. "I have a dolly!" Toys were a rare luxury for her.

    She began in earnest, singing to the corpse of her late father. Necromantic power surged up from within her, washing over the area. Flowers whithered, plants died, and insects fled. The body in front of her twitched while undying threads were woven through the flesh and chained to the bones. Thread too frail to support the metaphysical weight of a human corpse.

    Elruin gave up; perhaps some day, she'd be strong and skilled enough to create new dollies for herself, but for now all she got for her efforts was a corpse that looked like it had been sitting out in the hot sun until it turned into a raisin.

    However, this was the first time she truly looked at a human with her sight. The patterns, the structures, the nature of their life and death, wasn't all that different than those of the rodents she drove from the buildings as her primary duty. As with rats, humans had concentrations of life energy, mostly in the chest and head area. Those were the vulnerable places, if she ever had to defend herself again.

    She noted that the day was getting late, and Father did want the wall repaired, so she sang the details of what a wall looked like in her mind to her minion. But she also remembered when Grandma died, and was buried, so she instructed her dolly to put Father's body along the path of the fence, so she could both bury her father like she was supposed to, and build the fence as was the chore she was assigned.

    Satisfied that Father was properly buried, she held her hands together and looked at the ground as she was shown. "He's dead now. He will be remembered."

    With little left but allowing her dolly work, Elruin left the site of the mudslide and began the long trudge back home. By the time she got back to the farm proper, the sun was well into the process of converting a cold, wet morning into a hot, humid afternoon.

    Carob saw her first. He was Elruin's favorite brother, one of the elder twins, and one of the only that would play with her sometimes. The moment he saw her, noticed she was alone, he left his pitchfork next to the piled hay in order to meet her halfway. "What happened to Father?" He looked at the hole in her dress, caked with mud and blood. "Are you okay?"

    "Umm, a monster got us!" Elruin blurted the first thing that came to mind. "It was big and scary and ate Father!"

    "Merat!" Carob swore under his breath. If he'd been more attentive, he may have questioned Elruin's story, but he had no reason to believe she was lying. After all, she was covered in blood, and Father hadn't returned with her. Something serious had happened, of that there was no doubt.

    He raised his hand to the sky, drew on his own limited magic potential, and sent a blood red bolt into the air. The bolt struck the protective barrier and joined with it, which turned the sky deep orange; an artificial sunset that last all of four seconds. It was nothing more than a basic illusion spell, light twisted and warped by magic, but it was a cheap spell that under the right conditions could be seen for miles. Ideal for sounding alerts across a large farm.

    Signal sent, Carob turned his attention back to Elruin. "You're very strong and brave, making it this far on your own." He knelt to pick up his presumed wounded little sister, carrying her bridal style across the still muddy ground. "I'll get you to Mother. She'll heal you."

    "Okay." Elruin put her arms around her big brother, watched as he pushed just a little magical power into enhancing his strength and speed. It wasn't so different from the methods of necromancy which kept her new dolly moving where flesh had long ago failed, though the two types of energy could not be more different otherwise.

    By the time they got to the central barn, almost everyone living on the farm had begun to gather, including Othsa.

    Carob began to announce the situation to the others; stragglers would be drafted as they arrived. "According to Elruin, there was a monster attack that hurt her and wounded Father. We need to organize a response."

    He set Elruin down on the ground in front of their mother. Meanwhile, he eyed her for signs of censure. With her husband missing and reported dead, she was the farm's matriarch unless he was found alive, but cultural propriety meant that the responsibility of commanding the men fell to Carob as eldest son. The role of dealing with the women, including Elruin, fell to her without question.

    Othsa, shocked by the news that her husband of decades might be dead, showed little emotion beyond pain and fear. She was in no condition to make decisions, but Carob didn't need her express permission to take charge, only a lack of forbiddance.

    He glanced over at Onol, his twin, next. If they argued, Mother would be forced to take sides, which she was not equipped to handle at this moment. So he selected the most important secondary task for him. "Onol, I need you to go get the weapons." Phrased as a request, not an order. "Take anyone you need to help; we want every man armed and ready to do a manhunt. Maybe Father's still alive, maybe we can save him if we move fast. Or at least avenge his death and save others."

    While Carob was busy, Elruin finally got a chance to ask her question: "Mother? Why did Father say I wasn't his?"

    For a moment, the whole area was silent. Onol stopped in the middle of picking a third assistant, Carob choked over his orders to gather some horses and assigning scouts.

    Othsa, still in shock, said the only thing she could think of. "You must have misheard him."

    There was nobody in that room, save perhaps Elruin, who believed her words for a moment. Some had harbored suspicions of infidelity for years, though others doubted that the unnatural child in their midst could be the scion of any mortal coupling. The belief that she might be a changeling or the result of some fell curse grew as she did.

    Carob cleared his throat. "Darak, get the horses! Eril, I want your hawks on scouting duty! We have no time to waste, men!" That got the message across; men dealt with men's problems, and women dealt with women's problems. A rule he was never so grateful for as he was today.

    =====

    A/N- I love Elruin being not-quite-right in the head. It makes the weirdness of acting based upon votes a lot more explicable. Such things as leaving behind the magic crossbow, or forgetting the blood from her wound, or all the other strangeness of her actions, can be explained away. It. Is. Awesome.

    Also, if this were a visual novel, Carob would be the 'incest' option. But it's not. Don't even think about it.

    Side note- the profanities seen. "Entek" is a light profanity, more or less literally means "rotting garbage/refuse", and is used much as we use "shit". While "Merat" literally means "murder", and is a grave insult, reserved for situations where a man is willing to kill another man. Like if someone killed your father and wounded your sister, as an example.

    The reason Kalis didn't use that flare spell Carob used? He couldn't... he didn't have the right magical affinity. That'll be explained in-universe later on, but a great deal of magic ability runs in bloodlines, mainly the female line. And genetics do all sorts of fun stuff with dominant and recessive, epigenetic, and then there's training... but as a general rule, the answer to "why don't they cast a spell that..." will be "they lack that spell", "they're out of power", or the occasional "they didn't think of it."

    As far as social norms are concerned, this society has a hard divide between men and women, and it's considered highly inappropriate for men to command women, or vice-versa. Touch contact is also expressly forbidden. Exceptions are rare, and usually only apply to marital partners, direct relatives (specifically, parents or elder siblings- the society is also big on respecting elders), or as the result of disastrous emergencies. The indignity of being commanded by an opposite-sex stranger is something only slaves and criminals will likely ever endure.

    In situations where one sex does need to ask something of the other (perhaps sale or purchase at a storefront that doesn't have an appropriate sex worker at the moment), the conversation will be ritualistically polite.

    This, too, will be shown in more detail later on, but it could take a while to get to that point.

    And last but far from least, I borked the "suggested listening" in the last chapter. The second link should have went to this song: Stormfrost Manor.
     
    Last edited: Jan 18, 2019
    nox, Grell23, 05eolsale and 15 others like this.
  5. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 2
    TanaNari

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    Suggested Listening

    As the men went out to deal with the "monster" which Elruin made up, which would lead them straight to the other "monster" which was very much real, she remained with Mother and a couple of her elder sisters. Mother shook like she was crying, but no tears came.

    "Are you hurt?" She touched the back of Mother's hand, cautiously, and looked at the smudge of dirt she left behind. "Can I help?" She didn't know how; her magic was anything but good for healing, but she felt she was responsible for Mother being hurt, and wanted to try.

    "N-no, I'm okay." Even Elruin wasn't fooled by that lie. "You're a good girl, let's look at where you've been hurt." She didn't have strength enough for a blanket healing spell, so she'd have to focus on the worst damage before treating the wounds in the mundane fashion. It wasn't perfect, but they didn't have the luxury of perfection right now.

    With Othsa's assistance, Elruin was stripped of her soiled, bloody blouse whilst Saria, one of the triplets a couple years older than her, went for some water from the cistern. Kasa and Inoin, the other two of that trio, gathered around to help check Elruin.

    When it became clear Othsa wasn't going to ask, Kasa did. "Elruin, I can't find where you were hurt."

    Were it anyone else, Kasa would suspect she'd lied about the attack, but Elruin was... unique. She'd personally seen the girl, then only five years old, get kicked in the face by a horse, and walk away without so much as a cut or bruise for the experience. Then there were the Reclaimers, one of whom she watched rip a tree twice as wide as a man out of the ground with his bare hands, and heard rumors of others who could summon a storm with a gentle sigh, so it was easy to think of Elruin as a child who might one day grow up to be like them.

    Coming away unharmed, or healing, from an attack by a monster strong enough to kill Father when he had the Minotaur shard confirmed suspicions, rather than challenged them. Powerful without question, perhaps even inhuman, but not unbelievable.

    "Uh, Father did something with his magic stone?" Elruin said to her, more as a question than a statement.

    Now she was suspicious; Father was a hard man, and Kasa doubted he'd risk his precious magic artifact to save any of his children, let alone Elruin, who he apparently believed wasn't his. He might be right about her, too, as Elruin looked nothing like him. Then, she looked nothing like Mother, or any of her siblings, or indeed anyone whom Kasa had ever seen in her life.

    "When?" Kasa asked. "If he was being attacked, when did he have time?"

    "I..." Elruin knew she was caught in the lie, but she behaved as a normal twelve year olds would have for once, and doubled down. "It was the same time as he said he knew I wasn't his." Which may have been the least believable thing said by anyone that day.

    "You're lying!" Othsa grabbed Elruin's shoulders, gripping her as hard as her trembling hands would allow. "Tell me what happened to my husband you freak!"

    Elruin barely felt the pressure, but having Mother scream in her face upset her, as did having her lies fall apart so quickly. She went to the next default behavior of a little girl in such a scenario. "I don't know." Another child might have screamed or cried, but Elruin remained calm. Inside her head, however, she remembered when Father gripped her, and a little of how she had to defend herself crept forward.

    Her eyes went from deep purple to solid black as she began to tap into her power. She saw her mother, the flaws in her health, and depleted life force. Mother had little choice but to tap into her personal life energies in order to use magic, while Elruin had a special reserve that would allow her to use her magic without hurting herself, though she saw no reason why she couldn't draw on life force to empower her magic if she needed. It wasn't all that different from what her skeleton did to destroy her father's magic stone and save her, as well.

    Kasa again acted. "Look, it's been a stressful day for everyone. We should rest, wait for the men to get back. Elruin, take a bath, you're covered in filth. Mother, maybe you should lie down and try to get some rest? When they bring Father back, he might need your help." She crossed a line of propriety by giving instructions to Mother, but it was clear Mother was in no condition to make good decisions.

    "You're right." Othsa relaxed her grip. She made no effort to apologize for her outburst, but a parent was not meant to apologize to a child. Besides, it was clear to everyone that Elruin was hiding something. They would just have to trust the men to discover what it was and report back before confronting the girl again to get the truth.

    Elruin went to the bath house to clean herself; if she wanted to take the time, she could have perhaps heated some water, but the cold never bothered her, so she began to scrub herself of the dried mud and blood on her body, allowing the dirty water to spill on the ground. She was happy enough to be away from Mother and Father and their bizarre, irregular behaviors. It was better to follow the routine, safe and predictable as it was.

    Still, she had something else to do. Going to the house, she picked out one of her nicer blouses, a hand-me-down that had been gifted to one of her eldest sisters before Elruin had even been born, and now had made its way to her. She couldn't remember that sister's face; she got married and moved away long ago. A new dress was needed as well, and so Elruin was in a fresh change of clothes when she went to the barn to play with the rats and test her new song.

    Suggested Listening

    The rats died as they always did, hiding in holes where they believed themselves safe until the reaper came in the form of a young girl with more power than any child should possess. The difference was that death was usually content to leave its victims alone afterward, while Elruin sang to the creatures.

    Around her, the hay dried and cracked under the necrotic power she radiated. There was no scent in the decomposition; decay was a natural process brought on by mold and insects, while Elruin's power cleansed those hapless organisms as thoroughly as it did all life.

    The rodents twisted, twitched, stumbled to their feet, then fell again. She could use her power to force the body into motion, but no matter how she tried she could not create a motivating force in them. Every step, every act, had to be guided by the notes of her song. Their small size didn't help matters, either, as they burned up in mere minutes of exposure to her magic.

    Having given up on the rodents as worthless, she turned her attention to the one dolly she knew she could rely upon, out rebuilding the wall as a good worker should. Her song echoed throughout the barn, upset the animals outside, but she could not sing loud enough for her dolly to hear her from so far away.

    She need not have worried, for her dolly came to her. She first saw it through her life sight; two people retreating back to the farm on the back of one of the horses. Not far behind them, her dolly pursued. One was healthy to her sight, though exhausted and depleted of magic, the other looked to have received a wound that would be fatal without magical aid. The horse was on its last breath, mere seconds from collapsing under the strain of running for its life.

    Once she stepped out of the barn to see with her own eyes, she could see the dolly was missing an arm, what was left of the left side of its skull had been smashed in, and its leg was broken in half. It could only run thanks to the necromantic power holding it together. It was bathed in so much blood that it was hard to find a color other than red on it.

    On the horse was Carob, and a farmhand Elruin had never talked to. Her brother was the one who was fine.

    "It's coming!" He shouted. "Get indoors! Hide!"

    Elruin knew on instinct and experience that hiding would be impossible; the undead did not see light, nor did they hear sound. Their senses were not all that different than her own, and if her sisters hid then they would be hunted down the same as the rats Elruin hunted.

    She didn't want anyone else to see her sing, but it appeared that was her only choice aside from letting her dolly kill everyone.

    =====

    A/N- In the actual game (that may or may not ever exist), it will no doubt be changed so that Elruin's blouse is only pushed up to look at the wound rather than having a little girl running around topless and getting the censors in a tizzy... but anybody with more medical knowledge than the morons in Hollywood will tell you that you get people out of bloody, mud-soaked clothes when performing aid (most of the time, at any rate)... infections are a scary thing, especially in the era before antibiotics. Not that it makes a difference in this particular case, but still.

    Inoin is pronounced In-oh-in, and does not rhyme with "coin", if you're curious.

    And it was only now that I realized that "Carob" is the name of a chocobo green in Final Fantasy 7. This is an unrelated coincidence, and if I'd thought of it, I'd have used a different name for him. Oh well, it stays.

    There are many farmhands Elruin never talks to. In part because the separation of the sexes made conversations inconvenient, and in part because Elruin is freaky-creepy and they try to avoid her in particular.


    Also- this is a story thread, but that doesn't mean it's "story alone"- you're allowed to make comments here if you like. There's just no voting.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2019
  6. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 3
    TanaNari

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    Elruin ignored Carob's warning; her dolly was no threat to her. Carob tried to slow his horse, to help his addled sister, but the animal ignored his efforts. Death was all but literally at its heals, and instinct alone commanded the beast.

    Her dolly ignored her as if she weren't there, or was already dead. If she wanted to save her family, she had to sing.

    And so she did.

    Chaos erupted throughout the farm as animals fled from the song, the women hiding in the homestead shouted in fear, and the horse which carried Carob and the farmhand stumbled into the dirt and mud. That it had ran this far through the rough, muddy ground was a testament to its strength, but it was still just a horse, and it had reached its limits long ago.

    The skeleton froze in its tracks, held by the power of Requiem as Elruin picked through what passed for its mind; it looked like her instructions to build the wall were still there, and in a scenario where it was left alone, it might have continued working mindlessly forever, finding stones and piling them until the wall had ceased to be a wall, and had become a mountain.

    Beneath that, if it were to complete its task, it had to protect itself. If her brothers and their employees had left the dolly alone, it would have ignored them. They must have attacked it.

    She was distracted from her exploration of the underpinning nature of the undead when her brother approached them, wielding a splitting maul he no doubt took from the tool shed as a weapon. Trembling, he worked his way around, to sneak up behind the monster while it seemed immobile.

    She could let it happen, but she also wanted to save her dolly. She did what she'd been trying to do all day, and lied again. "Please stay back. I could lose control if you get too close." Ingrained habit and the structure of their language had her phrase it as a request, rather than a command or warning.

    Carob hesitated; he wasn't a mystic or a scholar. What little knowledge he had of magic was enough to tell that Elruin was doing something with magic, but he had no idea what or how. He could see that the horror had stopped moving, which was better than he and his men had accomplished. Perhaps it was like dealing with an animal; she was keeping the thing docile somehow, but even a docile animal could be dangerous if spooked.

    He did understand that right now, Elruin was outputting more magical energy than he had ever seen of anyone save the occasional Reclaimer that had come through, and that the energy unsettled him almost as much as it did the animals. He wouldn't admit it, even to himself, but right now he feared his sister more than he feared the monster. "Okay, you know what you're doing." I hope.

    "Three above, four below!" Othsa gasped after having come out to see the commotion. She may not have recognized the corpse, but to her eyes the armor was unmistakable. Despite having been buried for over a decade, it still glimmered as if it had been shined and polished just yesterday. "No!" She fell to her knees. "It can't be."

    Her exclamations devolved from shouts to incoherent sobbing and gibberish in a matter of seconds.

    Carob wanted to go to his mother, to comfort her, or at least beg her not to make a bad situation worse by breaking down in public, but he was now the official man of the house. Kasa broke away from the cluster of eight girls; with Mother inconsolable, it now fell on her and her brother to run the household. There would be time enough later for her tears.

    She looked to her brother. "How do we save the farm?" Despite wanting to be strong, she choked on her words; they were an admission that Father was dead, granting permission to Carob to take Father's role. For the purposes of social convention, he was Father, now. She stamped down the stray thought that at least Carob liked her favorite suitor better than Father had.

    For his part, Carob couldn't meet her eyes; all the same fears tore through him as well, and the sight of almost half his family butchered was fresh in his mind. "We can't."

    Kasa reached out to him. "No!" Breaking protocol, but now was no time for protocol. Until Mother got better, she'd be taking the role of the woman of the house and that meant she didn't have to be subservient to her brother. "There must be a way, you just have to try harder."

    "All the men are gone." Not completely true, but there were only four remaining where they needed at least ten to complete just the daily chores. "And we can't..." he took a glance at the blood-soaked monster not too far from them. "Nobody will want to come here, not after today." They couldn't afford to pay them if they would, anyway.

    Kasa couldn't find an argument to that. Instead, she took the other approach to fix the more immediate problem: that thing standing in the path. "Elruin, how long can you control that thing?"

    "I... I don't know, but as long as I can sing it'll be fine." Elruin offered.

    "Tonight, tomorrow at the latest," Kasa decided. "We have until Elruin gets tired to destroy that thing."

    A clear goal helped Carob think. "We won't find a Reclaimer by then, but if we head for town, we should be able to find a priestess. They'll be able to send for an exorcist." Magical conventions weren't his strong suit, but everyone knew at least something of the religious orders and their general practices. "On the plus side, they won't charge us, not to deal with this. And if we get lucky, we may even find an Ecrosian who'll help with... everything else. On the other hand..."

    He trailed off; he couldn't imagine that the priests would treat Elruin well.

    Kasa took to the other concern. "Everyone will know there was an outbreak. We might have to abandon the farm, and nobody will buy anything from us, even if the priests say it's safe." She left out that 'anything' included the people. She had a hopeful fiance to consider, her sisters, too, had potential futures for themselves. A farmer's daughter wasn't worth much on the market, but it was still enough to marry a farmer's son and have a future.

    If this news became public, their futures were limited to grave digging for the men, and prostitution for the women. Under no circumstance could she accept that. "Elruin, I want you to take that... thing... head north along the road, let nobody see you and especially nobody see it. You'll find a place with a wall like ours, only a hundred times bigger, with houses that are made of stone. When you get there, send that thing to at the walls. They've got real mages and knights there, it won't even get within throwing distance."

    Carob held his tongue, no good came of questioning his sister's suggestion in that regard. It would take care of the monster in a way that protected the farm, at any rate. "And the dead? The wall?"

    "Burn them all." Fire was a good way to cleanse just about any magical energy; except fire itself, of course. Water was another good choice, but less useful in this situation. "If asked, say it was a dragon that killed them. If they don't believe you, I'll say I saw it and describe a Chimera. They don't get much larger than a bull, but most of them do breathe fire. I've read about them in some books, and no two ever look the same, so it'll be believable enough. We'll have to watch after that, make sure no other necromantic taint pops up and do our best to get an Ecrosian priestess out here to make doubly certain when possible."

    "And... the farm?" Carob knew his little sister was smart, but he hadn't realized how ruthless she could be.

    "I..." she hesitated. "I don't know. If we can keep it going just a couple more years, that's enough time to get all our sisters married off. It's still a good chunk of land, and in an okay spot. Maybe someone will want to buy it? We can sell a lot of the animals, if we're desperate enough. We can't take care of all of them now anyway. Or... if we have to... we could turn it into a commune town..."

    A commune wasn't an ideal choice, but there was always more people than there was land safe from monsters. Reclaimers made themselves rich driving out monsters long enough to build the defensive barriers, then selling the property that they owned by Right of Reclamation. Promising a place to build a home would bring many young men, and later young women hoping to marry a landowner.

    It would mean giving up control of the property, of a legacy started by their great-great grandparents, but they could retain some control by living as what amounted to petty lords, collecting rent for a time, which would keep them going long enough for the family to find a graceful place to take shelter from the fallout.

    Meanwhile, Elruin listened to their discussion and hummed to her enslaved minion; she wasn't forgotten, but she wasn't welcome in their plans, and she had her own goals to consider.


    =====

    A/N- In truth, every time Elruin sings, my mind goes to Ar Tonelico's "Exec_Despedia" - but to my knowledge, there's no legal and free source of that particular piece of work available on the 'net, and I'm trying to keep to either open license stuff, or giving a link to the creator of the music's page (usually a youtube channel) since they clearly want people going there to listen to their music. I imagine.

    Ethical respect, one creator to another. Also I like to be not sued, thanks.

    You'll have to find Exec_Despedia on your own. Then imagine a somewhat softer, more operatic and less rock/metal variant to understand my personal vision for Elruin's Requiem.
     
  7. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 4
    TanaNari

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    Elruin obediently led her dolly through the gates to the farm, then headed straight for the nearby forest to hide the creature. The first step of her plan complete, she turned right around to head back, perhaps with a lie about how she already got rid of her dolly and plans to go around the farm collecting rodents to play with and maybe her father's crossbow that he loved so well.

    Plans dashed when she saw the heavy wooden gates had been closed behind her. Unsure of what to do next, and not enthused with Kasa's plan to get her dolly destroyed, Elruin began to do what she was going to do anyway, but with squirrels. She'd often heard Father and others call them tree rats, so they couldn't be much different than normal rats save for where they lived.

    As it turns out, squirrels were smarter and harder to find than her usual prey. Normal rats didn't run until she got closer, and hid in places where she could still see them. Tree rats, on the other hand, liked to hide in, well, trees. Trees were alive, and that meant she couldn't see through them the way she could see through dead wood. Also, squirrels ran whenever she got anywhere near them, so even when she saw one, she never got close enough to hit the target.

    Her clothes and hair covered in brambles, she gave up on her hunt. On the plus side, she found some ripe raspberries to make up for her missed lunch. It was getting late, now, and she wasn't sure what she was supposed to do when night fell.


    =====

    A/N- The best laid plans of tree-mice and necrololis.

    Sorry for the short chapter, but, well, there was only so much that could be done with those particular votes.
     
    Last edited: Jan 21, 2019
  8. Threadmarks: Gods, Religion and Cosmology of Midara
    TanaNari

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    This is probably a good thing to have up, anyway.


    Spirits- Midara is an animistic world, where every living (and the vast majority of not living) things have at least some spiritual presence. Every rock, every blade of grass, every drop of water. The vast majority of these spirits are no more remarkable than the physical elements they're connected to. The spirit of a raindrop is fleeting, ephemeral, less individually meaningful than a mayfly. The spirit of a river can be vast, ancient, and powerful beyond mortal comprehension. Both, by definition, remain water spirits... but that's almost the only thing they'll share in common.


    Mages and Monsters- Magic capable beings, including many nonsapient beasts, are the product of spirits "breeding" with living things. First-generation hybrids are highly mutable and difficult to anticipate; as almost spirit can breed with almost any living thing, the possible combinations are bordering upon the infinite. The only sure things is that the hybrid will in physical form resemble the corporeal parent (which is the mother in the case of most animals), but may have such traits as extra limbs, wings, or other body parts... and their Magical Affinity will be identical to the spirit parent.

    The power of the spirit parent also mattes; weak spirits may not even have a notable impact of their offspring, while the strongest can sire demigods.

    Things get even more messy when it turns out that most hybrids retain their spirit parents' ability to breed with just about any living thing, producing an endless array of chimera, gryphons, manticore, centaurs, and the like. Many bawdy jokes and tavern songs exist speculating upon the... mechanical difficulties... of these couplings...

    Other patterns are as much imagined as real, with no real rules beyond the assumptions of the scholar writing that particular manuscript.

    It is known without question that over time the magical blood dilutes into the gene pool until it reaches a fairly predictable stable, if weak, point. This often results in odd features- the most common being unusual eye, hair and skin color. Altered eye or ear shapes, unusual body hair, tails, claws, and on rare occasion wings have found their way into the bloodline as well, creating a vast array of peoples... but those people are still descendant of humans, along with some long forgotten blend of spirits.

    To ensure their magical bloodlines, many of the upper class go out of their way to court spirit favors, in hopes of being gifted with a hybrid child. That this lets the powerful remain powerful is... well, there's no escaping the shackles of power and politics, regardless of the reality.

    However, genetic surprises aren't unheard of, however, and sometimes long-dormant magical lines can blend together in just the right combination of alleles to produce incredibly powerful people with no direct source of magical blood. In public, they're often called champions of the people... in the private halls of the old blood, they're often derided as "mud heroes".

    In any case, it's the magical monsters that the wealthy and poor alike are more concerned with. Animals and plants, and the spirits which mate with them, vastly outnumber humans... so while the rules seem little different in animals as to how bloodlines work, the sheer overwhelming numbers place humanity at a disadvantage, fighting a ceaseless war with the environment itself.

    If a Mud Hero can turn back the tide, drive back even a single dragon and in doing so save thousands of lives, then the nobility can simply grant them a title and invite them to a party. Meanwhile, the scattered enclaves of human civilization remain cowering behind magically augmented walls, and even the powerful hesitate to traverse the wilds.


    Lesser Gods- In Midara, most people don't place a lot of seriousness on the "Ideal" of godly beings, or that a being has to be some sort of infallible, perfect thing in order to be worshiped. That's a luxury for people who aren't in a constant state of war with the world itself. In Midara, there are only two things one must do to claim godhood. First: call yourself a god. Second: destroy everyone who disagrees with that opinion.

    However, lesser gods don't tend to be given much attention when they're not in the actual room with their followers. Powerful as they are, they are given respect, and if they act in a way that is good they can earn loyalty and love, or gain fear and servitude if they inclined to the other direction. But ultimately they can only be in one place, and are often still mortal enough to die of aging sooner or later.

    Few scholars even bother collecting the names of these lesser gods, save in local historical records.


    Ancestral Gods- These beings are spirits, and exceedingly powerful ones at that. Nigh immortal, these beings are locked in one place, their equivalent physical form, but it's usually a vast body and they can turn their attentions anywhere within it. Ancestral gods can have tens of thousands of people living within their domains, who worship them. They are offered prayer, because they will hear. They are shown loyalty, because they will remember. Sometimes, they even are biological ancestors of many in the villages and cities that line their bodies.

    They also share a symbiotic relationship with their worshipers- the magical energies generated from prayer are individually minuscule, but enough matches can burn as bright as any bonfire. In turn, the spirits (especially water and earth spirits, the most popular Ancestral gods) can drive off monsters, serve as dispensers of knowledge and magical blessings (and sometimes even demigod offspring), and ensure peace between city-states. Even if the culture wasn't so caught up on respect of elders (it's hard to get more elder than a river or mountain), it's just not a good idea to piss something off that can kill everything you've ever loved in an eyeblink. Conflict between cities that worship the same Ancestral god are handled with diplomats, lawyers, and priests. War is for outsiders.

    These gods are numerous, only truly noteworthy to those in their territory and neighboring territories, and lack any real power outside that territory save what magical protections they can grant to shield their servitors in wars with foreign Ancestral territories. Still, no scholar who writes a map does so without painstakingly listing the name and core territory of every Ancestral god.


    High Gods- More "concepts" than "beings", these gods are worshiped by peoples across the world and believed to be as old as magic itself. There eighteen High Gods, one for each Aspect of Magic, and these beings have absolute control over that element as well as more than a little power in neighboring fields. They can be wherever their Aspect resides- and each Aspect exists in most places.

    Some debate if there are only the eighteen, or if there are entire micro-pantheons for each element, as it is rare for worshipers to describe their prayer-visions as the same as other worshipers, and most appear of differing sexes, species, objects and sensations with each worshiper. Most scholars who favor the same-being theory point out that even Ancestral gods are often above the limitations of a singular form, and the High Gods are far above any Ancestral god. Some suggest that perhaps they are above even the concept of self, and can be singular or plural as they see fit... in any case, their power to perform miracles and grant visions to their worshipers is never in question.

    Every High god has some worshipers, but they are less active and less interested in mortal affairs, and thus more a concern for scholastic mages and dedicated clergy. The largest churches in question serve the following High Gods:

    Ecross: God of Nature; favored by anyone who enters the wilderness. Is one of the more notable "war gods" of the setting. Ecrosian religious orders believe strongly in large families, self-reliance, and personal growth. Bravery and cultivation are core tenants.
    Ifaril: God of the Forge; favored by the dwarves and and most artificers. As with Ecross, Ifaril pushes a doctrine of growth, but the growth of knowledge and society as a whole, rather than Ecrosian individualism. Responsibility and caution are core tenants.
    Nemil: God of the Rains; perhaps the most universal god, Nemil represents cleansing, healing, and freedom. Would likely be the most popular of all the High Gods, but is notoriously unreliable.
    Yeris: God of Ice; Not a popular 'worship' god, but one whose priesthood is well respected for their power against the monsters of the land, when not accused of being a suicide cult. Yeris preaches an embrace of the inevitable, and that part of a good life is dying on your terms, without regret or resistance.
    Glage: God of Consumption; Few admit to following this nihilistic god of death and flame. A self-oriented deity that has no interest in bravery and is the opposite of slow cultivation. Teaches a life of callousness, and then going out in a blaze of glory. Favored amongst mercenaries, bandits, and gamblers.
    Klero: God of Light; an that teaches order, discipline, and devotion to Truth above all other things. Their rigid doctrine earns them little love amongst the common people, but their skill, power, and efficiency attract quite a few amongst the military and scholarly castes.
    Lenor: God of Sight; Sometimes also known as Goddess of Magic, this one embraces pursuit of knowledge not as part of some other goal, but as the goal in and of itself. These scholars care not if or how their knowledge is used, simply that they know it. Distrusted for their penchant toward forbidden magic, and their nasty habit of using scrying magic for blackmail purposes.

    (There are plenty of others, but that's enough for now.)

    The Seven: These beings are above even the High Gods, and have little or nothing to do with human life. They are only known to exist because the High Gods mention them in a manner of respect and perhaps fear. They have no known names, no interest mortal action, and if they act in the world, they do so without mortal knowledge. Can on occasion be referred to in religious texts, or used in creative profanity (Three Above, Four Below is a term for something so morally offensive that only a universe where evil rules can allow it to exist).

    There are no rituals or shrines devoted to The Seven, nor do scholars have any sort of strong opinion on them. They exist, they don't care about humanity, and they don't expect humanity to care about them, and there might be seven of them (though that's questionable), this is all that is known.


    =====

    A/N- Because why not flesh out the universe a little more?
     
  9. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 5
    TanaNari

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    Locked out of the normal entrance, and with nowhere to go, Elruin took the long way around to the mudslide, with the hopes of sneaking back into the farm. An hour of traveling through uneven, messy terrain made her even more a mess than she had already been, and when she got to the wall it was still drooping with an area she could climb under.

    Save for the magical barrier backing up the physical. Though weakened by the circumstances of storm and the assault from Elruin's guardian, it was by no stretch of the imagination broken, and it had been designed to withstand assaults by forces far more powerful than an inexperienced preteen necromancer.

    Using her unnatural sight, she could spot some amount of the magical flow dancing through the air, empowering the field, and it was beyond her strength. Perhaps if a few more of the defensive crystals were broken, but she could only reach those from the other side. Perhaps if they got another superstorm tonight, but that didn't seem likely.

    While she prodded at the farm's defenses, both physical and magical, some latent memory awoke within her dolly. It knelt in the mud, then began to pry away at the muck with its one clawed hand. Elruin paid it no mind, for contrary to her lie to Carob, there was no threat from it unless someone attacked it while she wasn't nearby to hold the leash.

    Then he pulled out a long, narrow dagger. Too long, perhaps, to be called a dagger, but still too short to be called a sword, and too thin and round to be either. Not being an expert in the finer distinctions between instruments of pointy death, the best she could compare it to was an oversized horseshoe nail. It was a pretty weapon which still possessed a sharp, silvery sheen despite its time in the mud.

    As she approached her dolly, it extracted larger, blocky object from the depths. Larger than the dagger by far, Elruin at first thought it might be a small shield covered in much, but then the skeleton set it on his lap and began wiping the dirt away. It took time, but it was revealed to be a fiddle, of better craftsmanship than any of the instruments Elruin had seen on the farm over the years.

    Having set the instrument on the ground, the creature then proceeded to drag the flat edge of the dagger across the strings of what Elruin might some day learn was known as the violin. A long, sharp, but ultimately monotonous tone was drawn from the instrument by the creature; what memories were still wedged deep in the skeleton's program stopped well short of performing the music it no doubt knew in life.

    Still, it gave Elruin ideas. Her song, the notes of her Requiem, could carry through an instrument just as surely as through her voice. Better, perhaps; a good instrument would be able to carry the notes further than she could by vocal chords alone. Elruin took the dagger and instrument from her skeletal ally; it didn't seem to know what to do with them anymore, anyway.

    The dagger itself surprised her when she touched it. It drained away her magic, but it didn't steal it, it stored it within the metal, inside some magical container that Elruin could not guess at how it worked. The power would remain there until... something happened. She wasn't sure what exactly that 'something' was, but it looked to her like it was waiting for something. Even so, it wouldn't be hard for her to draw her power back out if she needed to, so she could use it as a magic battery for the time being.

    Now, it was getting late. The farm had not opened its gates, and she knew no way to sneak in. She began looking for a place to take shelter for the night.

    Which turned out to not be all that hard to find, in the end. Furrows carved by rushing water lined the area, and created alcoves that a small child could take shelter in. With her skeleton to stand guard, she felt secure for the night.

    She should not have.

    Late into the night, she was awoken by deep, cruel, mocking laughter. "What do we have here?" a voice in the darkness muttered. "A child left to die," what sounded like the same voice answered back from a different location. In her tiny cave, Elruin couldn't make out much.

    One huge, dark shadow passed in front of her hiding place. A glowing, red eye looked inward straight at her, through the ribs of her skeletal guardian. It stood steady, fearless and ready to protect her from any threat. Its core program compelled it to run outward, and kill the closest threat, but that conflicted with the fact that if it did so, the entrance to her hiding place would be vulnerable for another to get through.

    "Oh, little child, why not come out to play?" Any attempt to sound friendly was ruined by the deep, gruff timber of its voice as well as the cackling of other noises around her.

    "We're harmless puppies." "We're lonely." "So long since we've had any humans to play with." Elruin couldn't tell which of them were speaking, or from what direction. Every voice seemed identical and they all seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. When they weren't speaking like people, there was a constant stream of soft, yipping noises which made it impossible to determine how many there were, or their positions.

    "I can't come out to play!" Elruin shouted out at them. "It's my bedtime." The logic of a child is an odd one.

    "Oh, but you don't have a bedtime anymore." "Your parents don't care about you." "They sent you out here to die." "So many scary monsters."

    "No, they didn't!" That her parents had nothing to do with her being out here was a technical truth. "I had to take my dolly to town."

    The yipping laughter began anew. "Three days from here." "Alone with all the monsters in the forest." "Such a cruel, cruel fate for a child." "Better just to end it now, than to suffer such cruelty from one's own family."

    "Go away!" Elruin shouted at them. "My dolly will save me from the monsters!"

    "Ah, yes, the dolly." "Such a loyal monster, obedient without question." "It makes a magnificent guard dog." "Perhaps it would even be enough." "But, such would be an even crueler fate." "To think, the horrors you would witness if you lived to reach the city." "Do you know what they do to those who play with the dead?" "It would be kinder if your parents slit your throat." "Or come out, play with us." "We promise you won't feel a thing." "Never see it coming."

    Through all their talk, they didn't seem interested in attacking. They just circled, over and over again in front of her cavern.

    "But, siblings, she is just one little girl." "A tiny waif of a morsel." "Hardly worth the effort to chew." "I bet all the farm work has made her tough and stringy." "Barely more nourishment than her guard." "And I bet necromancers taste terrible, anyway." "But waste not, want not." "True, true, one mustn't turn up their nose at an easy lunch, even if it's a meager one." "Yet there is another way." "Do share, dear brother."

    They stopped speaking for a moment, but the yipping barks continued without pause.

    "If our abandoned farm girl were to help us, we could get so much more." "Oh, I see." "You always were the smart one." "All you have to do, little girl, is help us open the farm gates." "Imagine all the food!" "So many delicious cows." "And pigs!" "And sheep!"

    "Yes, all the food we can imagine." "We would be so fat!" "And happy!" "Certainly, we'd have no need to hunt little farm girls, with such a feast awaiting us." "And you owe no loyalty to them." "They abandoned you." "Left you to die." "Torn apart by monsters." "Or worse, by men." "Humans are such cruel beasts." "Nothing in this world so twisted." "Sending their children to die." "Too cowardly to do the deed themselves."

    "Turn the tables on them." "Open the gates." "Send them to the fate they were sending you to." "It is only fair." "It is only just." "Teach them the law of nature."

    The forest went silent, waiting for Elruin's response.


    =====

    A/N- At night, the dickwolves come.

    Well, technically, they are giant coyotes rather than wolves. Because wolves have been done to goddamn death. Thus the voice-pitching, cackling, and seeming to be everywhere at once. It's actually quite fascinating, the little vocal tricks coyotes can and do use to coordinate with each other and disorient prey... nature's most brutal ventriloquists... but I say that from the outside looking in. Having been surrounded by the creatures on a couple occasions, I assure you it's perhaps the most unnerving experience of my life. Remind me to tell that story some day.

    And those are normal coyotes, not ones that stand a meter tall at the shoulder and intelligent enough to hold conversations with you.

    Also, they're dicks only in the metaphorical sense.

    So, they're not dickwolves at all.
     
  10. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 6
    TanaNari

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    Suggested Listening

    Huddled in the back of her tiny shelter, Elruin can think of no way out of the mess. If she left, the scary dog monsters would no doubt kill and eat her, and if she stayed they would still kill and eat her. Even if they were telling the truth about letting her go if she opened the farm to them, she had no way to open the farm; her family locked her out here with these creatures. It wouldn't take long for the wolves to figured that out, and then she'd be killed and eaten.

    Her special vision offered little insight; aside the one or two that would pass close to her cave entrance, wanting to be seen, they all hid in the greenery of the forest which blocked her sight. The forest teamed with life even, perhaps especially, at night, and there was nothing special about the wolves other than that they were larger than most creatures in the woods.

    Other ideas exhausted, she turned to her newly discovered ability, and began to sing anew. Her skeletal guardian received the bulk of the benefit, but Elruin gained some advantage as all life in the area besides the wolves began to flee. Even the rabbits and mice, safe in their burrows, bolted from Requiem. Belatedly, Elruin realized that she could have used Requiem to flush the squirrels from their hiding places.

    The monsters' yipping changed, gained an urgency it hadn't had before. They converged on her hiding place, intent on silencing the song. The first to arrive swept his claw through, taking her skeletal protector with him. Through her sight, Elruin saw the absolute darkness of undeath clash with the glowing orange of living, struggling muscle.

    Unlike the battle between her guardian and Father, this beast was strong enough to overcome the necromantic empowerment of the skeleton. Elruin sang for it still, bolstered its power, and was rewarded by the sight of Black carving through Orange, releasing a torrent of spilled lifeforce that took not but seconds to go from orange to the dim blue of lifeless material on the ground.

    The creature yelped, roared and growled, but it did not stop fighting. It slammed the skeleton into the ground in retaliation for its own injuries. Both of them were suffering damage, though with Elruin resupplying her ally, it would win the encounter. Unfortunately, they weren't alone. Two other monster wolves joined the assault on her ally, and between the three of them the skeleton was overwhelmed.

    A fourth rushed into the shelter, it's massive jaws open wide with the intent of stopping the necromancer, and so ending both the song and the skeleton. Or so it believed; it couldn't know the skeleton would persist with or without Elruin's power.

    Elruin acted on reflect, blasting the monster in the face with her bolt; for a moment it slowed in confusion as the necromantic energies struck its skull and dimmed the life energies coursing through its brain and all but shutting down higher reasoning for a moment. The second and third blasts sent forth by the panicked child did further damage, perhaps permanently damaging upper brain functions.

    Unfortunately for Elruin, this form of magically-inflicted dementia accomplished little to against the instincts driving the monster forward on its attack; predator by nature, it didn't need to think in order to kill.

    Pain shot through Elruin's leg, as the snapping jaw finally found flesh, and it clamped down hard enough to break bone in spite of the current of necromantic power draining the strength of its muscles. In this, the beast made a mistake; it should have let go, should have backed away and let the prey bleed out from a safe distance, but the tactical parts of its brain had been scoured of function by necromantic power.

    Reacting on instinct of her own, the little necromancer jabbed her new dagger into the eye of the beast, which then created a torrent of death as the weapon drained its battery of magical energy into the eye socket of the monstrous wolf-creature. It collapsed into convulsions, struggled once more to raise up and bite, but then rested its head and accepted the inevitable.

    Its eyes, wide and yellow, stared out at her from a skull of slackened muscle, saliva and blood dripping down its mottled gray muzzle, but it had stopped moving, and then the orange light began to cool like blood outside. It was now dead, an easily ignored blue blur in Elruin's unnatural vision.

    Another dog-monster approached from behind the first to examine its now-deceased companion, not realizing that Elruin was long past the point of fear or reason. Reflex alone guided her as she dug deep into the well of power that had been depleted throughout the long, difficult day. The energy wave created, too, was stronger than any she'd ever created before.

    Her target stumbled back, almost fell on its side, and then retreated for the safety of the trees. The fact that she could hit them through their dead companion blocking the path was unexpected, and not something they could easily overcome.

    "You have made enemies, little farm girl." "No wonder your family abandoned you." "You're a monster." "Nasty little freak." "Not wanted here." "Not wanted anywhere." "Better off dead." "One day we shall find you." "One day we shall kill you."

    They taunted her as they retreated, two of their number limping away on half-dead limbs while a third stumbled and fell into objects as if it was drunk. A fourth lay dead before her, serving as a door to her shelter.

    Wounded, exhausted, and growing more certain by the moment that her family intended her to die out here, Elruin fell into a heavy but fitful sleep.

    When she awoke, it was morning. Her leg throbbed in pain, obviously broken, but she knew little about how to treat the injury. Whenever a farm animal was hurt, it was her mother or sisters who tended their wounds. They kept Elruin herself far from the animals.

    The monster that had wounded her remained dead before her, its saliva and her blood had dried in the night, leaving only a stale odor of wet dog. Elruin knew from experience with the animals that it wouldn't be long before the body started to truly stink and draw in the scavengers. She didn't want to be here when that began.

    She began to sing again, pushing the necromatic energies through the creature's body and forcing it back one exaggerated muscle-twitch at a time until the hole had opened enough for her to crawl out on her three good limbs.

    Once outside, she got a look at the carnage her attackers left behind. Paw prints almost as big as her head had been dug into the mud, most of them slathered in blood. The remains of her skeleton lay scattered about; she guessed that bone embedded in one of the trees was the skull of her dolly. The animating necromantic energies were nowhere to be found, which meant she'd lost her dolly. The only thing intact was the chain armor that had stayed on the skeleton all this time.

    She stood, leaning against the corpse of the first thing she killed larger than a rat and, for the first time since she was a baby, she cried. She cried for the relief that she survived, for the pain of her broken limb, her family abandoning her to the woods, and above all else for the lost of the only true friend she'd ever known in her life.

    Suggested Listening

    Elruin lost track of time when a voice shouted from behind her. "Setel!" Elruin turned to the voice; a girl whose face didn't look much older than herself, dressed in leather that was much more functional than showy. "Uh, I mean I'm here to help!"

    A quick burst of magic through her legs allowed the girl to leap from her position, up into a limb several yard away, and then clear the rest of the distance to Elruin in a second jump. Three long, orange braids trailed behind her, too clean for someone who was jumping through foliage. The girl hit the ground on her feet, somehow managing to not sink up to her knees in the mud.

    It was fascinating, and no doubt all sorts of magic in nature.

    "Oh, jeez," the girl knelt down by Elruin's wounded leg. "That... is Mork bite, no doubt." She looked at the dead wolf-monster, a Mork, apparently, then back to Elruin. "How on Midara do you still have your leg attached? These things will chew their way through plate armor if you give 'em half a chance."

    She stopped for a second, not to take a breath like most people would have needed to, but to look. Elruin saw the girl's eyes turn from a natural looking soft green, to a deep green that spread in from the outsides until it covered the entire eye, so that there was no white or pupil, just a beautiful solid color. "Oh. Necromancer."

    She blinked, and the green covering vanished. "Uh, not that there's anything wrong with that!" She hurried to add. "I mean, Negation is still a natural part of the cycle, every bit as necessary as Creation. Could you imagine what a world where nothing could stop existing would look like? But, uh, most people don't feel comfortable around it. Y'know, because of the whole 'death' thing. How does a girl your age end up being a necromancer strong enough to fight off a Mork, anyway? I don't even know if I could do that. But I'm fast enough they'll never catch me. Is that why you're on the road? I'm running a scouting check on the nearby farms and settlements, that storm the other day did a lot of damage, and the outskirts don't have the support you get closer to the city."

    It seems not much could keep this girl from rambling. "So, uh, yeah, my name's Calenda, but you can call me Cali for short. What's your name? And, uh, do you want me to heal your leg? I know necromancers aren't all that good at healing magic, being as they're basically the exact opposite affinity. Oh, and, why don't you have any Sarite? Did you burn it all to fix your injuries?"

    If Elruin didn't say something, Calenda would probably spend the rest of the day holding a conversation for both of them.

    =====

    A/N- if this ever gets to be a game, the giant monsters WILL have a coyote's build. Just to see if anyone gets angry and yells at everyone else that they're not wolves.

    ... Also, references galore. "Mork" is a reference to Gmork, giant wolf-monster from The Never Ending Story.

    Calenda's name is comes directly from the scientific name for marigolds (Calendula), a bright usually orange or yellow flower long held in high esteem in herbal medicine. I don't know how much of that esteem is deserved, but they are held in high esteem. Seems like something a nature mage who had a daughter that clearly inherited the same sort of magical potential might name the kid.
     
  11. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 7
    TanaNari

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    Elruin, taken aback for a moment by Cali's abruptness and, frankly, rudeness, finally gets her opportunity to speak. "My name is Elruin." She maintained absolute politeness; she hadn't realized there was any another way to talk until now. "You can call me Ell?" She found it awkward, but not entirely unpleasant. "I'd like it if you heal me, please." She slipped back into the submissive position as the younger speaker right away.

    "Sure thing." Cali dropped down so she was sitting on her heels, knees spread out to keep balance. Magical energy swelled up from within the strange girl, until it surged outward in a pattern more elegant and controlled than any Elruin had ever seen before. Not that Elruin had much to compare it to; her only experience with healing magic was Mother, who would have killed herself attempting to draw on even a fraction of this much power.

    "And that'll do for ya!" Cali hopped back to her feet, confident that Elruin's injuries had been dealt with. To Elruin's surprise, she was right; it took Mother the better part of a minute to mend wounds far less severe than this one, and Cali did it in a matter of seconds.

    "May I ask you to tell me if there's anything useful in Mork bodies?" Elruin paused for a moment. "Like, anything special that you can use or sell?"

    Cali stopped to think for a moment. "No, not really. I mean a good tanner can make some use from the hide, but only 'cause it's so big. They'd rather have a deer or bear if they can afford to be picky. I guess they might be edible, but I've never been desperate enough to try. Besides, after being pumped full of enough necromancy to kill a giant coyote monster, I don't think anyone's hungry enough to take the chance. Or maybe the teeth could be used for cheap ivory, but it'd be some really cheap ivory."

    "Ooh, I bet if you can find a taxidermist, you might get a few coin selling trophies. There are rich people with more money than hunting skills who'd pay to have a monster like this mounted on a wall. But then you'd have to drag this thing to a taxidermist and find a buyer, and I don't think they'd want this one, what with all the necromancy. Even that wouldn't be much; most wealthy collectors want the big game, like dragons, or at least a manticore or gryphon. Mork are basically the weakest thing out here that's still a threat to an adventurer. They're only dangerous 'cause they run in packs. Being honest, the only thing worth taking is the sarite, and even that's not all that good. But any sarite is worth keeping, right?"

    Elruin knew nothing about sarite, and thus couldn't share an opinion. "Father had a sarite, but I've never had one."

    Cali blinked for a moment. "You can't be serious. You came outside without any sarite? Like, none at all? How are you still alive?!" Elruin tried to say something about her dolly, but never got the chance before Cali interrupted her to continue ranting. "You'd have to be insane, or insanely powerful, to be out here without at least something to protect you! And I've gotten a look at you; you're pretty strong for your age, but you're nowhere near ready for the wilderness. Why are you out here? Where'd you come from?"

    "I'm from the farm that way." Elruin pointed in the general direction of her home. "Brother and Sister locked me outside." Elruin used the grammatical structure to indicate her siblings were in charge of her, rather than referring to either her parents or to non-guardian elder siblings. "They made a mistake."

    "Locked out? Mistake? You mean they took you outside the gates, then closed the gates, which if it's the farm I'm thinking of take three people to move, without checking to see if anyone was still outside?" Cali didn't bother to hide her disbelief in Elruin's lie. "So how long have you been out here without them opening the door for you?"

    "Yesterday afternoon."

    Cali brought her hands up to cradle her forehead. "Three above, four below, what is wrong with this world? Doesn't even know about sarite, and they send her out here to..." She gave herself time to take a slow, deep breath. "In that case, guess first thing's first, time for you to learn how sarite works."

    Calenda pushed up the sleeve on her shirt, then extracted a more traditional looking dagger than Elruin's new toy from the sheath on her belt. "I guess you don't know that sarite has another name... well, lots of names, but the important one is heartstone. That's because it's found..." she traced the dagger along the Mork's neck, carving the hide away from the throat. "Right above and behind the heart."

    the neck cavity carved open, she shoved her hand into the gullet. "Huh, drier than expected, guess that's the 'necromancy' thing at work. Now, ugh," she grunted as she forced her arm deeper. "You gotta be careful doing this... even lots of weak shards are attuned to dangerous elements; you don't want to hold a poison or fire shard unless you've got some sort of protection. And powerful sarite has a nasty habit of overwhelming weak people... it can get real ugly real fast."

    "But!" She yanked her arm out, then held a dim gray crystal up to the light. "This is just a Mork. If it had sarite that powerful, we wouldn't be having this conversation. You would be dead, and I'd be running to the capital to find dragon slayers. But let's not dwell on hypotheticals." Her eyes began to glow green again, the song of her magic a discordant chaos to Elruin's ears.

    "Well, I told you it wasn't going to be special, but this one's kinda disappointing even by Mork standards." Calenda twisted it around in the light, as if she might discover some hidden facet to the gem with time. "Boosted sense of smell, some nightvision, and a minor increase in the power of wind magic that doesn't do either of us much good. Oh well, it never hurts to keep a few junk shards to burn, instead of something valuable.

    Calenda handed the shard over to Elruin. "Now, just focus on it for a moment, and let nature take its course. Can't believe a mage of your strength doesn't know how to do this, already."

    Elruin concentrated on the crystal in her hand, and the energy it represented. The process was slow at first, but it didn't take long at all before the sarite's spirit joined into her own, creating a new spirit that was neither her, nor the sarite, but something new. Despite Cali's words, Elruin's sense of sight didn't change at all, but a thousand new sensations hit her nose. The dead Mork, the stink of the sweat, mud, blood and spittle which coated her own skin, the soft aroma of Cali who, despite how long she must have been traveling smelled like she just got out of a bath. Elruin even had a good idea where the squirrels were hiding, if she needed to find one.

    The new information was confusing for a moment, but Elruin's mind and deeper essence remained untouched by the transformative nature of the sarite. Still, if more powerful sarite had a stronger effect, she understood why more powerful sarite would be dangerous.

    "There you go." Cali clapped her hands together. "Some people buy armor and weapons that make direct use of sarite, but most make do with wrapping it with cloth. I hear there are even crazies who stitch it inside themselves. But there's no need for any of that; long as it's in contact with your body and isn't conflicting with incompatible magic, it'll work fine. Oh, right, and there are limits to how much sarite a person's body can tolerate at once. Depends on the strength of sarite and the user, but I think it'll be a while before you gotta worry about that."

    "Thank you." Elruin clasped her hands together over her heart, as was the formal position to show gratitude.

    "As I walk." Calenda's smile faded a moment after. "Now, let's go talk to your family about how careless they were to misplace a sister."

    Healed of her injuries, Elruin had no difficulty keeping up with Calenda on the trail. Soon, the walls of her home came into view, a bastion of stone that she had never questioned or appreciated until the experiences of the last sixteen or so hours. How fragile life on the farm was, hiding behind the walls while there were monsters like Morks and worse crawling about outside.

    "And that's one lost lamb returned to the flock." Cali stood looking at the wall. "Though the wolves bit off more than they could chew with this one. Go on, Ell, let your family know you're back after they misplaced you all night." She sniffed the air. "Smells like they were having themselves a barbecue last night, and now I'm curious what they were cooking."

    Elruin stood before the gate, and pulled the rope which held the bell to alert those inside. It wasn't long before the voice of a man, one of the farmhands, shouted through the door. "Who is it!"

    "Elruin!" The luckiest little necromancer shouted back. "I'm back!"

    "But... Carob said..." The man seemed hesitant, whether because of the gender taboo or having expected Elruin wouldn't make it make past the night. "Please forgive me, I must go find Kasa."

    "Not one of your brothers, I take it." Cali kept a position leaning against the wall, in a blind spot where she'd only be seen if someone climbed up to peak over the wall, or used some form of magic.

    "No."

    Several minutes later, a girl's voice, Kasa, shouted through the gate. "Elruin? You're not supposed to be back for days. I told you, you have to go to the city."

    Cali rolled her eyes, but held her tongue. She caught Elruin's poor attempt at a lie, and in her opinion the girl's elder sister wasn't much better.

    "But I don't have to! There were monster dogs called Morks and they were scary and bit me and broke my dolly and it's safe now! You can let me inside."

    "I don't believe you!" Kasa shouted back through the gate. "Be a good girl and go to the city like you were told!"

    "Okay, I've seen enough of this bullshit!" Cali stepped away from her position on the wall, into view of the small holes though the gate. "I am Casenda na Andara! In the name of both the Ecrosian Third Order and the Imperial Scouts, I command you to open this gate!"

    "But I-" Kasa tried to fish for some lie, some excuse to keep the gate closed, but Cali wasn't interested in hearing it.

    Calenda dipped deeper into her pool than Elruin realized she could, into perhaps the strongest upspring of power the nature mage could draw upon. A burst of disruptive earth-oriented magic carrying the weight of the most powerful spell Elruin had ever seen in her young life, slammed into the gate. Wood popped, debris fell from the stone, and a combination of orange and brown light warred against one another on the magical plane. The spell used was, in many ways, like Elruin's own Apoplectic bolt, but stronger and relying on Earth instead of Death energy. The punch which joined it was for show, nothing more.

    "You left your sister out here to die! I can smell burning human flesh in there! And I am out of patience!" Calenda used magic to amplify her voice, making her sound more like a giant than a person. "If you don't open this gate right now, I will bring this entire farm down around your ears! See how you like the night without a wall to protect you!"

    Elruin doubted she could accomplish her threat; the magic of the barrier still held strong, and Cali couldn't have much more than two, maybe three more attacks like that one before she has expended her reserves. On the balance, it looked like her siblings were in no danger from Calenda.

    Moments later, Cali began to glow with power as she drew upon a spell which... did nothing but make her glow with power. Elruin was no expert on magic, but it didn't look like it had any real effect on the world, all it did was trick people by making the caster look scary. It was also a trick that Elruin was pretty sure she could imitate with a little practice.

    "Okay!" Kasa shouted out the gate. "We'll open the gate!"

    "Good choice." Cali looked back at Elruin and smirked.

    They had to wait a minute while the people inside the farm removed the brace and slid the gate sideways to let them through. Kasa and Carob stood at the gate, but neither could quite meet Elruin's eyes.

    "Okay, we can explain," Carob said. To Elruin's surprise, he took the same passive tone he used when talking to Mother or Father, instead of the more commanding tone she'd have expected.

    "I don't think you can." Calenda walked past him, into the safety of the farm with Elruin following behind. Calenda showed no interest in following the rules of polite society with Elruin's family. "But, go ahead and try. I love listening to people try to justify sororicide and what appears to be some sort of corpse-burning ritual. Nothing I'd rather do with my time. Oh, and before you make me add injury to the insults? Truthsaying. Easy spell for a nature mage. Every time you lie to me, I break one of your fingers, in accordance with Imperial law. Now do you think you can explain?"

    Elruin's elder siblings shared a glance. "It is an easy spell," Kasa admitted. "Almost anyone with Creation affinity and enough magical power can learn it."

    Carob took a slow breath. "Let's start with the burning bodies. They were dead when we started."

    "That's a good start." Cali looked up at the young man, but kept enough distance that he couldn't easily reach her. "Now, tell me who killed them."

    "Nobody!" Carob insisted. "They were killed by a monster. It looked like a human skeleton. No matter what we tried, it just kept attacking and killing until somehow Elruin made it stop fighting. Kasa said it was undead, and we had to burn the bodies to prevent the taint from spreading."

    Cali thought about it for a second. "Looks like a skeleton, mindless killing machine, easily controlled necromancers. It's either the undead or elaborate illusion magic. Burning's a bad idea, though." She looked at Kasa. "Your read it in a book, right?"

    "Yes?" Kasa hesitated, but answered. "All my books say fire works."

    "We need to burn books that spread that lie, along with their authors." Cali shook her head. "Burning is only guaranteed to work if the fire gets so hot that even the bones turn to ash. Worse, it does nothing to stop the taint that raised the dead in the first place, and it can spread the taint in the smoke of the fire. Don't worry, I believe you didn't know that. You strike me as someone who's a lot more clever than smart. How fortunate for you that ignorance is not a crime. And that none of the bodies were tainted."

    Kasa wanted to say many things in retort, but she knew better than to question an Imperial officer. To her face, at any rate.

    "Since that's settled, let's move on to sending little Ell out into the woods to die. Do you know what the punishment for child murder is?"

    "She's a monster!" Kasa shouted. "She has these freaky powers, kills rats by pointing at them. She was never right in the head! And then there's that horrible song she sings, it made the monster obey her! I bet she even created it!"

    Carob put his hand on Kasa's shoulder, to encourage her to settle down.

    Cali blinked. "Wait... are you saying she just does these things. Like, nobody showed her how? She didn't have a teacher? You're telling me she learned to Reveal as a wild talent?"

    "I don't know what a wild talent is, but I guess so," Carob said. "She's always been... off... stronger than other children, even as an infant she rarely cried and never got sick, and as she got older, she..."

    "How old is she? When was she born?"

    "She turned twelve three and a half months ago. The winter solstice."

    "If there was ever a time for a wild talent necromancer to be born, that would be it." Calenda ran her hand over her face. "So we have a twelve year old who's learned to Reveal without any help, and your plan was to just, what, send her into the wild so that something would kill her so you wouldn't have to deal with her anymore?"

    Carob kept his eyes on focused on the ground. "We couldn't think of any other way."

    "Any other way? I thought of two in, like, four seconds." Cali stepped closer to Carob. "First, you could have tried being a decent human being and not murdering your family. It's amazing how often people use that one. Or, maybe, and I'm just throwing this out there... you could have sent her to any academy in the nation."

    "But we can't afford-"

    "Three above, Four below, and not a one of them could outwit a turnip!" Cali's shouting interrupted Kasa. "They don't charge anything to teach a mage like her. They pay you so they can have them. I'm a natural talent, two mage parents, trained since I was four years old, get called a credit to my bloodline all the damn time. I'm considered a prodigy, and I didn't learn Revelation until I was almost two years older than Ell. They'd have paid sum fit for a king to have her, yet here you are, literally treating her like dog food."

    Calenda stopped, taking some slow breaths to calm herself. "Okay, now that that's out of the way, you're both under arrest. You'll be taken to Engewal, and either sold as slave labor or executed by this time next week."

    Kasa gasped, and turned into her brother's arms. He stood tall, a miserable attempt to act brave and intimidate the ranting redheaded mage. "Why?"

    "Official charge being the attempted murder of a child," Calenda snapped. "Enough people die of monster attacks without people like you. Unofficially, it's because I don't want people as dumb as the two of you to breed. I know, I'm contradicting myself, I'm complicated like that."

    She switched back to a smile. "Hey, Ell, wanna come stay at my place for a day or two? It's not much, but there's a warm bed, it doesn't smell like cow dung and burning corpses, and nobody's going to try to feed you to wild animals."


    =====

    A/N- Sorry this one's so late. It's a big, complicated chapter. Over 3k words... yeesh...

    "As I walk" is sometimes used to say 'thank you', but its actual origin is a shortening a common spiritual passage "As you walk, you leave a path for others," and it's considered a major spiritual lesson. The full quote carries much the same meaning as the biblical "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" or Ghandi's famous quote "be the change you want to see in the world". The shortened version could also be interpreted to mean something like "pay it forward".

    This culture also uses a "seasonal" calendar, so according to their system the solstices and equinoxes are always on the same day. Not the most accurate calendar system in the world, but useful for a society at the mercy of seasonal weather phenomena.

    Welcome to the game's first tutorial, I guess. Sarite's ubiquitous in the Midara games, and will be the big "dropped item" from basically every monster worth the effort of issuing the commands to make it die. It offers all sorts of fun rules about what combinations are compatible with each other, the occasional synergy bonuses, how many can be equipped at once and so forth. Most stat bonuses (especially magic stats) come from sarite.

    It also serves as healing potion, mana potion, main ingredient in building custom magic items, and the primary universal currency of the setting all woven into a single mob drop. And, of course, the stronger the monster, the better its drop (for the most part... everything has its exceptions).

    All built right into the narrative of the story... because nothing annoys me more than a game where the story ignores the mechanics and the mechanics ignore the story. If I do my job right, it'll be impossible to separate the two in Midara.
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  12. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 8
    TanaNari

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    "Don't hurt them!" Elruin blurted out after Cali's declaration of having her siblings enslaved or executed. A moment later, she remembered her place and returned to passive language. "Please, I would prefer them not be harmed."

    Shock took the smile off of Calenda's face. "What? Why!?"

    "Because they're my family. I don't want you to hurt them." She wasn't educated enough in the ways of the world to know what 'slavery' or 'a judge' were, but she could guess it wasn't nice, either.

    "I... but... they tried to feed you to Morks..."

    "I don't care, I don't want them hurt," Elruin said again. She put on her best 'serious' face, like she saw Mother do when it was extra important. The slender twelve year old girl accomplished little more than ineffectual pouting in the process.

    "But..." Cali sighed. "Fine. I'm sure if you get famous, the bards will love this act of undeserved mercy; there are holy orders who've canonized people for less. But if they're staying here, then I have to insist you come with me. You're not safe here; their idiocy might be contagious."

    "Okay," Elruin said. She planned to accept Cali's offer, anyway. Cali seemed nice, other than the stuff about killing her family. Plus, she was smart and knew more about magic than anyone Elruin ever met, even Kasa and Mother. Speaking of whom. "Can I go talk to Mother, first?"

    "Depends." Cali turned her attentions back to Kasa. "Tell me, did your mother have anything to do with sending Ell into the wilderness?"

    "N- no," Kasa kept her eyes down. "After Father was killed... I don't think she's thought of anything other than him since yesterday."

    "Okay, Ell, go ahead and say goodbye to your mother." Cali watched Elruin run off out of earshot before she spoke again. "So if I get the picture right, your father dies, your mother's insensate, and the first thing that pops into your head is to start killing off your younger siblings? Are you sure you're not related to the royal family?"

    "Don't answer that question." She interrupted after Kasa started to open her mouth. "In fact, just don't talk to me again ever."

    Elruin, meanwhile, entered the door to her home for what promised to be the last time in a long time, perhaps forever. Inoin was already in the house, near Mother who sat facing away from the door. Inoin looked at her younger sister for a moment, but opted not say anything to the girl who'd returned from the wilderness alive.

    "Mother?" Elruin asked. She waited for a moment, but Mother said nothing so she came closer. "Mother, I have to go away soon. Can I please speak to you first?"

    Othsa seemed to shake herself out of her daze, at least for a moment to look at Elruin. Her eyes were sunken and red from crying. "Did you do all your chores?"

    "Yes, my chores are finished." To Elruin's knowledge there was never a time she or anyone had all their chores finished, that was the life everyone lived on the farm.

    "Okay, good." Othsa looked back toward the wall again. "Where are you going?"

    "On a journey to the city." Or that's where Elruin guessed Cali lived.

    "Right, Kasa told me about that. I thought you left, already."

    "No, but I'll be going soon," and not a lie told to Mother so far. "Can you tell me why Father said I wasn't his, now?"

    Inoin gasped, and reached out to touch Mother's shoulder. "You don't have to..."

    "I was younger, then. Old enough to know better, but I..." Othsa said, still looking forward instead of at the daughters positioned on either side of her. "He was in a group of four Reclaimers. He was my age, but he seemed so young, and he said... he said a bunch of lies, is what he said. He said he'd never leave, then said he'd come back for me. That's your real father, a liar and coward! Merat! I was so stupid! But Kalis forgave me, and we were happy, and now he's gone, too!"

    "Oh." Elruin now had the answer to her question, for what little it was worth. Even she knew there was more to the story, but she could guess some and it didn't seem like would tell her the rest even if she knew. "Thank you, Mother."

    Elruin left a still-crying Othsa behind and returned to where Cali was pacing near the gate. The other members of her family stayed back, watching but doing their best not to remind Calenda that they were still free.

    "So," Cali said. "Did you get what you were looking for?"

    Elruin couldn't find an answer to the question; she didn't know if there was an answer. For a moment, she thought about trying to go find Father's crossbow, but she couldn't think of a good excuse to do so. Besides, it was clear enough that the crossbow belonged to Father's real children, not her. She spent one more moment to look at the farm that could no longer be called her home. Cali was right; this place did stick of cow dung, and what she now knew was the acrid stench of burnt human flesh which made her eyes water. She would never forget either smell.

    "We can go now." Not quite an answer to Cali's question, but it would have to do.

    "Don't worry, once we're back on the open road, it'll all feel like a bad dream."

    Not a minute after they left the farm, the gate slid closed behind her once again. This time, she knew they were abandoning her, but she had other things to think about. "Cali, may I ask you about that glowing trick you did at the gate?"

    "Oh, that?" Cali kept walking as she spoke. "Nothing special about it, just a generic sort-of-illusion that almost any mage can learn to do. I can teach you it if you like, shouldn't take a Revealed mage more than a couple tries to learn. Then again, I've never met a mage who had a Revelation before learning these sorts of simple- Na entek!"

    As Cali was talking, Elruin began going through the effort of emulating what she watched Cali do earlier. She sang to her power, drew it up and around here so that the energy matched the intonations of her Requiem. The power needed not go anywhere or do anything, so she was free to allow it to exist around her, building to a crescendo with her song.

    "Stop!" Cali shouted.

    Elruin obeyed, slowing her song and drawing the music back to herself. "Did I do it wrong?"

    "Wrong?" Cali calmed her breathing. "No! You did it fine! It's just that, well, we draw out our Element when we use that ability. With me, I just have to be careful the area around me doesn't get covered in dust and humidity. Fire mages have to be careful not to accidentally start small fires. Your version seems to drain light from the area around you, and I'd bet money there's some sort of magic-enhanced fear effect. Usually shadow magic is useful for stealth, but I'm sure everything in earshot felt your power. I think it scared them off, but we should get moving just in case. Come on, we should get going.

    After a few minutes of casual conversation, mostly Cali talking about her personal maid who did all the cooking in her home and the sheer pleasure of a well cooked meal after a few days of traveling the roads, Cali slowed and sighed. "Entek ne. Morons."

    Elruin caught sight of it a moment later; a wagon had slid off the side of the road, while what appeared to be a woman waited nearby in a long, dirty dress. It was modest, well made, and probably worth something when clean. Far better than threadbare and patched clothes Elruin had grown accustomed to on the farm. It 'appeared' to be a woman, but Elruin's unnatural sight it was clear enough that this was a man- women had notable glow of life energy just behind the belly button than men lacked. True, that light wasn't present in children or the elderly, even if they were women, but children had a completely different sort of pattern, and the elderly were far more dim.

    This was either an adult man masquerading as a woman, or some sort of weird magic Elruin knew nothing about. She also noticed that there were at least five other similar adult man lifesigns in the woods, but three of them seemed strange to her. Whatever they were was a little like a human, but also like something she'd never seen before.

    "So," Cali looked at Elruin. "Does this look like the most obvious ambush in the world to you, too?"

    =====

    A/N- 'Na' is a feminine word that means something similar to 'of' or 'from' in English. The masculine version is 'ne', pronounced 'neh'. It's considered somewhat archaic, but in more official language it can denote someone as belonging to someone or something else. Typically either the parent of an individual, or sometimes a city/nation of origin, noble house, or potentially religious or military affiliation.

    "Na (or ne) entek" literally means "from the trash" and is used in the context of "oh shit" in English. Reversing it to "Entek na (or ne)" means something closer to calling someone a piece of shit.

    I find it hilarious that while everyone was talking about getting shinies from Mork parts, or that crossbow which hasn't featured since Chapter 1... they completely forgot about the magical chain armor the skeleton was wearing.

    But it is so very, adorably, in-character for that to slip Elruin's mind. I have created the perfect character for a quest-oriented story.

    Caught a typo in the last chapter... what should have read "come through here" was written "come through her". Never has a single 'e' been more important for the context of a sentence.

    Stand up for her siblings x2 (Don't lie x1)
    Try to collect crossbow again (x1)
    Talk to Mother about Undad x2
    Go with Cali x2
    Learn smell of burning human x1
    Show Cali new Black Flame ability x1

    Lost shiny magic chainmail.
    Gained a valuable lesson about appreciating what you already have.
     
    Last edited: Jan 25, 2019
  13. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 9
    TanaNari

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    Elruin answered Cali's question with a question of her own: "Why is that man wearing a dress?"

    Cali chuckled for a moment. "It's a trap. People are less likely to suspect a woman, so some fool goes to help with the wrecked wagon, then his two buddies hiding in the trees jump them from behind. Threats made, victims robbed, killed, maybe worse stuff depending on who's caught. Simple highwaymen, nothing special." Cali dropped her voice some. "I don't get it, though. This is a terrible spot, nobody comes through here in the rainy season."

    "There are five men hiding in the woods," Elruin interrupted Cali's thoughts. "Well, that's how many I see."

    "Five?" Cali hesitated, looking out at the woods. "You're sure?"

    "Yes, but three of them are weird." Elruin said. "There's one-"

    Cali caught Elruin's hand as it started to go to up, then brought it back down. "Don't point. Don't do anything that might show them we know they're there. Just tell me where they are. The two I can spot are past the man in the dress, ducked behind that Pixie Vine, right?"

    "I guess." Elruin had no idea what 'Pixie Vine' was, or how Calenda could identify it from this far away. She couldn't see any vine at all from this distance, only the soft green of generic foliage and its accompanying coloration of life. "And there's the one hiding in that big tree to the left. He's up on the big branch."

    "The red oak? Are you sure... oh, oh wow, that is tricky." Calenda sounded impressed. "How did you see them from here?"

    "They glow," Elruin said. "Trees and plants have a little glow, animals glow more, and people glow the most."

    "Lifesight?" Cali smiled a little. "Useful. Keep that trick of yours a secret; lifesight can be beaten, but most people don't bother. It's not always laziness, either; you can only pile on so many stealth spells before you radiate magic like a miniature sun, which defeats the whole purpose of stealth magic to begin with. And there are several senses more common and threatening to prioritize first."

    "Okay." The advice sounded reasonable enough to Elruin. "The other two are right behind that hill, and I think there's one under that leaf pile near the front. He's the closest." That covered all the others she saw, but after Cali talked about ways to beat magic senses, she didn't know if there might be more. "What do we do, now?"

    Cali stretched her arms above her head. "Normally, I'd walk in, let them spring their little trap, then beat them to a pulp and drag them by what remained of their necks to the nearest village. The sheriffs love it when I do their job for them. But these guys are way better prepared than normal bandits if they got three people past my watersight, and I have to worry about you getting hurt."

    "Probably smarter just to back away and take a different route, then contact the mercenary guilds and let them know we got a nice, juicy, bandit gang that got hold of some valuable magic or sarite," she continued after finishing her stretch. "That'll bring the adventurers running. Sometimes the only way you can tell the difference between the guilds and the bandit gangs is that the gangs stick to low risk, low reward targets... while mercs don't care about risks, only rewards."

    "I can help," Elruin offered.

    Cali stopped to consider it for a moment. "No, I don't think that's a good idea. True, you can take down a single Mork, but these guys are murderers; you don't find any work with bandits if you haven't killed before. They can and will slit your throat, or take you and... well... a girl your age doesn't need to hear about what they do to captured women. Wild talent only goes so far, and you don't have the training to fight in close quarters."

    "I don't have to get close." After years of hunting rodents with her magic, Elruin felt confident in her abilities.

    "You have ranged magic?" Cali's smile widened. "Hmm, that might even work. If I bring up a fog cloud, it won't do anything to block your Lifesight. They might be fighting blind, or close enough to it. With you sniping and me running interference, yeah, we might be able to do this." Her smile faded a moment later. "But it's still a risk, even for trained mages. If things go bad, my abilities are mostly defensive or personal, I won't be able to protect you from them if they get hold of you."

    "Does that mean we should let them go?"

    "Like I said, I'd take the gamble if I was alone. But that's because I can run if I have to. You don't have that option, I don't think." Cali said. "I guess it all comes down to whether you think it's worth the risk of getting hurt to stop the bad guys."


    =====

    A/N- More common tracking options include watersight. Tremor senses. Scrying. Whisperwind (a common favorite, especially indoors, since it detects any movement of air in the region... and most people have a real hard time existing without air). And good ol' fashioned thaumic vision (aka- 'detect magic') that basically everyone uses.
     
  14. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 10
    TanaNari

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    "Maybe we shouldn't," Elruin decided after taking some time to think about it. There were six of them, with weapons and magic, and she almost died to what she later learned were some of the weakest monsters in the forest. "As you said, I'm not good at fighting."

    "Okay," Cali agreed. "It is the wiser decision, so we can leave them to well armed professionals."

    "Can you teach me how to fight?" Elruin asked, once they set off on their path. It seemed like something she'd want to learn, to stop Morks and bandits from trying to hurt her more. "I don't want to be in danger anymore."

    "I don't think there's much that I can teach you," Cali said. "Generic stuff like situational awareness, sure, but my whole combat style is built around the magic I use. It wouldn't work for you, and you're far too small to stand a chance in mundane combat without augmentation magic. Best I can do is practice with you and spot the obvious stuff. But once we get back to Engewal, there are a bunch of people who will know how to work with your magic."

    "Oh, okay." Elruin took Cali's word on this matter. "What did you say before about Revealing?"

    "Ah, that, well there's no great secret there," Cali said. "Or, at least, the secret is the art itself. You see, most people can learn to use some magic, maybe one or two related spells that are all part of their core nature. That 'native power', as it's called, is limited. It can still be quite powerful, someone who trains a native power enough can equal the strength of a Revealed mage."

    "Like my brother can increase his strength," Elruin said. "Like you do when you jump."

    "Yeah, we call that augmentation. It's perhaps the second most common native ability, right behind Elemental Blast abilities," Cali agreed. "Sounds to me like your native ability is Elemental Senses. How long have you had that ability?"

    Elruin couldn't remember a time when she didn't have the ability to see life energy, though she only learned about her ability to see the opposite after meeting her dolly. She pushed that thought out of mind, so she didn't start crying in front of Cali. "I think I've always been able to do it."

    "That explains a lot," Cali said. "It takes most people a lot of training to spot magic use that precise, and you also have Lifesight that doesn't seem to slow you down the way Detection spells slow most people down. But if you were born with the ability, that explains why it comes so naturally to you. Sooner you start, easier it is, like learning a second language."

    "Okay." All of this was fascinating to Elruin, who until this point was given the impression that nobody else in the world had abilities like her own.

    "Of course, picking up Revelation so young is... maybe it's another part of that ability," Calenda continued along her train of thought. "Most of us born with a lot of magical potential are discovered young, taken to academies where our talents are cultivated for the betterment of themselves and society. Or, at least, that's what the schools say. My parents say the whole process is a military recruitment drive. Find the strongest, instill loyalty from a young age, and by the time they've graduated, they're eager to become the next generation of generals and royal concubines. That's why I was trained at home, instead of the academy."

    "Is that why Revelation is special? It makes us stronger than normal people?"

    "No, and yes," Cali took a moment to stop and extend her own magical signature for a minute. "Good, doesn't look like anyone's followed us." She started walking again. "Revelation is... how to explain it to someone who can just do it instead of having to train for years to find it? You're a Music Revelation, what nobles call a Virtuoso, and what the soldiers call a Songmaster. I'm what they call a Kineticist, or a Battledancer for the soldiers. My power taps into physical movement, I can feel the flow of magic like you'd feel the flow of wind over your skin, or see a ripple created by tossing a rock in a pond."

    She twirled her hand in a circle, drawing a swirl of magical light which chased her finger. "You sing magic, I touch it, but in the end both our abilities are just our brains trying to find the true patterns of magic. All Revealed mages sense fragmented glimpses of a level of reality that would break a human mind if we saw the full Truth, so our minds translate this Perfect Pattern into lesser patterns that we can look at without destroying ourselves."

    She stopped moving her finger, and the magical lights vanished as well. "Or, that's what the scholars say at any rate. I don't know if they're right, but I know they've never seen proof of it. I mean, if they did, wouldn't that mean their minds would have been destroyed?"

    She shrugged as she walked. "So, mystic mumbo-jumbo aside, there are real practical advantages to Revelation. First, every one of us can sense magic, at least if it's active or powerful; we can miss weak or distant magic, like you'd miss a whisper from across the room. We can also guess the general strength, element, and purpose of any spell being used in range of our abilities."

    "Second, we have a lot more options than the Unrevealed. They have to learn and memorize every step of a spell to use it a single way, while we can construct ours on the fly, if we have to. We can also reshape the patterns to better suit immediate needs, waste less power on structuring spells, and can even learn new spells just by watching someone else use them. But in terms of raw power, there's not much difference between a Revealed and Unrevealed who have similar natural talent and training. In some ways, they can even be stronger. We have the ability to learn new abilities faster than they do, so they keep up by devoting themselves to training their native abilities to their limits, and many a Revealed mage has died underestimating Unrevealed enemies. But there's no doubt that we have a lot more options than they do overall."

    "Does that mean you can teach me healing magic? Would you please?" Of all the magic she knew of, that seemed like the most useful; if she could use healing, then everything would have turned out better back on her farm.

    Cali sighed, but didn't stop moving. "Ah, no, that's one thing Revelation won't allow. What types of magical energy you can access is inborn, and I know of nothing that can change that. You're a Negation mage, so there's no chance of you being able to use Healing magic. You could imitate the pattern of healing magic, but once you channel energy into it, well, my guess is it'll break the spell structure. Or the outcome would be a death spell. Might still be useful, but not going to heal anyone."

    "Besides, I'm not a healer, either. I just have a sarite that'll let me cast a couple generic low-power spells. Which is Life-oriented, so it wouldn't play nice with your natural energy. But don't take it too hard, a good dragon slayer can save more lives than a healer, in the right circumstances."

    "Oh," Elruin would have to give some thought into what being a dragon slayer might be like. It didn't sound very safe to her, that's for certain.

    The conversation drifted off to less important things, such as Cali's job as a scout, and even some small details about where she lived on the outskirts of a small town not far from the Engewal, the very city that Kasa had wanted to send Elruin and her dolly. As they talked, their path to circumvent the ambush took them back around to the main road.

    Cali looked up at the sky. "I was hoping to get my route finished today, but looks like we'll have to hole up at our last stop for the night."

    "Okay." Elruin was surprised to see the sun had long crossed its zenith. The excitement of the day had distracted her and made her forget her appetite, but now that she was thinking about it she could use food, or at least water. Her clothes remained bloody and dirty thanks to her Mork encounter, and while the hours of walking didn't cause her the discomfort it would have for a normal girl, she was happy to hear they'd be taking a break soon.

    Cali approached another farm, which had another wall not unlike the one Elruin left behind. Cali tapped on the gate, but did put enough magic in her motion to cause the defensive barricade to become visible for a moment. It was a much more peaceful display of light and sound than what she did last time.

    "Who's there!" A man's voice shouted from behind the wall.

    "Calenda na Andara, Ecrossian priestess," Cali stated in a clear voice, but one devoid of shouting or magical voice. "I'm doing a checkup after the storms, to see if anyone was hurt or lost."

    "I must go tell Mother of your arrival." Now that he knew he was talking to a woman, the farmhand switched to the polite not-quite-submissive language of inter-gender conversation.

    "I understand." Strictly speaking, Calenda's official status as an Imperial Scout gave her authority to cut through the delays of polite conversation, but she didn't like to throw her weight around, unless she was dealing with child-murdering criminals. Especially when she was about to ask for a place to stay for the night and maybe a meal. Once again, she could have demanded both with her legal authority, but she considered that a last resort. Never a good plan to insult the people who were going to make your food.

    They weren't waiting long before a head poked out over the wall above the gate. "You say you're Ecrosian?"

    Calenda looked up and offered her best friendly smile; farm types were difficult to deal with at times, always suspicious of outsiders. "Third Order, serving under Naliel Sar." She couldn't blame them, with the bandits and monsters and whatever other horrors crawled out in the wilderness. "I was here with her just last year, if you recall. The chicken-blight?"

    "Yes, I'd recognize that red hair anywhere." She looked down. "It's okay, Sanel, she's who she says."

    The gate slid open, requiring three strong men just as the one from her home farm. Behind it stood a large, barrel-shaped man like Father, but with more gray hair and lacking the beard. "Please, come in, be welcome." His eagerness belied the desperation of a man who would sell his soul for whatever he was about to ask of her. "After the storm, we were afraid-" he stopped for a moment. "Elruin? Elruin, is that you?"

    "Yes, Uncle Sanel, it is I." Elruin did her best polite pose, with her hands together in front of her lap. 'Uncle' Sanel was not really her uncle, but one of his sons was married one of her sisters, Kasa might end up marrying one of his other sons, Father's brother was married to one of Uncle Sanel's sisters, and she was pretty sure Mother was a cousin to Aunt Leyli, somehow. To save the trouble of delving deeper, they were just 'Uncle' and 'Aunt' to her and her siblings.

    Sanel hesitated for a moment, before his wife called down from the wall. "Don't worry, I've got her. Neda, take the priestess to Sera. Husband, go with."

    It was a little impolite, a priestess dealing with anyone other than the Lady of the estate, but such was the life she'd grown accustomed to. Emergency situations called for a loosening of the social norms at times, and the woman who was assigned to escort her appeared to be the eldest daughter, along with the Lord of the estate to follow along. It was an acceptable show of respect to her station.

    "Show me," Calenda said with her command voice. She paused just to look back at Elruin. "You'll be safe here, right?"

    Elruin saw no reason to think she wasn't. "Yes."

    "Don't worry, I'll look after her like she was my own," Aunt Leyli said as she began her slow descent down the ladder to the upper wall. Elruin waited for her, then cooperated with the poking and prodding as her Aunt checked her over. "Did you roll all the way here? You're covered in dirt and... is that blood? What happened to you?"

    =====

    A/N- And so the vote goes, taking Elruin down a more cautious path. Instead of killing for shinies, you get to learn that Elruin's Requiem and ability to pick up new spells and stuff aren't all that unique, save that she's far younger than most who have similar abilities.

    You also get to learn that America's Third Amendment doesn't exist in this setting, either. Hardly a surprise, considering America is about four dimensions over from Purple away from Midara.

    And the thing about farm communities like these... lots of people, not a lot of families. Things get... let's call it "complicated". I grew up in a small town like that... safe sex required three things. A condom. A bullet proof vest (or at least knowing which fathers and/or brothers in the area didn't own firearms). And a genealogical chart.

    Elruin gains an increase to cautious reputation, and better understanding of how magic works.
    Calenda trusts Elruin better, now. (Yes, there *are* affection values in this game... some of them matter... No, you cannot lewd the loli. Or have the loli lewd others.)
     
    Last edited: Jan 27, 2019
  15. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 11
    TanaNari

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    Aunt Layli brushed Elruin's clothes some as they moved to the side of the gate, where they could be out of the way of the men who'd soon close it again. "By Ecross, girl, what happened to you?"

    "Our farm was attacked by a monster, Father died," Elruin answered. She considered mentioning the others who were killed, but decided against it. "Now Cali's taking me to the city to teach me magic."

    The older woman looked at the young men, who were now far more interested in the conversation than their jobs. No doubt, this would be all anyone was going to talk about for the rest of the day, if not for the other problems going on right now.

    "That sounds like a story for later, after dinner," she said more to them than to Elruin, not that the girl realized this. "When we can get the whole story from Elruin and the priestess together. For now, it's been a rough day for all of us. Let's get you cleaned up and out of these clothes, I think I've got something that'll fit."

    She ushered the child off to the baths where, if nothing else, she wasn't going to tell people more evil news on a day which had so much of it already. "One good thing about the storm, if you can say such a thing: our cistern won't be running dry any time soon. Take your time, get yourself clean while I scrounge up something for you to wear."

    Elruin looked down at her dress, reduced to little more than rags, then set about cleaning herself of the caked mud, blood, and mork spittle. By the time she was done, there was a new dress waiting for her by the doorway. It was a little large for her, and worn out from long periods of use, but it was nicer than most of the clothes Elruin possessed over the years.

    Once she was done with her bath, she got a look at Aunt Leyli's house, and the tree which had landed on it and caved in part of the roof near the side door closest to the bathing room. Cali was there, as well as some of the men and women of the farm, including Aunt Leyli. One of the younger children, a boy perhaps half Elruin's age, walked up to her.

    "The nice lady is going to fix everything!" He was either too young to have learned the social norms, or he didn't realize Elruin was a girl.

    Elruin wasn't sure what Cali would do to fix a tree, but it sounded interesting, so she stopped to watch.

    First the more experienced mage tapped the tree, which created a soft, deep echo that Elruin wasn't sure anyone but her and Cali could hear. Another tap in another part of the tree, while Calenda stepped to a rhythm that made sense to nobody but herself. Elruin had never seen such controlled use of magic before, as the energies began to build up, held together by a dance.

    The tree shifted, twisted, and moved as if it was the stringy branches of a willow instead of a maple. It folded away from the house, swaying to the undetectable currents created with Calenda's magic. There was nothing Elruin could compare it to; it was far beyond her abilities, but she watched and remembered in the hope that some day she could do something so beautiful.

    Now that the tree had rolled itself away from the house, it stretched out and parts of it began to fall off. Long, thin strips of wood shed from the tree in the shape of wooden boards. As she worked, some of the farmhands rushed in to pick up the boards and pull them away. No doubt, they'd be put to use rebuilding the house and any number of other projects.

    Knowing Cali would be a while, Elruin left the spectacle behind in order to try what she had learned. She began to sing her song, reaching out to hear her magic. She heard Calenda's power at work, and kept her own 'voice' down so she didn't disrupt the harmony that Cali had created. Elsewhere, in the farmhouse, she felt echoes of death wrapped in life in a way she had never heard before, and could not puzzle out.

    Elsewhere, however, was a more familiar song; the song of a death fulfilling, a life which felt itself wronged, unable to surrender to the night and strong enough to resist the clawing power of death. It was the same will that powered her last dolly, the part of the recipe that she failed to create when playing with the rodents.

    She walked in a straight line toward the source of the song, finding herself near a pit where a number of animals were dumped including a couple dogs, one cat, and a pair of sheep that had been butchered before being dumped; a mass grave for beasts lost to the storm, with a stench of offal and blood that had not quite given way to that of decay. The stink and corpses were of little consequence, save for a single dark chestnut horse who had a clean cut where its throat was slit.

    She noted her brother-in-law, Laor, approaching her. "Elruin, you should go back to the farmhouse. This isn't a place for children." He had the most leeway, as far as social taboos went, in ordering Elruin around. Especially out here; the bloody work of disposing of dead animals was not meant for women.

    "What happened to the horsey?" She couldn't tear her eyes away, nor could she ignore the song and echoes from it. A song of pain, of anger, and of betrayal directed toward the man speaking to her. "Why did you kill him?"

    "How did you?" He stopped himself from finishing his outburst; had nothing to be ashamed of or hide, but he felt the need to justify himself. "He was my prized horse, cost almost my whole savings, but worth every penny. Then the storm hit, and his back was broken." A tear ran down the man's cheek. "A quick death was better than letting him suffer."

    "Oh." One didn't grow up on a farm without learning the fragility of life. However, that did not stop the echoes of the animal before her, twisted in pain and frustration, and a hatred of his former owner. She began to sing anew, adapting her notes to the corpse before her, using the lessons she learned from Calenda's soft, omnipresent touch rather than the clumsy, brute-force method she had been using before. One note in ten changed, then one in five, then one in three. Soon, its song became her song, and her song became its song.

    "What are you doing?" Her in-law sounded terrified just as Father had, but he didn't try to kill her so Elruin ignored him. In the pit, bodies began to move. Not just the horse, but the other corpses in the pit. They soon stopped, while the horse forced itself standing, the bones of its spine breaching through its skin and flesh sloughing away like that of a cicada shell. A large, wet, horrifying cicada shell that would give the other witnesses nightmares for years to come. "Seven below!"

    "He doesn't want to stay here, anymore," the girl said as if that was an explanation. "He wants to come with me." Not quite true; what the creature wanted was to stomp the man beside her until his brains were spread across the farm, then do the same to everyone else, but Elruin told him that he had to be a good horsey, and that meant he wasn't allowed to murder her family.

    Elruin heard Cali's magical power moments before the girl landed in front of her, putting herself between the skeletal beast and the humans, including Elruin.

    "He's safe," Elruin said. With all the logic she learned in her decade or so of language skills, she presented her case. "He's mine. I'm going to call him Mister Clackybones."

    "What?" Calenda didn't look away from the monster, but she could tell it wasn't attacking or moving. "You're controlling it?" Her brain filed the name away under things to address some other time. Instead, she did her best to listen to Elruin's song, and the echoes between it and what she was feeling off the horror standing before her.

    "Yes," Elruin said. Now that she established her power over Mister Clackybones, she began to draw away from her magical abilities. "He's mine, now."

    "Uh, we'll talk about that later." Calenda had more questions than she cared to voice about this situation, especially with superstitious farm folk listening to them and coming to whatever weird conclusions they would come to. She slipped some, and Elruin realized that Cali must have burned herself out with her work, then the power needed to make the jump over here. "Let's just go, Lady Leyli says it's almost time for dinner."

    "And, the, uh," Leor glanced at the skeleton. "That? What do we do about that?"

    Calenda took another hard look at Elruin. "She seems to have it under control. You do have it controlled, right?"

    "As long as nobody attacks it," Elruin said. She remembered her lesson from before. "Mister Clackybones will be the most obedient horsey ever."

    "Then we put it somewhere far away from people, and we'll take it with us when we leave." Cali forced herself to stand tall, despite her exhaustion. "I'm sure your parents will ask these questions when we get back."

    "Right." Leor accepted that answer, not because he liked it, but because he had no idea what to do about it and it wasn't his place to make these decisions anyway. "The corner east of the gate is empty. It's fallow this season."

    A handful of notes from Elruin sent Clackybones trotting toward the corner, earning terrified stares from everyone as it earned its name, but otherwise caused no problems as it stood in the corner of the farm. It paid no mind to the people of the farm, and they did their best to stay as far from it as they could.

    A dinner of roast lamb and chicken that would otherwise have only been had during a celebratory feast was waiting for them at the table, though there was no sign of joy or cheer at this table. They ate in silence, as was tradition with guests who were expected to stay after dinner for conversation. Despite the circumstances, everyone ate well; farmers and soldiers alike learned to take their food when they could, regardless of other concerns.

    After the meals were over, it was time for the necessary conversations, ones which would ruin meals. The young children were ushered from the main room, off to their rooms or what chores they had to do before bed.

    Aunt Leyli picked her subject of choice as the young women of the house, Elruin's sister included, began clearing the table. The exception was a young, heavily pregnant woman, who Leyli chose as the first topic to discuss. "Thank you, for helping Lena." It was a safe start to a dangerous conversation.

    "Yes, thank you so much," Lena said. She kept her hands over her stomach. "Will... will they be okay?"

    It was Leyli's place to ask that question, but nobody rebuked her for the lapse in of protocol.

    "I don't know." Perhaps the worst part of any priestess' job was delivering terrible news. "One's strong, and I did the best I could with healing, but I'm worried about the other two. I'll send a midwife the moment I get back."

    "One's dead," Elruin said, breaking protocol just as Lena did, though the gasps and cry of dismay were more from the nature of her news than the method of delivery. "The other two are alive, though one's hurt." This was the strange thing she had seen before, a woman carrying a dead fetus, in addition to two living ones.

    Lena began to sob, while her husband held her. Aunt Leyli decided now was time to take control back of the conversation. "And you can be certain?" The question was directed at Calenda.

    "She is a death mage," Cali admitted. "On this subject, I trust her abilities more than my own, but Elruin's inexperienced and could be mistaken." She wasn't, Calenda knew she wasn't, but she also knew the value of a comforting lie. "The midwife will have the right magic and skills to help. Please, try not to focus too much on what you may have lost until then. It could put your healthy babies at risk."

    Uncle Sanel reached over, squeezing Aunt Leyli's hand under the table. Now was the time for the other elephant in the room. "And this death magic, that horse-monster she created?"

    "She didn't create it," Calenda said. "She doesn't have the skill, nor was there enough time for her to try. This one was natural, they sometimes happen when a lot of things die at once." Cali hesitated for a moment, then decided there was no need to tell them it required sapient death to spawn undead taint, natural or otherwise; it would upset the soon-to-be-mother carrying a dead fetus.

    "You should be glad Elruin recognized it so soon," she continued. This was a truth that would help rather than harm. "Sometimes they take years before the taint allows them to move, but they fester and corrupt the land from the moment it takes hold, and exorcists can only do so much for tainted ground. She may have saved your farm, today. Maybe lives as well."

    "Right, thank you," Leyli said. She didn't sound grateful, but she had a lot on her mind. "You're taking her for training?"

    "Of course. She's got great potential in her." Tact demanded she leave out the utter nightmare a Wild Talent with Elruin's strength and affinity might unleash if allowed to develop without careful supervision. The little necromancer was controlling the undead at the age of twelve, while many an adult had been ripped apart by the very things they sought to command. "With the right training, she'll be able to help many people. She proved that, today."

    Elruin smiled in her seat; praise was a rare treat in her life, and now she was receiving a great deal of it.

    Leyli wanted to ask more, like about what happened at Othsa's farm, but they had settled on the closest thing to happy news. Once things were settled here, perhaps they'd send someone to see about their neighbors and cousins.

    "We should get some rest, it's been a hard day for all of us." It was phrased as a request for the sake of the priestess, but her children would accept it as the command it was in truth. "I'm sorry we don't have anywhere for you to stay, but the tree..." Custom demanded Calenda be given a comfortable place to sleep alone as a guest, a priestess, and as someone who saved some of their lives. If a spare bed wasn't available, then some of the family would be sleeping in the same bed for a night.

    "No, you need not apologize." She felt bad enough for the family after having to deliver the news that they'd lost a baby. But she wasn't about to share a bed with a stranger, either. "A sheet and a place in the hay loft is enough for me."

    "Can I come with you?" Elruin said. She wasn't keen on trying to find a place to sleep in the house. As family, they'd probably stick her with her sister and Laor, and Mister Clackybones didn't like him. "I like hay, too."

    "I see no reason why not," Calenda said. Nobody objected, nor did she expect them to, and it would let her talk to the little girl who seemed to think a walking supernatural plague was some sort of pet."

    Later they sat down on their makeshift beds, and Calenda watched with amusement as the last rodent fled from the building. Elruin's magical aura felt like an unpleasant stickiness on her skin, but at least she wouldn't wake up with a rats or bugs on her in the morning. "About that horse."

    "Mister Clackybones? He's my favorite dolly"

    "It has to be destroyed."

    "But... I just named him..."

    This is going to be harder than I thought. "It is a walking plague," Calenda put on her command voice. "Even if you can control it, you can't control the infection it carries. It will spread, others will rise, and people will die. The church, every church, will mobilize. They'll destroy all of the dollies, and then you, if you try to keep them."

    "But you said controlling him was good."

    "I said it saved lives, and it did." Calenda fell back on her cot. "Lots of necromancers don't have the power to kill the undead, so they'll chain them long enough to find someone else to do the cleansing. But you have to destroy it at earliest opportunity. And there's something weird about these outbreaks.This makes the third undead creature I've heard of in the wake of this storm. Maybe it's best to take it back with us, get a royal mage or two to take it apart to see if there's anything special."

    "But I'll miss him," Elruin's attempt at a whine was weak at best.

    "We'll talk about it in the morning." Calenda had pushed her magic to its limit, and now a headache was creeping in. "The world is clearer after sunrise."

    As it turns out, the world was not clearer after sunrise. Both were awakened by Aunt Leyli. "My apologies, priestess, but there is a man who insists he must speak to you. We haven't opened the gate, and we don't plan to, but he is making threats."

    Both Aunt Leyli and Uncle Sanel were waiting for them, along with a few of the other men.

    Calenda and Elruin both had no trouble seeing the person outside of the gate using their respective senses, and others hiding further back. He was exchanging shouts with a farmhand on the other side of the wall, but that was too far away for Elruin to determine what was being discussed. It didn't sound nice, whatever it was.

    "I see the three of them," Cali said. "I'm going to bet there's three other weird ones I can't see."

    "Yes," Elruin said after a moment. She pointed them out one after another.

    "Good spots to rush the wall," Uncle Sanel said with careful-chosen neutral language. "If the gate opens, they'll be in before we can close it again."

    "I take it you know them?" Aunt Leyli phrased it as a question, or perhaps as a request for Cali to share what she knew. "How dangerous will they be?"

    Cali shook her head, then began to check her equipment. "We thought they were bandits at first, but now I'm not sure what to think. It seems obvious they're interested in coming after me, whatever their story. But they can't be too strong, or we wouldn't be having this conversation. They can't get through your wall, I'm sure of that much."

    "What do we do?" Leyli asked.

    Translation: what are you going to do. Calenda slid her knife from its sheath. "Normally, a situation like this means I should run and take shelter, then wait for the Guard to come for me. I've got that shelter. But if I do that, then I won't be able to get to town in time to alert a midwife, and we could be here a week before the Guard arrives. I doubt Lena or her babies can afford to wait that long."

    Leyli and Sanel nodded; the topic would have been brought up by one of them if Cali hadn't done it first.

    "Second choice? I run, hope they follow me," Cali continued. "But they might think the farm's a bigger target than I am. Or maybe they'll try for hostages thinking I'll come back."

    "Or, and this is the one I'm inclined to go for," Cali added. "We take the fight to them."


    =====

    A/N- Meet Mister Clackybones. In the game, there will actually be several places you can pick up your first undead horse... but no matter where you find it (or whether or not it's a male horse), it will always become Mister Clackybones, Elruin's faithful steed. And if (or, let's face it, when) it gets destroyed, she'll find a new one sooner or later and call that one Mister Clackybones "the second" (or third, or so forth)... Elruin is a special child...

    Also: A little more understanding of what brings the walking dead into the world.

    And another 3500 word update. I need to stop doing this to myself.
     
  16. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 12
    TanaNari

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    "I want to fight," Elruin said after a moment. "They're bad men who want to hurt a baby."

    Calenda didn't bother correcting Elruin's assumptions; bad men who didn't care whether they hurt children was close enough to count. "Okay, that's the two of us, but it's not our home." She turned her attention to Sanel and Leyli. "If you'd rather we try a different strategy, please speak up."

    The two of them hesitated. One or the other might have considered the unspoken fourth option of Cali surrendering to the bandits, but neither was going to speak that out loud for a number of reasons.

    "No," Leyli said. "You're better equipped to make this decision than we are. Please, do what you think is best."

    "First question is what sort of weapons you have, then," Calenda said. She was the one expected to be in charge, after all. "The wall means they can't get in, but it makes it hard for us to get out as well. Going over the wall isn't an option unless we shut down your defenses, and I'm hoping to avoid that if at all possible."

    "I can hit them," Elruin said.

    "So-" Calenda stopped her planning. "What do you mean you can hit them?"

    "Through the wall," Elruin clarified. "I can zap them through the wall. It was my special chore to get rid of rats that way. They like to hide under things."

    Cali smiled at the younger mage. "After today I am never going on another mission without necromancer backup. If you were any more convenient, you'd be able to teleport us to Engewel and back."

    Elruin thought about it for a second. "I don't think I can do that."

    "Nobody expects you to," Cali said. The people on the planet with long-range teleportation could be counted on one hand. "Now, we have a way to hurt them through the wall, which means we can drive them away from the wall, which gives us the ability to open the gate and get out, then you can close the gate behind us."

    "You're certain that will work?" Leyli asked.

    "They were smart enough to set a fake ambush, then track us here. Once they know they can be targeted, they'll move." Calenda said with the authority of someone who's commanded troops in the past. "If they don't, Ell can keep zapping them until they stop moving, but I'm not that optimistic."

    Which brought to mind a question Elruin had been considering for a while. "They're tracking you, right? How'd they know where to find you? Do you have enemies that want to hurt you?"

    "Knowing our route's no big task. We run the outskirts several times a year, especially after a big storm, so 'where' and 'when' are easy. Too many to count would take revenge if they could get it. You don't make enemies working as an Imperial Lawkeeper, that means you're not doing your job. Families of people you bust, the occasional noble scions who forget that Imperial Law applies even to them, the list goes on."

    Calenda looked over at the gate, where they were still arguing with the would-be attacker on the other side. "What I can't figure out is who'd be crazy enough to try. Either they fail and get executed, or succeed, then get hunted down and executed. There is no win scenario for these people."

    "Will we have any weapons to help? Or people?"

    Cali glanced at the farmers, noted them flinch back. "No, there's no point." She could hear their relief thanks to her sarite-enhanced senses. "I have a better weapon than you'd find here, your magic's strong enough to take down a mork, which means its better than any mundane equipment, and putting these farmers into a battle against people who can fight a Scout? It'd be a slaughter. Unless they've badly unerestimated the Scouts, then this will be a joke. Either way, we're in this alone."

    "Mister Clackybones can help!" Elruin offered. Clackybones was a strong horse, and he liked killing people, he'd be perfect.

    "I should probably turn that offer down, but I'm not about to look a gift damage soaker in the mouth. Just remember that I'd like to take at least one of them alive. Actually, know what? I'll take one of them alive. Just keep it away from me and my target, and that'll work fine. Now, for the rest of the plan..."

    With a plan established, the pair of them walked with Aunt Leyli and Uncle Sanel to the wall.

    "-you inbred mudpuppies! She's not your sister, so you can just give up on any chance of her letting you f-"

    "Fine! I'm here! What do you want!" Calenda yelled through the wall. She'd heard enough to extrapolate how the conversation had gone up to this point.

    "You to come out and surrender, right now!" The voice shouted back. "You have my word of honor that nobody else will be harmed, and that you will be given a fair trial to answer for your crimes!"

    "A fictitious trial with no legal meaning, and the honor of a criminal!"

    "Listen here, you..." the voice trailed off for a moment. "Oh, I see what you're trying to do! You're pushing for information! Well, how's this for information? If this gate isn't opened-"

    Cali gave a quick gesture with her thumb, the signal for Elruin to act. She raised her hand, taking a moment to angle it just right.

    "-in the next five seconds, we will-"

    Elruin unleashed the full power of her Apoplectic Bolt, at the nasty man's mouth.

    "-cook your goats!!!" With those cryptic words brought on by a necromancy-induced stroke, the rude man collapsed. He remained alive to Elruin's sight, but she wasn't sure if he'd ever recover.

    Calenda covered her mouth; it would not do to giggle under the current circumstances. Later, when she was alone, she'd devote half an hour to laughing.

    Meanwhile, Elruin kept silent watch as one of the other beings, this time one of the not-right ones ran forward to his downed comrade. As instructed, she waited for him to get close before she blasted him in the chest. He stumbled, but remained standing, so she hit him again. He turned to flee, she shot him in the side, then the back. After the fifth bolt he stopped moving, fell to the dirt, and his light vanished from her eyes.

    "One of the weird ones came. He took five hits," Elruin said once she was sure she didn't have to continue. "All to the core, like you told me. Now the rest are going back into the woods." She smiled at Cali, awaiting praise for her job well done.

    "Flawless," Cali said, then she gave the little necromancer a pat on the shoulder. "It's not the most reliable measure of power, but they can't be much tougher than normal people if he went down that fast." She looked at the farmhands at the wall, where only some of the men remained while Leyli had rushed off to take charge of the women and children as was both custom and plan.

    "Based on what I saw, I think these men could survive two core hits." She left out of her estimate that most of them would be crippled, or that she would be able to take maybe a dozen of them. Neither was something they needed to know. "So I'm guessing they're low power, but with high power sarite to help them."

    "Two down, four falling back." The plan to this point had been an exploratory attack to test the enemy's strength, as well as Elruin's, before committing themselves. "Open the gates, then run for cover."

    Despite their misgivings, the men obeyed, seven of them instead of the usually required three. The door slid open, and Calenda stepped out first. She began her movements, the position of her hands and steps of her feet did look like a dance. Elruin's vision became nothing but gray when a single stomp on the ground brought up a fog bank so thick that it was too dark to be white.

    This has no impact on her Bleak Sight, however. The four remaining opponents decided caution was the better part of valor, so they remained at the edge of the tree line. Two crossbow bolts rushed toward them, both focused on Calenda. The girl ducked under both of them, relying on her own unnatural sight- though in her case it was more like she could feel through the fog, using it as a means to extend her sense of touch.

    Then a stream of lighting shot out, between the enemy and the metal bolts now behind Cali. She screamed when the electricity pathed its way through her body, then dropped to her knees. Now the remaining four rushed forward to attack; it seemed they weren't blinded at all by Cali's fog magic. Laying on the ground, Calenda forced enough control into her muscles to trace her hands on the ground, crafting her power as best she could.

    Vines lashed out of the ground, catching the attackers as they rushed forward. It was a good tactic, but it wasn't fast enough to trip them, nor was it strong enough to hold back the swings of their swords. It would slow them down, a delay tactic and nothing more. Calenda forced herself back to her hands and knees, her still-trembling hand gripping her dagger. A pulse of energies hardened the metal past any natural state, and the force of water empowered its speed.

    The blade shot through the fog fast enough to leave a visible swirl in its wake, then one of the two remaining human enemies flickered and vanished from Elruin's vision. She began a slower spell, now, one to draw up a barrier of stone around them. There was no possibility that it would be completed in time.

    And so, Elruin sang. She sang to the fog, she sang to Mister Clackybones, and she sang to her internal pool of magic. Her black flames washed out, joined the fog, and cast a shadow that denied the existence of light as a concept.

    Mister Clackybones rushed through the impossible darkness with not a care in the world, until his fleshless jaws caught hold of the face of one of the unnatural men. The hapless victim put up a valiant fight, shoving his curved sickle into the open ribcage where a heart should have been. Clackybones did not, could not, feel the attempted counterattack. He just clenched the necromantic energies that served as his jaw muscles, and crushed a man's skull in his teeth.

    These six, now reduced to two, were prepared for the speed, durability, and battlefield control magics that made Calenda such a good advance scout. Their weapons, their tactics, everything was planned to bring down a Plant Mage like Calenda.

    What they were not prepared for was a little girl and her undead war horse. The sickle was a perfect weapon against someone like Calenda; its thin point would help pierce her armor, while the curvature would flense, leaving nasty wounds that caused uncontrolled bleeding and made healing difficult.

    None of this mattered to a thing which had no flesh, blood, or armor to bypass. The weapons best suited against the undead were heavy, bludgeoning tools that could break apart the bone and overtax the necromantic energies holding it together. Lashing out with both hind legs, Clackybones demonstrated that bone breaking worked well against living opponents as well, and smashed the chest of the last unnatural opponent inward. That one survived, but the struggling flicker of lifeforce indicated it wouldn't be for long.

    Elruin remembered Calenda's desire to take a prisoner, so she altered the tune of her song, drew back the blanket of darkness she unleashed, and granted new instructions to her new favorite dolly. Now the horse bit the last remaining victim in the face, just like he had his first, but he held back from chomping down.

    Trapped in the blood-and-brain slathered jaws of the monster, the remaining attacker could do nothing but some minor, futile, struggling.

    Meanwhile, Calenda seemed to catch her breath, and began the patterns to dissipate her fog cloud. Now they could look upon their enemies with their eyes for the first time. Three, the normal men to Elruin's special sight, were nothing special with natural sight, either. Two, including the one caught by Mister Clackybones, were uncommon shades of forest green, but she'd seen a few people with similar coloration, and weirder things by far when the caravans came through.

    The strange looking ones were hideous, twisted abominations. Their faces, save the one that was crushed, were twisted, demonic, like the things called 'gargoyles' that she saw in one of Kasa's books. Their muscles were swollen, twisted and contorted as if someone had tried to make them bigger by stuffing more meat inside them as one would stuff a duck for a fancy dinner. And, like the stuffing in a duck, there was nothing alive to it. It left large, empty pockets inside the flesh of these three.

    "What happened to them?" Elruin knew it could not be natural, whatever it was.

    "Sarite abuse," Calenda said. "I don't know how it works, myself, but there are ways to do things with sarite that, well, even accidentally mishandling Sarite can cause mutations. When it's warped with the right magic and tools, it can provide a massive boost of power, but it'll turn you into... these things, or worse. The practice is illegal, I'm sure you can see why."

    "Oh." Elruin listened deeper into the swirling magic, where the sarite joined with flesh. The magic was well beyond her skill, but there was something more than that. "I don't think I can fix it."

    "No one can," Calenda said. "I'm not sure even gods can fix what this stuff does to the mind and soul. Oh, and while we're on the topic, it's fatal. The power of overtaxing the sarite burns it out, but the body needs it to survive the mutations. A week, maybe two, and the system collapses. Don't touch them or their stuff, we need an archmage to clean this mess safely."

    Calenda turned her attention to the still-living enemy. She spent some time going over his equipment while he was held firm by the undead horse. She tossed a dagger to the side, pulled a vial of unidentified chemicals out and set it down, three hidden knives soon followed, and she took his boots off since they had spiked cleats. The only thing of real interest was a number of coins and two sarite shards. "They armed you to the teeth, didn't they?"

    Nobody answered, save for Clackybones who did the fleshless equivalent of a snort. It sounded like a poorly blown horn.

    "Okay, drop him." Calenda stepped back, and watched the man spill to the ground now that the monster no longer held him up by his face. She got a good look at all the lacerations, and could only begin to guess what sorts of nasty infections might arise from them.

    "So, the Empire is so corrupt that it now consorts with the undead? Does your degeneracy know no limits?"

    Calenda held her long-practiced neutral face and tone. "Says the cowards who dress up as women and give people corrupted shards."

    "They were patriots! They did their duty, knowing the costs!" In spite of his defiant words, he scooted away from her.

    "Oh, I'm sure." Calenda stepped forward to keep her position over the man. "I'm gonna bet you picked out the dumbest, most easily brainwashed, addle-brained people and told them they could do good. But I'm not interested in who you throw away. I want to know who gives the orders."

    "I'll never talk!" His bravado, such as it was, was ended by screams when Cali stepped on his foot and pushed down with her augmented strength. His bones bent under the pressure, leaving him gasping and crying beneath her. She made certain she didn't push hard enough to break them, not yet.

    "Oh, I'm sure you won't." Calenda twisted her heel, drawing more gasps and whimpers. "Not at first."

    "Then I'll rip off one of your fingernails. You'll scream, but maybe you won't talk." As Calenda spoke, she continued applying pressure. "Then another, maybe you'll even make it to three. Then you'll talk. You'll lie, but I'm a Truthsayer. That'll be another fingernail, and another. Then you'll tell the truth until I ask an important question, the name of someone you love, perhaps? Another nail. I'll get maybe four or five important questions from you, less if you're as strong as you imagine you are. Then you're out of fingernails, right? Wrong. I'm a decent healer." True enough, for this conversation. "You'll get your nails back, and we'll start all over again. As many times as it takes before there is nothing left for you to tell me. Then, if you're lucky, I'll kill you. But if you waste too much of my time, I'll hand you over to the professionals. Give them five minutes and an hour with me will look like heaven itself."

    She stepped back, having inflicted no more damage than perhaps a dislocated bone or two. It was rare she needed more than just the threat of torture to make someone talk. He, to her surprise, looked more enraged than terrified, though there was plenty of both.

    "Mortem Tyrannis!" Last words joined with a blossom of magical power as their captive sacrificed the sum total of his life energy to fuel one, final, spell.

    Elruin heard the upsurge of magical power too late to do much more than bring her hands up. Cali acted somewhat quicker, enough to fall backward and bring some earth up between her and the explosive magic.

    Moments later, the energy rushed over them with enough power to... knock Elruin to the ground and ruin her new dress. It was still a powerful blow, by normal standards, perhaps enough to break an ordinary girl's ribs, but all Elruin had to do was sit up pat out a small flicker of flame on the hem of her dress.

    Clackybones looked over at the girls laying on the ground, then returned to not caring noticing the layers of gore, and now baked gore, which coated much of his body.

    Cali, still laying in the dirt, tilted her head back to look at Elruin. "So, umm, if anyone asks, he blew himself up before I interrogated him, okay?"


    =====

    A/N- "Mudpuppies" are a term for some species of salamanders, and in Midara also a less-than-endearing slang for people who work farms (what with the 'mud'... and being compared to an amphibian is generally pretty rude, unless you're a My Hero Academia fan).

    Yes, there are also crude sexual insults in this setting, as you've seen in this chapter. But I'm having fun with the worldbuilding involved in the more esoteric slang, so don't expect them to show up very often.

    "This is your brain" (gives tame rat a friendly petting)... "This is your brain on necromancy" (chucks CGI version of rat at wall)... You'll just have to guess what "cook your goats" was supposed to mean. Or pay me.

    In the game, there will be an achievement for your first headshot. It'll be titled "In one ear..."

    Nobody's prepared for little girls who have undead war horses. Better than the Spanish Inquisition. Seriously, though, horses are dangerous enough when they're not fearless, deathless machines who exist only to kill.

    Cali has a mean streak to her, and the underbelly of the world reveals itself to Elruin. It has been placed on a watchlist.
     
  17. Threadmarks: Necromancy, Taint, and the Genius Loci
    TanaNari

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    Well, strictly speaking there are two processes going on simultaneously, but only tangentially connected.

    1- The font of death energy.

    2- The walking corpse.

    Like all energy interactions, death creates spirits and *is* spirits. A raindrop is a spirit, a flicker-being snuffed out not long after birth. Death is... much the same thing, but with a lot more energy than a raindrop since it is the dissipation of a entire lifetime of experiences, released in a single burst of energy (which is why a human sacrifice is a great source of energy if you're lacking in both power and scruples).

    Thing is... if you put together enough raindrops, you can create a puddle, or a pond, or a lake, or even an ocean. A genius loci spirit is born of this condition. Spirits of this nature grow to various strengths before natural limits hold them back. Eventually you reach a point where water evaporates as fast as it gathers, and power bleeds off as fast as it's generated.

    Thing is, in any "conglomerate" spirit (like, say, the spirit of a forest or city), the strongest force of will in the crowd will take control over the crowd. The strong rule, while the weak add their strength to empower the strong beyond what they can achieve alone. Packs, gangs, families, mob mentality, all the way up to the highest structures of economic, military, and governmental power. The same holds true to spirit.

    The "taint" is that spirit, one created of pain, death and hatred instead of falling water. A will strong enough to refuse to cease, empowered by the energy of all those who succumbed to death in spirit as well as flesh. And that's problem... hate is just about the only thing that's powerful enough to drive a spirit to defy death. And even that isn't enough, the vast majority of the time.

    Undead bodies, on the other hand, are... more like side effects. A corpse once spent an entire lifetime (literally) sheltering a spirit, a life, and a will- that ability remains, damaged perhaps, but not gone. The more compatible (compatibility is a big deal in Midara's magic system) the body is with the tainted genius loci, the easier it is to animate. The former body of the animating will is by far the most compatible thing one could hope to find, save perhaps a willing live sacrifice or some really high level magic.

    But, spirits grow in strength and experience, and the new, twisted, genius loci gains strength with all the death energy surrounding them in the world. Because everything, even gods, will die sooner or later. One animated body becomes many, the spirit grows, death propagates, and the spirit of an ember becomes the spirit of a conflagration.

    And, like a forest fire, most animating taint is nonsapient. It exists as a thing of emotion and instinct. It kills for the same reason fire burns- that is how it fuels itself. Until eventually it burns every source of fuel, and dies out.

    Usually. Things get a whole lot more terrifying when you have sapient taint spirits. But, then, a sapient forest fire ain't the most pleasant thing to fight, either.

    That is how undeath works in Midara, and part of why it is so feared and hated.
     
    Last edited: Jan 29, 2019
  18. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 13
    TanaNari

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    The duo returned to the gate, with Clackybones left behind to keep an eye on the bodies. Calenda didn't think anyone would be coming for the group, or that they'd get back up any time soon, but it was a good excuse to keep the gore-slathered horse monster away from the farm.

    "It's safe!" She shouted at the gate. "Turns out, they weren't as tough as they thought they were!" Her bravado belied the fact that had it been her alone, she would be dead right now. While they weren't strong, their weapons and tactics were built around countering her abilities. She looked down at the twitching, drooling mess of the man at the gate. Well, he's alive, I hope that's enough.

    "You're certain?"

    "Blue. Catfish. Diamond." Three random words agreed upon beforehand.

    The gate slid open, with both Sanel and Leyli waiting for them when it was cleared. Now that the emergency was over, it fell on Aunt Leyli to represent the farm for the priestess. She couldn't help but glance at the man laying in the dirt.

    "Aunt Leyli?" Elruin trotted up, stepping around the catatonic man. She held her hands over her chest in gratitude. "Thank you again for the dress. Sorry I ruined it. May I please have a new one?"

    Leyli looked Elruin over. "What happened to you, child? You were only gone a matter of minutes."

    Elruin ran through the events in her head. "First we beat up the bad guys, then one of the bad guys exploded, then Cali interrogated him."

    Cali choked a little, but covered it by clearing her throat. "Don't worry about the dress, it'll hold up for now, and the road won't be kind to anything you put her in, anyway. I'll get her some traveler's leathers when we get to Engewal, right after getting a midwife and an escort for you."

    "Does that mean this... terrible business is over?" Other concerns aside, she had Lena to worry about. The health of her daughter-in-law and grandchildren meant more to her than a mountain of strangers' corpses.

    "For the most part," Calenda said. "I'll need to deputize two of you. Pay's twelve billon each. One to look after this-" she took the time to give a light side-kick to the brain damaged man still at her feet.

    Leyli frowned, considering all the work they had to do on the farm. "I'm afraid our only healer is Jena, and you're far stronger than she is. If you can't help him, I can't imagine what we can do." The coin was good, more than most of them made in a week, but putting food on the table and the rest of their roof back over their heads was a greater priority than the money.

    "She doesn't have to be," Cali said. "Tie him up, toss him in a barn, and make sure the rats don't chew on him too much in the night. Break his arms and legs if you're worried he'll get up. I don't care about his wellbeing, just that he's alive long enough for the Inquisitor to read his memories." If there's anything left to read. "Then they'll execute him for banditry and crimes against the empire."

    One of the younger girls in the crowd stepped forward. "I can do it, Mother. I'll keep eye on the chickens, too."

    "Very well, Maris." Leyli had to admit the money was too good to pass up, now that she was confident it wouldn't distract from the priority tasks. "And the other deputy?"

    Cali looked over at the men for a moment. "I'll need to borrow four of your men for an hour at the most. I'd offer to deputize all of them, but my boss would skin me alive if I made them pay that kind of money. So the deputy will have to pay the other three out of his wages. All I need you to do is carry some stuff and lock it in a dry shed."

    One of the men took the offer. "If it's alright with you, I can take the Belis boys with me." Even split four ways, twelve billon for an hour of work was the easiest money any of them had made in their lives.

    "I better not find you slacking your other work. In fact, take something to eat with you. This is your lunch break. Everyone else? We're wasting daylight."

    The matriarch had spoken, and so the women scattered for their jobs. The men waited just a moment longer, for the nod from Sanel that confirmed his wife's orders. Only the five volunteers

    Cali pulled a couple diamond shaped pieces of metal from a pouch, handing one to each of the volunteers. "Thank you for your service. Congratulations, these badges represent the honor and trust being given to you by the crown. If you abuse that trust, you'll envy that guy's fate." She pointed to the comatose man that the girl would be watching. "Be sure to give those to the Inquisitor when he arrives. That's when you'll receive your pay. But first, you have to earn it."

    Cali knelt by the insensate victim of Elruin's power. A quick burst of regenerative magic to ensure he'd survive until the morning unless something actively ended his life, but healing the damage inflicted on his brain went well beyond her power. She suspected nothing less than resurrection magic could undo what happened to his mind.

    She used her own sensory magic, then regretted it now that she knew he had soiled himself. One of those unfortunate hazards of her career. She ignored that and pulled a pendant with a sarite shard from under his shirt. She kept the shard, set the pendant itself aside. It was soon followed by taking several throwing knives from the concealed strap along his hip. The strap came off next, and she tossed the weapons on that. Five minutes of prodding and taking items off the man followed.

    "Okay, he's safe. Put him wherever you think is best. Someone else, bundle all this stuff together and store it somewhere safe. I'll need all of you to go do the same for all the other piles near the bodies out there. Be very careful not to mix anything from one pile with anything from another pile, and wherever you put them, do not let any pile touch any other pile. When you're done, there's a camp about a hundred yards that way." Cali pointed toward one corner of the woods, off the main path. "You can put all of that in a single bundle, separate from the others. Oh, and whatever you do, don't touch any of the bodies. I'm safe, but they might kill you."

    The deputized man whispered to his sister, then she spoke. "If you don't mind me asking, what are you doing with all of this stuff?"

    "Investigation and scrying," Cali answered. It was common procedure, though not too much of a surprise that farmers wouldn't know. "The mages can get clues off their possessions, and track down their allies and accomplices from them. Stolen goods might be returned to their rightful owners, but I doubt this group has anything that can be traced that far. When the Inquisitor's satisfied, the rest is considered abandoned. Then, it belongs to the landowner. Or first come, first serve in the wilderness."

    The group took the moment to appreciate what that meant. The sickles and some of the knives could be useful on the farm, new boots and jackets did not come cheap, and the spare handfuls of coins would help just fine. It was just a question of if the shame of robbing the dead applied under these strange circumstances.

    "Elruin, I'll need you to help me bury the warped bodies." Calenda moved on, with the little necromancer behind her. "We can't risk touching them or their stuff, not until an Archmage disables the corrupted shards, but only the living can connect to sarite."

    "Clackybones will be happy to help!" A handful of soft notes sang to the horse instructed him to bite one of the warped bandits by the wrist and drag him along.

    "Uh, right. Oh, and while we're away from prying ears, I feel like I owe you a couple of these." Calenda handed off a pair of Sarite shards to the girl. "Got a really nice lightning shard there. If I could use it, I'd be tempted to keep it. It has a lightning bolt, a major speed boost, and a prescient ability to help guide your aim. In short, a perfect counter for my abilities. The other's a generic cloak; good for hiding magic auras to some extent, which should keep others from being able to tell your a necromancer from ten feet away. The rest are basic regeneration and ability enhancers. They're good, but you're not compatible, and I've got better. Give me some time and I might be able to trade around for something you can use."

    "Thank you for the gifts," Elruin said. She let herself slide into the now-familiar experience of joining with a sarite's essence. It didn't take her long to realize her problem; she wasn't skilled enough to handle all three shards at once. It was the lightning shard that was the problem. She could handle three shards of the other two's strength, but the lightning was strong enough that she could only hold one more shard alongside it.

    She chose to keep connected to the lightning shard, since it was stronger than the other two combined, but now she'd have to decide whether she wanted the shadow shard's stealth, or the mork shard's boosted senses.

    "You've more than earned them." Calenda kept walking into the forest, before deciding her spot. "Okay, this is good." She began her dance, tapping the ground in a few places as she spread her influence in a balanced way. Elruin watched in fascination, listening to the discordant magic of someone who operated by touch instead of sound. A whining howl signaled the earth to open before them, into a wide but shallow pit. "Dump the warped corpses here. I'll go bury the others."

    Elruin, however, had other plans. Clackybones didn't need her for this, save perhaps the instruction to not kill the tree rats. She walked toward one of the dead bandits; a normal one, because she didn't want to be twisted into whatever those former people were. She began to sing in earnest, as she had during the battle.

    Her power reached into the body, forced it to some semblance of wakefulness; it would speak to her, as Clackybones had when she learned of what killed him. "Why did you attack Cali?" The question was spoken in no language she knew, no language spoken by any living being. It was the language of the dead and the dead alone.

    What answered back was not word, but concept unfiltered by the limitations of a living form. Hate. Traitor. Stranger. For a moment, Elruin was confused; how could one hate someone who they never met that much. She dug deeper still, until concept became images, experiences, the memories of a child screaming as a city burned. The buildings of the memory shuddered around here, cracked, split as the very Earth beneath her feet rose up as a weapon in this battle between titans.

    Overwhelmed by emotions and memories not her own, Elruin lost connection to the dead spirit. She collapsed to the ground, with the last memories of the experience burned into her mind. A young woman with the same red hair as Calenda, and the word 'sorvel', which had no meaning to her.

    It takes her a moment to realize that Cali knelt beside her, and was holding her shoulders. "Ell? What happened? Are you okay?"

    ======

    A/N- In the game, most sarite which grant the same abilities won't stack. This incentivizes hunting for higher quality shards instead of farming weak monsters, and also feels more realistic to me. No, you can't break the sound barrier with Jackalope sarite. I don't care if you've got thirty of them!

    Regenerative shards are really popular for reasons that should be obvious. There's a massive demand for them, nowhere near enough supply, nobody would drain one for power if they had any other option, and they tend to sell for significantly more than most shards of similar strength. And Elruin can't use them. It'll be a big annoyance of playing her in the actual game- it won't be long before all her (living) companions have auto-regen, yet she never will.

    I'm probably going to put up a short side character chapter up sometime tonight or maybe tomorrow. Just for flavor and fun.
     
    Last edited: Jan 30, 2019
  19. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 14
    TanaNari

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    Elruin looked up at Cali, but her mind remained locked on the city being destroyed. "I'm fine." She was rattled by the brush of foreign emotions, but didn't feel hurt. "It's my... magic. It's all so new, and I've never used so much before."

    Calenda smiled at the girl. "I imagine the last few days have been quite the experience for you." She helped pull Elruin to her feet. "Stay strong just a little longer, and it will all be over. Then you can take a long, well-deserved rest."

    Cali returned to her project, dropping every corpse into a shallow grave by use of magic, then she went to the pit where the three corrupted corpses were, in order to slide the earth back over them. "You're needed here for a second!" Cali shouted at a pair of the men, returning for their second trip of hauling the bandits' equipment.

    The brothers were a rare set of identical twins, with the same scruffy light-brown features. Neither looked like they knew what to say or how to act with Calenda as their boss; letting the priestess give commands through their boss's son was one thing, but taking direct orders was uncomfortable for them. They kept their eyes on the ground, or looking for the nearest distraction to get them out of the awkward situation they found themselves in. No woman, other than their mother, had ever given them direct commands before.

    "When the Archmage comes, she'll want to know exactly where the bodies are buried," Cali said. She kept the statements as neutral as possible; while she was accustomed to command, and viewed these social taboos as more annoying than useful, she had learned to work with a whole lot worse than these boys. "Can you memorize the trees around this spot?"

    The pair glanced at one another, then managed to mumble "Yes, priestess."

    "The Empire thanks you." Calenda chose to make it as impersonal as possible, positioning herself as little more than an extension of the crown. It made the traditional type less uncomfortable. "Now, our task is done here. Please, give our thanks to the Lady and Lord for their hospitality, I'm sure they understand we have no time to waste on polite goodbyes."

    The young men nodded and mumbled, but still kept their eyes down. Even if they had disagreed with her, they wouldn't have dared voice that opinion.

    "Now, the tricky part will be helping you keep up, Ell," Cali spoke more to herself than Elruin. "That lightning sarite will help, but-"

    "Mister Clackybones can take me!" Elruin jumped at another opportunity to prove her skeletal steed was the perfect pet. A few hummed notes alerted the horror that its mistress had need of it.

    Calenda ran a list of concerns through her head, but it was better than her plan to leave the child behind to wait for the Inquisitor. "If you're absolutely certain you'll be safe."

    The horse knelt down on both fore and hind knee joints, then waited as Elruin climbed up to sit on its back, with her feet locked into its ribs. She gave a gentle pat to its shoulder bone. "He's a healthy, obedient, animal."

    Calenda could find no part of Elruin's statement she agreed with. It wasn't a 'he', it wasn't 'an animal', it certainly wasn't healthy, and obedient remained to be seen. "Duty above all," she muttered. "I'll take the lead, you stay behind and if you see me stop, lead it into the woods to hide. Wouldn't want to startle anyone, or give them the idea that I'm fleeing."

    Contrary to what most thought, horses were a poor choice for getting between towns quickly. Even on flat terrain which favored the horse more than it did the man, human resilience would keep the body moving long after a horse had fallen to fatigue, injury, or a burst heart. The humid late-spring air would only speed the process along.

    None of that was a concern for this thing which had no heart and felt no fatigue. Weighing less than half it did when it was an animal, with limbs that could never tire, it leapt along the path at a pace no natural creature could match for more than a minute. The morks which Elruin encountered the first day had spoken truth about the distance of the trip, a three day trek along perilous roads for a person, a night's journey for them, or two hours for a little girl and her unliving steed.

    Calenda had never been so grateful to see the walls of civilization as she was in that moment. She slowed to a stop, which Elruin took as her instruction hide in the forest along the path. Cali appreciated this in part because it meant the girl could follow instructions, but mostly because her lungs were on fire, and she didn't want to give the little necromancer the impression that her newly acquired abomination was, or that it could have outpaced her if they had more than a few minutes longer on the road.

    Cali stayed in a tree branch, catching her breath until Elruin poked her head out from the trees. "I made Mister Clackybones bury himself, so he doesn't scare anyone."

    It was better by far than taking the monster closer to town, where the guard would come out in force to destroy it and the girl controlling it. Calenda's influence would go far enough to keep them from executing Elruin on the spot, but they would arrest her, and the experience might sour the girl on both the empire and the academies. Discretion was the better choice by far.

    The girl stopped to get her first look at the city. The front wall was more than twice the height of the walls of her farm. It was even taller than the barns, which had to that point been the biggest buildings Elruin had seen in her life, and she could see many buildings that stood well above the wall behind it. Just the front wall of it could have wrapped around the entire farm, and she couldn't imagine any mud slide which would cause part of it to collapse.

    "I can't believe Engewal is so big."

    "This is Arila," Cali corrected the girl with a smile. "My hometown, and seat of our Barony. Engewal is more than ten times this size, seat of both the Duchy and Kingdom of Acheria." In the back of her mind she wondered how Elruin was walking so easily. Trained knights in saddles, on horses with some flesh for padding, would have been in pain after that ride, yet this girl showed no sign of discomfort.

    "Really?" If she was impressed before, now Elruin couldn't begin to imagine how impressive the capital might be. "But didn't you say?" She stopped, since she knew better than accuse an elder of lying.

    "I bit of a fib, to keep bad people from knowing where we were headed." Cali began walking into the field cleared around the city. There were no trees, rocks, or hills allowed within two miles of the city. No place for bandits, monsters, or enemy troops to move without being seen, as was only wise and proper. Besides, if there had been any trees, they'd have been carved up by the woodcutters. "I don't think anyone we talked to was untrustworthy, but you never know who might be listening in with magic. Besides, Arila has everything I promised to send back to help at the farm."

    "Oh, okay," Elruin agreed as she followed behind. The idea of lying to one person in order to trick someone else sounded like one of the most clever tricks the little girl had ever heard of, which brought up a question. "Who were the bad men, why'd they want to hurt you?"

    "I don't know, that's why we need an Inquisitor," Cali said. "If anyone can discover the truth, it's one of them."

    "Oh," Elruin thought back to the flashes of memories from the dead man. "What's your family like?"

    "Just your typical career military family," she said. "I'd say not all that different from yours, but, I've met your family. The last four generations of my family served the crown, one way or another, and all are lesser nobles. Grandfather was a famous hero in his time, Grandmother a priestess of Ifaril. I'm an odd one out, one of two water mages in the family, the first since Grandmother to go into the priesthood, and I didn't even go into the priesthood they would have preferred. But they can't say I haven't done my part to serve the crown."

    Soon, they reached the point of the gates, which were large and made of metal with holes that people could see through, instead of the solid wood like the farms used. It seemed dangerous to her, letting bad people look in, but on the other side of the gate were people in metal armor, with pointy sticks. Up on the walls were people with bows and crossbows. It seemed like such a sensible idea, to have people have the chore of standing on the wall to kill monsters. She wondered why none of the farms had anything like that.

    "Calenda, you were expected back last night! What happened?" A woman a little older than Cali met her at the gate. She shared Cali's bright orange hair, but was taller, broader, and encased in metal armor instead of Cali's lighter leather. A gesture from the woman, and the metal barricade began to slide up into the ceiling. Elruin found this, too, to be a smart design that she couldn't understand why none of the farms possessed.

    Cali was the one to take the submissive pose, now. Though it wasn't as pronounced as with most of the people who the priestess had dealt with, she kept her head tilted down a little, and did not attempt to make eye contact. "It is a long story. Make that two long stories. We have to put a team together. An outskirt farm needs a midwife, and there were events that will require an Archmage and Inquisitor near the same farm. Both situations are urgent, and it seems most cost effective to have them travel together. I dare not say more until we are in a nullification zone."

    The woman gestured to one of the female soldiers, who said nothing before walking out of the entryway, off to the side of the wall. "Does it have to do with your new shadow?" She gave Elruin a cold and humorless smile for a couple seconds, before returning to a flat stern expression.

    "Elruin is part of a third long story, but not a pressing one." Cali turned toward Elruin. "I've got to go for a while. It's part of my job to make sure the Midwife gets to your aunt and uncle's farm in time, okay?"

    Elruin nodded back. "I know, you have to do chores before you can play."

    Cali smirked more than smiled. "Guess I shouldn't be surprised. I can have someone take you to my house, get you a warm meal and some clean clothes. Or if you like you can wait in the training field. This is prime time to watch the battle mages practice, maybe you'll pick up a trick or two of your own."

    =====

    A/N- Vaguely sinister Cali is vague and sinister.

    Meet Marela. She's a Warmage, and outranks Cali. Also her older sister. Funny enough, if it came down to a fight, Cali would win handedly.

    It's true about horses, FYI- they suck at getting you from place to place quickly. A decently trained human on foot (or "runners" as they were known) were often employed to deliver urgent messages between cities or on the battlefield, where the endurance demands outstripped what a horse's short burst power could accomplish. Also, we can survive limbs being ripped off, while a simple broken ankle can kill a horse.

    Humans are damn tough.

    The undead are tougher.

    Elruin is impressed by the sorts of fortifications a real city possesses. The answer to most of her questions is, of course, "because farms can't afford what cities can afford."
     
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2019
  20. Threadmarks: Chasing Beauty
    TanaNari

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    Especially noteworthy suggested listening.


    Maris' eyes snapped open the moment the door to the barn did. Laor stuck his head in. "The Inquisitor's here."

    "Already?!" She stood, and could see the people behind her elder brother. "Why didn't you give me more time?" she hissed, but his head refused to explode as she willed it to. She had no time to make herself presentable, so she threw together her best-practiced enchantments to make herself more presentable.

    A subtle magic rushed through her body, along and just beneath her skin to smooth away the wrinkles, even out and lighten the sun darkened marks of farm living, as well as her freckles. Unlike her dark-haired pale cousin, she had freckles to hide away. Also unlike her cousin, her magic had limits. In just seconds she had winded herself with her spell.

    "Please, you'll find I've kept watch of the prisoner all night," she said to the man who came in first. Her head down, her hands held together in front of her lap as was proper position. What she had not expected was for him to be so young and attractive, with eyes and hair that bordered on silver in coloration. Two other men, in heavy but utilitarian armor that hid much of their faces, flanked either side of him.

    The man took a moment to look at the prisoner, then his nose wrinkled in an expression of disgust. "And this is how Priestess Calenda left this man?"

    "With exception to the chicken-wounds, my lord." Maris flinched a little at an imagined reprimand to come. "My apologies, the farm is in disarray after the storm, and chickens are mean when they're hungry."

    "I'm less concerned with the condition of his body, and more that of his mind," he said. "I was under the impression that we needed a mind reader because his injuries made him a physical invalid, not that his brain was damaged."

    Glad she could pass the blame off on someone else, Maris nodded. "I'm afraid nobody on this farm is educated on this sort of injury, or how to inflict it." All true, and provably so. "The priestess said it was Elruin's death magic that did it."

    "The young necromancer." He took a seat on the hay next to the man's head. "I suppose I should be glad he survived at all, but I'm afraid it will be quite the challenge, extracting anything of value from what's left of his memories."

    "I'm certain you will succeed, my lord."

    "Then we shall see if time agrees with your faith." The man closed his eyes, and placed his hands on the temples of the half-conscious prisoner. Maris noted how serene he appeared, and she decided she liked it.

    Several minutes passed in silence before the Inquisitor spoke. "Tell me, what is your impression of this necromancer? Elruin, you called her?"

    Maris froze, as the butterflies in her stomach took the time to decide if they should be angry that this man, attractive though he was, taking the liberty to ask her personal questions as if they were close friends, or be elated that he wanted to be friendly with her. Instead she opted for jealousy that when he asked a question, it was about her gifted younger cousin.

    His eyes opened a moment later, and locked on hers until she looked down. "I upset you." He closed his eyes again. "My sincere apologies. I was not raised in this land, and am still getting accustomed to its social norms."

    "You need not apologize!" Now she felt bad that an Inquisitor of all people had to apologize to her. "I wasn't bothered, just surprised." She hazarded a look at her older brother, who was watching this interaction. Under normal circumstances, he or Father would be the one talking to the Inquisitor, but Maris had been the one to do everything in her power to make certain she got the opportunity to meet with these people from a city she might go her entire life without seeing. Now she willed him to continue staying out of it. She might never get another chance such as this one in her lifetime.

    "It is true, I needn't, but I do so regardless," he said. "The question is more than idle curiosity. She's become the topic of much gossip in the few hours between her arrival and our dispatch. Is she a good person? I'm under the impression that she's received no formal training, and relies on nothing but natural ability?"

    It was an Inquisitor's right to ask such questions, or at least Maris believed it was. "I only met Cousin Elruin a few times; the men don't like to bring us girls on the road, even if it's just between farms. Even as a small child, she was always creepy, and a loner. Not dangerous or mean, other than this weird fascination with dead animals, but strange. At times she'd attach to someone, whom she'd follow around like a puppy, but mostly she just watched their behavior, like people were some sort of strange animal she'd never seen before."

    The Inquisitor nodded, his eyes still closed as he worked whatever magic he was working on his captive.

    Maris looked over at her brother again; still watching, but still not interfering. "I can't imagine where she'd find someone to train her magic. I'm certain Aunt Othsa and Uncle Kalis wouldn't hire a tutor. They don't like magic, or not the high power stuff. They view career mages as either dreamers who can't produce anything of real value, and hired killers for the crown." Her parents felt the same way, as she learned time and time again. "Unless you're a healer, at least." Everyone loved healers, to Maris' knowledge.

    "A common attitude, I fear," he agreed. He paused for a moment. "For your lack of training, you have a remarkable talent."

    "My lord? I'm not-" Her denial was cut off by him opening one eye to look at her. "It was foolish of me to try illusions before an Inquisitor. I practice every day, but only someone like Elruin stands a chance against you, my lord." She released the magic, and with it the pretense that she might have been beautiful, rather than some boring farm girl pretending to be a woman.

    He smiled. "Better, but you are mistaken on both assumptions."

    She blinked. "I don't understand, my lord."

    "Please, call me Arden. I'm a lord only because high society would never tolerate a commoner with my rank."

    "Father says a title earned by hard work means a thousand times more than one granted by birth."

    "There are those who would have you beheaded for speaking those words," Arden said. "Fortunately, they're not the ones who write the laws. But perhaps we should return to the topic of your magic. It would have deceived most Inquisitors."

    She felt herself start to blush which, now that she lacked the protective disguise of her magic, made her blush all the harder. "Surely, I am not so powerful."

    "There's more to magic than power," he said. "Brute force has its role, especially in war, but subtlety can accomplish great things in its own right. What I'm doing right now, for example. No raw power short of a god could do what I'm doing here, but with subtlety I can accomplish greatness. And if anything, your reliance on skill rather than power made it easier to hide your work from most Inquisitors, who would detect more blatant manipulation with ease."

    "You say most, but not you?"

    "I am, in some ways, like Elruin," Arden said. He allowed a sad smile, but still remained focused. "My power was mine from birth, a rare ability that scholars call Absolute Clarity. I cannot be deceived, by anyone or anything, save perhaps the gods. Most Truthsayers are limited, often they have to concentrate on their subject to catch lies, subtle lies can sneak past, as can many illusions. I have something quite a bit more than that. No illusion or deception escapes my notice, no matter how subtle. By talking to someone, I learn their motives, goals, even the lies that they tell to themselves are obvious to me."

    Maris sank down, hoping the hay would swallow her so that she might hide with the insects where she belonged. "Then I've made a terrible first impression." In saying it, she felt liberated. "But since you already know, I want to say that you are the prettiest man I have ever seen."

    Laor gasped from his place behind the guards, and Maris turned to stare him down. Sooner or later, the conversation would be over and she would be in a great deal of trouble, but until then she was safe. Nobody on this farm would dare stop an Inquisitor's conversation.

    "A better impression than you realize," Arden said, drawing her attention back to him. "Everyone puts on acts, but most will add layer after layer of deception when challenged. Your first instinct is the opposite, to proclaim your truth with defiant pride. It is a rare trait, and quite beautiful. Beauty is truth, truth beauty."

    "Does that mean..." she couldn't build up the courage to ask him if this was him offering himself as a suitor.

    "Sorry, but I cannot," he said. "I'm afraid the situation known as 'political reality' won't allow it. Unique or strong bloodlines see... ugly... competition from the higher nobility seeking to control them."

    Maris swallowed, her dreams uplifted and dashed in under a minute. "If I said I understood, I'd be a liar."

    "But that was not the goal you set for yourself today," he said. "Before I walked in, you had no idea who I'd be. I imagine you thought I'd be some old, grizzled fossil whose last smile happened some time before your parents were born, or perhaps worse things."

    She nodded, it was true that the title of Inquisitor brought to mind nothing but unpleasant things. Until today, she had thought it synonymous with torturer, not a nice young man who complimented her and treated her with respect.

    "You wanted to see if you were worthy of the dreams you set for yourself, and none of those dreams had me in them. What is the true dream you set for yourself? What are you, what have you always been?"

    She looked at her brother, and now Mother had joined him. She didn't have the bravery to confront an Inquisitor, either. Maris took strength from the fact that she was strong. "I am an artist."

    She cast her magic in the open this time, not to lie by changing her features to be beautiful, but to proclaim the truth and accentuate and highlight herself in ways that embraced what little magic she knew. She covered her eyes much the way as she had seen Elruin and the priestess do, but with the blue of the sky she would gaze upon whenever she got the chance. A similar color spread across her skin, then in an act decided on the spot she used her magic to darken her freckles instead of hide them. Now they were like black stars on a day sky, instead of white on a night sky. It felt right to her, somehow.

    Even if Mother was going to beat her bloody after the Inquisitor left.

    Arden stood, smiling. He looked at his guards. "Take the prisoner. Lythas will be able to get quite a bit from him."

    They obeyed without hesitation, stepping moving where they had to to get to their captive.

    Maris stared like a deer in headlights at them. "You're done with him already?" She'd thought she had more time, not that any amount of time could have been enough to satisfy her.

    Still smiling, Arden looked down at her. "I was finished within seconds of touching his head. Funny thing about an emptied room? Anything which remains behind is easy to spot."

    "Then all of this was about me?" It seemed obvious, in retrospect. "Why?"

    "I wanted to know the truth, and once I knew, I wanted you to see it, too. How would you like to be employed by my estate?"

    "I... but... what?" Too much had happened too quickly for the young farmer's daughter, and it had caught up to her.

    "For now, my Forgemaster needs a new apprentice, then later I may have to teach you the art of Forbidden Wine."

    "I... I'm not suited for making weapons." More to the point, she wasn't interested in being a weapon maker. "And I don't want to."

    "You'd be surprised how effective illusion enchantments can be in combat," Arden said. "But that's hardly the goal here. In order to train a Forgemaster, they must develop a lot of skill in melding enchantment magic into metal. It has a tendency to ruin the metal, make it worthless as a weapon or armor, and mark it with residual magic that is difficult to cleanse and makes other enchantments nigh impossible to get right. Even using cheap base metals, it's expensive, and there's only so much demand for nullification zones. And there's no trick to reduce the cost in sarite dust."

    "Which is where I come in, somehow?"

    "Yes, with jewelry," he said. "It's best to start with illusions of youth and health like you used before, or the alien beauty you just created. If that is all you ever do, you can make yourself a wealthy woman, and something tells me that you'll pursue more interesting and exotic art as you hone your skills. I won't tell you where your art will lead, that is for you to decide. Tell me, how does that sound to you?"

    Like everything I have ever dreamed of and more. "What of this Forbidden Wine you mentioned?"

    He chuckled. "Strange history, that. At some point, illusion mages realized you could give one fruit the flavor of another using magic. I imagined it was used as pranks for a while, until someone realized you could do it by putting the flavor of otherwise deadly berries into safe fruit like apples. I suspect the first attempts to ferment them occurred the same day."

    Maris was stunned to silence. She'd used illusion magic on food, sometimes, in order to overcome the monotony of having so few options, but the idea of having the time and luxury to create illusion-laced alcohol for pleasure and novelty was beyond any experience in her life.

    "And that is just the surface of the ocean," he finished. "It's up to you."

    She'd all but made up her mind, but she had one more question. "If I say no?"

    "Nothing, I won't be upset," he said. "You can change your mind whenever you like, and I will send an escort to bring you safely to my estate. Though other than the exorcist who will come here in a month to check on the threat of undead taint, I can't promise any means to contact me."

    "May I have time to get some things?"

    "Of course," another instant answer. "I'll need to confer with colleagues before we leave, to compare notes. And, if you can't be ready by then, I'll send an escort in, say, three days, or a week?"

    "No, I'll only need a few minutes." Maris stepped for the door, then turned and held her hands in show of gratitude. "Thank you so much!" She stopped again only because her mother stood in front of her. "My apologies, Mother, I must do this. Please don't stop me."

    "Is it because of the Inquisitor?"

    She almost answered no on reflex. Truth is beauty, and from now on I will create nothing but beauty in this world. "Some, yes. But he's not the reason that matters."

    Leyli pulled her daughter into a hug. The hasty illusions flickered at the disruption of touch. "Then I love you, and if you don't bring me one of those youth amulets when you visit, I will disown you."

    "Thanks, Mother." Maris rushed off to gather her supplies.

    Meanwhile, Arden met up with the exorcist as she watched the girl running for the house. She frowned, but only for a moment. "So, another one?"

    "Yes," he said. "She's nowhere near as strong as her cousin, but as wild talent goes, she's impressive. More skill than half of the noble-scions who pay their way into the academies, though lacking in raw power. Still, two in the same generation in the same family and region. It's quite the coincidence."

    "That is not what I meant, and you know it," the exorcist said.

    "I know," Arden agreed. "But it's something we may want to investigate, perhaps this area caries a stronger bloodline than we believed."

    "Or perhaps you are too inquisitive for your own good."

    "Well, it is in my very nature, after all. Nothing offends me quite like a mystery. Speaking of, I sensed no undead taint in the region, perhaps you can shed light on that? I admit my skills are better at the deliberately hidden rather than just the difficult to find, but it seems odd."

    She shook her head. "There is no taint to find, I'm certain of it. The area is covered in necromantic residue, and it all but drips with corruption from the sarite Scout Calenda reported, but not a single flicker of undead taint."

    "Speaking of mysteries, please tell me you got something for this trip other than a farmgirl."

    "They call themselves the Ghosts of Sorvel. This one is a follower, but his accomplices were there. At least a dozen other members and countless sympathizers, and his mind was too shattered to give me the names of any of them."

    "Oh, the Queen will not be happy to hear about this."

    "I'd suggest telling her it's better to know than to remain ignorant, but I already tried that once."


    =====


    A/N- Maris did get a small untruth through. Chickens are mean at all times, they're just worse when hungry.

    This chapter's one of the ones that has a couple moments at the end which I hope make the whole chapter worth rereading with the new mental perspective.

    Maris' opinion of Elruin in this scene is directly influenced by your votes and actions up to this point, and the "morality and reputation" scores going on half-invisibly in the background. More socially outgoing votes would have seen a different evaluation, as would a generally less social vote pattern... but thus far it's been heavy on being social with Calenda, and almost nobody else, so it's this outcome.

    During this scene, Arden is the closest thing to an Author's Mouthpiece that I have ever written. I don't fully agree with him- I never do, with any character I've ever written, but he is still closest in this moment. Later? Well... *is* amongst the "recruitable character/possible enemy" character list. I wonder if the more shocking twist would be to make him a genuinely sincere character, or to make him a manipulative bastard? How about now that I've said it out loud?

    There is a story path where Elruin signs up with Ghosts of Sorvel, though none of the ones at this encounter there were recruitable members. At this point, that one's all but guaranteed to be a boss fight.

    Also, on a more personal note, I'd give nightshade a taste, if not for the deadly poison part.
     
    Last edited: Mar 9, 2019
  21. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 15
    TanaNari

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    Elruin decided she could wait for Cali at the barracks. "I'd like to watch the mages." She'd never seen or heard of anyone waiting in a home for the owner to arrive, so it seemed weird to her.

    She didn't know what she expected, the only 'training' she had ever witnessed was her brothers play fighting with sticks during those rare occasions when the weather was good and the chores were done early. She thought that maybe there'd be a punch of people like Cali, all with their own songs playing together to make a beautiful harmony.

    What she found was an outdoor stone floor made of hexagonal tiles, each just large enough that a person could stand comfortably inside one. Most were white, except the ones that the other mages were standing on, where the colors changed to a myriads of blue, green, red, brown and yellows. A couple were near a corner, blasting a wall with fire magic, while nearer were two mages who seemed to be doing what Cali did to her body, but through their weapons and armor.

    It was a fascinating thing to watch, though their songs were weak and muted, like listening to people speak on the other side of a wall. She stepped out onto the tiles, to get a closer look at the fighters; something in their magic looked like it was a trick she could do. But with every step on the field, it felt like walking in mud that was in her mind rather than on her feet. She didn't like it at all.

    Nearby, a handful of the people training felt the need to comment on the newest arrival. "Looks like a street urchin got past the guards."

    "Did she climb in through the sewers?"

    "Forget the guards, look at her tiles." Several others murmured their surprise as well.

    "At her age? That can't be her, it must be some magical equipment."

    Elruin looked down at her feet, where the stone she stood had a medium gray, while the tiles surrounding were light gray. Small wisps of black smoke wafted away from the stone, then fell back down in a way reminding her of morning fog on the crops. She took a step back, and the black mist moved as if an invisible wind was pushing it toward her.

    "She'd still have to be pretty strong, if she can carry necromantic gear of that power without it killing her."

    The practicing warriors walked past the gossipers in order to approach her. Their personal tiles stayed a deep orange, with lighter orange extending out to the tiles around him, and then just enough extra to color the tiles past those. When they got closer, the man stayed back while the woman came closer. As they separated, their colors did to, until the man's tiles were a soft red color that was only a few shades darker than pink, while the woman had a deep yellow which bordered on brown.

    When her color panels met Elruin's, they pushed against one another, instead of blending. Yellow fought black like a sunrise, and much like a sunrise, yellow won the battle. Now, only the tile Elruin stood on, and two behind her, remained dark.

    She knelt down in front of her, putting the two of them at about the same height. "Perhaps you should share where you came from, lest someone do something so impolite as call the guard to drag you out into the streets."

    Elruin kept her eyes down, in part to watch the tiles, and in part for politeness. "Cali- uh, Priestess Calenda, said I could come here to watch the mages train. She has to do her chores, then she's going to show me the city and find me a new dress."

    The woman glanced back at her partner for a moment. "Lady Calenda is a wonderful representative of the Crown, and a credit to her line."

    "You know her?" Even to Elruin, it seemed obvious they were important. The gossipers so willing to say mean things about her were silent now.

    "Why, I've known her since we were children. We're practically family," the woman said. "I suppose this calls for proper introductions. I am Lady Juna na Enge." The woman, Juna, tilted her head. "Lady Calenda is betrothed to my brother, Garit ne Enge." She gestured to the man standing behind her, who gave his own head nod. "Knowing Lady Calenda, she rushed in to rescue you from some scary monster attack, and so you'll be staying with her until your retainers can bring you safely home. I hope you have nothing but kind things to say to your liege about the Kingdom of Acheria and the hospitality of Arila despite what I'm certain was a traumatic experience."

    "My name is Elruin." It was the polite thing to do, introducing herself in return. The lack of a titular name was noted by everyone listening. "Lady Calenda said I could go to an academy."

    "Ah, a foreign student," Juna adjusted to the new information in an eyeblink, as if she hadn't made a wrong assumption at all. "That proves your master is wise to send you here. You'll find no better kingdom in the world to study the arts. Which academy are you attending?"

    "I don't know."

    For a moment, Juna looked flustered. It didn't last long. "Well, I suppose your master would handle those details since you are so young. What's her name? Is she here with you?"

    "I don't have a master," Elruin kept her eyes down. "Lady Calenda called me a wild talent, then took me away from my family's farm because they tried to feed me to morks. Then we went to my cousin's farm, but there were bad men who wanted to kill babies so we killed them. One exploded. Then we came here to get help for the babies and find out why the bad men wanted to hurt them."

    Now the pair did stop to look at one another. This was quite the story they'd need to ask Calenda about in the future, but for now they had to deal with an untrained twelve year farm girl who had more raw power than half of the royal families.

    "Well, now I am more glad than ever to have met you," Juna said.

    "Really?" Elruin smiled, hopeful to have found a new friend, especially one who could make others stop saying mean things about her. "I'm glad to meet you, too."

    "Well then, since this is your first time, I shall endeavor to make it memorable." She stood up, then stepped back some, and the tiles between her and her brother began to shift back to their shared orange state. "Interested in the tiles?"

    "Why do your colors merge together with him, but pushes away mine?"

    "Ah, that's resonance in action," Juna said. "You'll find that most magical energies, whether natural or coming from a mage, tend to make it more difficult for mages of different elements to cast their spells. That's why fire mages like us avoid the ocean. But when two mages work together, they come to know and trust one another until their auras are in resonance. This reduces the magical resistance and makes them stronger just by standing near those they're resonant with."

    "You'll even find ways to combine your magic to generate spells that neither of you can cast alone, with elemental properties and raw power that exceeds all but your wildest dreams. With practice and trust, you can find power that only gods could cast without assistance."

    "Oh." Elruin wasn't sure about their claims, but the song she heard when the two of them allowed their power to sync up was more complex than anything she could have imagined. It was beautiful yet threatening, complex yet clean, and she had no doubt that it made them stronger by far. "Your song is beautiful."

    "And Revealed, too?" Juna hopped in place. "This is going to be a treat. Now, let's get to work on the fun stuff."


    =====

    A/N- In before some SJW reads this chapter and decides the entire novel is nothing more than an a pro-life allegory, and I get more nonsensical hate mail and death threats.

    Elruin being oblivious to her torn and burnt dress is hilariously in-character. But truthfully, the more optimal in-game choice probably would have been to go get some food, a bath, and a change of clothes first, and then come to the training ground. First impressions are important. Even if part of that first impression is to make her seem less unusual in this case. Now, everyone is paying attention to her.

    As a plus, more knowledge of the magic rules, and new contacts with the social elites.

    "Master" is mostly a gender-neutral term, especially when it comes to positions of teaching and power. Mages, for example.

    ... Why, yes, I have played both Chrono Trigger, Chrono Cross, and Fire Emblem. And yes, I did make their main unique gameplay mechanics into part of the Laws of Physics of Midara. Truth told, it was only intentional with Chrono Trigger... I loved their combo system... it made the characters each feel like they were friends, helping each other in battle, rather than just statblocks dancing to the orders of the player. My only complaint is that they didn't go far enough with it, so in Midara it's been plugged into a more dynamic system.

    It also may have a bit of resemblance to the Ar Tonelico "dive system", but Ar Tonelico didn't even exist when I dreamed up Midara.

    The pairbonding stuff you saw in my other works? This is the setting for which it was invented.
     
    Last edited: Feb 1, 2019
  22. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 16
    TanaNari

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    Suggested Listening


    "I suppose in order to teach you anything, we'll need to see what you can do first," Juna said. "So, what do you consider your best skill so far?"

    If she had been a more suspicious person, she might have considered this whole show was an attempt to learn her abilities, but Elruin had precious little experience with deception, and none with nobility. "I can zap things. But I shouldn't use that except on bad people because Lady Calenda says it's dangerous."

    Juna laughed. "I'd take that as a challenge, but I'm afraid there are rules here and it wouldn't be proper to ignore them. Bad for morale, you see. Maybe some day, you can visit our private training grounds." While she gestured toward the wall. "Go ahead, take the time to hit it with everything you've got. Don't worry, you can't hurt it. If you were that strong, the panels you're standing on would be broken by now."

    "Oh, okay." She wasn't sure what 'morale' was, but she understood rules and that these two were authority figures. She wanted to show her best, so she took the time to extend her hand as if reaching for an invisible hand while humming notes of power to herself. She wanted to make a good impression on her new friends, so she concentrated on getting as much power out as possible.

    The lance of black light traveled no more than a few yards before evaporating into smoke. She looked at her hand. "It should have been stronger."

    "The tiles don't just show colors, they absorb magic. It's kind of like running in water- the harder you push against it, the harder it pushes back, which gives weaker mages a chance to train with stronger ones, and both can get some benefit. The stronger you are, the more resistance you face, so you must work harder, which means you get stronger faster." Juna brushed some of her soft green hair away from her face, then she pitched her voice so the rest of the observers could hear. "You'll find some people complaining that it gives men an unfair advantage, since it takes away our magical advantage, but not their physical one. I say that if they trained harder, maybe it wouldn't take six of them to make me break a sweat."

    A few onlookers decided now was the time to pretend they weren't listening in on the conversation. Some, perhaps, agreed that their superior was right and eavesdropping wouldn't help them improve their skills.

    "Don't let any of that worry you," Juna said once she was satisfied with the rest of the crowd. "I think you did an excellent job. But I'm no blaster, so we should ask my wonderful brother for his expert opinion on the matter." She turned her head to look at him, and in the process guided Elruin to look as well.

    "Can you please?" Elruin asked, once again doing her best to remain polite and submissive.

    "How could I refuse such a polite request from a friend of Lady Calenda?" Garit smiled, as he stepped closer to Elruin, then knelt beside her. "First, you should work on form. A spread finger pose is good for wide area spells, which you might learn some day, but for now you need to think of your fingers as directing the magic. Point at the target with each of them. It will let you hit harder with the same power. Won't make much difference against weak magic resistance, but it's great for piercing the defenses of tougher foes."

    "Why, beloved brother," Juna gasped with a mock scandalized tone. "Are you teaching this precious child how to hurt me?"

    "Of course, my sweet sister," Garit answered back in a tone just as sarcastic. "As often as you remark that nobody in the kingdom can give you a good fight anymore, I thought this would be my gift to you."

    "That sounds like a wonderful project!" Juna laughed. "Go ahead, Elruin, let's see what you can do now."

    Elruin did as instructed, holding her fingers together instead of spread out, and was rewarded by her bolt traveling perhaps another couple feet before being eaten by the tiles. It was no stronger than before, but the more concentrated energy lasted longer in the strange field. She would have to take Garit's word for its effectiveness in combat, but it seemed sensible.

    "I did it!" Nobody had ever encouraged her to explore her magic before, and it was so much fun. For a moment, she forgot protocol. "What else should I do?" She caught herself, turning her eyes down. "Please, if you wish, I would be grateful to learn more."

    "You need not ask," Garit said. "You also need to learn to throw yourself into a spell." As he spoke, he began to extend his own arm. "You're holding yourself back, most mages do, and most of the time you should. Lady Calenda was right that you should never zap anyone, unless they're bad people who need to die. Now, let's talk about the opposite, like what you should do with a really bad man who belongs dead."

    "Until now, you've only been thinking of your blast as a weapon in your hand, now I want you to think of it as a weapon of your whole arm." He placed a gentle touch on her wrist and elbow, encouraging her to straighten out her arm pointing at the wall. "And when you fire, don't think of the wall as your target. Think of firing through whatever it is that needs to go away. Don't be gentle, don't hold back, it's in your way, it shouldn't exist, and you have to destroy it. When you're ready, end it."

    Fire through it, it belongs dead. Elruin drew on her power again, concentrating the energy through her limb while Garit whispered his mantra. Black lightning danced along her shoulder, down to her wrist. Now she felt ready. The concentrated black magic surged through her arm and took her breath with it when it left her fingertips toward the wall. Though much of it was consumed, enough power remained to hit the wall, leaving behind a black spatter on the otherwise white barrier.

    The stain of black on the wall, and streak of gray on the panels, began to fade to their default white as what remained of the arm of her dress crumbled away like dry leaves. Elruin giggled, thinking about the bad morks and worse men in the forests. She didn't have to be afraid of them anymore. One zap is all it would take to make any bad person go away.

    Then she fell on Garit's shoulder.

    "Oof!" Despite his crouched position, he managed to keep balance. "Surprisingly heavy for someone her size," he said while positioning her so his sister could take her, for propriety's sake.

    "Farm living," Juna said. "Early up, early down, lots of healthy food and fresh air, no time to sit around on your haunches getting fat. They're all built like soldiers out there, even the little girls."

    Elruin looked up at her. "Did I do good?"

    "You reminded all our recruits why we don't do live-fire training at this location," Juna said. "So, I'd say you did fine. But perhaps you should take a break from blasting for a while. There are other arts, you know."

    "Sister, are you jealous that I'm getting all the attention from our new friend?"

    "Not at all," she said. "I'm afraid that if all she learns is one style, she won't be well prepared for situations where that strategy doesn't work. It's best to be well-rounded, with solutions to every situation."

    "I'd like that." The argument sounded sensible to the little necromancer, who struggled to stand on shaky legs. "Thank you."

    "First, let's talk about breathing," she said. "You should take long, slow breaths. Deep in, deep out. Yes, like that. You'd be amazed how many people forget that magic is a physical art, as much as a mental one. Personal health matters for more than taking a hit. Especially for Negation magic, which has a reputation for harming its users."

    Elruin nodded, while concentrating on breathing the way she was told.

    "I'll show you some defensive tricks," she said. "It looks like you stand there and take hits, instead of trying to roll with the blows. The ability to turn a direct hit into a graze could save your life some day. True, it would be better if you were magically toughened, but good armor can help as well."

    "I'm tough," Elruin said. After seeing how easy it was for her dolly to kill Father, and Clackybones to kill the bad men, she knew she had some magic of that nature. "Cali- Lady Calenda said I should have lost my foot when a mork bit me."

    "Is that so?" She beamed a triumphant smile at her brother. "Let's test how tough you are, shall we?" She slid her hand to Elruin's forearm. "I'm going to squeeze here, and I want you to tell me when it starts to hurt, and we'll stop right away. Don't try to tough it out, I'm a lot stronger than you are and I don't want to break your arm."

    "It's true," Garit said. "She once punched a man's helmet so hard that he was decapitated by his own chin strap, and the severed head slammed into another man and caved his chest plate in. Ever since, she's been trying to get a triple-kill from a single punch. Not a contest you can win."

    "Okay." Elruin stayed silent as the pressure began to build, then it became uncomfortable, then it started to hurt. "Now."

    Juna relaxed her grip. "About soft copper, I'd say. You're no dedicated earth mage, but you're unquestionably earth aspect, which means you have access to time magic. That is much more interesting than blasting."

    Elruin hadn't so much as heard of that element before. "What can it do?"

    "Artificially age things, slow a target's perception of time, generate stasis effects. I've heard rumors of summoning people from the past. The most famous spell is Accelerate, which can make someone move at inhuman speed for short bursts, or heal wounds in seconds that should take years. Problem is, Accelerate devastates the body. It doesn't make you age a year every time it's used like the rumors say, but it's like running for hours in the hot sun. It can make your heart explode."

    "I don't think I like that spell."

    "I couldn't help you learn it, anyway," Juna said. "I'm on the creation side of earth magic, I can't do any destruction magic. But I can teach you how to use your elemental armor better. I'm magesteel grade; if a mork tried to bite me, it'd break its teeth on my skin."

    "I'd like that."

    "Then let's get to work," she took a combat stance. "You try to block me. Every time I'm about to hit you, try to push some of your power to your skin."

    One quick jab later, and Elruin was holding her mouth. "Ow!"

    Juna sighed. "This is going to take a while." A quick flash of healing light which somehow wasn't impacted by the panels mended Elruin's busted lip. "But at least you're not crying, that makes you better than half the new recruits."

    The hour that followed was a series of painful lessons in the gap between Elruin and Juna's ability. Strength, speed, knowledge, and the ease at which the older woman could change her magic from defensive to offensive were fascinating, frustrating, and often times painful. By the time Cali came out onto the field, Elruin was eager for that bath and change of clothes that had been promised to her.

    "Looks like we'll have to stop for now," Juna said when she spotted Cali. "Lady Calenda, we heard you've had an exciting trip. We're bursting with curiosity over the details. Dinner at the manor, perhaps? Young Elruin is more than welcome to join us."

    Cali smiled, but it was tired and unenthused. "Perhaps tomorrow would be better. I've got the Inquisitor, now I need to go by the church, make sure we get a good midwife ready for the journey, then... I'm afraid I'll make a terrible guest tonight."

    "I can imagine no such thing from you," Garit said. "But we won't press, our curiosity is of less priority than your wellbeing or that of Miss Elruin."

    Calenda nodded. "If no new emergency happens in the next few hours, then I'm sure I'll have time tomorrow."

    "That would be lovely," Garit said. "But please, allow us to make your life easier tonight."

    Cali hesitated, but had little choice but to respond. "I wouldn't want to impose."

    "No imposition at all," Garit said with a dismissive wave of his hand. "And it wouldn't require anyone going out of their way. Rig owes me a favor, and I can think of no better way for him to repay me than to provide a new outfit for your young charge."

    There was no good way out of the setup, and Calenda knew it. "Sounds like Rig will be going out of his way."

    "Nonsense," Juna said. "Rig has always been generously compensated for his work, this time before knowing what work he would do. I know how you feel about accepting gifts, but this is hardly the same. This is us doing our best to help this charming young mage. She is, after all, a guest in our city, and it's simply unacceptable for us to have a reputation as poor hosts. In fact, I should make an offer of my own. I noticed Elruin is a Virtuoso, and my old music teacher could use a new student."

    "Still holding a grudge after all these years, dear sister?"

    "Why no! Never. Not at all. Maybe a little." Juna moved from one thought to the next without a moment of hesitation. "But I would never suggest such a thing if I didn't think it was the best course of action. Please, consider the offer, not for your sake, but for us and for her."

    "Fine, I'll consider it," Cali said. "Please accept my apologies, but I really must hurry. Lives are on the line."

    "Of course, don't let us stop you," Juna said.

    Elruin turned to face the pair, clasped her hands together and bowed. "Thank you for playing with me."

    "It was our pleasure. We'll be happy to play some more, any time we're not busy with our chores." Juna watched Calenda leave with Elruin, then smiled at her twin. "Your taste in women never ceases to amuse me, brother."

    Elruin stared at the buildings as they walked. Everything was so impressive, so new. Never before had she walked a road made entirely of stone, nor had she seen horses used for a purpose other than work, nor had she seen so many people in one place or dresses of such bright and fanciful colors. It was like she'd walked into a storybook of some faraway land.

    "Your boyfriend was nice," she said to Cali in the hopes that she could get her talking again.

    "My b-?" She stumbled over her words. "He wishes he was my boyfriend."

    This confused Elruin. "He said you were betrothed."

    "Yeah, that's what he thinks," Cali growled. "But I'm not interested in marriage, and if I was, not one where I'm cucked by my sister in law."

    "Cucked?" She had no idea what the word meant, but having met Juna, she guessed it had something to do with fighting. "Are they bad people?"

    "Uh, sorry, that's a bad word you should never repeat it," Cali said. "It's a vicious rumor, not true. If it was, he wouldn't be pursuing me as hard as he is. Garit is a good man, for the most part, and both his family and mine love the idea of us getting married. Well, except some of my sisters who'd rather take my place. I'd let them in a heartbeat."

    Elruin looked back at the barracks. "Why don't you want to marry him?" She was still processing the concept that marriage was a thing you could choose for yourself. All she knew was that at some point Mother and Father would declare that one of her older brothers and sisters were married to someone, there'd be a party- sometimes at their farm, somewhere at the farm of the other family- and then they were married and either a sister moved away, or a new sister moved in. Later, babies happened. She saw no reason to think any deeper on the subject until now.

    "I just don't want to get married," Cali said. "I like my freedom, to go where I want and run the wilds. I joined the priesthood specifically in order to get outside the system, and now Garit wants to drag me back in."

    "Is that why you don't want to take their gifts?" Elruin saw no difference in getting clothes from Cali compared to getting them from Garit's friend.

    Calenda sighed again. "No, that's something else. Garit and Juna are the sort of people who want everyone to be grateful to them, want everyone to owe them and to know they owe them. They trade favors like currency. Come a few months, and they'll ask something in return. Nothing special, not something difficult, maybe something you'd want to do anyway. Then you're even, but now you've got it in your head to ask for another favor. And sooner or later, you will, because something will go wrong. Maybe they'll have you repay that one, maybe they'll sit on it, but sooner or later you'll find you owe them seven or eight favors, and now if they ask for something you owe them too much to say no."

    All of this confused Elruin, but she continued to listen.

    "They don't do anything bad with this power over others," Cali continued. "In fact, if it wasn't so unbelievably manipulative, it could be called heroic. One time, they saved a girl from slavery. It was a mess, unjust but unquestionably legal. Merchant's guild against citizens with the Guard caught in the middle. Almost led to riots, then they stepped in and fixed everything with the words 'we're calling in a favor'. End result, a slaver lost coin but can't complain, the business guilds settled down since none of their own were forced to do anything by the nobility, some business loses out on a slave, and a pretty but otherwise unremarkable young woman working at the library sings the praises of the kind lords who saved her to everyone who will listen."

    "They were liked before, but now everyone loves them. Which is good, I mean, their mother is our Countess, and nobody in the city doubts Garit gets the throne while Juna becomes the HIgh General. Some people hope their mother dies sooner rather than later, they so look forward to their heroic nobles taking direct leadership. I can't deny they're good leaders, but I despise the games. I want to leave others alone, and they leave me alone. Except the ones who hurt other people, I make them my business."

    Elruin still hadn't puzzled out the whole mess, but she could tell Cali wasn't sure how she felt, either. "So they wouldn't make me do bad stuff?"

    "You? Not at all," Cali admitted. "They'll encourage your education, call some favors to make certain you get the best tutors the kingdom, maybe the empire, can provide. A talent like yours will be cultivated and pushed. Then, in five or so years when you're considering what career you want to pursue, they'll step in and have a polite conversation. No matter what you want to do, I'm sure they'll have five major lords desperate to recruit you, or perhaps they'll convince you to remain working here in Arila. A handful of small favors cultivated into one big one. But, I guess, it's up to you."


    ======

    A/N- When doing this as a game, I can imagine a lot of graphics effort devoted to Elruin's hands. If it's in action-RPG format, there will definitely be a setup of "charging up" attacks for extra damage.

    Not sure how or if to do destructible clothing.

    Garit and Juna are two of my favorite NPCs in all of Requiem. They get to tease each other, be generally fun, and on some routes are the final bosses of Act 2 of the game (perhaps the hardest fight in the game, definitely hardest to that point). It's a three-act game. Arguably four acts, but I'm kinda envisioning act 2 being twice the size of act 1, and act 3 being twice the size of act 2. But that's a different conversation. Point is, the siblings are great fun to write.
     
    Last edited: Feb 3, 2019
  23. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 17
    TanaNari

    TanaNari Verified Dick

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    Suggested Listening

    All this talk of guilds, riots, and planning for after she finished getting training was too complicated for Elruin, and she had a solution for games she didn't understand: don't play. "The city seems almost as scary as the wilderness."

    She smiled, a genuine one at that. "There is a reason I run the wilds at every opportunity. There, the threats are straightforward, with clear goals and outcomes. Worst thing a monster will do is kill you."

    "I don't think I'll take their help," Elruin said after a moment. She looked at Calenda, seeking approval from the older mage for her choice. Elruin didn't have many friends at the best of times, and now she was down to two, one of which was buried in the woods outside the city. "Would their gifts have helped a lot? Will learning real music help me? We could still go see Rig and a music tutor without them, right?"

    "That's a lot to unpack," Cali said. "Some think training in a classical art will help mages focus their skills, but I've seen wild talents with no formal education that were quite comparable to their classically trained counterparts. Maybe they'd have been even stronger with the right training, maybe not. But as my father likes to say, the only tools you can't use are tools you don't have, and all Revealed mages have a natural talent for learning arts which suit their magic. Once an academy takes you, I'm certain they'll have you with a music tutor within a week. Not one as illustrious or as likely to give her best to your education, but still a quality tutor."

    "As to visiting Rig? I wouldn't bother," Cali dismissed the idea out of hand. "He's the high end specialist, you don't get to walk into his place unless you've been recommended by a previous client, or drag a man's weight in gold to his doorstep."

    "Truth told, their offer opens all sorts of doors for you that I can't see any other way to open. Doors that are more valuable now than they'll be at any point in the future for you." She slowed her walk for a moment, then fished the extra pair of sarite from her clothes. "Although, now that I think about it, there might be a way. It involves joining their game, but as players rather than pieces."

    "Does it put us in danger?" Elruin may have been convinced to reject the offer, but not because she didn't want the benefits.

    "No, but it comes at a cost." Cali walked into one of the side-streets, still holding the pair of magic jewels made from crystalized life force. "These sarite are comparable to what Rig uses in his low quality works, with perfect properties. But I recommend saving them for a straight trade, with any luck we can find a death sarite. They're rare, but there aren't a lot of people compatible with them, and they're expensive to refine."

    "The trickier part is, well, I can adopt you?" Calenda fielded the possibility as a question.

    Elruin looked at her. "What's an adoption?"

    "Oh, surely you've had parents with children die, and then another adult takes charge of those children? We'd do that, then the law will consider me your mother for these sorts of things."

    "You can do that?" She always thought children were handed off to a relative, which would make Carob and Kasa her new parents if Mother died. Cali seemed like a better choice, since a choice was possible.

    "It will be considered improper, but undeniably legal. Don't worry about my rep, I'm already the city maverick. They will pay for mages with your potential, and with my family name you've gone from technical to actual nobility. The money, the name, and the prestige you could gain from being accepted at your age, will be enough to get what the twins are offering."

    "But it does mean you have no choice but to play by the academy's rules for years to come, and it'll still cost favors, but to people with less finesse than the twins. Plus, well, the whole nobility marrying into nobility, but that's as certain as the sunrise, anyway. With your power you'll have suitors to spare when the time comes." She slipped the shards back into her clothes, then began to walk again. "No need to decide now, we'll have a few days before we can get you to an evaluator. You'll pass, hands down, but bureaucracy demands we go through the system."

    They continued their walk while Elruin considered her options until they started through an area that was full of lush grass and large trees. "Why do you leave this spot barren?"

    Cali looked back at her. "Barren?"

    "Yeah, the grass is healthy, and the soil looks strong, but it hasn't even been harrowed." Elruin ran down her list of complaints one after another. "Is this supposed to be a hay farm? It's too early in the season for the first harvest, and it's too late for it to be this short, and it's the wrong type of grass. There aren't any fences, so it can't be for cows. Does nobody here know how to farm?"

    Cali laughed at the girl's assumption, but she had to admit she knew little or nothing of the assertions the girl had about working the land. "No, it's not a farm, it's a park."

    "What's a park do?"

    "It doesn't do anything, it's just here so people can come look at the pretty grass and trees. They love nature, as long as it's a fake, safe nature that's not hiding vicious monsters. Cultivating the land never crosses most of their minds."

    "That makes no sense." Elruin had never had much love for nature. She didn't hate it, but it never rated high enough in her attention to merit an opinion, it simply was a thing which had always been there, and she expected always would be there. "How do you feed all these people, without farms?"

    Calenda looked forward and up, unable to explain to the little girl that often times they didn't feed them, and more people in the cities died from starvation and the elements than any other cause. Nobles, soldiers, anyone else with magic potential, would be fine, but those of weak bloodlines faced a reality more cruel than any wilderness. The worst of it happening during the rainy and cold seasons, when access to the farms and their produce became difficult. "You're right, it doesn't make much sense."

    They stopped in front of a large building of white stone which became the new record-holder for Elruin's list of tallest buildings she'd ever seen. "Who lives here?"

    "According to the priests: Ecross, Ifaril, Nalet, and Enge," Cali said. "This is the church, and I must attend some duties and find a midwife suitable for the trip to your cousin's farm."

    "To help the babies!" Now Elruin had something positive to think about, instead of the empty field sitting in front of the church.

    "Right," Cali said. "This shouldn't take long, just stick with me."

    Moments after they entered, a priestess clad in orange and brown, her pink hair tied in a series of elaborate loops which reminded Elruin of a flower, approached them. "Sister Calenda, I hope the sun greets you well." She gave a look at Elruin. "I'm afraid we're low on space for the needy right now."

    "Sister Erena, the sun chose to greet me with interesting times, today," Cali answered back. "This is Elruin, she'll be staying with me for now. More likely than not, the academy will be looking after her in a week or so. But there is need for a midwife at one of the outskirt farms."

    "I see." Erena gave the girl a longer look, wondering if the girl was indeed academy material, or if Calenda had finally spent too long in the woods. "It will be... difficult to find an escort in this season."

    "How's an Inquisitor, an Exorcist, and an Archmage sound? I talked to the Guard before I came here, they are ready to do their duty."

    "An Exorcist? I see you were not exaggerating about interesting times," Erena said. Exorcists were Church domain, but they were also considered a military resource, to seek out and destroy undead taint wherever discovered. There weren't many situations where Church and Military were in full accord, but the threat of undeath was known to all. "I hope this does not imply a death cult."

    "I suspect the events to be unrelated to one another," Cali said. "It appears to have been spontaneous taint, brought on by the lives lost in the storm, the woman lost one of her triplets when a tree fell on her house. However, the Inquisitor and Exorcist will be better suited than I to judge the situation. The Guard has agreed that taking the Midwife along as well would not be an undue hardship, considering other circumstances."

    "Then I shall make the arrangements, immediately." Erena was suspicious about the situation; it seemed like a convoluted chain of events, and Calenda was not an easy woman to trust. Still, it was true an injury causing a miscarriage could bring on taint, and lost fetuses or children often caused the worst outbreaks, so she had little choice but to follow through. If time proved Calenda a liar, it would be the Inquisitor's business to deal with. "Will you be staying long?"

    "I cannot, Sister." Calenda chose to phrase it in a manner that couldn't be called into question. "I must show Elruin to my home, and see to it that she is properly cared for. The wilderness was not kind to her."

    "The wilderness is kind to no one," Erena agreed. "I hope we shall see you, soon."

    Calenda smirked at the obvious lie. "If duty permits."

    She left, taking Elruin through the park again, then down a side path that brought them back toward the wall. A small but well made house sat in the shadow of the wall, and it was there that they approached. "Welcome to my home. It's not much to look at, but it's all I need."

    Suggested Listening

    A creature poked its head out from a perch on the roof. It looked somewhat human, but also like the occasional praying mantis her brothers tried to scare her sisters with when they felt like being mean. They gave up on scaring Elruin that way, when it became clear the bugs were more scared of her than she was of them.

    It hopped off the roof, then glided down on wings of gossamer in front of them. If not for the metallic-green skin, and hair that looked like it was made of moss, the creature might have been mistaken for a six or seven year old child. "Hey, Lyra," Cali reached out and gave the moss-mat a rub.

    "Did you adopt her, too?" It was the obvious explanation for why there was a weird bug-child on the roof of Cali's house.

    "More like she adopted my maid. It's how we met. I'll tell you the story some day," Calenda said. "This is what they call a dryad. Don't let the shape fool you, she's not a person, in fact she's more plant than animal. Some dryads are intelligent, but this one is around the level of a smart dog, with the personality of a cat, and the power of a dragon. Luckily, she doesn't mind people, I'm not sure how many of us would die trying to kill her. In theory, she belongs to the church. In truth, she picks a new 'owner' whenever the old one dies. She's been here centuries."

    Elruin took a hesitant, but friendly step closer. "Hello, Lyra. I'm Elruin." She reached out, thinking that petting moss hair sounded a little fun.

    The bug-plant-pet hissed at Elruin, her bottom jaw snapping open to reveal her mouth was a set of insectoid mandibles with finger-like appendages tipped with inch long fangs that dripped a green ichor.

    Elruin jumped back, while Calenda put a hand on Lyra to push her back. After a moment, Lyra turned and flitted back up to the roof. She turned, gave one more hiss, then vanished behind the ridge.

    "Sorry, Ell," Cali looked up at the roof. "I guess Lyra doesn't like your magic."

    "It's okay," Elruin said. She was a little disappointed she couldn't play with the dryad, but she'd grown accustomed to animals running away. "Mister Clackybones still loves me!"

    "We'll save that conversation for tomorrow," Cali muttered. "For now, let's introduce you to Rena. You'll like her."

    The inside of the house was also comfortable, about the size of the farmhouse Elruin grew up in, but without the conditions of being forced to shelter between ten to twenty people at a time for generations. Plants lined the walls, and the whole place smelled like clean grass and wildflowers.

    "It's pretty!" Elruin gasped, touching one of the vines dangling from the ceiling. "Did you do this?"

    "Well, I am a botanical mage," Calenda said. "But this is Lyra's. Fae are natural fonts of life energy, this comes from sheddings of her hair. It's edible, grows fast, and doesn't require light or water. Doesn't taste bad, either. I hope that if I can create a version that breeds true without Lyra's presence, we might be able to feed many more people with far less work, which can save countless lives."

    "Lady Calenda?" An older woman brushed away some of the hanging plants. In some ways, she reminded Elruin of Mother, with her wisps of gray hair blended into the faded blonde that still hadn't lost all its vibrancy. The difference was that this woman walked with strength and youth despite her advancing years. "Oh, my, who's your guest?"

    "This is Miss Elruin," Cali answered. "Ell, meet Miss Rena. In theory, she's my housekeeper, but it's more like it's her house and I just sleep here once or twice a week when I miss quality home cooking."

    "Nice to meet you, Elruin," Rena gave a maternal smile to the girl. She ignored the damaged dress. "Will you be staying for dinner?"

    "Yes, please, ma'am."

    "Oh, aren't you a polite one! I should have you teach my granddaughters a thing or two."

    "Thank you, ma'am, I would be happy to help!" Elruin thought it was so much nicer to be praised for doing good than scolded for doing bad.

    "I'll cook something extra special for tonight." Miss Rena kept a gentle smile the whole time. "I'll dice some of the apples up."

    "Sounds perfect," Cali said. No matter what Rena put together, she was confident it would be delicious. "Come, Ell, I'll show you the bath, then pick out a new dress for you."

    "Okay!" She faced Rena again. "Thank you for your time." Then she chased after Cali who, to her surprise, led Elruin into the cellar instead of outside. She was even more surprised to learn it wasn't a cellar, but like an extra house underground, with rooms and everything. "Wow!"

    "It's nothing special," Cali said. "But I suppose it's better than what you're used to. Here's the bath room, and our heating stone. Just set the water here for a time, then you can give yourself a hot bath."

    The bath was the most luxurious thing Elruin had ever experienced, though she found the meal a little odd. There were lots of vegetables and the soft, tasty vine-stuff that she now knew belonged to Lyra. However, she found not a shred of meat in the entire dish. She kept silent, however, since she knew it would be impolite to mention it to her hosts. It didn't seem like Cali or Rena hogged all the meat for themselves, since their plates looked the same as hers.

    "Tomorrow, I'll have to take Elruin shopping for some more clothing," Cali said. "Put out the message to the academies. Oh, and how could I forget, our future overlords invited me to take Elruin to dinner with him, so expect you'll be alone with Lyra as per usual."

    "Say what you will about Lord Garit, one can find no fault in his determination," Rena gave a tired smile.

    "Writ in the stars."

    "Can we go to the library, tomorrow? Elruin asked when she sensed the lull.

    "I suppose we should have time," Cali said. "Anything you want to read about in particular?"


    =====

    A/N- Second time in my life I spelled bureaucracy right on the first try!!!

    Finally! A conversation about normal stuff! Well, normal for the timeperiod at any rate. Space that could be used for farming but is left uncultivated is a confusing concept to Elruin.

    It occurs to me that a lot of the conclusions I've come to as to how magic guided by bloodlines slides right into cyberpunk dystopia territory, just with a fantasy reskin. They paint over a crumbling society with a thin layer of lies, illusions, and what human kindness can be found, but nothing will fix the underlying rot.

    And the entire noble marriage system in Midara is more eugenics program than the business transactions of our world. I suppose I just can't escape transhumanist undertones in my story. Heh.

    Culturally, elderly parents stay with their children or grandchildren, but having a dryad following you around all the time makes normal traditions a little complicated.

    'Writ in the stars' is a cultural phrase for something that's so true it may as well be a divine law.
     
    Last edited: Feb 5, 2019
  24. Threadmarks: Geopolitical Landscape of Engeval
    TanaNari

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    Geography and Neighbors:


    Engeval (the Valley of Enge) is a large region of temperate rain forest (roughly the size of France) formed between the Sea of Letar and a mountain chain known as The Enge. A particular portion of the range contains a series of semi-active volcanoes which serves as a wall to the vast desert wasteland to the southwest of Engeval. The Ancestral god Enge draws power from these volcanoes, making it a strong Forge Aspect god.

    To the northeast, the Sea of Lenal remains mostly unexplored, due to ceaseless monster attacks that prevent vessels from leaving the shallow waters near the shore. Some rare, powerful, ocean-going vessels come in from the Lenal Islands, seeking to trade luxurious spices and foodstuffs. As the two powerhouses of the region, there is some rivalry between Engeval and the Islanders, but war is prevented because any force of troops large enough to serve as an invasion force would draw every monster in a hundred miles.

    To the southeast, the Basin Jungles are a vast stretch of wilderness, marked mainly by goblins and other reptilian sapients who despise all mammals with a religious fervor, blaming them for the woes of the world. To them, being born human is a crime worthy of torture and death. Their lack of organization, metal tools, and having to deal with the same monster attacks as everyone else, prevents them from being a true threat to the empire.

    Within the swamps are some Silmid and Ferin enclaves, who provide a trade partner of valuable and exotic forms of sarite, and are eager to purchase well regarded Engeval weapons and armor.

    To the northwest, the nations of Senol Plains. Dry compared to the wet forests of Engeval, and filled with much larger beasts than can easily roam Engeval's wet, windy, and elevated terrain, these cities are few, far between, and forced to devote almost the whole of their resources just to driving back monsters. They are eager to purchase food and armor, while offering numerous exotic trained beasts and sarite.

    There is no official point where the Senol Plains of the North become the Senol Deserts of the South, but the lands grow more dry until it becomes difficult to find water and the monsters increase in power until they are too strong for any wall to deny. The most ancient maps and texts speak of a once-vast series of kingdoms which lined the region, numbering in the hundreds, which fell one after another to the wilderness. Now only ruins remain of these civilizations, and the promise of vast wealth for any who could survive long enough to loot the long-forgotten cities.

    In the Enge Mountains proper are a number of Dwarven holds, some in better condition than others. Dwarves are interested in the wealth of surface foods while happy to trade enchanted weapons and various metals. However, their alliance with Silmid makes them self-sustaining, and they hold little need for human goods. Engeval does make a steady profit taking Silmid silks and Dwarven gems and trading them for Lenel spices.


    Political Structure:


    Six kingdoms make up the Empire, with Enge Itself sitting as Emperor, while the six regents and three high priests form a Regent's Council, to determine the course of the Empire in all matters which Enge chooses not to involve itself. In almost 500 years, Enge has only issued four Imperial Decrees, making the Council the de facto ruling body of the Empire.

    Some political historians note that Engeval is not an empire, as the so-called kingdoms within can not be considered true kingdoms. They share a single ruling lineage, some control over one another's governing system, a language, a religion, and no notable cultural difference. They are in truth, a series of duchies, with Enge serving as King In Absentia, and the only reason it's called an empire is because the nobility's egos won't accept anything less than to have their own kingdoms.

    It isn't a crime to spread such an opinion within the empire, but it won't make friends amongst the social elites.

    While Engeval calls itself an absolute monarchy, only Enge has the right to issue absolute decrees, and all other nobles are beholden to a series of High, Middle, and Least nobles which make up the complex chain of political alliances within the Empire, as well as Common Rights that makes clear note of what powers do and do not reside with the servants of the empire.

    In addition to the nobility, there is the church, which is supposed to protect the common people from the predation of the powerful, and the numerous guilds which represent the economic interests of the city's businessmen and landholders. The military represents a fourth, officially neutral, organization that swears its fealty to Enge and the rule of law.

    It is difficult to tell one organization from another at times, as there are no laws preventing the nobility from serving as priests or working as merchants, and almost anyone of high rank within the military is nobility.

    In addition, any citizen can become least nobility simply by becoming the owner of a piece of land, whether by taking control over wild territory (as Reclaimers often do), or by purchasing or being gifted land by a landowner.

    Most positions of nobility are determined by heredity, with the family elder deciding who will inherit the property upon the death of the parents, and if no heir is clear, then a vote will be had by the children who stand to inherit. Inheriting nobles are considered responsible for the wellbeing of their family, as their parents were before them.

    The position of Regency, however, is determined by vote. Often, the Regent will nominate a successor, but in the end the new Regent will be determined by a vote of all eligible nobles for the position, as well as the adult sons and daughters of the former king and queen, who by law may not inherit.

    One a new regent has been nominated, the Council then holds a vote to decide if the nominee is acceptable- often by asking the opinions of local religious and business leaders. The region's former regent's wishes will be taken into account, and considered an official post mortem vote, if an official document presenting the regent's wishes has been made available.

    In some extreme cases, Exorcists may be employed to ask the opinion of the dead regent.

    Engewal, as largest city within the Empire, serves as the unofficial capital of the empire, though it possesses no more official power than any of the other five nations. The official location of the capital is the Five Peaks, the site of a volcanic caldera that the Cult of Enge teaches to be the spot where the twins who first established the nation were conceived. Every so often, a hopeful woman (and her guards) will take a pilgrimage to the spot, to beg the god to sire her children. Any woman so blessed immediately becomes the High Priestess of Enge, but most die during the journey, and of the rest only two have received child from the god.


    Legal Rights and Privileges


    All citizens possess the right to a public trial, by Truthsayer, and a punishment meted out by a judge and jury within the confines of the law. Though it is more common for criminals, knowing the Truthsayer will find them guilty, will choose to accept a punishment by judge alone.

    Criminals can not have "undue harm" inflicted upon them by an officer. What constitutes undue harm depends on what the criminal is guilty of. People who feel wronged by officers are allowed to leverage an accusation against the officer, which will be verified by Truthsayers.

    Filing false charges against someone is a major crime. Also an easy one to catch, because Truthsayers.

    Criminals have some room to "purchase forgiveness", and will often pay the victims to forgive the crime. Making such an offer is considered legal and proper, it is ultimately the victim who decides whether to accept. "Crimes against Enge's people" (usually acts which impact a large number of people, or which seek to defraud the state, or lying to officers) offer no such indulgences.

    Slavery exists in two forms- one known as "debt slavery", where a person may be forced into servitude to recoup expenses. Debt slaves have some limited rights, such as not being forced to perform sexual services or dangerous labor. With time, they can earn their freedom. The other, known as "moral slavery", is a punishment for criminals who have, in the eyes of the law, "forfeited their human rights, by virtue of inhuman behavior". Considered less than animals, their owners have the right to commit any act, up to and including the murder of the slave.

    Public assembly is allowed, but limited, as is religious freedom and the ownership of property. The people are allowed to make their voices heard, and have enough influence to sway the political body, with nobles and merchants who consider it useful to at least be perceived to be on the side of the common people.

    Some rare number of Silmid also inhabit Engeval, and are provided legal protections, but are not considered proper citizens of the empire. They are appreciated for labor in enclosed spaces, as their small size and natural climbing abilities give them freedom of movement in places humans cannot go.


    =====

    A/N- My readers wanted to know more about the geopolitical structure of the region. Here you go.
     
    Last edited: Feb 4, 2019
  25. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 18
    TanaNari

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    Elruin slept on a bed made of living plants, layers of moss stacked atop vines in a web that would make a spider dizzy. It was by far the most comfortable bed she had ever experienced in her life. She awoke to the smell of cooked food, and so rushed to get ready; Mother and Father became cross when the children weren't at the table in time; she and her siblings missed out on more meals that way.

    "Early riser, that's good," Cali said when the girl peeked in. "Eat up, we have a long day ahead and I don't know if we'll have time for lunch."

    "Where's Miss Rena, and Lyra?" Nothing more than polite chatter while she got her plate ready.

    "At church," Cali said. "Rena has always been a devout believer, spends an hour at the church praying every day, and at least one more volunteering. That's part of why Lyra chose her."

    "What are the other reasons?" Perhaps if Elruin knew, she could convince Lyra to play with her.

    "The priests will tell you 'purity'," Calenda said, though her tone was dismissive. "But, they'll never be able to explain exactly what purity means. They say 'if you have to ask, you'll never understand', then act like that's wisdom instead of deception. All we know for certain is she always picks religiously devout women, though she doesn't seem to favor any particular religion, and only those who have never killed any living animal, except maybe some plants and bugs. If you ask me, that's filter enough."

    Elruin began to eat while Cali talked, enjoying another dish made entirely of vegetables. Perhaps that was another part of making Lyra happy, since Cali seemed happy enough to share in the mutton at Aunt Leyli's farm.

    "Speaking of purity, we have to talk about your pet," Cali said. Elruin considered it quite rude of her to talk while she was eating, but there wasn't much she could do to object under the circumstances. "I kept it quiet, but you have to destroy it. Or, better still, we get another Exorcist and let her destroy it, in front of several members of the Guard."

    "But why? Mister Clackybones saved us."

    "No, you saved us," Cali emphasized. "That thing is an abomination with no mind and no soul. Controlling one is a crime, as is choosing to allow one to exist when you have the power to destroy it. The fact that it was naturally spawned, and you used it to save lives, is the only reason you can walk away from this without being executed, or worse." 'Worse' was an understatement for the ages. Elruin was young, and had a ridiculously potent bloodline. There was the possibility that she would be locked in an antimagic cage and used as breeding stock. She would be nowhere near the first to suffer that fate.

    "But why?" Elruin looked Calenda in the eyes, breaking social protocol in the process. "Like you said, I control Mister Clackybones. He can't hurt me, or anyone unless I say so."

    "You control the shell," Calenda said. "But not the force that created it in the first place. The walking corpses are nothing but a symptom, the disease itself infects the spiritual layer of the world, where souls reside, and where magic power is drawn from. If not destroyed, it will spread and consume everything. And that includes those necromancers who think that, somehow, they'll be the first exception to the rule. You can't control the taint, nobody can."

    "Do you know that for certain?" Elruin asked. "Maybe you just don't know how?"

    Cali sighed. "You're lucky you're cute, because people have been killed over lesser heresies." She took a deep breath. "Ell, there are five Greater Gods and three Ancestral gods of Death that I know of. Some don't just allow, but encourage murder, torture, human sacrifice, and acts of evil that would make you cry. Even they demand the annihilation of all undead taint. Don't be the fool who rushes in where even Gods fear to tread."

    Elruin had nothing she could say against that argument, save that she still wanted to keep Mister Clackybones. "But he saved us."

    "The Exorcist and Inquisitor will hear about what happened at that farm, and that includes you taking control of that thing. Then they'll return, and they'll want to know what happened, and I'll have no choice but to tell the truth. I can bend it, a little, and not mention how much you argued against destroying the monster. As a wild talent, maybe you don't know how to destroy it. Do you?"

    Elruin hesitated for a moment; she knew the song, suspected she knew how to break the song, but she couldn't be certain. "I don't know, I've never tried."

    Cali took a slow breath. "Good. That's good. The situation was stable, and it was better to wait until we had an expert available, on the off chance that you make things worse trying to fix them. I'm no necromancer, I don't know how to cleanse taint or what might go wrong in the process. They can't fault me for caution outside an emergency. But the team has no doubt already left, and will probably return by tonight. If that monster isn't destroyed by then, you will be, and I'll be lucky if I'm not as well."

    "Oh." Elruin looked down. "But."

    "Look, it will take time to get another Exorcist ready. There's only a few of them in the city, and one's out on business. We can go to the library, find what you want to know while we wait. I'm sure you'll understand when you have a chance to think about it."

    Elruin disagreed, but she still didn't see much choice. Nothing short of taking Mister Clackybones and running away would save him, and that would upset Cali and everyone else.

    During the walk to the library, Elruin tried to find another subject of conversation: clothing. Her new dress was nice, but it wasn't hers, and she didn't want to be a burden and destroy even more outfits that weren't hers. "Cali, is there a way to keep my clothes from being destroyed?"

    Cali looked at her. "Outside expensive mage-tempered material like Rig uses? Don't use magic in clothes you want to keep. Or at least don't use strong magic, you can get away with the gentle stuff."

    "So it's not just me?"

    "No, it's not just you, it's everyone," Cali said. "Some elements are better than others, but it happens to all of us one way or another. Sometimes, I wish I was a fire mage, at least having your clothes burn off looks intimidating. Mine just grow mold and rot off. But when did you ever lose clothes to your magic?"

    Elruin thought back, and every outfit destroyed so far had been thanks to mud, being shot by Father, wild animal attacks, and a bad man exploding. "I destroyed the arm of my dress when playing with Lady Juna and Lord Garit. He showed me a new trick, and it burned the sleeve. I almost fell over, after."

    "Ah, then don't use that spell," Calenda responded. "The twins take training as seriously as everything else they do. If you don't push yourself to those levels, you shouldn't have any problems. But I'll look into some low quality mage-tempered cloth for training. They'll demand you have something at any academy, anyway. Speaking of, maybe that's a way to save time. I can contact an academy Exorcist while you study at the library."

    Then we kill Mister Clackybones. "Okay."

    The library itself was larger than the barn that held the cows at the farm, made of stone like most of the city. "Is everything stone here?" she asked.

    "It's to be expected, when earth mages are the most common type in the city. Also, some of the oldest architecture comes from buildings abandoned by the dwarves before humans reclaimed the land from the wilderness."

    Calenda led them to a woman working behind a table, next to another table with a man who would help the male guests. "Hello, I was hoping you could help me."

    "With pleasure," the woman said. Then she noticed Calenda's clothing. "To what do we owe the honor of being visited by a priestess?"

    "I'm in the process of getting this girl ready for an Academy Evaluation," Calenda said as she put a hand on Elruin's shoulder. "It may take some time, and she wishes to study in the meantime. Please help her as you can, until I return."

    "I'll do everything in my power, Priestess." The librarian came to a handful of conclusions in quick succession. A girl so young with Academy potential came from a line of power, and had wealth to back it. Perhaps it was unusual for noble scion to wear such modest clothes, but that simply meant her family didn't want her to stand out.

    "Then I am relieved. Elruin, be a good girl for the nice lady."

    Elruin stood in polite subservience to the woman. "Hello, I am Elruin. Please, I'd like to read more about the history and, umm, politics of the city."

    "My name is Mipa," the librarian said as she continued her evaluation. Her dark hair and eyes, and pale features, suggested a exotic origin, which made her a foreign guest. As such, it wasn't too bizarre that a child of her age would want to get started on learning the local upper class customs. She was no doubt being groomed to a position of great power, perhaps a foreign diplomat to Engeval. "That is quite the topic. Let us start with the founding of our largest city, Engewal, and work from there."

    While a mere peasant like her had no hope of receiving a position of real power, there were any number of lesser positions required by nobles that would be a step up from her current lot in life.

    Whatever misconceptions the librarian had, Calenda made no effort to correct them. No untrue or even misleading statement had been made. It was not her fault the idea a child of twelve had more ability than most second-year academy students was too unbelievable to cross anyone's mind.

    Calenda shook her head as she left, and asked herself again why she was doing so much to help this girl.

    Some part of her hoped she wasn't like Garit and Juna, gaining favor with someone of obvious power, in order to leverage it later. Necromancers were rare to begin with, only a handful stronger than Elruin, and none younger than twice her age. If the girl could be convinced to abandon her empathy for the undead, she'd be a power to behold.


    =====

    A/N... Yeah, the controlling the dead thing is going to be a real problem with Pretty Much Everybody. You know when the gods of murder and human sacrifice consider them "going too far" that there won't be a lot of people on board with the undead army plan.
     
  26. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 19
    TanaNari

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    The time spent with Mipa in the library gave Elruin some understanding of the world she'd found herself in, with its bizarre world known as 'politics'. She had no idea why people wasted such effort on these sorts of things, but all the books seemed to view this as normal, and she'd seen so many other great ideas from the city that she guessed this one was just too clever for her to understand.

    Although Cali agreed with her when she said that having a park instead of a farm was a silly idea, so perhaps the city people were wrong about this as well. It seemed to her that her first plan was the best: it was safer not to get involved. The problem was, it seemed like everything in the city had politics, including the academies to which Cali thought Elruin should go.

    By the time Cali returned, Elruin felt she understood the basics- nobles made all the decisions, like Father on the farm, but without friends and allies that were strong, nobody would do what the nobles say. Much like the workers on the farm, you had to be nice or they'd leave and the work would never get done. Unless they were bad workers, then nobody wanted them to come back.

    But Father was a bad man who shot her with a crossbow, so bad people could pretend to be nice people in order to make others help them. Cali seemed to think Lady Juna and Lord Garit were that sort of bad person who pretended to be a good person. So she would have to be friendly to them, but pay attention in case they try to hurt her in the future. The city-people were already going to kill Mister Clackybones, so it was clear to her they weren't nice.

    By the time Calenda returned, the sun was high in the sky. "I trust you didn't cause any trouble."

    Elruin looked up from the map she was studying, an old one of the area before the Empire of Engewal existed. "Yes, I've been good." She turned to Mipa, and clasped her hands together. "Thank you, ma'am, for your trouble."

    "There was no trouble," Mipa replied. "I believe you are the most polite and quiet guest the library has ever had." Too polite, for Mipa's taste. Watching the girl read and study in absolute silence was akin to watching a wax doll that would turn pages. No changes of expression, no shifting to get comfortable, she hardly so much as blinked. At times Mipa began to wonder if the child was breathing. It wasn't until the girl had left that she allowed herself the luxury of shuddering; if that's what foreign nobles expected of their children, she'd stay right here in Arila.

    "Does that mean" we're going to kill Mister Clackybones "you've found an exorcist?"

    "Close enough," Cali said. "She's a scourge. Exorcists are necromancers trained as healers, while scourges are battle-mages. I'm told exorcists have special training to remove taint from people without killing them in the process, which is a difficult process that only a rare few have affinities for, but any trained necromancer can cleanse taint from dead material."

    Like Mister Clackybones. "I understand."

    The trip was more small talk than anything, as Elruin asked Calenda questions about politics, and got some insight into the most important guilds and organizations within the city. Not many of them seemed like something Elruin would be involved in, since she knew nothing of trade routes, sea travel, or weapon crafting. She was surprised to learn there was a farmer's guild, then disappointed to learn it was about selling food made on the farms rather than doing any farming. She decided the Dragonslayers sounded important, however.

    "They're more known for suicidal insanity than political acumen," Cali said of them. "Some get rich, others get dead. Better to be a military Dragonslayer than joining the guild. Pay's worse, but you get support, intel, and kept to missions that are safer or crucial, rather than chasing every monster in Engeval until you find the one that determines your fate. But, well, a lot of stupid young men and women, mostly noble scions whose families are not wealthy enough to grant them a landed title. Sometimes I think the only reason the Empire tolerates them is because it kills off dangerous youth."

    "Dangerous?"

    "Strong bloodlines, quality weapons, teen stupidity, and desperation. Scary combination. Better to let them rush into the wilds than to sit around scheming violent revolution. And I suppose some of them do kill off an actual dragon once in a while, which helps everyone."

    At the gate, Cali left Elruin in order to go into the side area, then returned minutes later with two women in Guard armor. "This is Elruin, the wild necromancer you've heard so much about." Cali gestured to the girl. "Ell, meet Jess and Lefara. They shall be our escort and witnesses."

    "I am pleased to meet you."

    "As we are you," Jess responded. "Scout Calenda says that you captured an undead horse?"

    "Yes, Guard." Elruin nodded, it helped to keep her head down so she could hide her emotions. She couldn't let them see her feelings. "It was at the farm. It helped stop the bad men." She also couldn't help but speak in poor Mister Clackybones' defense, even if she knew nobody but her would care.

    The guards looked at Calenda, seeking some cue from her. She intoned the same explanation she'd used dozens of times in the last few hours. "I don't think the taint spread to any of them, but Exorcist Rayles was sent to the incident site along with Inquisitor Arden. I trust their judgment better than my own. I had Elruin bring the monster with us, because I wasn't certain how much control she could exert over a distance, nor do I know if she can cleanse taint. It was contained, better to wait for someone we knew could destroy it safely."

    "It was a sound, if perhaps overly cautious, decision," another voice said from the entrance to the gateway. An older woman dressed in a formal black combat uniform of leather stood there. "As Scout Calenda describes it, I doubt any harm would have come from destroying the creature. Still, no reason to take unnecessary risks." She approached Elruin first. "I am Scourge Nerys na Renor." Like Elruin, she had black hair, making her the only other person she'd ever met with that hair color.

    Elruin nodded and kept her hands together. "I am Elruin."

    "I am told you're a wild talent," the scourge made conversation while they opened the gate. Her stern face and reserved body language were oddly comforting to Elruin, though it made the guards uncomfortable. Calenda had dealt with enough necromancers over the years to know this was what to expect of them. Earth mages were stubborn, fire mages aggressive, and necromancers underwent rigor mortis while their hearts still beat. "And that you wish to join an academy?"

    "Yes, Scourge," she addressed by title. "Are you going to take me to your school?"

    "No." The stern looking older woman answered. "I am here to ensure the taint is destroyed, and to evaluate your potential. It is not that I distrust Scout Calenda's judgment, but no academy will accept a mage so young without the highest recommendations."

    "Lady Juna and Lord Garit say I'm really good for my age." Elruin imagined their recommendations qualified.

    "Is that so?"

    Calenda considered how to respond. "Generals Juna and Garit expressed some interest in her education." It was the most neutral way to describe the encounter.

    "Lord Garit taught me how to zap a wall, and Lady Juna hit me." Elruin considered that statement, then decided it needed elaboration. "Lots of times."

    "General Juna has a rather hands-on approach to training her soldiers," Cali added. "And I have been considering adopting Elruin, which may play a role in how we approach her future education."

    "Yes, Lady Juna's practice sessions are renowned throughout the academies. Especially the Order of Respite." Scourge Nerys responded. "Unorthodox, yet effective. If they were to recommend you, or you were to join a noble house, then your acceptance into an academy is all but guaranteed. How about we do some small tests while we walk? I'm told you're a Virtuoso?"

    "Yes, Scourge." Elruin started to hum her notes, bringing up small samples of her magic. The guards with Calenda slowed their pace, just to avoid being too close to the necromancer and her unnatural music, while Calenda and Nerys remained unaffected by the music.

    As Elruin was put through her paces, Nerys explained the academies, and what they would expect from the girl. It was a lot to consider, but it would help Elruin learn her abilities, compete with all the other mages in the world, and find a future career.

    Suggested Listening

    When they reached the edge of the forest, the moment which Elruin had been trying to will away the whole day came. She closed her eyes and sang to Mister Clackybones, who picked himself up out of the dirt to the startled dismay of a fox which was exploring the disturbed earth for whatever had been buried there.

    He walked toward Elruin, unaware of the fate which waited for him, and stared with empty eyes at the five witnesses. Two of whom held their spears at the ready, as if such weapons would cause much harm to him.

    "Impressive control," Nerys muttered with more concern for Elruin's technique than the subject of her power.

    Elruin wanted to scream and cry. Some part of her wanted to make Clackybones fight back, but she couldn't imagine the more experienced necromancer would have any difficulty doing what she was doing. "I... may I do it?" The idea of surrendering control and allowing the scourge to harm her poor horsey was unacceptable to her.

    "Very well." Oblivious to the reason why, Nerys had no cause to object. "It is a minor taint, and I am here to watch for mistakes."

    Elruin resumed her song to the matrix of energies that was Mister Clackybones. To her sight, there was little which was different between his life, and the human beings around her. True, it was a different source, and she could point to no single part of it that made him 'alive', but such was true for the people as well. They, like he, existed as a tangled network of concept and energy held together by forces she could not explain.

    He was not alive, but he was a being just like them in every place which mattered. He looked at her, unable to recognize that he was about to be betrayed by a second master in as many days.

    Two final notes, and it all came undone, the only mercy Elruin could offer her faithful steed who had done nothing wrong in either life. The bone collapsed on the trail, devoid of animating essence.

    "It was sloppy technique," Scourge Nethys noted. "Using raw power to make up for lack of finesse. But still better than half the second-year students' first attempts. For someone of your age and lack of formal training, one could not imagine better results. Guards, the taint has been removed. Please gather the remains to be burned while I triple-check the area. I doubt anything was missed, but there is no such thing as too thorough when it comes to the undead."

    Elruin ignored the woman. This was praise she didn't want to hear. She walked over to Cali and gave her a hug. "Thank you for the best days ever." Even if your city-people made me kill my horsey.

    An arm went around her back. "As I walk."

    A thought occurred to her. "Can I get a doll? A toy horse?"

    "I'll see what we can do."


    =====

    A/N- No, Mama, he was my dog skeletal abomination. I'll do it.

    ... I gave myself a sad... I credit Gundry's music, the man's a genius. I know, I mostly link to the Fiechters, but that's because their music more generally fits the tone of Requiem, not because Gundry is in any way less than them as a musician.

    Realpolitik through the eyes of a 12 year old farmgirl.

    That's another thing to put on the game design notes. Give everyone else all those little lifelike movements they do in games these days. Don't bother programming them in for Elruin. Like Wednesday Addams, but not done for comedy.

    Also, next chapter we finally have dinner with the twins.

    And sorry for taking so long to get this up, today. Lots of crap and I've been feeling under the weather. Time for me to pass out and die. Maybe in that order.
     
    Last edited: Feb 7, 2019
  27. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 20
    TanaNari

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    Suggested Listening (still)

    Elruin remained close to Cali while the scourge and guards made certain that there was nothing left of Mister Clackybones. There wasn't, Elruin made certain of that, and she hated them for it. She hoped all of this would be worth it. "Did... did I make a good impression on Scourge Nerys?"

    "I think so," Cali said. "She wouldn't have been discussing which academy you wanted to go to if you weren't talented. This is the first time I met her, and necromancers are hard to read at the best of times. Speaking of, the College, huh? I hadn't taken you for the scholarly type."

    "I used to borrow Kasa's books to read when I was done with chores since nobody wanted to play with me," Elruin said. "Some of them were hard, I'm not as smart as Kasa."

    Cali knelt down in front of Elruin, keeping her hands on the younger girl's shoulders. "Kasa was not smarter than you." Elruin nodded, since this seemed important to Cali. "When you get older, you'll learn that there's a difference between education and intelligence. There are many, many things out there smarter than Kasa which don't read a lot. Such as pond slime."

    Elruin smiled; Kasa hated it when people didn't think she was smart. "I'm going to learn all about how magic works, then I'll be smarter and more educated."

    "Well, if there's anything necromancers are known for, it's spending countless hours sitting still in dark rooms."

    Miracle of miracles Elruin managed to go the rest of the rather uneventful day without destroying yet another article of clothing, so with a quick cleaning spell from Cali, she was ready when time came to visit Lady Juna and Lord Garit's mansion. Once again, Elruin was impressed by the size of the building, though it didn't compare to the ostentatiousness of the church. The wall around the building reminded her a little of her farm, complete with the gentle hum of magical static from the defensive sarite fixtures.

    Suggested Listening

    Four guards, two of each sex, waited at the main gate. When Elruin and Calenda began walking down the path to the gate, they followed a well-choreographed routine that involved the men stepping back and the women stepping forward to have them greet the guests.

    "Scout Calenda," one of the women acknowledged them as they approached. "We were told to expect your arrival, please allow me to escort you."

    "Your assistance is appreciated," Cali answered. In truth, she'd walked these halls so often she could probably show the guards places they never knew existed, like the secret passage in one of the wine cellars where... well, no point dwelling on those memories. Social protocol, however, demanded they all play their roles. While the three walked into the building, another female guard exited the building to replace her. Everyone had a role to play in this dance known as noble society. Cali hated every second of it.

    The inside of the building was as well designed to impress as the outside, with walls of solid white stone the likes of which Elruin had never seen before. The crackle of fire-magic kept the building lit and heated, and made for a fascinating song in Elruin's ears. The whole building sang of fire magic, with an earth magic undertone. It was as if the twins were with her, already.

    The dining room they were led to was designed to impress, the sort that might be used to house visiting kings, not that Elruin knew anything about kings other than that they were in charge of all the nobles beneath them. Like most of the rooms she'd seen, it seemed to large for its purpose, with a table that was well made, but looked small compared to the floor it stood on.

    "Greetings, Lady Calenda and Miss Elruin," Lady Juna was standing and ready when they arrived. "I apologize for my brother. He wished to be here to greet you as well, but the matters of running the city do not always care for our wishes. Shall we eat first while we wait? I promise Garit would prefer it that way."

    "You know him best," Cali said. Were it other nobles, she might suspect some sort of political trap being set, a power play against the other, but the idea of them harming one other was insane. "Dinning while we await Lord Garit's arrival would be save time. These are busy days for all of us."

    Most people would never know themselves half as well as these two knew each other. When the pair plotted, they plotted as one against their rivals. Thus the salacious rumors. While they no doubt had ulterior motives in this invitation, it was going to be the sort that would involve the pair of them trying to lure Calenda and Elruin further into their camp. Power plays would only serve to harm that goal; the real trap would be honeyed words, gifts, and promises of alliances.

    The meal was excellent, dozens of foods to choose from most of which Elruin had never seen before. She ate enough that her stomach started to hurt from being over-full, and nobody tried to hog the meat for themselves since there was more than enough for everyone.

    Garit arrived not long before the meal was over, but said nothing as he took a seat next to his sister and claimed the remaining leg from some animal Elruin suspected was a bird. Since everyone else was almost done, he opted for that small snack, then Juna indicated to the all-female staff to clear the plates. Only then did social graces allow them conversation.

    "I'm sure my sister has apologized for me, but I express my regret and frustration nonetheless," Garit chose to start. "The aftermath of your encounter at the farm has had some... far reaching consequences..."

    Oh, here it is, Cali thought. While she puzzled out a careful way to navigate the metaphorical trap, Elruin cut straight to the heart of the matter.

    "Did I do something wrong?" Elruin asked. She came to the same conclusion Cali did, but didn't consider that it was part of a ploy rather than just her getting in trouble.

    "No, not at all," Lady Juna said. "In fact, you did better than anyone could have expected from one so young. The exorcist said there was no sign of taint left on the farm; the only evidence of undeath was witness testimony. Even many skilled necromancers couldn't accomplish that thorough a cleansing. Their one complaint was a lack of suspects to interrogate, but that's hardly your fault. Besides, we got enough information to act upon."

    Calenda allowed herself to breathe again; not for the first time, she wondered if she was too paranoid for her own good, and that her history with the twins was coloring her judgment unfairly. "Then it wasn't all lost when I let one suicide himself?"

    "Well, it didn't make the job any easier, Scout." Lady Juna said.

    "My apologies, General."

    "Don't be too harsh on Lady Calenda, sister. They're operating in small cells, so that no one group can identify any others, and scrying has only served to prove they have experienced espionage mages working for them. That team was not but the lowest rung of their organization, and if we took all of them alive, I doubt we'd know more than we now do."

    "You're right, brother, I'm letting stress get the better of me. Sorry, Calenda," for the first time since they were children, Juna addressed her without title. "You weren't the only one they went after. They timed a simultaneous strike on Scouts across the empire. Including you, twelve escaped. Five others are missing, and one is known to be dead."

    Now Calenda's suspicions went back into overdrive, wondering if the whole display was an attempt to make her amenable to her possible future husband, then hating herself for worrying about that instead of the lives that were lost. "Scouts are the ears of the Empire," Cali tilted her head down, to respect the dead. "They tried to deafen us before launching future attacks."

    "At the very least, most cities will hesitate before risking the Scouts and Guard on the roads," Lord Garit said. "Cut the farms from the cities, and they can act with impunity. And since it was such a widespread move, with so many possible advantages, we can't begin to guess their next move."

    "Do we know anything about their motives?" Suspicion of the twins notwithstanding, Calenda was a loyal soldier who had no intention of not joining this battle.

    "They believe they can spark a revolution," Lady Juna said. "Or at least, that's what their rank and file believe. Their leadership's smart enough to realize that's impossible, so the true goals can be anything from simple banditry to a higher noble hoping to humiliate rivals as a play for one of the thrones. They call themselves the Ghosts of Sorvel."

    "Merat!" Calenda didn't so much as look apologetic for the outburst.

    Elruin recalled the images from the dead man. "What's a Sorvel?"

    "Sorvel was a city," Cali said. "Before I joined the Guard, before you were born. Some insane cult decided that the walls were an evil plot to control the common people and make them dependent on the nobility. Someone in Sorvel, somehow, deactivated the Sarite barrier. It was a massacre. I never comprehended why they did it. They could have walked out the front gate and died in the wilderness, if they wanted. Instead they killed tens of thousands."

    "Utter ignorance," Juna added. "It got popular amongst scholars, who pointed to old maps and stories that proved people once lived without walls, without fear of monsters."

    "Myths," Cali said. "Fiction dreamt up by men who died a thousand years ago."

    "Not necessarily myth," Lord Garit said. "There's strong evidence monsters have become more powerful, or at least more common, in the last couple centuries. If that trend dates back thousands of years, then perhaps it's true that there was a time our ancestors lived without the walls."

    "Whatever the truth in centuries past, it's clear to anyone sane that we need the walls today," Juna continued. "But the cult believed that they could prove they weren't necessary, and thus would discredit the nobility. They proved the opposite, on many levels."

    "Sarite shields aren't just about preventing monsters from breaking in, they also prevent human energy from leaking out," Cali explained. "A scholar can explain it better, but it's obvious to any mage with magical senses that humans generate a unique sort of energy. A city of that size, with the bubble popped, was a beacon that called to every monster in the empire and beyond."

    "They got the shield restored." Garit's turn, now. "But it was too late. Within minutes, the first dragon arrived. Less than an hour later, other beasts broke down part of the wall. Another hour, and half the population was dead, while the strongest of the nobility did their best to organize a fighting retreat. Hundreds fought, died, so that thousands had time to escape. We all lost people that day. Friends, family, loved ones."

    "May they never be forgotten." Calenda spoke the prayer, the others echoed it. Even Elruin, who lived in a small farm that knew nothing of politics, knew the prayer for dead family.

    "But, then they were," Cali muttered. "Others still believe in that insane idea, claim that Sorvel was sabotaged, and the nobility called in the monsters as a plot to destroy their fictional paradise. It's illegal to speak such opinions today, but there are sympathizers across the Empire. It looks like these Ghosts of Sorvel are an extension of that insanity."

    "Oh." This was all far too complex for Elruin to wrap her head around. She knew what it was like outside the walls, and while strong people like Cali were safe enough, she couldn't imagine how any member of her family could have survived even a single Mork, let alone the pack that targeted her. "What should we do?"

    "That's sweet of you to offer," Lady Juna said. "But nothing you need worry about. We're the adults, trained warriors and the nobility which exists to defend the people against the wilderness. We'll fight the Ghosts. You complete your education, so that in a few years you'll be strong enough to fight alongside us."

    "Alongside, my sister says," Garit chuckled. "With your talent, it would be better to put her on a separate battlefield. Power like hers gets a specialized team built around it, an entire unit with her name. We'd only meet when the fighting was over to see who got the high score."

    Elruin didn't blush often, but with her pale skin it showed as clear as sun. "You think so?"

    "Of course we do," Juna said. "Why else would we take such an interest in your education? Speaking of which, we heard you talked with the Academies, which school gets the honor of training our favorite future dragonslayer?"

    "The College of High Thaumaturgy," Elruin answered. She thought she saw a flicker of disapproval from the twins. "It, umm, I want to learn about how magic works, then I can use it better." She left out the part about wanting to find a way to have dollies without taint, so people wouldn't want to break them anymore. "And maybe I can make new really smart friends."

    "I suppose that is where I'd recommend you go, if those are your goals," Garit said.

    "You're certain you don't want to train with The Order of Enge? Or even the Naval Academy?" Juna asked. "The College is good for producing scholars, but with your power you could be an irreplaceable warmage."

    "She still might, dear sister." Lord Garit put his hand on Juna's elbow. "It would mean working harder, and making an... exception... for her at the barracks training hall, but it would not be so difficult to see to it that she gets proper training with combat magic."

    "At the cost of her studies," Cali amended.

    "I'm certain the headmaster won't mind too much," Lady Juna slipped into the role of supporting her brother's plan like it was a glove. "After all, a mage so young cannot be expected to keep up with advanced magic theory regardless of natural talent. Once, perhaps twice a week of high power training won't hold her back any notable amount."

    "Speaking of our help," Garit added. "I talked to Rig, he said you never visited his shop."

    Elruin put her hands over her chest. "Thank you, but it didn't feel right to take gifts." Cali's warning made sense, however; after all, the two were trying to sway her choice of schools even though she hadn't accepted presents from them. How much worse would it be if she had? "I want to do it on my own."

    "Well, you are in part an earth mage," Lady Juna said with a smile. "Would you believe us earth mages have quite the reputation for being stubborn?"

    Elruin didn't know that, but to her knowledge Lady Juna had never lied to her. Besides, Cali said nothing to contradict her. "Yes."

    Having gained the answer she expected, Juna continued. "I suppose that leaves an unanswered question. What do you think your third aspect is?"

    "Third?" Up until yesterday, Elruin didn't know she had two Aspects, or indeed what an aspect was. "Are you sure I have one?"

    "Of course you do."

    "It's possible, my sister, that you're letting your other aspect cloud your judgment some," Garit said. "Not all mages have two aspects, let alone three."

    "Ah, but all the strongest do." Juna kept her focus on Elruin while answering her brother. "You're so obviously a necromancer it hurts, so we can rule out true earth aspect. I bet you're an ice magic."

    "But I don't know how to make ice?" As far as magic went, she was always willing to hear ideas.

    "Well, it does do making ice, but that's one of the less popular spells. I like to call it Hypothermia magic. Ice mages are famous for slowly sapping the mental and physical strength of an enemy, even stealing their life energy to fuel their own magic."

    "And you're so convinced she's not Blight or Miasma?" Garit asked.

    "Blight?" Now Juna took the time to act shocked for her brother. "How could you imagine this sweet, quiet girl would be a Hate Mage? But it's true, the ability to drive people insane with rage or create flame powered by the victim's own magic is amazing. Do you have magic like that?"

    "I don't think so." Though as she thought about it, perhaps she could use a person's own energy as fuel. It wasn't something she could do now, however. "What's miasma do?"

    "Well, it has some illusion tricks, but mostly it's good for poisons," Lord Garit said. "Coughing, hallucinations, asphyxiation, and death. Worst part is, they're hard to identify and counter, so by the time you know one's there, men are dying around you."

    "I don't think I can do that, either." All those magics sounded powerful, and scary. All her magic was scary, but that magic sounded extra scary.

    "Don't worry about it," Cali said. "I didn't figure out I had water magic until I was years older than you. And even if all you have is time and negation, that's more than most people ever get."

    That made Elruin feel better. "Thank you."


    =====

    A/N- Another damn 3k word chapter. I really need to stop doing this to myself.

    Pond slime isn't known as the most educated of the algae family. Not sure which one is, probably sargassum, but I know it's not pond slime.

    Shoutout to all my lurkers who visit all the time yet never say a thing. Come on in, the water's fine, I didn't even pee in it this time. And the pond scum is at the local library.

    ... Is my story an allegory about communism, global warming, refugees, or Trump? A nod to Dwarf Fortress (complete with tantrum spirals)? Or perhaps an Attack on Titan ripoff? You decide! Actually, it's none of the above, the truth is I was fourteen and wanted a cool story about monsters and people fighting them. For an RPG with random encounters. I think it's aged remarkably well, but all resemblances to real world events are coincidental.

    Or, to quote Mark Twain: "History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme."

    There's no specific rules as to which title one refers to someone who has multiple titles, and most acknowledge the title they personally consider most important- or the title the person they're addressing prefers, perhaps. The exception being that on-duty military must always refer to other military members by military title (which may or may not also be rank), which is a "military discipline" thing rather than cultural norms.

    I was legitimately surprised everyone jumped on the Thaumaturgy vote- not just majority, but unanimous. I could have swore "assassin school" (sneaky ball of death), "ranger school" (tanky ball of death), and "blaster school" (even deadlier ball of death) were all going to beat "research school" (nerdy ball of death). Though when spoken aloud, 'nerdy ball of death' does sound pretty adorable. Note to self, make that an achievement.

    There are actually dozens of possible outcomes from the decisions made in the last several chapters (and this one), starting with the eight possible choices of training with the twins, which provided a possibility of eight different rewards (one from each for 0 to 3 training events with each). All the choices, and which school gets picked, and what was done around town, have direct impacts on how Elruin's received and how well training goes at any and/or all of the schools in question.

    It is, indeed, possible to get Elruin into the Order of Respite. Difficult. Arguably only worth it due to a companion picked up on that path and none of the other. But totally possible.

    And we're not done yet, there's still a handful more choices to make to determine how the adorifying necrololi develops (in the near future at least- there are plenty of other choices that have an impact later on). In the end, there's no optimal choice, and no path can show everything.

    And this is just one of the Faction routes she's following. There are quite a few others, including the one that's now impossible where she eventually enters a romantic relationship with Arden... but that door has been closed on this route, by the time they meet in person, it will be too late.
     
    Last edited: Feb 6, 2019
  28. 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
  29. Threadmarks: Chapter 1, Episode 22
    TanaNari

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    "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.
     
  30. Threadmarks: Chapter 23, Ol' Scratch
    TanaNari

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    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.
     
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