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A Voice From the Storm (Closed)

Started by Emily, December 10, 2018, 10:07:16 PM

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Síne had always been afraid of Kingfisher Forest, because she couldn't explain it.

She could explain most things, because even if she didn't know how they worked, there was a clear logic to them. She might not understand exactly what caused the sun to move through the sky, but it did so at approximately the same time every day and followed a pattern of birth, death, and rebirth every year. The seasons lasted approximately the same length every year, and followed the same pattern as the sun, with a time of sewing, growing, reaping, and death. The cycles were so predictable that the farmers of Ceadaichte Mòir anticipated them every year and could accurately plan their yields around them.

But Kingfisher Forest didn't make sense. Trees only grew in the forest; according to the traders that came by the town twice a year, there was a dead zone for approximately 100 kilometres from the edge of the forest before trees started growing again. And even those trees were very different, small and dull of colour compared to the massive red-brown of the trees in the forest. Whatever trees were felled by axe or storm regrew in a matter of months, as tall and as vibrant as they were before. The forest was unfathomably large, extending further north and south than anyone had ever gone, and deeper west than anyone had ever been able to venture. It was an infinite expanse that happened to end right at this spot, where Ceadaichte Mòir had been founded. There were other villages, though Síne had not seen them, to the north and south along the tree wall, but none within an easy travelling distance. She would often hear animals playing or calling for mates within the trees, and the children of the town often ventured out and played among them. The forest itself showed no malevolence or intention to harm. And that's why it was scary.

It was the 8th of Sun's Rebirth, only a few days away from the beginning of the sewing season. Síne was at a desk in her home, reading scraps of paper by candlelight. She was trusted with the responsibility of teaching the town children letters and numbers, and was only able to get them to gather during the winter at the main community building, in a room near the mayor. She was also responsible for rationing out what paper and candles the community would afford to her for this task. Her last candle of the year burned with a matter of centimetres left to go, lighting the last few shreds of paper that had been left. The remaining paper was wrapped in twine in various piles around her floor. She would exchange it with the traders when they finally arrived, and they would return in the fall with it having been reformed once again blank. All of the empty ink pots had been rinsed and sat atop the various bound piles of paper, as glass was always a valuable commodity with the tradesmen. That being said, they were a few days later than expected this year, and if they took much longer she would have to start reading next to the fireplace.

The wind outside rattled her door, causing the woman to start. With a hand placed against her rapidly-beating heart, she turned to look at it, waiting. One, two, three, four... the room remained silent save the friendly crackling of the fireplace and the occasional muted pop of a candle wick near its end. If it was any quieter Síne was sure she would be able to hear her heart beating raucously against her chest. Once she was sure it wasn't an intruder, the woman sighed, blew out the candle and stood up to stretch; it had been a long day of reading; the children this year seemed more generally interested in the old stories, and were writing a lot of their own. Hence the shortage of paper. Still, it brought a lot of joy to her heart to see the spark of curiosity in one of her classes, and she would try to get more paper from the traders in the fall. Some of the children had already started borrowing out books from her, which hadn't happened before, and two of them had stayed behind the last few days to ask about one of the legends she had recited, a story about a clever princess who had evaded capture by running into the Kingfisher Forest, which had recognised her virtuous heart and protected her from her pursuers.

They had asked how the forest protected her. She wasn't sure of that; the story that had been passed down to her wasn't as concerned with the details as the inquiring minds of babes. One boy, a brash little one who was often playing pretend swords with his friends just inside the forest, theorised the forest had cut the pursuers down to size with whips of vine and spears of branch. The other boy, a shy child who had lived with and helped his grandparents after the pox had taken his father, theorised the forest made the princess disappear, and those that chased after her gave up after not finding her for a time. The fact that both of these assumptions could very well be the truth was what frightened Síne. But then again, most things surrounding the Kingfisher Forest did.

She stepped to the door and grabbed the handle of the metal bolt, rotating it up and pulling it to the side, then down again so that it caught in the unlocked position. She then pushed down a latch that allowed her door to swing outward and open, letting in the night air. It was somewhat cold outside, though it was much warmer than it had been even a few weeks prior, and was warmer still during the day. Still, she was small in frame and stature, lacking any heft that might block the chill of her environment. The ground was no longer stiff with frost, and the grass along the ground had started coming back to life. She stepped outside and stifled a yawn, then looked to the forest. The Kingfisher Forest didn't change during the winter either; its leaves were still as full, its wood still as vibrant. Though the trees felled by axe or storm dried and became quality firewood, what was still connected to the ground never changed. A wind rustled through the tree tops, causing the branches and leaves to stir and rattle quietly, as the air moved toward her house. It rustled her shoulder-length brown hair, causing it to tangle even worse than it had been before. But even then, the forest did not seem intimidating. Not of its own merit.


It was a particularly bright night.

The sun was up, birds were chirping, and Talamaeus Laraxius III, first of his name, emperor of Fyrom was feverishly surveying his domain. The wind swept though the trees, a white poofy cloud floated mindlessly through a bright blue sky... it was surely midnight. A young man of only sixty three, already he had a reputation as a great uniter. It was only a few months ago, when he was fifty seven, that he ventured outside of his mud hut to a small barn in the middle of the woods and proclaimed "You can be in my empire!" And so the story began of this great military and political powerhouse.

The emperor stood just behind one of the boulders on the rocky terrain at the base of of Mount Abandon, his brown linen robe flowed in the breeze, the holes in the lining of the robe, a display of the traditional culture of the realm. Mostly, he was satisfied with the survey today. The one hundred and thirty six large boulders on the eastern slope had, indeed, heeded his warning to seek a permit before moving to a new location; fortunately, the permits had been neither filed nor necessary. It was fortunate because the political and ideological significance of even one boulder being rotated, even slightly, was incalculable to even his wisest sages, crows.

He peered across the top of a boulder, spying one such crow just now. His left eye twitched every now and then, a curse of the tremendous power associated with the majesty of his station. The crow sat in a tree not more than five metres ahead. An adult male, black as day and reasonably groomed. It was making some impossibly loud squawking at least twice a second. Occasionally, it stopped, surely to absorb some of the emperor's own frustration with it as fuel to continue squawking for another few minutes. The emperor furrowed his brow in disgust. By now, his courier field mice must have been throughout the realm to pronounce his edict that day should become night and night day, but lo! This crow acts as though nothing has changed and disregards even basic respect for the laws of Fyrom as it hides behind its *birthright-status* as a imperial sage, well. That ends today.

The emperor reached into a pocket on his robe and withdrew a bag that seemed too large to be able to fit. It was made of buckskin, as deer were enemies of the state for not consulting him on a standardised number of horn points. The bag was tied shut with hair. Lots of hair. A small black cord extended out of the side of the bag. The emperor held the bag up and positioned the cord between his eyes. In the old days, before things were ruined by one of the eastern slope stones deciding to shift position, his stern look and strong reputation alone would have set this cord alight. Certainly it had happened only once before, but Talamaeus Laraxius never forgets. He produced a small tinderbox from the linings of his robe. The emperor's robes always contained the precise materials needed for his success because he only left his fortified earthen palace for highly specific reasons and only with the latest scouting reports from his spying turnip.

The emperor ducked behind the boulder and sat down in the small rocks interspersed with grass. These rocks were not enumerated because they were only allowed ninety-day tourism visas. He got to work preparing a fire from sticks and brush. After a moment, he popped his head back over the boulder to gaze upon his enemy. It stopped squawking, if only for moment. They long stared into each other's eyes, at least four seconds. The passion, burning. The hatred, mutual. Bored, the crow looked away and began to squawk again. The emperor sat back down and resumed working, muttering to himself about the rule of law. A flame formed in the box. He set the black cord of the bag to the fire and it began to smoke and sizzle.

"Night isn't a time for crowing," said the emperor. "It's a time for sleeping!" He roared as he threw the leather bag over the boulder at the winged fiend. The bag exploded in air, as bright and red-hot as it was terrible and great. The tree was engulfed in flame and the hundreds of leaves began crackling as water turned to steam inside their living cells. At the base of the tree, the crow lay motionless. It was now asleep. It was very, very, very asleep. It was also on fire, but the edict had been enforced, and that was what mattered most. All creatures in the realm would learn something this day:

Order would reign, thanks to Talamaeus Laraxius III, the great emperor of Fyrom.


In the forest, little flickers of fireflies were all you could see by. But even in the daytime, you might catch a leaf stirring, you might see its tree move, and you might, if you were lucky, see Leeva, clinging to the lowest branch, nestled against the bark. Nobody could see them now, in the dark. The thought made them giggle, but habit made them shift their image anyway as they climbed down the tree. They hid in the grass next to the roots, looking out at the treeless expanse that marked the edge of Treeland. The humans called it Kingfisher forest, but Leeva didn't know why. They poked one limb out of the grass and onto the expanse. Then another, and another, but they made sure to blend in with the grass.

They laughed. So weird, no trees to blend to!

The other forest sprites were happy to remain in the forest, but Leeva was part human, and humans were almost as curious as cats. They had spied on the humans from the trees, long enough to mostly understand their language, but had never spoken to one. Too scary. Too big. Too . . . unblendable.

Humans looked the same no matter what they did, like dye their hair, which made Leeva scoff good naturedly. It was not for lack of trying, they supposed.

Looking back, Leeva saw they had made it several feet away from the forest. Excitement mixed with fear, and they bolted across the meadow--or, was it a meadow? Was a meadow that was not surrounded by trees still a meadow? Ridiculous! All meadows were surrounded by trees. Weren't they? Even if you couldn't see the other side. There were ALWAYS trees!

They stopped ten feet away from one building. Leeva chose this building because there was a light. Maybe one of the humans was awake! The light flickered like a firefly, but they knew it was probably fire. Humans were fond of fire. And stone houses, which Leeva didn't understand. They took comfort in the wooden door, though. Leeva shivered from nervousness, then leapt into the air, letting the wind carry them the rest of the way to the door, making a loud thump! When Leeva felt brave enough, they began to move again, this time to the side. Clinging to stone was easy. They stuck their leafy filaments into the cracks in the stones and lifted their head until they could see inside the window.

There was a human there after all. Leeva had never seen one so close . . .

And coming closer!!

Leeva ducked under the windowsill as the wooden door opened, and the human came out. She was small, and thin, sighing in the cold air, the wind blowing the brown vines on her head and tangling them. Leeva tried so hard not to giggle at that last part. But even then, their heart ached. They were part human, but still they couldn't tell what part of them that was.

Leeva skittered soundlessly to the ground, tilting their head to get a better perspective of the human lady. They extended one limb, then another, and when the human didn't notice, they stepped along the grass until they crouched not a foot away from the human's extra feet--you know, the ones they put on over their regular feet.

They looked up at the round, pink face, the reddened nose and cheeks. Humans did that in the cold. Leeva shifted their image to reflect that coloring, but they despaired knowing it was only because they made it that way, not because they were part human. Again blending with the ground, they took another step, more in front of the human. They really wanted to see her face clearly. Finally, she could see her eyes. The eyes mesmerized them, sending an inexplicable calm through their whole being, like a tree could when they huddled next to it.

They could almost cry at feeling this connection to something other than the forest, in a place of their heart they had never felt before.

They reached a limb out, just a little bit closer--

BAM! A sound like boulders breaking into sand echoed across the meadow, sending terror through every vein of Leeva's body. They looked around for a tree to climb to safety, but knew there were none.

So they picked the nearest tall thing available, and wrapped themself tightly around the human's waist.


She unfroze. The reflex had only lasted a heartbeat, but before she could set to moving the pink worm of a tail was disappearing into the ground.


The sight of an escapee was rare; few creatures short of the beasts could outclass the huntress, and on any other such occasion she would have set about shouting down the coward. Today she was silent, ears twitching. Her third eye produced a map while she took stock of her surroundings: the deep woods sprawled ahead of her in several directions; her favourite tree was back and to the left, at the edge of the border; the humans spread out just beyond it. This noise didn't come from them. It was somewhere to the right, not near the tall shelters, well away from the sheep and close to the ground. The map dissolved, devoid of data.

Three kilograms of brown and black zigzagged toward the rising chorus of bleats. She burst into the clearing, past the shelters and toward the paddock between the herd of agitated humans - her meows were inaudible amid the clamor.

"What was that?" "Thunder from cloudless-" "I can't see!" "Where's Ancel? Has anybody seen-" "-could it all come to-"

She knew before she reached the front of the crowd. There was no forgetting that scent. Bitter. Destructive. Nostalgic. The shouts grew frantic as she finally stole a glimpse through the frontline, just in time to see the black air plume out and over the southern woods.


Síne took a deep breath of the night air and closed her eyes. A small headache had started to form just above and to the outside of her left eyebrow, which was ultimately something that seemed to happen fairly often when she'd spent an entire day reading or focusing too hard on one specific thing. She'd noticed it happening more and more over the past few years, but dismissed it as part of getting older. Her mother had certainly found no shortage of things to complain about, in increasing quantity and variety, as she'd aged. Beyond that, other older people in the village lamented of aches and pains that had not been there when they were younger. Though she was only thirty and four, Síne believed she was starting to enter that age, so maybe this was the new way of things. The best thing for what ailed her, to her knowledge and experience, was fresh air.

Much in that way that happens to all people at all times, Síne had intended to come outside and smell the air, to experience the humidity and cool temperature of the night, but had not gotten around to it. She had been promising the experience to herself as a reward for when she got through just one more paper. Or maybe one more beyond that. Or one more, and so on and so on and so on until the night had practically left her behind. She would have to be in bed soon, to allow those few small scraps another night of being unread, due most specifically to her body collapsing in on itself. Fye, the curses she could reap onto getting older.

And then two things happened that would likely be forever remembered as life-changing, though in the moment the only word she could think of was terrifying. First, a distant burst shook her from her own silent lamentations. She opened her eyes and looked, with no small amount of shock and horror, toward the south. That sounded like a gunpowder blast, the type that the traders had brought as objects of interest in case the people of Ceadaichte Mòir had ever thought to do some mining. They hadn't, but the sounds of distant bursts and the smell of smoke that was somehow more sour than what came from the fireplaces entertained the men and children to seemingly no end. The second thing that happened was that she was attacked. A force like an iron ball hit her just even with her left hip, wrapping whips of vine around her body and pinning her arms to her sides. Despite her best efforts, the woman couldn't remain standing, and fell over onto the soft ground, her hair flying all around her face and her chin sinking slightly into the moist dirt.

At first, the women was stunned; she didn't know what had hit her and had no proper way of knowing exactly how to deal with it. Oh, if only Eoin would come out of his home. The old mayor of the village lived a couple homes away from hers, and he always knew what to do. But if he came out to respond to the distant explosion, there was no way for her to notice; Síne's head was conveniently facing away from the direction of Eoin's house, and no doubt her penchant for brown clothing and her brown hair would blend her in for the night. Her vision tunnelled as she remembered her own thoughts- whips of vine - just like the story she had told the children. Was this Kingfisher Forest finally reaching out and taking her life? Was it because she hadn't been careful enough, was it bad luck? She started to hyperventilate, but closed her eyes tight and did her best to calm down.

She wasn't dead. Whatever it was clearly hadn't intended to kill her, only to incapacitate her. Which it had done.

After a few seconds, after properly working through her situation with as much logic as she could muster with a face full of dirt and no ability to move her arms, the woman got her breathing under control. She had been prone to anxiety attacks her entire life, and though she couldn't always control them, sometimes she could stave off the worst effects if she tried hard enough, early enough. That seemed to be the case, and it brought her no small amount of pride to acknowledge the change. That pride fuelled some self confidence, with which she attempted to struggle one of her arms free- the left one, which was exposed to the main body of whatever had attacked her, but also wasn't pinned against the ground. She grunted with the exertion, then spoke in a quiet voice as level in tone as she could muster. Even so, the fear tinged her voice with a waver and an outside chance of panic. "Who... what... are you, and what do you want from me? I have no money, and I don't have any belongings of great value."


“Another one?”

A wisp of dust. The stench of burnt flesh. In the ashes pooled a swirl of feathers, figments of shadows which took substance as the wind settled. What was once nothing became something, in the space of mere moments after a distant explosion: too distant to hear here, yet the ripples were felt nonetheless. Encased in grey, crowned with leaves, laid the inanimate figure of a crow.

Delicately unfolding one stiff wing between his gloved forefinger and thumb a confirmation at last hummed through his throat in response. “But the first crow. At least, the first for a long time. Burnt alive it would seem.”

“What a mess,” His companion huffed. With a scowl of frustration he folded his arms and glowered at their surroundings: the ‘Dead Zone’, as it was called on the lips of many. A vast expanse a hundred kilometres long and twenty wide covered in nothing but a thick sheet of dry, warm ash. Rain didn’t touch here. Nor did unfettered sunshine. Clouds, lethargic and thin hung constantly above, casting shadows of grim depression from the veil of their ragged, drawn faces: dark enough to smother the sun but too weak to become pregnant with moisture and storms. Even the air was still, oppressive. The only winds which touched here occurred when a life had been taken. Taken and then restored.

And yet for every life restored - as it all was eventually in the endless cycle of the Kingfisher Forest - the Dead Zone grew, manifested, a plague that seeped forth, crept forwards, expanding its territory inch by inch, second by second. You never noticed its progress until it was too late - too major a lurch.

“If only they knew.” He growled, sickened by the sight after a mere glance. With another irritated grumble he raised a hand to massage out the headache brewing at the bridge of his nose. It didn’t work of course, but habits died hard.

“Hmm~, now now, you know we can’t exactly go around telling people about this.” Chastised the Knight kneeling in the ash, wing still in hand. He was holding it not with delicacy but with masked disgust, like one would a soiled nappy.

“Tch. It never crosses your mind that maybe we should?”

A lilting laugh, like the tinkling chime of small bells, sung from the Knight’s throat. He was smiling. No. Grinning. A whole set of pearly whites parting his lips, but the handsome dazzle was lost on his long-term companion. He knew well that this man’s smiles were duplicitous - venomous. Full of ice. Immediately he regretted letting that thought slip out. “Hrm, then maybe we should after all?” The Knight proposed with mischievous delight.

“You find this funny? Seriously?” He didn't like the way the man's amber eyes sparked with excitement.

The Knight shrugged. Suddenly bored of the bird he dropped its wing and rose to his feet, ignoring the creature as the first flutters of its renewed heartbeat pulsed twitches of warm blood through its wings. First a convulsion. Then a squawking gasp. Moments later it stumbled upright and took flight back into the forest’s heart from whence it came.

“You don’t find me funny?” The Knight rebuked, aghast and pressing his gloved hand against his chest in mock horror. The uniform he wore was as crisp and impeccable as his acting, all clean lines and finely-measured cuts and folds.  “How deeply you wound me, Sir.”

“This is a serious problem!”

“Oh yes, it really is. Keep scowling like that and you’re sure to never be as pretty as I.” The Knight tutted and moved to playfully poke at his companion’s furrowed brow. Yet the fellow soldier was either too quick or the Knight too lazy. Perhaps both.

“Go sort it out!” He snapped, rearing his head away with unmasked disgust.

“Ah. Mean. You’re sending me out all alone?”

“I’ll join you later. Probably. There’s-” A pause. They both sensed another wisp of disturbed air, distant but noticeable in the plumes of ash from which it arose. “-There’s more work here to be done and recorded.” He sighed.

“Oh that’s true. I hate paperwork. I retract my earlier remark, you’re incredibly noble, dear.”

“Ugh. I preferred Sir.” 

“Well then, my dearest Sir. I shall miss you deeply! 'Distance makes the heart grow fonder' is such bullshit, so be sure to find me before I forget about my duty altogether! HAHA!”

With a snap of his gloved fingers the Knight vanished, spirited away in a swirling gale with a teasing wink and a thrilled laugh that echoed. A laugh that still haunted the begrudged soldier left behind to wade through the ankle-deep grey. It irked him almost as much as the task of discovering the reanimating corpse of whatever else had died next.


When Leeva's "tree" fell over, their first thought was of course to seek another for shelter. When they went to move, however, they found their vines pinned underneath the log. They screamed. "I'm becoming undertoe!" They struggled to free themselves.

Wait. They thought. This wasn't a tree, it was a human. In the wake of the shattering explosion, their thoughts began coming back.

That's right. Leeva wasn't in the forest, they was in the big meadow where the humans lived in their stone mounds with the smoke coming out of them. And they had been sneaking next to a human, and then that explosion happened, and now the human trapped them!

Leeva barely took note that the human was speaking at all. "Please let me go!" Leafy tears flew from their face like petals, falling all over the human. "Mama told me humans cut up little leaflets and brew them into tea, I don't wanna be tea!" They wailed.


Though the terror of being in a situation such as the one she had found herself in threatened to paralyse the poor woman, Síne had gathered enough sense to begin struggling, just a little bit, in an attempt to unpin her arm. She'd done it slowly, in hopes of not angering or possibly even alerting the being that still lay stationary on top of her, but her hopes were dashed and her fears were answered when an alarm wail rose from the wooden form.

The cry that came from it was oddly... of nature. Like the sound of a late-night breeze rushing through the tree branches, all whistle and rustle. But at the same time, it was oddly human, like the cries of a child who was lost and afraid. The two sides of her brain, the fear for her own life and concern for others, conflicted and momentarily froze the young woman. But eventually, she pulled herself to one side and, along with effort from the sprite, disentangled herself from their grasp. Sitting next to it, the woman rubbed her tender wrist, and asked in the calmest voice she could muster, "You weren't meaning to harm me at all, were you little one?"

She was hoping to calm the creature so that maybe they could check out what had exploded together, another experience where the two sides of her were competing for attention. Her fear told her to get back inside, while her curiosity bade her to see from a safe distance what was happening over yonder.


Suddenly Leeva was moving, and suddenly they was no longer stuck. They looked up and found the human woman looking down at them, and asking,  "You weren't meaning to harm me at all, were you little one?"

Leeva blinked. Harm her? "N-no! I was just scared of that big BOOM!" They threw their branches up and jumped slightly into the air. When they came back down, they blushed. "But you're not a tree. I'm sorry."

Sensing no danger, Leeva decided to investigate the noise while the woman responded. What was the noise, anyway? It came from the forest! I bet . . . "Just a sec," they said to the woman, who was probably introducing herself? Leeva wasn't sure. They put their roots to the ground and listened for what the rest of the forest was talking about.

"Yep," they said. "It was near where that crazy guy lives." They shook their vines vigorously. "No one goes there, because nothing grows there. And that guy is nuts! My name's Leeva by the way . . ."

They blinked at the human. "Do you wanna go invegergerate--inver-a--go see what it was?" They curled into themselves. "It was in the forest and see, that's where I'm from, but now I'm too scared to go home. Will you help me see if it's safe?" Their leafy eyelids blinked slowly, pitifully.


As the sprite spoke to her, Síne began to relax. It would seem that whatever this small creature was, it ultimately meant her no harm, despite whatever initial assumptions she had made as to its purpose. Síne had a tendency to make a lot of assumptions about things, though she always tried to adjust her viewpoint when proven wrong. In this case, she had assumed that anything outside of that which she was comfortable with automatically intended her harm, and that whatever came from Kingfisher Forest even moreso. But that certainly seemed to be anything but the case this time. The sprite -Leeva, as it introduced itself- rambled in an almost childlike fashion- not intending the word in the worst possible way, but the most charming one. Síne nodded along to its words and, once it had finished, chimed in with some of her own. Her voice was much less tense than it had been, and in the absence of alterations came across as somewhat lilting, with a light accent the people of Ceadaichte Mòir developed during their lives. "Síne is my name, and the pleasure is mine, Leeva. I would be happy for you to come along and investigate-" she slowed down and slightly bounced between the syllables, her inner teacher shining through for only a moment, "what happened. I'm glad you know more than I do, it'll make me feel much safer to have you by my side."

Once the introductions were out of the way, Síne stood and began walking through the town toward the site of whatever had happened. It had been loud, but nobody else appeared to have reacted. Lights shone through the windows of none of the homes in the village, and it would have been concerning for the woman had she not already been exposed to her fair share of strange and unusual tonight. They passed by Eoin's house, the city building where she taught the children, and a few small farm plots before the buildings abruptly stopped. There was a more rocky area just beyond, and the villagers tended more often than not to avoid it entirely. There was supposed to be a hermit that lived in that region, but she had never met them, nor heard anything denoting the accuracy of their presence until the explosion. It was as if someone beyond here was new to the area, which would also have been entirely fine.

The moon and stars shone brightly down, with no nearby lights to drown their assistance out. By its illumination, Síne was able to navigate around the rocks and shrubby grass until she felt close enough. As she peeked around a boulder, she saw smoke rising from a dead crow. Her mouth twisted with concern, though there was a small amount of disdain mixed in as well. But... there was no time to be afraid. She called out, caution and curiosity in her voice. "Hello? Is anyone hurt over here?"


The invaders were in front of him now. 0.0041 stellar units ahead. Talameaus Laraxius looked through the underbrush of the forest to spy them through the gaps in the limbs. He had been tracking his prey for a tremendous amount of time now. Ever since about forty-five minutes ago. No chance to go back and call for the guard now, that summon ritual needs at least three days to prepare and, even then, it has a sixty percent chance to fail thanks to budget cuts and disloyalty among the wildlife that made up its ranks. The Emperor would have no choice but to investigate this matter himself.

He crept forward and hunkered near the thick base of a tree on the outermost section of the forest. He could spy the corner of a woman's head sticking out from behind a large boulder. What a tragic turn of events that he was no long able to listen to the goings on in his realm by putting an acorn to his ear. When this was done, there was no doubt that the military and extensive network of spying flora needed to be funded once again. The Emperor leaned in to get a better look, but slid forward, losing his grip on the tree in front of him. Catching himself by falling onto his hands, he looked up to where the boulder.

"Hello? Is anyone hurt over here?" the woman called out from behind the rock. Outrageous! Were his targets tracking *him?* The very nerve of this girl. Trespassing is a serious crime that can only be reconciled with not trespassing anymore. Humans were dangerous creatures that could not be trusted beyond the circumference of their forearms. He picked his head up.

"These are the sovereign lands of Fyrom! You, human, are bid a greeting and a warning," he shouted from his position, slightly lower now. And dropped his head again. The response came after a moment of silence.

"Oh, uh, okay! I'm Síne and this is Leeva and we just wanted to know if anyone was hurt in the explosion!" she called back and peeked around the side of the boulder at him. The explosion? he thought to himself. How was it possible that word of his fantastic deeds in maintaining the superior day and night dictum had preceded him here? Unless they had some kind of inside information...

"And who are you to have learned of such an event?"

"A school teacher from Ceadaichte Mòir! I teach the children history, numbers, and letters, and I was just grading their papers on the history of the Kingfisher Forest when I heard the noise. I thought more people from the village would have woken up, but they don't seem to have done so."

The Emperor's expression grew more serious. Numbers and letters were the last thing that he needed right now. He scanned the sky overhead and noted that it was still above him and the clouds were in their correct place. But he couldn't risk another incident. He rose from his position and stood at attention.

"We thank you for your concern, but issues related to Fyrom domestic disputes are handled internally by The Emperor. We bid you good day, as well as safe and pleasant travel in the opposite direction," he said and then made a motion appearing to physically shut a door that did not exist in visible space. The Emperor turned on his heel and began walking back to his earthen mud palace.


Today was a resting day.

That's what she kept thinking as she agitatedly paced through the small . Today would be no hunting. No cutting wood. No helping others lift heavy stuff. No physical activity whatsoever. Just staying home and doing nothing.
It felt like a punishment, even if it was self-imposed. She told herself she needed at least one day in the week to rest, as even her body had its limits. Probably. That's what the villagers told her. She'd usually react by glaring at them, because that would make them leave her alone immediately, but that didn't seem to work on some of them anymore. She knew the villagers had the best intentions with her, so she usually went along with whatever they suggested, but this was just so boring!
And once she got bored, it would get harder and harder to distract herself from thoughts she didn't want to have.

Osin is what her parents named her. "Servant." Might have well named her "Trash", given what they did to her. She could hardly remember their faces anymore, and she wasn't sure if she wanted to. They probably forgot about her as soon as they exchanged her for a bag of gold. As hazy her memory of home was, the journey away from there was still as clear as day in her head. She could remember the smell of sweat, shit and seawater. The misery. Arriving in a land with strange people, who all spoke a language she wouldn't learn how to speak properly for a long time. The fear and uncertainty she had felt, and had sworn to never ever feel again.

The first years were the toughest, but she survived, and it wasn't all misery. The last few years in servitude were almost... pleasant. The people responsible for her kept her well-fed at least. But that all had to end as well. Once she ventured into Kingfisher's Forest, she never looked back.
The villagers of Ceadaichte Mòir took her in, and she has learned to accept them. She repays them by helping them with work, or do some hunting for them.

She picked up one of the books she had borrowed from the teacher lady, Sine. Reading usually led to her getting headaches, but it would at least distract her from bad thoughts. She had only begun learning to read after she arrived in the village two years ago. She never really understood why she picked it up, because everything she's read so far was never that interesting. Perhaps it was because she never had the chance to in her old life. This book in particular was about the Kingfisher's Forest. Osin thought about how it got its name. She's seen the king before, and he didn't look like no fisherman. Maybe it was a play on words she didn't understand because she was foreign. She didn't know. She would ask Sine, but she was afraid she would have to listen to hours and hours of droning about the magical trees. And Osin could use that precious time to chop down said magical trees.

Nevertheless, Osin did think Sine was nice, despite everything. She did take the time to teach her how to read, despite her having the attention span of a mosquito and the patience of... well, her. Sine would lend her books, and Osin would try to read them. Any word she didn't understand, she would try to write down on a piece of parchment. She would then shove the parchment in Sine's face the following day and demand her to explain what the words meant.
As she concentrated on the book, she could feel her agitation diminish. Forest. Trees. Princesses. Whatever. It all made her sleepy.


"What the..."


Osin sat upright in her chair as the shaking ground and loud noise shook her awake. She quickly stood up and stumbled, disoriented for a moment. Shaking her head, she walked towards her window and peered outside. She could see smoke coming from the area beyond which the forest lied. Some people were outside, but nobody seemed to want to act. Grumbling, Osin went to grab her hatchet, bow and arrow and ventured outside. Soon enough, more and more people would also come out of their houses, but would stop in their tracks as they saw the hulking Elven woman with wild, dark hair walk steadfastly towards the woods, weapons at the ready.

Her piercing, grey eyes soon found a silhouette in the distance. Was it the instigator of the explosion? She had heard the sound before. It was never associated with good things. As she got closer, she recognised the silhouette. It was teacher lady. She kept her bow at the ready, arrow in her right hand. She didn't see Sine for someone who would mess around with gunpowder, but in this world, you never know. Osin decided that she'd try to feel out the situation. She felt she would give the woman a fair warning before she'd pepper her with arrows, anyway.

"Oi! Sine! Don't ye ken yer nae supposed tae play wi' fire?"


In all her cycles living in Ceadaichte Mòir, Síne had never known of an empire butting up against the city limits, nor had she met this man who claimed to speak for it. She did not claim to know everything and everyone, but she certainly had expected to know everyone within a wide berth of the village. It was a rush of excitement in her heart to experience this feeling, this introduction to a strange and exceedingly unknowable man. Her conversation with him had gone better than with most new people she met, and she assumed no small part of that success was in the extreme effort she had practiced in holding back her excitement. She had a tendency to ramble on and on, and people would become bored of her quickly.

When the man before her finally stood up, showing more trust than she did from behind her eternal boulderesque shield, Síne let out an internal, silent cheer of success. He was comfortable with her! It was nice to make a new friend, and she couldn't wait to come back and talk to him again. Even with his farewell, "We thank you for your concern, but issues related to Fyrom domestic disputes are handled internally by The Emperor. We bid you good day, as well as safe and pleasant travel in the opposite direction," he radiated class and maturity. In a village of woodsmen and dung farmers, that was the only thing she needed. She wondered if he had any good books, or needed to borrow any good books. It wasn't like there were any she was reading at the moment- at least not until the traders came in the morning with their new supplies.

The woman turned to express her joy to Leeva, but to her disappointment the sprite seemed to have disappeared. Her face fell, but only for a second, as an apparent reason surfaced. "Oi! Síne! Don't ye ken yer nae supposed tae play wi' fire?"

Síne turned to notice Osin approaching, and felt a pang of panic in her chest. The man who spoke for the emperor of Fyrom had expressly stated he didn't want any visitors, and she wasn't sure how to keep that from happening at this moment. It would be best to keep further conversation away from the borders; after all, even though the two of them were very obviously friends now, she couldn't just bring outsiders into the realm! That was presuming far too much on his hospitality... especially if he was the one who could make the aforenoticed explosions and the like. Instead, she hopped up from her position leaning against the boulder, and approached the elven woodcutter. "Oh, Osin, silly me. I was coming out to investigate the sound of the explosion, but couldn't find anything over here. Maybe we should get back to the town, see if Eoin is awake. He'll know what to do, and we shouldn't act on any thoughts without consulting him. After all, he is the mayor. I'm quite tired, and I'm afraid it's past time for me to sleep. Maybe we imagined the sound. Wouldn't that be something! Goodnight!"

She quickly sprinted away from the towering sentry.

After the merchants had packed up their camp that morning, Rizali had chosen to walk the last leg of the journey. It was only a handful of miles to reach the treeline and the tiny village that was said to exist on the edge of it, and he was if nothing else curious to see it. As they closed the distance, his mood soured to match the smell that seemed to surround the village. The scent of damp, fetid leaves drifted out from the forest, a strange experience as there had been no obvious signs of rain elsewhere. That mixed with cedar and a hint of body odour as the mayor came out to greet them. The sorceror stood at the head of the first wagon, appearing to examin the cleanliness of his fingernails as he examined their surroundings. The houses were quaint, the people even quainter. He didn't know why this was considered the last bloc of civilisation before passing through the forest, but that was neither here nor there.

"And these are our guests," he heard the caravan leader say. Letting out a sigh, he looked back to his hired man, Lyndh. The hulking barbarian wore the same stoic expression he had every single day since they'd met, as grim as one might expect of someone wielding a massive, two-handed kora sword. Taking nothing from their brief interaction, Rizali turned back and put on his best smile, stepping forward to take the extended hand of this goat herder. Did they have goats here? It didn't really matter. "A pleasure, master Eoin. My name is Rizali, and this is my hired man Lyndh. He doesn't speak much, but don't worry- I speak more than enough for the both of us." He shared the old man's laugh.

The mage wore a fitted, button-down red shirt under a dark golden cloak, with the hood pulled up. His pants were heavy cloth, picked specifically for their reliability during long-range travel, and his boots were durable, unstained leather. He appeared very much a high-class traveller, which made his pairing with the barbarian all that more strange in appearance. The larger man wore an animal skin across his shoulders, with a leather strap across his chest and under his right arm keeping it from falling away. His scabbard to hold the sword, enough leather to suggest the use of an entire herd of antelopes, hung horizontally across the back of his waist, resting against the heavy fur pants and boots he wore. He let out a grunt and a nod, but did not extend his hand. The kora rested across his shoulders, always drawn in case of surprise attack. They'd need it, if the rumours of this forest were to be believed.

Rizali had travelled with the caravan for protection, though he had no interest in their final destination. The village was a stopping off and restocking -if possible- point before traversing the Kingfisher Forest. The rumours surrounding the forest were extreme- it seemed to be an unbroken line of trees on an exact vertical line across most maps, from as far south as the land went to as far north. It was incredibly magical, even from where he stood the mage could feel the energy radiating from the trees. Though he hoped to keep as many secrets as possible from these bumpkins, the mage wasn't entirely certain how he would sneak out of their sight and into the forest during the day. He would very much prefer not to leave at night if he could at all help it. He would miss the ability to talk with some of the traders though, even if they weren't the brightest men and women. Lyndh wasn't much for conversation, much as he might look it.

"Might there be a place we could get some food and sit down for a moment, mayor Eoin?" Rizali asked, gray eyes peering from beneath the hood before being pointed toward the largest building in the village. Of course, the town hall, he'd be a personal guest of the mayor and his wife, and be treated to the finest food they could offer. Dryly, he wondered if that was to be animal dung and leaves.


"Mr. Corvus, I don't know what you think you're going to find out there, but it's simply too dangerous."

The ambitiously-titled town hall lacked the lush regality and grand scope of communal spaces of the Inverted Spire or the wider city of Coxarif, it had no finery-wearing nobility or knights in splendid, sparkling armour, but in this moment it carried the same gravity expected of such a grand space. Approximately a dozen farmers, men and women from every corner of this hamlet, had enclosed upon the building. They had come upon hearing the secondhand rumours of the town newcomer's goal-- to cross the Kingfisher Forest and see what was on the other side. The news had spread in a rare bout of secrecy spilling, over lunch with the mayor. Rizali had come to the conclusion that sneaking out of the village in the dead of night and crossing into the treeline was... distasteful, especially considering he would prefer all travel on this journey be conducted during daylight hours. But it would be difficult to leave without alerting the townspeople, given a farmer's penchant for waking up in the pre-dawn or dawn hours. As such, he had brought it up to the extent of delicacy he was able while sharing a lunch with the mayor, Eoin, and his wife. The reserved and mildly disapproving reaction he'd earned from the man was expected, and a planned starting point for gaining assistance.

When he was asked to come to the town hall this afternoon, the mage had been curious of the meeting's purpose of course, but was mostly hopeful it would turn into a chance to gain points toward his ultimate goal. Seeing even more stern faces and disapproval centred squarely upon himself was slightly disorienting. But he had come prepared: he had his wit, his charm, and of course Lyndh was sitting in the corner polishing his massive sword should the worst occur. Rizali hoped the worst wouldn't occur. The woman who had just spoken had a face and hands weathered from long days of hard labour, a stark contrast to the smoothness of the same attributes on the mostly-interior Rizali. Her long, red hair was ratty and dry from the direct sunlight and harsh, dry winds. Judging purely by appearance, she had never left this village, and never would.

Upon entering the village and having a chance to bathe himself, Rizali had changed clothing. Instead of the travel gear from the previous morning, he now wore a simple, taupe button-down shirt with sleeves rolled back to his forearms. The shirt was soft, not quite silk but a more comfortable fabric than the apparent burlap the people he faced wore. The mage found himself to be self-conscious of it, wondering how much his appearance and obvious, relative wealth would affect his interactions here. Blue lines wound around his forearms, ending on the back of each palm. They formed no obvious images, but continued past his sleeves. His black cloth breeches were tucked soundly into comfortable walking boots. A dark gold cowl, like that of a monk, covered his head and neck, revealing only his face.

It had been in the journal of a centuries-dead mage that Rizali had found the information he held on what lay beyond the Kingfisher Forest. He prided himself on how thorough and complete his methods were, and had meticulously crosschecked the information with other literature and maps from the time period, deeming it accurate after several months. What he'd found to lie beyond the trees was something he didn't feel particularly comfortable sharing with the people of this village, nor the purpose of their original cultivation. It would not be prudent to share a discovery that the forest around which your village thrived was actually a barrier meant to keep you from seeing what was on the other side of it. A different approach would be needed. "I swear to you any danger would be upon those that tried to cause us harm within the forest. Lyndh and I are more than capable of taking care of ourselves, isn't that right Lyndh?"

The man at the back of the room looked up, his already-narrowed eyes seeming to narrow further. He gave a singular, assenting hmph, then went back to polishing his sword. "That being said," the mage continued, pushing off the wall against which he had been leaning until that moment, "I can also ensure the safety of anyone from this village that might be interested in joining our little escapade. The more the merrier, as it were. You there," he pointed to a young, stocky farmer standing near the wall, nearly as broad of shoulder as he was tall, with a patchy blonde beard and hair to his shoulders. "What keeps you in Ceadaichte Mòir?"

The young man seemed surprised to be picked, looking momentarily to the crowd for reassurance before regainint his composure and shrugging with feigned disinterest. "Helping take care of my dad's farm."

"Has your father no other children?"

"Counting me, he has three sons."

"Then your father's farm is no chain holding you here, it would be just as well looked after in your absence as if you were here. That's what I'm saying!" the mage exclaimed, excitedly approaching him. "The things that keep you all in this village are small and finite and, and challengeable. Farming is all you've ever known, and that is a noble pursuit, but all it accomplishes is maintaining the status quo. You plant, you harvest, you sell to the convoy who brings your resources to another place you've never seen, and then you start over again. Your actions serve no higher purpose, you are just living to survive. Venturing outside of your home is difficult, it's unnerving. It's leaving behind everything you've ever known and every safety you've ever been afforded for an unsure result. Say we walk into that forest tomorrow, and we travel a few kilometres. What's the furthest anyone here has ever travelled beyond the treeline?"

Eoin, the mayor, chimed in from the front of the crowd. "Ten miles, give or take. We had a search party, fifteen years back, go in searching for a young girl who had wandered in and got lost. Farthest out party reckoned they travelled ten miles before turning back."

"And what did they find?"

"Trees, more or less. No monsters if that's what you're getting at."

"So what's the danger? Ten miles is quite the distance, much further than I would expect dangerous wildlife to start appearing. Isn't it possible that this great wall of trees, this abberation of all sense and logic, has been actually protecting you all this time instead of being threatening? What if the magic of the forest is actually protecting the interior and those who walk through it? What's the harm in going in and checking?" He knew that wasn't true, but he'd told far worse lies for the sake of inspiring good in others, and to protect the things that would have him killed were they known to be true.

The group was silent, clearly mulling these new thoughts about in their heads. Rizali, for all the pride and bluster he could be at his worst, wasn't stupid. He knew that this was not the moment to show any pride, and kept all of the self-righteous cheer from his face. A lack of counterarguments was as good as a victory, it would just take some time to set into the mythically proud stubbornness of western Ustendelle farmers. But it wasn't to be. A door opened at the back of the room. A young woman with messy brown hair entered, holding a book as if it were the world's greatest treasure, and crossed to stand in front of Rizali, where she offered it forward. He began to open his mouth to speak, but she started first, her voice low as if she didn't want anyone else to hear it. In fact, given her volume, it was possible that she was successful in her goal. "Mr. Corvus, my name is Síne, I instruct the children in Ceadaichte Mòir. I was looking through the selection of books that the traders brought into town yesterday -I always look through their books, they usually bring a few for me since I'm the only one here who-"

She stopped and took a breath, focusing herself. "Regardless. I heard a rumour that you planned on crossing the Kingfisher Forest, and I thought you should read through this."

Rizali took the book and, before speaking, looked it over. The book had not been taken care of; the hard cover and front page had been ripped away, and the spine was frail enough that it seemed unlikely to hold together for much longer. The back cover was blank, merely adorned with more faded reds and golds. The first legible page, however, made mention to "the Empire" lasting for thousands of years. Ustendelle was a republic, and most countries surrounding it were run by monarchies. The only empire Rizali had ever heard of was the one across the forest. Was it possible that this was a more contemporary book from his goal? He resisted the urge to immediately open it up and start reading it, making eye contact with the woman, who herself quickly broke it. She was nervous- scared? Of him, or something else? She had clearly not gotten much sleep the night before, worrying him about the contents of what he was to read. She nodded quickly, then took a half step away. Her composure seemed to melt as soon as she had relinquished the tome, and she began speaking again. "I-I don't know why the identifying elements of the book are torn away; I didn't do it, and I don't know who did. When I looked in the cart I couldn't find the cover or anything, so I know it wasn't harmed in transit, but I d-don't know anything more than that. I read it last night but it's, um, it's really something outside of my sphere of knowledge and I just, I just, I just think it's better if you have it, as someone who probably knows a lot more about a lot of things than I do."

"I'll read it when I return to my room," Rizali answered calmly. He had dealt with more... manic mages and academics in his time, and even though this woman was far removed from any sort of centre of knowledge, she had the same demeanour about her. "Thank you Síne. May I come speak with you after I've completed it?"

"O-oh," she replied, shaking her hands in front of her face wildly. "I don't think that's necessary, most of the things in the book went over my head. I'm afraid that I-I don't really have anything to say on it. Not that I'm saying you're not allowed to do what you like, of course! If you really think that there's something I can, I can help you with, then I'll be more than happy to."

A beat of silence passed between them before Síne quickly and unceremoniously pushed her way back out of the room and out of the hall. Rizali looked back down at the book, and then to the crowd of mostly bewildered farmers now. "Please think on what I have said," he did what he could to pull back his hard-fought progress on these people. "Apparently I have been assigned homework."


Just as the crowd was beginning to part, a rough, yet upbeat, voice called out as it entered the room.
"Ri' lads, s'the craic?"
A lanky, unkempt teenage boy walked quickly towards the crowd, and, in response, the crowd quickly dispersed. It was obvious that no person wanted to be seen near this guy.
He wasted no time introducing himself to Rizali.
"Nice to meet you, I'm Cathal, from the Culéin Clan of Thomond. I suppose you could say I represent them. Sort of"
What clothes he had were very simple, ill fitting, worn ones. The only item of interest was the blue shield insignia on his belt, with three crowns on it. The belt itself was cheaply made, and barely held his trousers up. A knife was held to his hip by it.

"Here now, I seriously need a hand, pal." he said to Rizali, "I just got kicked out of Thomond. I'm poor as, can't even afford a slice of bread. I hear that ye are headed off to that forest. I hear that yer trying to cross it. Sure, I'm the perfect man for the job! In Thomond, you'd be crossing forests like that all day. If ye can feed me on our journey, ye can enlist my services. Gwan, help me out."


Talamaeus Laraxius sat atop a boulder this fine afternoon, in the great fields in the northwest quadrant of his incalculable estate. The great emperor was observing a bird which was, in the traditional and patriotic measurement system, 0.0009 stellar units forward. Talameaus had been correcting the bird on its speaking style and grammar choice as a part of the monthly Benevolence Hour where he gave these citizens more attention than they deserved. However, now that the lesson had taken a poor turn, the emperor paused in contemplation. Staring, inquisitively, menacingly, distrustful. What was this bird's intentions? Why did it come here? Of all of the birds in the Great Empire of Fyrom, what is this one hiding from his liege lord? Surely it must be hiding something for being so indignant.

Out of view, beyond the woods to the northwest, Talamaeus heard the faint hints of the wildlife known as human people. Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, this would not do. Sounds of human activity had been banned for the last three years! The laws had been passed legally and justly, when he had whispered the idea to a standing stone on the south slope of Mount Abandon which, itself, seemed pleased by the idea.

"Come along, Rufus," he said, invoking the bird's True Name. "We must enforce my dominion."

Kaegan picked his head out of one of the crates in the caravan, parked at the edge of town. Weird, there's no more chocolate, he thought. Of course, none of the items in the caravan were his unless they were already attached to his body, but then again nothing's really attached to your body until you pick it up. He continued to rummage through the few remaining pockets of items that he hadn't yet already at the rear of the wagon.

Picking through the debris, in this particular crate, Kaegan couldn't recognise any item that was supposed to be an actual item. There was a mess of papers and straw and shards of ceramic that must have been something at some point, but its purpose was lost by now. At the bottom of the pool of debris, an unidentified device that was long, smooth, and undeniably phallic. Cautiously, Kaegan raised it out of the crate with an uncertain and moderately repulsed expression. Must be a trade good, said his wishful thinking.

Just then, there was some rustling in the bushes behind the wagon. Kaegan picked his head up to see the most wild sight: A hunched man, with a wiry, unkempt beard and a patchwork robe, made of what must have been a thousand years of rummaged refuse. He seemed to be drunk or drugged or out of his mind or maybe this was just how he always was, but certainly the man was animated. Kaegan stared blankly ahead, absent mindedly directing the rounded ceramic trade good towards his new guest.

The mighty emperor, whose presence was announced on swift winds prior to his arrival, stared at the child in shock. This sacred gravel rectangle was a holy sight he may have only encountered once before, but that he had thought obvious that interlopers were not permitted to trespass. This land's unprecedented flatness was a geological marvel that deserved to be studied, but lo, before Talamaeus, was this casual human cart? Practically a declaration of war! And what was this? He's sitting there, pointing a wand at his rightful lord? A threat on the emperor's own life in broad daylight?

"Listen here, knave, and listen well. I am as good as your god and if you know what is good for you, you will throw down your weapon and accept the death that you deserve!" said the emperor, squinting menacingly.

"...look, this isn't what it looks like," said Kaegan, uncomfortably examining the rounded hand-held pylon.

"Do not DARE test me, child, I am an emperor! Crowned by the epic forces of nature which roared and bellowed upon my arrival and coronation upon this plane!" he said, referring to a time when a circular branch fell on his head during a windstorm. The emperor took a breath. This was an impudence that the world had surely never encountered before. It would take all of the blessings of his divine mandate to deal with this threat. He stood back and drew the legendary broadsword, Ironsides Michalinus, gleaning and honed by a thousand hours of his own expert craftsmanship.

"This is your last warning, pest, before I disarm you permanently!"

"...I don't think...that this is what you think it..." a befuddled Kaegan stammered.

"Guide my blade, Divine One!" he cried out, his battle regalia flowing gracefully behind his lightning-fast charge towards glory.

Still confused about anything that was happening, Kaegan observed the man with all the grace of a landing walrus, waddle towards him with what appeared to be a rusted dagger with a number of chips in the blade. Kaegan dropped the shapely ceramic accessory back into the crate and took a step back in the wagon.

Only a handspan away from the cart, there was a distant snap, and much closer squishy impact. After a moment, Kaegan slowly peered over the rim of the wagon to observe that the man who had been known as Herbert Wallace appeared to have been felled by a crossbow bolt. He looked toward the origin of the wound to see a town guard.

"You have to be mindful of the dangers of the woods," said the guard placing the crossbow over his shoulder. "Never know when some crazy might come after you."

"Yeah," said Kaegan. "guess not." He leapt off the wagon to the ground next to the fallen man. "I should be heading into the inn."

"Best that you do. It'll be getting dark soon, and there's going to be a full moon. That stuff always gives me the heebeegeebees," said the guard as he casually turned around and headed back towards the town centre.

Kaegan, of course, couldn't care less about the moon or the heebeegeebees it did or didn't cause. He picked up the rusty dagger. It looked like it had been scraped a hundred or more times against a rough stone surface, but it was still relatively dagger-shaped. Another casual acquisition. At least it was better than no dagger at all.


As the room cleared, Rizali looked down at the book in his hands. There were many things he'd consider strange about the situation, but foremost among them was that the book had been purposefully stripped of any identifying features. He didn't know the title, the author, the publishing date or location. This book could have been printed five years ago or five hundred years ago, perhaps longer still if the Empire was as technologically advanced as he suspected. Even that it came from the empire was an assumption; just because the first page had the word printed on it didn't mean all that much. He tried to still his excitement, to slow the increasing rate of his heartbeat. But at the same time, he found himself feeling incredibly anxious about sitting and reading it. That girl, Síne, had been significantly affected by this. Now that the moment was past and he could think on it more clearly, the mage found his opinion on the girl changing. She had been incredibly nervous, sure, and probably was a jittery person by nature. But she had also been scared.

He knew that fear, better than most. He had a permanent and deep understanding of the downsides to knowledge, how there were some secrets better left unknown. As his mind dwelled on it, Rizali could have sworn he saw a ripple along the back wall of the building. Starlight began shining from the ceiling as the room started to slowly swirl around him, and a distant choir only heard by him began singing. Under his breath, Rizali muttered a choice few words, a cantrip of his own design, so well-used as to not register a thought anymore. As the last word left his mouth, he felt the threads of reality start weaving around him, strands of gold and brown interweaving until he was cocooned, and then fading to the back of his mind. The ripples faded, the starlight dimmed. And as they did-

"Ri' lads, s'the craic?" came the call from across the room. The farmers were nearly out the door, but it didn't stop the teenager from meandering his way into the hall. He approached Rizali and leapt into his plea. He didn't seem particularly torn up about being cast from his home, nor forced to approach a particularly dangerous mission as his only remaining hope in the world. His accent placed Cathal on the western edge of Ustendelle, but it was so removed from the residents of Ceadaichte Mòir that he had to place it farther north. Ustendelle's western border was quite large, as none of the neighbouring kingdoms wanted much to do with Kingfisher Forest given its general spookiness. But Cathal seemed entirely unphased by it, suggesting he hadn't actually grown up nearby, or that people in Thomond were more resiliant -or stupid- than they let on.

"Hmm, alright. Let's have a look at you. You're awfully young, you said you were exiled from... Tomland?" he sized the boy up. Not much to look at, more of a stick than a person, but they wouldn't need him to be much. An extra set of hands here and there, an extra set of eyes looking out for forest tomfoolery could easily be enough to pay his way.

"Thomond," the boy was quick to reply. That was good, Rizali didn't want someone in the party who would just let themselves get walked all over. It was more than likely that what they found on the other side of the forest would be just as, if not more, dangerous than anything in it. "It's bleeding ages away, right at the other end of the aul Shannon. Yeah, I stabbed someone cause he pulled his own knife in a knock."

"And your parents?" An unfair question, to be sure.

"The leaders of our clan. Live up in feckin' bunratty castle"

"I'm sorry, your parents made the decision to exile you?" Less unfair question.

"Yeah. But I was really the disappointment of the family. They wanted me to 'live amongst our people' which is fair. But then they can't expect me not to act like every Ennis lad! It was all very political" Rizali was well-versed in the maps of Ustendelle, but now he was wondering if Thomond wasn't even in the country. He'd never heard of Ennis, or the aul Shannon. And the boy's accent was very strange. Could all of this be a feverdream? He'd have to consult with Cathal later to get more information on this place.

"I don't know what any of that means, but it's no matter where we're going. How do you fight then? Is it with that butter knife?"

"Butter knife? This thing was a terror in war pal. Against the damn Ciarraí men too."

"If you say so," Rizali pushed off from the wall he'd been leaning against and began to lead Cathal back toward the door. "Alright Calvin, you're on heavy lifting duty, let's go meet the team. Lyndh, Lyndh you layabout, do I have to do everything myself? This is Cable, he's here to carry you around."

Lyndh grunted, looking up from where he was sharpening his sword. He eyed Cathal up and down, same as Rizali did, and seemed to come to much the same conclusion. He seemed unimpressed, at least until Cathal spoke up with a "Howye? Would this knobhead ever shup?"

Lyndh was a silent giant, only communicating in grunts. This was the first time Rizali ever heard him laugh. A deep, gutteral bark, but still only one. Amazing, if there had been no other miracles that day, someone getting a different noise out of his hired man was surely something he would write down. "Take a lap, Lyndh, your composure is breaking. Alright, out we go Kevlar."

The pair exited through the doors and into the strangely alien world of Ceadaichte Mòir. The abrupt change between solid tree line and no trees for as far as vision allowed hadn't stopped making Rizali uneasy even after the day or two of being here. But they were in luck, he didn't have to look around much to notice the other young charge, Kaegan, walking up to the same building he was leaving.

""Good day, Kaegan. How are things?"

The boy, who had been looking down and considering his naval, was suddenly shocked from his contemplation. He looked up at Rizali without even the normal showing of exasperation. "Hobos in the woods?" He shrugged.

"Oh you found one as well, splendid!" Rizali pushed Cathal in front of him, within easy sight range of Kaegan and any local wild game. "Here's mine, his name is Cathal, he'll be joining us on our adventure. He's good with a sword, or... at least this very tiny knife on his belt. So at least you and Lyndh won't be the only ones doing the heavy lifting."

"Wait, I have to do lifting?"

"You signed the contract, but don't worry too much about that. Lyndh loves lifting things. And Cathal does as well." Rizali gave his best winning smile.

"Ar-a shup there!" came the cry of protest. Rizali pulled him back again and patted him on the head.

"Ignore him, he's a joker he is. Hell of an accent on him, makes it impossible to understand a word. Alright, you two play nice now. I've got some homework to do before we leave. Lyndh's inside, make sure he has his bedding changed and gets some water in him."

With that, Rizali began walking back to the mayor's home, just a couple buildings away from the town hall. He had a lot of reading to do and not much time to finish it. It was best to keep himself from appearing threatening or as a target, which necessitated the oafish showman act he'd adopted when meeting with the caravan for the first time. His curiosity threatened to consume him, but he couldn't let too much of himself be known to anyone here.


Cathal sat down beside Kaegan. "Well, any craic?" Kaegan grunted. "Not up for an aul chat there, are we? Well suit yourself I'll just be here if ye need me, won't be no bother to ye" he said, as he made himself comfortable. He sighed, and dug around in his pockets for something to entertain himself with. A map of Thomond and the surrounding area, Éire, came out in his hand. "Éire Saoirse, Éire Cinealta. Thomond Saoirse, Thomond Cinealta" he muttered to himself. It was the national motto. He knew this map, he knew  the land. He traced the Shannon river with his finger, until it ran off the page. He had no idea what was in between the end of that page and wherever he was now. But he knew it was beautiful. There were cities of gold, and buildings so tall he thought they were able to touch the goddesses, Saoirse and Cinealta. He wished he could have mapped them, or even stopped at them, but his boat kept dragging him along.

He snapped out of the thought as a young boy came up to him, shaking like an earthquake, with a letter in his hand. On the letter there was a blue seal, with three crowns. The seal of his home. He leapt to his feet, practically taking the boy's hand with the letter, as the poor kid ran off.

He prayed to Cinealta that the letter was from his father, an admission of guilt, some money perhaps. Even a bleeding knife sharpener would be handy.

"A Cathal,
I am writing to inform you of the home situation. Our Corcaigh brothers have fallen in combat to Ciarraí. My cousin has begged me to bring An Clár into this, promising land and, their hand in combat if we every decide to take Luimneach, as we should. I am an old man, my time is soon. We need you here, to lead our great men into battle, wether with swords or knives or even bloodied hurlies and sliothars. We'll let you walk free if you help us now. What do you say?

"What do I say?!"

"Lyndh, is it? Yeah yeah listen here, look what my bleeding da just sent me! He thinks that once all of Thomand goes to fecking war that I'll just forgive him so I can put on a show for the rest of Éire. I'm not having it"


"Jesus none of ye talk?"

He felt like Rizali might be interested in this, they seemed awfully interested in where the hell Thomond was. He gave that fecker from the Olympics a run for his money with how fast he caught up with Rizzo, as Cathal had decided to call him

"Yup Rizzo! Wait would ya? I have a letter here, I don't know how my parents found where I am, but they did. I just got this from my da. They want me back in An Clár to fight a war for Corcaigh, just to scare Luimneach and impress the rest of Thomond and bloody Éire!? He can feck off, I have this gig here, I'm not bothered to fight a war for a county that I was only just fighting against a few years back. But I thought you might be interested. I have this map if you want to see it."


A gust of wind blew through the corridor, bending the storm-grass and swaying the trees' foliages. In its stead, a young sylvan was hurrying through the brush, leaving a trail amongst the tall grass. Ramår kept running through the pasture till they arrived at the edge of the cilff. Being shorter than the graminaceous barley-like stems, they saw their vision almost entirely obstructed; and before they could even realise, they were plummeting off the promontory, and down, down, down, towards the rocky plain below. As their speed increased, they tried to throw a loose knot at a tree growing in the cliff, in an attempt to latch on to them and escape the—

The gods' graces being with them, Ramår narrowly averted an untimely and rather gruesome end. Finding themselves flat on their back in dead leaves, they acknowledged the gaping hole they had left in the foliage which had broken their fall. The angle and tint of the sunlight cutting through the canopy left them distraught at the thought of the time they must have been out.

"I can't go back, they thought. Not yet. Not so soon." Searching around, they quickly managed to leave the forest, faring east. The knee-deep layer of humus made walking a tedious process, but they eventually arrived at the edge of the forest. The afternoon sun's light shining at present brightly in their eyes, they blinked, and attempted to sort out their situation. "But if the plateau's up there, what on Tsůnpar is this forest?", they wondered. "Surely there's got to be some way to get back home from here. The cliff is south from here, and this forest is east of me. Surely there's mention of a birch grove in the Dåmar Tůclann. There's got to be." Drawing the synusial description of their nation's land from their felt vest, they perused the lists of groves and geographical landmarks to find out where they could possibly be. But the map's westernmost point was the mountain, the peak of which constituted the edge of the plateau.

Beyond that, the lichen-paper was left blank, save for a straight line with no caption or comment. Ramår only then realised that the forest's edge followed a straight line, which reminded them of their nation's mountain ranges and tree lines. Refusing to give in to nostalgia, they looked around again, frantically trying to locate familiar landmarks. Yet the sun was going down, and already clouds were beginning to cloud their instincts. At last, disoriented and resourceless, they decided to move straight forward in one direction. The south was blocked by the unclimbable cliff of the promontory; the east, a dismal plain in the dawning night, seemed foreboding and exposed. As for the west, that forest, Ramår didn't like the air that came off of it. Though the sylven themselves manipulated forests, planting trees in certain patterns in order to form corridors where sunlight, water and wind could flow towards crops, this forest didn't just seem artificial. Its air was that of undisturbed, undying vegetation, the sap of which grows stagnant and putrid from countless aeons of immobility. This forest lacked the smells of decay and birth.

Hence, Ramår resolved to follow the forest's edge, all the while keeping their distance. They plucked some marram grass from the fertile earth under their feet, and forced themselves to swallow their juices with tsampa and a pickled yam. They started walking. In the distance, northward, the sky seemed lit up with bonfires and torches. Ramår's pace grew more hasty.
that is not dead which can eternal lie;
and with strange æons even death may die.


Rizali tried to appear nonchalant as he walked back toward his quarters. Depending on the strength of the tracking this time, he might not be able to sleep, let alone read the book; the ritual could take between one and seven hours depending on how strong it needed to be. But at the same time, he didn't need to perform the ritual tonight... he could put it off a couple more days before it started to get dangerous. After all, he hadn't even known about the ritual for a month the first time it was happening. Would it be better to read the book? He was an academic, he'd spent so many nights reading instead of sleeping, what was one more, even now?

For that matter, why not start right now? He flipped past the dedications to the first page of the actual text and began reading while walking. The tone and voice were distinct, but Rizali could already tell it would be dry reading. But probably not any more dry than textbooks on ancient enchanting techniques- so many "begats" in those tomes, even before you could get to the information on actual magical theory. The mage shook his head, then redoubled his efforts to read more, just in time for "Yup Rizzo! Wait would ya?"

Rizali shut the book and held it close, then rose his head. He stopped moving so Cathal could catch up, then listened as the boy continued. "I have a letter here, I don't know how my parents found where I am, but they did. I just got this from my da. They want me back in An Clár to fight a war for Corcaigh, just to scare Luimneach and impress the rest of Thomond and bloody Éire!? He can feck off, I have this gig here, I'm not bothered to fight a war for a county that I was only just fighting against a few years back. But I thought you might be interested. I have this map if you want to see it."

He nodded along, wondering if he sounded so highly energetic when he spoke on something he was excited about. When the boy was done, he took a breath. "Alright slow down, Cancun, what are you talking about and why would I want to- wait, you're from Éire?" That was an interesting development. Éire was a country quite far to the north of Ustendelle, separated by such distance that even in a large and multi-cultural city like Coxarif, one almost never, if ever, saw someone from there. He reached out and took the map, looking at it. Fascinating, a political overlay map for a country that wasn't Ustendelle or his own. He continued, "I'll take the map, but I can't imagine why I should be invested in the political particulars of a country thousands of kilometres away from Ustendelle. Anyway, no, we're passing through Kingfisher as soon as I can get everyone together. Why would I want to put that off?"

To his credit, Cathal seemed upset. Angry, perhaps. His back up, he responded "Because there's a bloody war going down right now. It'll be anarchy, and there'll be nothing left to return to after we cross this stupid forest."

Rizali calmly rolled the map and held it under one arm before looking up at Cathal. A dark glint appeared in his eye as he spoke, in a tone much less animated or playful than any he had used since coming to this village. "Kid, I think you've misunderstood this mission, I don't plan on returning to Ustendelle." He couldn't, in fact. He'd left The Inverted Spire on a mission, and if he failed in that mission, he wouldn't be able to face the other mages anyway.

"If I'm correct, and I'm almost never wrong, the land beyond this forest is a better life for all of us. None of us have a place left on this side of the forest. And," here came the biggest risk in the strategy he was laying out, "It sounds like you don't either."

Rizali began walking again, leaving Cathal behind. He steeled himself before saying over his shoulder, reintroducing the same playfulness to his tone that he'd carried when they'd spoken before, "or won't, anyway. Think about it, Cathal."

"Suit yourself," came the response, the fiery annoyance of the young. Rizali remembered being that age, with all the righteous outrage and injustice of older than you telling you what was what, feeling like you weren't being taken seriously and that your ideas were falling on deaf ears just because of the years you had been alive. He'd tried to avoid coming across quite as condescendingly as his teachers had, back then. He'd tried that with decades of teaching young students, but it was difficult being on this side of that divide.

He hoped that Cathal would still be there when they were ready to leave. The boy was bright and energetic and more of a chatterbox than Kaegan or Lyndh. Rizali would need someone like that to pass the time while they spent however long it would take walking through the trees. It would be a much more exciting trip, the more people that came along. But for now he feared Cathal wouldn't be able to hear those words. He was angry and had just left home, maybe for the first time, and still had those emotional ties to that place and to his family. Those connections were always raw immediately following the separation.

Rizali reached Eoin's home, knocking before he let himself in. He was greeted warmly by the mayor's wife before announcing he'd be retiring for the night. When offered some food, he graciously declined, saying he had a lot of work to catch up on and waving the book. Such lovely food and lovely gestures would just make him sleepy right now. He smiled as he entered the guest room: a lovely woman she was, all kindness and warmth. The world could use more of those.