• Home

Young Writers Society

In The Wake of A Calamity

User avatar
174 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 3250
Reviews: 174
Wed Aug 10, 2022 9:43 am
View Likes
soundofmind says...

Jay Mournsky

Something was different.

The air felt stiff, and the morning breeze carried on it the scents of the dead and dying. The blood of ones not too far off. He couldn't help but think that only weeks ago - if it had only been two, as it seemed - that could've been their fates as well. Thea, Han, Runi, Ani, Velalis... all of them would've had to witness their friends and family be slaughtered at the hands of the army against all mages. They would've been drenched in their blood before they were lit up and the smell of burning bodies turning to ash filled the air with an incurable stench.

Could it be considered mercy they were spared that fate? A fate he only narrowly escaped because he, unlike the rest of his guild, took the coward's way out?

He didn't have an answer. It was a reality he could only merely sit with, letting all of the guilt it carried bury him. Yes, he was likely the only reason any of them were alive, but he'd failed to play both sides. The North Point guild was gone, and it was his fault.

When he came back to camp, he quietly laid the food offerings at the center. There was a quiet understanding that a fire would cause more trouble than help. Smoke could draw more soldiers near, and they didn't know if any were searching for them.

Thea was quick to thank him, and Han was quick to grab the onions, stuffing them into his pack.

Jay didn't have a pack. It only - just then - occurred to him.

Emptily, he glanced down at himself.

He was wearing the same clothes he had on the day Burninghead was razed to the ground. They still smelled vaguely of smoke - though, the smoke of two guilds, he realized. It was strange. He'd grown used to it.

"We'll have to cook these later," he heard Thea saying to Han.

"I'll pass some of the mushrooms around for now," Han said. "It's not much, but we'll need something..."

Jay observed their silent conversation of meaningful looks and Thea's nod of confirmation. Han went to Ani first, offering her some mushrooms. Jay still couldn't quite look at her without staring at her earth-bound flesh, so he kept his eyes on the ground.

He heard Ani and Han exchange quiet, muttered words. Thea went to Velalis, and the two of them did the same.

Runi followed behind him with great delay, but she arrived soon enough to avoid the prying, worried questions of Thea or anyone else. Runi walked past him without a word or a glance in his direction and instead went straight to Thea and Velalis, with whom she shared her foraging portion.

Idly, Jay looked down at his hand at the single mushroom he kept for himself. It had a wide, white brim, and patches of dirt still clung to the base. Shaking off some of the dirt clumps, he stuck the mushroom in his mouth whole.

And he kept quiet as the travels of the day followed.

After getting an insufficient amount of food in their stomachs, they were on the move again, but this time headed northward with purpose, to the land of Gurak.

Jay still didn't know how he felt about trespassing into goblin territory with the hopes of a resistance taking refuge on the other side. Humans had only ever had tumultuous relations with goblins in the past, and he didn't see how recent events would change things. He was too pessimistic to think that the plight of the guilds would be enough to change the goblin's hearts after decades of generational hostility.

Still, it was the only hope they had, even if it was hung up by thin strings of thin promises from a mage they barely knew.

Kazimir. He had already forgotten the man's title from the arena. All he saw of him was his last stand in the winding halls of the cells they were being held, where they'd left him, as he willingly stayed behind.

Knowing the fate of the mages who'd tried to escape across the chasm with them, he didn't have high hopes for him.

The day was long.

Jay had been appointed to track, and with the knowledge of his keener wolven senses, Thea seemed more willing to have him in front and make the directional calls with the confirmation of Han, and sometimes Runi, who both had some knowledge from their own travels.

It was odd because though Thea was acting as the leader, she didn't seem to bristle or fuss anymore when he made decisions for them.

Though he kept silent unless necessary, he noted how Han and Thea spoke softly to one another often, and Ani kept checking in on Runi, despite her apparently uncharacteristic somber appearance. Velalis seemed happy to hang back where possible, and Jay could tell that while she'd been able to heal Runi and Ani up to the best of her ability so they were both functional, she still had to deal with the pain of the past day, and he'd hardly been able to heal her the day prior, and he knew he still didn't have anything left to offer her.

That was the curse of being a healing mage, he supposed. You could never heal yourself. At least, not in a way that was safe.

He did notice that though Velalis was still worse off, she seemed to look better than he last recalled. A lot of chaos followed their hasty escape, but he could've sworn she'd been hurt worse.

She didn't...


He withheld the question, but made note of it, keeping it for a later time.

By the time the sun began to set, they'd already made several stops to rest (mostly for Ani and Velalis's sakes, and to forage), but they'd at least made some progress in creating more distance between them and the gladiator's arena in which they'd been held captive.

And they made slow progress the next day. And the next day. And the next. And with each passing day, Jay found himself drawing more and more inward.

Something was different. It wasn't like before.

Chatter surrounded the fire. Five days had passed, and he could feel the shift in the season as they entered fully into autumn. Leaves were shifting colors, and the air was getting cooler. Soon, their thin layers would become insufficient for the cold nights to come, but he supposed that was a problem they'd have to face in the future. They still had the worry of soldiers being on their tail, especially with how they'd caught them so off guard the last time.

Thea was being extra careful to make sure that didn't happen again, but this night, she permitted a fire. Because this night had become exceptionally cold, and none of them could deny that many of their foraged items tasted far better cooked than they did raw.

"This is some 'o th' best food you've cooked up fer us, so far, Han," Ani said as she happily ate away at the mix of foraged vegetables.

Han smiled bashfully at the compliment but bowed his head in thanks. The fire crackled between them.

"I work with what we find," he said simply.

"Still don't know how you found a patch of peppers," Runi said, pointing a fork at him.

"I got lucky, I guess," Han said with a shrug.

"I'm just happy to eat something a little more flavorful," Thea said. "Though I can't deny I do miss other foods..."

"Bread," Ani interjected.

"It's hard to have baked goods out in the wild, yeah," Runi commented with a small sigh.

There was a small silence that followed, and Jay couldn't help but feel like there was collective grief that Thea, Runi, Ani, and Han were sharing that he couldn't enter into. They'd hardly said a thing, but perhaps, they were all sharing a similar memory.

It was hard to say.

"You know," Runi said softly. "It's a shame I lost my lute."

"Ye thinkin' of a song?" Ani asked gently.

"If it's one we all know, maybe we could sing it together," Thea suggested. "You don't have to have a lute to make music."

There was a pause, and Thea reached over, setting her hand on Runi's shoulder.

"Though I'm sorry about your lute," she said even quieter.

Runi nodded with a quiet sadness, and a few seconds of silence passed before she spoke, staring into the fire.

"I was thinking of that song we used to sing when I first came to the guild," she said. "Up The Mountain."

Ani, Han, Thea, and Runi all shared a similar wistful expression as they looked at each other, and Runi led them into song.

Up the mountain
By the map
Together we carve our path
Love is soft
Love is slow
Together we slowly grow

Take the hand
Held to you
And we'll ascend two by two
Yes the cost
Is our time
But the mountain top's divine
Don't you think the view is fine?

Jay couldn't help but feel odd. It wasn't that he wanted to sing, or even that he felt childishly left out.

Perhaps it was that, unlike the others, he had no one to share in his grief. None of them knew the Burninghead Guild as he did. As detached as he was from it, he couldn't deny that he really did care.

He glanced over at Velalis, who was frowning and, apparently, avoiding everyone else's eyes. She'd been quiet all evening.

It seemed he wasn't the only one who felt like he couldn't take part.

As the song went on, Jay stopped listening to the lyrics. The song seemed to have several verses, but Jay listened not to the words, but to the sound of the four of their voices blending together. Runi and Thea carried the tune over Ani and Han, and it seemed they were enjoying getting caught up in the music.

The melody was more jovial than anything, and Jay couldn't help but feel there was a dissonance between the song being sung and the weight of mourning hanging in the air. Quietly, he stared down at the ground, beginning to dig into the ground with his finger.

He lost track of time. At some point, the song had ended, and the others fell back into soft-spoken conversation.

"And then he ducked under the table because he thought I couldn't catch him down there. He kept saying 'an air mage's weakness is the ground,'" was the last thing he heard Thea say before a distant noise caught his attention.

His eyes widened slightly as he tilted his head to the side, sharpening his senses to focus deeply.

The faintest sound of paws, lightly bounding over the underbrush. The shuffle of plants and fallen leaves.

There was a scent. The musk of fur, and meat and blood on the breath.

A foreign smell. Acidic. Sour.

Instinctually, Jay rose to his feet. He noticed that the conversation around the fire screeched to a halt.

"What is it, Jay?" Thea asked.

His brows knit together tightly.

"Run," he said. "We don't have time--"

The sound of bounding paws ripping through the forest became clear now. It was too late. They were already being surrounded. He should've sensed it sooner.

It was his fault.

As everyone began to scramble, grabbing their things and their weapons, it was as if time slowed down.

For so long, he'd lived life only ever looking out for himself. The rule had not only treated him well but had left everyone else relatively unharmed, so long as they were kept at a distance. But this was different.

The weight of the consequences of his actions were bearing down on him.

He wasn't in this alone anymore. To most people, that would be a comfort. To most people, that would bring a sense of stability or assurance. But not for Jay.

Jay felt a sense of responsibility.

He had to fight. Not just for himself. But for the sake of those he'd hurt, if it could ever, by any measure, and in any way, ever make it up to them.

Another instinct overtook him, and for a moment, he saw himself in the arena. Side by side with another man. Another werewolf. And he'd been forced to choose between his own kind and his own...


This time he didn't hesitate.

Shifting into wolven form, he surged forward, already seeing the glowing eyes emerge from the darkness.

Gnashing teeth met gnashing teeth, and claws met claws as he and the larger wolf collided.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

User avatar
212 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 12006
Reviews: 212
Mon Aug 29, 2022 12:21 pm
View Likes
ScarlettFire says...

Velalis of Arete
cowritten with @soundofmind maybe

One moment, she was staring at the fire and reconsidering her life choices, and the next Jay was moving, saying something about running and not having enough time--and the next, Vel was on her feet and staring at a now-wolf Jay taking another wolf. A very...not-right wolf. She backed up several steps, carefully avoiding the fire as she stared at their attackers. There were eight of them, all deformed and mutated--unnatural--in some way, from skin splitting across their back to missing and patchy fur, to glowing goop spilling out of their various wounds. They were even drooling the disturbing glowing green goop.

I do not want that touching me, Vel thought, and turned to take off into the sky. She felt air whoosh past one ankle as she did so and knew that one had launched itself up at her. Thankfully, it had missed.

Someone was yelling, someone else was cursing, there was a lot of growling and snarling. Vel couldn't tell what, exactly, was going on until she turned to survey the scene and found that Han was climbing a tree and had already made it to her eye level in the air. Below, Thea was flying around with her glider, sending gusts of air at the persistent, goopy wolves to push them back. Meanwhile, Ani was creating some kind of platform of earth to give her and Runi some elevation against them. Jay was lost somewhere in the pack of wolves.

"Back! Back!" she heard Ani shouting as she flung rocks at the wolves trying to climb and leap up onto her miniature plateau.

"What's wrong with them?" Runi shouted back, slicing at the wolves below with her sword.

"I do not know!" Vel shouted, twirling her spear in one hand as she studied what was happening.

"Vel, help us get altitude!" Thea shouted over them. "We can't take them on the ground!"

"Where's Jay?" Ani projected back.

That made Thea change course in the air, reluctantly throwing herself into the fray of about three wolves entangled with one another.

"He's down there somewhere," Vel called out, gesturing to the knot of wolves on the ground.

Thea was spinning around them, creating a small vortex of air that pulled them together, and then burst them apart. As the three wolves fell to the ground, it was easy to tell which one was Jay. Not only was he not deformed with glowing, oozing wounds, but he was significantly smaller.

But tossing the mutated wolves around didn't seem to phase them. They sprung right back, one each leaping at Thea and Jay.

Meanwhile, Runi and Ani were being surrounded by the others in the pack, and there was another wolf clawing at the base of Han's tree.

"We could use a little help!" Runi shouted out as a wolf leaped up onto their platform. She dodged its fangs, but it quickly went for Ani instead.

It barely missed Ani's head as Ani spun around, pulling earth around her hand into a sharpened, rock knife. She sliced at the wolf as it sliced at Runi's heels. Two more wolves leaped up to join it.

Vel swept into a dive, jabbing at a couple of the wolves closest to Jay. "Move," she growled and then spun out of the way. She climbed back up to Han's level and glanced about the small clearing. "They just won't stay down!"

They kept trying to push the wolves away, but they just kept springing back. Even though their attacks were hitting, it was as if the damage they were doing was dulled. Instead of blood seeping out of wounds, it was just more of the eerie, glowing green goop. It was taking forever for the freakish wolven beasts to die, and everyone was already worn thin from their recent escape from the colleseum.

Vel continued to swoop in and out of the leaping wolves, but even when her spear connected, it was like piercing a viscous sap, not a dire wolf.

Thea and Jay ended up back to back, surrounded by four wolves who kept circling in closer and closer. Ani and Runi eventually got toppled off their pedastal and surrounded as well. Already, everyone was covered in scratches and scrapes. Ani had a gaping bite wound in the earthy part of her shoulder. Runi's arm was red with blood. Jay was hobbling, and it was hard to tell what wounds he'd sustained through his dark fur. Thea was splattered with the glowing green goop, and if Vel didn't know better, it looked like the goo was burning her skin.

Vel fluttered over the two groups. Han was above Ani and Runi, and it looked like he was readying to jump down from a rope he'd strung up. Decision made, Vel dashed towards Thea and Jay, intercepting a wolf as it lunged for Thea's throat.

Its bared teeth came around her spear, and it gnashed its teeth, spraying her arms and face with its glowing saliva. Vel could feel its sting against her skin and feathers.

Behind her, she heard Thea cry out in pain, and Jay let out another strangled growl. All four of the wolves had closed in, and while the one she was holding off continued to push against her spear, unrelenting, another jumped behind her.

Her wings.

She'd already had her wings broken once and dreaded what the weird glowing goop would do if it stayed on her wings for too long. She glanced at one wing then another, grimaced at the sight of sickly green eating away at her feathers and then glanced back down at what the others were doing.

Right, she thought, considering their options. One last chance, then?

Just as she drew her wings inward, a figure dropped in rapidly from overhead.

It came down behind her with a thunk, but there was a rush of air that felt familiar. The kind ushered in by wings.

One of the wolves squealed, but its squeal squelched to a stop, and she saw a limp, oozing body go flying. Suddenly, there were figures swarming in. There was a rush of flapping, and one by one, armored harpies came into the fray, descending from the skies, tearing the wolves apart with spears, swords, and arrows further off. There were over a dozen of them, and within mere seconds, the constant growling of the wolf pack was brought to silence, and the forest floor was filled with their still, dead bodies.

The moment the fight was over, Vel watched as the harpies slowly fluttered to the ground, helping Ani and Thea to their feet. Steadying Runi. One carried Han down from his tangled rope. Another looked down at Jay's wolven form with suspicion until Jay shifted into his human form and got to his own feet, drawing away.

Thea scanned the gathering group of harpies like she was ready to speak and address their leader, but just as she opened her mouth, a harpy beat her to it.

"What are you doing out here?" a female harpy asked, stepping forward to face Vel. She stood about a head taller than Vel, and stood with her spear at her side. Though Vel didn't know her, there was something familiar about her clothing and her leather armor that reminded her of home.

She grinned at the other harpy. "Could ask you the same thing."

"Saving you, apparently," the harpy shot back. "From where do you hail?"

Vel glanced at her friends then back at the other harpy. "Velalis of Arete." She gestured to herself and then to the others. "My friends, Thea, Ani, Runi and the runt wolf over there is Jay. He's a friendly."

"Was it really necessary to call me a runt?" Jay muttered.

Vel snorted and flicked a hand in his direction. "Yes. You are tiny."

"Avida of Arete," the harpy said, gesturing to herself. "Were you with the guilds?"

"Were," Thea answered gravely, coming up beside Vel. "And still are."

Avida's eyes turned to Thea with understanding, but with the hardened sobriety of a soldier.

"It's our understanding that all of the guilds have been attacked. We were assigned to sweep for survivors, and to prioritize our own," she informed them.

Vel glanced at Thea and then away. "We were at the North Point Guild. There was an avalanche...and then we were attacked... They sent us away to find help." She hesitated, clutching her spear tightly. "It's...uh...been a... Well, it's a long story."

"The North Point Guild..." Thea said. "Was burned down. There's this... army, of non-mages. They've come together in swarms of numbers with some type of drug or sedative that makes it so you can't use your magic for a while."

She looked to Vel, her brows drawn into a line. Vel nodded solemnly.

"We managed to escape with our lives," she said quietly. "But many didn't. We don't know where the other survivors have scattered, or how many more are being held captive."

Avida listened intently, but her eyes drifted back to Vel, as if for confirmation. Vel drew her wings in tight, gazing back steadily. She wasn't going to deny what Thea said.

"Were you the only harpy stationed at North Point at the time of the avalanche, and the attack?" she asked.

"As far as I am aware?" Vel said, frowning. "Yes."

Avida's feathers ruffled ever so slightly, and she straightened, with her shoulders back.

"We've been to, or heard word from all of the other guilds," she said lowly.

That drew everyone's attention. Thea stared at Avida with a question on the tip of her tongue that she was clearly holding back.

"I don't have good news," Avida continued, looking to Thea, and then to Vel. "For any of us, I'm afraid."

A tense silence followed for a moment, pained with anticipation.

"The Burninghead Guild shared a similar fate as yours," Avida said. "It was burned to the ground. To our knowledge, there are a few survivors who have been taken captive, but we've had difficulty tracking them down. We had reason to believe there was a prison or holding area nearby."

Thea stiffened beside Vel, but didn't look at her.

"What of the other guilds?" Thea asked.

"From what we found the other guilds had no survivors," Avida said. "Firehead looked like it'd been hit by explosives. There was only rubble. Riverbeast's fortress was sunk and washed away into the river. And Storm Watcher..."

She hesitated.

"Was fully intact," she said. "But no one inside was alive. We suspected some kind of airborne, noxious gas. There were no signs of violence."

Vel swore and turned to pace away a few steps, wings flaring out. She nearly knocked Jay over as he'd edged closer to the group. She didn't apologise for it either, too caught up in the horror of three destroyed Guilds.

Thea nearly fell over, but steadied herself at the last second. Runi stood stiff with her hand over her mouth, and Ani stared at Avida, mouth agape. Han stood behind them, looking to be on the verge of tears.

"I'm sorry," Avida said, barely audible. But they all understood it wasn't her fault for having to bear the message.

The painful truth hung heavily in the air, and no one spoke for what felt like a long time. After several long minutes, Vel sighed heavily and brought her wings in half-way, nearly knocking into Jay again.

"There is a saying; 'do not shoot the messenger', is there not?" she said, very carefully. "It is not Avida's fault for bearing bad news." She turned to face the others, then nodded to the harpies. "Thank you for the assistance." She glanced at their camp and sighed again. "It appears we can't stay here..."

"We didn't come far," Avida said. "We can take you to our camp for the night. We'll keep watch for all of you as you rest. By the skies, you look like you need it."

Thea finally seemed to gather herself enough to respond. She bowed her head to Avida in thanks.

"We'll go with you," she said. "Thank you."

"I need to rest," Vel added, glancing about. "Some of us need healing, and I am pushing my limits."

Avida waved her hand at a few of her men behind her, and some of the harpies started to move, gathering around the others.

"We'll take care of it," she said. "We have healers among us. You can rest, Velalis. Let us take it from here for now."

"Thank you," Vel said, bowing slightly. She straightened up and glanced at her friends. "Shall we?"

Avida nodded.

"I hope your friends are alright with flying."

Vel snorted, eyeing Jay. "They'll have to be."

"Good. Let us be off, then."
"With friends like you, who needs a medical license?" - Paimon, Aether's Heart

“It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” - Grace Hopper.

User avatar
174 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 3250
Reviews: 174
Wed May 24, 2023 6:17 am
View Likes
soundofmind says...



Jay Mournsky
cowritten with @ScarlettFire

When was the last time Jay had a real meal? It felt like it had been weeks. He stopped thinking about how long it had been since they escaped the gladiator ring, or how long it'd been since they'd seen North Point's ashes, or since he'd seen Burning Head's demise. Everything was blending in, like one continual horror.

But for two days, the harpies of Arete hosted them in their camp, and for a brief 48 hours, it was bliss. Not because all was well with the world, but because finally, after a few sessions with their healers, everyone was healthy, fed, and warm.

The days were getting colder, but the harpies were generous, and they gave them each extra layers. Jay realized how truly cold he'd been now that he was no longer dressed only in thin clothes. Suddenly, a coat made all the difference, and boots on his bare feet (though he still wasn't fond of them) made the ever-chilling ground become more bearable.

Finally, they all were able to sleep.

Granted, it was restless sleep, but more sleep than they'd been able to get before. Jay, frankly, had no trouble sleeping and falling back asleep with the knowledge the harpies were watching, but he did wake up frequently to the sound of any noise - especially the noises of everyone else stirring.

Then, of course, there was Ani, who didn't need to sleep anymore.

That still gave him the shivers, and her smell was only becoming more and more unbearable. Her case was one that had the harpies befuddled and horrified. Though none of them said it with their words, they did with their eyes, and Jay knew they could smell it too.

It was like she was a walking dead woman. Somehow, her magic was holding her together in a painfully disturbing interim, like she was half-human, half rock. But everyone knew without saying so that it was unsustainable. There was no way she could keep it up forever.

It was just a matter of time.

And speaking of time, by the second day of rest and recovering with the harpies, they were already starting to feel it bearing down on them. Though there was still the very present push to get away from the gladiator ring and everything around it, Jay knew there were bigger goals now.

One: they had to find the resistance.

Two: Thea was still determined to find any survivors of the North Point Guild.

And she made this very clear to him one day when she decided to use his own loss as a bargaining chip.

"It's possible - if they're keeping survivors, like the ones they put in the games - they probably have survivors kept elsewhere. There might be others from Burninghead, too," Thea appealed to him.

She'd pulled him aside for this. The conversation had started dully, but Thea had learned with Jay not to dance around the heart of a subject.

It wasn't long before she dove right into it.

They stood under a large tree - one that at least one harpy was stationed up in, at least a dozen feet above them.

Jay couldn't help but wonder if this conversation was really private, but he realized it was possible Thea didn't smell the harpy overhead like he did. She probably thought they really were, indeed, alone to some degree.

"Who's to say they're not just keeping prisoners as bait?" Jay asked. "They're probably waiting for us to come rescue them. Even if we do find them somehow, who's to say its not a trap?"

That made Thea bristle.

"Even if it is--" she started to say.

"Yeah, we're going in anyway," Jay said. "I figured as much."

"I'm not asking for your approval," Thea said sternly. "I just wanted -- Jay I was trying to give you some hope. Hope that maybe you'll meet some of your guild members again. Don't you care about that?"

Jay stared at her.

He didn't know if he could honestly say he did.

Yes, he felt guilt over what happened at his guild. Yes, he missed it, and he missed the people. But he hadn't been close with anyone. Not in the way that Thea, Han, Runi, Velalis, and Ani all were with each other.

"I'm just helping you," Jay said.

Thea blinked, her brows furrowing as she stood up straight, her weight favoring her better leg. It looked like there were a lot of things passing through her head that she wasn't saying. Observations, maybe. He had a feeling she was constantly trying to understand him, like he was some sort of enigma. But the truth was, he was really quite simple.

He was used to living for himself, and he didn't really have that many deep connections. All of this? This was new for him.

Even the guilt felt like a foreign burden to carry.

"Well..." she said slowly. "Thank you."

She hesitated. He spoke first.

"I owe you," he said, hoping that simplified things for her.

"You owe me," she repeated slower, like she was making sure she understood.

Jay didn't feel like he had to explain.

"At least, that's what everyone else probably thinks," Jay offered.

Thea opened her mouth, looking perplexed, but he turned and walked away, leaving her to figure it out.

Shifting into his wolven form, he sped ahead on all fours, weaving throug the trees until he saw the familiar canvas tents hidden behind the thick cover of a grove of trees. Behind him, Jay could hear Thea's footsteps following behind, slower, and still staggered differently than other's gaits with her peg leg.

They weren't far, and Jay was confident he'd be able to smell anyone approaching nearby. Thea would be fine, if a little miffed by his abrupt escape from the conversation.

On light paws, he snuck around the back of the tent, not in the mood to be seen by the others.

Even though no one was fussing over his wolven half, he couldn't help but feel strange. All his life it'd been ingrained in him to never shift in front of humans, so to suddenly have the freedom to take on whichever form he prefered was foreign to him. Even the harpies seemed to pay him no mind.

Maybe, in light of the war, his true nature was inconsequential.

It mattered more where his loyalties lied. And at least, now, they were all clear on where he stood. Himself included.

He stood with the mages, even though it felt like a betrayal of his former loyalty which had always come first: himself.

Holding his breath, Jay sat behind the tent, away from the entrance, watching his breath gather around his mouth in cloudy puffs. Behind the canvas wall, Jay could hear some of the harpies inside starting to stir, walking in from the other side.

He regonized Vel's scent, and the sound of her lightfooted steps.

"We're going to be moving on from this camp this morning," Avida said.

Jay had grown used to her calling the shots, being the leader of the harpy scouts that they were taking refuge with. But ever since they'd taken them all in, Avida seemed to run most things by Velalis first before talking to Thea, even though Thea was techincally their leader.

At least, that was how it seemed.

Maybe Avida had been pulling Velalis away for other things. Jay was trying his best not to eavesdrop all the time, but his ears were keener than the average human. He couldn't help, sometimes, what he overheard.

"We still have orders from Arete to look for other survivors, specifically for our own, but to help guild members where there's need," Avida went on.

Jay began to draw back from the tent, wary that he was about to overhear something private.

"But I feel I must tell you that your parents, specifically, asked for you," Avida went on. "They knew you were the only from Arete stationed at North Point, and seeing that you are indeed alive, I think it's important that you know... your parents are both alive, but... your father has fallen ill. We don't know yet with what. Our healers were looking into it when we left--"

"What do you mean, looking into it?" Velalis interjected.

"Well, it appears that it might not be something we've ever encountered," Avida said gravely. "It... was fast spreading. Contagious. Your father wasn't the only one to fall ill to it. But the outbreak only just began when we were sent away. I wish I had more information to offer you."

The heaviness that fell over the tent in the silence that followed made Jay squirm, already aware that he'd stayed too long.

Shaking his head, he snuck around, scampering back to the center of the camp, near the dead fire and the hammocks that hung between the trees. He'd barely stumbled into the clearing before he was accosted by the pungent smell of death, and Ani rolled out of the hammock in front of him, meeting his eyes.

Something still churned in his stomach when he met her eyes and was forced to look at the muddied, bloodied, crusted earth that filled the pieces of her that should've been flesh.

"Yer up early," Ani said quietly, more subdued than usual.

"Antsy," Jay said curtly, sitting on his haunches. He felt like he was being watched. Probably by the harpies, somewhere, scouting in the trees.

"'S nothing to be guilty fer," Ani said, stepping forward. "So why 'd ya look it?"

Jay flattened his ears back, still trying to block out the sounds of the hushed conversation in the tent not far off.

"...it works fast?" Velalis's voice whispered severely.

"To our knowledge... there is no cure yet," Avida said sorrowfully.

Jay craned his head to the side, trying to create a rumble in his ears to create something to block it out.

"Ye look mighty uncomf'trable," Ani said, standing beside him. "Ye sure yer alright?"

Jay was about to answer, not inclined normally to conversation, but about to endure it for the sake of distraction. But instead, a different distraction came, and Thea came walking into the camp with Runi by her side.

For some reason, seeing Runi with her made Jay feel a sting of guilt about rushing off, leaving her behind.

"What's going on?" Han asked, rolling out of one of the other hammocks, coming up behind Jay and Ani.

"I think Jay's 'avin' a moment," she said. "Maybe 's a wolf thing."

Thea and Runi closed the distance faster than Jay would've liked.

"Not much," Thea answered for Han. "Avida mentioned that they're going to get moving today, so we're going to have to prepare for our next move."

"Findin' the resistance," Ani said. "Right?"

Thea nodded.

"And, gods willing, Master Idina," Thea said quietly.

There was an unspoken implication that Idina wasn't the only one they were hoping to save, but as it stood, she was the only one they had a shred of evidence for her having been taken captive. Anyone else would've been too optimistic to consider.

"We're really doing this," Runi said quietly, looking to meet Thea's eyes. "Aren't we?"

Thea looked at her in turn, and the two of the seemed to share a thought that Jay couldn't read. But from what Jay could tell, there was a shared grief mixed with determination.

"'Course we are," Ani said, taking a step forward to slip her hand into Runi's, giving it an earthy squeeze. "Nothin' else we can do now but stick together."

Han drew nearer to them, but Jay stayed where he was.

"...should tell them," Avida's voice flitted back into his ears.

And he turned just before Avida and Velalis stepped out of the tent with two other harpies behind them.

Jay had learned their names. Nemarin, a tall, strong harpy man in his 30's, well equipped with his spear and bow for long-distance fighting. He usually stayed close to Avida's side. He was adept at healing, as well, and had been the main healer to help Velalis get back to full strength.

The other was a sturdy harpy woman, Saffron, closer to Thea and Runi's age. She was a fire mage, and Jay had seen her fierce fighting when the distorted wolves had attacked. Her talons and claws were sharp like daggers, and Jay didn't want to be within reach of her flames.

Saffron and Nemarin followed behind Velalis and Avida, walking the short distance to the rest of them. Thea and Avida locked eyes.

"I'm going to be sending Nemarin and Saffron with you all on your journey," Avida said.

Jay looked at Velalis expectantly, expecting the help to be because Velalis was going back home to her parents.

"You'll need another healer," Avida added. "And we want to ensure all of you, Velalis included, make it back to us alive."

Jay finally allowed his ears to rise from the sides of his head, and he glanced between the others, aware that he was the only one who knew the subtext behind this decision.

Either it was assumed Velalis's father was dead, it was presumed she wouldn't get there in time, or she decided it was more important to stick with Thea and the others. Maybe it was a mix of all three.

The other option was Velalis didn't care for her father, but for some reason, despite her oftentimes prickly outer demeanor, he didn't think that was true.

Jay had never been the beloved of his own parents, and it had never been the other way around, but even he would've wanted to be there for them in their last moments if possible.

So... it wasn't possible. Was it?

"Thank you," Thea said with a bow of her head.

She'd become quick to accept the help Avida offered, no longer calling it into question - because they all they knew they needed it.

"Nemarin and Saffron know the way back to Arete," Avida said. "Once your mission is complete... you are all welcome to join Velalis in the sanctuary of our people. Just tell them Avida of Arete sent you."

Thea stood tall.

"If all goes well," Thea said - and the provision for the worst was hear in her words, and her voice - "We may just take you up on that offer."

"Until then," Avida said.

They shared one more exchange of small bows.

"Until then," Thea said.

Without any more discussion, Avida turned, leaving Nemarin and Saffron at either wing of Velalis, and Avida immediately started calling out orders to the other scouts to start packing up.

Harpies starts to dive down into the clearing, quick to follow.

Thea turned her attention to the new members, and so did Han, Ani, and Runi. But Jay found himself watching Vel as they all exchanged obligatory cordial pleasantries.

She didn't look up to meet anyone's eyes at first until she seemed to notice he was watching her.

She looked over, and for a moment, they simply stared, the small distance between the two of them feeling larger than it was as Jay sat furthest from everyone, his tail curled around the base of his body.

With a tilt of his head, he asked a question.

It didn't need words.

Velalis's eyes flicked to the ground, hiding a sadness and a resignation behind their shadow.

Shifting to his human form, Jay glanced at the others, then met Velalis's eyes once more.

"Need help packing?" Jay asked.

It felt like Velalis was about to give her usual snappy answer, but instead of dismissing him, she just inclined her head for him to follow as she peeled away towards her hammock.

Wordlessly, Jay followed.
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

User avatar
177 Reviews

Gender: Male
Points: 1093
Reviews: 177
Wed May 24, 2023 6:18 am
View Likes
Chaser says...

Elani Ellonhav

The worst thing about dying was the smell. It was slow, pungent, and earthy, rising from the seams of her skin and earth, where she'd covered the necrosis up with dirt, still feeling it flow through like an underground tide. Back on the bridge, there had been no time to think of the rotting. But now it was with her when she woke up, when she was walking, eating, making her way towards the Gurak border. Meanie-mo had started to notice it, shifting to Ani's left shoulder now, the furthest point from any of her deadness. Ani herself had shifted further and further away from her companions when they slept.

That was only when she slept, though. After a few nights Ani realized that she didn't need sleep anymore. Some part of her brain, the part that rested and healed, was gone. Ani's earth magic was the unending pulse that held her together. When she told the others, they were skeptical, then a little fearful, but eventually they were all sleeping soundly as Ani kept watch, night after night.

Maybe she wasn't dying, per se. Maybe she was just becoming something else, something not human. Her earth magic was keeping her alive, and because she was alive, she could use earth magic. But as the flesh rotted away around the stab wound in her chest, Ani was less and less sure that she needed to be alive at all. And five days ago, that would have been comforting.

When the forest started to lighten, Ani shook her companions awake and they took up their packs, travelling away from the sunrise. Runi marched ahead with ferocity, though they had Han take the lead to actually navigate the woods. Their harpy companions, Nemarin and Saffron, spread to the flanks, keeping a careful eye on the woods while casting the occasional wistful glance to the sky; they seemed much less used to walking than Vel, who trotted along with Jay in the middle while Ani and Thea fell to the back.

Travel was hardest on Thea, experienced though she was. Oftentimes her wooden leg would sink into the soil or twist on a root, and she leaned hard into her walking stick before resetting herself and carrying on. There were abrasions and bruising now where the wood was lashed to the rest of her, rings of dark red and purple.

"It's fine," Thea said, and Ani realized that she'd been staring. "I got some of it healed at the harpy camp."

"Sorry," Ani mumbled as they brushed through some undergrowth. When Ani'd first met Thea, she'd unconsciously started to follow her places, watching the sway of her leg. When Thea noticed, she shook her head and explained that Ani didn't need to watch over her like that. Part of respect is trust, she'd said.

"It's fine," Thea repeated, then clarified, "It's fine that you're worried too, I mean. Thank you."


"How much further until the border?" Vel called ahead.

Han turned around and tapped a finger to his lips. "We should be there tonight. But please, keep your voice down."

Vel sniffed. "It's because you two keep pushing ahead. Wouldn't it be safer to go slower anyway?"

Han rubbed the back of his head and trailed off, "Well, I'm not really..."

Up ahead, Runi had turned around, and was walking back towards them. "Something wrong?" she asked, tilting her head to the side.

Vel pointed a finger. "You're walking too fast. Can't you see we're falling behind?"

Runi frowned. "We've been making good pace. Besides, it's only a problem now that you want to talk."

Vel bristled. "And what if the mage hunters picked us off one by one? You'd have no way of knowing."

Nemarin, the newcomer, tapped his chin with his spear nervously. It seemed to be a habit of his, the sides of his jaw pockmarked with tiny scars. Saffron, their other harpy companion, spoke up first. "We've been in familiar territory so far, but no harpy has traveled this way before. It is...unsettling."

Vel rolled her eyes. Thea rubbed her leg absentmindedly. "Is this area one you recognize?"

"From above," Nemarin said sadly, his neck straining as though to pop off from the rest of his rooted body. "These trees hide much, it seems."

Jay sighed. "We should be fine, even if we're this close."

Instantly, Runi glared at Jay. "We'll be safer at the border. So if you want to chat, keep up."

"Alright, alright," Ani said, deliberately raising her voice above them. "What if we take a break here? It's nearly dinnertime anyway."

"That sounds like a good idea," Thea said. "If we're still in danger, there's no sense in fighting on an empty stomach."

"You sound like Master Lynn," Runi jibed. It was the sort of thing that'd usually be funny coming from her, but her frustration pressed against it like a bruise under skin. With Master Lynn gone, silent memory filled in the space after the joke.

Ani would reflect that it was fortunate, though, that they went silent. The moment they did, they heard a distinct shift in the underbrush. Fabric sliding against a bush, an impatient human stumble. The hunters.

Thea was the first to react, blowing apart the undergrowth as though she was pulling it back with enormous invisible hands. The person hiding in the undergrowth was swept against the tree next to them, a misguided gout of green fire projecting from their hand. Fire?

As Ani heard the rush of air behind her, she realized that all of them had turned towards the sound in the bush, turning their backs on the enemy ambush from behind.

The two new harpy warriors were the first to respond, wind gushing from beneath their wings in an angled takeoff. Nemarin clashed with a sword-wielding woman at a diagonal, talons and spear threshing downwards like an avalanche. Suddenly, the earth lunged upwards around him, lashing his wings with mud, and he plummeted. Similar earthen bounds had surrounded Saffron, sucking her downwards, but as Ani watched, the mud turned to dry shale and exploded, sending hot shards across the ground. Saffron's flames met with the green fire from their first attacker, the intense lights colliding and enshadowing a new figure, who lunged from the undergrowth towards Han. Han caught an elbow to the collarbone and toppled to the ground, clutching his neck. Jay barely had time to get his arms up before the figure ducked beneath his guard and swept his left leg out from under him. As Jay slid to the side awkwardly, the figure whirled on the balls of its feet and launched a reverse kick directly into his chest.

As Jay spun to the ground, his limbs flailing, all Ani pictured was herself jumping into the fray, trading blow for blow and becoming a cyclone of gore and earth. With this body, she could keep fighting, dying for her friends and guild over and over again. But then, she had no idea what the mage hunters' medicine would do to her now. If she were to lose her earth magic -- she shuddered to think what would happen to her.

She'd accepted it back on the bridge, she thought. It was the right thing to do. She could even see Igni again, if she died. Even knowing all that, she was rooted to the spot, her earthen shoulders starting to tremble.

Suddenly Runi was there, her eyes ablaze with rage, tossing light from her right hand like sand into their assailant's eyes, her left arm dragging a titanic lariat into his neck. The man sputtered, spare charges of lightning shooting about his body.

Ani unfroze. Kazimir. "Hold it!" she screamed, loud enough to startle everyone around them.

Thea stopped, perplexed. The man who had been hiding in the bush -- Peridor, Ani recognized him now -- stood with his arms outstretched and palms splayed, his gaze darting around between them.

Kazimir stumbled backwards, grabbing his throat. When his eyes met Ani's, they widened, and his mouth gaped open soundlessly. "Studdun," he wheezed before hacking, putting his hands on his knees. He panted, looking up at Ani. There was a recently healed gash across his brow. "Stand," he said, smiling. "Down."

Several figures detached themselves from the surrounding forest, one or two dropping from the trees while the rest seemed to pop out of the ground like cornstalks. Each one was covered in leaves, mud and other camoflage. Each one carried a tired look in their eyes. Vel gawked. "Who are you?"

"Haven't met some of you," Kazimir said, rising to full height. "My name's Kazim-aaaggghua." He doubled over and roared into the ground, rubbing his neck. "Haaa. It's Kaz-huuuuguh. Huuuh." Bleary lines of spittle dribbled from his mouth, and he started heaving lightly. Ani threw a side-eye at Runi, who was scratching the back of her head and looking away.

"I'm Kazimir," the Lightning Champion of the Arena finished. "And we're all mages too."


"Fergus came up with the disguises," said Kazimir, still a little hoarse. "The old boy loves nature."

He elbowed the elderly man next to him, who smiled briefly before continuing to hum to himself. They were seated on fallen logs and stones, letting smoke crawl up into the canopy from a small campfire between them. The two groups of mages had parsed themselves slightly, still a little unsure what to say to each other. It was mostly Kazimir, Thea and Ani doing the talking, Ani half-focusing on the conversation while tending a pot of stew on the fire.

Kazimir glanced over at her. "You look a little different than last time we met, er." He blinked. "I don't think I caught your name?"

"Elani Ellonhav." The words felt different with a tongue of earth. "They didn't say it when I walked out?"

"If they did, I couldn't hear it," Kazimir said, shrugging. "In any case, first-time challengers don't get names."

"Right." Ani remembered that they'd called Runi the Violet Light. She turned to Thea. "Did you 'appen to catch what they called me, Thea?"

Thea blushed and looked away. "Oh, I don't really remember. Something to do with rocks."

Ani raised an eyebrow. "You're lying. Come on, what was it?"

"The Rock-hard Gnomelass." The words were said by Fergus, who was staring off into space with a grin.

Kazimir clapped a hand over his mouth. Thea coughed sharply, her shoulders shuddering a moment. Ani folded her arms and looked pensive. "Gnomelass?" she deadpanned. "I'm thirty-three."

The four of them descended into laughter, which leached to the outer circles of the groups. Vel leaned over Ani's shoulder. "Is dinner ready yet?"

"Just about," Ani said. Fergus had given her some brothbone and edible root, which would pair nicely with the stale bread in Han's supplies and the rabbits they caught in the evening. As the ingredients mixed together in the metal cookpot, the aroma drifted like a melody into the air, relaxing the mages who feared for their lives. Ani, though, had felt a sense of unease in eating for the past few days now, but it didn't stem from Han's cooking.

She could still taste everything she ate, but as it broke down in the soil of her stomach, she couldn't tell if it was actually doing anything. She still had the same amount of energy, an endless amount. Her mind felt stagnant, as though the days were a ceaseless moment.

And so, two days ago, she had stopped eating entirely.

"Smells good," Kazimir commented, holding out a bowl. "Give me some?"

"Let her get some first, she's been cooking the whole time." Thea grabbed the bowl and gestured for the stirring spoon. "Here, Ani."

"Oh, um," Ani said as Thea slipped the spoon from her hands and doled out some broth, sliding an end piece of bread into it. "Well, I think the injured boys should eat first, right?"

"And I'm not injured?" Kazimir protested as Ani got up and walked to Han and Jay. "Hey, you did most of this!"

Han was propped up against a rock, while Jay sat next to him; their light bruises compounded with days-old wounds and exhaustion, setting dark lines in their faces. "Here," Ani said. "Our first full meal in days."

"Thanks," they both said at once, then glanced at each other, then down at the bowl, then to Ani.

Ani clucked her tongue. "I'll get a second bowl."

Around the fire, the other mages were lining up for their meals. Peridor and Runi were standing an awkward distance from each other, with the larger man flinching whenever Runi glanced at him. Ani guessed it might have something to do with the patchy bruises across Peridor's face.

She got in at the back of the line, behind a wick-thin woman from Kazimir's group. The woman turned briefly and waved, but she didn't meet both of Ani's eyes. Specifically, she met the human eye, and then turned away from the rest of it.

Human eye? Ani shook her head. All of her was still human. As long as she felt human things -- in this case, making sure everyone else survived -- she was still human. She could count on herself for as long as others could count on her. However much of her brain was something else now, she was still Ani.

"Thanks for cooking." She turned around and saw Han in the line behind her. The unassuming mage was resting his weight more on one foot than the other, discomfort wedged into his stance.

"It's no Han special," Ani said, smiling. "But I think you'll like what I did with the root. I'm getting you yours, no need ta rush me."

"I know," said Han. A small smile curled at the corners of his mouth, but his eyes were serious as he met hers. "I'm not grabbing one for me."

"But Jay already 'as one?"

"Right," Han said with a long breath, as though the words were a long path he was travelling. "See, Jay has his. You're getting mine, and I'm getting yours."

Ani stared blankly at him. There was something a bit more definitive in Han's voice as he said, "You haven't been eating, have you?"

Ani rubbed the back of her head. "Right. I guess ye'd notice something like that. Well, then you should know that I've been feelin' the exact same without it."

"I figured you were," Han said, expression softening. "But still, I think you should eat. We've got enough rations for it."

"Why?" Ani said, raising her voice a little and drawing looks from some other mages. She coughed and whispered, "It just seems like a waste."

"That's," Han began, looking away. His brow furrowed and he pressed his lips tightly together. Ani could suddenly see that he was on his last mote of confidence. After a long pause, in which Ani could almost see the countless thoughts flying across his mind, he lifted his head back up and continued, "That's a bleak way of looking at it, I think. You may be right when it comes to thinking about the entire group..."

He trailed off for a few moments as Ani got to the front of the line. Fergus kindly spooned her another bowl of soup, after which Ani thrust it into Han's hands before he could react. She and Han stared at each other for a little while before Han strode up to Fergus and silently held out his hand. Fergus raised an eyebrow but gave him another bowl of soup, which Han held out for Ani. "I'm not thinking about the entire group, and I'm not thinking about you," he said, looking away. "I want you to eat."

Ani stared at the soup for a long moment. Steam was curling around it, alighting warmth into her face. Around them was the subtle chill of nightfall, as the sun nestled into the branches of the trees.

"Alright, everyone's got their food?" Kazimir said. "Gather round, I've got some news."

Ani looked down at the bowl of soup in her hands. She had grabbed it without thinking. Han was meandering off to join the circle, but he smiled at her before walking off.

Kazimir was standing in the crookroots of a boreal oak, his arms folded. "Everybody listening?" he asked, then nodded. "Peridor, take it away."

"...We managed to decode that message between the mage-killers," said the musclebound fire mage in a raspy, faltering voice. "It's a substitution code that changes its key depending on the element of the moon. Um, so right now it's a water moon, so the keyword was 'water...'"

He fidgeted with his gloves. "I'm rambling, sorry. What I meant to say is that the message reads, 'Forty more today. Eight surrendered, send to Dread Peak.'"

The message was bracingly short, and before the mages even had time to process what "forty more" meant, Kazimir was clapping his hands. "Brilliant work, Peridor. Well, you heard him. Mages are being sent to Dread Peak. We're going to go rescue them."

Around the campsite, questions started all at once.

"Right now? When we're this close to the border?"

"Are these just mages from the Mounts of Red Sun, or all of them?"

"What if they're working with the hunters now?" Ani saw Jay flinch.

"Shouldn't we join up with the Resistance first?"

"How soon do we leave?"

Ani turned. Thea had asked that last question. She was standing, weary, resolute in the firelight.

"Sunrise, if you're willing," Kazimir said. "Folks, I don't want to wait around. Last time I did that, I got complacent." He glanced at Ani meaningfully. "It has to be us. It has to be now."

"There's going to be a lot of mage hunters there," reminded Jay. "Even more than the arena."

"But not nearly so many as there could be," Thea pointed out. "The incident at the arena sent a lot of the mage hunters out on patrol. If we hit them now, they won't have nearly as many defenses."

"So we don't have time to join up with the Resistance?" asked Runi.

"All we know is that they're in Gurak," Kazimir said. "If we take too long to find them, we miss this chance."

Runi nodded. It didn't seem like she'd needed much convincing. In fact, nobody in their group did.

"Dread Peak is two days from here," Kazimir continued. "Since we're a small group, I figure we can get right up close and do some reconnaissance. With that in mind, enjoy your dinner, everybody. Tomorrow, we head for the enemy."

Almost in unison, the mages lifted the soup to their lips and sipped in an eerie, coincidental ritual. Ani hesitated for a moment, but eventually she brought the soup up and let it trickle in, travelling the paths of her mouth and throat. It was warm, savory.


After dinner, the mages had gone about the campsite to prepare their materials, swapping loose stories as they went. Some of them had come from the Stormwalker Guild in the west, or Riverbeast Guild in the south. Kazimir was helping Han scrub the dishes out, bombarding him with conversation. Thea was patching up her glider in relative silence as Fergus sat next to her and tanned the rabbit hides from the morning. The rest of them had taken to making their tools or rebandaging their wounds. Ani noticed that despite relative distances between all of them, it was still Jay who seemed to linger at the edge of the group. He didn't look sad in doing so; in fact, he was all focus, sharpening a short blade given to him by Kazimir's group. Ani wondered if he would use it, or opt for being a wolf. Maybe he didn't feel like sharing that with the group, but then, it'd be pretty shocking once they found out.

Ani walked over to him, descending the layers of the firelight until she was mostly blue against it. "Hey." Jay nodded to her.

Meanie-mo poked out of Ani's shirt and scurried down her arm. Ani held him up to Jay, who instinctively pulled away. "'E's saying thank ye," she explained, as Meanie-mo proudly bowed his head. "For the bridge."

"Oh." Jay peered close at Meanie-mo and extended a finger tentatively. "I didn't do much. Thea was the one flying." He said this addressing the weasel directly, as though trying to reason with it.

Meanie-mo tapped his nose against his finger. "'E says that flyin' is a 'transitive property.' She was flyin' you, you were flyin' 'im."

"Logical for a little ferret," Jay conceded, rubbing his finger across Meanie-mo's head.

"'Ow've you been holding up?" Ani asked. "Injuries and more."

Jay huffed through his nose dismissively and stiffly petted Meanie-mo's head with his finger.

"I feel like I should be asking you the same thing," Jay said, returning his attention to his dagger. "I've been worse, I've been better."

"I'm feeling right magical as of late," Ani blustered with a grin. "New hair, new skin, eye." She hoped that her smile still looked natural.

"Same deceptively cheery smile," Jay said.

"Deceptively?" Ani laughed awkwardly. "Anyways, if ye feel like asking me this, ye should know that everyone else likes 'aving these conversations too. Be good to let them check in with you, close the distance." She filled a look with meaning and sent it his way.

"You're giving me advice," Jay said slowly. He began to sharpen the dagger again, stone scraping against the blade. "On how to socialize."

"On 'ow ta teambuild," Ani emphasized. "We had a class on it back at the Guild. Master Lynn brought us all to the top of Sun's Gate through Dogwind Pass, and told us to stay there until nightfall and make our way back o'ernight. Course, she didn't tell us that there was a snowstorm hittin' the range right that evenin'."

"If this is going to be some long-winded anecdote for how I should be more of a 'team player' I think I get the point already," Jay said with a sigh.

"Jest listen, ye twerp," Ani said, saying the word for the first time since her guild burned. "Thea was the one who suggested we stay put until morning. And you're right that we 'ad a grand old time swappin' stories up in our mountain camp, we watched the sunrise, unfergettable bonding moment, sure. But I talked to Thea later, and she said she'd been afraid to speak up 'cause of 'er leg. Afraid people would think less of 'er, or they wouldn't trust 'er."

She shifted back and forth. "She 'ad the right call, though, for all of us; none of us could have made it down that night. She 'ad to trust us to believe in 'er, because none of us could go it alone, either.

"So, I guess what I'm saying is," Ani finished, "you don't 'ave to be afraid to need people. It's good. Lets them need you."

Jay was quiet for a moment, and his attention stayed set on the rhythmic scrapes of the stone against the blade. Then, he stopped, and let out a deep sigh.

"And you're telling me this just to... what, help us all out?"

He looked up at Ani with a searching gaze, like he suspected something more.

"Or are these parting words?"

Ani blinked. Meanie-mo, too, had turned to look at her. She laughed nervously. "I didn't die on that bridge, Jay."

"But you are dying," Jay said softly.

His eyes traveled to the pieces of her that had been replaced with soil.

"I can still smell it," Jay said, even quieter.

"Can't be 'elped," Ani said, trying to keep her smile pushed open. "Igni was always telling me I should bathe more, ah..."

She'd started to tremble. Wordlessly, slow enough that it could be passed as sitting down for a conversation, she sank to the ground. Dust was rolling off of her body like tears, baring rotten green parts of her neck and face. She looked down at Meanie-mo, then up at Jay, who hadn't flinched. She sucked in a shaky breath. "I was going to ask ye to take care of 'im."

Jay met her eyes.

"I can do that," he said with surprising earnest.

He held out his hand to Meanie-mo as an invitation.

Meanie-mo looked between them, one foot raised and swivelling back and forth. Ani knew that weasels couldn't shed tears, but there seemed to be a choked whining coming from Meanie's throat. He trotted back to Ani's knee and nudged his nose against it.

Ani swallowed a sob. "Jest take 'im when the time comes. Shouldn't be long now."

Jay nodded and drew his hand away. He spared a quick glance out at the others, then returned his attention to Ani.

"You know," Jay said quietly. "I've been afraid... all of my life. Afraid to live, and afraid to die. It's made me do a lot of things that I regret. But you -- you're probably one of the bravest people I've ever met."

He lifted his hand slowly, awkwardly patting her shoulder.

"I'm sorry it's going to end this way," he whispered.

Ani felt hollow. She wondered if, deep in her chest, sand was voiding around her heart. "There's nothing...brave about it," she said finally. "It's going to 'appen, an' I'm scared. Maybe it has 'appened, I don't --" She brushed a hand across her face, wiping at her cheeks. "I don't even know how much of this is me anymore."

"Well," Jay said. "You know what the old mages used to say about death, right? We come from the earth and at the end of our lives we return to it. You've just... discovered the step in-between, it seems."

Ani glanced at him, speechless for a moment. Then, she chuckled and hugged her knees to her chest. "Well, I hope this was effective teambuilding."

"I think you did a better job than I did," Jay mumbled, turning around and grabbing something out of view. When he turned back around he reached out and touched her shoulder, but this time, the one made of earth. Ani startled for a moment, but when she felt the roots, she understood.

He was planting a flower in her shoulder. A white daisy, so young and diminutive that it was a wonder he'd uprooted it intact.

"There's still life in you, yet," Jay said, pulling away.

"At least a daisyful," Ani remarked. She compacted her shoulder around the flower and pulled the roots deep, wanting to stretch them until they wrapped around her heart. She looked at Jay. "Thank ye."

Jay nodded.

"I'll be ready," he said, looking to Meanie-mo. "When the time comes."

"Right," Ani said, not sure if she sounded confident, or angry, or afraid. "Til then, let's sit here an' teambuild."

Jay nodded again, and took in a deep breath as he sat back, more relaxed beside her.

"Sure," he said.

They sat in silence while the camp flickered with bits of noise like stars.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.

User avatar
81 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 3262
Reviews: 81
Wed Jun 07, 2023 3:36 am
View Likes
Lael says...

Han Young
cowritten with @soundofmind

As soon as Han's eyes opened in the morning, he was bombarded with all of the thoughts that he imagined had sunken and seeped into the deepest parts of his being since this all began. He shut his eyes again briefly, willing himself to suppress the feelings churning below the surface of his expression.

Even from a young age, his mother and father had told him that he needed to stop living inside of his head so much. It was one of the few things he remembered from his early childhood. They would often tap his forehead when they sensed that he was far away in a distant mental land and say, "Han, are you in there?"

This would continue through the rest of his years, after they died. As time went by, he grew quieter, drawing into himself more, and once he left his relations to live alone in the wild, he was practically silent on the outside, but painfully audible on the inside. It was during the rare times in which Han was not making himself busy that the lonely and harsh reality of his life would plunge into his heart like a knife. He then would feel that hollow, tight, and heavy feeling growing within his chest, the one that somehow also seemed to risk boiling up into a deep, guttural sob if he held onto it and focused on it for too long.

It was this very feeling that threatened to rise up at that moment. Only, perhaps, it wasn't because he was lonely--he was surrounded by more people who cared to talk to him than he had been in ages--but, rather, because he realized that he had come to love the life and the kind people he had found around him from the Guild, and he was afraid of losing them all. He would be all alone again.

He found himself glancing at Ani, who, in her dying, earth-stitched remains no longer needed to sleep or eat. He closed his eyes again and took a deep breath. No, not now, he thought, then slowly pushed himself to his feet.

Han walked a little ways into the trees from the campsite to survey the area in more detail and possibly gather some more materials that could aid the group on their journey. But as he eyed the ground, scanned the branches overhead, his thoughts and emotions kept swirling around inside of him until a face rose unbidden before the eye of his mind.

Mariel. Han gave a pile of leaves by his side a kick, and the leaves floated quickly back to the ground, a little more dispersed than before. He hadn't thought of her since the Guild had been attacked and they had met Jay. In fact, if he were honest with himself, he had tried not to keep her in his thoughts, because if he had allowed himself to speculate about where she was, or if she was safe, he would eventually wonder if she was alive. And if he wondered if she was alive, he would have to come to the likely conclusion that Mariel, whose sweet smile and gentle, kind words had touched his withered heart and promised him that there was a different, better way to live than a solitary existence, was dead.

Face to face with these thoughts as he made his way back to the camp, Han wished he could erase the last days before the attack on the Guild occurred. He remembered her face when she caught him packing his bag and tidying his room. She had gazed at him for a long while with a pained expression as he haltingly explained that he wanted to leave the Guild because he didn't belong with them. Then she had turned heel and walked away, not having said a single word to him. And now, Han recalled that she had never spoken to him again.

If only he could have explained to her that he truly was thankful that she had pulled him from his solitude and invited him to live at the Guild. If only he could have told her that he desperately wanted to belong, but that he was afraid, and that he didn't deserve to be with them. With her. If only he could take it all back--

A pair of large hands gripped his shoulders tightly, and Han startled as he was stopped in his tracks. He snapped back into the present and found Kazimir looming over him.

"You with us, scout?" Kazimir asked.

Han blinked and glanced down, feeling his face heat up in embarrassment. "I--I am now," he said. "Sorry for almost running into you."

"It's fine," Kazimir said. "Just looked like you were in another world there, for a minute."

Han hesitated, then he let out a soft chuckle and met the other man's eyes. "I guess I was." He straightened and glanced about at the camp, his mind beginning to spin in a more practical direction. "We need to discuss what to do from here, right?"

"Thought we already had," Kazimir said, looking him over. "We're going to find the resistance and join them."

"Uh, y-yes," said Han, feeling himself shrink under Kazimir's words. "But we are in bad shape, generally, with basically everyone hurt. And . . ." He trailed off, racking his brain for what else he was trying to convey.

"What?" Kazimir pressed, raising a brow.

"And--and we could get more supplies from a nearby village, like medicine, or other things that could help us to fight when we join the resistance." Han hurried on as Kazimir opened his mouth, no doubt about to argue with his idea. "I know it's risky, and we can find herbs and food out here, but if we just send a small group to trade or sell some furs, or medicinal herbs and roots, we could afford to get some supplies that would . . . really help . . ." He felt himself shrinking and shaking again as he took in Kazimir's unchanged, unconvinced expression.

"Who says they won't have people waiting to kill us or rat us out in villages?" Kazimir asked, folding his arms.

A hand rested on Han's shoulder, and when he looked over, it was Thea.

"Sorry to interrupt," she said. "But I overheard. And even though it may be dangerous, I think it could be worthwhile. We don't know how long our journey will be for certain, and if there's anything we can do to make it easier - this could be something worth trying. Especially if Han is willing to take the initiative on it."

Han's eyes widened, and his heart began to pound even faster and harder than it already had been, if that was even possible. When Thea met his eyes and gave him a reassuring smile, he let out the breath he didn't realize he was holding and gave her a tiny, trembling smile in return.

Kazimir frowned, but let out a resigned sigh.

"If you think it's worth it, Thea," he relented. "But I don't want to waste a lot of time passing through villages. That sort of thing puts us on the map when people see us."

"We won't spend any more time than needed," Thea assured him.

Kazimir waved them off, walking away.

"Alright," he said over his shoulder. "I don't know anything about trapping and furs so I'll let you take care of it."

Once he was gone, Han let out another long breath and shakily sat on the ground. He looked at his hands, which were trembling as hard as the rest of his body. But he felt a smile tugging at his mouth as he tried to regulate his breathing.

Perhaps most--including himself--would look at him disdainfully and wonder why a thirty-one-year-old man would be so timid, and then feel so elated at such a simple conversation, but in that moment, Han felt like this must be the most triumphant thing he had ever done in his life.

He stood up again and looked at Thea. "I--I did it!" he exclaimed, before he realized he had said those words aloud. Then he blushed again.

Thea laughed lightly, patting his shoulder.

"Yes you did," she said. "I'm glad you stood your ground. Kazimir can be pushy."

"Ah, well," said Han, trying to laugh off his embarrassment, "I guess it would be a good time to start hunting and foraging now?"

"Probably," Thea agreed with a faint smile. "I'd offer to join you, but... my leg's been bothering me with all the walking. Vel would be irritated if she saw me walk off again."

"That's okay," replied Han. He scanned the mages around the camp until his eyes landed on Jay. "I'll ask Jay to come with me. I think his senses would really come in handy."

"Sounds like a good idea," Thea said softly. "You two be careful."

Han nodded and jogged over to Jay, who was curled up by the small fire they had going, where Fergus was cooking with the help of Ani. "Hey, Jay," he said, "do you want to come hunt and scavenge with me? We're trying to sell or trade things for supplies."

Jay looked up at him, his wolven ears flicking to the side.

"We are?" he asked. Though he didn't sound skeptical. Just surprised.

Han nodded and said, "Yeah, Kazimir agreed, thanks to Thea."

Jay hummed, getting to his feet.

"If you say so," he said, walking around the fire. "Let's go, then."

Han led the way out of the camp, surveying the surroundings again as he contemplated which direction they should go.

"I was thinking that we could try our luck at setting traps for small game," said Han, "but mostly scavenging for herbs and roots may be a safer idea. I don't think most of us look like hunters." He cracked a smile. "Do you ever hunt in your wolf form?"

Jay's ears flattened against his head a little, and he looked away.

"Only when I was far from people," he said.

"Ah," said Han. "Well . . ." He trailed off, trying to think of something else to say to this, and eventually settled on shrugging.

After a long silence in which the two of them stared at the rustling, wind-blow tree branches and falling leaves, Han cleared his throat. "So, do you think there's a better direction to go? Like where we may have more chance of catching some animals or finding good plants?"

Jay nodded his head towards the east, sniffing at the air.

"More animals seem to pass through this way," Jay said. "I could show you."

"Okay," replied Han, waiting for Jay to lead. But just as the other took the first step, a realization came to Han and he narrowed his eyes.

"Wait, so that's how you found the path that one time!" he exclaimed. He almost wanted to cross his arms and give Jay an irritated look. He most definitely stopped himself from saying aloud, "You made me feel like an idiot."

Jay stopped, glancing back at Han for a moment before his form instantaneously shifted. One second, he was a wolf, and the next, he was human. Jay met Han's eyes.

"How was I supposed to explain that I could smell it?" Jay asked. "I wasn't going to tell you I was a werewolf."

Han pressed his lips together tightly, staring back at Jay as his thoughts whirled about his head again. "Well," he said at last, "it still wasn't a nice feeling." He waved his arm forward. "Let's go."

Jay sighed, and continued to lead the way.

At first, he led them through a thicker patch of forest, but eventually, shifted back to his wolven form, sticking his nose to the ground. Han noticed that Jay had led them into what looked like a deer path, dotted with different prints from various creatures. Some of them were fresh, which meant that the path was regularly used, and would hopefully mean they'd have a higher chance of catching something if they laid traps along it.

The trees overhead grew thicker, and some of their branches hung low. Han had to duck, occasionally pushing aside some of the leafy bunches away so he could keep up with Jay, who was having a much easier time being closer to the ground on all fours.

Eventually, Jay came to an abrupt halt at the base of a tall, winding, willowing tree.

"A lot of animals stop by this tree," Jay said. "We could set a few traps around here."

"All right," said Han, already searching for materials to build a trap with. "Maybe you could start looking for some herbs or edible roots in the area while I make the trap."

Jay huffed through his nose, which Han wasn't really sure how to interpret, but Jay went off without a word. Presumably to do what he suggested.

Han gathered some thin but sturdy sticks and began to situate them in the formation of a simple snare. After he made sure it was exactly set in the place he felt it would be most effective nestled between the roots of the tree, he stepped back and surveyed his work. Then he quietly left it to search for herbs.

He soon found Jay squatting in his human form by a patch of wild green onions. His previous displeasure at discovering how Jay had found the path before faded away as he took in the sight of some of his favorite wild greens. He knelt next to Jay and began plucking the plants.

"This is a good find," he commented. "It was a good day out in the wild when I would catch a fat rabbit and come across wild onion."

Jay glances at Han.

"Were you... out in the wild often?" Jay asked.

Han blinked, his hands stilling as he looked back at Jay and processed the words and Jay's tone. Somehow, Jay sounded quite awkward now when, in Han's mind, he usually seemed confident, or perhaps just uncaring of what others thought of him.

"Oh, you don't know," said Han, letting his words flow out at the same time as his thoughts. "I'm actually not--I wasn't always part of North Point Guild."

Jay hesitated.

"Oh," he said. "So you were just... living in the wilderness before that, then?"

"Yeah," answered Han, "for a very long time. Since I was . . . eleven? As long as I can remember until last year, when Mar--a mage from North Point found me and invited me to join the guild."

Jay tilted his head at that.

"Ah," he said. "...Sorry."

"Oh, it's no big deal," said Han, shrugging and beginning to pick more onion. "I hardly remember my life before living alone in the wilderness. I think it's been so long since I felt very saddened by my parents' deaths."

"Oh," Jay said stiffly. "I meant, uh. About... whoever 'Mar' was."

A beat.

"Sorry about your parents too, though," he said. "I guess."

"Oh," said Han, his voice growing quiet. He could feel his face start to heat up in embarrassment. "You were talking about Mariel, huh. Thanks, I guess? For both."

"Sure," Jay said.

There was another awkward pause as Jay ripped out a large chunk of onions, and the roots dangled over the ground with chunks of dirt.

"You never mentioned Mariel before," Jay said.

Han fiddled with the onions he had already picked, rearranging them neatly in a pile so they were facing the same direction. "There wasn't really a reason to," he replied, staring down at the onions.

"Yeah," Jay said quietly. "I guess not."

Jay added his onions to Han's pile, dumping them beside.

"Do you think Mariel is... still around?" Jay asked hesitantly. "I know the others seem to have hope that some people have survived, like us. But..."

He trailed off, pulling away to dig in the dirt, even though there was nothing left to forage.

Han sat, crossing his legs. He picked up a leaf and began to pluck pieces off. "I don't really know," he said. "Nothing is ever sure in this world. But I--" Han broke off as he felt his voice wobbling to reflect his mind. He breathed quietly for a second before continuing, "I hope she is alive."

The forest fell quiet as Jay sat beside Han with no response for some time.

"Yeah," Jay finally said. "...That's hard, man."

Han let Jay's last sentence sink in for a few minutes, his facial features feeling more twisted up by the second. He wasn't sure what exactly he was feeling, but he eventually laughed. His cheek muscles felt sore in a way he hadn't felt before, and his emotions were probably more frayed than they had ever been in a long time, but somehow, it was as though his smile would not go away, at least for the moment. Perhaps it was a mix of Jay's actual words with the way he had delivered the line, but it somehow struck Han as funny.

"Yeah. It is," he said, thinking that if he kept dwelling on this conversation too long once they were on their way back to camp and his mood pivoted in the other direction, he would probably start crying instead.

Jay cleared his throat.

"So... we should probably keep setting traps," he said, getting to his feet.

"And check on the one I set by the tree," added Han, standing beside him. "Let's go then." He gathered up the wild onion in his arms and set off.

They stopped by a few other locations Jay judged to be popular with animals and laid more traps. As they waited, they foraged for more plants and Han even quickly wove a small, rough basket to place as many of them that could fit inside. Thankfully, he was too busy to begin replaying the earlier conversations on repeat in his head and thinking of ways that he could have said things better.

When they returned to the snares, Han was relieved to find that their efforts had yielded a rabbit. Of course it wasn't much, but it would a least supplement the mages' meal and they could see if a villager was interested in its pelt.

On their way back to the campsite, neither of them spoke a word, but it was a comfortable silence. Somehow, it felt as though they had gotten to know each other better. It surprised Han how Jay had been willing to take the initiative to speak to him in many instances of their hunting and foraging trip.

"I hope you find her," Jay said suddenly, just as they began to see their group through the trees again, huddled together in their camp.

Han started a little, and shot a look of surprise at him. "Thank you," he said. He paused, then added, "After all this is over, I hope you'll consider staying with us. I'm sure the others would welcome you as well."

Jay was still in his human form, and he'd stayed so ever since their conversation, but somehow, the way Jay hunched his shoulders was reminiscent of a dog tucking its tail between its legs.

"...Thanks," Jay said stiffly.

And before Han could say anything else, Jay shifted, springing ahead on all fours to run ahead of him.

At that moment, Han felt that, although his heart still felt heavy and it probably would for a long time, maybe there was some kind of true hope to be found even amid the chaos and destruction. He let himself smile and kept walking. As he reached the edge of the camp and his eyes found each of his friends, the thought that these were the people he belonged with began to creep into his mind. He felt that, no matter what happened from that point on, he could at least find comfort in the fact that he did have a family, after all this time.

He could only hope that, if they somehow made it out of this alive, they wouldn't lose each other in the process.
"And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:7

User avatar
590 Reviews

Gender: Nonbinary
Points: 1234
Reviews: 590
Sun Jul 02, 2023 7:33 pm
View Likes
Mageheart says...

Darunia Vain

Night had fallen.

Runi found herself sitting next to Ani. The fire crackled in front of them. It had been Runi sitting there first. She had been staring into the flames, trying to think of a song to pass the time. She didn’t have her lute anymore, obviously, and creating felt…hard when she felt so drained. She had been contemplating turning in for the night right before Ani sat down beside her.

Neither one said anything for a while. Runi just let the warmth of the flames wash over her skin. It was almost too hot to be sitting that close to the fire, but she liked the comfort that it gave them.

“‘t’s almost time,” Ani said, suddenly.

Runi raised her head and blinked. There was an extra weight behind her words that Runi did her best to ignore. She pretended like she just thought that Ani was saying that it was almost time for them to reach the other mages, and not that Ani was becoming…

Whatever Ani was becoming.

“Yeah,” Runi said, quietly. “It is.”

She had been quiet, mostly, since the other mages joined their group. She wondered if anyone had noticed how little she had been speaking. She wanted to stay hopeful and optimistic and true to that person she had once been, but it felt like all of her anger and frustrations had torn an apathetic hole through her heart. If she thought too much on it—tried to force that hope—then it just made the anxiety come in waves she didn’t feel ready to handle.

There was no way for certain to know what was going to happen next, but Runi could make some guesses. There would be mage hunters escorting the mages they would be trying to rescue. Their group was so small. They hadn’t even had time to meet up with the Resistance.

When Runi had asked if they would have time to, she had been hoping someone would say yes. The Resistance felt like a miracle. A spark of hope. If Runi held onto it long enough, she could start up a fire.

“Do you…” Runi tried to pick her words carefully, looking at Ani again. She tried, again, to ignore how different Ani looked these days. “What if we find the mages, but we get captured again?”

That was really only scratching the beginning of her concerns, but it was something. Something to fill the silence, and something to make that anxious knot in her stomach untie itself just a little.

Ani mulled it over.

“Then you escape again,” she said.

“...Then we escape again,” Runi corrected, softly. Ani’s face softened, a little, a supernatural shifting of the earth. But she didn’t confirm Runi’s correction. She just let it hang there. Runi’s eyes drifted back to the fire. “The last time we escaped from people who wanted us dead, things didn’t… they didn’t go so well.”

“That,” Ani said, “is a good point. ‘ut we survived, didn’t we?”

Runi looked at Ani.

Did we really, though?
Runi wondered.

“Okay,” Runi said. “What if we don’t find other mages? What if it’s just us, and those forty mages we heard about were a trap? Or already dead?”

“‘ve already found some,” Ani said. She grinned. It was a stiff one. “Though the Green Flame’s scared of you, still.”

Runi rubbed the back of her neck. “I should… probably apologize for that, shouldn’t I?”

“‘robably,” Ani agreed, a little bit of amusement in her voice. “You must ‘ave ‘it ‘im pretty ‘ard.”

“Yeah,” Runi said. “I guess I did.”

She faltered.

“...What if we find the mages,” Runi said, “and they’re safe. We join the Resistance, and they’re safe, too. And someday down the line we’re about to go back to normal, but I’m not…”

Runi sighed. She stared down at her hands, now, feeling the fire’s warmth on them.

“I’ve changed,” Runi said, quietly. “I know I have. I have this anger in me right now that I’m not used to. I went so long having a family after not having one that I can’t put myself back in the shoes of the person I’m supposed to be. There’s this fire in my chest, right now, and I can’t put it out. I don’t think I ever will be.”

Ani sat on Runi’s words for a very, very long time. Runi had to keep looking at her face, desperate to find something that proved that Ani hadn’t turned completely into the earth right there on the spot. But then Ani’s lips parted, and some of Runi’s anxiety receded.

“You’ve changed before, ‘aven’t you?” Ani asked. Runi thought, then slowly nodded. “All of us are different from when we first arrived at the guild, ‘nd when we first lost it. Change is natural. It ‘appens for a reason.”

Runi bit her lip. She fiddled with her fingers in her lap, wishing she had an instrument to hold right now. She missed the person she had been when she first arrived at the guild, and missed the person she had been on the last day that everyone there was safe and alive. She wondered if she’d ever stop hating Jay. If she’d ever stop feeling so hurt when she thought about what he had done.

“What if,” Runi said, voice very, very quiet, “we do find the mages. We find the Resistance. We pick our lives up, make a new guild and start all over, but…it’s not really a we. It’s just a me.”

She finally looked at Ani’s face again.

“Ani,” Runi said, “you’re not going to be… Ani much longer, are you?”

Ani went very, very still. Runi had probably gone too far, but it was so obvious.

“No,” Ani said, voice barely above a whisper, a murmur of the earth, “I don’ think I am.”

“Can’t you push it off?” Runi begged, trying to bargain against something she knew was as natural as her own magic. “Wait until… I don’t… I don’t know. Some time when it won’t hurt as much. I mean… what about Meanie-Mo?”

What about the remnants of their guild? What about Runi?

“Jay’s going to take care of ‘im,” Ani said, and it looked like she was on the verge of tears, too.

Jay?” Runi repeated. She sat a little straighter. The fire felt too hot. “You’re trusting Meanie-Mo to Jay?”

“It just felt right,” Ani replied. “You don’t like ‘im much, do you?”

Runi crossed her arms. “I don’t. Ani, he’s the reason we lost everyone. The reason we got captured. And the reason that you’re like that. That you’re going to-”

Her voice broke.

“How do you not feel angry?” Runi said. “Every time that you look at him? How does everyone not feel angry when they look at him? We lost our family to him, Ani. We lost ourselves.”

Maybe that was a step too far. Runi hadn’t vocalized her hatred of Jay to anyone yet. It felt scandalous. But Runi and Ani were the same side of the same coin, sometimes: the ones that had always been the life of the party, back before the party ended. Maybe Ani was the one person who could understand how much Runi hated this version of her that she had become.

Ani met Runi’s gaze, then.

“‘e came from a guild, too, Runi,” Ani reminded her, and it was like she had doused a bucket of water over the flames. “‘e lost a family. You don’t ‘ave to forgive ‘im, but Jay’s more similar to us than you think.”

Runi faltered. She… hadn’t thought of it that way.

She looked off where Jay was right now, then back over at Ani.

“Can we sit here longer?” Runi asked. “Until it hurts a little less?”

Ani gave a small smile.

“Of course,” Ani said, and they did exactly that.

[ she/her, but in a boy kinda way ]

roleplaying is my platonic love language.

queer and here.

User avatar
212 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 12006
Reviews: 212
Tue Jul 25, 2023 1:58 pm
View Likes
ScarlettFire says...

Velalis of Arete
cowritten with @soundofmind

Vel crouched in the cover of a treeline, Jay to one side of her and Ani to the other. The two harpies--Nemarin and Saffron--were crouched behind her, the others spread out nearby. The fortress across the moat rose up into the sky, illuminated by firelight and looking foreboding. She had a bad feeling about it; a very bad feeling. Vel glanced towards Jay, then Ani, then back at the harpies and around to all the others--Thea, Han, Runi, all the rest of them. She felt like she was leading them to their doom...but Idina was in there, if anyone else was... They had to do it. They had to try.

"It looks so....gloomy," muttered Saffron and Nemarin snorted. "What? It does!"

"Could look worse," Nemarin told him, then he snapped his mouth shut when he caught Vel watching them. She turned back to the fortress.

"Remember the plan," she said quietly, then gave Jay a worried look. He looked...eeriely calm, eeriely cold. It bothered her. She moved on to look at Ani, half-earth and half-flesh. "Find Idina, find any mage you can. Get them out."

"Ye know we will," Ani said with sobered determination.

They'd scouted it out earlier, knew this side was the least guard. Vel sighed, closing her eyes and counting to five before opening them. "We," she said, indicating the two harpies, "will come in from above. The rest of you know what you're doing."

They'd discussed it just an hour ago, but she felt the need to repeat the plan. No fully, not to every minute detail, but enough to remind them--and herself--what they were doing and why. It was Thea's plan anyway. She knew it the best. Vel looked towards Thea and nodded.

"Let's go."

Thea nodded in return. Vel watched them head off into the darkness and settled in to wait, ignoring the two harpies at her back. She worried, a lot, but it had to be done. They couldn't let the hunters kill or keep any more of them.


A shroud of darkness crept over the forest. Velalis knew Runi's magic was capable of bending the light, but she'd yet to see it used on such a scope, encompassing the whole stretch from their end of the moat to the other. In the shadows, Vel couldn't even make out the figures of her comrades, who she knew would be in the process of crossing with the help of Ani, using her magic to form another bridge out of the earth.

Vel's eyes kept flicking over the watchtowers, nervous for anyone to spot the suspicious shadow in the night. But so far, no one seemed to notice. At least, not enough to take action.

Subtly, the shadow receded, drawing closer to the fortress walls. Runi's shroud of darkness continued to swallow up the group as they found their place between the two shifts of guards, marching the fortress's perimeter.

They were waiting. This had to be perfectly timed.

Just before the pair of guards rounded the corner, a gust of wind blew out the firelight of the guards' torches, along with any lamplight around them.

Swallowed up in darkness, Velalis could only assume the group took care of the two guards quickly and quietly.

The shadow continued to spread until they ran into the next round of guards, and the next, and the next. They took care of them with haste, putting out every light in their path. It wasn't until they reached their targeted end point that one final powerful gust of wind erupted from them, wrapping around the fortress like earth itself was sighing, and every flickering flame was snuffed into smoke.

That was their cue.

The group was splitting off. And now, the guards on towers were beginning to shout. Lights would soon be relit and arrows would be flying. They had to act fast. Vel glances back and met Nemarian and Saffron's gazes. They nodded, she nodded back, and then as one, the three of them lacked themselves into the air.


They're still mid-air, closing in on the fortress, when they hear explosions and see big blasts and bursts of light. Vel had to look away since it was so bright it was blinding. When she could finally look back, the light had died down and now she could see the watchtowers, see the guards up there. She gestured left then right with one hand--the one not holding a spear--and Nemarin went left while Saffron went right. Vel headed for the central one.

As she approached, she could see three figures in the tower. They looked like they were preparing something, something that looked like it might explode. Her gaze narrowed and she hovered there a moment, adjusting her grip on the spear before diving in. She went for the archer first, thrusting the spear tip through the gap between wood and string before flinging it out of their hands and over the edge of the watchtower. She brought the end round to land against their head with a heavy thunk! before flipping it round and driving the blade into their chest.

There was a moment where they stared at her with wide, startled eyes before the life in them dimmed and died. Vel pulled it free, eyes darting side to side as she spotted the other two coming at her. One of them threw a dart her way and she ducked, spinning away towards the edge and launching up into the air. She gained height and hesitated, assessing. The two guards stared up at her for a moment, one of them attempting to dig through their pockets for another dart.

Vel smiled grimly and darted down, slashing that one across the face with her claws. He screamed, dropping his weapon to grab at his face. She was pretty sure she'd just ruined one of his eyes. She darted back up into the air before anyone could react to that and hovered several feet above, wings flapping slow and steady as she eyed the remaining guard. The dart-guard was rolling around on the ground screaming about his eyes.

The other guard glared at her and produced a dagger from somewhere under his armour. They stared at each other for a moment before the guard grinned and tossed the knife at her. Vel dodged, bit the blade managed to graze her arm. She ground her teeth together, angry, and dove back in, spear-first. He dodged, sword up to parry her spear.

Vel growled, trying some fancing spear-work to keep him from getting too close to her. Who knew what the man had on his sword--or the dagger, but she'd figure that out later. There was the clang of metal on metal, blade against blade as they parried and thrust--and then there was scream and Vel turned her head to find dart-guard coming at her, sword swinging.

She disengaged, swinging the butt of her spear up into his gut, hard, and the man went down. Vel spun around, spear arching to catch dagger-guy in the neck. A spray of blood, gurgling and then he was stumblnig backwards. Vel stalked forward and, with a well-placed kick to his chest, sent him tumbling over the edge of the tower.

Vel turned to find dart-guard jsut climbing back to his feet, one eye a bloody mess from the rake of her claws, the other fixated on her, hard and angry. Vel grinned at him and planted the spear on the floor, blade-first.

"You sure you want to keep coming at me?"

The man hesitated, and that was long enough for her to flap her wings hard, once, twice and send him tumbling backwards off the tower, following his friend over the edge and all the way down. Vel hefts the spear and takes a running leap off the tower, pulling a dagger she had from her belt and tossing it after the dart-guard, who lay several feet below, groaning weaking. The dagger found its mark in the man's other eye, killing him.

She returned to the tower and landed carefully, breathing heavily from the fight. It had been a while since she'd truly been in a proper fight--and the arena did not count. While she was standing there, trying to decide what to do, there were footsteps on the tower stairs and she cursed, ignoring the sounds of explosions, screaming, yelling and the general chaos of a fight. Not to mention the bright flashes of light from Runi.

Vel hated fighting, but she knew the neccessity of it. She didn't have to like it, though. Were the others okay? She glanced towards the sounds of fighting down below, not moving too far from the edge of the tower as she peered over the edge. More flashes of light, more explosions, more screaming. More footsteps. She didn't have much time before more guards would be there to stop her. Vel sighed and turned to face the door to the stairs. Might as well prepare to fight a few more idiots.
"With friends like you, who needs a medical license?" - Paimon, Aether's Heart

“It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission.” - Grace Hopper.

User avatar
81 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 3262
Reviews: 81
Fri Sep 22, 2023 5:22 am
View Likes
Lael says...

Han Young
cowritten with @soundofmind

It looked like everything was going well so far. The fortress guards' attention appeared to be fixed on the other group, so they had to get over the wall before anyone noticed.

Han moved quietly at his companions' side as they headed further into the shadows. The other side of the fortress was dimly lit and was already less heavily guarded before the other group's distraction drew most of them away. It was the perfect place for them to get in.

They all reached the wall. Han glanced up to the top towering above them, then he looked back at the others. Kazimir and Yeona seemed focused, and ready to jump into action. But Han couldn't help but feel a pang of worry as he looked at Thea and Ani. He didn't doubt their strength or resolve, but Thea's leg . . . and Ani. He had to suppress the sorrow and the urge to tell her to just hide and wait for them somewhere safe as he once again took in the sight of her flesh and the limbs that were barely held together by the earth, seeming at risk of falling apart at any moment.

It was at this moment that Han once again realized how fragile life truly was, but there wasn't time to ruminate on it. He squared his shoulders and pushed the thoughts and worry out of his mind; their success depended on if they all were focused and performed their roles correctly.

"Everyone ready?" asked Thea.

"Ready," Kazimir said lowly.

"We'll follow ye, Thea," Ani whispered.

"I'm ready," said Han. It was time to get started.

Thea took a few calculated steps backward. She pulled out her glider, and, lifting it above her head, she summoned a strong gust of wind.

Han blinked through the blast of air whizzing past his eyes and buffeting his bangs in all directions as he watched Thea's glider rise on the upward current of wind, higher and higher. He had to remind himself once again to stay focused on the task he had to do--it wasn't time to be so awed by Thea's magic and plans, as impressive as both were to him.

Thea reached the top of the wall and crouched down as she landed to steady herself. Han watched her slip safely down the ledge and out of view before the rope Thea had slung over her shoulder on the way up was thrown down, unfurled to a length that the three down below could access to climb up after her.

Thea's head poked out over the wall and she nodded at them. Kazimir was the first to step forward to the rope. He reached out and tugged at it to test its security, then he hoisted himself up to climb the wall.

Ani followed Kazimir. Han let Yeona go next, and once she was over the wall, he followed. Though Han had considered himself sufficiently strong, he made a mental note to do more climbing in case something like this ever happened again.

Thea hardly waited a moment after Han climbed over the wall before she started forward, ready to fight. Han took a few quick, deep breaths and then he ran after the others with his knife drawn. He concentrated on his magic, drawing on the water in the air to gather, quivering furiously with the effort to maintain the form.

He had never been strong with his magic, but this would have to be the best performance in his entire life.

"There's more over there!" shouted a guard, who had turned around and spotted their group charging forward.

Thea sent a powerful wave of air sailing before them, and it swept the closest guards off their feet. Kazimir reached their ranks first and sent flying strikes at them, each infused with crackling lightning magic. Yeona was close behind, drawing on the magic of the earth to ensnare their opponents. Ani targeted guards on the fringes, incapacitating them with soil and stones.

Han released his water magic, sending it flying forward in as focused an attack as he could at the faces of the guards who were still moving. Then, he ran forward to slash and stab at the guards Kazimir and Yeona had left in their wake.

He did his best to tamp down his feelings as more and more bodies began to fall to the ground, but he was unable to stop himself when he caught sight of familiar faces beginning to stream out with fresh waves of guards.

"Thea!" he called, but she noticed at the same time as he did. Her eyebrows furrowed and she set her jaw as she continued to send blasts of wind forward.

There were Northern Guild members among their enemies.

Han could feel that his meager magical strength was beginning to falter. He couldn't help but glance frantically around at any opportunity he found for more Northern Guild traitors. What if she was here?

Just then, something large and dark streaked toward him, and he only had a second to throw his knife arm up and catch another blade with his own. He strained against the strength of the other person, clenching his teeth as he leaned into his knife.

"Han?" exclaimed the other. But he soon recovered and sneered. "So who else is with you? Thea? Vel?"

Han broke the locked blades apart and stepped back. "Roark," he said, unable to keep the disbelief in his voice. "You were one of the traitors."

He shouldn't have been surprised.

"I prefer 'one of the smart ones,'" shot back Roark. "It was that or end up like you."

Han dodged Roark's sword. "But," he gasped out between spurts of movement, "you--grew up in the Guild. They were--your family."

The man did not speak for a while as they fought, Han desperately trying to keep up with his opponent's superior combat and magical ability. Then Roark said, "You know what we had to do to prove our loyalty to the mage hunters?"

Heart immediately sinking into his stomach, Han began to feel the inklings of what that thing the traitors did, and he did not want to know. He felt his hold on the water droplets around him shake violently like his screaming muscles when he had to do plank exercises back at the Guild.

But Roark continued, "We killed other guild members. Slaughtered them, you could say." He almost shrugged as he swung his arms and sent his magic at Han once again. "So much for family. I'd rather live by siding with the clear victors."

Han could feel his whole body begin to shake. He felt sick to his stomach, and he wanted to run away from here and curl up in a hidden nook of the forest and just weep in horror, anger, and sorrow. But he couldn't, and he was stuck here. He had a mission to fulfill with his friends.

"Mariel," he forced out as he clashed his knife against Roark's. It took all of his concentration to maintain himself in this state.

Roark's eyebrows shot up. "Still thinking about her even now? That's some dedication." He wove around some of the mage hunter guards charging to fight another one of Han's comrades, and he called out, "You sure you want to know? She--"

Somehow, in Han's heart, he already knew the truth. With a shout, he lunged at Roark with all the strength he could muster.

In the middle of all this chaos, the emotions that still threatened to overwhelm him were a luxury he could ill afford.
"And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Philippians 4:7

User avatar
177 Reviews

Gender: Male
Points: 1093
Reviews: 177
Sun Sep 24, 2023 7:20 am
View Likes
Chaser says...

Elani Ellonhav

Ani would never see the desert. The closest she had gotten was when a travelling merchant brought a vial of white sand from The Great Sands, which she carefully molded into a bird, light as a spirit. It had been a gift for Master Lynn on her birthday, which she kept in her office. Ani could scarcely imagine a place where the entire world seemed to be made of such loose stuff.

Standing ahead of the advancing vanguard, she accreted the salts of the ground into her fist and flung it skywards, where Kazimir pulverized it into dust with a lightning strike. Thea whipped up a whirlwind with an outward snap of the wrist, and Ani vanished into the sandstorm, charging the front-line of the garrison guard.

She would never see the ocean, either. She and Igni had discussed it once, perhaps plying their trade all across the world, or becoming dastardly pirates. They eventually took to shaking each other to see if either of them would be seasick. They both were, severely.

The tip of her earthen hand became a rocky spear, punching through the chestplate of the mage hunter in front of her. Blood spurted forth into her arm like a tide seeping into sand. Most of the blood in Ani's body was not hers anymore, coagulated soil pumping in concert with what was left of her body. The flower on her shoulder wavered in the storm.

"Head for the bunker!" she heard Kazimir shout. "I can hold them off!" Kazimir's lightning dominated the open space, flashing from foe to foe, igniting a trail of dust in its path.

Ani reached the bunker door and risked a glance behind her; Han was still moving, and swinging a sword laden with lumshade at his neck -- was that Roark? That stocky, gap-toothed kid who earned a ladle whack for stealing a plum out of the kitchen for his friends, was now going after Han with a desperate, animalistic intensity.

There were others, too -- Tuuma, the sleight-of-hand prankster; Valz, the quiet gardener; Arill the professor. All of them were tangling blade upon magic on the front-lines, their clothes bearing the mage-hunters' seal. Ani felt herself nearly blow apart from the waist up.

Thea swept a sheet of wind over the ground as though she were skipping a stone, knocking their foes off balance. She ran over to Ani at the door. "I know," she said, her eyes glistening, "but we can't stop now."

The Dread Peak fortress had been built against the side of the mountain, which shielded it from the storms of the west. Ani could barely make out the banded iron door through the chaos. She'd bent metal before, but this door towered over her; so instead she focused her attention to the stones holding it in place. Like tearing a sheet of paper in half, she pulled one side back, the other forward, and the door grated against the ground as it began to open, revealing a crossbar in their way. Ani forced her arm into the gap and shoved upwards until the bar screeched free, and the door yawned open before her and Thea.


A flurry of arrows shot from the dark, faster than Ani could react. In an instant, she realized what would happen the second the lumshade entered her body. In the space between instants, she could hear Igni laughing at her for loving dirt so much that she turned into mud. She only hoped that her soul was still going to the same place now, because with her body like this, who really knew. As the wind stirred, she knew Igni was finally close again; she'd see him soon.

The arrows burst outward like a flock of birds, arcing past Ani and skittering off of the floor and door. Thea still had her arm outstretched, screaming, "Go!"

Ani surged forward, a carnage of earth and rot. There was no time to reload, or run. The rage she had felt in the arena, on the bridge, churned in her like magma. Still, she searched the faces of the mage hunters for fear and familiarity; and, finding that she recognized none of them, she cut them down. When the hallway was empty, she turned back to Thea, who hadn't moved from her spot by the door.

Blood was trickling down Thea's abdomen, a lumshade arrow embedded just below her left ribs. "I can move," she said, breathing heavily. "Let's go."

"But yer magic-"

"I'm no better out there than in here, am I? Besides, do you not like my company?" Thea smiled, her hair hanging ragged in her eyes. Humor wasn't like her, so Ani understood.

"Alright, then," she said, turning to face the next wave of guards that charged down the hallway, "The two of us, together again. Hold my weasel."

Leaving Meanie-mo in Thea's hands, Ani's body distorted as it connected with the wall, riding upwards to extinguish the torches and slam downwards like a collapsing cave. All the while, green-grey rot crawled over her back, into her shoulderblades, towards the roots at her heart. Thea grabbed a crossbow from the fallen and steadied herself against the wall, firing bolts into the crowd to pick off whoever wasn't knocked to the ground. They were gaining ground, but Ani worried that they'd still be too late.

She and Thea wouldn't say it aloud, but seeing their former friends outside had seeded doubt in their minds -- if the Guild had joined with the mage hunters to survive, was there anybody left to save? Like back in her farming days, Ani kept herself busy as a distraction -- the business in question left dead mage hunters all across the floor of the Dread Peak fortress. She could barely feel her body transforming anymore, as her consciousness wove in and out of the earth like a root. She pressed on.

They found the staircase and descended, Ani keeping a careful lookout as Thea worked her way down. By now, most of the castle had been engaged by their two forces; she only hoped that the prison guards were included in that equation.

The holding cells of Dread Peak were a lightless, claustrophobic cavern. There was a flint and torch at the entrance, which Ani set alight and held up. She was so exhausted that at first, the sight beyond the cell bars didn't register. Then it did, and she was overcome with the horrid instinct to vomit with nothing to disgorge.

The mages were held with their legs chained to the ground, and their arms chained outward to either wall. They were hunched forward with their heads down, and out of each of their backs rose a cast-iron spout like a grey chimney. The treacly scent of lumshade moldered over layers of urine and blood. As the torchlight entered their cells, they looked up to catch it in their empty eyes -- not because they wanted to see, but because it was all that was there. Thea covered her mouth.

Eventually, the mage closest to them squinted his eyes. "Thea? Is that you?" It was Bolger, the carver.

"Thea?" Suddenly there was a rattling of chains as other mages strained to see. "Thea! Thea!"

"Everyone!" Thea exclaimed excitedly. "We're going to get you out of here."

Bolger leaned forward, frowning. "What is that thing you're with?"

Ani's earth froze over. She laughed awkwardly. "Ye've fergotten me already, Bolge? Some friend ye are."

Bolger paled in the torchlight. "Elani? Is it really you?"

"Yeah," Ani said, no longer able to look at him. "It is."

"Where're the keys?" Thea asked, looking around. "Ani, can you start opening doors?"

"The keys are with the guard," Bolger explained as tendrils of earth compacted and cracked his chains at the cuff. Ani could barely hear him anymore. Frantically, she realized that part of her head had gone with the earth as she'd shaped it. She pieced herself back together in a hurry, though she could tell that it wasn't the same as before. She turned that side of her face away from the torch as she went to work.

Shackles gave way all across the prison, as each mage stood up and winced as the lumshade tap dug in their shoulder at a new angle, then thanked Ani with some discomfort. They gathered in the center of the prison hall, as Thea counted heads to plan their escape. Getting in had been the easy part; getting out with all of the prisoners would take everything Ani had left.

Master Lynn was the last one freed, having been crucified at the back of the prison. Her clothes hung off her frame, and Ani was struck by how old she looked now. Still, as torchlight fell upon her, the fire was already burning in her eyes; it'd never left. It softened into warmth as she recognized her. "Ani," she said, "It's really you."

"Aye, master," Ani replied, wanting to cry. "It's me."

The former prisoners hugged each other excitedly, laughing as Meanie-mo dashed across their shoulders. The overall atmosphere was still one of fear; they couldn't remove the lumshade spouts without possibly bleeding out. One healer, deciding to take that chance, grit her teeth and pulled her spout free, praying her magic would return before she expired. Thea and the others worked to bandage her wound as Ani approached the stairs, holding up a fist to shush the crowd.

There was a noise at the top of the stairs, the voices of guards. Then a bulb of black powder, fat as a pumpkin, came tumbling down the steps.

Ani dove for the bomb and spread her body to douse the fuse as it hissed, then blew -- and suddenly Ani was all memories.

One time, Ani's mother found her daughter, covered in mud, chasing her oxen around the field, yelling after them that she could pull that plow twice as hard and what was their excuse, come back here, you chicken-legged punks. Ani had gotten a stern talking-to and a lemonade once she'd finished the field and apologized to the oxen. Someone was screaming.

One time, Igni bought a waterskein of helium from a merchant and tried to fly off of the roof of their house -- Ani had to take his share of the farm work for a week as his legs healed. She was cold, so, so cold.

One time, Ani broke down crying in front of the messenger from the farm, because her mother had died, and they'd left her all alone to do it. There was no blood anymore, nothing but dirt.

One time, Ani woke up late and had Runi knocking on her door, saying that there was a messenger bringing news of war. The cave shuddered, and rocks began to fall.

One time, Ani saw the world burn.

One time, she fought.

One time, she died.

Well, two times now, she supposed, and two was as good as three, as good as four and then some. She could make do with a few more.

Blood-covered soil peeled itself from the walls and ceiling, curling around the flower that had been left in the heap of dirt on the floor. The flower rose up into Ani's chest as it recombined, all of it earth, all of it her. She no longer looked human, she could tell. She rose and connected floor and ceiling, holding it up as it began to shatter, collapsing around them. She didn't know what to say anymore to the Guild. She had no more explanations for herself.

Master Lynn was the first to speak. "Charge!"

The former prisoners rushed up the destroyed stairs, clawing at the guards who'd pushed the bomb down. The mage hunters were quickly overwhelmed with sheer numbers and desperation. Thea rushed after them, leaving only Master Lynn and Ani in the collapsing prison. Meanie-mo stood on Lynn's shoulders, sniffing at Ani worriedly.

"Master," Ani said, her voice haunting her body without a mouth. "Please go."

Master Lynn was staring at her with a mixture of fear and wonder. Ani wondered if even her master knew what kind of magic she'd become. She walked forward. "You were never meant to be this strong," she mused.

The roof cracked with the weight of its loose rock. Holes opened in Ani's body, screaming out, "Go!"

Master Lynn reached out and held as much of Ani as would fit in her arms. "I'm so sorry you became this way."

"Well, I am this way now, so there's nothin' ye can do about it!" Ani shouted, feeling her consciousness shift and grind together.

"I know," Master Lynn said, "but you're still our Ani. Come home with us."

Stone cracked open. Ani's consciousness welled into a woman, crying, breaking away from the pillar of earth into Master Lynn's arms. Water poured from the stones of her eyes.

"You're still here," Master Lynn said, the rocks tumbling down around them. "You're still with us."

Ani contorted her body into a river of pure soil, carrying Master Lynn up, out of the dungeon. Thea was waiting for them upstairs, the rest of the mages engaged in combat.
Ani melded into the wall, and rushed in like a wraith. She'd been changed by fear, anger, and death, but above all else, she was still herself.

The mage hunters trembled in fear as the walls started laughing.

Kazimir, Han, and Yeona entered the fray from where Ani and Thea had come; their clothes were weighted with dust and blood. Kazimir gave them a smile, but his eyes were grim; Han just looked down and gripped his knife, the end of which was coated in blood.

They were headed for the main drawbridge to regroup with the diversion team; Thea kept a general sense of west-ness in their direction. The fortress twisted and turned to confound intruders, but at some point it became clear that they were on the protected end of its fortifications, and it was much easier to break out than in.

Ani rose out of the floor, the flower sticking from her head like an antenna. "Oy, Thea!"

"Yeah?" Thea turned.

Ani grinned. "'m really gonna die 'ere!"

Grief and remorse surged through Thea's eyes, but she recognized that Ani's joy was genuine. So, she smiled back. "I suppose you are!"

"Not a bad place for 't!" Ani said, looking around. "Spacious living, 'ard-workin' staff, and all me friends around!"

"It's a good place to die!" Thea agreed. "It's the best!"

"Don't you go getting any ideas, now!" Ani squealed with delight as she catapulted herself through another set of guards, crashing through the door. Open night air and the sounds of battle sprang up around her; they'd reached the courtyard at last.

Jay was darting around the battlefield, using the flat of his blade to evade attacks as he worked his healing tricks. Speaking of the healers, Vel was up on the ramparts, tossing the archers down into the crowd as Saffron lit up the ridge with a fireball.

Runi waved her hand and helmed an archer in darkness; he stumbled and fell from the wall with a crash. Fergus and Leana had managed to blow up the chain of the drawbridge, so that it couldn't be re-raised. Peridor had been hit with lumshade, by the looks of it, but he was still fighting through the pain, swinging a blade to deadly effect.

"They're here!" Ani looked up to see Nemarin crow above them. "They've made it out!"

There weren't enough people to make a rallying cry, but the morale of the entire battlefield shifted. For the mages, the prospect of freedom was so close, and all that stood in their way was a battlefield and bridge. But as the mage hunters, too, realized that their quarry was escaping, and they poured out of their guarded doors, descending on the battlefield, and suddenly, the mages were thirteen people and a group of prisoners against the might of the Dread Peak Prison.

The conscripted Guild mages of the mage hunters looked around as their former allies went free. Daigar the priest threw down his blade and jogged over to them; he had barely made it three steps before he collapsed, a lumshade arrow sticking out of his back. No amount of defectors could change the fact that they were deeply outnumbered.

Archers flooded the ramparts. Nemarin screamed as an arrow tore through his left wing. Vel swooped and dove as covering fire drove her out of the sky; she grabbed Runi and swept her into the air, navigating patches of pure dark like a coin in a shell game. The archers turned their attention from her and nocked arrows downward, into the courtyard.

The mages scattered, diving for cover. They hadn't even a second; the arrows came raining down with lethal intent. Ani looked to the sky.


A gust of wind, ignorant to the cares of everything else in its world, burst through the arrow rain, sweeping them up like leaves. Ani braced herself against its childish intensity, watching with awe as the arrows plinked to the ground like coins. Thea hadn't moved. The man responsible for the storm lowered his hand to let it dissipate. With his other hand, he raised a knife to old Fergus's throat.

Master Lynn's brow furrowed. Kazimir tensed. Thea paled.

And Ani, her eyesight dwindling, smiled. "Been a while, ye little twerp."

Igni Ellonhav's expression was unreadable as he addressed the archers on the walls. His clothes bore the seal of the mage hunters. "This 'as gone far enough. Think about it. If we keep fightin', we're goin' te lose the garrison one way or another."

"These prisoners," he said, gesturing to the gathered Guild mages, "are goin' to surrender, so that their lives can be spared. They're in no condition to escape to Gurak. If they run, at least half of them will die. They can be our prisoners again, and they will all survive," he said, finally looking Ani in the eye. "And they'll be together. That's all that matters."

The recently Guild mages looked to the ramparts in fear. The archers hesitated too, uncertain for a moment how to proceed. At some point, Ani realized, their chain of command had been broken. Only now could her brother hold some sort of authority, with his show of absolute force.

"Igni, what're you doing?" Thea shouted.

"He's just buying time," Kazimir murmured, "but it won't work."

Ani started walking. Meanie-mo hopped onto her shoulder, nervously chattering.

Keeping his arm wrapped around Fergus's neck, Igni pulled the knife across his other hand. He raised it up, showing the blood dripping from his palm. "The mages surrender here. They surrender their magic, and live. Please." His final word was so willful that it seemed to pull at everyone on Dread's Peak, begging them to see his wish.

Ani stopped. She, Igni, and Fergus were at the center of the courtyard now. She looked at her lost brother curiously, as though she'd caught him playing with a frog in the fields on their farm. "Is this really what ye want, Igni?"

Igni looked at her like his heart was wrenching in half. "What've they done to ye, Ani?"

"A lot, a whole lot. I'm 'ere now, though. Seems they've done a number on ye, too."

"I killed Jhez." Igni's words were flat and cold. "Two of us got tossed a knife, told to fight- I think I dove for it first."

"I'm sorry," Ani said.

"For who?" Igni shouted. "For me? For Jhez? I didn't-" He swallowed hard, remembering the eyes that watched them. "I'm alive now. We can only be sorry if we're alive, right? Then let's live. All of us, let's survive this night. No one die, please." His breathing had become ragged. As Ani stepped closer, he held his knife in front of him. Fergus dropped to the ground, coughing.

"If you want to stop us, you'll have to take my magic," Ani said. "You do that, and we'll surrender."

Igni's eyes widened. "If I do that--"

"I'll be gone. See, I actually died two weeks ago." Ani grinned. "It was one 'ell of a fight. I wish you'd seen it."

Igni's eyes welled with tears. "We should've never left Ma. What has magic done for us? We should've stayed. We could have been happy." His voice had dropped down to a whisper. The courtyard was held in nervous murmuring.

"We could've. But we're 'ere now, Igni. And me magic, the blasted thing, it let me see ye again." Ani leaned forward and rested her chin on her brother's shoulder. Meanie-mo nuzzled against his neck. "I've got nothing left, besides."

"I don't want ye to die," Igni choked out. His knife hung at his side.

"I don't want to die," Ani replied. "But I'm 'ere now, so it's okay."

Igni's knife thrust upwards. It pierced the sky, the blade gleaming in the night like a moon. "The mages of North Point will never stop fighting!" he declared, his voice booming like a mountain storm. "And the day will come when you mage 'unters will fall, and when that 'appens, you'd better pray--"

The archers weren't going to let him finish that sentence. Each one, incensed, turned and fired their arrows at him, intending to shoot his words to ribbons. Igni grimaced, and tears streamed down his face. "Don't go, Ani."

Ani embraced her brother, and her earthen body expanded, the lumshade arrows plunging into her back, neck, and head. Here now was the same sensation she'd felt in the arena cell, like cobwebs peeling from her body, only this time the layers kept flaking off, turning to rock.

"Now!" The rallying cry came from the ramparts, as Runi and Vel swooped down to take the archers by surprise before they could reload. A ladder propped against the wall, and the mages began climbing up, fighting with whatever swords and arrows they could put their hands on. The battlefield erupted once again, the mages beating down their captors, as the prisoners reunited with the conscripted, and each fought for their freedom.

Ani would never grow old. The closest she'd felt to it was while looking after her little brother. She let her arms fall, but Igni still clung to her as her body hardened, the rot finally ending and leaving nothing but the earth. Blood dried from her body like mist rising to the morning.

"I'm sorry," Igni sobbed. "I should've fought then. I should've."

"Shhh." Ani patted his back. "You were great. You were spectacular."

"Not as much as you," Igni said, laughing. "You're amazing."

"Hm." Ani could feel her soul slipping away into the earth. She hoped that's where it was supposed to go. As her consciousness entered the ground, she could feel it all; everyone fighting as one. It was happening faster than she'd thought. She'd waited long enough, after all.

Ani stepped back and breathed in. She smiled. "I did alright," she said, and she turned to stone.
The hardest part of writing science fiction is knowing actual science. The same applies for me and realistic fiction.

User avatar
174 Reviews

Gender: Female
Points: 3250
Reviews: 174
Sun Sep 24, 2023 10:21 am
soundofmind says...

Jay Mournsky


Runi's voice cracked as they circled the walls of the fortress, ducking under the ropes that began to unfurl down the smooth stone. Darkness shrouded her hands like a ghostly shadow, forming a cloak at her feet, swallowing Jay up behind her.

Jay sped past her legs, swerving around the narrow ledge, kicking dirt down into the moat. It splashed below him, a distant plop compared to the shouts and screams ahead of them.

They'd taken out all of the soldiers on the perimeter, but now there were more spilling out over the walls, abandoning their posts from above to flee from the wrath of the harpies overhead. Arrows were flying with one last hurrah, but the soldiers were sliding down the ropes, now with daggers and swords in hand.

Mud scraped under his paws, and he glanced back at Runi and the cascade of black uniforms falling into line behind her. They knew the two of them couldn't face the army crowding them into a corner. They had to lead them back to the main fight - meld into the chaos, where hopefully, they'd have more backup. But Jay didn't know what was happening anymore.

He'd heard the cry for peace, and then, the rallying cry.

Neither of them had a chance to see it until they finally rounded the corner in their flight. And Jay saw it first.

Like a statue in the midst of the battle, Ani's short figure jutted out of the stone, swallowed by the earth. No longer flesh, the only living thing that remained on her person was the small, white flower sticking out of her shoulder, now like a weed through a crack in a rock, and Meanie-Mo curled up beside it, in the crook of her neck.

The weasel clung to her as chaos spun around it, and Jay found himself staring at the man behind the statue, spinning a glaive over his head before spearing it through a man dressed in his same uniform.

For a moment, Jay skidded to a stop, confusion and panic colliding.

The mage hunters were turning on each other. Other mages looked like they'd escaped, and were fighting. He saw Thea and Han in the fray, but his eyes were glued back on Ani.

Meanie-mo stared back at him, his black, beady eyes fixed.

He'd known that Ani wouldn't survive this battle, but he hadn't prepared for it to actually happen.

Then Runi ran into him. Legs thumping against his side, she grunted, speaking words that didn't register. Jay's paws scraped against the mud beneath him, but he didn't know where he was going anymore. Overhead, he could see a bright, burning light, and he found himself back at Burning Head, surrounded by flames.

He could remember the heat. The flames licking against his skin. The screams of people trapped in rooms behind him, seconds from suffocating from smoke as he skittered through the hall, leaping out the window. He remembered the wall of shadowed figures awaiting him outside like a trap, each one prepared to take out the next mage to come out, choking on purple smoke.

"Get down!" Runi shouted. And her body rolled over his.

The side of the wall burst open with a blast, and the explosion threw both of them into the open air, free-falling.

Jay shifted, paws turning to hands, desperately gripping for land. His fingers caught on a tree root, stringing its way out of the moat's walls, and Jay felt it give on contact, pulling out several feet until it finally went taut.

Hanging on with all of the strength left in him, he swung along the dirt wall, his whole side scraping and bobbing until he finally stopped with a thump.

Feet dangling, he let out a shuddered breath. Dirt clattered down the moat walls as the earth sagged above him, and he stared wide-eyed at the gaping hole in the side of the fortress, unable to comprehend if it was caused by the mage-hunters or one of their own. All he could see was smoke spilling out, and the shadows of people within.

He heard a groan beneath him. Heart skipping, he looked down in horror.

Runi lah halfway in the water, her arm bent backward and bleeding. Blood streaked down the side of her face in a bright, gushing red, and she stared up at him with a fear she'd never let show.

Above them, the battle went on. But he couldn't climb back up, and Runi...

Her chest rose and fell with shudders. He knew what it looked like to stare into the eye of someone moments from death. But something inside of him felt like it finally broke.

Years of pushing the desperation down meant nothing now. It came rushing to the surface as he let go of the tree root, sliding down with his fingers in the dirt, raking the moat's walls until he landed on his knees at Runi's side.

Lifting his trembling, useless hands, he reached up to Runi's head.

It was worse than he thought. The gash was deep, and oozing. Maybe if Vel was here - if he could even call her, in the chaos of battle - she could save her. Maybe if Nemarin hadn't gone down, he could bring her back.

Instead, he was left with himself and his magic. His magic was too weak to heal more than a scrape.

This whole time, Runi had hated him for his cowardice. He knew he was spineless and indecisive, and even in this, he still felt doubt. Looking into her eyes, he couldn't help but wonder if even in her death, she'd blame him. Fighting side by side was necessary, but staying by her side...

Why did it have to be him? He couldn't save her.

"I'm sorry," he said, pulling away his mud-covered hands.

"P-please," Runi gasped.

"I can't-- I can't do anything," Jay pleaded.

Runi's eyes drifted past him, beginning to glaze over.

She was looking at the drawbridge. He glanced up, seeing Thea's glider, carrying her through the air, for just a second before she fell out of view. His eyes fell to a long, dangling string of over-grown vines, spilling down towards the water from the bridge. They drifted in the water like arms covered in moss, reaching out towards them.

Runi let out another groan, and his attention turned to her once more.

For a moment, he felt like he was about to hear her last words. He didn't expect sudden forgiveness. But he also hadn't expected:


The life was starting to fade from her tearful eyes. She was begging. His heart started to thump in his chest.

He didn't know if he really believed in redemption. He didn't think he'd ever even be a good person. If he tried, for all he knew - this could kill him, eventually. If not now.

But he was damned if he didn't try.

His life didn't amount to anything anyway. Jay hadn't been able to see life past his hiding before. Who's to say there was any future left for him now?

Jay stretched out a hand into the water, jerking one of the vines close.

He didn't have the power for this, but he remembered what Vel had told him. In times of great distress and need, a healing mage could pull from the life around them, if the life they had to give was not enough.

Setting a hand on Runi's forehead, he closed his eyes, feeling the pulse of life around him.

Runi's was fading. His own was racing. But the living being in his hands was like a steady heartbeat, winding and winding and winding. With deep focus, he gave it a little tug. And then it was like floodgates opened.

Energy poured into him. He strained to focus it, letting it pass through him to Runi, but the rush was unlike anything he'd ever felt. For the first time in his life, he felt powerful.

A vibrant light shone from his hands over Runi's head, seeping into her skin. He could see the glow snaking under his skin, flowing through his veins, bleeding into hers. The gash was sewing itself together underneath his hand, and Runi gasped as her ribs sickeningly cracked back into place. Jay moved his hand to her arm, unable to stop the flow of energy now that it was filling him. It was like all his life, he'd been an empty cup, and for the first time, he felt full. Hands alight, he took Runi's arm with the vine wrapped around his own, and he pushed it back into place.

Runi screamed, but he could feel her skin fusing together beneath his fingers. A smile pulled at the corners of his lips as he sensed everything around her formerly broken bone shift back into place, weaving back like nothing had even happened.

Runi ripped her arm away, and Jay felt the connection from his body to hers break.

Now he wasn't just full. He was overflowing.

Jay stared at the vine wrapped around his arms, eyes following through the water, all the way up to the bridge.

Once green and full of life, now every vine was dead and dried up, blackened as if by fire, and the flow pouring into him finally stopped. There was nothing left to draw on, and the vine crumpled in his hands, snapping into dust.

Runi's shadow fell over him, and he looked up at her face, still covered in her own blood.

Before she could speak a word, there was a splash in the water, and both of them turned to see a body, bobbing up to the surface.

A mage-hunter.

"Victory!" Thea's voice shouted.

"Victory!" A chorus of voices followed after.

The two of them stared at the drawbridge, listening as footsteps clapped across the wood, fleeing to the other side, to freedom.

Jay finally turned to look back at Runi, and she met his eyes with tears, but her face was stoic and still.

She extended a hand, and he took it, and she lifted him to his feet.

"Let's go," she said.

But he didn't release her hand right away. They stood there for a moment, stiffly, as his hand gripped hers tightly.

He could... sense the life inside of her. The life itself, buzzing. She herself was a well, ready to be drawn from, and he could feel the beginnings of a thirst inside of him awakening. One that hadn't been there before.

He'd tasted of something he wasn't supposed to, but as he felt Runi's pulse against his fingertips, there was a draw to drink again.

Jay ripped his hand away.

"Right," he said. "Let's go."
Pants are an illusion. And so is death.

If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave.
— Mo Willems