One of the major concepts I [Layman Kingsford] wanted to keep in the forefront of my fictional reality (the setting that houses both Living Empires and Living Starship) is the notion that the various peoples and cultures evolved along lines that caused men and women to have equal footing in society.
What caused that to happen in the world of Evorstrom? Magic.
I just stumbled across a wonderful essay by someone using the handle “ribaldremark” that talks about this very subject and specifically uses my favorite fantasy setting - the Malazan world created by Steven Erikson and Ian Esselmont - to cite the exact same issue. She, for I assume it’s a woman, writes about it far more eloquently about it HERE than I could so I will quote her as it all applies exactly to Evorstrom:
"When creating the magic system, and more importantly the impact of that magic system, Erikson and Esslemont hit upon an easy way to make their world both definitively an epic fantasy secondary world, but also feminist and gender equal.
Magic could be learned by anyone. There might be savants and geniuses and adepts, but anyone could theoretically learn magic. As a result, magic was egalitarian. From the smallest villages to the largest cities. Magic was everywhere and it was part of the culture.
This one simple concept, that magic is actually part of the world’s system of evolution, seems straightforward, but it is surprisingly absent from many fantasy settings.
Their magic system was not demarcated along gender lines like Jordan’s Wheel of Time or Goodkind’s Sword of Truth. The magic of the Malazan world can be harnessed by almost anyone. It just required work, dedication and time to hone that talent.
And magic can be very powerful, it can be a unifier or at the very least a leveller of the playing field. If male and female magic users have access to the same power then there is one less reason to treat them differently in the workplace.
But perhaps most importantly, healing magic was no longer simply the provenance of rulers, nobles and adventurers. The majority of the residents of the Malzan world have access to healing magics such as Denul… albeit not always at the same rate. But there are plenty of hedgewizards and witches, minor talents, and healers a plenty that could utilise various forms and aspects of healing magics.
So Erikson and Esslemont extrapolated from this. People lived longer (barring a knife in the back or a sword in the gut, of course). Both men and women remained fertile longer. Infant mortality rates were dramatically lower as magic could be used to cure childhood diseases. And this leads to the sociological change that birth rates would drop as people no longer felt the need to have lots of children in order that only a couple would survive.
As a result of having fewer children, women were not associated with the home as housewives and mothers, and were not confined to the role of baby factories. Their society never evolved to the point where this became the dominant view of the role and function of women in society.
So as a direct result of magic, in particular healing magic, being part of the fabric of the world, women were completely emancipated."
We’re hard at work finishing up the plot arc to be played out during the inaugural Living Starship event at Den er Comic Con this summer. We are toying with the idea (hence we’ve put some conceptual effort behind it) of filtering each character’s experience during the story through a lens of chosen motivation. We found a great article about “real alignments” for Dungeons & Dragons and modified it a tad.
character art by Limbo
On the world of Evorstrom, where every living thing is marked with the Sign of one of the eight gods, sometimes there is born a single person marked by two. It is commonly believed that this individual’s soul is of such great value and power that two of the deities fought for governance of it and neither won so the mark of each god is emblazoned upon the child. These people are called Scions and throughout history they have proven to be either magnanimous benefactors to the world or engines of the mightiest destruction.
The current Scion of Evorstrom is called the Storm Child for she bears the marks of Flame and Wind. Her name is Cynzari Bakk and she resides in the Western Polecity, Polidor. She was born to a wealthy merchant class family that had aspirations to higher placement in society. They leveraged their daughter’s fame and religious position to great effect and became one of the prominent citizen families in the entire western hemisphere; Prominent until they died six years ago in a fiery conflagration that consumed their home and most of the surrounding neighborhood.
Rumors held that the teenage Cynzari, always a brash and recalcitrant girl, had unleashed the firestorm of her power in a petulant rage against her parents. Afterwards, Cynzari refused the adoption attempts that both the Flame and Wind churches tried to enforce upon her, ignored the offers of marriage from eminent nobles and publicly ridiculed the news publications for their gossip-mongering. She disappeared into the uncivilized outer baronies for two years.
When she returned to the city, she exhibited great aplomb, poise and social dignity. In the three years since her return she has willingly navigated, not always successfully, the murky political arena between the nobility, the churches and the commoners garnering great praise as a unifying figurehead for the fractious and contentious people of Polidor.
Cynzari still takes mysterious “vacations” into the wilds every few months and, so far, has skillfully prevented all prying parties from discovering the nature of her solo jaunts.
scene 4 by Layman Kingsford
Molg roared and met the teeming horde with his axe raised high. One arcing sweep severed three goblins in half. Patryk looked to be passing out as he dropped to his knees to face plant in the mud. Ferrys was unconscious and bound while Qwentyn was left standing alone with no one paying him any attention.
Six goblins were charging toward Trenton. He noted that another, standing beside the Flame witch, was drawing a bow with an arrow pointed at him. The witch ignited the tip of the arrow with a snap of her fingers.
Without thinking, Trenton focused Flame power on the arrow and burned it to ash as the marauder pulled the string to his pointed ear. The goblin dropped the bow with a yelp.
We’re all going to die! We’re all going to die! was the only thought running in his head. The next thing that popped into his mind was something he had read in adventure stories about Scion Hara’k Na’ruth. Old Lady Matricia, who had been a parent to him after his birth mother died, kept him occupied with an unending supply of fictions. How she got her hands upon so many of the periodicals that were hard to find in these remote baronies, he had never learned.
Tone- and Wave-Signed Hara’k Na’ruth was one of the ignominious scions of history. Whether the fiction Trenton had read held any amount of truth, he did not know, but in this story Hara’k Na’ruth had been facing an army of one thousand soldiers sent to subdue his magic-fueled rampage across the continent. It told how he faced the oncoming soldiers with calm aplomb and casually placed his own fingers around his neck. Within moments, every person in the army had dropped to their knees gasping and choking for breath as they drowned in spit that had risen inside their bodies to choke off their throats.
It was that scene that popped into Trenton’s thoughts as the sixteen or so remaining bandits worked to kill him and his friends. He had never tried it before, but he let the cool tingle of Wave power flow and he mentally reached out for the liquid inside each of the goblins’ bodies. He could feel it, like thread-thin rivulets coursing through tunnels and concourses in their anatomy.
He grasped it with his magic and guided the fluid up into the throat of each bandit. Almost immediately the hooting an caterwauling ceased. Trenton opened his eyes, not realizing that he had closed them, and saw each of the small green-skinned people spluttering and gasping for breath. He was horrified. After a moment a couple of them even had eyes that looked to be bulging from their heads.
Save my friends. Save my friends. Save my friends. Trenton kept his focus despite the growing abhorrence he felt for himself and the pity he had for his victims.
Molg was glancing about, blinking with incomprehension. Qwentyn had rushed to Patryk’s side and was pulling the lasso from his wounded brother’s neck while simultaneously trying to help staunch the wound in Patryk’s abdomen.
The clearing by the road was soon eerily quiet. The pile of charred bodies was still hissing softly with steam and the ground was littered with nearly two score of dead people, their small bodies looking childlike in the stillness and bright sunshine.
Trenton breathed heavily and felt on the verge of gasping, not from exertion - the magic he had just unleashed had felt remarkably easy - but with tears of repulsion. He bent over and vomited.
Molg started cleaning blood from his axe with fabric torn from a dead bandit. Patryk appeared to be alright for the moment sitting cross-legged with Qwentyn’s short cape wrapped around his waist and wound. Qwentyn was gently reviving Feryys who was still laying in the mud like a black puddle of cloth.
Trenton didn’t want to face his friends yet and have to answer awkward questions about what they just witnessed. Plus he was in shock at the deaths he wrought, so he decided to traipse back down the road to fetch their horse and wagon. They would be able to scrounge better wound care supplies from their belongings on the cart anyway.
By the time he made it back to the scene the triplets were sitting together on a log while Molg was gathering up and tossing goblin carcasses onto the extinguished bonfire. Trenton led the horse and wagon up to the elves.
“Let me find some clean cloth to make a better bandage for you, Patryk,” he said, not daring to make eye contact with any of them.
“Banner idea,” Patryk said in a raspy voice. “I feel as if I’ve been run through.”
“You have, Brohstra,” Qwentyn confirmed. “The bleeding proves it.”
“I should also like one of my spare hats, perhaps the maroon one,” Patryk said. “The one I was wearing before we were so rudely booed...”
“Ungrateful audience full of ruffians,” interjected Feryys, whose face was already swelling with red and purple lumps.
“...has been trampled into the mud,” finished Patryk.
Trenton rummaged around for a clean towel and handed it to the bare-chested and blood-smeared dancer. “We’ll want to find a phsyiker when we get to the next town.”
“Most assuredly,” Feryys agreed. “I am already throbbing all over my body. I’m not sure how much walking I have in me.”
“Nor do I have the energy for a long travail,” Patryk said. He was unbinding the blood-soaked cape with Qwentyn’s help and they tightly wound the clean towel over the wound. “I should like to put on clean pants as well, but I fear I have not the mobility to do so.”
“I don’t think we should linger here much longer,” Trenton suggested. “Maybe we can ask Molg to carry some of our gear in order to make a bit of room for the two of you to sit in the back of the wagon.”
“I suspect we can purchase the ogre’s help if we offer him some food,” Qwentyn said.
“What should we do about all this?” Trenton asked gesturing about the clearing. The ground was trampled and muddy and littered with weapons. The bonfire pit was now overflowing with small green bodies.
“The authorities can deal with the mess,” Feryys said. “It is of no concern to us. We are the victims here.”
“The nearest authorities are back in Renclaw, a day and a half away,” Trenton stated.
Qwentyn stood and dusted off his outfit. “No matter, Brohstras. It looks as if Mork is done tossing bodies on the fire. Let us be on our way.”
Feryys and Patryk both groaned in unison as they stood up. Feryys looked to his hobgoblin friend. “Perhaps you would be so good as to relight the fire? That way the we might get some credit with the constables should we ever be questioned as to what happened here.”
Trenton nodded. “Sure, Feryys.” They called for Molg to join them and when the ogre was far enough away Trenton focused his Flame power on the pile of bodies, honed in on their clothing and other easy combustibles, and reignited the entire pile with a roar. The heat felt close to burning their faces even a good thirty paces away.
Molg was perfectly willing to heft a large trunk onto either shoulder after Qwentyn said he would hand-feed him strips of dried meat as they walked.
Feryys and Patryk clambered gingerly onto the back of the wagon and Trenton got the horse moving. No one looked back at the inferno that was quickly eradicating the carnage.
Feryys’ voice carried over the wagon after they had passed out of view of the clearing. “Trenton, you never told us you’re a Scion.”
Trenton gulped, expecting fear, rejection, accusations or worse.
“For sooth,” Qwentyn agreed. “We could have been using water tricks in our show all this time.”
Patryk added in his thoughts. “I already have an idea for a water dance set beneath cascading rivulets of colored mist.”
Trenton let go of his held breath. The elf brothers were taking this development with the same childlike acceptance that they viewed everything. He let himself smile.
scene 3 by Layman Kingsford
Trenton’s feet already hurt. They had been on the road for a day and a half having left the circus’ encampment in the outskirts of Renclaw barony. They had purchased a small cart with a draft horse to portage all their belongings.
The sun was bright, spring was in the air and flowers were blooming everywhere thanks to the near daily rains. Tree lands were Trenton’s favorite. All the lush variety of green-leafed foliage made him feel fresh as he imagined his skin and clothes absorbed all the wondrous scents.
He glanced back down the road. Yep, still there. Molg was easily keeping pace with them about four hundred paces behind the cart. His head was down. I wonder how long he’ll follow us? He didn’t pack any gear or water or food. All he’s got with him is that big axe.
“Brohstras, behold! An audience awaits us,” Feryys pronounced pointing ahead and to the left of the road. They had not seen any other travelers for about hours, but now there appeared to be a large group encamped on the roadside.
Patryk lifted the front brim of his hat. “They certainly have a large bonfire going. I wonder why they need that in the middle of the day?”
“Clearly they want to make sure we are have the proper backdrop for our new dance number Raging Foot Inferno,” Patryk explained.
Something felt off to Trenton. His Flame sign was tingling, the sensation of which increased the more he focused on that bonfire. There must me a Flame adept or two in that group, he realized.
The triplets had come to a stop and were avidly discussing the order in which to present various dance and song routines. Trenton softly brought the horse and cart to a stop. They were still far enough away from the encampment that he couldn’t make out many details, but most of the two or three dozen people milling about the bonfire looked to be goblins.
As the elves continued their programming discussion Molg thumped to a stop on the other side of the cart from Trenton. The large man peered intently at the camp site down the road as he ran his tongue over the sharp tusks protruding from his underbite.
“They be bad people,” the ogre grunted. His gaze shifted from the goblins down the road to the three elf men a few paces ahead of the cart.
“How can you tell?” Trenton asked.
“Elves should leave road.” He turned to Trenton, “And you, too.”
“Good luck convincing the Brohstras to do that,” Trenton chuckled. “Once they get in the performance mind set, they don’t get distracted easily.”
As if on cue, the triplets linked arms and started monkey walking their way down the road toward the encampment. Molg grunted and unslung the war axe from his back. His posture was even more threatening as his reverse-articulated legs sent him forward with long, powerful strides.
For some reason Trenton appreciated the goblinoid legs on the mighty ogres and speedy little goblins more than on himself and his fellow hobgoblins. Perhaps I emulate elves too much, he mused. I still wish I had smaller ears and their front-bending knees, though.
Trenton was jerked from his reverie at the sound of hoots and hollers coming from the goblin encampment. The triplets looked to have attempted a grand entrance and were being met with jeers. Molg was nearly there, though it was unclear what the ogre’s intentions were.
The wind shifted wafting hints of smoke from the bonfire up the road. The smell of charring meat became distinct. What is on that fire?
Trenton pulled on the reigns of the draft horse and started the cart moving forward. It appeared that the elves were perhaps getting an audience after all. At least twenty goblins were starting to gather around the tall elves looking rather like children circling up for story time.
Wait! Why is Molg starting to swing his axe and charging at them? It was then that Trenton noticed the glint of sunlight off of blades and spears in the hands of the goblins.
“By D’rayne’s leafy grace!” Trenton looked around desperately. What am I doing? There’s no one to help! The dense foliage of this arboreal region had been cut back twenty paces on either side of the hard-packed dirt road. They were a good ten hours away from the barony and any help the constables there could provide.
Trenton dropped the reigns and the horse and cart placidly came to a stop. He started to jog toward his friends as dread tightened his chest. He had no weapons, was certainly no fighter and had no desire to hurt anyone.
Please don’t make me use magic, please don’t make me use magic, he chanted to himself over and over as he got closer.
Huge Molg, towering at least twice the height of the goblins, was standing with his legs spread wide swinging his double-bladed axe among the diminutive greenskins. At least four were already laid out at his feet and a dozen more were keeping out of his long reach but they looked about ready to swarm him.
As Trenton got close he could see that Qwentyn seemed to be having a staring contest with a ragged goblin woman standing in front of him. She was posed, slack-jawed, with a short-bladed sword laying in the dirt at her feet.
Black-robed Feryys and bare-chested Patryk were standing back to back trying desperately to look threatening as five spear-wielding goblins surrounded them slinging racial insults at the elves.
More goblins were coming out of the trees, all of them were armed, wore dirty clothing and many had painted their faces and exposed flesh with jagged, white tribal markings. Trenton could feel an increase in Flame magic pulsing from the bonfire that roared loudly in the clearing. What he had originally assumed were large logs now looked more like bodies, which would explain the charnel smell.
He was unable to distinguish which of the goblins might be the adept, but the fire was starting to whip out tendrils as if it were some sort of burning octopus. Trenton was twenty or thirty paces from the fight and had yet to attract the attention of any of the bandits. It was going to be up to him to deal with the Fire.
Now is when I wish I knew how to invert my power and pull the heat out of the bonfire. That’s what I get for growing up among Tree folk. The things I’ve taught myself would only make that bonfire stronger. Do I dare tap into my other magic? What if the brothers see me?
A screech pierced the air and Trenton saw Patryk grasping his side with red blood flowing between his fingers. One of the goblins must have stabbed him with a spear.
Two of the flaming tendrils licked out at Molg and struck him like crackling whips across his broad back. Trenton was too far away and there was too much noise from all the chattering goblins and the roar of the bonfire, but he imagined the ogre barely grunted as he continued to axe his opponents like cord wood.
We’re all going to die if I don’t do something.
Trenton took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He was plenty strong enough to control that bonfire. He felt a tingle from the Signmark on his inner left thigh as he accessed his Flame magic. It then grew into what he imagined to be a warm red glow inside his entire body until he felt like he could cradle the sun in his embrace and be utterly content.
He sharpened his attention on the bonfire so as not to be washed away in a reverie of pleasure. He could feel every dancing flame and sparking cinder in the monumental blaze and he willed it to take the shape of a tall column, sending the entire conflagration high into the sky. And it did. With a mosntrous roar.
With a startling jolt Trenton felt like he had been dashed with ice water and the bonfire settled back and fighting tendrils started to emerge again. Control had been retaken by whoever the goblin adept was.
Trenton gasped and felt sweat bead on his forehead as his Flame magic was released. He looked around but still could not decipher who the other magic user was.
I guess my power has never been opposed before. I was totally unprepared for that. Even though he suspected he was stronger that any other wayward Flame practitioner, he was too scared to try again in case this Flamer was actually trained.
He now saw Ferrys had been taken by four goblins who were starting to tie his arms behind his back while beating him with the butts of their spears. Qwentyn had three bodies standing like statues around him which seemed to be giving pause to the other warriors. One particularly small man was backing up and reaching for a bow laying on the ground. Patryk was on his knees holding his wound, his neck encircled by a lasso held by a goblin woman.
Molg was roaring like a bear and every bandit near him had backed away, probably in the hopes of letting the fire deal with the hulking fighter.
It had likely been months since he had last accessed his Wave magic, but Trenton took another calming breath and closed his eyes. The Wave Mark on the sole of his right foot tingled and then started to issue a cooling sensation throughout his body. He extended his senses out over the lush forest as he sought to collect all the ambient moisture trapped in the air. The daily rains that occurred this time of year provided ample water in the environment.
Like a swirling flush of ocean waves he felt water coalesce all about him him, hovering at first as thousands of tiny droplets that then merged into beads that then combined into globes and finally became a churning surge of tidal proportions.
Trenton thrust his arms forward and the torrent of water swept across the clearing dousing the bonfire with a hissing cacophony of steam and ash. Everyone was soaked as if they had been dunked in a lake and the ground became a soggy bog of grass and mud.
All the fighting stopped. Goblins, elves and Molg all stared at the hobgoblin who stood perfectly dry. Trenton felt he should say something. Still no one moved. “Ummm....stop?” Trenton uttered, afraid he sounded like a timid stone mouse.
A few of the goblins shuffled their feet while some of the others glanced to the far side of the steaming pile of formerly burning bodies. The flame adept was now easily identifiable as a goblin woman holding an elaborately decorated, and now doused, torch in each hand.
“Kill the ogre and the hob!” she shrieked at her cohorts.
The goblin bandits howled back into action with blades, bows and spears.
scene 2 by Layman Kingsford
Trenton was trying to memorize lines when he heard Feryys. Without getting up from his stool he glanced out the open front of the tent he shared with the triplets and caught sight of swirling black robes and shining onyx hair all a-flutter in the sunny afternoon breeze.
“The day has arrived, my fellow performers,” the elf was announcing grandly with random gesticulations. No one on the grassy avenue between residency tents paid Feryys any attention of which the elf was perfectly unaware. “The Brohstras embark on their debut solo tour! We shall make all the world our fans as we give them entertainment never before seen, heard or felt. Tears shall fill to overflowing the dried river bed of Tunaska. Tumultuous cheers shall cause the volcano of Aridor to erupt. Every new mother will clamor to name her baby after us! Such will be our fame and impact!”
Sometimes Trenton wondered if the triplets were truly so ignorant of everything around them or if it was all part of some elaborate life-long performance scheme. Maybe it was a mental side effect caused by none of them having been born with a sign.
As Feryys drew near, Trenton noticed that the circus’ strong man was stumping along a short distance behind the elf. “Hey, Feryys,” Trenton called out to his friend. “What’s up with Molg? Is he following you?”
Feryys spun about and grandly gestured at the hulking ogre. “My dear Molg is simply falling into orbit around my greatness. I suspect he wants to apply to be the first of our new shrieking fans.”
Trenton chuckled. The thought of big old, taciturn, monosyllabic Molg shrieking at anything was comical.
“Summon my brethren, my good friend,” Ferrys ordered as he swirled back to face their tent with such verve that he nearly fell off his high-heeled boots. “I must tell them the news.”
“They should be back any moment,” Trenton said as he looked back to his script. “They went to find old lady Matricia and that was about an hour ago. I think Patryk was feeling randy and Qwentyn was going to help him pick flowers to gift to her.”
As if on cue, the back flaps on the tent brushed open admitting two more lithe elf men. “Romantic success, yet again,” the bare-chested red-head proclaimed joyously as he grandiosely rolled a ridiculously large-brimmed hat down his arm and into his hand. He then pirouetted gracefully and took a flourishing bow.
Trenton smiled. “So Matricia liked the flowers and finally agreed to court you?”
“Quite so,” confirmed Patryk as he placed his hat back on top of his head.
“But only after I gave her my famous Side Eye of Love glance from her tent entrance,” said the other elf, Qwentyn.
“That is quite right,” agreed Patryk who heartily patted his brother on the back. One of Qwentyn’s drooping, green, false eyebrows came partially unglued at the impact and dangled over his eye like a noosed tree caterpillar. He absently patted it back into place.
Feryys took a large step further into the front of the tent, flapping his arms to free them from the heavy folds of his sleeves. “Brothers, I have fabulous news.”
“Tell us,” Qwentyn said.
“Yes,please, illuminate us as to the impending good fortune, Brohstra,” said Patryk.
Feryys cleared his throat. “We are taking our act solo and should commence our venture post haste.”
Qwentyn squealed and clapped his hands together like a little girl receiving a new plush bear. Patryk danced a jig and tossed his hat as if it would fly high in the air. The large and floppy headpiece hit the ceiling of the tent a mere hands-width above his head with a soft thump and dropped to the ground.
Trenton was taken aback. “So you’re leaving the circus?”
“Quite right,” crowed Feryys. “Bossman Blaspheme...”
“Bosttwik,” Trenton corrected.
“....yes, the very same...has asked us to embark upon a well-deserved performance endeavor featuring the Brothers Brohstra as the headlining act entitled ‘The Crazy Elves From Earlier’!”
Trenton’s heart began to pound and he felt his forehead warm to the point of perspiration. The triplets were his only friends in the circus and the only other members who were not tree signed. The thought of being left on his own in this troupe was unexpectedly devastating.
“Would I be able to come with you?” Trenton asked hesitantly. “I’ve been part of your act for a long time now and wouldn’t know what to do if I were alone here.”
As one, all three brothers turned to face him and said in unison, “But of course!”
“You are an honorary Brohstra,” Feryys stated as if it were universally understood.
“Despite your verdant complexion,” said Qwentyn.
“And your overly-large ears,” added Patryk.
“Though at least they’re pointed,” noted Feryys, academically.
“But I must say, if elves had your digitigrade goblin legs I would be the best leaper ever to have danced upon the stage,” Patryk sighed.
Trenton felt like gasping. “So I can come?”
“Assuredly,” Feryys confirmed. “We would have it no other way.”
The delight and excitement coming from the triplets was palpable in the close quarters of the residence tent. The brothers put their foreheads together, draped their arms about each others’ shoulders and began to rotate circularly to the left with synchronized crab steps. They raised their voices in three-part harmony to a familiar party tune though the lyrics sounded like gibberish. Trenton never ceased to be amazed at how the three elves worked in concert, even making up their own words on the fly. If telepathy were a real thing, the Brohstra Brothers would have it.
Trenton wanted to join them but knew from long experience that when they got like this there was no interrupting them with anything short of violence.
“Elves get going, now!” came a rumbling bark from the tent entrance.
Trenton turned to see Molg in a low crouch at the front of the tent. His gargantuan double-bladed axe was resting, head down, on the grass at his feet.
The ogre’s command was apparently disruptive enough that the triplets broke off their song and turned to look about their home.
“Right, right!” said Feryys officiously. “We must start packing right away. Our fans await!” At that the elves started bustling about pulling out travel bags, trunks and packs and started organizing their belongings.
Trenton let out a contented sigh. Despite the sudden decision to leave the only home he’d known, he was excited at the prospect of doing something adventurous, visiting unseen places and meeting new people.
Perhaps he could talk them into making their way toward the capitol city of Milnor. If they did, maybe he could meet Scion Cynzari! Wouldn’t that be something? She’s the only other person in the world who might be able to understand him, or at least could answer his questions.
scene 1 by Layman Kingsford
“I’m afraid I have bad news for you. We’re letting you and your brothers go.”
Feryys leveled his bland gaze upon Bossman Bosttwik. “Go? You mean to top billing?” Feryys gave his black-painted nails a casual once over. “I dare say it’s about time we are recognized as this circus’s main attraction.”
“Can I throw him out now?” growled the gravel-deep voice of Molg who stood imposingly behind Bossman Bosttwik’s left shoulder with his massive green arms crossed over his equally massive chest.
Bossman Bosttwyk glanced with rolled eyes from the black-enshrouded elf seated in front of his desk up to the gargantuan ogre towering behind him. “No Molg, I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.”
“Who’s coming?” Molg grunted.
“You’re doing great, Molg. Just stand there and look threatening”
Molg let out a low rumble and crossed his arms in the opposite configuration and took a slightly wider stance.
Bossman Bosttwik took a slow and deep breath as he turned back to the elf. “I think you misunderstood me, Feryys. The other directors and I are relieving you three of employment with the Pink Triangle Circus.”
Feryys’s ruby eyes widened slightly with what Bossman Bosttwik assumed passed for excitement in the gloomy visage of the elf. “You mean you’re giving us a solo tour?” Ferrys then started rambling as if to people sitting to either side of him. “We’ll need entirely new choreography,” he said to his left. “And, of course, new costumes, shoes and a special new hat for Patryk,” he crowed quite loudly to his right then with a snap of his head and a flourish of his het-black hair. He then started speaking to his left again, but in a restrained whisper. “I’m thinking the two songs I wrote last night are pure rubbish but I might be able to salvage a stanza or two. Surely a trumpetous fanfare can be written for our introduction and Qwentyn will provide us with flashing light displays in every color of the rainbow....”
Bossman Bosttwik dipped his quill in the inkpot and started singing the paperwork stacked on his desk. He had long ago learned it was fruitless to try and get a word in when the crazy elf triplets got worked up in one of their verbal detonations. Even when it was just one of them alone.
Nearly five minutes passed before Bossman Bosttwik began to wonder if Feryys would actually suffocate from lack of inhaling during his elaborate plan-making diatribe. Molg appeared completely unaware that anything strange was transpiring in front of him. The hulking ogre stood there like a stone monolith.
“Who will be taking care of the circus’s books and accounting?” Feryys suddenly asked in a placid tone, jolting Bossman Bosttwik out of his reverie.
Bosttwik calmly put his quill down on top of the large stack of signed work orders. “I’m glad you asked, Feryys. Ever since you took over the bookkeeping the circus has had greater and greater financial difficulties.”
The elf placed his hand daintily upon his breast with a small gasp.
“Oh, we’re not accusing you of embezzlement,” Bosttwik was quick to add. “It’s just that we think it best for us to hire an outside professional to take care of that end of the business. It was not a good idea for us, and by us I mean my predecessor, to entrust such burdensome work to one of our own.”
“I am inclined to agree,” Feryys said. “Despite my sharp mind for numbers and my keen organization skills and my impeccable attention to detail I do think my talents are best dedicated on the stage.”
“Quite right.” Bossman Bosttwik agreed. Placating the triplets’ baffling ego-centrism was usually the quickest method to ending interactions with them. “I still think you’ve not understood me entirely. The Pink Triangle Circus will no longer be your employer. We are down-sizing the entertainment offerings we provide and you and your brothers are simply sad casualties of a drooping economy in these parts.”
“Right,” Feryys whispered slowly. He glanced sharply to the back corner of the tent pavilion. “So....we will be managing our own solo act. Fair enough. I can see you’ve been planning on unfettering us for quite some time Bossman Bastidge, and rightly so. Our talent shouldn’t be impeded by the needs of such a large ensemble as this circus and the spotlight should truly be placed upon us. We have clearly outgrown what this institution has to offer and we shall flourish as free agents!”
Feryys stood up so suddenly he knocked his stool over with a soft thump as it hit the throw rug covering the grassy floor. He turned side-on to the desk, sort of humped one shoulder higher than the other and delivered a bizarre stare with one raised eyebrow at Bossman Bosttwik. Molg shifted his stance to the balls of his feet.
“Bossman Batwing, I thank you for all that you and the Pink Triangle Circus have done for me and my brethren. We were raised from infancy in these tents, fed a fine diet of song and dance, and have been provided a fabulous life of entertaining masses of our adoring fans!” Feryys’ voice crescendoed. He stretched his arms high and wide to the vaulted peaks of the tent pavilion. “We embrace the new road you now show us. It is assuredly a path to greatness and uncalculated fame!”
With a flourish of dark robe and cloak he spun on his heels and headed to the tent entrance never letting his proclamations waver. “There shall be no limits set for me and my brostras as we plum the world for the lost chords of harmony, the missing steps of mysterious dances and the unuttered words of mind-shattering dramas!”
The elf stepped through the entrance flaps as if the curtains of a great stage were rising for him and announced to whoever was outside, “The Crazy Elves from Earlier are going solo!”
The tent flaps dropped back into place cutting off the bright sunshine from outside and occluded the elf from sight and, blessedly, from sound due to the thick fabric. Bossman Bosttwik sighed. Never has firing someone felt so satisfying.
Without looking up from his papers he said to the ogre, “Molg, please follow Ferrys and his two brothers to make sure they leave the circus for good.”
“Yes, Bossman,” Molg grunted through his large protruding canines. He rolled his shoulders to shift his massive battle axe and harness on his back as he stomped out of the tent on his reverse-articulated legs.
Maybe that’ll take care of the other firing of the day, Bossman Bosttwik thought. Molg should take my instructions quite literally and if we’re lucky, we’ll never see him again either.
scene 7 by Lauren Hershey & Layman Kingsford
Cera was getting heavier from exhaustion, her bare feet slowly trodding across the stone floor. Ranna could imagine that Cera's back was still throbbing; it felt hot to the touch, and Ranna's arm curved gently around the slack girl's upper body to help ease her up.
They were almost to her bed chambers in the Northwest wing of Bantar Apnan. Children who ran by stopped to glance at the strange woman with golden hair whose face stared down at the floor. Their eyes opened wide and they pointed earnestly, motioning to each other. Ranna gave them all a significant glance and a small smile and they stopped ogling the strange woman, immediately resuming their frolicking play down the halls. Ranna and Cera had finally reached her chamber.
Ranna shifted Cera's weight to her left side and knocked on the door to the ante chamber. An older woman with a kindly face opened the door and gasped slightly at the sight. She quickly bowed to Ranna yet accused, "Nǐ chīfàn le ma?!"
The woman's wrinkled eyes took sight of Ranna and Cera and she scoffed, disapprovingly; still muttering her worry aloud, she turned and fetched two other elderly woman, dressed in loose white robes. They quickly came over and took Cera out of Ranna's grasp, gingerly carrying the woman over to a healing bath.
Ranna didn't realize until now how much she missed them. She turned over the matronly observations in her head, replying, "Yes, Dawa, I have recently eaten." Ranna's eyes lit, "Hǎo jiǔ bú jiàn... nǐhǎo ma?"
Dawa came over and clasped Ranna's hand with her two, gazing into the young woman's eyes. "Wǒ hěn hǎo, nǚ'ér," Dawa said lovingly, patting Ranna's hands. Dawa signaled with her eyes toward the balcony and Ranna nodded, understanding the woman's request.
Stepping onto the balcony, Ranna breathed deeply, inhaling the mountain air. She removed her black leather boots and stood on the cool stone, striding over to her prayer wheel. The colored prayer flags that were suspended above her head danced in the light breeze, welcoming her home. With a swift motion, she shifted her torso and pulled the prayer wheel back... then, she let it go and it spun, the whistling wind moving the metal around and around. Ranna could hear Dawa and the women softly humming and singing their meditations of healing. Ranna smelled the familiar scent of incense and medicinal herbs being ceremoniously tossed into the bath waters. She hoped they were well enough supplied with Novanite herbs to make for Cera’s recovery. There were no Novanites currently serving in the League of Dragons.
She turned to gaze inside and caught glimpse of Cera's nude back, so torn up with recent wounds. The rest of the woman's legs and arms were clear of injury and ruin... just the broken flesh on her back gleamed a disparate pink against the amber glow of the bath chamber. Ranna watched as the healers helped lower Cera into the tub. Steam rose from the water and Cera cried out when the heat and medicine touched her back. Ranna's eyes closed as she heard the sounds of splashing water. Cera was in excellent and kind hands, as sponges and prayers washed over her.
Ranna re-opened her eyes, and gazed, determined, at the Mountain. Her mind clear, she slowly began to sing to herself. "May it be that the embodiment of compassion grips me. May the true sound of truth ring clear. May I attain through humility... all that I will not fear..." She repeated the refrain a few times, the wind as her accompaniment. The Mountain of Light loomed and so did its peril. Tomorrow, Cera would have to face her initial trial... and Ranna was tasked with teaching her how to survive.
After what seemed like hours, the sun began to set, framing the towering peaks with emblems of light. They finally became enshrouded silhouettes and the healers, exhausted from their efforts, indicated that Cera was ready to emerge from the tub after Ranna's benediction.
Ranna strode into the chamber, breathing in the fresh scent of herbs. She kneeled at the side of the tub and caught Cera's blue gaze. Cera's cheeks flushed light pink at the acknowledgment of her nudity, and Ranna lifted her silk veil to her dark eyes-- both granting herself more comfort and allowing Cera to feel less exposed.
Dipping her hand into the water and withdrawing some of the liquid, Ranna spoke: "We take you as our refuge and pray that your strength never forsakes you, your devotion never abandons you, and your suffering never cripples you. With this, I invoke my responsibility-- by our people and the League-- to safeguard you and teach you, so long as you are faithful." Ranna poured the water over her own eyes and the women murmured the prayer and did the same. Cera began to silently shake, tears streaming down her eyes.
Ranna's chest grew heavy and she unveiled her face, looking at Cera. "There is no more time for tears. Rest tonight. Clear your mind of all you have seen... for tomorrow, you will learn to be truly strong. Dispel your fears now, Cera."
She got up and left the bath chamber, letting the women wrap Cera's wounds and dress her in silk for sleep. Ranna's mind gripped with hesitation. It would take all of her own strength as well to go back to that place, let alone teach another to navigate its ways. Ranna walked over to her bedside and picked up her dagger, moving it around her hand, letting the blade gleam in the half-light of the room. This is all she had been given before being left in the Mountain of Light for three days. It had been her only defense against the horrors inside... how far she had come now.
All those terrible lessons were about to pay off.
scene 6 by Lauren Hershey & Layman Kingsford
Cera awoke sitting in a white-walled stone room, her hands suspended above her, chained to the wall. She was barefoot and clad in a soft chromium robe; the fabric swirled around her limbs, insulating her body warmth against the rough cold of the sandstone beneath her. She gazed, disoriented, at the four walls-- trying to recall and understand the chain of events that led her here, wherever here was. It was no use. The memories were stranded somewhere in her mind and, for once, she didn't care.
She closed her eyes and let her head tilt back against the stone wall. She expected the HUD from her uniform to display in her eye lenses, but without her Fleet uniform her vision was plain and natural. She felt naked without the digital support. Even on the asteroid colony where she and her friends had been captive these last months had radiant power constantly feeding their uniforms. Here the ceiling was domed, and two open windows in the cut stone revealed the shining daylight outside. Beams of sunlight passed through the openings and lit up the chamber; and she let the warm glow bask upon her face. It reminded her of home...but, she was a prisoner once again.
A sharp clanging of the chamber door broke Cera's trance and her head snapped forward. Two large men stood at the entrance to the chamber. One was brandishing a long black whip, which made Cera cringe as her gaze fell upon it. The man holding the whip was burly and clad head to toe in black silks and had reverse-articulated legs. Only the slits of his harsh eyes were visible. The other man stood proudly, with impeccable posture. His deep brown eyes were set in a callous face of deep brown skin which wore an enigmatic expression. He had black hair and a black beard, and wore flowing emerald robes with golden clasps and linings decorating the garb. A curved blade hung at his side, just as scythian as his gaze.
The man in the green robes walked over to Cera and knelt, his piercing crystalline eyes meeting her own. Looking into them made her fearful, as their clarity hollow, somehow devoid of a crucial component of humanity... He smiled at her and spoke, as she averted those cruel eyes.
"I am Harash Sh’Var, Dragon’s Head. You are Cera Cantuur, I have been told." His voice trailed off for a moment and he tilted Cera's chin upward so her eyes met his. His face had contorted into a silent fury: "Cera, do you know what adversity is? Have you ever tasted true defeat?"
His words signaled the man in black, who came over to Cera and uncuffed her from the wall. Her hands fell in front of her, catching her fall. She glared up at them from all fours.
"Cera, the first rule of the Black Dragon League is to speak when spoken to" Harash Sh’Var jeered. He put two fingers in the air and signaled to his partner, who cracked the whip upon Cera's back. She clattered to the floor, biting her lip hard from the flurry of pain.
Harash continued to speak. "I assume you are familiar with the term, Rimaruuk. I have spent a great deal of time and resources looking for this substance. You are going to make my empty-handed search worthwhile, with some information... everything you know about the drug."
The whip seared her flesh again and again; her whole body stung and tears involuntarily welled in her eyelids. She desperately wanted the pain to end, but was afraid that even if she told Harash Sh’Var what she knew of Doctor Prant’s twisted experiments... those eyes, his eyes, held no mercy. She would die thereafter.
It was in that moment that she thought of her father's grit, of Nyka’s sacrifice and of Riklan’s true companionship. She refused to betray any of them, to destroy the meaning of what they had all provided her. She looked up into the face of this Dragon and spat blood at him, "You're wasting your time."
Enraged, Harash Sh’Var laughed and motioned to the man in black, her executioner. Harash bent his head and recited a meditative prayer for Cera in some foreign speech. The lyrical flow of the words washed over her, striking her as out of place in this bleak moment. "I release you," he said somberly, his partner lifting Cera up by her hair. No longer holding a whip, the man in black held what looked to be a ceremonial dagger. Cera's face filled with tears and she clung to the memory of her family.
"Halast." The command came from a woman's voice and Cera's eyes widened at the recognition of the tone. Harash Sh’Var gazed at the shadows, where a beautiful woman lingered, dressed in deep red robes. Ranna stepped into the chamber. She offered a bow and spoke, her voice like that of a spider's silk weaving among morning dew. "She survived the Pools, father. There is much we can learn from this woman. Perhaps, we stand to better persuade her through other means... I advise that Cera Cantuur be trained and submitted to the Trials."
The words hung in the air, weighty. Even the daylight rays felt dimmer. Cera looked, amazed, at Ranna. She was confused and her back radiated with pain. Would she be spared yet again to just go through another person's vision of Hell?
Harash judged the proposal and motioned for his partner to relinquish hold of Cera. "Once again, binteh," he stated, "be careful of what you ask. I am impressed with your finesse in the Pools. I grant you access to them whenever you seek their properties. However..." his eyes branded Cera.
"Your request will be honored. I bestow upon you full responsibility for her pathetic life. Should she fail in the Trials, you will have aspired to the highest failure by our laws... This is your only warning, daughter." Their gaze locked and his mouth twitched; the viridian robes turned, and the two men exited the chamber.
Cera clutched at the floor, spitting more blood onto the stone. Ranna stood surveying her, coiled. She opened her mouth to speak and Cera interrupted her, "You have condemned me to this." She looked at Ranna accusingly. Her voice faltered, "I don't understand... why won't you let me die?"
Ranna's eyes softened slightly around the edges.
"Because, Cera Cantuur, you have brought life."
The words caught Cera off-guard, and she looked at the woman in front of her. She didn't comprehend the gravity of what Ranna was saying, but felt an urgency of truth in the woman's words. Being alone with Ranna brought a better sense of peace than being with the woman's father. Ranna's eyes, while entrancingly deep, did not share her father's lack of compassion. They were exuberant orbs, full of clarity and something unrecognizable but pure. Somehow, Cera trusted those eyes.
Ranna offered her hand to Cera. Cera looked at the hand and remembered Riklan’s silly gesture before she had entered the shuttle-- that choice had changed her life, had changed her so much; she wasn't sure how to recover from the acceptance of his hand that day. This transition felt similar, and it frightened Cera, deep in her bones. Her gut told her to take the chance, to keep moving forward, to leave this stone-walled entrapment and traverse the unknown beyond the chamber wall.
In the silence, Cera heard a faint chirping outside-- a bird was warbling, greeting the day with a delicate morning song. If such beautiful life can be outside, I have to keep going... she reasoned with herself, and grabbed hold of Ranna's hand. The woman helped her off the floor and slung Cera's arm around her shoulder for support. With Ranna bearing the majority of Cera's weight, they slowly walked together out of the chamber and into the halls of the fortress of Bantar Apnan.
scene 5 by Lauren Hershey & Layman Kingsford
The childhood song played through her head, teasing her back to the waking world... The mothers of the League used to sing it to their children before they were sent off to their initial trials in the cascades. The song would echo through the halls of Bantar Apnan as the children approached the main gate, filling the stone towers with a euphonious chorus of spirited voices.
"The mountains call us away,
To learn of our people's way.
And Time, it stays, it stays, it stays,
In ancient halls of Zalaruss’s day."
She would always watch as a young girl with her litter-mates from her room aloft, as the other children would carol the melodies again and again, moving playfully across the wildflower plateaus of their homeland toward the towering promontories that housed hardship and power.
The memories danced in her mind, pulling her along a path of light toward the entrance to the gate. Suddenly, she was afraid. Her steps faltered. She looked down at her feet but they were still moving, obediently, toward the opening yaw. 'No!' she heard her young voice demand from afar, but her body kept going. Her father's harsh voice growled the command, 'Take her to Jabaal al-Noor - the Mountain. Teach her until she breaks. Then return her to me.' Tears welled up in her eyes as two men seized both of her small arms and hauled her toward the gate, her legs swinging wildly for the floor. She had heard terrible tales of the Mountain of Light.
She didn't want to die...
Ranna's eyes snapped open out of instinctual fear. She was floating in that opalescent pool down in the depths. She clutched at her chest to stop the bleeding... nothing was there but smooth flesh, unscathed. Her hands searched furiously for the dagger's entry point but it no longer existed. Everything felt whole, untouched. The word 'perfect' entered her mind but she banished it quickly. That notion was impossible; she had been told that the Pits held restorative properties, but to feel this renewed... this energetically pure... it didn't make sense at all. It felt as if traces of her physical memory had been erased; old scars that contained hurt beyond their sinew were light to the touch.
"Unnnnnhhhhh" gasped someone behind her. Ranna clutched at her floating dagger, still reeling from the effects of the pool, and whirled around. Her eyes flashed and she caught sight of Cera, who had half emerged from the pool and was clutching her head in her hands.
Ranna eyed her wearily, taking in the sight of the girl. Cera's skin had an almost amber glow in the cavern lighting, much different from the pallor she exhibited along their journey here. Her long blonde hair shone with the reflection of the pool and softly framed her face, which was still covered by her hands. The deep bruising patterns were gone and her injuries seemed to have evaporated from her form, leaving a semblance of exuberance and health. She was alluring to behold.
Cera let out another heavy breath and took her shaking hands from her face, looking wild and stricken. Her bright blue eyes met Ranna's and Cera began wading forward through the pool.
"You... saved me" she said. "You took me here..." her steps ceased and she stood close to Ranna. Her eyes searched Ranna's face, and welled with tears.
"WHY?! WHY DID YOU SAVE ME? I WANTED TO DIE! I WANTED THE NIGHTMARE TO END!!!"
Cera lunged forward and clutched at the neckline of Ranna's silken robe; her movements were quick and her grip strong. Too strong. Cera's tears fell into the pool and her body heaved with sobs of despair as she stared into the pale face of her savior.
Cera clutched at her eyes, her knuckles turning white. "Aghhhhhhh!!!!" she screamed, doubling over. "Why does it hurt so much?!" She begged the air. Her body convulsed and she smacked the water with her palms. Torrents of the liquid shot into the air, momentarily decorating the roof of the cavern with color. Ranna steadied her dagger hand-- her thoughts unfocused, her heart hammering.
Before she could ready a defense, Cera launched her knee up through the water and pummeled Ranna square in the diaphragm. Ranna gasped for breath and collapsed into the water, relinquishing the dagger. She struggled to breathe as her lungs convulsed rapidly from the intensity of the impact. A hand reached underwater and seized her by the throat, lifting her out of the pool and shoving her entire body back against the edge of the pool. Ranna's eyes fluttered from the searing pain, as her back hit the stone edge a bit too hard, sending spasms of pain radiating through her nerves. She was finally re-gaining her ability to take in air, her lungs and heart working furiously. Instinctively, she gripped Cera's arm, attempting to activate critical pain sensors along the pressure points... anything to release Cera's insane grip upon her windpipe. Nothing worked. Perhaps she wasn’t as familiar with Novanite physiology as her training had led her to believe. Even deftly maneuvering her feet in position to take her aggressor off balance utterly failed. Cera's face was contorted with blind rage-- her eyes untamed, raging sapphires. Ranna's head felt like it was going to burst. Her hands landed on both sides of Cera's gripping arm, pleading in their movements... begging for release.
Suddenly, Cera let Ranna go. She clutched at her head again, swaying unsteadily in the pool.
Ranna, exasperated, coughed out the trapped air in her chest and inhaled quickly, her lungs sputtering. Her body was undergoing shock from the lack of oxygen, yet the strangest sensation was pervading her form. The pool was tending to her wounds, nurturing her lungs with a cool salve.
Cera stood there, close to Ranna, totally silent and unmoving. Her hands were back at her sides under the water and her still reflection caught the light of the pool. Her eyes had a glazed, cobalt appearance as she looked through Ranna.
Ranna didn't break the stare but tried peripherally searching for her weapon in the pool. If she were to die here, it would be honorable, a death fit for the Heir of the League.
Cera began to move toward Ranna, taking undaunted steps. Ranna's breathing hitched as Cera's body pressed hers against the edge of the pool. Those deep blue eyes caught Ranna's and a smile curved Cera's mouth upward to one side. Cera moved her right hand forward, grasping Ranna's hair... her fingertips ran through the dark strands, pulling the flustered woman's head back slightly. A guttural groan escaped Ranna's throat as Cera moved in, her lips brushing along Ranna's jawline. The spot where Cera's lips touched Ranna's neck erupted with heat, and the sensation traveled throughout her body like a shudder.
Another breath escaped Ranna's lips, but was captured, swiftly, by Cera's own lips. Cera's body arched into Ranna's, releasing rivulets of water from the side of the pool... all the tension and pain Ranna had experienced melted at the sensation of Cera's deepening kiss. It enveloped her, awakening deep elements in her body, setting off a chain reaction. Ranna clutched at Cera's lower back, drawing the woman in deeper, feeling the emerging heat settle in her cheeks and thighs as their hips pressed together.
Then, Cera's body went slack and her eyes rolled back into her head. She slid into the water and Ranna dove to retrieve the woman, her body still aching for Cera. What the hell had just happened?
"Seize that woman!!" the ceremonial guard barked at the two healers who rushed into the cavern, their white robes reflecting vibrant shards of light off the walls, causing Ranna to blink repeatedly. Cera was lifted from Ranna's arms and taken, dripping wet, through the tunnels. Ranna stayed at the edge of the pool, her gaze far off; she was only half aware of what the guards were doing and saying. She heard them say, "She is ready for interrogation. Take her to the keep."
Ranna's eyes closed and she lowered herself into the pool ever so slightly. Her head was pounding and her body was flooded with sensation, almost as if a soft poison had taken root at her lips and was sliding its way through her veins. Her lips hummed and reverberated with the lingering energy of Cera's warmth. A breath escaped the opening between Ranna's lips. She remembered the warnings the healers had given her about how the Zalaruus Pits sometimes caused those it healed to go utterly insane, haunted by their own invisible demons...
Had Cera gone insane? Was what followed merely a chemical effect of the pools, of being destroyed and re-made under its surface? Ranna felt the words of the childhood song nagging at the back of her mind again... 'and Time, it stays, it stays, it stays...' Time had betrayed her; it lingered around her body, demanding action in the silence of her aftershock. It demanded resolve.
And Ranna knew exactly what needed to be done.