More writing about my friend’s character.
Moira Ballas, First Archivist, leader of the Eternal Watch, shivered as a draft blew through the audience chamber. It was the dead of summer but the massive chamber, dug into the earth, sat protected from the sun’s heat. Clever architecture allowed for a constant airflow that kept the room just a tad too cold to be comfortable. The room she stood in was bare, save a pair of guards standing in front of an ornate door that seemed out of place on the cold gray walls. In front of her rose a balcony in a crescent, with nine delicately carved chairs inlaid with subtle slivers of gold. In them sat the Council of Nine—members of the Tet Alune, the Old Families. Each could trace his or her lineage back to the Icathi Wars and each had held their place through cunning and ruthlessness. And above them, in a silver throne, sat Coron de Lune, the High King of Dunmuth, Defender of the Shining Cities, the Sword of Virtue, and a dozen other pompous titles and names. He sat sprawled on his throne, craggy brow furrowed like a looming thunderhead.
“Explain yourself, Archivist.” His voice was a deep baritone that echoed through the stark chamber, the voice of a man who did not ask things, but ordered them.
Moira dipped into the pouch at her waist and extracted another pinch of poppy. The cold air was not kind to her joints and she had begun to develop a headache.
“The Archivists are tasked with keeping a history of our kingdom, both past and present,” she began, her tired voice sounded twice as feeble in comparison to the commanding tones of the king.
“Obviously,” Coron rumbled, his expression darkening. “Do not waste my time, Archivist.”
“Patience, your Grace. It is necessary to begin here to explain the events that have unfolded.”
She paused to take another pinch of poppy. “While we have Fourth Order Archivists spread wide throughout Dumuth, we cannot be everywhere. Our information comes not only in the official reports of traveling Archivists, but also from the rumor and hearsay of common men.”
“Pah! Idle merchant prattle and women’s gossip, is this what the royal treasury funds?” scoffed the man sitting on the far left of the balcony. Moira could not make out his features, but she recognized the nasally whine of his voice and the permanent sneer that plastered his face came through just as clearly in his tone. It was Lord Vyrion, of House Taldas. His family had a hand in nearly every crop that was grown in Dunmuth, directly or indirectly. While immensely wealthy, the man seemed to resent that his wealth came from such common means, and was often contrary simply for the sake of it.
She gave a small bow in his direction. “Normally, Lord Taldas would be correct, idle gossip is often nothing more than fleeting fancies of tired eyes. But when we hear stories from fifty, a hundred different lips? It begins to warrant investigation. Entire villages near the borderlands were vanishing, people said. We sent agents to investigate. We would not hear from them again.”
“And so you reached out to me,” the figure next to Taldas leaned forward. It was a woman, of fifty years or so, regal in bearing and a long mane of gray hair tied into a practical knot at the back of her head.
“Yes, Lady Welker.”
House Welker was built on the bodies of their foes—sometimes literally. A long and prestigious history in military conquest, and their current matriarch Lady Tassa was no different. After many years serving in the military she had retired to a life of politics, much to her discomfort. Moira had found her blunt nature refreshing, and Tassa had found her lack of political ambition to be the same. They had become fast friends.
Coron shifted on his throne. “So you are the one I should blame for the loss of a battalion of men and one of my best knights?”
“Indeed, your Grace,” she replied, unfazed. “Madame Ballas approached me with her information, and I deemed it prudent to investigate further. I believed it to be acts of aggression from Tsungori agents, although Madame Archivist disagreed. Had I believed what she does, I would have mustered every soldier in the capital to march toward the borderlands immediately.”
She shrugged. “The absence of Sir Felbretch and his men indicates that perhaps that is exactly what I should have done.”
A low murmur broke out among the Nine. Coron leaned forward, his large hands grasping the arms of his throne, threatening to crush the delicate filigree.
“And what exactly did she think was out there?” he asked, addressing Tassa directly.
She spoke a single word that cut through the air like a knife.
There was a moment of stunned silence and then the room erupted in chatter.
“ENOUGH!” roared Coron. He stood, towering above the Nine, his face almost as pale as his graying hair. “The Icathi,” he said thickly through a tongue choked by rage, “are a myth. An old wives’ tale told to little children. No more.”
Moira grimaced. The pounding in her head was growing stronger. “Your Grace, please, I have spent my life studying our history and I can assure you-“
“You can assure me nothing,” the king cut in coldly, sitting back down. He glared down upon her like a vengeful god. “The First Archivist has clearly suffered a mental strain, perhaps the shock of seeing one of her Archivists after being attacked by Tsungori raiders was too much for her. She has clearly lost her wits,” he declared loudly. It was not a statement. It was a sentencing.
Moira knew she should protest, fight, convince him he was wrong, or at least try to win some of the Nine to her aid, but the throbbing in her mind was incessant. She could do nothing except stare stupidly up at the balcony as the guards moved forward to seize her.
“Your Grace, if I may speak,” the soft lilting voice came from behind her. She turned slowly, blinking. It was Crase Duvoth, head of the Second Order of the Archivists, and her second in command. How long had he been there? He moved lightly to her side, placing his large hands around her shoulders.
“I too, study the old histories, as you may know. While I am uncertain what great cataclysm rocked our civilization in the far past-“ Moira tried to protest, he knew just as well as she did it was the demonspawn Icathi—his hands tightened around her, warning her to silence as he spoke over her feeble half-formed protest. “-But the records speak of a great weapon hidden and sealed away near the end of the war, something so dangerous our ancestors dare not keep, nor had the power to destroy.”
“Weapon? What do you mean? What does this have to do with the Archivists?” The king’s voice sounded muted, distant to her. She tried to break free from Crase, but her body would not listen to her. She sagged listlessly against his grasp, her head resting gently on his wide chest. There was a strange staleness to the air around him, but her mind could only idly probe at that thought as it passed by, flushed onward by the ever present beating in her head. The room was spinning now, and she couldn’t hear the voices anymore.
Moira awoke in a fit of coughing. Deep coughs that started in the bottom of her lungs and clawed through her body like a feral beast, she convulsed with each violent hacking breath. At last the fit passed, and she lay there gasping, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. She would have rolled off the bed had she not been bound to it with sturdy straps of leather.
“That was a close thing, back there. Coron almost tossed you in the dungeon instead of into my care.”
Her tired eyes focused slowly onto the broad-shouldered bald man sitting on a chair to her left. “Crase…” she croaked out.
He rose gracefully and moved to her side, holding a glass of water to her parched lips. She downed it in great gulps, although probably half the glass splashed out onto her face and neck.
“You fainted. I was merely blowing smoke, trying to get you out of there and away from a prison cell, but by the gods, you really sold it!”
“I’m old, Crase. Too old to be dealing with demon ilk…” she muttered, she wanted to rub her temples. The headache had grown distant, but it had not disappeared.
“So, it’s true then? The Icathi return? Then…” The large Archivist leaned forward, an odd expression on his face. “Vigol’Icath stalks the night once more?”
That wrought a dry chuckle from her. Vigol’Icath, the witch of the Icathi. The early Archivists had worked tirelessly to scrub her existence from memory, and yet her presence persisted in an old wives’ tale about a demon-witch who stole children to eat. The world forgot her name, but never their fear of her.
“Are we proud Watchers or are we frightened fishwives? Speak her name.”
The large man licked his lips and spoke slowly, savoring the sounds on his tongue. “Ijahn et-Kharaat.”
Moira nodded. “Aye. I released Ijahn. Felara Dunn left with a full battalion of soldiers and a Knight of Valor and returned alone, more dead than alive. Her reports are no lie, and we will need Ijahn’s knowledge.”
“Moira…” Crase hesitated. “If truly you have released Ijahn back into the world, perhaps…” He placed a large hand gently on top of her own. “You collapsed today. You said yourself, you are getting old. I mean no disrespect to your knowledge or your experience, but perhaps it would be best to transfer the Watcher’s Key now, lest your health fail you at a critical moment in the months to come.”
“It is no surprise you’ve risen to become my right hand, Crase. You are always looking ahead, always planning for the future.”
The bald man beamed. “I strive only to help. Does this mean you agree?”
“With such a meticulous mind,” Moira continued, ignoring his question, “I am surprised, almost baffled, at how you could have forgotten that I specialized in herbs and poisons while I was in the Third Order.”
His eyes narrowed.
“What was it? Nightsbane? Grayswort? Mixing it with my poppy was clever. I’m a little ashamed of myself for not catching it.” She smiled sardonically. “Although I was a bit preoccupied.”
Crase stood up, dropping all pretense of warmth. “It was Redtail root. I needed you weak, not dead.”
Not until I get the key. The unspoken sentence hung between them.
“What is your game, Crase? Why do you desire the key? What are you…what…” an itching had begun to spring across her body, growing in vigor until it felt like a thousand tiny needles prickling across every inch of her body. She gasped, unable to continue speaking as the sensation overwhelmed her.
“That would be the Grayswort. Fear not, I mixed it with a dash of Dragonloc, so the effects will not be fatal. But they will be very, very unpleasant.” He leaned in close, his dark lips only a breath away from her burning ear. “I saved you from the dungeons, and in return the king has put you in my care. My personal care. None are to bother your rest.” The last word was a violent hiss, but Moira did not hear it as her world melted into agony.
The Second Archivist left the tiny room, making sure to lock the sturdy oak door behind him. Outside, a messenger stood lounging against the wall. He sprang to attention when Crase turned.
“By Vashara’s teat, you’ve been in there for hours,” he cursed irritably. “Well? Do you have the location of the weapon?”
Annoyance flashed across Crase’s broad face, but it was quickly smoothed over with a mask of pleasantness. “Her mental state is unwell, I am afraid,” he replied in his lilting voice. “She was delirious and could not tell me anything other than that the weapon has been released.”
The messenger licked his lips, his eyes darting. “Now look here, I have to deliver your message to the king, and the king isn’t fond of bad news, you get me? Gimme something more than that.”
Crase shrugged his large shoulders. “My best guess is that she has entrusted the weapon to a select few she trusts. If she truly believes the Icathi have returned—“ he let out a light laugh, “—then I have an inkling of where they might be headed.”
“Is that what you want me to tell the king then?”
“No,” he replied, smiling, “I want you to tell him to send me the Ravensgaurd.”
The messenger paled.
Jatara Sen was no stranger to fear. Her mother had died when she was 9. Left with no one to care for her, her father had begun taking her on his jobs as a mercenary. There was always work for a sellsword in the broken lands of Tsungora. She had known fear fighting alongside knights to defeat brigands twice her size, and she had known fear fighting those same knights alongside brigands months later. She knew fear when she saw her father cut down, and she knew fear when she was put in chains and hauled to the secret gladiator pits in the wealthy kingdom of Dunmyth to the north. The greatest fear she had ever known, however, was at 13, when an ambush had scattered her father’s troop and she had fallen back into the deep woods. She had wandered those woods, ragged and alone, until nightfall. Blind and hopelessly lost, she had stumbled across a Felgrat feeding on a fresh kill. She had stood there, not daring to even breathe, staring at a feline nearly six times her pitiful adolescent frame. The sleek muscles rippled underneath its short black fur as it raised its massive head to look at her. Giant yellow eyes stared at her, glowing as they gathered the tiny amount of light available. It flexed paws larger than her head and curled its lip back into a snarl, revealing teeth the length of daggers. This was a creature fast enough and strong enough to remove her head from her body with a single lazy swipe, in the time it would take her to blink. Time froze in that moment as their eyes connected. The Felgrat sized her up in an instant, but it felt like an eternity before it turned its head back toward its meal. She was no threat to it, despite the short sword she had worn on her belt then. Just as now, she would not draw her blade at an insect, how could the Felgrat be bothered with something so small?
Now, a woman grown, and Commander of Sparrowguard, a veteran of hundreds of battles, she felt that same fear her 13 year old self had experienced. But this was no mere wild beast that sat across from her in the stuffy confines of the rocking carriage. It was something much, much worse. When the Cataclysm had struck the lands of men nearly four centuries ago, all people banned together under one banner, regardless of nation or lord. But one nation—the kingdom of Dunmyth—brought two things that truly turned the tide for humanity. First was a brilliant tactician, a dai jann, in her native tongu — a miracle-worker—taking impossible battles and turning them into victories. He soon became the beacon of hope for all humans. The second was something much darker. Whispers of a priestess who had made a pact with the demons, who had fornicated with them and drunk their blood. Her name was lost but to this day mothers warned children of the Vigol’Icath, the Witch of the Icathi. With her blood magic infusing Dunmythan steel, the dai jann lead Dunmyth to safety. And so after the war Dunmyth prospered while Tsungora languished in corruption and destitution. Prosperity bred arrogance and Dunmyth forgot its dark secrets. But Tsungora remembers. Jatara’s jaw clenched as she recalled the events from earlier that morning.
Moira slumped at her desk, looking like she had aged 20 years since Jatara had last seen her. The hooded figure that lounged on the wall behind them. Moira’s terse instructions and Jatara’s disbelief. Had it been anyone but Moira Ballas, Jatara would have walked away. But she owed the First Archivist a great deal, and so she sat in the airless carriage slowly meandering the busy streets of the capitol. Out of the corner of her eye she studied the creature sitting across from her. Somehow, she had expected her to be taller, but the witch—Ijhan—was nearly a head shorter than herself. Her dark gray skin, the color and texture of stone, was punctured by running lines of faintly glowing red, converging just underneath her eyes. The eyes themselves were an unnatural black, offset by brilliant red irises. The whole of it was framed by brittle looking white hair that hung limply around her face.
“See something you like, soldier?”
Jatara jerked slightly. The witch had noticed her covert observation. Her voice was surprisingly high, not unpleasant to listen to, although there seemed to be a strange grinding sound, like two stones being rubbed together, that hovered just below each word. Her speech was strange, stilted. She placed emphasis in strange places and placed each word with a deliberateness that reminded Jatara of her own speech, each syllable placed carefully to eliminate the traces of Tsungori on her tongue that persisted after all these years.
Composing herself, she nodded toward the two silvery bracers pinned to the witch’s forearms. “When they nailed those things on…did it hurt?”
Ijahn looked down, rubbing one of the bracers reflectively. Looking back up, she let out a slow grin, hands spread wide. “I didn’t feel a thing.”
The swaying carriage jolted to an abrupt stop.
“We have a problem,” a voice called from the front. A moment later the door opened and a young boy of fourteen swung inside smoothly. Jaelan had inherited a high brow and a smattering of freckles from his mother, but he bore his Tsungori father’s straight black hair and dark brown eyes. The mix of Dunmythan and Tsungori had delighted the nobles, and his mother, a middling merchant had used him to gain access to the upper circles of society. When his features no longer amused them, his mother had tossed him onto the streets. Still, he was a clever and resourceful boy, and during his time among the high society he had become fast friends with many of the servants and workers. He soon extended his influence to the street beggars and market sellers, and now he stood at the center of the most extensive intelligence network within the capital.
“What’s the news?” Jatara asked as the carriage lurched back into motion.
“Checkpoint at the east gate. They’re dressed as regular guardsmen but I have word that they are Ravenguard.”
Jatara sucked in her breath. Ostensibly the Ravenguard were merely public hearsay and did not exist, but it was an unspoken fact that the king kept an elite cadre of soldiers within the shadows, trained to strike at any enemy of the crown, with any force necessary. What was less known, was that the Ravenguard was established as a sister order to Jatara’s own Sparrowguard, both trained in how to hunt and fight Icathi. Jatara glanced at Ijahn.
“We need to get off of the roads.”
“I’ve already given Mira directions to an inn nearby. The owner owes me a favor, but if the Ravenguard come looking…” His eyes flickered toward Ijahn.
“I don’t know what you’ve got yourself caught up in Jatara-je,” he said, switching to a nearly flawless Tsungori. “But promise me you’ll be careful.”
She smiled, although it didn’t quite reach her eyes. “A necessary evil, little one. Trust in me.”
She gathered her cloak around her, pulling the hood up. In this heat, it would be conspicuous, but she couldn’t afford to be recognized. “I have a plan, but I must prepare. Take them to the inn. Wait for me. If I am not back by nightfall, or the Ravenguard come…” she hesitated. “Flee with Mira. Return to the Archives and present the guard with this,” she pressed a small brass broach, in the shape of a swooping sparrow into his hand. “Ask to see the First. She will protect you.”
In a fluid motion, she opened the door and stepped out of the still moving carriage, merging almost instantly into the throng of people milling around the streets. She gave the carriage one last glance as it swung away. She hated the idea of leaving Jaelan or the girl Mira with that demon, although she had to admit ruefully that if Ijahn was even half as powerful folklore claimed, Jatara’s presence would not make a difference. Necessary evils. The thought stayed with her as she vanished into the crowd.