To: Oren of Famardy
Care of Elder Cupboard, Crusaders of the Council
Hey! It’s me, Lin! How’ve you been doing, kiddo? I’ve really, really missed you these past few moons. I dunno why, but I felt this kind of weird urge to write you for the first time in a long time, at least since the summer. It was nice to hear from you every so often. You know, a break in the monotony that’s war, and healing the wounded, and war again…
That reminds me! I’m sure your reading and writing has gotten a lot better! I’m proud of you for coming so far in such a short amount of time. You really got a lot to be proud of, you know? I hope you realize that. I just got worried and all when you stopped writing. I guess something came up, and Crusader business started up again. That’s okay by me! I got wind from the other Cohorts that you were still in the Crusaders, but I wasn’t too certain if you revealed your secret to other people yet, so that’s why I addressed the letter to your brother. I know it’ll get to you. I just have this feeling.
I miss the other Crusaders, and I really miss you. You were like the kid sibling I never had, even though we’re only a year or so apart! Heh! I’m so glad we bonded, you know? I was having a real hard time back then, dealing with fallout and stuff, and you just came in like this—well, I mean, you totally were—this adorable, naïve beacon of hope. So full of light! It was so nice to see someone like you. Refreshing, I think, that’s the word. Everything was doom and gloom, and even though you were a bit inexperienced, you always put on a cheerful face even when you were hurting, just so everyone else could smile. You were like the baby Team Mom, always looking out for everyone.
How are the others? How’s Kard? How’s Dante, that weirdo? Jain’s doing okay, I hope? And Hyperion and Dis and Gwyn and Kieran and Hahinn and Griffith Jr, and Tulyar and Potchus, and even Doc! Is Druku still in “rehab” (if you can even call it that!)? I hope Sparrow didn’t drink himself half to death and I sure hope that Blade doesn’t get stuck as a tropical fish forever or anything like that. I did hear that Hans was helping the effort back home in Okime, but that’s basically all the news I got. Have you heard from Mir? I’m worried about her, too. And what are the new Crusaders like? I’m dying to know! If the war effort ever lets up and the damn KBA stops, you know, slaughtering people, I’d like to come back and see you. And maybe visit with the others, but they can wait. You come first!!
Unfortunately, I’m not really allowed to talk too much about the work I’m doing, but I was given leave to write you, since you’re the closest to family I’ve got. I don’t count Iyatsu Falkor, given that he’s engaged to the Empress, and basically wishes that I was dead after what happened to Kilik and his family. Anyway, that’s a downer. I wanna know about you, and what you’re doing. I hope you’re doing all right, Oren. No. Seph.
Say hello to Zephyr for me, okay? Xiba sends his love.
General Linfang Xiao
Flower State Resistance Force
P.S: Don’t forget that it’s always darkest before the dawn.
P.P.S: Hope you’re keeping my hat safe!
Another day of wandering leads to another day in a familiar Kingdom for young Quarterling and his owl friend. Which familiar kingdom, might one ask? Why Kasinthia, of course: Back where this boy’s adventures, trials, and achievements first began. For him, it felt great to be back to his (non-familial) roots, exploring the country he’d come to love and protect for several years of his life.
Well, okay, he just explored the capital. It’s a big country, after all.
The city had changed quite a bit since the last time Juneau had been there. An entire district was completely rebuilt and revamped due to an explosion of some sort, so he happily explored as much of the area as he could. He didn’t recognize any of the business and he couldn’t be happier; new experiences excited him more than anything. Among all the store, he found Potion brewers, book stores, a good few taverns, plenty of new eateries (where a good portion of his money went to), and a blacksmith that bore a vaguely familiar name to the halfling. The fact that a Dwarf was running it didn’t help hide the familiarity, but his staff was in good shape, so he figured he’d leave that store alone.
You know, in case he owed anything to the Dwarf there.
He passed by the Castle and looked up at it a moment, reminiscing on the times when that building served as a headquarters for him and the once Crusaders of the Crown. It was a different time for him: One full of conflict and heroism, wars and duty, and many tumultuous decisions on his part. It almost seemed strange to him how much this group shaped him and his path in life. Fate was funny like that, though. He considered dropping in on the King to see how he was doing, but considering past transgressions…he decided it might not be the best decision right now and went on his merry way to see further.
Later in his city exploration, he came across another site he was familiar with: The Academy of Magic. The hallowed building brought back fond memories for Juneau: He’d taken a few classes in rudimentary Elemental magic here as part of his training in the Crusaders before being able to learn and develop on his own. Back then, he was wide-eyed and naive, so he went through his lessons without much care. Back then there also wasn’t a section for Blood magic, and he’d heard the rumors that were spread of the “incidents” that befell the department and its students. There was one, though, and that was a good start. This place the Quarterling did decide to visit, as it had been a long while since he’d stepped foot in here. he doubted anyone would recognize him anyway, so where was the harm?
Bawerstrom was gone. Everything–everyone, as far as Lin knew–was gone. Juneau, the Kimmiran guards, the Santora fellow who’d bothered the Crusaders years ago.
More than a year of nothing, waiting at her post, and now everything had happened at once. The coup was so quick, and Lin was given no choice but to escape the Xantheran tower by the guards who’d stood by helping her watch over the monarchs of Bawerstrom, frozen in stasis. The Crusader D Team would fix this, they’d promised. Lin was no longer a Crusader, and her safety could not be guaranteed by the D Team. She’d forced the guards to make a promise that no harm would come to the children. They’d remained theoretically safe in stasis for a year…and she hoped with all her heart as she and her familiar Xiba fled that they would remain frozen, for their own safety. Alanna was just a child, as was Duke Finnian. And the deposed Prince Naoko of Okime deserved no more pain than what he’d already been dealt by his father Shige, that slimy Lord Darquehelm, and most of all Iyatsu Falkor and his Empress. She hadn’t even had time to say goodbye to Juneau, to tell him to be safe.
The sounds of battle echoed into the night as Lin fled the city, traveling as far southwest as she could before she hit the river. It wasn’t until she’d reached the Okimean side of the Tranquil River did she notice the dark black clouds billowing into the sky over Bawerstrom.
Bawerstrom wasn’t even her homeland and yet she felt a pull. Lisette had been her friend, and Bawerstrom risked everything it had to feed the starving rebels and civilians all those years ago. Meixi may still have been in danger, all the way in Kestrel Point to the far south.
Was that smoke really the coup, or something far, far worse? Lin knew that she needed to find help–and find someone who could tell her what in the hell was going on. She needed to find the Cohorts of the Council, or better yet, the Crusaders.
It had been weeks. Weeks after weeks of traveling alone in the woods, not seeing anyone. Apparently, travel was too dangerous across the borders for Lin to have met a single soul in her path. Lin knew nothing of the world events transpiring–only that Bawerstrom had been in grave danger, and from something that was far, far worse than a coup.
She’d traveled far and traveled hard in the direction of Council Territory. Lin had nearly given up when, in the distance, she spied a Council horseless carriage on the beaten path. Her thoughts instantly went to the Crusaders. Surely, whomever was inside could help her out–even if it was that gods-awful Elder Cupboard. Lin knew that she had to take a chance.
Her feet nearly flew as she ran to catch up with the carriage. She flagged it down, using a powerful Light spell in the evening darkness to help increase her visibility.
“Stop! Please!!” she cried, desperate. “It’s Lin!”
Clutching the small bag to her chest, Seph gritted her teeth; the carriage she’d been sitting in had passed over what seemed like–and felt like–the hundredth bump in the path.
“…This is fine. It doesn’t hurt that much.”
She rubbed the side of her head, which still felt sore from when she had knocked it against the window.
“We won’t have to worry about those bumps when we get back home, right, Zephyr?”
She was on her way back to Famardy, which at this point didn’t seem like home to her anymore. In fact, she wasn’t quite sure where or what her home was anymore. Seph just knew that a celebration of her retirement was in order, and she was to return to Famardy as soon as she could.
The barred owl poked his head out from Seph’s bag and cocked his head.
Zephyr stared at her quizzically. The only “home” he’d known was Council territory. Bree served as a temporary home for a while, but the both of them knew that it could never be a permanent one.
“Oh. Right. You weren’t here when I lived in Famardy. Sorry–I keep forgetting that.”
Seph rubbed the back of her neck sheepishly.
“Maybe it’s better than the last time I was there. I mean, that was a while ago, so I’m sure some things must’ve gotten better.”
With a sigh, she leaned back against her seat and shut her eyes.
“I just can’t believe they’re throwing me a celebration. All that effort could go somewhere more useful.”
“At least it’s a nice gesture.”
Keeping her eyes closed, she let out a small laugh.
“I guess so. But it’ll be awkward–I won’t know anyone there! At least they could’ve tracked Oren down. Then I wouldn’t be stuck by myself, or worse–stuck in a conversation I can’t get out of!”
Ruffling his feathers, Zephyr pecked at Seph’s hand.
“Ah, sorry, sorry! I don’t mean that I find you boring! I just can’t talk to my bird all night!”
Seph sat back up and patted the owl’s head. Though just as soon as she’d sat forward, she felt herself get thrown back against her seat again.
<i>The carriage stopped, and for a second, Seph thought her heart had as well. She peered through the window, shielding her eyes from the bright light outside.</i>
“Who are you?”
“It’s Lin! Please, I was a Crusader–l-let me show you–”
The figure fumbled with the bundle on her back for a moment, digging through it. She knew that this was a risk, and could easily have confused with the driver. For all they knew, she could be a highwayman. Suddenly, she found what she was looking for, producing a medal that bore the words “defender of Valdea” on its blue body.
“I need help…Bawerstrom is…!”
At the sound of a familiar voice, Seph practically threw herself at the door.
“Stop! Don’t let the carriage move!”
She yanked on the door handle so hard that she almost toppled out herself.
“…Lin? Lin, that’s you, right?”
A grin appeared on Seph’s face–her ears and eyes hadn’t deceived her. For a few awkward seconds, she stood in the doorway of the carriage simply staring at her best friend before realizing how exhausted Lin looked.
“…Oh! Oh, I’m so sorry, you must be tired!”
She extended her hand out to pull Lin into the carriage.
“Seph?” Lin’s voice is incredulous. Of all the people–this was a blessing! The Okimean found herself suddenly being pulled inside the horseless carriage and into the waiting arms of her friend. Lin buried her face in Seph’s tousled hair, so overjoyed and relieved that she, much to her surprise, began to cry.
“Oh, Seph! Gods above, I can’t believe it!”
Xiba, Lin’s trusty companion, jumped into the younger girl’s lap and nuzzled into Seph’s tummy, batting her lightly with his immense, fluffy tail.
“It’s you…it’s really you!”
“Of course it’s me! I just can’t believe it’s you!”
Seph wrapped her arms around Lin’s small frame and rested her chin atop the other girl’s head. She hadn’t even noticed that she’d started crying until she’d heard Lin doing the same.
“…Wait! Wait, don’t cry–it’s okay! You’re safe with me here, I promise!”
She hastily wiped her eyes with the back of her hand before petting the biralo on her lap.
“And you too, Xiba. You’re both safe.”
Feeling something poke her arm, Seph looked over her shoulder; Zephyr had been perched on her seat patiently, holding what looked like a tinier owl in his beak.
“Oh! Oh, right, sorry Zephyr! This is Zephyr–he’s like Xiba. Well, sort of–I mean, he doesn’t look like him, but you know what I mean.”
Seph giggled, guiding Lin inside the carriage.
“Come, sit–you need to rest.”
“Oh, Seph…!” Lin’s thin body was wracked with sobs–though some of those cries sounded like they could be peals of laughter, too. Her arms wrapped around Seph even more tightly.
(Something like Xiba?)
The older girl looked up and wiped away her tears hesitantly, finding her gaze leveled with a very fluffy owl. Suddenly, Lin’s mouth turned up into a smile. Seph had found herself a Familiar, did she?
“Nice to meetcha, Zephyr. Sorry…I-I’m a little outta whack. But–seriously, where are you goin’ in a carriage like this? Aren’t you s’posed to be with the Crusaders?! Bawerstrom’s in serious trouble! I barely got outta Xanthera with my life, and Junie–I mean, Juneau–he could be dead!”
“My contract was up.”
The younger girl shrugged sheepishly, tugging on her shawl.
“I was actually on my way to Famardy for a celebra–”
Seph stopped, a worried expression taking the place of the small smile that had appeared on her face minutes before.
“What happened? How did you get in that much trouble?”
(Did we make a mistake?)
“Don’t tell me…you weren’t there for all of that, were you?”
The thought dawned on her, and Seph quickly put two-and-two together.
“…Is that why you were out here?!”
“Uh-huh, that’s exactly why I’m here now. I was watching over the children, like I’ve been doin’ for a whole year, when suddenly the Kimirran guards tell me that there’s been a coup, and the Crusader D Team was bein’ obliterated. They told me to get the hell out before I got myself killed, and…I did. I got out, even though I wanted to stay and fight. It was my job to protect the kids while Lisette was–”
She sighed, feeling miserable about the whole thing. What kind of warrior fled from battle? If she’d been in Okime, Lin would never have turned tail, and would have fought ’til the bitter end.
“At least I have the comfort of knowing that all three of those kids can’t get killed, what with them bein’ frozen, too. But Xiba and I hightailed it outta there without looking back…and when I got to the water, all I could see was this awful black smoke rising from the city. I knew it was worse than just a rebellion or something, whatever it was that happened.”
Her dark eyes expressed grief and exhaustion as she settled into the carriage alongside her dear friend. She slumped into the seat, laying her head on the far window. “You have to tell me what happened there…”
Deep in Bawerstrom, surrounded by Kasinthian soldiers, surrounded by ghosts, life had gotten too familiar for Sparrow.
From what he had observed, and from what common sense could have told anybody, none of the smiling youngsters turned soldiers were real. Not so much, in any case. They were constructs, playing out a routine, a script written almost a decade ago.
The way they talked, it was like nothing had changed. No time had passed. None of them had died. And they talked to him like he hadn’t changed either.
Some were real. They showed up every now and then, veterans of the first Winter Wars. Usually confused, injured, older. But after a couple of days they fell back into it, the years washing off, and the old jingoism came rushing back. Whatever was animating the ghosts bit them too. And every time he saw it happen, every time he touched a ghost, every time he so much as walked onto a battle field, Sparrow clutched his magic shield just a bit tighter.
The shield was from Denethor. Well, a Hell Infused Denethor. Protected him from the Divine. Which also meant Lady Luck, but eh, Sparrow was enjoying the vacation. Nowadays he actually won some card games legitimately. He never left his shield, bringing it to bed and to showers. Some of the veterans commented, but the ghosts ignored it. Didn’t fit the script. In time, the vets also ignored it.
Sparrow had been feeding information to the Council. From what he could gather, none of his letter were shot down. He signed all of them, almost daring the ghosts to notice, but no one ever called him out. And of course, he never got a letter in return, but he expected that.
He just hoped that this time, when the Winter Wars failed again, that he would get community service at the worst.
Not everything was the same, though. Not a whole lot of Bawerstromians to fight. Plenty of demons though. And some weirdos in black cloaks laughing manically. But mostly demons.
Sparrow had just helped fight some demons when he was returning to his tent. He threw down his bag, took off his hat, wiped the sweat off. It was getting warmer out. He sat down, ready to write up two reports, one for the army and one for the Council. But when he reached for paper, he grabbed something else.
Sparrow pulled it into the candlelight to study. An envelope, and a fancy looking one. All crisp and new. Nothing like the missives and memos that got hand delivered to Sparrow. And on the front, all it said was “Sparrow.”
Sparrow smirked. Council must have finally wrote back, he figured. About time too. He opened the envelope, and pulled out the letter. It was a small piece of paper, not even big enough to need folding, and it read.
Hello Sparrow. I am pleased to finally be in contact with you. I am a friend, and I wish to help you in ways the Council cannot. We will be in touch.
Sparrow read the letter once, then twice, turned it around, raised an eye brow and read it again. “That hell?” he said. He shrugged. Strange mysterious letters offering vague help. Wouldn’t be the first time he got a letter like this, and he had fallen for enough “deposed Famardian Prince” scams to last a lifetime. He held the letter over the candle and let it catch, then crushed it on the floor.
Sparrow got up, bringing his shield with him. He only came by to write a report. He looked down at his papers, but couldn’t focus on them. The letter annoyed him too much. He would write the Council later.
Before he walked out, he stopped. He looked down at the shield, which felt heavier. This was shutting out Lady Luck, he was pretty sure. Now that he thought about it, that sounded like a bad idea. Lady Luck offered all the protection he would need.
Sparrow shook his head. A shield was a shield. He stepped out, into the light.
Sparrow woke up, his head screaming. Not in the fun way either. Nor in the less than fun but still predictable way. He hadn’t actually drank for a week now, and while such withdrawal tended to leave him woozy, it wasn’t like this. It was like something was trying to claw into his skull, break into him. Had to be whatever had made the ghosts. And made the vets forget who they were. Or rather, who they had become.
So Sparrow got up, unable to think. He whispered a small prayer to the Lucky Lady, but that just made his head feel worse. And the harder he held onto his shield, the harder his head hurt.
Sparrow swore and reached for a beer. He popped the cap and downed it. Didn’t work. Head still hurt.
“Mother fucker!” Sparrow whispered, holding his head, smacking it a bit. He got up and paced around. No good.
There were several new letters, all saying the same thing.
“I want to help.”
“Respond if you received this.”
And every time, Sparrow snorted, crumbled them up, and threw them away. He didn’t know how this guy got his name, but he made a note to smack the fucker for every damn letter he got.
Sparrow stumbled outside, holding his shield. The ghosts gave him dirty looks. Not angry. More confused. He wasn’t fitting into the story, and they weren’t sure why but they didn’t like it. Some almost looked scared. And all of them looked at the shield.
The shield protecting him from whatever was happening.
The shield that was also cutting him off from his God: Lady Luck.
They went out to fight that night, like every night. More demons, mixed in with some crazy cultists.
Sparrow marched out, but not with too much gusto. The headache was killing him. He started fighting, first some Hellhounds. They went down easy enough. Sometimes a solid kick was enough to send the smaller ones running. But that night, they were back up by Odie. So mix Hellhounds with rain, hail, and brimstone because fuck you, this is Hell weather.
Most night fighting was straightforward, but this time was different. Sparrow could barely see worth a damn, and mixed with his head ache he fought like shit. The Hellhounds were tearing the younger troops up. Sparrow ran to one, tackling the hound off the kid. After some judicious stabbing, Sparrow ran over, potion in hand, but too late. The kid was dead.
Sparrow got up. He felt bad, but not much to do about it. Besides, the kid might have been a ghost anyway. Except this kid wasn’t, as Sparrow might have noticed were it not for his damn head. Sparrow had taken a second to catch his breath, and was caught flat footed when the kid opened her eyes.
“Shit!” was all Sparrow had time to say before the kid exploded, throwing Sparrow back about a dozen feet. The insides of his legs might have been seared to his pants, and he was covered in diseased entrails, and it felt like every bone in his body was crushed by the impact.
Sparrow groaned, and someone ran up to him. A veteran, maybe. He wasn’t so sure. He couldn’t actually see that well. Whatever this disease was, it was working fast and attacked his eyes. He could feel pustules growing on his legs, stinging like a thousand Okimean Fighting Ants crawling up his pants.
“Shit, Hawk! Hawk look at me!” whoever it was grabbed onto Sparrow’s face, forcing him to face the voice hidden in an increasingly bright light. Sparrow’s head might have split open that second, for all he felt, and he could barely manage a pained scream.
“Come on man, take this!” A potion was forced through Sparrow’s lips, and a wave of relief washed over him. The disease pulled away. He could see again. This guy was a veteran. A medic. Damn. Sparrow chose the best time to almost die. Can’t get luckier than that.
“Patch me up, doc,” Sparrow gasped. Everything still hurt. The medic looked over Sparrow, feeling his wounds, which were extensive. He went for the shield.
“We gotta get this off you. Your arm is mangled, and I need to set it before I can do anything.”
Sparrow’s eyes widened. Some part of him knew that would be a terrible idea. That he could just take it off himself, if this fucker would just heal his other arm first. But he could not take the shield away. He could NOT take the SHIELD AWAY!
“Stop! Get off of me!” Sparrow yelled, but he couldn’t do much to stop the medic. The medic unclasped the shield and pulled it away. Then he touched Sparrow’s arm, and everything went black. Just for a second though. Like Sparrow had blinked. Barely even noticed. Sparrow heard a great rushing sound, then it was gone, and he was looking at the guy, and Orc, with new eyes.
And his head ache was gone.
Sparrow looked up at the guy. He recognized him. Mar’lok, the medic in his unit. How could he forget? He loved Mar. He focused on Mar, who had taken out a potion. Probably a health potion. He was about to give it to him, when he looked elsewhere. Another kid, this one definitely a gh-gh-gh-gho-ghu — was being torn apart. Mar said he would be right back, and got up.
No! I need it! Give it to me! I can keep fighitng!
Sparrow focused on Mar, in a way he hadn’t for a long time. It felt like he was trying to grab something, but with his brain. He reached for it, could feel it. He strained harder, harder, almost got it.
An arrow slammed into Mar’lok’s head from behind. He died instantly, and dropped the potion, all over Sparrow’s face. Enough got into Sparrow’s mouth that he could start moving again. He grabbed onto Mar’lok’s corpse and searched it for another potion, which he found. He downed that one, and took the rest.
Sparrowhawk looked over at the soldier. The hound was gone, and they were dead. So dead. Wouldn’t have been worth trying to save them.
Sparrowhawk got up, stretching. He hadn’t felt this good in years. He had never felt this good. He looked up, and a demon was charging him. A Havoc demon, maybe. It was big and angry looking, it was probably something mean. Sparrowhawk concentrated on it, felt it like before, but much quicker this time.
The demon lunged, swung, missed, tripped, and impaled itself on Sparrowhawk’s sword. He barely had to move.
Sparrow picked the shield up. It didn’t seem so heavy now. A soldier ran up to him.
“Hawk! You all right?”
Sparrowhawk turned to this guy, grinning ear to ear. “Of course I am, you son of a bitch! I’ve got Lady Luck on my side!”
Sparrowhawk turned back to the battlefield and threw himself into, screaming a bloody battle roar.
A BIT AFTER THE VALA INCIDENT
Doc was walking back. She idly fiddled with her Gauntlet. Caranist she was tired. But at least her magic was coming back, in its own weird way. Every day she figured out more and more. She might have an easier time if she mind melded with Tallow. But as enticing as an idea as that was…she still felt guilty for spilling all of Druku’s secrets into Tallow’s mind.
Granted it was Lirinen’s fault.
Doc went to berate Lirinen in her pocket, but found nothing but idle shiny things that Lirinen had deposited in her pocket. Right, Lirinen was sending a letter.
A high pitched noise caught her ear.
It was coming from the Font.
She narrowed her eyes, and she saw the faintest traces of paper, floating in the wind. What was the Guardian doing?
She cautiously moved towards the Font, and found the guards on the outside, scared shitless.
“What happened?” She asked, slightly annoyed that they were BOTH orcs. Professionalism gods dammit.
“This crazy halfling walked in and started dumping over the books demanding to know where her porn was” He muttered.
“The Guardian started casting spells at her but they didn’t work so…so the guardian summoned a paper hurricane!”
Doc looked at the guards. They were covered in small paper cuts.
That was the guardian’s problem.
Then she paused. Was it possible a legionnaire got through without them knowing?
She stepped into the Font.
And being surrounded by a paper cyclone of death, was not a halfling, but a red headed elf girl who was far too short and with the indistinguishable face of a gnome.
“ow! ow! Poldora! ow! ow! Poldora! I just want to read my books! ow! ow! Poldora! What sort of library is this!?!” She screeched in a high pitched high paced voice.
Vala’s descriptions rang in her brain.
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