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Gathering Shadows – Part 7 March 30, 2013

Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
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Grey gave up on trying to button his high collared jacket all the way up. A month of daily sparring sessions with Galen’s weapons master had broadened his shoulders and chest more than he had realized. The heavy, embroidered white fabric of the jacket creaked from strain every time he lifted his arms. “I’m not going to have to wave to anyone, right?”

Aurelius laughed. “No, but let’s hope you don’t have to sneeze. If a button goes flying and hits a foreign dignitary you might start a war.”

“Thanks Dad, you’re really helping.”  Grey frowned at his reflection in the mirror and tugged at the collar again.

Merina pulled his hands away. “Careful dear, you’ll ruin the embroidery.”

“Sorry mom. It looked like it would fit when I held it up,” he said, with a rueful sigh. “I’ll be forever known as the Bare-Chested Knight.”

“I’m sure the girls will like it,” Aurelius said but his smile faded a little. “You know I’d take this on myself if I could.”

“I know, Dad.”

His father had officially, permanently stepped aside as the leader of Cyclonis. Despite Galen’s best efforts, the damage done by the poison in the wyverns spines was too extensive. Summoning the barest whisper of Air was a painful effort for him now. As Galen had put it, ‘sometimes the body just says, enough.’

Aurelius had immediately put the leadership of their tribe a vote, and the outcome was unanimous. Grey would take over as their chief and war leader. In order to give him a status to match that of Galen’s other allies, he would be made a Wind Knight and granted lands on the rolling plains to the north of the city. Through him, his people would have a place to call their own in this new country. Everyone knew they could not stay Galen’s guests forever, and this was the simplest way to settle the issue.

Except that it meant a whole new world of responsibilities for Grey. At seventeen he would be the youngest person on Galen’s council, and the least experienced in politics. And he would have to do far more than simply be the speaker for Cyclonis. To be a Wind Knight meant pledging to serve all Air kin, to act as a defender of the realm in times of need and an arbiter of justice in times of peace.  Grey wasn’t generally given to nerves, but all of this together was enough to make his mouth go dry. He tugged at his collar again, wondering not for the first time if he might have done better to go back to fighting wyverns.

A polite knock at the antechamber door was followed by Galen’s chief herald, Ewan. “Everyone is assembled in the great hall. Are you ready, sir?”

Grey started to shrug, but thought better of it as he felt the seams of the fabric stretch. “I suppose I am.”

Merina gave him a hug and kissed him on the cheek. “You’ll be fine, sweetie. You look dashing.”

Aurelius stood up and gripped his shoulder. “Don’t worry, son, all these titles are nothing more than hot air. Just remember who you are, and you can’t go far wrong.”

2000 years later Grimm could laugh a little at the painful irony of that advice, having forgotten who he was completely for millennia. But on the day he was knighted, he was glad to hear any bit of wisdom his father could share.

Ewan led them out into a long, vaulted hall that was packed to bursting with Air kindreds. It looked as if the whole city was waiting for him in the hall. Grey tugged at his collar one more time and squared his shoulders, silently repeating the words he had to say over and over in his head so that he wouldn’t forget them.

Galen sat at the head of the hall, looking every inch the Lord of his domain in sky blue robes that shimmered every time he moved, mimicking the shifting light of a mid-day sky. His wife, Elena sat next to him, resplendent in a midnight blue gown and a net of diamonds in her dark hair that twinkled like stars.  Her handmaidens, dressed all in white stood behind them. The nobles of the Air kin stood to Galen’s right, their colorful silk robes reminding Grey of brightly plumaged birds. Their long black hair was styled in fanciful braids, with gemstones twined along their length on silk bands.

To Galen’s right stood the representatives from his allies’ Houses. Grey had not been formally introduced to any them yet, and since he was going to have to work with these people on a regular basis he decided to focus on studying them while he made the long walk through the hall.

The scarlet haired Queen Darendale of the Fire nomads was the first to catch his eye, (and that of most other men in the room.) Her snug-fitting, beautifully tooled leathers were just a small step above scandalous. The last thing Grey wanted was to make a fool of himself by staring though, so he quickly moved his gaze onto safer targets.

Next to her was her secretary, Dorian. His hair was a more reddish brown, and his clothes, while just as flamboyant were thankfully far less revealing. He wore an elaborate brocade frock coat over a frilled white shirt, a ruby crusted waistcoat and crimson knee breeches. His fingers glittered with rings where they peaked out beneath long, lace cuffs.

Lords Ice, Frost, Hale and Snow stood next to the Fire kin, all seemingly cast from a similar mold; tall and gaunt, with white hair, pale skin and pale blue eyes. They wore flowing robes in silver and black, edged with furs and studded with diamonds and sapphires in the patterns of constellations.

Earth came next, two stocky, brown haired men in soft suede jackets worn over breaches and sturdy boots. Gold threads were woven in a broad, patterned trim along the edge of their clothes and the cunningly worked metal clasps for their cloaks and belts more than made up for the simplicity of their attire.

The River kin were there as well, three slender men and women, all tanned with sun bleached hair, their clothes a wild mix of every territory their waters passed through. Next to them was the representative from Oceanis, a willowy blond woman in a sleeveless sea-foam green gown, with tattoos spiraling up over her arms, neck and onto her face.

Flora was there as well, a man and woman draped in layers of pastel fabrics, all embroidered with fantastical images of birds, beasts and flowers. A moment later Grey realized it was not embroidery, but actual plants growing through the fabric in carefully cultivated patterns.

Grey’s friends stood out in stark contrast to the rest, in their more warlike attire. Aradann was there for the Forest kindreds, in scale-mail armor made of intricately carved pieces of ironwood. With his dark skin and the carved wooden beads braided into his dark brown hair, he looked and sounded like a forest in a stiff breeze whenever he moved.

Tairwyn represented his small group of Mountain kin, in steel plate armor as always. He had added delicate etching to it however, with inlaid silver and gold knotwork patterns to dress it up.  He was twirling his long mustachios thoughtfully, studying his counterparts just as Grey was.

Grey’s parents took their seats to one side, and he was alone in the crowded hall.

Galen stood, and took the sword brought forward by one of the handmaidens.  He gave Grey an encouraging smile and addressed the room. “It has been more than a hundred years since the last time anyone was elevated to the rank of Wind Knight.  When I led the Air kindreds to these peaceful shores, I set aside this very sword, and swore to never take a life again. But in doing so I forgot something very important. I was given this sword, not to take lives, but to protect them.  I was reminded of that by this brave, selfless young man. Time and again, I watched him place himself in the very jaws of danger, not for glory or for love of the fight – only to protect those around him. His courage and self-sacrifice reminded me of my own oaths, and showed me that there was still a need for knights in this world.”

“To be a Wind Knight is to serve. It is a binding oath, one that will stay with you for all of your days. Do you accept this honor, this responsibility?”

Grey could feel the eyes of the whole room on him, and all the words he had memorized slipped away. The only thing he could think to say was, “Yes.”

He heard Tairwyn chuckle quietly and mutter, “A man of few words, even now.”

A smile tugged at the corner of Galen’s mouth, but he quickly hid it. “Kneel, Aurengrey.” He lifted the sword, and tapped him lightly on each shoulder with the blade. “From this day forth, you are the sworn Guardian of our people. You are our knight defender, our strength and honor personified. You will be the first of a new order, their leader.  Rise, Captain Aurengrey, Knight of the Winds.”

Lady Elena kissed him on both cheeks and one of her handmaidens belted the sword on him, blushing the whole while. Then Grey took his place at Galen’s side, with the roar of the crowd’s cheers ringing in his ears.

A binding oath that will stay with you all of your days…

Grimm could feel it even now, tugging at his soul. He looked at his hands, rough and calloused, criss-crossed with scars. None of them could have known that their enemies would pervert that oath, and use it to make him serve their ends. How many times had the twin pulls nearly driven his mad? To kill at his new masters’ command, or to protect the last of his kind?

It was becoming harder and harder to remain objective, to merely record the events of his life. He had only been freed of the Shadowkin’s thrall for a bare few months, not nearly enough time for the wounds to heal.

There may never be enough time for that, he thought, pushing aside the turmoil in his heart. So quit dwelling on it and do your duty.

The Shadowkin were still out there. Katya still walked the earth, and so long as even one of her ilk still lived, Nox and her family would be in danger. The answer to the question of how to destroy them forever lay in his past. He had to remember, no matter the cost to himself.  He had delayed long enough – it was time to look back to that fateful return trip to the Western continent…

———————

<- Gathering Shadows, Pt. 6

Gathering Shadows – Interlude March 11, 2013

Posted by techtigger in flash fiction.
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The old knight slowly surfaced from his trance. Grimm found himself sitting at his desk by the window, with a hand held palm-down over his journal.  Half the pages were full now, with the last words slowly writing themselves across the page. He stared at the book without seeing it, his mind still ranging back over 2000 years to his youth.  He’d forgotten how close he had come to killing himself with that one war casting. “More brawn than brains,” he said, with an amused snort.  That stunt had earned him two painful weeks of recovery, followed by the first of many lessons in what Galen termed, “the more subtle uses of power.”  It was a good thing his old mentor had been a patient man – Grimm had been a lot of things in his long life, but subtle was not one of them.

He let out a quiet laugh, sorely tempted to linger on those memories, awkward or not.  Seeing his old friends and loved ones again was almost like having them alive again. But as much as Grimm missed them, he knew this journal needed to be a proper history, not the muddlings of a young man still coming into his full power. No, it was time to delve into the other memories locked within the Key to Winds. It was time to move on to his enemies.  He rolled his shoulders as he used to do, to settle his armor before going into battle with the Shadowkin. It was an old habit, but it got him in the right frame of mind…

—-

“Is it just me, or did that thing recognize you?”

The wyvern let out a hiss as the portal snapped shut, cutting off the voices of his prey.  Oh yes, he knew Galen.  His presence here was an unwelcome flaw in their otherwise successful plan. If the Lord Zephyr had joined forces with the young warrior from Cyclonis…Kaltenn plucked the sword out of his eye and dragged his failing body out into the open air. It was time to return home, to plan their next move.  He spent his last breath screaming out an order to his subordinates.

Soon more wyverns circled overhead, herding a newly fledged juvenile down toward the corpse with buffets of their wings. An oily black substance drained from the dead wyvern’s eyes and oozed out of its nostrils. The juvenile made a clumsy landing by its elder but hesitated just out of reach, its head weaving back and forth in distress. As the substance pooled on the ground between them, a third wyvern dove down and shoved the juveniles’ muzzle into the ooze.

The younger beast shrieked and struggled wildly, but the substance clung to its muzzle and crawled inside its mouth. It thrashed about, letting out a despairing wail before collapsing. Moments later, when it raised its head its eyes had turned an oily black.

Once Kaltenn had settled into his new host he made it give out an eerie, high-pitched cry before launching itself skyward. He rode the thermals until he reached the cool upper air, and turned his head to the north. The other wyverns echoed the cry and joined him, scores of them gathering until the sky turned dark beneath their leathery wings.

They flew for days, leaving the grassy plains of the southern continent behind them. They passed over a spit of land that was surrounded by the ocean on either side, and followed its curve to the east. Further north, they passed signs of what was once a great civilization – ruined castles dotted the landscape, and burnt out towns thrust sharp chunks of walls up like broken teeth.  On and on they flew, until at last they came to edge of a great mountain range. A lone castle sat on the side of the largest peak, overlooking a ruined city. They circled down to land inside a cavern entrance that opened out just below the castle walls.

Deep within the mountain they crawled, wings folded tight to their backs, until they came to a vast chamber at the mountain’s heart. Rows of granite slabs waited for them there, and on each one rested the body of a sable haired Air kindred. Each wyvern in turn would cough out the dark substance over a body and crawl away, making room for a cadre of slaves to rush in to clean and care for their newly awakened masters.

Kaltenn hated changing back. After the power of wings and claws and poisoned tipped tail, a man’s body seemed pathetically weak. He scowled at the pretty Forest kin who rubbed feeling back into his legs and arms. Auburn hair, leaf green eyes… there was a time he would have fancied her, but he’d lost his taste for ordinary women, preferring to mate on the wing. If only the wyverns had a sharper mind, he could stay as one forever…

The woman on the slab next to his sat up and stretched languorously. “What a frightful face you are making, brother.”

Kaltenn turned his scowl on her. “I have reason for it. Galen lives.”

“Oh?” Katyanna said, arching an eyebrow. “And why should we care about one old man? If he were strong enough to be a threat, we would have dealt with him long since.”

“By himself he is nothing, but he gathers strong allies around him. I think you’ll remember one in particular –the young man that created the barrier to keep us out of our lair, while his tribe slaughtered our queen mother and her handmaidens. A whole nest of wyverns destroyed, and the essences of our kin lost before we could reach them.”

Her eyes narrowed. “I thought you had a plan to kill him.”

“Galen intervened.”

“We cannot allow someone as strong as him to have access to Galen’s knowledge,” Katyanna said. She pursed her lips and stared intently at the slave. “Death is too good for him. He has spilled royal blood.” She grabbed the chin of the Forest kin and forced the girl to look up. “What do you think, is she pretty, brother?”

Kaltenn let out a non-committal grunt. “Fair enough, I suppose.”

Her dark grey eyes flashed with amusement. “You’ve stayed too long in a wyverns’ skin. She is ripe and sweet, just the thing to catch a young man’s eye. I think I’ll enjoy wearing her.”

Kaltenn dug his fingers into the Forest kin’s arm and yanked her away from his sister. “Don’t be a fool. No one has survived the transfer to anything but a dumb beast.”

“Then it is long since time we returned to our studies. Fear not, brother,” Katyanna said, reaching out to lay a fond hand on his cheek.  “I have thought long on this. When I am done, there will be no barriers left to us. We will take anyone our heart desires.”

Kaltenn did not relish spending more time is his true body, but the chance to expand his choice of who, or what to wear was very tempting. He rested his hands on the side of the slab and leaned forward. “Tell me your plan.”

“Galen will be prepared for wyverns. He would recognize us as well, and fight back. But a poor, battered refugee?” she said, indicating the slave. “He will take her in without question. And as for his new protégé, what young man could resist a damsel in distress?” A slow, cruel smile crossed her face. “No, I will not kill him. He will live long enough to see everything he loves destroyed. I will make him suffer as no man has in the history of our kind.”

Kaltenn laughed and leaned over to kiss her on the top of the head. “My dear Katya, you always know what to say to bring a smile to my face.”

Grimm’s eyes snapped open. It was unsettling to hear them plotting his downfall. Even worse to know Katya was right, he had fallen into her trap so easily, and paid for his folly for millennia…He shook his head to clear it. No, he would not waste more time on her. What mattered was that they had feared him even then. But why? What sort of casting could he have managed, that Galen alone could not?  The answer had to lie somewhere in the memories stored inside the Wind Key. Why else had Galen left it with him?

He turned to look out the window. The first hints of dawn had painted the horizon red. He had an hour, maybe two before Nox awoke and he would need to return to his duties. Time enough to dig a little deeper into the past. He closed his eyes, and focused his thoughts on his first months living in Zephyra…

———

<- Gathering Shadows, Part 5  ~~|||~~  Gathering Shadows, Part 7 ->

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