Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Legend of Falconheart, Chapter Two

                The elf and the goblin walk East into the desert, back from where they have come.  The Sun is retreating across the Western sky, racing for the sea past the badlands.  Hackard considers the soldier’s plan:  if they are heading to the Northern Wastes (as the Northern Tundra has been called since flying Sagacia was dragged down across it), then the quickest route would be to travel through the forest past the desert, cut through the ape farmlands, skirt around the shore of Lake Mountainsroot, and then pass along the foothills between the mountains and the great plains.  It is a journey of perhaps two weeks on foot, but her new “bodyguard” does not stop for food, water, or rest – that should cut the travel time at least in half.  Somewhere along the way, she may find a way to bend the glyphed knight to her own will (if the legends were true, then this soldier was some manner of undead, created to be a servant and now without a master); and wouldn’t that be something to bring back to the Southern Jungle!  She would be the toast of all Santuji, and this ancient war machine might be able to put an end to the foolish border skirmishes between the apes and the goblins for good.
                That was all very far down the road, though.  In the meantime, she had to traverse deep into ape territory with a glyphed knight.  Hackard herself was small, and one goblin could easily slip unnoticed through large and sparsely-populated areas; the glyphed knight, for her part, would probably pass for one of the Blackened Guard.  Indeed, her order was the very inspiration for the elite soldiers’ uniforms.  While the apes didn’t get it quite right, the resemblance was probably good enough to fool any country bumpkins they’d be likely to meet.
                The soldier pauses:  she senses something, and draws up her hood to cover her elfin ears.  A few tufts of hair poke out over her forehead, mostly black, except for one bit of white over her right eye where a long scar crosses her face from jaw to scalp.  Even this, though, is normal for a soldier – she looks like any ape, albeit an unusually tall and slender one.  Hackard stares out over the horizon for some seconds, and then sees it:  something coming out of the sky from the East. 
               As he nears, the newcomer is seen to be an ape aboard a flying carpet.  He is dressed simply, despite his fancy mode of travel.  When he approaches within earshot, he raises his hands to his mouth in a shout.
                “Ho there!  Battlemaiden of the Blackened Steel!”  He flies close enough for Hackard to count the wooden buttons of his white linen shirt and the pleats in his brown cotton kilt.  His brown head is shaved, and he sports a rusty-colored goatee and rectangular-framed glasses.  But he brings himself up short several yards away, muttering to himself, “Wait a second.”  He looks more closely at the bedraggled soldier in her tattered red and clotted black.  “That red – not the King’s red!  And your armor – not blackened steel, but blackstone!”
                The ape withdraws upon his carpet, hands wreathed in flame, shouting, “Run, little goblin!  I’ll busy this ancient terror while you escape!”  Hackard does not flee, but cowers behind the soldier’s knees.
                “Relax, magus,” the soldier says, drawing back her hood once more.  “I mean you no harm.”
                “Same team, guy,” the goblin shouts.  “Same team!”

                The magus raises an eyebrow without lowering his guard.  Now this is puzzling:  time was, a sky elf would kill an ape or a goblin on sight; yet these two seem to be travelling together.  He extinguishes one flaming hand, only to raise a magical shield with it as he cautiously approaches.
                “What is this?  A glyphed knight, here in the desert, with a pet goblin?”  He struggles to wrap his head around it – might the earthworms soon give carnival rides to the young children, too?  “And friendly, no less!”
                The soldier bows her head, showing her empty palms at her sides.  “As you say, no less.”
                A true glyphed knight is a walking page from history, and the magus recognizes that any chance to have a civilized conversation with one is a chance worth taking.
                “So what brings you out here, then,” he asks, bringing his carpet down to their level and sitting cross-legged.
                “I’m destroying the hieroglyphic crystals into which Deathsong imbued her power,” the soldier says, resuming her Eastward trek.
                “To what end,” he asks.  This just keeps getting weirder.
                “It’s a three step process,” she says, raising three claws before her.  “Step one, destroy Deathsong’s power.”  Her ring claw lowers.  “Step two, make the world a better place.”  Her middle claw lowers.  “Step three, die happy.”  She lowers her index claw, and her hand with it.  The magus strokes his goatee, eyeing the soldier with suspicion.
                “Uncharacteristically noble for a sky elf,” he says.  The soldier casts a sidelong wink at him, unsmiling.
                “You’ll find we mellow out in our old age.”
                Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.

                “So what’s your name, magus,” the soldier asks as the trio crest a dune.
                “Cooper,” he says.
                “Cooper,” the soldier asks suspiciously.  “How does a barrel-maker’s son learn magistry?  Was your mother a magus?”
                “How does a glyphed knight not recognize a pseudonym,” he asks, sneering his disapproval.  Clearly, he has overestimated his quarry.  “Was your mistress out of brains when she got to you?”
                “Touché,” the soldier says, tilting her head and arching her eyebrows.  She really should have seen that one coming – but she hasn’t spoken with anyone in centuries, save for the last few days.  Of course her conversational skills have deteriorated.
                “And what shall I call you, milady,” the magus asks, interrupting her reflection.
                “Birdstrike?  Come now, you must have a proper name.”
                “And so must you,” the soldier replies.
                “Very well,” the magus says, his smile practically oozing That’s more like it.  “I used to go by David Anderson.  And you, before you donned your blackstone armor?”
                “Mór-Ríoghain Siana’Raya.  In your tongue:  Morrigan, Hawk’s Song.”
                “Deathsong, Hawksong, Birdstrike,” the magus says, contemplating.  “I’m noticing lots of artsy-fartsy names here.”
                “We are sky elves,” the soldier says plainly.  “Birds and high art figure prominently in our names, much like trades and pedigree figure in yours:  Cooper, Anderson, Tanner.”
                “Even so,” he says with a nod.  “Hawksong, then?  You sing to hawks?”
                The soldier draws a deliberate breath, reminiscing to a time before the war, before her armor, before her death.  “I bred and trained birds of prey,” she says, looking off to the mountains in the North, taking on painted hues as the Sun begins to set.  She used to watch those mountains from above, as Sagacia flew through the wispy clouds – but that was long ago now.  Another life.  “I spoke to them in song.”
                “So is that why you were re-named Birdstrike,” Hackard pipes up.  “Did you fly hawks into gyrocopters?”
                “Gy… ro…” the elf trails off, visibly confused.
                “Flying machines,” Hackard explains.  “Size of a carriage.  Spins blades to generate lift.”
                The soldier raises a stony knuckle to her lips, thinking of what machines must have been created during her absence.  Even the ape villages she had seen on the plains all seemed to be wooden houses with shingled roofs, rather than the thatched-roof cottages she had last seen them in.
                “Oh,” she says, after a moment’s thought.  “Something like that.  Only there were balloons, back in the day.  And I flew flaming zombie griffins into them.  So that’s kind of the same thing.”
                Hackard shudders at the thought – historically, griffins were the sky elves’ form of personal transportation, much like the goblins flew on trained bird dogs.  But griffins preyed upon bird dogs, swooped down on them like stones falling out of the sky and swallowed them whole.  A griffin was a fearsome beast, almost a miniature forest living on a miniature mountain:  a body of living stone, crowned in wooden branches like antlers, moss and ferns growing on its wings like feathers, and woody talons that grasped like roots.  Sagacia itself was built in the form of a giant griffin, so proud were the sky elves of their pets.  To bind one in death, set it aflame, and turn it on a measly hot air balloon?  Overkill, to say the least.  But then, that had been the point, hadn’t it?  In the centuries after the war, griffins had been hunted nearly to extinction by small armies; what few there were now lived in the mountains with the trolls.
                “By the way,” the magus says, “Before we get too far, I think we should turn South pretty soon.”
                “And what makes you say that, sir magus,” the soldier asks.
                “I am assuming,” the magus says congenially, “That you are interested in avoiding the Council of Magi.”
                This gave Birdstrike pause for thought.  In her day, the apes had barely grasped the rudiments of magic.  Now here was this ape, looking for all the world like a commoner, but riding an enchanted carpet and able to weave two spells while doing it – and talking, no less!  And the apes now had a whole council dedicated to magical studies?  The world had moved on without her, indeed.
                “On what grounds,” she asks.  Such a council might not have this commoner’s curiosity for her peaceful aims, to be sure – she needs this ape’s insight.
                “Well, I don’t think they’ll take too kindly to your renewed lease on life,” Cooper says, echoing Birdstrike’s thoughts.
                “What of it,” the soldier asks.
                “All right:  suppose there is a confrontation.  Suppose you win.  Suppose even one gets away.  Now you’ll have apes and goblins allied against you, just like the last time.”  He pauses to let the implications sink in.  “Even if you nail them all, you’ve still got a disappeared Council to deal with, which the Crown will not take lightly.”
                “Fair enough,” the soldier replies.  “And why, pray tell, is the Council headed this way?”
                “The same reason I came,” Cooper says.  “There have been disturbances in the Ethereal Stream.”
                “And how has one lone magus found us sooner than the Council of Magi?”  Perhaps there is more to this commoner than meets the eye.
                “I live in the mountains,” he explains, “Northwest of Lake Mountainsroot.  Critically, it’s a day’s flight West of Castle Glod in Keritann.  I was down at the lake on day one; the Council showed up on day two.  Since they came from the East, and presumably kept an eye out during their travels, I figured it a safe bet that my quarry headed West.  So I headed West, leaving them at the lake.  And sure enough, in the middle of day three – long enough to walk from Lake Mountainsroot to the badlands without food, water, or rest – another disturbance arises at Kolrana Tha’gar.”  The soldier nods; perhaps she has been a bit too obvious in her movements.
                “I guessed right,” the magus continues.  “The Council won’t need to guess at all.”
                “Very well,” the soldier agrees.  “We head South.”
                The trio turns right, heading deeper into the desert.
                “This will add weeks to our journey,” she says after some moments, “Now that we are going well around Lake Mountainsroot instead of cutting right across it.”
                “Cutting across,” Hackard asks.  “How did you plan to get me across?  I can’t swim!”
                “I honestly didn’t think I’d have company,” Birdstrike says flatly.  “So, Cooper,” she says, turning to the magus.  “Put yourself in the Council’s shoes.  What do they know?  What can we keep unknown?  How can we throw them off our trail?”
                The magus hums to himself, stroking his beard in thought.  “They know something is afoot.  They’ve surely reasoned out that the first disturbance is connected to the second, and that the second was at Kolrana Tha’gar.  They’ll investigate the scene just the same, but unless I miss my guess, they’ll dispatch a small group to the ruins of Sagacia, just to be safe.”  He pauses to look back at the setting Sun before continuing.
                “They can’t know for sure that you’re a glyphed knight, though they may make you for an agent of Deathsong just the same.  Nevertheless, any magus could spot you for what you are, just as easily as I did.  Anyone else would most likely mistake you for one of the Blackened Guard, though.”  Another pause.  “Except, of course, for the Blackened Guard themselves.  Or the King.  Or his close advisors.”
                “Hey,” Hackard says, “I spotted her!  Any goblin could!”
                “True,” Cooper says with a nod.  “I hadn’t thought of that.  Was it her ears?”
                “That, and the fact that the spirits avoid her like – well, like nothing I’ve ever seen.”
                This was something that Birdstrike hadn’t considered.  Goblins have a natural facility for magic – they swim in it, as fish swim in water, making their way easily without explicitly understanding the underlying principles.  Nevertheless, that inborn affinity allows them to commune with spirits and sense the flow of magic in a way that apes (and even elves) would need to study for years to grasp.
                “Hmm, yes,” Cooper says, “She is void-touched.  Anyone sensitive to the flow of ether could tell.”
                “Is that going to happen to me,” Hackard asks, a worried look on her face.  She hadn’t put two and two together when the void had touched her at Kolrana Tha’gar; she grasped the immediate situation without seeing farther down the road, one of the pitfalls of being born to magic but not studying it.  “Will I be spiritually empty?”
                “Not from that stripe alone,” the magus reassures her, evaluating her white stripe with a scholar’s eye.  “Birdstrike here is empty because that’s how she was created:  with a bit of the Howling Void inside of her.  It’s the source of her power.”
                Hackard considers this for a moment – Birdstrike had refused to answer her questions about hieromancy, but then she was an expert on murder.  This ape was an expert on magic, and might rather enjoy the opportunity to show off his learning.
                “So how does she have the plane of void inside her?”
                “Hard to say,” Cooper says, stroking his beard again.  “You see, the plane of void isn’t ‘really’ a proper plane, in the sense that the ethereal and mortal planes are.  It is void.  The Mortal Coil runs on cause and effect, the Ethereal Stream runs on will and whim, and the Howling void runs on absolute chaos.  You couldn’t ever ‘go there,’ there’s no ‘there’ to go to.
                “You got lucky, after a fashion,” he says, nodding at Hackard’s stripe of white fur.  “Being opened to the void might have exploded you into diamonds, turned you into a newt, or transmuted your blood into cupcakes.  You got a distinctive stripe and a fuzzy mojo.  Count your lucky stars.”
                Hackard considers this before asking her next question:  “So if the void’s so unpredictable, then how is it the source of her power?”  The magus adjusts his spectacles before speaking again.
                “That’s harder to explain.  Look, can you imagine the plane of ether as a sheet, stretched over the world?”
                “But it’s not,” Hackard protests, “The ether infuses all things.”
                “Yes, but the Ethereal Stream is more than just that, isn’t it?”  The goblin mulls this over for a moment.
                “OK,” she says, “So the Ethereal Stream is the sheet over us, and it comes down wherever there’s a connection?”
                “Right,” the magus says, smiling.  He seems in his element to the soldier.  Was he a retired teacher, perhaps?  No, too young by far – unless the apes have already learned to extend their youth, which would be even more surprising.  More likely, he is simply starved for someone to talk to – as any hermit living alone in the mountains might be.  “So while only a little ether ‘comes down’ to make rocks and water be like rocks and water, quite a bit needs to come down to make a human be a human, like you or I.  As a magus, I actually call down a good deal more, and the practice of magistry helps me increase my power over time.  I am like a mountain upon the ethereal landscape.
                “Our glyphed knight here is different:  she is like a pinhole in the map, a tiny tear in the Mortal Coil through which any ambient ether may flow and ground out.  She uses her hieroglyphs to keep the hole open, so to speak, during times of disuse.  But she can also tap into the flow, channeling it into coherent power according to her glyphs.  The use of her abilities does not drain her, however, as mine drains me – it only makes the hole grow bigger.”
                Hackard scratches her head, troubled by a thought.  “So, over time,” she asks, “Could she drain all the ether in the world?”
                “Ha ha!  No,” Cooper says, composing himself.  “Of course not.  Ether infuses all things, as you said yourself:  it flows in and through and out.  Everything is flux, as the ancients say.  Our blackstone magus is simply a catalyst for this process, and able to capitalize on that fact.”
                “What about the hieroglyphic crystals, then?  How do they fit into all this?”
                “Ah!  Now that is what the Council and I are trying to figure out.”
                “So why avoid them,” Birdstrike interjects.  Cooper raises a finger in innocent protest.
                “I never said we were working together,” he clarifies.  “The glyph crystals are a worrying thorn in the side of modern magistry.  Deathsong imbued some of her considerable power into crystals, as you have heard:  one was kept near her in Sagacia, one in Kolrana Tha’gar, and the glyph crystal of lifeblood was given to Rakta’M.  When Deathsong was defeated, fallen Sagacia was sacked, along with Kolrana Tha’gar.  But only two glyph crystals were ever found:  assumption and frostfire.”
                “Did Rakta’M get away,” the goblin asks.
                “No,” the soldier answers.  “He died with the rest.”
                “Except for you,” the goblin says, “Right?”
                “That’s,” the soldier stammers, “Complicated.”
                “Oh,” Cooper says, “Were you in a hurry?”  He casts his gaze wide upon the twilight desert before looking back to the sky elf for a response.
                “Not to explain myself to you,” she answers at last.
                “I think you had better,” Cooper says firmly, suspicion in his eyes.
                Birdstrike looks back at the setting Sun, barely a sliver over the Western horizon.  She sighs, and shrugs.
                “It’s late,” the soldier says at last.  “The young one could use a bedtime story.”  The magus beckons for the goblin to join him on his carpet; she hops on, unfastens her pack, and cleans the sand from her paws over the carpet’s edge.  The glyphed knight takes a deep, deliberate breath:  while she need not breathe to live, she must breathe to speak, and she has quite a bit of speaking to do.

                This tale begins before Deathsong was Deathsong, when Sagacia still flew and the sky elves were a mortal race like any other.
                The soldier’s words bring back her memories:  a flying city on the back of a great stone bird, dwellings hewn from living wood to look like great feathers, walkways of smooth stone and lush grass, babbling streams tumbling down from pyramidal fountains, and the royal palace a great ziggurat across the bird’s shoulders.
                Sagacia flew among the clouds, carried by wind and wisdom.  We lived in peace under our Queen, practicing our crafts and raising our children.  We had learned to plan our society for a stable state:  our birth rate matched our death rate, our crop rotations and waste disposal formed a closed system, and our economy was run on principles of service rather than profit.
                But as with all things, it could not last.  Even a conspiracy of doves may be invaded by a single hawk.
                As ape and goblin societies interacted beneath us, trade routes sprung up, and the financial interdependence between the two nations fostered a strong alliance.  But the capitols of each nation were far apart, and while individual messengers or small shipments could be moved with speed and ease, larger shipments were more difficult to transport without risking bandits, weather, or mechanical mishap.  Balloons could only be built so large, bird dogs could only carry so much, and there were many dangers in the lands between the goblins’ Santuji and the apes’ Keritann.  One large shipment, if lost, could utterly ruin a shipping company.
                Yet merchants required daily shipments of fresh fruit, and a constant supply of crafts and clothing for their customers.  Balloons and bird dogs alone could not keep up with demand; the roads would make too many bandits rich; and the merchants wished to cut shipping costs anyhow.  Ape and goblin kings were perplexed:  how to satisfy the demands of their citizenry, bringing in the goods while increasing merchant profit – and thus tax revenue – without forcing slave wages on shippers?
                Someone – it no longer matters who – hit upon a rather ingenious scheme:  why not ask the sky elves to fly a trade route with our city?  Merchants could unload a shipment at Santuji, then send a shipment to Keritann on the very same day, where the goblin goods would be unloaded and replaced with ape wares once more.  Sagacia could fly an ellipse around both cities in about a day, and we sky elves would be cut in on the profits.  What’s not to love?
                But of course, proud Sagacia would have none of this business – especially not for the ever-inflating coin of the Earthbound races.  The Queen respectfully but firmly refused the cajoling of diplomats, the offers of merchants, the insistence of kings…
                …even threats of war.

                “Wait, wait, wait,” Hackard interrupts, clearly troubled.  “You’re saying that the whole War for Sagacia got started because elves abjectly refused to play nice with other humans?
                “Consider it from our perspective,” Birdstrike says, resolute but without malice.  “Barbarians exterminated us because we would not stoop, as a nation, to be their caravan.”
                “There is a third perspective,” Cooper adds, raising an open palm.  “It appears that the economic interests of the Earthbound kingdoms could not be reconciled with the sky elves’ way of life.  And so, like any communication breakdown,” he pounds his fist into his open hand to illustrate the point, “It comes to blows.”
                “So it did,” the soldier says, grim-faced.  “May it always be remembered who aggressed first.”

                A flying army came to Sagacia:  goblins upon bird dogs, apes in their balloons, and an ultimatum was delivered.  We were but one city, and stood no hope of repelling the armies of two kingdoms, yet our elfin pride stayed true.
                Sagacia would neither comply nor be compelled, and so the Queen prayed for intervention to Rakta’M, the blood god.  Rakta’M answered, but his service always comes at a price.
                Even now, I can see him clearly:  his skin like red clay, his body lean and muscular, veins pulsing with the first heartbeat.  He wore simple red clothes of a luxurious cut, showing off his proud body, blood flowing always from his hands and mouth.
                The Queen offered Charity, her one and only daughter:  the future of her bloodline, for the future of her people.  The child was gripped with fear:  she was old enough to know what was happening to her, but young enough to be powerless to stop it.
                The blood god accepted, and singlehandedly drove off the invaders, proclaiming his oath for all to hear:  “By blood of the Queen’s blood, no ape or goblin shall set foot upon this city!”  Hearts stopped within their chests, blood poured from the eyes and mouths of the would-be invaders, and the nearest were boiled alive at the command of he whose strength had sustained them just moments before.
                But despite this crushing loss, Santuji and Keritann would not be stymied.  They had armies upon armies, and so another force, thrice again as large as the first, was sent to deal with this elfin obstinacy.
                And here a crucial misunderstanding changed the fate of all Eversummer:  the Queen had intended for her sacrifice to keep Sagacia under Rakta’M’s protection from Earthly greed in perpetuity, for the entire future of the people – which is patently absurd when you think about it for two minutes.  Yet it seems niggardly in any case that Rakta’M did not lift a finger during the next attack, mere days later.

                “So Rakta’M wouldn’t do anything,” Hackard asks under the night sky.  “Why not?”
                “The Queen asked only, ‘Protect us from the ape and goblin invaders.’  Rakta’M upheld his end of the bargain – future protection would need to be purchased with future blood.”  Birdstrike shakes her head and waves a hand dismissively.  “Anyway, the details of this apparent betrayal were not discovered until after many had died already.”

                Bird dogs harried us in the streets, balloons bombarded us from above, and soldiers went from house to house, cutting down all they found.
                We had no army.  We were entirely unprepared for a war, fully expecting Rakta’M to drive them off as he had done before.  There was practically no resistance as every man, woman, and child in Sagacia was slain.
                The Queen, alone in her chamber, argued with Rakta’M.  She accused the blood god of betrayal, and he responded that he had done as asked and would do no more.
                The Queen was distraught – she realized that she should have sacrificed her own future, and not her daughter’s.  Then she would have died thinking she saved Sagacia, and left this horror for another to deal with.  Mad with grief, she wrote glyphs upon the floor of the throne room, and opened herself to the plane of void as soldiers battered down her door.
                When the Queen of Sagacia opened herself to the Howling Void, Mara’Na came through to her:  Death Itself.  She struck down her assailants, then raised the fallen citizenry to avenge themselves upon their murderers.  As she did so, she walked through the city streets, singing a battle hymn from centuries past.  And for this reason she called herself Mara’Na’Raya:  Deathsong.
                What the Queen of Sagacia did next would have shamed every elf to suicide, had any lived to see it.  She used her newfound power to create the Kara’Tamisra:  literally, the Hand of Illusion.

                “The Order of the Hidden Hand,” Hackard asks, breathless.
                “The very same,” Birdstrike answers.  “Our insignia was a closed eye over an open hand.  We wore it upon our tabards and our cloaks, though I have torn it off to cut my ties with them and to avoid being recognized.  I see now the good that has done me.”  The ape and the goblin nod.
                “Crafted from stone, blood, and the symbol of a life, we are golems of a sort, imbued with hieroglyphic power.
                “Lifeblood, the pulse of all things:  shown in the fourfold path of the heart.”  The soldier taps at her breastplate, and the glyph glows pulsing red, like a figure eight tipped to form an upright cross in the middle.
                “Frostfire, the hungering cold:  shown in a spark of cold flame.”  She raises her right hand, and the glyph glows crystalline blue, a jagged snowflake distorted to also look like a sparking fire.
                “And assumption, the redirection of purpose:  shown in the circle of life, broken and formed anew.”  She raises her left hand, and the glyph glows smoking green, a bisected circle with a smaller circle at its base.

                Each construct was inscribed first with lifeblood, to bind together the parts into a coherent being without the need for an ethereal connection – that is, a soul.
                Next comes frostfire, consuming the heat of life and initiating the transfer of power.
                The circuit is completed with assumption, powered by the leeching of life, and transferring that power right back into the glyph of lifeblood – where it fuels the frostfire, which transfer again powers assumption, and so on.
                A self-perpetuating spell for the price of three hieroglyphs.  This hieroglyphic circuit is how I can hold the void inside me without being consumed by it.

                “That sounds an awful lot like a principle of hieromancy,” Hackard interrupts, recalling their earlier conversations about particulars and principles.
                “I know no more of hieromancy than any commoner might,” Birdstrike responds, raising an open hand in her defense.
                “Sure,” Cooper says sarcastically, “Any commoner in your glorious flying city.  I’d trade any one of them for any dozen modern magi.”
                “Oh, you would, would you?”  The soldier is furious.  “Too bad what happened to those guys, huh?”
                The magus, cowed, shrinks back from the soldier.  “Ye gods, I’m so sorry – I didn’t mean – ”
                “Nah, it’s fine,” the soldier cuts him off with a nonchalant wave of her hand, the fury gone from her eyes.  “I’m over it.”
                “Wait – really?”
                “Of course not,” she shouts, the fury in her eyes once more.
                The magus slaps his own face in shame, saying, “Please tell me if you’re joking.”
                “Never,” the soldier insists, raising a pontificating finger.  “It’s one of life’s great mysteries.”
                She lets the awkward mood linger for a moment, and then continues.

                Deathsong herself supplied the blood; as for the stone and the symbol, she managed to kill two birds, as the saying goes, by way of an ingenious perversion.  Grave markers, symbols of loved ones long-lost, filled both needs at one stroke.  And so Mara’Na’Raya emptied the mausoleum of Sagacia to create an army, the likes of which the world had never seen.
                The Wretched Queen now swore vengeance upon Rakta’M, which she swiftly took:  the Kara’Tamisra struck him down with our own blades, and Deathsong usurped his power.  She then brought even the blood god back from beyond the veil of death, a twisted mockery of his former self, and conscripted him into her thrice-damned army.

                “So gods can be killed,” the goblin asks.  “I thought they were all powerful?”
                “There is no such thing as ‘all-powerful’,” the sky elf says.  “Power always exists in some degree or another.  Gods are very powerful, but power always has limits.”

                Even Deathsong’s power had limits.  While our Queen led us, she could see through our eyes and speak in our ears, giving us preternatural coordination.  But her psychic reach was finite, and though the Kara’Tamisra were living agents of Deathsong’s will and could operate independently, the risen dead simply became mindless zombies without a guiding voice.  And so Deathsong created the glyph crystals to rule in her stead.
                One was kept at Kolrana Tha’gar:  the Kara’Tamisra would bring bodies there and immediately set out again, leaving the conversion of new bodies to those under the glyph crystal’s control.
                One was kept in Sagacia itself, so that the risen elves could carry on the business of war in the Queen’s absence.
                And one was given to Rakta’M, so that he could command his own army of the dead in addition to the prodigious power he wielded.
                The hideous war machine did not go unnoticed for very long.  Apes and goblins allied with trolls and squid; the gods themselves rose up in defiance of the Queen.  It was now generally accepted that Mara’Na’Raya would not stop until she had taken full vengeance and exterminated the peoples who had exterminated hers:  trolls and squid were simply killed, even humanely, while the true horrors were reserved for apes, goblins, and bird dogs.
                And so Sappa, who is the land, recruited other gods to strike down the Wretched Queen:
                Podaga, father of storms;
                Kukulcan, the wind-serpent;
                Ixchel, Moon’s daughter;
                and Doonongaes, the winding river.
                Earth, water, air, and storm, together with the Moon, chased Sagacia to the Northern Tundra and there brought it down.  The battle was long and hard-fought – every blackstone magus was called back to Sagacia to defend the Wretched Queen as she wrestled with the gods.
                I alone was spared.
                I was sent to Kolrana Tha’gar upon my griffin to retrieve the glyph crystal of assumption, to consolidate Deathsong’s power and hopefully turn the tide of the three-day stalemate.  Though we faced the gods, we were many, and mighty – we fought even in the crushed remnants of our city, strewn about the wasted tundra, tireless with the force of Deathsong’s hatred for the mortals who had destroyed her city and the gods who had turned their backs upon it.
                I was trusted implicitly – Deathsong had neither the reach nor the attention to dominate my mind while doing battle with such primal beings.  But inevitably, we were defeated, and Ixchel herself pulled the Wretched Queen’s heart from her chest with her own pale hands.  And so it came to pass that when Mara’Na’Raya breathed her last, all who were in her hateful grip died with her.
                But with her passing, her will also left me, and I fell.

                “Where did you fall,” Hackard asks.
                “Right over Lake Mountainsroot.  And there I lay for some eight hundred years.”  She pauses, her tale near its end.  “When I awoke, my will was again my own.  No longer shall I do my creator’s bidding.
                “And so the nature of Deathsong’s power, the specifics of her death, and the process of my creation – all of these together form the peculiar circumstances of my third birth.  This is how I walk on my own power; this is how I live for my own purpose; and this is how I may destroy the glyph crystals without destroying myself.”  The soldier looks up at the sky, wistfully.  “I am, I know, now utterly unique in all creation – but it is my fond hope that any sky elf in my position would do as I do, and that it is not chance alone that leads me down this path of redemption.”
                “But you are doing this now,” Cooper says, trying to bolster her courage.  “Why does it matter what others would do?”
                “It is the difference,” Birdstrike says, “Between redeeming only myself, and redeeming any who would do as I do, given the opportunity.”
                “Ah, so.”  Cooper bows his head, pensive.  Hackard looks as though her mind has just been blown.
                “Nobody told me hardly any of this,” she exclaims.  “Growing up, all I ever heard was that Deathsong went crazy one day and tried to blow up the world, and everyone had to team up to stop her and her crazed blood god.”
                The soldier shrugs.  She had more or less expected this, at least.  “It is said that history is written by the winners,” she says with a sage nod.  “But even Deathsong was not always Deathsong.”
                The goblin looks up at the brilliant stars as the trio make their way into the night.  “What was her real name?  Y’know, before the War for Sagacia?”
                “Wisdom,” the elf says slowly, “And Courage.”
                “What,” Hackard asks incredulously.  “Queen ‘Wisdom and Courage’?”
                “That is what her name means,” the soldier explains.  “In our tongue, she was called Sophia Shana’Ridaya:  Wisdom of the Falcon’s Heart.”

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