A cool fabric fell against Lyria’s chest and she stirred as voices violated her dreamscape, their chatter replacing the lifeless faces woven through the tapestry of her colourless nightmare.
“Sir, she’s still breathing!”
“Then step away, lad; it’s the dead we must deal with. Scout the forests for more.”
“But-… aye, sir.”
One voice was unfamiliarly accented while the other held the cold, commanding tones of Lord Andru’s elite, a voice that summoned anguished screams and fragmented memories from the past into the present; flickering lanterns swayed above as her father carried her down the pathway, her mother hurrying beside them, the dangerous, rumbling growl of a plainscat reverberated around each building as hardened guardsmen violated people’s homes and tore children from their mothers and fathers, the same parents who were then greeted by the blade, their terror echoing into the night… their only crime to be blessed with the Gods’ blood. No! She clamped her eyes tight.
The men’s footsteps disappeared into the distance and she peeked out. By the Three, it was bright! Lyria instinctively covered her face and cried out as her muscles protested. It wasn’t just her muscles, her bones ached and her skin was on fire; had she wandered into the fiery wastes of the southern lands? The maroon sheet that had been placed about her body fell to the ground as she clambered to her feet, and shielding her eyes, she peered into the heavens. It was late afternoon… but, where was she? Though it was hot, it was not the south; she had never been there before but had heard rumours of windswept sand bestrewn by lakes of lava, yet she stood in front of a forest.
The Aethya emanated a light rainbow that shimmered through the ether and dressed the burgundy and vermilion treetops with blissful golden rays, the setting sun wavered behind the iridescence and formed secret images within the colours painted across the skies, and despite her confusion she smiled; the Gods’ domain was stunning and she welcomed the peace it offered as she admired the infinite hues. A whiff of rot snaked past, caressing her nostrils with its filth, and Lyria peered down, her hand flying to her mouth as the serenity was broken. The carnage… her heartbroken fury hadn’t been a dream. How long had she lain there, another body among the dead? A mournful cry screamed through her soul and escaped in a small whimper, and she clenched her fists, the sharp bite of her nails quick to wrest control over her grief. Now was not the time. She would not allow herself the agony of falling into the depths of despair —could not allow it— not with Andru’s military nearby. Devoid of emotion, she retrieved her father’s sword and wiped the blade on the grass; a futile endeavour that did nothing to remove the blackened crust of blood and gore.
As she rehoused the blade a hand fell onto her shoulder and she yelped, stumbling over her feet as she backed away from the stranger who appeared beside her. He wore the maroon uniform of the sovereignty’s military, an outfit similar to what her father had worn… an outfit similar to that which had clung to the burnt man’s blackened body. The man’s ghost shadowed the soldier’s face, his blistered mouth grimacing at her before fading away, and she shuddered as the soldier smiled. A light breeze gusted through the clearing, ruffling his dirty blonde hair, and his olive eyes wavered with an uncertainty laced with admiration as he inspected her.
“By the Gods, girl! You were out cold, we didn’t think you’d wake. You showed those monsters what for, eh?”
It was the same voice that had roused her, his accent unlike any she had heard before… oh Gods, why did he have to look at her like that? Her laughter erupted in mad gales that echoed through the neighbouring trees and returned in an endless cacophony of hysteria. It was absurd. Severed limbs lay scattered around them, releasing their putrid odours into the air as the sun exacerbated their decay, and he had the gall to gaze upon her as though she were akin to the Gods. Her mother’s terrified death-stare burst into mind as clear as the cloudless skies, and the trees weaved through the grass in dizzying spirals as her mirth transformed into wails of despair. Her surroundings dimmed and the soldier barely caught her before she hit the ground.
“Sir! The girl!”
An older, grizzled man appeared before her swaying sight. He wore the same maroon uniform but for three glimmering rubies above his heart that designated his rank and the image of Lord Andru’s plainscat emblazoned in gold across his chest. The feline snarled at her, threatened her… its gleaming eyes hungering as the commander examined her, a furrow embedded deep in his brow, and she didn’t know if she should be relieved or frightened when he said, “Well, I’ll be. Perhaps I should’ve looked at you sooner,” and eyed her father’s sword. “Captain Lewell was very protective of his family.”
Lyria freed herself from the soldier’s grasp, her disorientation fading as she fell into the military routine that had been thrust upon her each day in the unlikely event this moment would come. She did not know what was going to happen, but she would appear the flawless image of a dutiful captain’s daughter —her blood would not be betrayed.
“Sir, I am Lyria Lewell.”
The commander smiled, a thin, emotionless grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Indeed. The spitting image of your mother, you are.” His face darkened. “By the Three, Lewell was stationed in Syosse! That’s some distance you’ve travelled, young miss. Care to explain how you ended up here, miles from home, with a captain’s sword by your side and these damned corpses stinking up our forests?”
She stood speechless, unable to find a voice for her anguish or the rage she had experienced. What could she possibly say? That she prayed to Xandur and vanquished the bastards with her illegal gift? Her family was dead; these despicable men deserved their fate. Lyria stared into the commander’s questioning gaze, the snarling plainscat he wore demanding her secrets, and the moments passed by in a slow, elongated silence before he allowed her a curt nod.
“I see. Words are not required, miss; not yet. Lord Andru will require our report, as well as your account.”
The golden plainscat grinned at her as her heart fell into her stomach. She was to face the man her family had escaped, the man who would have murdered her alongside the others if not for her father’s captaincy and request to be stationed elsewhere. Her father eschewed the city’s bustle —or so he had said— his secret desire to take his wife and child far from their Lord’s anger. Though her mother and herself were fortunate to have vanished in time to avoid discovery the fact remained that they were cursed by the blessed blood that flowed through their veins. They were mages and they were to be despised. The commander subjected her to his overly long inspection as she wore her stony mask, desperate to hide her rising anxiety as he stared into her eyes, and a relief coursed her veins as he whipped about and called out his orders, the first of which destined for the soldier by her side.
“Antohne! Grab two others and follow the girl’s path. You know what you must do. Jonathon! Form up, I want a full report on every nearby village. Forty miles ‘round and don’t forget the Watchers. Go!”
Antohne saluted and sent Lyria one last look of unabashed wonder before he scampered away, his over-sized uniform flapping about his body.
“We’re done here, boys! Pile those carcasses and set them aflame. I want us feasting within the city’s walls by first moon.”
The remaining soldiers scurried about them and the commander turned back to Lyria, an unreadable glint buried in his eye as he offered her a stiff bow.
“You may call me ‘Rede’, young Lewell. I considered your father —and your mother— close friends, and rest assured you will be safe under my command.”
How much did Rede know? Would her father have divulged such sensitive information to a man of significant rank? Though his tone was suggestive, the likelihood of such knowledge seemed doubtful and Lyria only nodded as she silently watched the activity around them, as a score of uniformed men hauled the dead into one large, sickening pile. By Xandur’s eternal light… there was no possible way she could explain this one-sided slaughter. Lord Andru would have to realise that mage-work was involved and he would kill her. Her tears welled as she stared up into the colourful streaks painted across the skies; she would soon meet her family in the Aethya’s embrace.
“…and now this noxious discovery. This does not bode well.”
Rede had been speaking to her, but lost in her despair she only caught the last of his words as she returned to reality.
Rede chuckled and waved a nonchalant hand through the air, though he appeared cautious as he glanced at her from the corner of his eye.
“Mage-work, young miss. Lord Andru will not be pleased.”
Her blood ran cold as she faced the commander. He knew! Though she quickly calmed herself as Rede gestured towards the smouldering pile and stated, “The dead have become a touch livelier these days, don’t you think? I am quite certain they did not raise themselves.”
The burnt man’s rasping voice reverberated through her mind as clear as though he were beside her. ‘Fiends. Monsters made flesh’. They were already dead! Lyria stared at the ground, ashamed of her blood as she choked on the smoke rising up from the pile, as her mother’s terrified face shone bright before her and illuminated the nightmares that howled beyond the precipice of her crumbling spirit.
“S-sir, my family… th-they were dead when I left them.”
“As I assumed. Antohne has his orders; the dead will be… cremated.”
An imagined fire melted the flesh from her mother’s skull and she buried her head into her hands, her unwelcome visions now assisted by the burgeoning flames licking at the decaying flesh of the men she had killed, the vile men who were already dead. A veneration filled the air as the pyre burned, a peculiar silence as each soldier stood lost in his own thoughts after the completion of their grim task, and soon, beyond the plume of smoke and stomach-churning aromas, the sun slipped below the horizon. The eternal skies were a vibrant collage of orange and purple as Fan’driel’s cycle danced through the motions that allowed night to fall, and on any other occasion she would have been enamoured with the dreamlike effect the heavens held upon her twilight world, however, at this moment, she only wanted the nightmare to end —Andru would see to that, at least.
Rede’s discreet cough interrupted her thoughts and he motioned for her to follow him towards the nearby horses. She had not noticed them before but they were grazing in the meadow, the small pink flowers their treat as they awaited their riders’ return. He pointed out a piebald mare that lazed beneath the shade of a tree, the only one of its colouring, and said, “Young Antohne brought that one; she’s gentle and will carry you well. Alas, we won’t enter the city by first moon, but perhaps by second.”
She didn’t want to enter Astana. The very thought chilled her blood and heightened the despair she held buried behind her stony exterior, and her false gratitude was barely audible as she turned her back to the commander, aware of his scrutiny as she hurried towards the beautiful beast he had pointed out. His watchful eyes were on her but she would make no assumptions; her closest friends hadn’t even known of her curse! There was no way her father would have mentioned it to one of Andru’s commanders, no matter how close a friendship they shared. Any evidence that suggested otherwise was a product of her paranoia… she hoped.
Lyria approached the horse and stroked its mane, scratched behind its ears, and murmured soft nothings to the creature as she gazed into its eyes; gentle and brown, they were filled with an imagined sympathy and her tears rose once more as she thought of her own slaughtered beast, likely picked clean to the bone by the carrion feeders that hunted the remains of the unfortunate. Damn it all! She wiped away her tears and grimaced at the blood streaked over her hand. There was a time and a place for this grief and now was unacceptable. She would have her moment and persevere, or she would die anyway.
During her silent moments with the horse, the soldiers had returned to their own. A few of the men nodded their greetings as they passed by while others openly stared at her appearance, clearly wondering at her survival. Gods… how was she going to explain this to Andru? Would she even have to? Perhaps it was best to embrace the knowledge of her inevitable death; she would be with her family again before the cycle rebirthed, and at least she had avenged them.
The sweet animal was unperturbed as she climbed atop the saddle, and the summer breeze swept through her tangled hair as she sat back and looked at the commander. As though it were her readiness he awaited, Rede returned her stare with a raised eyebrow and her stomach churned as she nodded. She was not ready, would never be ready, but she could not delay the end. The light of the first moon shone bright through the darkening skies and Lyria kicked her heels into the horse’s flanks, a nausea stirring in her throat as each clomp of the mare’s hooves took her a step closer to a reunion she both longed for and feared.