What’s up, everybody. Happy Thursday!
Today we’re at it again: serving up a couple short scenes that wind up tying together in the end. Rather than overdoing the intro, I’m just going to let them speak for themselves.
Without further adieu…
Part 1: ‘Ainsley, Justicar of Taldastius‘
Ainsley stood still at the edge of the forest glade, loosing the deep breath with the slow, practiced control her work demanded. Her eyes took in the scene with that same calm measure as her plated boots clinked their tread through the soft grass. A gentle wind danced through the muted green, brushed her cheeks, tossed her hair, and carried the scent of blood – the scent of a haunting life she’d left behind.
While her task required attention, Ainsley’s focused mind would not carry the nightmares of that life. For a time, she would not be molested by thoughts of the clans her brother-and-sisters-in-arms had scattered; she would not burden herself with the memories of their screams; she would not shudder at the knowledge she held of that which corroded the earth, shattered rock, and sundered the skies. A “dishonorable discharge” it had been called, but a system of mock honor that burns and destroys the undeserving to protect its own interests held no place to judge her. No longer holding station among the zealous Elves of the Iron Fang, she had found the freedom to wander. Unwelcome by many, hated by some, Ainsley turned Nameless – finding work and a place in the darkest recesses of Mundas, thanklessly facing the nightmares that plagued its people.
And this way she lived for many years until came such a time as any for those that live the Nameless way, and she found herself ready to die as such. She had stood in a moonlit glade then as well, slowly kneeling ready to dash the lunar-gray grasses with the crimson of her life’s blood. As she had held the blade high and saw in its reflection the pale of the moon, the sight of it filled her mind and heart with a vision:
“We that follow are the light that stands amid the dark and guides the helpless through its shroud.”
The Oath and its Moon Strictures now decorating the flesh of her back, her life as a Justicar of Taldastius had begun only weeks later; her stride now set with a righteous purpose beyond murky survival.
As her footfalls strode quietly through the glade, shield at her side and sword gleaming brightly in the moonlight, Ainsley heard the choking, strained gasps more clearly the nearer she drew. The girl was young, no more than twenty winters behind her, with raven black hair and eyes with blue that pierced the pallid night. The acrid smell in the air, the jagged, raking marks down the girl’s arms, and the thick, speckled quills that perforated her petite form told Ainsley more than enough: Howlers.
Normally cowardly, netherplane-dwelling beasts, something had brought them here. The girl looked up at Ainsley, lips quivering, dark trails streaking from the corners of her mouth, and unable to speak. The Justicar held the young girls gaze for a time before turning her own to a rustling in the encompassing treeline.
They were coming.
The Take: So, there are a couple of lore points from the larger world at work here to address that might help, might not.
Ainsley is a Justicar (or paladin-variant, basically) of Taldastius, Steward of the Moon, Keeper of the Scales, Lord of Justice, n’ all else. The Moon is the Order’s totem and it represents them in the way Ainsley’s vision outlines: they fight against the dark by living in it, but without becoming it (if that makes sense). I could go on for pages, but that’s the gist and we have more to get to (this is supposed to be bite-sized, after all).
The Iron Fang are essentially a state-funded volunteer corps of defense against the dragon nests north of the Continent. They’re comprised of zealots, desperate sods, religious nutters, social outcasts – anyone and everyone. It’s members are highly revered, though, normally only after they’ve died – being criticized and berated in life by society at large. They’re organized strictly, and when one falls out of their ranks (is insubordinate, flees, or otherwise shows cowardice), they become “Nameless,” the world’s equivalent to Witchers, basically; only finding work as mercenaries and monster-hunters.
On to the next!
Part 2: Stella Fairbay, Heiress of Shale
Stella watched the diminutive ceramic dancer slowly twirl in its place within the open music box. A slight smile spread across her narrow lips as she listened to the soft chiming sung by the inner springs and coils. She watched the last of the day’s warm sunlight glimmer and reflect off its polished curves, and these feelings left her mind awash in memories – though they now seemed so distant.
The years of her youth were of gilded halls and ballrooms, long hours in formal court, and a deep-rooted yearning to part with it all, though never once betraying her family’s storied lineage. As with many of the women in her ancestry, Stella held a particularly strong sway over the magical forces of Mundas, and nothing interfered with that secret more greatly than the life of royalty. Her potential was held captive by the very privilege which provided for her, so she stole away one night to walk the wanderer’s path and develop her talents. Her only farewell: a letter addressed to her grandmother, the ruling Duchess of Shale, mentor to Stella in her youngest years, and, moreover, only living family-by-blood left in the Duchy.
Stella fluttered her eyelids to blink the memories away and she found her vision focusing beyond the now silent toy dancer to the reflection of her own eyes in the mirror of the box’s lid. She held the sight for a breath then looked up to behold the moon, feeling now that it was almost time. It had taken many months to find this place and Stella would be damned if she’d spent that time tracking down the proper charts, conferring with members of the Channelers’ Fold, and preparing the necessary charms only to miss her window distracted by nostalgia.
The young witch carefully closed the music box and stowed it within her black, silver-laced robes. She stood sharply and grasped the spear-staff at her side, an heirloom from her late grandfather. Stella marched with conviction to the edge of a summoner’s circle she’d constructed when the sun had been high, looked up to see the moon nearing its zenith, and an eager laugh escape her lips as she began her incantation, ready to open the way. Her eyes whited over with a milky paleness to mimic the moon and the ground beneath her feet felt as if to hum in harmony with her low tone.
Slowly, like fireflies drifting in the veil of night, glowing sigils began to form out of the cold air and weave together in the bounds of her circle. A complete silence took the glade before a loud snap broke the air and a bright font of light burst forth from the ground. In a matter of moments, Stella knew, if she had done her work correctly, she would be face-to-face with an angelic archon.
As the last of the arcane light faded from the circle, an unexpected darkness shrouded the glade. Stella rubbed her eyes so they might adjust and whispered a word to her staff for light. As she did so, a horrible sense of dread fell upon her like a cloak and she heard a clicking, guttural snarl. The moments of Stella’s life to follow would be remembered only as a panicked blur.
A haunting, shrieking howl pierced the still quiet.
Her chest and arms pained by slashes of unseen claws.
She was knocked breathless against the cool, damp grass.
Stella awaited the death knell from whatever infernal creatures her tragic mistake had summoned, though it never came. She could hear them, feel them encircling her, as her vision slowly darkened until a vibrant silver light beamed from the edge of the glade and the creatures retreated from it. A woman in silver and blue plate armor stood over her, beautiful and scarred, she peered down at Stella with a look of sympathy. A noise from the glade’s edge stole the woman’s attention for a moment, and when her gaze returned to the young witch her eyes burned a brilliant silver that shone against the dark backdrop of the stars.
The woman whispered a soft, chiming tone and Stella coughed. While still in great pain, she could feel a relieving warmth spread across her body where there had been agony moments before. Seeing the young woman stable, the paladin dashed across the muted gray forest floor, her blade shining white with fire. Stella craned her neck to watch as her savior cleaved down the first two beasts in a matter of moments and briefly wrestled with a third, a terrible fray of shouts and visceral crunches, while the remaining pack closed in around. With a desperate, heaving breath, Stella sat up and looked on as long, sharp quills like those that had pierced her struck the paladin between areas of her plate. Focusing through the tormenting pain and hurried anxiety of her circumstance, Stella forced herself into trance.
The paladin fought from her back, swinging this way and that to ward away the encroaching pack, when she felt the ground beneath her shake. The howlers seized the moment of her hesitation and moved to leap upon their meal, but could not feel the ground beneath their gnarled paws. She watched as the remaining pack was lifted above the grass and pulled, flailing viciously, over to the girl in black robes, now standing with spear in one hand and the other extended towards the creatures. Quills were shaken and shot forth in Stella’s direction, though they splintered to harmless flakes in the air around her. The howlers were forced to the grass, dragged by an invisible hand to the circle from which they’d emerged and, like water through cloth, disappeared beneath the ground.
From across the moonlit glade, the two women locked eyes for the second time and together shared a well-earned sigh of relief.
The Take: There you have it, a bad-ass, scarred up warrior lady and a reckless, mystical witch woman ruining a gaggle of otherworldly beasties. Always fun. I always liked Stella’s half for tying in and really showing off Ainsley’s badassery, plus alluding to some other world-bits we’ll explore a bit more deeply later.
Probably put up the others of this little “mini-series” tomorrow rather than waiting until Tuesday. Til then, you take it easy and stay beautiful, you.