Aboard a raft adrift on the Seventh River, Adofo listened to the ferryman’s oar cycle in and out of the water. An elder among the Zar, wizened of features and minimalist of wardrobe, steered the float with a slender wooden oar as long as himself. Crystalline droplets pelted him from where he sat on the platform’s edge, submerging his bare legs in the chilling waters.
He inhaled a draft of the mountain valley’s crisp air, finally finding time enough to breathe after descending the Golden Mountain. An absent hand keeping his unequipped leather boots near to him, his mind wandered elsewhere.
The descent had taken the entire sunrise alongside having to spend the noon hour navigating the High Quarter erected around the foot of the Golden Mountain. The Golden Sun had fallen from its zenith after leaving via the Sun Gate into the Qaira Quarter. A small adventure through the Grand Bazaars and several market stalls in around the mercantile district, Adofo procured a ferryman’s aid to ferry his Bloodsworn from the Qaira Quarter to the Artifice Quarter on the city outskirts.
“You seem elsewhere, First Blade.” Elmas approached Adofo from behind to stand near the raft’s corner by his side. A gentle breeze sifted its fingers through her hair and obscured her words. “You must be thinking about Lady Siham.”
“You make it look so simple.” Adofo didn’t look up at his Second Blade as her shadow fell over him, shielding him a little more from the evening dusk. “Reading a man’s mind that is. Or it might be that I am making a poor attempt to conceal how I feel.”
Adofo observed the ferryman guide his raft past other slender vessels on the waterways’ primary routes. Yet more sea-faring platforms and slender craft occupied the lesser canals branching off from the Seventh River into Tushik’s densely urbanized areas. He marked the occasional Qaira warship, three hundred oars used to power each, bristling with substantial firepower and a sizable garrison of Zar’qin auxiliaries.
Elmas knelt beside him as he sat on the raft’s edge, leveling their differences in height.
“I guessed. That much is simple to understand.” Elmas smirked, staring out across the river beside him. “I’ve forgotten how long ventures from the Golden Mountain to the city outskirts can take. We’ve walked from sunrise till the evening dusk, our work is always unending for us.”
“It will be nightfall by the time we arrive,” Adofo said, “our benefactor said she will be waiting for us in the Ardent Spire beneath the city.”
He spied the Palanquin Floats of the Sar nobility scattered about fleets of fishing canoes. Every vessel drifted inland as the Golden Sun threatened to fall beneath the horizon, to anchor for the night in the Seventh River’s many harbors and dockyards.
“Our brethren seem to be in good spirits still.” Elmas acknowledged a score of seasoned Zar warriors animated in quiet conversation on the raft behind them.
Survivors of famous campaigns with enough distinction to see them rewarded with retirement from the legion and instated into the palace guard. The Bloodsworn numbered as a single group of oath-bound guardians among many defending the royal palace.
“Siham will be found in the throne hall of her ancestors, Adofo. While your companions and you are headed into certain danger to meet our benefactor. There will be another night to look forward to in Heaven’s Gate, unless our lives come to an end inside of the Ardent Spire.”
“Right as always, Elmas.” Adofo gazed up toward the sky where the night bled into the dusk. “My mind has been adrift as of late, but that’s why I have you around, right? You keep my head clear in times of conflict. I will lay my concerns for Siham to rest for the night. Once we’ve achieved our mission here, we’ll be back in the royal palace at sunrise.”
Satisfied, Elmas nodded.
“That’s unusual for you to ask after me like that. Should I be concerned about you? Does your First Blade not meet the standard to lead the Bloodsworn anymore?”
She smiled at him, a broad expression that lingered on her lips for but a moment.
“It may be uncommon, but we’re friends, aren’t we?”
Adofo looked to her, finding Elmas watching him through a sidelong glance.
“You needn’t remind me,” he said, “my nearest one is you. You know that.”
Elmas scoffed, carried away by the wind of an approaching storm.
“You must mean Siham, certainly? You’re much more comfortable around her than we’ll ever be. Your late hours spent in her room and the later morning that you both emerge attest to that.”
Adofo cackled with laughter, taken by surprise. Elmas watched him sober, noting that coy grin playing on his scarred lips.
“Are you about to tell me you’re jealous?” Adofo asked. “You’ve always mocked me for loving her, though you’ve always tried to be supportive of my foolish choices. Are you going to tell me that you’re worth more to me than our fairest lady?”
Adofo paused, killing the tension building up between them with a serious note. “You know you’ve little to be offended about if that was true, though we both know your worth is immesurable compared to myself. You could sway any Qin’sar in the Golden Valley if you wanted. I’ve heard a few of them are quite taken with you.”
That unfamiliar tension returned as Elmas deigned to leave her answer unspoken. She didn’t speak, letting Adofo piece together her displeasure beneath a quiet observance. Watching her back, Adofo found the vivid green shade of her eyes beautiful, the lure behind them almost enough to physically pull him nearer to her.
She snapped their reverie with a turn of her head, attracted by the High Quarter’s lantern lights.
“If we’re being honest, First Blade, I’d rather hear you speak honeyed words over any Qin’sar. I wouldn’t be too quick to dismiss the hearts of women, no matter who you choose to love. You aren’t that unnotable as to be discounted for many women’s ideal of a soulmate. Neither mine nor Siham’s.”
“I’m flattered,” Adofo said, “but come on, Elmas, there must be someone that’s caught your eye, certainly?”
Her cheeks gently blushing, Elmas confessed at long last. “I’ve little time to consider partnering with a male, but the Dominion’s laws grant a handful of the Zar the privilege of marriage. My situation of romance shares nothing with your predicament, but… I’ve been wondering about Magar as of late.
“Don’t look at him behind us, but he comes by often during the night to leave beautiful bundles of flowers by my door. Every morning brings something different and I know it’s a small thing, but…”
“I’m not disappointed,” Adofo nodded, “you could actually do far worse than him. He might be the most inexperienced in our ranks, but there is a reason he was inducted into the Bloodsworn. He shares your age and is actually the opposite to you in a number of ways, but similar in many more as well.”
“Courageous, but often reckless. Daring and reactionary, and kind like the Magar that we’ve always known. I almost thought him too good-natured for combat and warfare, but he distinguished himself on the steppes of the U’skar Qi, aiding the city of Xura with the rest of his unit.”
“Could I maybe ask you a question?” Elmas changed the subject. “Though you might consider it too personal to give me an answer.”
“What are you wanting to know?”
“You’re of the Bloodsworn. A retired veteran from the legion and a guardian of the Royal Palace. You’ll walk away from the Golden Valley as a free man within a few years, like the rest of us. If the Dominion broke your chains and allowed you to depart in peace, would you leave the Carth Dominion to journey wherever you desired? Would that mean anything without Lady Siham Sar Amun’s love to look forward to with each new dawn? Or… would you consider taking Siham with you if you did decide on leaving the Golden Valley behind?”
Difficult questions without any simple answers, Adofo thought, looking up toward the starlit heavens as night blanketed the City of Grand Canals.
“Well,” Adofo began, “I don’t know what my love for Siham really looks like to you, but her devotion might be more real to me than maybe anything I’ve known in a long time. Siham has gone to great lengths to shield me from the worst consequences haunting our relationship. She treads a blade’s edge for me every now and again, though she understands that she doesn’t have to, nor should have to. In that alone remains a debt that I cannot easily see repaid.”
“You’re just ignoring the possibility that she might think you’re nothing more than a possession? Children of the Sun think that way. That alone makes me concerned for you, Adofo.”
“You might think it’s foolish, but I will always love Siham until her inevitable kiss goodbye. We’ve always known that our relationship was never fated to last forever. We decided to enjoy the time we’re able to share with each other instead. I think that will be the truth whenever that may happen.”
A jolt rocked the raft as it brushed up against a pier of granite stone, blanketed with soot from the surrounding manufactories. Adofo spied several-story buildings, billowing with flames and clouds of charred smoke that made the building appear as if it were burning along its higher floors.
Adofo removed both of his legs from the canal, drying them with a spare towel before donning them again. Elmas loomed over him as all conversation aboard the Languid Mermaid faded to silence.
Amused faces turned to stone as the Bloodsworn amassed around their first and second blades, palms on their sheathed weapons and shields held tight across their chests.
Post Merge: April 23, 2023, 08:46:10 PM
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“Brethren,” Adofo climbed back to his feet. “We’ve heard many myths about the Old Ruin beneath the city. I wouldn’t give credence to superstition but, I’m not one for tempting fate either. Be cautious and prepared for anything. Fall into formation and let’s move quickly.”
Twin pillars flanked the rough stone pier, flames burning from torches fastened to the blackened stone, covered in soot in every nook and crevice. A discreet entrance into the artifice quarter known to many a rogue, Adofo knew, the quickest route to the Ardent Spire beneath the main city.
He gazed up into a tapestry of patchwork quilted cloth and other roughspun blankets. Utilitarian manufactories flanked an entire swathe of the dirt road ahead, their industrial fires burning bright into the night.
“The Artifice Quarter,” Elmas gasped, awe-struck, “I haven’t ventured to the valley outskirts in years. A small measure of beauty lingers here, even beneath all the soot.”
“The gate into the Ardent Spire remains a league or so ahead,” Adofo said, “be cautious, this place is a maze unto itself, everything around this area was created well over a milennia ago.
“Be generous with the light once we’ve delved deep into the Ardent Spire. It will be the only light source to guide our way. Expect nothing, but prepare for anything.”
A formation of black thunderhead clouds swept above the Golden Valley, blotting out the ethereal moon and its starlit void. Lightning bristled, falling from the heavens without warning to strike the mortal sphere far below. A furious wind battered the artifice quarter, whipping up the waters of the Seventh River until they began to rumble like the thunder from high above.
The Bloodsworn assumed a tight-knit formation, shields arrayed in a wall against their outward-facing flanks. They advanced at his command, braving the narrow back-alleys running between the manufactories.
A wailing wind lashed about the patchwork blankets suspended above the winding road. Curtains of falling rain poured through the ceiling of cloth, coming down hard enough to obscure the way forward.
Audible notes of laughter and hushed conversation played from behind the privacy of soot-stained walls and gnarled oak doors, barred behind wooden beams. Soot collecting on the cobblestone road broke apart beneath their boots, turning to obsidian pools in the rain.
Silence haunted their journey as the road began to coil from up ahead. Looking over the railing as they neared the gate into the Ardent Spire, a spiraling descent waited below that would take another hour, leading into the city bowels. What awaited them in the light-less abyss at the descent’s end, Adofo could only guess.
They descended without hesitation, until the industries of the Artifice Quarter loomed far beyond their immediate reach.
“It’s an ominous night,” he said, “a storm wind batters the canals above and rain has soaked our armor through. You can hardly hear the thunder from these depths. Just a subtle tremor running deep through the earth.”
“And I’ve not spied a living soul since we entered the Artifice Quarter,” Magar replied, “just abandoned streets and emptied smithies, even the local craftsmen workshops.”
“Seeking shelter from another eastern storm from the steppes,” Elmas said, “maybe another event had happened earlier in the afternoon. It makes things easier for us regardless.”
“This has always been a cursed place, beneath the city.” Kalb sighed aloud into the rain and cracking thunder. We had an altercation here with the Crimson Lions back when they were a famed name. We fought a running battle on the path we’re on now, even while we speak. Remember that, Adofo?”
He didn’t laugh, overwhelmed by a seventh sense, and the disturbing feeling that brought.
“We had enough torchlight to guide our blades against them. You had almost lost your eye to their war leader that night.”
“Their champion was a vicious scoundrel, defiant up until the end too. He led quite a notorious band, but their reputation fell into ruin that night. I often thought about how we managed to fight our way out of the Ardent Spire back to the royal palace.”
“That was all before your induction into the Bloodsworn, Magar,” Elmas said, “just before I was promoted into the palace guard. We’ve a few leaders that keep workarounds for cheating death at every turn. All in the name of reaping yet more vain glories.”
“Well I’ve reaped enough,” Kalb replied, “more than anyone here. I was just noting that nothing looks different about this place. I’d wager that all the blood spilled that night might still linger on the stone.”
The spiraling stairwell leveled out to a flat road that stretched on into the dark. Flickering torchlight pealed back the darkness lying in wait ahead, banished for every several paces taken forward.
Elmas halted, her breath locked in her lungs upon her body turning rigid. Adofo looked back to regard her, watching her squeeze both eyes shut while she struggled internally. He made to call for a physician or anyone with the ability to help.
Elmas doubled over, a trembling hand against her stomach, and emptied its contents. His brethren scrambled clear before Adofo had thought to. He stepped to one side to avoid where the bile would strike, placing a hand on her back for support.
His other hand on her shoulder, he barked out a relieved laugh. She exhausted the last of her sickness after heaving a second time. Adofo knew what caused the illness. The sickly-sweet stench of death and decay, concealed amid the city bowels.
Her hand came away from his wrist, previously latched around it for support. Regulating her breathing, she staggered twice before recovering herself enough to stand.”
Her cheeks turned to rose-red, unable to conceal the blush of embarrassment.
“Apologies.” That was all Elmas deigned to speak.
“It appears you spoke the truth, Kalb.” Adofo removed both hands from Elmas, turning to regard the path ahead alongside the rest of the Bloodsworn. “Nothing appears to have changed here in the Ardent Spire after our battle. A forgotten footnote in Tushik’s history.”
Adofo commanded the torchbearers forward with hand-gestures, watching their cautious advance to comb and scout the surrounding area. He stalked forward, the Bloodsworn’s leather boots squelching in the rainwater pooling on the cobblestone road behind him.
“Strange,” Magar added, “an ominous message to the superstitious, written in the faded blood and crumbling bones of the dead abandoned down here.
“It still smells like death,” Elmas said, “unfortunates must have perished here only recently.”
Unmarred by the soot of the Artifice Quarter, Adofo spied a faded wine-red mosaic through the water. It looked like an ancient, glowing hex painted with blood. A diabolic shape that rippled beneath the water’s refracted light.
Fragments of bleached bone and decayed armor scraps littered the flooded path ahead. Some appeared sundered messily apart, while others crumbled with time and exposure to the elements. An open graveyard spanning only a league of the Ardent Spire’s main road.
A weathered gate loomed ahead of them, leading into an abandoned district lost to Tushik’s ancient past. It appeared to be opened, falling to the wayside to permit free entry.
Kalb, select half of our number and appoint Magar as your second. Anyone that Kalb passes over will follow me and Elmas. Let’s search for this abandoned district up ahead. Spread out and let’s see if we can find our benefactor.”
Kalb called out ten of his brethren by name. Called to arms, they advanced at his back through the open gates into the ancient ruins.
“Do you really think our benefactor maybe waiting for us in here? I think a Child of the Sun would rather fall from the royal palace down the Golden Mountain’s height.”
“I wonder if anyone inside of this crypt might even still be alive.” Adofo searched the surrounding colonnades and alcoves with hawk-eyes. “Come on, let’s not leave Kalb on his own for too long.”
An urgent shout came from up ahead. Adofo recognized Kalb’s biting bark commanding his warriors. He ran ahead without warning, Elmas and the others pursuing hard on his heels through the open gate.
Passing through the gate in several strides, he came to a sharp halt when failing to spot Kalb’s warriors anywhere in sight.
“Kalb!?” Adofo shouted into the light-less depths, his voice punctuated by a furious boom of thunder from the heavens above. “Gods, running toward the perilous unknown as always.”
A dim inkling of torchlight in the darkness wavered in the near distance.
A woman’s familiar voice spoke from an arm’s length away.
“You’re also running into the same unknown amid the dark and storm. Why admonish anyone following in their leader’s example?”
He startled, his heart leaping within his chest as he staggered back from a marble stairwell spiraling up into an ancient watchtower. A hand reached out for the pommel of his blade as he searched the abandoned settlement for a hostile presence.
“You’re late, Adofo Akopian of the Zar’qin Guard.” She called out to him again, whistling to lure him into looking in the right direction. “Here I am. Hidden in plain sight.”
Adofo fell out from his combat stance, finding his benefactor seated at the base of the spiral stairwell.
A Child of the Sun, russet of skin and in her life’s prime, though Adofo knew she kept several centuries to her name. Almost enough to rival her immortal father, Lord Erasyl Sar Amun.
Twisting locks of lustrous obsidian strands spilled across her shoulders in neatened coils. Her eyes, one bright like emerald and marred with four scars that ran diagonally over her left eyelid. The other eye shone like black-veined silver, to find the soul housed beneath the flesh and bone beneath.
She was equipped in a foreign style of armor. A raven black brigandine worn most often by the warriors of Tanorith continent. A western world far beyond the Black Sea. Pieces of segmented plate steel reinforced her left shoulder and both arms from wrist to elbow.
An elegant estoc rested against her midnight black saora leggings, the clothes tucked into tall leather boots of boiled brown leather.
Cautious footfalls approached through the rain as Elmas made to join them. She gasped, her eyes alight with recognition upon finding the Child of the Sun seated on the stairwell.
“Lady Shoushan Sar Amun.” Elmas proclaimed. “Firstborn daughter of the Sun Caller Kings and Heiress of the Carth Dominion.”
Shoushan regarded them both with a polite smile.
“You arrived later than I expected. We’ve little time in the hourglass to avert our fated disaster.”
Elmas cocked her head at Adofo, an uncertain look shared between them. “Heiress, what are you doing waiting in this abandoned district? Adverting disaster? Are you being pursued? We discovered a few dead warriors outside. Did you dispatch them?
Shoushan didn’t bat an eyelash, watching the Bloodsworn maintain guard at the gate until further orders.
“You’ve no need to call me Heiress. Just my name will suffice. I am safe here in case you haven’t noticed. You are the ones being pursued and stalked through the Ardent Spire. I am surprised that none of your number has noticed.”
Adofo looked about the surrounding area in search of threats. “I will have my Bloodsworn provide escort for you to the royal palace. I’m not certain how the Heiress of the Carth Dominion came to be here of all places, but I am assuming your guards are dead at this point.”
“I did not call on you to return me to the royal palace,” Shoushan said, “I need to venture much farther beneath the valley. Into the Old Ruin that lies buried under everything. I have a contact waiting for me therein. However, she is also being pursued and hunted by Ashen Blades.”
“Ashen Blades?” Adofo scoffed aloud. “Sukhanites from the Southern Wastes?”
“Midnight clad assassins should what I’ve learned of them be accurate,” Elmas said, “disciples to the Goddess of Death, Zahira. It would make sense if they were here in pursuit of someone courageous enough to ignore the Dominion’s laws. I see no other reason that they would be interested in visiting Tushik.”
“There are other reasons.” Shoushan stated in a matter-of-fact tone. “Our enemies have marked my contact for death. I want her pursuers eliminated before proceeding any further with our meeting. I want the Bloodsworn to aid me in that task. Are you up to the challenge, First Blade?”
“It’s our mission to aid the Sar Amun House in matters of importance when required. We will aid you if you’re not comfortable asking the Qin’sar. I know journeying into the Old Ruin is forbidden on pain of death to everyone, even an Heiress of the Dominion.”
“Not quite the truth.” Shoushan mentioned with a smile. “But I will remember the courage and loyalty the Bloodsworn have shown me here this night. We should hurry, the Sukhanites will ambush your bear-like friend up ahead. He will need to be reinforced soon.”
“Understood, but do the Bloodsworn a favor and stay distant and out of the fight. I wouldn’t refuse your aid otherwise, but if Ashen Blades are involved than any form of combat with them is too dangerous to permit your participation.”
Shoushan nodded. “Then let us waste not another second in the hourglass.”