Saturday, 2 June 2018

Episode III - III Thrown from the Nest (Shard III)

On Authroc's Wing

Thrown from the Nest
(Shard III)

“Unbecoming.” Celeste gave a snort of derision and looked to her gathered hounds for reenforcement. “This is our teacher? This is the impertinent fool that dares to teach us what we already know?” She lowered her snapping hand down and brought it up in a flourish towards Leiros. She rolled her putrid eyes once more and shook her head in tiny and controlled motions.

“Tell me — Lady Celeste — if you already know everything I have to teach you, then what is one of the primary conditions you agreed to when you took the Oath of Vhaltenesh?” Leiros leaned in close enough to the young woman’s face that she would be able to smell his breath. His demeanor was fading, revealing the fullness of his contempt. “You did take the Oath didn’t you?”

“That was some years ago.” Celeste pressed her immaculately plucked eyebrows together as she tried to understand where Leiros was trying to aim her. It was obvious that many gears were working behind her eyes, trying to defend herself and prepare her next attack.

“It’s a life-time Oath, my dear. I would certainly hope you remember what you agreed to.” Leiros smiled broadly and waited in a few moments of silence for Celeste to reply. She seemed dumbfounded by what he might be insinuating, so he continued. “Vhaltenesh, our primarch, realized that we as oracles could be corrupted by bias both within and without. Ties of honor, ties of blood, claims to wealth and claims to fealty all strip an oracle of their righteousness. Ties to your former life are like chains, holding you down and keeping you away from the truth that Nesharr gifts us with.”

“So, what?” Celeste shrugged openly and narrowed her eyes at Leiros. “I and everyone here made that same Oath. You have to in order to join the Authrakallin Order. They’re just old words and symbolic promises given to someone long dead.”

“You made a blood-bound Oath to renounce all claims to titles, to land, to family, and to any other trappings of your origin.” Leiros clenched his fists and took a belabored breath. He tried to calm his nerves, wishing it was only stupidity that this young woman held within her and not outright maliciousness. “This is the only way you may enter the Order. You joined this Order to follow in the footsteps of Vhaltenesh and learn from his teachings. This is the only way to become an oracle.”

“Those are old ideas, we don’t follow those things anymore. The Oath is just a formality. I was selected to join this Order by Master Illena, herself. She selected me precisely because of my title and the rather amenable trust my parents gave to this little group you’re so fond of.” Celeste fluttered her eyes with every statement she spoke and waved her hands at her sides in mockery of the very teachings she benefited from. She languished in her derision for a moment and then refocused her attention squarely on Leiros’ eyes. “What you care about is long gone, Leiros. The Order is changing around you and I’m glad to be a vehicle for that change. When I’m Grandmaster, I’m going to enjoy getting rid of that silly oath and all the rest of that old bastard’s writing. He died a thousand years ago, it’s time to let his ideas die, too.”

Leiros closed his eyes and lifted his head skyward while still straining his fists tightly. The corruption he had seen in Master Gwain, earlier this day, truly had seeped throughout the Order. Not only was Master Illena an agent of that growing malfeasance, she had deeply installed it in all of the initiates as well. She didn’t have the right to go over the Grandmaster’s head with selections for initiation. She didn’t have the right to take bribes from wealthy foreign nobles to use for her own ends. It was beginning to feel like Leiros had woken up into a separate world this morning, a world filled with evil creatures that wore human skin, not the world he had fought so hard to preserve while growing up.

“Can we get on with the lesson, or must we bicker some more?” A male voice cut through the silence between Leiros and Celeste. Leiros opened his eyes and saw a young man push by two of the hounds to stand in solidarity next to the pompous young woman. “I’ve already sent my servant to retrieve another Master should this one not be sufficient to do his duties for us.” The young man glared hotly at Leiros out of the corner of his eyes and then focused them calmly upon Celeste’s.

The young woman nodded to the young man and both turned to look derisively from equally rotten eyes at Leiros. The young man had a shade darker skin than the woman’s pale features. His brown hair was chopped, feathered, and bent stylishly around his head as if it were some kind of haphazard helmet. A gold chain necklace hung around his neck, and several of his fingers were bedecked with jeweled bands. It seemed like none of these new initiates understood the noble poverty and humility that Vhaltenesh’s teachings encouraged.

“Let me guess, along with a Lady, we also have a Lord in our midst.” Leiros lifted one of his strained arms up and pointed with his index and middle finger toward this new student. “Who might you be, and what sort of great house did you come from?”

“My name is Brault kolst Cyrallbhirt. I’m not a Lord of anything.” The young man stared deadpan at Leiros and crossed his arms over his chest. He also had immaculately cared for robes, as he should since he had a servant to tend to him. A servant who was not permitted according to the traditional laws of the Authrakallin. “I am the first son of Neimol kolst Cyrallbhirt, a prominent member of the Grand Circle and Filidath Primarch.”

Another child born with a silver spoon in their mouth, who again claimed importance from the family they were to have abandoned upon their oath-taking. Leiros took a sharp breath in, wanting to interrogate Brault as what Master Illena promised him and his family in order to have him here. He stopped in mid-breath and realized that it no longer mattered. The ancient traditions of the Order had been outright dismissed in these last years. Even without knowing just how far the corruption had become, he felt affirmed in his earlier desires to avoid having to do any teaching duties. Leiros longed for the years he spent among books written by long-dead persons, rather than the simpering and still-living parasites gathering around him.

“So, Brault, do you have ambitions to be the next Grandmaster of this Order, as well?” Leiros remained focused on the young man and gestured with his pointing hand back to Celeste. He kept his arm low, around waist-height, and didn’t move the rest of his body. He was displaying her as a subject and not a person with his body language. He lifted his upper lip into a slight snarl between his words. “You’ll have to fend off some competition.”

“No, I don’t plan on remaining here after my schooling is finished. I was promised a position of importance back in Morrthault City by several of the Grand Circle. Master Illena wants to set up a satellite Order there. It’s our hope to bring propriety and social order to the capital. Perhaps once those in power have been brought into a virtuous path of social welfare, the rest of Hoelatha culture will be brought to heel.” Brault relaxed while speaking and looked almost wistful as he recounted his motives plainly.

“You are aware that we already have a sub-sect of oracles in the capital.” Leiros leaned in slightly to the young man. He looked from the side of his vision, pressing his cheek forward as if he was revealing some secret conspiracy as he spoke. “The Order of Lanterns is quite prominent there, and although we don’t see eye-to-eye anymore, they never-the-less still follow the teachings of Vhaltenesh.”

“The Order of Lanterns have become unnecessary in the eyes of the Grand Circle. They served their purpose in the past, hunting down monsters that preyed upon us during the dark times.” Brault rolled his brown eyes and looked off to the horizon for a moment. “The darkness of the past is now over. We are moving into an age of illumination, shepherded by the wisdom of our Grand Circle. We have no use for exorcists and monster-hunters. Besides, for centuries now, such things have only existed in children’s stories.”

“I suppose it would be hard for you to see such things, being surrounded by almost a million souls, and hiding behind such great walls.” Leiros all but snorted his disdain upon Brault as he leaned back and began to tap on his cheek with his pointing hand. He sized up the young man from foot to face and took in a sharp breath of chilling afternoon air. “If the Grand Circle has decided that the Order of Lanterns isn’t necessary any more than what precisely would a bunch of oracles be worth? If you’re looking perform auguries for the rich and powerful back home, I’m afraid that Master Gwain and his ilk have that market cornered.”

“No, nothing as base as that.” Brault kept his eyes focused on the horizon as if he were looking across the entire world-plane to take in the decadent majesty of his old home. “As I said, we are entering a new age of illumination. The Grand Circle has realized that the common folk don’t have the fortitude and strength of spirit to keep away from their destructive desires. Tribes are warring with each other and society is crumbling. Enlightened leaders must show the ways of virtue and social reform to the masses. We will be creating a new order to help this grand vision.” Brault turned his eyes once more to Leiros while puffing his chest up with air. “With our powers of telepathy, we will be able to find the truly weak of heart and purge them from our society. We will be able to advise the Grand Circle to the betterment of all. We will be the arbiters of purity.”

“Somehow I have a feeling that you won’t be purging the weak of heart, but rather the poor, the desperate, and those that don’t agree with your new order.” Leiros took a backward step away from the overzealous young man. The visions Brault exalted in were like a glimpse into a nightmare vision of the world that made Leiros’ skin crawl. Another law of Vhaltenesh was being broken if this malignant future was to come to pass.

Leiros turned his head to take in Celeste and her hounds standing to his left. Celeste busied herself with whatever was beneath the nails of her right hand as several of her hounds whispered amongst themselves. A young woman wanting to be the next Grandmaster of the Authrakallin Order while also being the heir of a distant land. The absurdity of her ego was appalling.

With another turn of his head, he looked over to Brault on his right. A young man filled with a notion of a utopia that stripped the free will from all others in the lands of the Hoelatha. An idealistic fool who had never actually suffered or seen hardship in his life, wanting to purge away the lives of those he had never met. Willing to throw those lives upon the sacrificial pyre of a short-changed future where only the rich and powerful would have the freedom of thought or ability to follow their soul’s purpose in a dying world.

“Well, you’ve both made your objections to me as your teacher and the time I have forced you to spend before your Authvokan.” Leiros crossed his arms and turned to his side. “Still, you’ve had some time with me to state who you are and what your ambitions are for the future. If you won’t object further, I would like to offer the rest of the initiates here the same courtesy.”

Celeste’s eyes opened wide as she began to suck in air to protest. Several of her hounds began to bay and circle her, picking up on their master’s emotion. Brault reached out a hand to tap lightly on Celeste’s wrist. Without speaking he looked into her eyes and then shook his head. He turned back to Leiros and opened his mouth for a moment.

“I don’t see the problem in getting acquainted with the other students.” Brault was obviously feeling generous as he gave permission to a man seven years his senior. “Understand, that I have sent my servant to retrieve another Master to replace you. You getting to know the other students may be a waste of your and their time, but we are all stuck here until that Master arrives.” Brault lifted an arm limply to wave his wrist to dismiss Leiros.

Leiros couldn’t contain another snarl as he openly turned his back on the five students. He gave a quick glance over to brother Telomai who seemed preoccupied with scuffing his leather boot against the chalky ground beneath him. With a few steps, which felt like traversing the entire world-plane’s breadth to get away from the corruption he felt in those initiates presence, Leiros walked over to the others to begin his introductions.

* * *

Qathalla beat its wings against an updraft and pushed into a stream of air nearing a group of other authrocs milling and sweeping around in the clouds. Leiros let himself lean back to look over the great bird’s neck. A scant mist was developing high in the atmosphere which would soon turn to rain. Huge thunderheads built up above the gathered authrocs, sweeping across and drowning out most of the twin sun’s light.

Leiros looked to brother Hestras on his immense and aging mount. The old brother rode the back of his authroc like he would a horse, and his hands held leather reins slackly like his flying bird was nothing more than prancing pony. He looked up at Leiros and despite the distance and speed as he flew by, Leiros could almost swear that he saw the old man smile. To someone as dour as Hestras, a smile would be the lifting of his lips a hair’s width, but it was enough to signal to Leiros that everything was alright.

Hestras had taken half of the students to the eastern side of the mesas and watched over them carefully. Most of the initiates he watched over were female; mostly Celeste, her hounds, and one other. The only male student he watched over was the quietest of the group who wouldn’t be a bother at all. The older brother watched them closely, like a broden-mother surveying her children.

Leiros lifted his arm to give a wave to Hestras, he waved back and then let his arm fall to waiver at his flank. He was signaling to Leiros that all was okay, and he didn’t need him to watch over the group. Hestras looked once more from his periphery and then focused completely on the students flying around in front of him.

Leiros was surprised that Celeste was actually following the rules for the Authvokan. She was challenging the quiet male student, Hueshanth, a towering young man. Both seemed to be equally matched in their skill, relying on the power their authrocs provided them, without forcing their will to harshly on their mount. Hueshanth was too fond of defensive tactics and seemed to enjoy kiting Celeste. Celeste was very offensive and often had a hard time pulling out from dives with her great bird. Still, they were learning and only just in the beginnings of their test.

The three hounds weren’t as skilled, and one that was paired up with a young woman who wasn’t part of Celeste’s retinue was easily trouncing her partner. Seeing the hounds flailing brought a dark smile to Leiros’ face as he flew by. He noticed one of the young women pulling the reins too hard on her authroc, but as soon as he was going to call it out, brother Hestras swept by and dealt with it. No words were spoken, as Hestras used his telepathy rather forcefully.

Leiros wasn’t needed over here, so he leaned back into Qathalla’s back and gave a pat on the great bird’s neck. With a sweep of its immense wings, they dropped into a dive and bent westward to the other group. So far, the initiates had promise, even if some of them had less than savory origins. Just a few more hours of these challenges and Leiros could get back to his studies, hopefully before the storm hit.

* * *

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Next Section
III: Thrown from the Nest (Shard IV)

Episode III - III Thrown from the Nest (Shard II)

On Authroc's Wing

Thrown from the Nest
(Shard II)

I wished only to stretch my wings, and I find you slipping from me. Qathalla’s words rushed into Leiros’ mind with flashes of images and intense emotions. You have taken on the role of mother to these chicks. You have thrust them from the nest to earn their wings. Qathalla turned its great wings downward and then pushed back to attain more speed as it rushed mere feet above the crashing waters of the river.

Leiros looked from side to side and noticed that Qathalla was taking them into the heart of the City of Veils, built into the sides of the great canyon. He could see the first few riverfront buildings whipping by, and felt the tug on him as the great bird soared around a hard bend in the canyon. The clusters of buildings and houses grew more elaborate as they whipped by at a frenzied pace. Within a few moments, they would be nearing the great bridges near the core of the city, and the shadow cast by the overhanging great hall of the Elder Circle.

I don’t know what dark thoughts tore you away from me, but I refuse to allow it again. Qathalla’s emotions grew stronger and the authroc gave out an audible screech to let loose its demands. No more day-dreaming, my companion. You must remain awake!

Leiros didn’t need to see or react to what was about to happen, he already felt it through the keen emotional bond between him and the great bird. He moved quickly to throw his left rein far off to the side and coil the right rein around his right arm. He let his feet out of the harness and threw himself hard to the right and over the body of his soul-mount.

His legs dangled in the air a mere foot above the frothing waves of the river while he carried his momentum around to grab the flapping left rein in his hand. He struggled against gravity that pulled tightly on his arms and hands. With a groan, he steadied himself and threw his feet up to swing toward Qathalla’s chest.

As soon as he impacted the bird’s chest, he could feel the impact of Alsira Thaenat’s lowest bridge against Qathalla’s back. The bird thumped against the ancient rock once and then a second time much softer. Qathalla gave out another ear-piercing screech and beamed emotions of mirth to Leiros’ mind. If he had remained upon the saddle, the great bird would have ensured that his head would be caved in by the rushing bridge’s edge, or he would have every bone in his body crushed beneath the bridge during the first impact. Qathalla’s Ruffled or torn-out feathers from the impact began to burn in the air, looking like a rain of ash and flame. Distant sounds of shouts or curses echoed up from the many startled people using the bridge as they heard the screech and saw the great bird rise up from beneath it.

Are you awake now? Qathalla flapped its great wings to ascend a few feet higher and then lobbed over to allow Leiros to swing back into his saddle. Your chicks are waiting to be taught how to fly and to fight. You must guide them properly, so their companions don’t get hurt. You promised me.

“Yes, I know.” Leiros took hold of the saddle and nestled into the harness once more. “I can’t do my job if you kill me.” He spoke aloud, but he knew his words would be carried away on the wind. As he spoke he used his telepathic bond with Qathalla to send the words straight to the bird’s mind.

Qathalla gave a few more hard flaps of its wings and soared higher into the air. The half-orb roofed outcropping of the Elder Circle soon descended past them as they tore up and over the rim of the canyon. The brilliance of the afternoon suns caused him to blink a few times as he got used to the searing light.

When he had finished introducing himself to the students and giving them their last instructions, he had promised Qathalla that none of the other authrocs would be harmed during the final tests. Some teachers were fond of severe tests during the Authvokan challenges, but Leiros would not be like that this day. Qathalla seemed overly worried and furrowed its feathers several times when Leiros tried to mount him and give the last instructions to the students. Something had spooked it, just as the introductions had spooked Leiros in his own way.

“I must be alert, you’re right to scold me. Don’t worry, you’ve now woken me up, my friend.” Leiros leaned into Qathalla’s back as they made their way back to the air around the great mesas. “You wanted to stretch your wings, and I wanted to stretch my mind, that’s all. It won’t happen again.” Leiros nodded and let one of his gloved hands run along the immense black and ember feathers of the great bird. “I will watch after my students, and you must watch after the other authrocs.”

Qathalla gave another screech in affirmation and swooped upward to meet the other authrocs soaring through the skies.

* * *

“Well, Master Leiros, these are… Uhh…” Brother Telomai choked on his words as he stepped forward from Leiros’ side. “These are the students ready for their final tests with their Authrocs.” He turned to smile sheepishly and let his arm glide through the air as if placing all of the waiting faces on display. A small breeze lifted an errant shock of his brown hair to blow about his face. Once he dropped his arm, his green eyes darted to the ground while his mouth pursed as he chastised himself softly for tripping over his words.

“You’ve got twelve of ‘em to contend with.” Brother Hestras now stepped forward from Leiros’ other side and looked down to him with a stern look. The weather-worn wrinkles of age and sorrow furrowed as if devouring his features. “You think you can handle this lot?” The same breeze couldn’t tease any of the older brother’s hair as his head was cleanly shaven, but it did tug at the bristling and unruly gray hair of his brow.

“Assuredly.” Leiros gave a broad grin to Hestras and turned away from him sharply. He folded his hands behind him and stepped toward the gathered group. “I am Master Leiros. I’ll be taking over for Master Olkva in your teaching. Sadly, it seems I didn’t get to know any of you before this day, so I can’t speak to any of your strengths or weaknesses. We’ll be thrust into this test together, but I promise you that I am a quick learner—”

“You’ve wasted enough of our time.” Leiros was interrupted by a curt female voice from among the students gathered before him. Several of the students looked from Leiros to their number with arrayed states of shock on their faces. Slowly, a young woman pushed her way to the front. “I honestly don’t care who you are. Just do your job and let us get on with it.”

Leiros’ eyebrows shot up and one of his hands unfurled from his back to scratch at his face for a moment. His interest was piqued by this impertinent young woman. His eyes flowed judgmentally over her form as she stepped forward to challenge him. He let his eyes quickly fall to her feet and then slowly move back up to her face. He let his reactions linger, his face becoming more concerned as he went, showing that he was sizing her up and finding her wanting.

The young woman wore immaculately cared-for robes of stark white that seemed immune to the dust and sand whipped up by the Jolashi winds. She had obviously taken pains to enhance the limited wardrobe of the order with gaudy bracelets and a long necklace that draped over her low-cut top. The jewelry she wore seemed to be gold accented with the signature blue-tinted silver from the distant Star-shatter Peaks; a metal that cost as much in blood and lives as it did in Alsiran Talons. She had also taken the effort to embroider blue runes into the sleeves and neck-line trim of her robes. Leiros doubted that this embroidery was done by the long, clean, and softened hands draping limply beneath her crossed arms.

Her face would otherwise be considered pleasant to look at, but there was an added sourness to her features that bled through even the scowl and narrowed eyes she threatened Leiros with. There was something in her eyes that betrayed a rot within her that was bubbling up from the fetid depths of her soul; if she still had one. Those same eyes, hazel with more green than brown, were locked in a threatening challenge with Leiros’ own. Her lips were thin, and her jaw was as sharp as a razor’s edge. She still had a softness near her cheeks, showing some of the baby fat of her youth; a youth no doubt filled with temper tantrums and her always getting her way. Her dirty-blonde hair was tied tightly around her head in thick braids that went right down — almost painfully — to her scalp. Blue ribbons held the tails of her hair in place as they draped over her shoulders and the silken hood of her robes.

“Good, this saves me from having to continue my introduction.” Leiros maintained his composure in the face of this interloper and continued to stare into the young woman’s eyes; not willing to back down from her challenge. He stepped forward and into her personal space. “Could you please tell me specifically whose time I’ve wasted?” Leiros lifted the hand that he had scratched his face with to point at the young woman, then flipped his hand over with his palm up. He did this more to press into her personal space and get a reaction than for any other reason. “Let’s begin with you.”

Those same glassy and rotten orbs began to roll in their sockets as she gave a protracted sigh. She turned her body to the side slightly, giving just enough ground to Leiros to let him know she had a hint of insecurity in the negative attention she was getting from him. She looked over her shoulder as one of her long-fingered hands fell to her side. She snapped her fingers and waited for three shorter young women to crowd in behind her, each younger and less refined than she. Once they arrived, beckoned forth like the hounds they were, they provided security to their master. It was only then that she began to slowly speak.

“I honestly shouldn’t have to introduce myself, but you might as well know the name of the next Grandmaster of this bumpkin little order of yours.” The young woman paused for effect and lifted her chin into the air. “I am Celeste Bhourstark, heir to the county of Haellstrad in the Sapphire Kingdoms. You have heard of that place, haven’t you?” She lowered her chin just enough to hold Leiros’ eyes with her continuing stare of condescension. She looked back to the young women surrounding her and gave a derisive giggle.

“Oh yes, I am quite acquainted with it. I traveled there with Grandmaster Toulam a few years ago—”

“An irrelevant detail.” Celeste interrupted Leiros once more, but she didn’t bother to keep her eyes on him. She darted her gaze to the side as if taking in the distant rocky horizon from atop the highest mesa in the region. She was showing some loss of confidence now that she knew Leiros had been to her homeland but did her best to make up for it with a sense of disgust. “I merely wish to emphasize that among all of the other students here whose time has been wasted, you’re also wasting a lady’s time as well.”

“Oh, so you’re a lady?” Leiros’ tone, as the words came up from him quickly, was more rhetorical than inquisitive. He flared his eyes and lowered his forehead to simulate a sense of incredulity aimed not so much at the young woman’s title as the fact that she was deserving of such. Before she could react with a sneer or words in her defense he pressed on. “I didn’t know we were all in the presence of a lady, let alone the self-proclaimed next Grandmaster of our order. Oh, my.”

Leiros turned to look to Hestras at his side with false awe upon his face. He waited half a moment, seeing the brother’s face still in a scowl. He turned to the other side to see Telomai staring at him with a look of bewilderment and fear. He held his eyes on the younger brother a few moments longer, emphasizing his reluctance to look back that the young woman snarling in front of him. He did so, and bowed into an overdrawn curtsy, letting his eyes trail from the ground back up to Celeste’s face.

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Episode III - III Thrown from the Nest (Shard I)

On Authroc's Wing

Thrown from the Nest
(Shard I)

The cooling afternoon winds pulled at the robes and scarves covering Leiros’ body as he plummeted through the sky. The air rushed at him with a soft howl that lulled him into a sense of serene comfort despite the bouts of vertigo assaulting him from the constant dives and rises Qathalla sent the both of them into. A feeling of growing moisture and tingling energy was beginning to build up from the growing storm-clouds far above, making Leiros’ every heartbeat pitch a little faster with reverent anticipation.

With a push from the leather guards along Qathalla’s immense back, Leiros let his body float a few inches above the black feathers of his spirit-mount. The pull of the world-plane’s gravity sent him flying as the great authroc plummeted into a hard dive. The sensation of the world inverted for a few moments as Leiros fell upward with his companion. He looked up to see the seas of sand and great plateaus of rock eat up the sky above him, while below his feet was a sea of clouds and heavens.

The wind rushing against him impacted the hardened scarves he had wrapped against his face, allowing only his stinging eyes any exposure. His gray robes billowed against his body causing drag as he began to fall toward the terrestrial realm above. The distance between Qathalla and his body grew from inches to feet as he closed his eyes to embrace the fall.

A strange feeling began to gnaw at the back of his mind; a feeling that soon grew into a presence that began to whisper in his ears with the voice of the wind. A voice that wanted him to let go of the feelings of trepidation and fear that were building up in his mind. He imagined that the voice was a feminine presence pressing into his back as he arched up and away from the world rushing toward him. Within the rushing air that tore into his robes, he could feel a caress of hair against his neck and face.

“Embrace the fall and be with me.” The feminine voice’s words took form and resounded deeply in Leiros’ mind. “The world you once knew is crumbling away into darkness. Soon there will be nothing worth clinging to. You know this.”

Leiros could feel the presence of Qathalla growing further away from him as he kept his eyes closed in this blackened world of eternal descent. He could hear his own heartbeat over the rushing wind and within a single moment, everything went completely silent. He could no longer feel the rush of wind against him, and the feeling of falling began to feel like a perpetual flight. He was free of the limitations of the world at this moment, free of his mortal coil, free of his fear, and his only companion was the voice that crooned softly into his mind.

“Let go of what pains you, my love.” As the voice whispered once more, he could feel the sickly tangy smell of old blood overpowering his nostrils and creeping along the back of his throat. “If you continue to struggle against this faltering world you will only find suffering. If you let go in this moment, then soon we will be together forever. We will be free of this damned world once and for all.”

With each word the voice spoke, sudden and jarring flashes of Leiros’ buried memories began to surface up from the deepest recesses of his soul. He could feel anger coursing through his veins and the ephemeral echo of his body clenched its fists in sympathy. All of the injustices he had witnessed growing up, and the certainty inside of him that he would witness even worse as his life continued on should he not embrace this voice from the depths of the abyss. He did not enjoy having the cold and metallic stillness of his mind being broken with revealing fractures, but as hard as he fought against this alien will, further cracks broke open all the more viciously.

“Save us both the pain that the future will bring. Embrace the void with me.”

The last piece of his personal control was sundered and began to crumble into dust, he could feel the unrestrained chaos of his emotions burning up from their depths. As these emotions and thoughts began to lick around him like hungry bale-fire flames Leiros forced himself further into his mind, to the one place he could find refuge from this madness; the last island at the core of his soul. As he continued to plummet through the darkness within and without, he awoke to the sensation of calmly floating above an ocean of quicksilver, with nothing but a dark abyss above him.

He could feel the feminine presence in the distance, at the edge of his astral senses, like a hungry beast stalking the darkness while being warded off by a bonfire’s light. He could see with his astral eyes the far-off ripples of the woman’s feet as she strode at the periphery of his metallic ocean. Bale-fire flames licked up in her wake as if her merest touch upon the ocean of his mind caused rot and madness. With each eruption of flame, she managed to move quickly into the darkness, always remaining hidden. Time and distance didn’t matter in this place, but the woman’s shadow invited such entropic concepts to manifest in jarring and distorted ways. Leiros was half aware of the sensations affecting his material body as well as the stillness he yearned for with his astral senses.

“You can’t escape from me and you’ve kept me restrained for far too long.” The woman’s voice was less seductive and more forceful as she continued to walk along the periphery of his stillness and test the very last of his mental defenses. Her voice had a predatory sort of cruelty behind it now. “I’ve been with you since you were a child. I’ve always been here — just out of your reach — yet always calling out to you. I have been your guide in your dreams, even though you did not remember me when you woke. I am the part of you that you refuse to embrace.”

“I refuse to remember you.” Leiros found his voice in this astral realm in the depths of his soul. His words began as a vibration from within but soon broke out into ripples of force that caused the surface of his metal ocean to ripple outward, eventually crashing into waves. “You are the serpent of chaos. You are my lesser self — my shadow — and I have no need for you.”

The woman laughed at his words and with each breath, her voice resounded like thunder. Torrents of indigo lightning raced across the infinite abyss above as the woman clawed towards him but was held at bay by the last of his will. She struggled for a moment and then continued her corruptive walk along the surface of his mind.

“There’s nothing wrong with a little chaos, my love.” The woman’s voice immediately lost its savagery and began to croon once more. The words felt like they reached across the distance of Leiros’ mind and caressed his astral essence directly. “You can’t hide behind suffocating order your entire life. Soon, you’ll find yourself embracing me whether you like it or not. If you refuse to embrace me now in death, saving you and I continued suffering; I’ll find you shortly and we can embrace as the world is drowned in blood and fire.”

“Then blood and fire it will be.” Leiros felt a cold fire rise up from inside of him. This threat from within himself caused a higher degree of personal defense to be birthed. Blue crackles of light began to build up from his astral fingers and roar within his astral body like arteries of power. “I’m not ready for you. I’m not ready to embrace the chaos within me. I am not strong enough, and this is not the right time.”

The woman threw a shadowed claw across the distance of his ocean and struck the void near his soul. Indigo flames rushed over him and instinctively he fired back with the cold fire he had begun to build up. The woman gave out a howl and stepped back into the furthest darkness.

“So be it, my love. Blood and fire, you have sworn this oath to me. I await you, and when the time is right, we will embrace the void together.”

With those last words, Leiros felt the feminine presence pull away from him. He could feel the corruptive bale-fires being quenched by the cool quicksilver of his internal ocean of order. Explosions of his intent caused waves of metal to stretch out and reform the defenses he had constructed for so long. Cracks and fissures were sealed as if they had never existed, and the newly found power within him imbued those cold edifices with greater strength.

As calm and rationality returned to his soul, Leiros stared down at his astral hands as they continued to crackle with blue flames of energy. Trickles of energy roared up and back into his astral self, creeping along his arms and through his torso. The energy suffused him until it began to build up behind his eyes. With a brilliant flash of blue, he found his eyes opening up once more into the corporeal world.

Leiros could see Qathalla’s immense and dark form rushing to meet the ground above him. They were separated by several yards of distance and he knew that the great authroc would be ending its dive soon. Reaching out his hands, Leiros felt the last vestiges of his crackling astral energy rush to his fingers once more. He aimed his will through his hands toward Qathalla and pulled hard on several of the leather reins flapping in the air around the bird’s back.

With a subtle pull of telekinetic force, he unfurled a distance of the reins and managed to seize onto one of them with his right hand once it snapped on the air near him. He spun the reins around his hand and leaned forward to press the reins into his left elbow. He began to push forward, drawing on the rein’s slack with each elbow as he neared his soaring spirit-mount yard by yard.

The last few inches toward the leather grip on Qathalla’s saddle were soon within reach. Leiros let all of the reins fall to his left hand so he could reach out with his right and take hold. As soon as the tips of his fingers stumbled over the rim of the grip, he became aware of how close Qathalla and he were to the ground. With a piercing rush of wind and a momentary sense of overwhelming panic, it seemed like Leiros and Qathalla fell through the very surface of the rocky Jolash Plateau.

Leiros stretched out his fingers once more and grabbed hold of Qathalla’s saddle and with every bit of strength he could muster, he pulled himself against the leather while slinging his feet into the harness. Darkness washed over him for a moment and then his eyes adjusted to the dim light trickling in below his feet from the mouth of the great Alsiran Canyon.

With his body secured against the hulking body of his spirit-mount, he could feel Qathalla change its pitch and bend even further upward. The authroc’s immense wings caught the quickly whirling canyon winds rushing up from the chilled waters of the Alsira river that crashed up from jagged rocks as it made its way from the Heart of Alsira in the north to the emerald-hued Jol River in the south.

As Qathalla pulled from its dive and turned its ground-ward momentum into a hard forward thrust, nausea and disorientation began to pull at Leiros’ body. His chest hit the great bird’s back hard and he began to gulp for air. Despite the disorientation and lack of air, he clenched every muscle in his body in hopes of keeping his blood flowing to his head properly, lest he black-out and fall from the saddle. Within a moment, he could draw breath again and feel his sight and senses returning from dim darkness to the full brightness that the afternoon’s light provided to the shadowed canyon reaches.

Leiros lifted himself slowly up from Qathalla’s back while holding tightly to the great bird’s reins and despite the shaking of his tired arms. The cool and refreshing mist of crashing glacial waters sprinkled across his face letting him know he was still alive for the moment. The whipping wind from the canyon tugged all the harder upon his robes and his ears were filled with a deafening howl.

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