Tales of Ryzin

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Let the Fire Reign

The small flames glint off the surroundings, casting shadows that creep and leap across scrap metal to the stone walls, hiding behind the long and colorful strips of fabric held up by whatever worked to create tents. The air is smokey, the soft puffs of heat moving the air and spreading the smell of cooked meat and vegetables from the chipped clay bowl beside him. From all around, Feron can feel the dozens of hungry eyes the Rats have turned upon him.

He ignores them though, at least for now. No matter how hungry they are, he is in no danger. They know better than to rush him in an attempt to snatch an extra bite to eat. Between Rafa and himself, they had seen to that problem quickly enough. They may all be treated like animals Above on the streets, and they may be forced to live like animals here Below in the tunnels beneath the city, but by no means would either Feron or his leader permit them to behave like anything other than civilized people in their presence. It helps that they also know who the food is for, and that adds to their reluctance.

The glow of the flames in the dim space makes Feron’s limbs glow white as he reaches out a hand to prod a log a little closer to the center of the fire. The motion sends up a whirling flurry of sparks and another breath of smoke, both dissipating quickly in the cool slight breeze drifting through the tunnels.

Feron’s eyes trace the flames as they dance, agitated by his disturbance, writhing their way up as they reached towards the stars blocked by stone and earth. They breathe, several lingering sparks being sent up into the air. They seem to almost beat, like a heart, full of life and energy, almost as if they are trying to speak -

“The Champion has returned!”

Feron jerks his eyes away from the flames, casting his gaze down the tunnel at the distant call. The announcement is quickly picked up by others, the words warping and growing in volume as more and more voices join in - almost like ripples growing bigger and less distinct the further from the source they get.

“He’s back!”

“The Star-blessed is here!”

“Star-blessed is back!”

“Champion’s home!”

As Feron watches, the crowd of children and teenagers - gods, they are all so young, every one of us is so young - seem to part, allowing a young man to walk through their huddle unhindered. Like this, Rafa almost seems like he could be the High Priestess herself, even among Rats living in a dirty, stale-aired underground home. He waves the crowd away good-naturedly, with words too quiet for Feron to hear as he approaches. He smiles at them as the Rats reluctantly let him be, and Feron is certain that he is the only one who can still see the slight traces of bemusement and confusion in his face as he watches them go.

Rafa makes his way over slowly, making sure none of those who have chosen to follow him are left out from his attention, as they so often are by those Above. Feron turns his attention to his nearly-empty bowl as he lifts it to his lips, watching Rafa’s slow approach with one eye as he does. Inside is a meager soup, made possible only by contribution of food from the few able to go to the deliverance lines. Even still, Feron has to keep himself from scoffing at calling it soup, as with the number of people it is meant to feed, it is primarily water.

“Long day?” he asks lightly, lowering the empty bowl and picking up the full one by his side. Feron hands it to Rafa without looking, the other young man having managed to find his way to his side finally.“You never returned after leaving yesterday afternoon, and it is already dinner. The others won’t say anything, but they were getting worried, especially because of what will happen at dawn.”

Rafa sits, staring at nothing as slight lines wrinkle his brow. Feron is used to silence, preferring to listen rather than to speak himself, and used to observing the activities of the others living in the tunnels with him. He is content to occupy himself by watching the flames and the children, and he does not mind letting Rafa sit in silence to gather his thoughts.

The others have turned their attention to each other, speaking amongst themselves though they occasionally glance over at the pair. They all seem the same down here, in a way that’s different than it is Above on the streets. Above they are looked down on as dirt-covered beggars, which they are, but what they aren’t and everyone seems to think they are is unimportant wastes of space. Feron has always believed that there is no such thing as a wasted life, and he can see that being proven every day as he watches them interact Below.

Origin, deity, color, age, gender - all of the Rats are different from one another, but that means nothing to them when they are all in the same situation of having - of living as - less. Feron has met Rats from everywhere, all brought somehow through varying circumstances to the streets of Aren. They are different, but they are also the same, and their interactions reflect that.

“I sent a message to the High Priestess yesterday afternoon,” Rafa finally says, drawing Feron’s attention back to him, along with several of the nearby Rats, who nudge their neighbors until everyone is paying attention to his words. “I told her that she had until dawn tomorrow to give in and negotiate a compromise. It didn’t even take her an hour to send a message back saying that the Church won’t yield.”

“Of course not,” Feron responds quietly, glancing around at the young faces staring back. “They can’t be seen yielding to the Star-blessed of all people. The Champion of Mortals is the only one who has ever threatened the position of their precious Goddess after all.”

He is amused to see Rafa’s cheeks dust red at the words, face pinching with discomfort at the titles used. He hides the twitching of his lips with his hand, ducking his head so that his unruly chestnut-colored hair hides the amusement in his eyes from his long-time friend. The others around them are murmuring at the words, tension and excitement filling the air at the thought of the coming battle in the morning and the mention of the legend they believe in so fervently.

“Tell the story, Feron!” one of the younger girls - Ina, Feron recalls - exclaims from the front of their huddle. The others quickly back her up with their own requests and encouragement, and before long each of the Rats around them are staring at Feron expectantly. Feron glances over at Rafa in response. He knows that Rafa doesn’t truly mind his teasing or even the titles, but telling the story might be another matter and he doesn’t want to make his friend uncomfortable. His leader hesitates for a moment, before sighing and nodding his assent.

With that, Feron settles and leans forward, closing his eyes to gather his thoughts as the youths around him go silent. He can feel their attention for a moment, before he lets himself fall into memories and loses himself in the swirl of colors and images in his head, turning them into a story as he speaks.

“From the very beginning, Leletha’s flames were glorious but fickle. They would abandon the world to ice or embrace it until it burned whenever Leletha left or lingered in the sky. The only time they were ever constant was when Leletha would race across the sky, leaving trails of bright sparks in her wake that still light the night sky today.

“The people of Ryzin struggled to survive, and Leletha’s two sisters, Ceru the Swift and Ara the Light, saw them and took pity. They were beings of the night, unable to withstand their sister’s light and heat, but they searched and searched until they found a human who could challenge their sister in their stead. That human came to be known as the Champion of Mortals.

“Ceru knew that the Champion would be unable to face her sister still fully human, so she gifted Champion with some of her powers. With that, Champion went to challenge Leletha, with the promise that should the Champion win, Leletha would never leave or stay in the sky, instead running across it each day.

“Leletha accepted the Champion’s challenge, believing that there was no way for the Champion to succeed. They fought, and it took hours for a victor to be decided, much to her surprise. It was due to her underestimating the Champion that in the end she lost. According to laws of old, she was forced to give in to the Champion’s request, and she did. However she was absolutely furious, and swore to have her revenge.

“The very next day, as she passed by the Champion on her path across the sky, she struck. Champion’s body was shattered, spreading all across the sky in a single flash of fire. Thinking that was the end of it, Leletha moved on, still bound to her promise of never lingering or leaving. Night fell, with Champion still shattered into pieces.

“When Ceru and Ara rose, they found the Champion’s scattered pieces. Feeling sorrow at Champion’s death, they decided to gather up the sparks left by Leletha’s passing and forge them together into a new body for the Champion. With the stars holding Champion’s new body together and giving it life, Champion was reborn into the sky with the two sisters.

“Leletha came back the next morning and discovered that Champion lived again. With rage in her heart, she fought Champion once more - and because Champion no longer had the element of surprise, she won, shattering Champion’s body once again. However, that night Ceru and Ara built a new body again, only for the cycle to repeat over and over. To this day, their battle rages on, and we can see the results every day and night when we look up into the sky.”

There is silence when Feron finishes, and he opens his eyes. The abrupt shift from his internal world to reality leaves him slightly reeling, but it isn’t long before he readjusts. All around him, the others are staring at either him or Rafa with awe, eyes wide from more than just the story when they watch the latter. Rafa lets out a nearly inaudible sigh as he stands, and any attention that wasn’t on him before is now.

“We should turn in for the night,” he says quietly. “Dawn isn’t far off, and we’ll need all our strength if we’re going up against the Church. Also know that I won’t hold it against any of you should you decide you would rather stay behind. This is going to be dangerous, and not all of us will return.”

“Of course we’re going with you!” one of the boys exclaims, looking almost offended. He’s one of the oldest of the group, a few months older than Feron and Rafa even. “We haven’t followed you this far just to abandon you at the last minute.”

Murmurs of agreement follow his statement, the sound growing louder and louder as more of the dozens of voices join in. The noise builds, until Rafa raises a hand and they all go silent, the faint echoes bouncing off the walls of the tunnels the only sound remaining. There is a slight smile on Rafa’s face as he looks out over the sea of faces watching him expectantly.

“Alright, I didn’t mean to offend any of you. I just don’t believe in leading unwilling fighters, and figured that it was better to offer an out now rather than in the middle of battle.” He paused, taking a moment to meet each gaze in his enraptured audience. “Thank you for standing with me, and for trusting me to lead you this far. If I have any grounds to ask any more of you, all I ask is that you keep trusting me in the morning, trust that I will do everything in my power to make sure we make it through this.”

“Of course we will,” Feron said, drawing Rafa’s eyes to his own. “You’ve been a great leader so far, and beyond that, you’re still a Rat like the rest of us. Rats stick together, no matter what. In this case, this is the closest to change we’ve been in years. We’re not backing down now.” Sounds of agreement meet his statement, and Rafa holds his gaze a moment longer before turning to smile at the rest of the group.

“Well then, again, thank you. Now, get to sleep all of you!” He ends with a playful scowl, mimicking the expressions of those Above who usually scowl at them for lingering. A smattering of laughs emerge from the crowd, before they all begin to disperse, disappearing into makeshift tents with quiet words of farewell. A young boy passes Feron and Rafa, carrying an empty bowl from dinner.

“Hang on, I’ll take care of that,” Rafa says, reaching out and lightly plucking the dish from the boys fingers. The boy looks uncertain for a moment, and Rafa continues. “Off to bed. You need to be well rested for the morning, remember?”

With that, the boy’s hesitation slowly slides away, until all that is left is a beaming grin that makes him look even younger - and as it is, he is already only around twelve or thirteen if Feron had to guess.

“Thank you, Star-blessed!” The boy wanders off - still slightly awestruck from the story, clearly - as Rafa smiles good naturedly if a little strained at the address. Feron slides his amused gaze over to Rafa just in time to catch the slight flush darkening the tips of his ears. Picking up on Feron’s amusement, Rafa scowls slightly in his direction.

“Shut up.”

“I didn’t say anything,” Feron responds, raising his eyebrows at his friend. Rafa’s scowl deepens slightly as he glances away in an attempt to block out the slight smile tugging at Feron’s lips.

“Maybe not out loud,” he grumbles, falling silent as Feron huffs a quiet laugh in response. Silence descends over the pair as Rafa takes a handful of sand from the nearby bucket and begins scrubbing the bowl clean. It isn’t uncomfortable, the quiet between them. While Rafa is far more charismatic than Feron could ever hope to be, both of them are thinkers, used to spending time wrapped up in the quiet of their own thoughts, and the frequent lack of words between them has never been an issue.

“ . . . I’m not the Champion,” Rafa says quietly a while later, sounding slightly exasperated. “I’m as mortal as everyone else, no hint of stars in me at all. I really wish they would all stop spreading around a falsehood.”

“They believe it to be true,” Feron responds, glancing back at his friend. “It gives them hope. Does it really matter if it’s true or not at that point, if it gives them something to fight for?”

Rafa doesn’t respond, a slight frown upon his face as he stares into the bowl, hands slowing their scrubbing. Seeing that his words have clearly reached his friend, Feron turns his eyes back to their surroundings, seeing that the others have since gotten their own meals and are wandering off in groups.

Feron watches with sharp eyes as Rafa replaces the bowl with the other stacks, his eyes noticing the tension in the dark-haired young man’s shoulders, and the weight that still lingers in his gaze as they look out down the rows and rows of colorful tents and youths preparing to sleep. He catches what the others don’t when they look at their leader. He can afford to see the flaws in the hero where most of the others can’t.

“Let’s take a walk,” Feron says, glancing down the tunnels. “It’s been too long since I’ve seen the moons or the stars. Hell, it’s been too long since I’ve breathed air that hasn’t come through the tunnels first.”

He can feel Rafa eying him suspiciously from off to the side, but when he glances over, all his friend does is nod. They both stand, and carefully weave their way through the chaos the others are creating, until they are far enough away that their voices are only an echoing murmur. From here the tunnels look much less welcoming, all hard stone and dirt floors with the occasional runoff from the streets above pooling on the ground. It looks nothing like the vibrant haven Feron and Rafa have built beneath Eguzkia’s streets.

The tunnel grows dimmer, until soon the only light comes from the glow of ‘Rat City’ behind them, and the silver light filtering in from the narrow opening to the world Above. Feron scales the walls, fingers digging easily into well-worn grooves as he hoists himself up onto the slight ledge below the hole. Leaning over, he offers his hand to Rafa, who grabs it and hauls himself up as well.

Feron looks up at the night sky, then closes his eyes and breathes in the scent of the outside world. If he picks apart the smells, he can almost imagine what everything outside looks like during the day. There’s the faint, lingering smell of flatbread from the nearby shop, as well as the slight, sweet scent of the Gozoa roses Eguzkia is famous for growing and cultivating. A light breeze drifts by, bringing with it an influx of other scents from normal life - tanned leather, lingering perfumes, spices, herbs from the garden around the corner - that it sends Feron’s imagination reeling, and he is forced to open his eyes.

When he does, he is met with the sight of Rafa’s intense gaze, a slight smile on his face that seems to contain more sorrow than joy. His friend looks away, through the hole in the wall into the darkness of the night, before he breaks the silence with a voice a little lower and rougher than normal.

“I wish you didn’t have to hide away down here. I wish you could go out there every day, without fearing being killed or taken away. It’s not fair for you to be trapped down here simply because they know your face.”

“I’m not exactly chained up,” Feron responds, turning to look outside again. “I could go if I really wanted to, I know enough escape routes to risk it. I could also disguise myself like you do whenever you go out.”

“You shouldn’t have to risk anything at all,” Rafa bursts out, fire suddenly in his eyes. “You shouldn’t have to disguise yourself, none of us should. We shouldn’t fear being taken away like Kaina, Feron!”

There is a sudden silence after that, and when Feron side-eyes his leader, the tension in his friend’s body is now showing on his face, a deep frown lining his features as he keeps his gaze fixed on the outside world.

“Kaina wasn’t taken, Rafa. She went willingly, you know this.” Feron stops, taking a moment to ease the tension in his own shoulders and to get rid of the spikes in his tone. Taking a deep breath, he continues. “It’s been a long time since anyone’s brought her up. Why are you thinking about her now?”

“I met with Lesdassa this afternoon,” Rafa replies, after a moment of silence. “You remember, she’s the one who befriended Kaina when she . . . was introduced to the Church. We officially cut ties. I don’t know why I wanted to meet with her, I don’t really understand it myself.”

Rafa runs a hand through his hair in frustration, making the dark waves scatter into disarray. Feron ponders his words for a moment, his eyes studying the night sky. He can see the way the two smaller moons - one brighter than the other - appear to be mending the shattered one between them as time passes. He knows it’s all angles, had learned about it long ago when life was different and somehow still remembered, knows that by noon tomorrow it will appear whole again only to spread apart again later. But, with what is happening in mere hours, it eases his mind to believe just for a bit that the old story has some truth.

“You care about her,” he replies softly. “She still matters to you, so you were hoping you wouldn’t have to become her enemy. Just as we still say that Kaina was taken rather than she left us or betrayed us. They matter, and we shouldn’t lose sight of that any more than we should lose sight of why we’re fighting them in the first place.”

They sit in silence for several long moments, both of them lost to their own memories and thoughts. The night is warm for the time of year, and there is little sound other than the wind. It is a peace that belies the violence that will be happening come sunrise, much like quiet of Ceru and Ara bely the vibrant ferocity that Leletha can display when fighting Champion.

“Feron, can I ask you a favor?” At Rafa’s almost whispered words, Feron turns to look at the other boy who is staring at his knees. He nods, knowing that Rafa will catch the movement anyway. “When fighting tomorrow, can you do your best not to hurt her?”

Feron doesn’t bother asking which her Rafa is referring to. He isn’t sure that it really matters anyway.

“Of course,” he replies. Deciding it’s time for a change in topic, he turns the conversation to one between a second-in-command and his leader, instead of two friends. “By the way, is it true that the Church has still set up no defenses? Other than their Priestesses, of course.”

Rafa blinks, before his posture and countenance change, becoming more certain and in control. This is no longer just a young man, but instead the leader who has won the loyalty of the Rats and lower class in the city, as well as the sympathies of several of the wealthier people in Eguzkia.

“As far as my informants and I can tell, no.” Rafa sighs, tossing a loose pebble from the wall from one hand to the other before tossing it lightly to the floor with a clatter. “It doesn’t make sense. We outnumber them, and we can fight - we’ve had to learn how, to have made it this far.”

A frown of discontent works its way across Rafa’s features, and Feron watches him think quietly, sharp eyes picking up the minute changes in his leader’s expression. He can see the wariness, the eagerness at doing finally doing something, the apprehension of what is to come. Most of all though, he can see the ever-present anger when it comes to the Church, as well as more than a little frustration. Seeming to have come to a conclusion, Rafa speaks.
“They underestimate us.”

“Then they forget who they are fighting,” Feron replies simply. He lifts a hand against the backdrop of the small patch of sky, studying the callouses lining his palms, the torn and dirty nails, the deep lines thrown into shadow by the light of the moons. An almost wild smirk slowly slides across his features as one by one each finger is consumed by small licks of flames that grow until his entire hand is painlessly alight.

He watches for a moment, feeling the heat and rush of energy in his veins. Then he turns to look at Rafa, his friend’s intense dark eyes watching the easy display of power with an unreadable expression. The light of the flames paints pictures in the shadows across his face, telling stories of monsters and gods, the deaths and resurrections of heroes. Rafa’s gaze abruptly slides up to meet Feron’s own, and there is a spark of something wild in his eyes as well now, something far more powerful and dangerous than Feron’s.

“I suppose they do,” he responds, voice soft and slightly deeper than normal as he turns his eyes towards the others further down the tunnel. Feron follows his gaze, hand still aflame as he watches them.

He can see everything from here, the very reason it isn’t safe for so many of them to go get food at the deliverance lines and the reason the Church takes them seriously at all, yet still not seriously enough. He sees the way lamps are snuffed out with the wave of a hand despite the distance, he sees the way water flows against gravity back into a tipped over jug, and he sees the way several pairs of feet touch the ground lightly and without a sound, despite the distance they had just jumped. He glances down at the flames in his own hand, and between one blink and the next, they disappear.

Feron’s eyes drift over towards Rafa, and he sees the way his friend’s eyes flick over something that he himself can’t see. A steadily growing glow begins to build in his eyes as Feron watches, before Rafa’s eyes flick towards him, and all he catches is burning silver, bright as the stars themselves, before the light disappears and all that remains is Rafa’s usual dark gaze. They sit in silence for several moments longer, eyes locked together, before Rafa breaks it, turning away as he speaks.

“We should sleep. Dawn isn’t long off, and we’ll need our strength to fight.”

“Of course,” Feron says, standing and turning his eyes back towards the others, watching them perform impossible acts as though it were nothing more difficult than breathing. The smile on his face fades into a faint smirk as he glances at his friend once more, jumping the distance to the ground and landing gently, light as air.

He turns back and sees Rafa watching him, before the dark-haired youth follows suit, jumping and drifting down to the ground with a flash of starlight-silver eyes. His feet don’t even disturb the dust when he lands, and when he walks forward, his footprints begin with his first step. Feron falls in beside him as Rafa begins to make his way back towards the light and the tents.

“You know, I’ve always found it odd that the Church never took us more seriously,” Feron begins lightly as he glances at his leader. “Leletha was more powerful, but she lost to the Champion because she underestimated Champion’s abilities. You would think they would learn from their Goddess’s mistakes.”

“I guess we’ll have to see.” There is a gleam of something new in Rafa’s gaze, something that makes Feron’s blood sing to release the power that he knows it contains. It is only years of tight control and practice reining it in now, as he watches Rafa’s eyes flicker. “It may be time to test if Fire can truly keep Her crown, or if She will fall like all the rest.”

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