Act One - 9 Years Before
Some Strange Noises
It was pissing rain, gah’damn was it pouring out. Welcome to the northern reach of the peninsula!
The soaked wagon wobbled left and right rocking the six young girls in its back wearing various states of hooded rain-blockers, The clouded sky concealing the -exact- time of day. One hood rose from the rest, deep mocha skin ringed by jet black hair accenting her flat expression in remark of the other five. Her amber-orange eyes caught in a dead stare.
“So,” her flat expression flicking to the other five. “We the only ones goin’ north? B’cause if that’s th’case this rainy gauntlet shit is gonna get really damn annoyin’.” She huffed.
“Y’sure do fuckin’ prattle on dun’cha? S’really silly, yer prolly annoyin’ folks here more than th’damn rain.” A grinning maw of teeth sharpened to points asked. Her crimson hair ringing her lightly tanned face which bent unnaturally around the jaw which sported her perpetual wolfish grin. Not in any comical manner yet in a way that puppeted a lightly snarling dog… Naza--
“Varyn.” Orange eyes peeped.
“Malihn Cah.” Naza mocked in return rolling her own turquoise eyes which nearly glowed in the dark atmosphere of the weather. Two friends clucking idly at each other as the other four hoods remained lowered to avoid soaking the interiors of their cloaks. Fiddling with fingers or just staring off into space.
“So,” Malihn leaned back with her gaze now on the crimson-haired tomboy Naza Varyn. Her ‘battle-buddy’ or sorts for most of her young life. “Y’actually plan t’pull shit off this time? Win?”
“Rip’em in two?”
“Right in half.”
“Why half?” Malihn suddenly snickered and gave a malicious grin. “You like things all neatly paced and split into evens?”
“Dun’fuckin’ mock me.”
“Ah’ain’t mockin’ ya, damnit. S’just funny.” Malihn rose a brow and hummed. Right-hand falling to rest on her right knee beneath her robe as she leaned forward only slightly. The young girl taking an oddly sultry tone to her ‘battle-buddy’. “Big-bad Varyn likes things neatly filed away like some fuckin’ holyman’s word cabinet.”
Naza lept to her feet rocking the wagon suddenly, the four other hoods raising only slightly but otherwise not lifting anything else to do anything else. A quick pointing finger with a single sharpened nail on the index-finger aimed to Malihn.
“M’gunna make -you- m’damn trial gauntlet if y’fuckin’ tease at me again y’shitface!”
“Sit your backside down, Varyn.” barked the commanding voice walking alongside the shaking wagon of girls. “If you continue your shouting I will deal with you personally after you’ve attracted every bleeding predator for miles around.” The voice coming from the shaggy shoulder-length fiery red-haired white-mask wearing gauntlet sponsor escorting the small caravan. Razahk of Clan varyn. Naza’s family’s most trusted general...and her personal sponsor in the Gauntlet…
“Don’t shout, Raza’ma...yer gonna anger th’spiders out there!” Naza whipped her head around giving a cheeky grin to the sponsor/general whose pale mask revealing only her equally fire-red eyes continued to forever be unimpressed. “Gah, almost had an accident there! Saved all our lives~.” The shark-mouthed little bite spat on in rebellious mockery.
“Sit down and cease with the ‘ma’ title. You know it angers your mother. Be respectful, they believe you’ll eventually get through the Forest Gauntlet. One way or another.” Razahk’s mask angled forward watching the muddled path the wagon train rutted up once more.
“Lik’ah giv’ah shit what ~Nazik the Halfblood~ gets mad about.” Just saying her own mother’s name in such a wavy childish tone still didn’t feel insulting enough. “All sh’does is groan t’father when sh’doesn’ get’er damn way. Wah-wah-wah m’longears hurt from m’daughter’s horrid accen’--”
“Ouch! Fuck!” Naza grabbed the back of her head in surprise more than pain. The hooded girl next to her on the wagon...replaced with Malihn. Her dark-skinned palm wet with rain wiggling its fingers after ‘gently’ reprimanding the belligerent youth.
“Be respectful or you’ll end up a laborer.” Malihn spat. Once again in her mocking fashion.
“Ain’t nothin’ wrong with laborers. They built half the shit this damn region sits on.” Naza shot back.
“G’point. Y’got me.” Malihn’s hands went up lightly in faux-surrender giving-in to the conversation.
As the rain went on an hour or so passed in silence on the wagons. Fog clearing to reveal the massive wooden walled camps surrounding the 11th Gauntlet of the forest. The eleventh trial of fifteen which are intended to give all Avahn Younglings the grit and power to move into adulthood. Of course it actually was not meant for anything taught, merely to let the younglings beat one another senseless and appeal to their sponsors who would later prove their worth in the chosen skill sets.
From the sponsors who watched nightly rituals such as the one Avahn whom could cook something suitable; to the best fighter in the Gauntlet being sponsored by a high-up to be a grand warrior. Really everyone was there to be tested for fail and run the Gauntlet once more. If they ever reached too far of an age after failing so often...well they didn’t. Let’s just say they ‘ran away’. Very far away. Enough distance to simply not matter anymore.
However you have Avahn like Naza Varyn. Avahn whom tore through gauntlets and ripped opponents to shreds in one-on-one, but lacked something. Logic? Perhaps not, one doesn’t need logic to beat an opponent senseless. Wits? Same as logic, not particularly useful when a fist cracks a skull. No, Naza had a strange little quirk. A quirk that caused her to be frowned upon more than mocked. Thunderous migraines. Only in the 11th Gauntlet. Migraines and headaches which thudded into her skull with such ferocity she couldn’t properly stand while trying to cope with them. Unexplained ailments which would strike her in an instant that her 11th Gauntlet fights began causing a rapid flashing of stars and bobbles which flew across her vision; inspiring what a lot considered an old Avahn instinct of blood rage, yet the condition was ultimately extremely rare. Evolved out of.
But if these were simply an affliction caused by another condition, wouldn’t they appear at the other ten gauntlets? A logical person would say yes. Logical Avahn like Razahk and Malihn. Malihn knew something was up and silently would watch her partner in trials shred through competitions and given challenges with ease. It had something to do with this damned place. This Gauntlet camp was doing something specific to Naza to trigger those headaches.
“Out out out! Let’s go, all of you get to the camps. You’ve been riding for ages” Roared out Razahk stomping by the now stopped wagon as the front gate opened into the camps. Within said gates was a sprawling village-like encampment stretching into the rolling hills. Ringing the encampment was the forest itself along with the ten-foot log wall, the occasional gold-rust suited Avahn guard patrolling along it to ensure no fights broke out before the designated Gauntlets began. The 11th Camp had plenty of reasons for fights to break out, though, and they were abundant. Not only did you have dozens of varying tribals not dedicated to specific clans, but you had various clans packed into a single camp.
The ever-vicious North-Eastern Clan Varyn.
The Cunning and Reclusive Rav’ahni from the Northern forests the 11th encampment resided.
The Shore-fairing wave watchers of Clan Shaer in the South.
The political and executive Clan Orlin and Ortch.
And the low-brewed poor loyalty Clan Detrien the Blood created simply to spite the other Clans.
A lot of angry younglings thrown about with one another from all over the peninsula was the epitome of anger induced strokes for the much older Avahn guarding the walls and walking within the
various pathways inside the camps. Many believed perhaps it was a better idea to ensure the Avahn younglings all remained seperated. Split appropriately apart by encampments for their Clans. History, however, liked to often prove this only caused -more- in-fighting. More wrestling gone violent. More incidents of Avahn ending up missing limbs, appendages and...vital external organs.
“Hurry it up! To your tents, a storm is approaching!” The skies above the Encampment concurred with an echo of nearby thunder accenting the roar of the Varyn general Razahk as she herded the Avahn younglings of various sizes into their campsites. “Naza. Into the tent with Malihn. Now.” The towering Avahn barked pointing a long-nailed finger at Naza.
“Yeh whatever...y’damn mung.” Naza sighed brushing the tent’s entry-flap aside. Malihn, already inside and removing her outter layers of rain-proofed clothing, simply gave an idle grin over her shoulder.
“Wanna play a game?”
“I’dun’wanna play’ah fuckin’ game. Ah’wanna hurry th’fuck up outta this Gauntlet an’go home.” Naza sighed. The exasperation evident in her features with a roll of her reflective turquoise eyes. She despised the 11th Gauntlet knowing for damn sure she’d goof up again thanks to her chronic migraines. An idle thought ringing back to what exactly was causing them. Then an even more idle question arose.
“Molly.” She chirped curiously, aware the Rav’ahni always delved into mysteries as mightily as the Flux archivers in the north. “M’gonna test somethin’.”
“Like- y’ever wonder about m’headpains?”
“Frequently. I like worrying about you. I have to. We’re Gauntlet Partners. The more you fail the longer I am stuck back’ere with ya.” The dark-skinned young girl nodded curtly after such genuine words. The genuine aspect of them went into one of Naza’s ears and out the other.
“Use yer special forest shit powers like yer Clan does an’watch my aura or somethin’.” She blathered. “M’gonna g’test somethin’ tomorrow. Y’watch.” Her hand flicked in Malihn’s general direction in the back of the tent. “Ah’got ah’few days t’lose t’see these things at work.”
“Uh-huh. Okay.” Malihn quipped before opening her robe revealing her bare body. That of late-teen girl as she slid beneath the covers. “Go to bed now.”
“’Uh-huh’...” Naza mocked. Not even phased by her friend bare before her. She’d seen Malihn sleep in the bare before and was no longer impressed. More so weirded out by the fact Malihn was lacking down below, a rare oddity nobody was truly fond of.
As Naza slipped from her own robes tossing them into the tent’s corner of rain-soaked gear, she flopped onto the fur-leaf bedding face-down. She didn’t like waking up face-up. No Avahn did for one reason in particular. Even the warmongers had shame- in that case. Not even bothering to throw a blanket over her backside as her left arm dangled off the bed from her passing out. While her egotism and passion for stubbornness showed brightly her dreams were plagued to their depths by what the forests of the 11th Gauntlet held.
The same voice that echoed to her from her mind’s ear and a shadow eclipsing her mind’s eye.
The waves of violet and black flittered about through her dream’s vision throwing and tossing her left and right like a violent white-water experience. The voice booming through the terrible echoes of her mind thundering in and out.
The sinewy-shadow whipped from the eclipse of her mind’s eye and barreled towards the threatening first voice calling for death of someone or...something. The Varyn Clan? Nonsense.
’Nonsense...’ mumbled Naza in her sleep but roaring in her dream, though her voice merely croaking in the same manner she did outside of this nightmare. Both shadowy figures turning to the blank space in the black abyss they all ‘stood’. The more slender of the two figures suddenly whipped forward and thrust its fist into the first more vicious-sounding unknown.
And all went black.
A single softer whispering voice blowing from unseen lips into Naza’s ears from all sides.
“Varyn. Clan. Invincible.”
She woke with a hard jolt. Sitting bolt upright on the bed rubbing her forehead and nose bridge with her right palm. That one was definitely different...same ghost-voices but shit, a lot more direct. Egotistical. It gave a jolt of inspiration to Naza lighting some fire deep inside her like a pep-talk she use to get given to her as a much younger child.
She had rolled onto her back in her sleep again, eyeing down her bare form barely visible in the pitch-black tent, happy to see she didn’t wake with full-ahead-full. Though expecting such after -that- particular mind-blaster only indicating her coming migraines didn’t allow such natural tendencies. However, while thinking of natural tendencies, she needed to pee something fierce.
Exiting the tent, Naza knew the main bonfires were cinders by this point. No light shone from anywhere in the Gauntlet Encampments except for the lively mumbling Regional-Guards in their rest camps at least half a mile down the pathway. So her bareness was no issue and even though it never was, it’s not good to strut about like a show-off while being the kin of a Warlord. Darkness however allowed for lack of shame as she found a suitable spot behind someone else’s tent on the edge of the encampment leading into the oil-black depths of the silent forests ringing the Gauntlet.
Eyeing around idly, she performed nature’s demanded business wiggling her toes in bordem and popping her back as she stood. Wanting to hum but explaining this situation to a Regional or a very angry patron of this tent was not preferred. Instrument in-hand she attempted to draw into the side of the tent with a mocking snort before scowling at the misty rebound which made her foolery cease in an instant.
“What the fuc-” Naza yelped spinning to face the forest behind her. Canopy rustling in the night’s light warm wind. Her turquoise eyes flashed in the second moon’s light like that of a cat’s as she peered into the dense thicket searching for the caller’s origin. “Who the fuck is out there...” She mumbled.
“Va-Ryn...” The whispy voice called out once more from the woods as the tree’s leaves rustled once more before ceasing entirely. All other trees in the forest’s edge rustling calmly and gently except for the large cape of the tree just infront of her...something was in it.
With wide-eyes the naked girl stumbled backwards as a pair of gradient-grey eyes opened slowly and stared holes through her. Eyeing her up and down from tit to toe inspecting the light curves and abundant chest along with the additional aspect previously used. Naza was displeased with being gawked at.
“Fuck off!” She roared causing the shadow leaned forward to jolt back into the canopy and close its eyes effectively vanishing. The tree returning to match the light waving about of its kin in the wind.
Naza was left laying in the fairly deep mud of the pathway between the edge tents thanks to the previous day’s rain. Her ear-length crimson hair matted and her bare back and ass squished into the water-soaked path. She quickly stood with a wet ‘plop’ as she removed herself from the mud and dashed back to her own tent as the Regionals made their way down the path from their watch point responding to apparent shouting. The naked culprit bounced herself back into the tent to find Malihn sat up on her bed, bare from the waist up, staring unimpressed like a disappointed maiden at Naza’s waist. She simply sighed and flopped back down vanishing below the covers which gave nice warmth from the night air’s chill.
Eyeing down though Naza noticed what Malihn was acknowledging. Full Mast probably from the adrenaline.
Great halls were a waste of resources, grand towers were a waste of resources and monumental statues were a painstaking pain in the backside to move. Nobody wanted a statue that sat in one place, there was no need. No need for the spires which emphasized grand people, no need for the steeples like a cathedral to pronounce some staggered belief. No need to really show off architecture. Most encampments were just that, purely camps. Sprawling oceans of tents with medium-height wooden walls just to ensure nobody attracted the wrong predator in the woods. The Avahn made use of permanent tents in almost all of the architecture on the peninsula and the only non-tented structures were the more catering facilities. The mess halls, the bathing houses, the specific stores and caches. Or, in this case, arenas.
A sandy pit arena sat in the night’s glare from the moon, baking in a different kind of subtle heat. Humidity was almost always present in the peninsula but at night when the wind barely blew gave no solace to the heat-hating. The smell of musky boots and the gentle tap to the nose of freshly cut wood where the parts of the arena saw repair drifted through the air. Stands layered along either side of the sand-pit floor packed with Younglings and various aged Avahn alike, their roars of excitement and jeering accompanied by the stomping and clapping of hands and feet. Shrill yet rhythmic flutes and light drums thumped the ears of the crowds and rattled the wooden banisters of the retaining balconies.
The air was most certainly gritty as it swirled around the announcing altar which sat in the center near the wall for the three top combat sponsors to watch over. A wooden platform with a bright brown tent connected to the arena-proper with a small bridge-way where the little band of flutes and carrydrums pattered along to break the droning silence. Many of the younglings in the arena’s balconies overlooking the fighting pit held up palms over their eyes and squinted awaiting the extremely patient sponsors who seemed indifferent towards anything happening. The trio of sponsors stood in unison, their weathered jackboots and leather pants creaking from the humid air around the announcement altar.
“Red,” the green-suited sponsor side-nodded to the arena’s pit. “Hop to it.”
Atop the announcing altar at the most visible point of the oval-shaped fighting arena stood the more notable sponsors of combat. The three generic stereotypes of Avahn with deep crimson hair to their waists braided loosely, toned posture and stares that would put holes through steel wore individual colored outfits. Green, Red and Purple leather bodices sewn tight in the front with padded combat pants in place of a dress. Such ‘noble’ attire uncommon in the Avahn society yet these three wore nearly identical outfits merely for the formality of the Gauntlets.
The tallest of the trio, the Crimson-Bodiced one, raised their arms into the air hushing the roaring audience. The physique was an odd contrast to the voice which boomed over the arena, a set of wooden flute players in the crowd behind the altar began to toot their tunes for a call for attention. Arms lowered to their side before the right swept outwardly in a theatrical fashion, presenting the sand arena center to all who watched.
“Younglings. Younglings and adolescence. You cook, you clean, you build structures and you dig holes. You support the body of the Clans themselves with great beautiful power that will show to our enemies what you -truly- wish to prove yourselves as.” His arms fell back to his side only half a moment as the audience watched in pure silence. He whipped both arms back up skyward. “Talk is cheap and I will cease. Let the Gauntlet Begin! Bring on the fighters!”
With the thunks of the drums and the whistling of light horns and flutes the closed-in wooden arena roared back to life as dozens of younglings of various ages stepped from the far left’s entry portal, two rows of shuffling indifferent Avahn with odd weapons either bought of made. Each line part of a 2-Avahn group set together for the Gauntlets to go up against one another in the coming celebratory fights which the crowd roared in favor of. Varyn, Orlin, Ortch, Shaer, the rare pairs of Rav’ahni. Near the back stomped a very unconcerned Naza and her Rav’ahni Gauntlet Partner, black robe concealing her face and composure, the crimson-haired Varyn not remotely considering the fact of a helm upon her head. Ear-length hair flicking in the humid breeze as the carry-drums rattled her ears and the flutes annoying her greatly.
Standing before the center announcing altar, the many pairs leaned on their weaponry, struggled with their armor, struggled with their lack of armor, struggled not to fight one another...complained about the heat. The Red-Bodice sponsor shook their head and hummed speaking to the groups now. This lot liked to fidget way too much.
“You all were brought here to the 11th Gauntlet to beat one another senseless.” Their posture deflating before Red-Bodice inhaled and grumbled inwardly. “Because when senseless you will then attract environmental sense. You will suck in the new sense,” their gloved palms smacked together in a cupped manner to emphasize what they believed was a proper gesture for vacuuming effect. “...yeah.”
“Just-” Naza clapped her palms together mocking Red-Bodice. “-like that? Huh?” Her idly snarling mouth curving into a grin flashing that maw of dagger-like teeth. “Sounds borin’, blood vest.”
“You’re back again this month, young Varyn.”
“Yarp, sure am.”
“And you intend to not pass out this time?”
“Yeah prolly.” Naza gave an idle shrug, using her right arm to lean on Malihn’s left shoulder.
“Yes. We’ll see.” An unimpressed Red-Bodice hummed as their face went grouchy a moment.
From where Naza was standing, she tuned out the continued rambling she’d heard before about the Gauntlet Arena’s rules and regulations and bla-bla-bla… She kept leaning on her partner before a grumble was let out.
“Molly when are w’gonna start fuckin’ fightin’?”
“You need to stop leaning on my shoulder before you snap me in two...” Malihn let out a deep sigh shrugging Naza’s elbow off her. “You weigh far too much.”
“Nuuh! Yer jus’ta lightweight, need ta work up some guff.”
“Varyn! Rav’ahni!” A feminine voice roared from the announcing altar.
As Naza and Malihn peered up they met eyes with Red-Bodice flanked by Green and Violet. Arms all crossed their internal sighs were heard miles away, the audience silent. The crowd of fighters around them silent. That niggling feeling of awkwardness spiking for only half a second in Naza’s chest. Such a show off as herself should be use to many stares but her gaze wavered slightly, cocky grin faltering, she figured she knew what was coming next.
“Do you intend to pass out this time from your ghostly headaches?” Red-Bodice stated in their boring manner. “Or do you intend to move on to the 12th this month?”
“She will do as well as she can, Sponsor Moon.” Malihn’s soothing voice spoke aloud interrupting the rowdier of the pair. A palm slapping onto Naza’s chest to silence her.
“We’ll see. You two will be first, then. Six hours. Round two.”
“Of course, thank you Sponsor Moon.” Malihn bowed her head and gave a light shove to Naza’s chest whom stared daggers at first the superior then Malihn.
They were at the edge of the arena before Red-Bodice began barking orders to the other pairs. Who would be going next, following that group and so on. Milling about to their sitting places some began to practice in the sand with one another as others cursed inaudibly at the sand being kicked up.
“You need to not go around pissing off the Sponsors.” Malihn chastised.
“Ahuh, an’ what’re they gonna do? Ah’already gotta damn sponsor in Razahk. She’s only’ere to ensure ah actually get through the shit.” Naza shrugged. The thought of her headaches occurring once again in front of another crowd and especially her sponsors would be humiliating. The last thing she wanted was another blackout to the roar of an audience’s laughter. Varyns weren’t intended to be ridiculed, they were the most savage of the clans! Of the entire Avahn! The hell was causing these damn headaches?
Naza sat idly watching the practicing pairs from her position against the wall. Several of them using the trained and taught methods of swing, parry, swing, block. How boring. Naza passed all eleven gauntlets merely using her momentum and brutal injuries that frequently caused internal injury...something she was told she needed to work on avoiding more in practices.
“Am I too tough on folks?” Naza asked turning to Malihn, preoccupied with removing fringes of cloth from her robe.
“Too tough? Hm...” Without once looking up Malihn halted her fiddling. “Not in my eyes, you’re a Varyn.” This response caused Naza to recoil very slightly with a raised brow.
“Fucks that mean?”
“It means, Varyn, as a Varyn you’re expected to be tough. You’re expected to be the one breaking another person’s bones and smashing rib cages and breaking skulls an-”
“Ah get it, fuck. But not this one.”
“Not this one?” Malihn responded with her own raised brow as her hood lifted revealing her dark-toned face and amber eyes.
“Yeh, not this Gauntlet. Ah always fuck it up, always fail here, it’s not sad or some bullshit, it’s fuckin’ irritatin’. Makes m’wanna burn th’damn forest down!” Naza’s hairs on the back of her neck pricked up as she drew in her legs putting her chin between her knees.
“Yes, it does seem overwhelmingly frustrating. Just rest for now, today feels different.”
Malihn gave a light shrug lowering her head once more hiding away her face leaving a confounded Naza who just grumbled curses and lowered her gaze to between her knees. A short nap was quick to come to her in the brightly lit night-time air.
“Varyn. Invincible.” The voice echoing through Naza’s ears became clearer and clearer again, the same from the last time she was called and spoken at by this thing.
“Th’fuck do you want!” Naza gave in retort. This was beginning to piss her off more than the headaches. What piece of shit hallucination was this anyways? “M’tired of yer damn shit! Show yer fuckin’ self s’ah can snap yer damn spine!” Naza jumped to her feet.
The area around her was still the arena, still darkened by the nighttime air but the torches were doused, the bonfires were out and the ambient lighting of the moon didn’t appear to be present. The sky was thick like fog with the haze just above her head concealing the stands above the arena barricades. The air smelled of...nothing? It was nothing, nothing was anywhere. No sound, no clapping, no nothing met Naza’s senses as the whispering in her ear began to increase to that of someone nearby. Naza whipped around to Malihn’s seated position.
“Varyn. Invincible. Don’t worry.” Malihn, or what Naza believed was her began to say aloud. Her head was lowered as usual but no part of her body could be seen. The fog around the young Varyn encroaching closer and closer as she stepped warily at her long-time friend.
“M-malihn... Y’there? Hello?” The movement of ‘Malihn’ causing her to stop in her tracks as whispering began to pick up from all around the pair. The fog itself chattering and clicking like amused crickets causing the hairs on her neck to spike again.
“The wishes of the greedy feed.”
“The wish- what’re you on about? Malihn, stand th’fuck up, where is everyone?”
Malihn did stand up as requested, face still concealed by the cloak and her hands black as night. Since when did Malihn wear gloves? As she stood she lifted her head glaring out from beneath the hood not with the amber eyes she expected to see, but colorless grey eyes stared back. The same eyes before in the trees from her dream.
Malihn continued to stand-
“Wait. What the fuck...”
Her height increased, further and further Malihn’s body extended skyward before she was easily above six-feet. Her oil-black hair growing to shoulder-length accenting those piercing eyes as a threatening smile began to form on her black painted lips. The figure was smiling at her, eyes of a hungry hound, grin of a murderer, posture of a noble. The robe extended itself with her increasing dimensions before the ‘gloves’ morphed into dark-skinned hands laden with golden rings and trinkets.
“Wait- what the fuck?!” Naza stumbled backwards into the sand as she sweat profusely and pawed trying swiftly to reverse her position from the being. In the blink of her eyes though the towering woman was directly in front of her. Towering proper posture bending at the waist as her shifting trinkets in her cloaked hair and on her form jingled like wind-chimes. “No-nonononono!” Naza almost begged. Her heart beating in her numbing ear canal threatening to put its boot to her ribs.
“Naza. Varyn.” the woman spoke soothingly now which only helped to amplify the terror of the entire situation. Where was Malihn? “Naza. Varyn. Invincible. Vicious…” Her head angled to the left as a long but lean arm motioned to the western forests outside the encampment itself. “Loser. Forests. Win. Forever...”
Naza was suddenly overcome with exhaustion as her headaches flared, the spike of pain stabbing into the base of her neck. Behind her eyes the pressure increased before it was too much and she blacked out where she sat, arms sliding left and right with a low thud as her back hit the sand.
The first thing Naza felt was something soft at her back. A blanket? It felt like a blanket instead of sand-
“Where the fuck am I...” Naza asked as she sat bolt-upright and peered around the ten- the tent? “I’m in a damn tent...”
“That you are,” Malihn’s voice said from another tent room as she passed through the flap. “You fell into a migraine and started hallucinating. Passed out in the middle of the arena.”
“The aren- I failed another damned fight?!” The wide-eyed girl chirped.
“Uh- this time you failed before the fight began. So they postponed your fight.”
“Two days. You’ve two days to readjust yourself and be ready at the primary arena and then you take on a Detrien.”
Rubbing her eyes with rough palms, Naza flopped back down onto the bed grumbling to herself. Staring at the roof of the tent the beginnings of morning were showing in a deep orange glow outside of the canvas housing. It had to be hours since she blacked out fully and god damn why-…
“Why does m’fist fuckin’ hurt so damn much?”
“Aha.” Malihn motioned over her shoulder as she fiddled with something in her corner of the tent. “In your migraine fit you punched a banister. Snapped it in two. Sponsors were impressed by that, to say the least.”
“Nnf. Alrigh-” The adjustment from laying flat to sitting up was apparently too much for her body with the sudden spike of pain returning to her skull. A quick flash of the ears causing a ringing that chittered like the whispers in her dream only for a short moment. Bringing a palm to her right temple Naza grumbled cut off mid-sentence. “-ugh...shit’s like’ah fuckin’ hangout.”
“Th’fuck ever. Gimme yer damn sedatea and les’go walkin’. Part’ah the day is it?” She flicked her free arm in Malihn’s direction. “Mornin’?”
“It is. Where are we walking?”
With the sudden putt of Naza’s feet onto the dusted floor she bend down eyeing under the cot for her jackboots. Plopping back down onto the bed, with a quick pause of frustration to stand and shift the sheets back up to the head, she rubbed her feet with a bit of dust sliding her boots into place. Dust definitely made the boots more comfortable.
“We’re goin’ out into the damn surround. Th’woods.”
“The...woods. Well, at least the sun’s up.”
“Not going t’ask why we’re goin’ into th’woods?”
“Nope.” Malihn gave in a very basic answer.
Her hood was down with her black hair on show, the trinkets jingling idly in the still humid air of the tent. Turning to face Naza those amber eyes lowered the slight alarm in her demeanor from the horrid arena hallucination reminding her this was the actual Malihn. The Malihn that didn’t seem keen to argue any idea Naza had.
“‘kay. So we’re goin’ into th’woods to follow where she pointed.”
“Where who pointed?”
“Well-” Naza promptly paused with a deep stare at the bed before rubbing her chin. “It was you...” Her right hand left her chin and went flat chopping shortly at the air like a knife. “Was you, but y’were very differen’. Looked older, like way older. Y’ad like silver eyes, long hair, way more damn jingly shit on you...”
“Right. Okay.” Malihn’s response more or less a flat-toned one.
The sun was finally coming up over the encampment. Back in the same edge site near the forest Naza and Malihn hopped over a few piles of rocks and dirt dug out for the Gauntlet. The opening in the wooden barricade between the deeper parts of the forest gave just enough room for both to slip through as they made their way into the trees moving in the general direction Naza’s hallucinations sent her. An otherwise very unwise decision to most folks.
It was still quite dark with the sun on the deep dawn threshold giving the forest a low foggy illusion as the dew began to evaporate and humidify the air. The pops and cracks of twigs and sticks accompanied the crunching and chewing of boots upon leaves. It smelled quite piney... the fresh scent a lovely ping to Naza’s nose which was welcomed but also something to be wary of.
“Pine, Naza.” Malihn warned lowering her voice and posture in tandem.
“Yeh, ah’know. Those damn stories y’always heard about pine smell meanin’ th’Untouched er’nearby. Bullshit t’me, but y’know...” She gave a prompt shrug. “Ain’t true till ah seen it.”
An hour had gone by as the pair continued their way into the northern forests the pine smell intensified but the sounds of the Gauntlet’s encampment quieted. Almost as if each step muted the far-off chattering and now distant instruments, Naza’s eyes locked forward. The forest itself was nothing special beyond mere trees but the aura about it suddenly took on a very cold demeanor. Standard trees began to bend at their middles bowing into the trees like a pathway of sorts, yet no sounds of straining wood called out. No signs of disturbed leaves that easily could’ve been yanked from their stems with such movement, insects and small animals ceased their noise, fleeing into the deeper ends of the woods the opposite way the pair pushed westward.
“You seein’ this, Molly...? Th’fuck is goin’ on?”
“I am beginning to see why you pass out in your migraines. These hallucinations are beginning to spread to me... this isn’t your doing, this is something else.” Malihn hummed.
Naza’s gaze halted as the ‘pathway’ the bending trees and arching canopy developed stopped at a dead-end, a solid wall of trees and impenetrable underbrush. The forest was chittering and clicking now, a sound sending the same familiar chills down the back of Naza’s neck as the arena hallucination did. Turning to face Malihn the redhead frowned and shook her head as a single echoing voice whipped through the trees like a shock-wave.
“Near.” That same voice now spoke aloud, both girls going wide-eyed at one another. The way it spoke the final word almost an assurance to the distance between Naza and itself.
Low moans replaced the whispers in the air, the trees called out once more with twigs twisting and breaking to sharp shards. Leaves took to the air in flocks with the canopy itself withering and melting away into the sky, rocks and pebbles in the underbrush launching from unseen slingshots. A tornado of movement ripped the forest itself apart as the whip-like fracturing of unseen trees all around broke from their roots or in half entirely, though the two Avahn girls remained in place. Ground unmoving and clothing barely given even a lift from the high winds.
“Mind tellin’ m’what th’fuck is going on?! Hello?”
“No idea!” Malihn shot back. “This isn’t normal! The Peninsula doesn’t get windstorms like this!”
And it all stopped. Everything halted. The torrents of leaves and the splintered wood thrown into the air paused in suspension with the wind having just turned off. All around the pair the forest was still too dense to be properly seen through. It all was mixes of brown and green with the orange of sunlight barely making it through except a shaft through the canopy which drew the girl’s eyes. A massive slab of rock protruding from the altar like a lone board from a long-gone fence row. Its texturing smooth as melting ice with the whispers echoing from its monolithic body. Naza’s senses rang out only one thing for her to do...
“Naz- Naza! Don’t!” Malihn yelped reaching out for the young Varyn’s collar as her extended fingers came into contact with the standing stone.
In a bright flash Naza was swallowed by the feeling of electricity. Her hairs lept to attention as she felt every fiber on her head go split-ended. Wide-eyed and horrified Naza wanted to scream. She wanted to yell out for aid from Malihn but along with the world around her, the voice of her partner faded rapidly. Her palm was still connected to the stone but the rapid acceleration of the world around her blurred, any resemblance of recognizable landmarks out of sight. The pattern to the movement felt as if it was hurdling between two locations bringing Naza to a single conclusion... she let go!
If such a thing as a soul did exist then Naza’s definitely just gained the ability to get dizzy.
With the speed she tore through the world around her finally slowing down felt like slamming into a brick wall full-stop swearing bruises were starting to form on the front of her body. Her palm remained floating inches from the stone causing a little click in Naza’s mind-
“Shit me out...” She shakily huffed, hand recoiling quickly from the object.
A few steps now between herself and the stone pillar gave little comfort as the sky growled a great distance away. The horizon above the canopy of the clear she was in to the west looked to be broiling with a storm of some kind with various colors of lightning whipping through the sky. The clearing itself though was something to admire. A ring of trees encircled not only the stone she quickly was distancing herself from but... half a dozen others. Each large rock had different heights but all were at neck-breaking heights nonetheless. Each of the six stones were, like the trees, circling around a large glowing rock that looked more akin to a lantern tower than anything else. Purposefully put there, clearly crafted by someone or something with know-how.
It hummed, the center stone -object- Naza now claimed it as, with the symbol almost like that of a mythical owl’s face on it lighting up momentarily before falling back to the greyish-black pallet of the monolith. Every stone around her letting off a soothing low bass.
The clearing also held a few other landmarks. Some light hills were home to two or three flightless Dij Owls which picked and pecked at the insects skittering about at their feet. Their little wings flapping as they had small conversations of chirping and croaking about the runt Avahn which just appeared from thin air near their dining spot. They didn’t seem too pleased as with a tilted head Naza swore one of the damn things was giving her the stink-eye with those dish-like eyes where they harbored their namesake.
A few smaller natural rocks here and there with moss growth on them.
Some downed trees no doubt from a recent windstorm.
A small campsite with smoke rising from its campfire.
“Wait- th’fuck?” Naza exclaimed, her scanning eyes flicking back to the three tents in a crescent around the simmering fire topped by a stick-held capped pot.
Approaching the campsite warily Naza noticed a few belongings of the camp’s residents who didn’t appear present. Articles of clothing which seemed to be wool, something uncommon in the Peninsula lacking sheep. Shirts and odd little bits like gloves dripping water from being washed, socks, what appeared to be stockings of some woman not much taller than Naza with how the socks lengths were. Maybe stockings more than socks... But what caught Naza’s eye quickest was the shield left leaned against the centerpole of the tent.
Ringed by tarnished silver and ebony with its emblem being that of a golden eye peering downward towards the foot of the shield, Naza kicked at it and flinched back in surprise. It thunked her big-toe straight through her jackboots!
“Agh! S’dense as shit.”
After a few more moments of running her bare fingers along the rivets of the shield and indention of the emblem, Naza plopped down before the sputtering fire. With a lift of the pot’s lid she viewed inside noticing a third of its interior filled with something! A quick sniff revealed it was fresh as well, some kind of meat, however not the most appetizing after your stomach had gone for a drop at the speed of slingshot. Fishing around the campsite for a spoon or scoop of any kind she grumbled at the lack of these people leaving things obviously about.
“Organised as damn curators, how bor-” Naza paused.
One of the stones beyond the camp in the circle of six hummed out of tune. Its low grumble picked up and the center of the ruins flashed in rapid strobe-like ways which brought Naza’s palm up to cover her eyes. A sound and flicker rolled over the clearing that pinged Naza’s mind once more, the ping saying only one thing to her like it did before grabbing the stone which brought her- ‘act on it. Quickly’.
She dashed away from the camp towards the center humming stone, a quick slide on her side vanishing into a bush concealed her as six figures formed, the low grumbling now sent forth as an ear-aching crack of thunder. The shield studied before now accented who it belonged to, this lot. Their clanking steel armor reflected in the rising sunlight, a golden eye emblem matching the shield’s which peered down watching whatever it heralded over. Locked to their backs matching blades of ebony seemed to swallow the light from the air itself like the black cloaks flowing down their left legs under the hip and waist armor, a few had those same shields, a few had rotatory crossbows with four bolts set in firing positions. These were very well-equipped hunters, but their organization even in walking, from what Naza began to discern were portals of some sort, was in tandem. Clomping steel boots crushing the grass where they didn’t belong.
These people didn’t belong at all, something about them was wrong and they expressionless helmeted faces gave off enough non-emotion to signal a new one all on its own. These were outsiders. These were outsiders using these stones to enter the peninsula. This realization pinged another thought into Naza’s head- she had to tell someone! She could run to the stone she lept in through to the clearing and get back to Malihn! The encampment wasn’t that far away, was it? Or a Regional patrol... they’re always around these parts.
Naza’s heart, mind and every organ in her dense body came to a full-stop. Turning her head slowly looking at the culprit which made the very audible sound she discovered a stick in the brush she was concealing herself with under her boot snapped.
Stopping in place the half-dozen crew instantly peered in the direction of the snapping twig and pulled their ebon blades from the hitches, the two with the lethal looking crossbows aiming downward right where Naza sat in the bush. Without much ability to do anything else, Naza spoke out loudly.
“Hey uh- las’thing’ah want is’ah damn bolt in m’chest, guy.”
“That so,” the nearest of the lot with swords said with the echo of a helmeted head. “Stand up then, bush-bear. Right now!” His voice amplified by the plated headcover.
Naza rose from the bush, arms raised with a large pout on her face, the armored and armed group lowered their weapons before the speaker took steps forward and flicked a plated index-finger under Naza’s chin. He then gripped her chin puffing her cheeks in a childish manner, recoiling in sudden shock when Naza lurched forward and bit into his chained palm like a rabid animal. He scoffed below the helmet before laughing and putting another hand over her face shoving her to her ass. Turning and walking away he huffed mechanically.
“Put an arrow in her chest and leave her. We have a job to do.”
Naza’s heart sank leaping to her feet and immediately diving for the nearest rock encircling the center. The twang and whip of the crossbow signaling a bolt had missed her and gone off elsewhere. Holding her position the young Varyn listened closely, it didn’t appear as if the crossbowman moved any closer to her hiding spot. He was ensuring she didn’t mad-dash for the woods!
It wasn’t the pop or cracks of any sticks, it wasn’t the twang of the crossbow firing on her or the rushing of knights to flay her that tickled the inner-ear but the air suddenly filling with a hum. The same hum from the stones when activated and brought her here, something else was coming through the ancient device. With quick action Naza used this to her advantage, leaping from cover as the figures of four towering people phased with the roar of thunder following after.
“Stop MOVING!” the crossbowman shouted, his back to the other five watching where Naza went.
She made her way forward, arms still up as his helmeted head flicked between glaring at her and looking over his shoulder as the group stalked towards the forming masses near the humming stone. From beneath the beaver concealing his eyes Naza could easily make out he was nervous. Crossbow wiggling up and down slightly with mechanical clacks, the bolt in its setting knocking against the sides as his gaze continued to wither. He wasn’t keeping eye-contact with her.
All at once the crossbowman pivoted on his heels, a startled Naza believing he had put a bolt in her chest, his group engaging with something at the flashing humming stone. With a rush of adrenaline Naza suddenly found her new hatred. Naza really hated things being pointed at her. The rush took over and she angled her head down giving a mad-dash for the man before he could discharge his crossbow, her solid head thonking into the side of his suit of armor breaking his stance and throwing off balance. Crossbow lowering into the dirt and firing the bolt into the ground.
Naza stumbled about for a short moment, realizing the faults in headbutting an armored man, she rubbed her forehead and looked up in time to see two things. Both of them something she wasn’t particularly happy to see:
Razahk and four Regionals rushed the armored group watching their entry, her eyes of blazing fire flicked first to Naza then to the leader sending him back into two knights positioned behind with the heel of her boot. Then the second sight something more traumatic arching downward like a pendulum, the fist of the crossbowman. At this moment Naza wished it still hurt more than Razahk’s gaze.
With her body lifted off the ground and breath rushing from her as if someone had screamed fire inside her lungs, Naza’s back met a glowing pillar stone away from the others which proceeded to hum noisily upon the impact of the dazed girl. The shrill call of a whistle brought Naza back from a near-concussive daze, the end of a blade mere inches from her chest where the crossbowman intended to stab downward but stared in the direction of the flute-like call, an animal like war of dozens of Avahn followed with Regionals of various sizes leaping from the forests encircling the ruins, the patrols had been alerted! The last thing Naza saw before the Crossbowman was open-field tackled by someone was meeting Malihn’s eyes. She did have pretty damn good looking eyes...
This time the world warped viciously in a cylindrical dizzying effect with Naza and creating the feeling of slalom effect. The brightened forest whipping away rapidly as darkness enveloped her and even the ground where she laid morphed from grass into hard black stone. Knowing the general idea of these odd travel-stones, Naza sat up with a weak head and possibly broken rib rolling painfully away from the stone. The movement ceased and the humming pillar of rock bled into the shadows of some collapsed tunnel.
The floor was wet in that disgusting way a dust floor with sticky drink upon it was. The grainy bits on her palm caused a visible cringe forcing a prompt position change resting her weight on her folded legs. An audible sound of distaste echoed down the pitch-black tunnel rebounding back a few seconds later as Naza rubbed the dirtied palm on her shirt. A short hiss that followed signaled the pain internally, she’d need to have that fixed. Standing promptly and beginning to limp through the dark cavern, her wiped palm hit the wall and once again, this time much louder, she groaned feeling a slick and grainy-wet wall just like the damn floor.
“C’mon y’fuckin’ CAVE SHIT!”
No sign of how she even came into this cave in the first place were present, the stone she hit and crawled from didn’t seem to be there. If it was the darkness was hiding it damn well. The dark abyss ahead giving no mark for her to follow besides a small twinkling blue light for a great distance away. Beginning to work her way towards it with shuffling feet and continued unpleasant touching of the wall to remain upright, Naza kept her eyes locked to the far off light--...
Naza promptly thunked into something very solid, her nose ached, on the verge of breaking, with a hand rubbing it and her third groan of the morning echoing down the black tunnel behind her- behind her? Pawing at the wall- she ran into a wall she didn’t even see...then what was the light?
Looking up the wall Naza found the source of the blue glow, a dim paint-like splatter above her head.
“You piece ah shit.” Naza said slapping at it grumpily. Expecting it to mystically open was also a long shot. “Yeah whatever, don’t open then.”
She fell forward onto her stomach with a screech as the shot of pain, the rock had simply faded from existence, blue glow gone and replaced by a washing wave of bright blue lights from all directions in front of her. The tunnel back behind flooded revealing the stone which brought her a good few yards back. It was a beautiful room glowing turquoise which matched Naza’s reflective irises, crystalline formations sticking up and down everywhere. No sun was coming in, it was the stones themselves emitting the candy-blue glow painting every pillar and every inch of wall, the chamber’s curving roof of spikes angling downward to the end of itself where another of the towering stones sat.
The stone sat alone near the end of the glowing blue room. Like the others in the forest clearing this one was a towering monolith with a runic symbol glowing at its upper-face, a hum from its body stronger than the ones which apparently could flick people about. However, its body below the rune to its base was glowing from the lights behind it, it was transparent! Objects appeared to be drifting inside of it like bits in a cup of water, it made Naza’s stomach turn in memory of a disgusting pudding with gooey bits inside. Uch. With a prompt pause she stared into the boiling innards of the stone, the broth of movement beginning to give a ghostly draw to the eye. Their mindless shifting and ugly wiggles taking the form of a... a face. A dark-skinned face!
It struck immediately, not a headache but it applied the same pressure. The same rush of energy into Naza’s mind minus the pain and agony of a skull-splintering migraine. Image after image, scene after scene of places she’d never known before rapidly passed her line of vision at the stone as if falling down a shaft of projections onto hundreds of walls. A long-eared woman, dark ashen skin...this was the wrong face. Who was this one? The image immediately shattered revealing rocks similar to the ones lining the cave chamber and spiking from random deposits all over the peninsula’s surface.
“Shockstone... it’s showing me shockstone?” Naza said asking aloud.
More and more of the sparking rock she knew her parents were wary of, the Avahn were wary of. The stone which could, on contact, stop the heart of an armored fighter and incinerate the body of any caught in a blast trying to mine it. Then the voice rolled over, all fell silent as the images fluttered left and right, up and down, diagonally. The voice from her dreams, her hallucinations, her nightmares, the arena.
“Naza Varyn.” said the voice clear as sunrise. No stuttering of tone, no loss of some connection. It was coming from behind her.
The few seconds Naza spent turning away from the stone pillar assaulting her mind with images and whispering voices felt like hours looking to face her tormentor. The one who had been trying to speak to her for so long from so far away.
“Th-the fuck d’you want,” Naza asked attempting to look tough. Her demeanor defied her and her brain demanded evacuating the area as swiftly as possible. “Who th’fuck are you? ANSWER me!”
A polite smile brushed over the cloaked woman’s lips. She was much taller than the arena hallucination. An adult’s generous curves this woman was blessed with, all hidden beneath an almost form fitting robe of some kind. Sinewy and lacy while concealing anything below it. Yet the eyes, the woman’s cold grey eyes spoke leagues of wonder. Although her face above her shadowed nose was invisible, those damned eyes called out into her thoughts. Through her thoughts. Through her body. The smile persisted not giving any calm to the young Varyn which promptly ended said smile. It falling to a flat neutral expression. The unknown robed woman brought her arms from her side and grabbed the left’s wrist with the right in a maiden’s grip, a casual posture used by jackasses who wished to be fancy. This detail rubbed Naza the wrong way.
“I...” she leaned down and was almost nose to nose with Naza. The shock of such a stunner this close also rubbed Naza the wrong way. Or the right way. “Want you to listen to me.”
“Ah-yeh. Yep, yeh? Yeh.” A short pause followed before the young Varyn spoke up. “Listen t’what?”
“Your future is in that stone. That Obelisk.” Her right arm extended slid to Naza’s left shoulder before pointing over it to the transparent stone. “Your future relies on the memories in that stone. Do you understand me?”
“No, t’be honest, ah’really d’understand what yer gettin’ at. getcher fuckin’ arm off me...”
“Such aggression, little Varyn. But you will become unstoppable with such aggression.” That grin made its way back to her dark-toned chocolate skinned face. “Such aggression, it will benefit everyone and detriment your foes.”
“This is some prophecy bullshit m’not likin’, honestly.
“You’ll learn to like it. Honestly.” The mystery woman sassed back. She seemed to udnerstand Naza’s skepticism and returned the gesture in favor. “Or, perhaps you’re right. Perhaps you’re not capable of doing it...”
“Doin’ what? Starin’atta fuckin’ rock? Are y’thah fuckin’ reason ah’keep losin’ shit s’damn much?!” Naza growled ignoring the scrolling images caused by the obelisk. Her palms were raised in the manner one would reach for a doorknob with the intention to lash out.
“You wont be trying to fight me any time soon, young Varyn.” She smiled almost kindly as the stone down the hall whipped to life and a single figure tore through stumbling. “Our time is short now, but we will be close to one another.” A curt little wink of one of those grey eyes was noticed by a very confused and unhappy Naza. “Very soon. Very close. Darkwood, my name is Darkwood.”
“Yeah, y’ain’ goin’ nowh-” Naza’s back-sass was cut off as Darkwood’s palm raised open and aimed at her.
The images rapidly made their way back rushing across her vision. Each one as detailed as the last with increasing speed as Naza’s fists lowered and she stumbled back into the Obelisk dizzily. As her eyes closed slowly she was someone far more preferable than Razahk.
“M-Molly...” Naza weakly said.
Darkwood, in less than the time it took to blink, faced the opposite direction, back to Naza. Malihn and Darkwood, equally robed and cloaked, met eyes, amber to grey as Malihn brought up the trinket at her belt intending to force a chant in the towering woman’s direction. All Naza could hear from where she struggled to remain conscious was both women wailing in pain simultaneously. Their actions of gripping both palms to their temples mirrored the other before Darkwood’s image pulsed a deep violet and the screech of a crow was heard- a crow.
“Th’fuck’sa...crow?” Naza said aloud as she slumped over against the Obelisk overwhelmed by the images of the knife-eared woman manipulating the shockstone. The thud of Malihn’s body hitting the floor as well. The last thing Naza heard was Razahk’s distant voice roaring out and more than a dozen Avahn scuttling about to recover the two.
Her unconscious state was assaulted by the same images. Shockstone manipulation, words from Darkwood, the screams of Malihn, a black-feathered flightless owl.
Stone. Screams. Cawing Owl.
Stone. Screams. Caws of the Crow.
Shocks. Roars. A Murder of Crows.