Our way lighted by burning men

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Valonia
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Joined: Mon Jan 25, 2021 9:19 pm

Our way lighted by burning men

Post by Valonia »

She woke from dreams of darkness and fire, and bolted upright, a thin sheen of sweat on her brow. It was still dark, not daybreak yet, and she was within the safety of her residence in Britain. But Valonia’s dreams had been troubled ever since she gone to Despise.

She hadn’t planned to enter the great dungeon at all; she’d intended to wait outside. But she wasn’t good at waiting, it seemed. And while the odd wanderer Coyote might have been on a personal quest, Valonia couldn’t simply not intervene. And since Tristan, the mage, and Arthur, the sellsword, had been willing to go, it seemed like a good time to ensure Coyote didn’t meet some dire end.

He hadn’t - and furthermore, had actually proven a surprisingly capable warrior. (Or perhaps not too surprising, if Val’s suspicions were correct…?) But Coyote had seemed cross with her for following him. Valonia could understand that… especially given the context she was assuming the battle had taken place within. But as much as she believed in his own self-determination, she couldn’t very well ignore the part of her mind that was telling her that the odds were bad and that he was unlikely to succeed.

As it turned out, even with assistance, they could not wrest whatever secrets Coyote had wanted from the ogres. Surely that was proof enough that the old man had needed the help? But he still had not completed his task, and had disappeared since. She had heard that he was in Skara Brae somewhere, but she had not seen him since. Perhaps her intervention had spoiled whatever sacred mission had been taking place. Or perhaps he had found another sort of spiritual method to attempt and had put aside the idea of Despise.

That did not mean Valonia had put it all behind her.

She kept going back for some reason, drawn to the place. She tried to justify it to herself and others: she went because she was training herself to be stronger, she went because she was performing a service for Britannia, she was ensuring that the darkness was held back and not pouring out of the place like blood from a wound… but all of those reasons fell a little flat. They were not untrue, as she had made an oath against speaking lies… but her reasoning was not wholly accurate either. The problem was that she didn’t know what the accurate answer was. Trying to see if answers could truly be gleaned from the beasts within? Simple bloodlust? Trying to master her fears through the application of force? A driving need to surmount reality with her Will? None of her rationalizations entirely fit. None of them were quite right. None of them answered some unasked and unaskable question in her mind.

So it was on the road to Despise that Edeard, the craftsman, and Tristan, their aforementioned magus, found her fighting her way toward the entrance. She was fortunate it was those two, as she did not need to provide them with explanations for her behavior. She wasn’t sure she could offer a satisfactory one anyway. Coyote had not returned to the place to her knowledge, and Valonia did not believe the things he did. She had no tangible reason for returning. She certainly wasn’t on any destination vision quest. As the Druid Selzhanik had done before her, Valonia was choosing to search inside herself for answers.

…even if those answers were hard to find at the moment.

But regardless of her pointed non-answers, Edeard and Tristan joined her, and the three made their way into Despise. Their initial progress went smoothly enough, as they had worked together before. And it seemed at first that their efforts to stem the tide of monsters were working. But their would-be assault was halted suddenly by a strange chill wind.

A wind breaching a subterranean area far from the surface.

Valonia had felt a sudden foreboding then. She knew better than to believe this was simply weather. And while she was not sure if this was what she had been looking for… it had definitely found them.

As if borne on that fell wind itself, several dark magi appeared. They demanded the trio leave… a request Valonia found herself strongly in favor of. But the magi did not give the trio much time to cede to their demands or argue. Rather, they punctuated their demands with several spells. Valonia tried to defend herself in kind, but found herself the target of their ire. Even as she fell, she could see that there were too many for this to be a random gathering of unvirtuous fellows. No, this was some kind of army. Perhaps it was these ones driving the monsters toward the cities.

Edeard and Tristan managed to kill one of their foes… but overwhelmed and outmagicked, were swiftly driven back. Valonia was as prepared for the worst as she could be…

And suddenly, the threat was over. As swiftly as they arrived, the mages departed. As if it had all been a bad dream. The only proof they had ever been there was the corpse before them… A dead man with a face scorched beyond recognition… And as the three watched, the body of the magus dissolved into a thick sludge. Seeping darkness, soaking into the dark stone…

Valonia got up from her bed to wash her face, feeling too warm, and afraid, and thoroughly unable to return to sleep. Those events had taken place the day before, and yet the memories still unsettled her.

The burned face of a man who had sold his world to buy fire. A poison seeping into the ground, gangrene into an open wound…

She shook her head, trying to clear her mind of such thoughts. Those things were terrible, yes. But she had treated burns and disease. She had seen all manner of bodily fluids. Why she should feel dread on this level was unclear. She was not squeamish, nor was she typically a woman prone to idle fancy or imagined horrors. She believed what she could see, what she could verify. And what she could verify was that the dark mages were some manner of a cult. Their numbers marked them so. That made it a tangible issue, one of numbers and tactics. That was all.

But it did not miss her attention that they had been in the physical representation of Hatred, fighting mages who had chosen it over Truth.

So it was with more questions than answers in their possession that the three had left Despise. The magus Tristan had gated them to his residence on the edge of the bay. And for a moment, it seemed they had left dark things behind for the moment.

Until a dark robed man appeared on the roof of the building.

The man said nothing. Did nothing. Simply was there. But the fact that he was there at all felt like some sort of threat. That he knew where they were. That he could follow them. That there was nowhere they could hide. The three could not reach him. They tried, but could not reach the roof. And by the time they went out to confront him from below, he had vanished.

The three were in the process of making reports of the mages and strange visitor, but as it turned out, the Court Magus Laurana had visions of their activities. She summoned them to the Castle of Lord British.

They had gone, of course. And gave an accounting of what they had seen. They had also received information in turn:

Lord British was entombed within stone to try and preserve him until the illness that plagued him could be cured. His illness and the troubles of the land were bound together inexorably. That one could not be separated from the other.

The Court Mage spoke of how the remnants of the Guardian’s followers and the Fellowship, still infiltrated Britannia’s cities. With potential enemies within their own walls, they had to be vigilant.

Laurana spoke also of the Gargoyles, and that the once noble race had fallen but for one last hope: a Gargoyle egg. But Terfin had been overrun by buccaneers, and needed to be reclaimed. The future of the Gargoyles depended on it. Where else would they be able to grow? And the egg was hatching. Soon.

Laurana also spoke of the Great Castles, and the breakdown of communication. The Great Castles were not responding to the Council. Something was not getting through – which was also unsettling to Valonia. What was keeping their missives from reaching Britain? Were they being intercepted by enemy agents? Was something being lost? It would have to be investigated.

With all that said, with times as dire as they were, Laurana needed their aid, to act as agents of the Crown, to take on tasks the Council could no longer handle themselves, to see what they could not, to hear what they would not, to seek out allies if they could – and if possible, to do what the Council could not.

The three agreed, giving their oaths in turn.

Edeard and Tristan offered their oaths in wording that suited them. And Valonia, by virtue of her occupation, had already sworn to act in Britannia’s interests. But she offered her oath again as well, making three to her name: that she would speak no lies, that she would bear no sword unless in the defense of others or herself, and now, once again, that she would protect and act in Britannia’s interests. She had only reaffirmed what she had already chosen.

It had taken a literal burning man to put them all on this path, she mused.

Wrapping her cloak around herself over her nightclothes, she went out to the balcony for air. The woods were dark, of course. It was not yet dawn and would not be for several hours. But she could not sleep. The face of the burned man still displayed prominently in her mind.

Would she have ever gone that far?, she wondered. Was that the lesson of Despise? To show her the cost of such things if taken too far? The direction discontent would point her toward? The price for selling the world she knew for power she didn’t?

“‘I lack the peace of simple things. I am never wholly in place’,” she murmured softly to herself. She could not remember where she had heard the scrap of verse, but it had been coming to her mind with increasing frequency, and disturbing accuracy. “‘I find no peace or grace. We sell the world to buy fire, our way lighted by burning men, and that has bent my mind and made me think of darkness, and wish for the dumb life of roots.’”
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