Kroz in Autumn
A beaten road winds its way through the foothills of Kroz, skirting over trickling streams by way of creaking old wood and stone bridges, occasionally paved by cobblestones and free of tangles as it becomes a major throughway between two or more villages, then becoming choked by bushes and crowded in by trees as it goes through less traveled parts. The heat of summer has burnt itself low, as cooler winds prevail from the north, sometimes seeming to bring omens of strangeness from the mountains of Bosch. The leaves have only begun to turn color, and the air is not yet cold, but autumn has come to Kroz once again.
A great deal has happened since the assault on the Heavenly Palace of Divine Light, and then the "Angel" satellite over Sinai. That satellite is still up in the sky somewhere over the Savan, far to the south, not visible in these northern skies if it were even possible to see a glimmer of it with the unaided eye. But now, rather than a herald of the coming of a false Star, it is in the hands of a new ruler of a distant, star-flung empire.
The time came for the return to the Primus System … and it was a considerably less exciting journey than it might have been riding with Khattan caravans or Titanian scrap-scavengers. No, it seems that the gateway on the rim of Primus System has been repaired but Light-of-Star/Prince Khoman's plan to realign it to point to a new gateway in space under his own control (secretly) had not reached fruition. Secrecy, after all, takes time.
The influence of the uncontested leader of an empire stretching across multiple worlds is far less subtle than Khattan conspiracies … and a link has been created between Primus and Zion. However, it does not appear that Sinai should be expecting streams of visitors from the stars just yet. There are other major powers in the universe that travel by the stars … and they are certain to contest the idea that the Silent-Ones should be allowed primary access to this long-lost system of wonders. In fact, emissaries had begun to arrive at the Archon's palace from some of these worlds even before the Dacks were put aboard a ship to leave. It may be some time before the legalities and procedures can be sorted out.
But what is done is done. Sinai is no longer isolated from the rest of the universe. The people of the Expedition are returning to Primus even if the First Ones and the fabled Sifras remain distant and unreachable. For now, the Archon has chosen not to reveal himself to the peoples of the Primus System after all, who would properly represent Sinai? And the Archon could not presume to represent allthe interests of the space-faring peoples. Such a time when the peoples may come together again may well be far in the future.
For now, though, it is a time for homecoming for those who have left Sinai and explored and even fought amongst the stars. The jump through a gateway at Zion to the gateway at the fringe of Primus took only a fraction of the time of the Titanians' journey, and then the vessel ferrying Sinai royalty raced across the void, crossing the orbits of the outer worlds. It reached the orb of Sinai, where Nene got her first look at her world from space. (Jade-Eyes had already been treated to this sight by the previous Archon.) From the satellite, Willow had a special message delivered to the City of Hands, via the "angel", to send Twilight-Wing on a mission to the land of Kroz.
The next stop was Abaddon, since the craft could not travel from orbit to the surface of Sinai. From there, completing the back-and-forth jog, there was a trip through the Gateway back to the Himaat … and then, parting ways with Jade-Eyes, an airship up to Nordika, and then carriage across Kroz. Inri had not been so convinced about this plan If she had the means to do so, she might very well have "jumped ship" in the Himaat, and rushed off to Rephidim in search of the Champion of Shadows, who she had known by other names.
Willow, however, argued strongly against such an impulsive move, suggesting that the Champion would have every reason to doubt the veracity of Inri's claim to identity … especially since she obviously still had issues with certainty of that identity. And, there would be the matter of Moon-Brow, and the children. Inri relented, but only after heated and emotional debate, and the resolution of it would be best termed as surrender on Inri's part to the logic of Willow's argument, rather than a whole-hearted agreement.
Now, a carriage rolls across Kroz, bearing the Dack family and their guest back to their lands. The wagon passes under the boughs of trees full of drying leaves that cross each other to form triumphal arches, and pass their well wishes with gentle rustles. Flocks of southward-flying birds honk fanfare as they fly overhead in formation. Inri, however, just looks out the window of the carriage with a weary, forlorn expression.
She has had little to sign, and even less to say … though, to her credit, she demonstrated an ability to speak fluent Khattan in the Himaat - much to her own surprise and even some dismay. It's Rephidim Standard that she is having more trouble forming sounds for. Sebazhan came up with the idea of trying to instruct Inri on how to cast cantrips by voice rather than by dance. With assistance, Inri was able to manage some fleeting shadows, but she still has much to regain.
Now, aside from the cries of animals and birds outside, the rustling of leaves, the clip-clop of n'gyah hooves, the soft breathing of a snoozing Nene, and the distant sing-songing chatter of the Kavi to the air around him, it's pretty quiet inside the carriage.
"I wonder is this is anywhere near where I popped the question to Sebazhan?" Willow smirks as she chews on a black stick that smells strongly of mint and licorice. "It was quite a sight. I don't think I've ever seen his jaw drop quite so low before." It's obvious small talk, trying to draw the cheetah out after having her close in on herself.
Sebazhan is the first to respond, grinning lopsidedly. "Perhaps. It looks so much different with the snow."
Inri smiles faintly. "You asked him?" she signs, most of it just a matter of finger-pointing.
Willow nods with a grin. "The second scariest thing I've ever done on my life. I'd … not given Sebazhan very many positive signs about my feelings towards him. I don't think he would have been the one to ask, and I'm not very good at hinting." She chuckles. "You should have seen my brother. We decided to have the wedding in Rephidim with a little more than a month to plan. He'd thought I'd gone bongo."
Inri nods, still smiling faintly. "It turned out well."
"It was a Savanite ceremony, although it was puffed up a bit to make the guests happy. Testy did the marrying, and I've tried to keep the little string of beads up to date. Nene liked to wear it like a necklace sometimes until we stuck it out of reach." The Skreek leans back. "I know you'd rather not be here, but your company means a great deal to me. Our time with each other in Gateway was so sparse that we never really got to know each other. I know you're worried about being a disappointment to me … but to tell the truth, I'm worried that I'm a disappointment to you as well."
Inri looks to Willow, then signs, "I feel many things. Things I should not. I am tired, I am anxious, I am angry, I am sad, I want to lie down and collapse, I want to run to the edges of the world."
"Do not worry about what impression you make. You have been more than gracious. But no matter how much kindness you show me, I am still melancholy … and I was never allowed a chance to mourn the loss of my husband," the cheetah signs.
Willow droops a little in her seat. "I'm sorry about that, deeply sorry. I have to admit that most of my anger against the Twelve comes from that. Part of me wanted to demand that Jade-Eyes put their heads on the block to account for it … but I've also noticed that blood won't wash away sorrow, or do more than give you a few fleeting moments of feeling retribution that fade away and leave you empty." She sighs. "You're much stronger than I am. I don't think I could have taken such a loss and survived. I would have probably sworn myself to anyone or just curled up and became useless for a very long time if I ever lost Sebazhan." She reaches out and pats the Khatta's hand.
"Unless they rebel, blood might not be shed," signs Inri. "I conferred with my sister. As many evils as they have done, I must not forget the sacrifice they made to hold back the Priest-King. They are people of another era. They have not done this for personal gain, but for old ideals of glory of the People. I would cast them far from me, but to execute them all … " She shakes her head. "But it is for my sister to decide."
"It's why I'd make a horrible ruler. I'm too bitter. I can barely handle a kitten without messing up, but it's really hard to lose your temper over something that's part of you like she is. Besides, I think that once Jade-Eyes tells them that they almost sold the empire out to a Khatta they'll humble themselves right quick or deny the whole thing." The Skreek scratches her chin. "You want to know a secret about me? The truth is, I yell loudest when I'm scared instead of angry. It's abit of leftover flotsam from my pirate days."
"It is not an unusual trait. But yes, the Twelve-times-Twelve might well pitch themselves off the canyon wall when they find out. I had not even given that any thought," signs the cheetah.
Sebazhan smirks faintly at the "sold out to a Khatta" remark.
Willow elbows Sebazhan. "You don't count. For starters, you look really silly in a turban."
Sebazhan just grins more widely.
Inri signs, "As forgiving as I may sound, I may find it more difficult to control myself when I see Twilight-Wing. I will want to know what part he had in this. He is a mind mage, after all." Her expression is one more of hurt than anger, though. "I trusted him."
"Either way, I'm grateful that I was able to convince you to come to Dack, if only for a little while. I want you to see the castle and my garden, and I'd like for you to see Nene dance when we drag the harpsichord out." The Skreek shrugs. "I suppose I just want to show you what I've done these past few years, because I wouldn't have done it had you not opened that door for me." Her smile melts. "When I met him in Safar, he seemed unsure about religion or what was right or wrong. I suspect he was either torn between loyalties and chose to sit on the fence or was deliberately kept in the dark until it was too late. He was kind enough in Safar, so I'm going to give him a chance to tell his side of the story at the very least. I'm just as angry now that I've learned all that I've learned, but I don't think I have as much of a right to be as you do."
Willow rubs her nose. "Do you know where he was during the siege of the city?
"I had assigned him to be with the refugees. Mind magic would have been of little use in a battle such as that. Or so I thought," Inri signs.
The Skreek's ears flick in thought as she bounces the stick between her teeth. "But if he'd been a fire mage or suchlike, he would have been in the city when the siege hit? I'd been told that everyone there met with the sword. I'm sure that if one of the Twelve escaped the siege alive, there would have been talk of it." She snuffs out her nostrils. "So for all we know he'd been set up to croak right there and didn't get tangled up in things until it was too late."
Inri signs, "I find it hard to believe he actually betrayed me. But he surely realized what was happening to my sister, and neglected to come to her aid. Whatever he is, he is ultimately a coward."
"So what will you do when you see him again?" Willow asks.
Inri signs, "Ask him what happened."
The Skreek nods. "And what if he tells you that he was aware that the Twelve were using Jade-Eyes in an attempt to restore their old Empire? I'm … I'm just realizing that I wanted to bring you to Dack to recover, and I'm worried that I might be shoveling fuel onto the fire." She chews on her lip. "I suppose what I should be asking is what you intend to do with him?"
Inri's eyes drop. "Then I will send him away. If he is to be punished in any way, that is my sister's domain. I am no longer priest-queen. It is not my place to pass judgement."
Willow lets her breath out. "That's fair enough. I suppose that the reason why the whole thing makes me uneasy is that I'm still trying to let go of a grudge against the Naochi butler. He saved my life when I was born, but I keep wondering if he could have or should have done something more when my father … well … did what he did. It's why I chase after my causes so tenaciously, because I don't want to be like that. If I can do something then I want to do something, if that makes any sense at all."
Inri nods. "A noble approach and a rare one, sad to say."
"Yeah … but is it the right one? Maybe I need to try to bury the hatchet with Rezhinald once and for all instead of burning my anger all over Sinai." The gray rat smirks. "Not to say that I regret my latest quest. But I think that for a while at least I'm going to focus on my own lands instead of running from my family." She clears her throat, sound like she's ready to change the subject. "Your Vartan friend in Rephidim? We haven't spoken much … but he was promoted to a Champion about a year or so ago. Enos was so proud of him … the kid told me all about how some odd thingies on his wing armor worked over and over again."
Inri smiles and nods, looking a little teary eyed. "They've surely grown so much by now. And Pouncer?"
"She's … well … she's turning into a teenager. She's still a great kid, but Enos is starting to fall into that stage where he's an embarrassing little brother more than a playmate. She's not as obsessed with bugs as before, and for a while kept telling me to call her all sorts of other names like Fiero or Lily or some other funny name. Apparently she felt that Pouncer was a bit of a silly name, but that's faded." Willow looks down at her hands. "She's a bit like her pap. There's a sad side to her, and a little afraid. It's not something that I saw in her as much as felt from time to time. From what I gather, she took the news of your death the hardest, and she wears the necklace you gave her as her greatest treasure in the world." Willow clears her throat. "I … hope this is all right for me to talk about?"
Inri wipes at her eyes, then nods. "Certainly."
Willow clears her throat. "The Temple started pushing the worship of the First Ones on the Temple Scouts and their pap yanked them out after their teacher was demoted. He had them pulled from classes and hired Testament-Blaze to tutor them instead." She sighs. "Pouncer's a beautiful kid, she really is. She's grown tall and slender and graceful. She's a really beautiful lady now. And Enos is so curious and kind-hearted. When I visited, he demanded that I tell him where each of my rings came from."
Inri smiles. "So … where do they come from?"
The Skreek holds her hands out, wiggling each finger in turn. "Well, this one I just picked up on Zion on a market trip, this ring is from Sebazhan when we got engaged, this one is from Babel while I was on the Merryweather, this ring belonged to my mum, this one came from the Safar… " She wiggles a purplish black ring. "This one you gave me," and a cloudy black one next to it, "And this one came from Moon-Brow as a wedding present. This one is from Olympia, this one a Kavi kid sold me in Rephidim, this I picked upon Abaddon, and this rusty one is from Titania."
Inri leans forward. "I see Moon-Brow and I have similar taste."
"She gave it to me because she felt it was something you would have given me." She Skreek pulls the cloudy colored ring off and hands it to the cheetah. "Here. A lot of my rings are tokens of sorts, reminders of why I need to be strong or brave, or just an anchor when I start feeling sorry for myself."
Inri carefully takes the ring, and looks it over for a time … then hands it back, nodding.
The rat rubs her bare finger and then waves off the offering. "It's yours. I'm running out of fingers anyhow." She folds her arms behind her head. "I know that the Temple wasn't very nice to your Vartan friend in the war. A lot of the Knights were killed in the battles and I heard that he had gotten wounded as well, although I don't know precisely where or how. We've only exchanged a handful of words, really. One of his lancers, another Vartan, was promoted to a Champion as well. The other two are still with him, although I've only met the one that lives in the Shoppe, and that was more fleeting that meeting the Champion himself."
Inri gives Willow a querying look, then hesitantly puts the ring on. "Perhaps this is a tradition I should start. It should be a while before I run out of fingers." She sighs. "What is his name now? I understand that it changes."
"Shadow, or Shadows … I'm not too sure which. The kids still call him 'Dad', so it wasn't too much of a change, and all of the shoppe employees just call him 'master' or 'boss'." Willow's casual grin turns into a frown. "Theother shop owner, the one the shop was named after, died in his sleep about three years ago. He'd been getting slower and more pained through the years, so it wasn't a horrible shock to the family, but I'd heard that Shadow changed a bit after that. Got a bit more quiet, and more soft. I don't mean in the wimpy sense of soft … but just more gentle. In the times when we did talk, his voice never went beyond a soothing tone." She grins lopsidedly. "Sorry … Moon-Brown and I meet every so often and talk until her fingers are sore and my voice is hoarse."
Inri nods and smiles, then frowns again. "I wonder if Moon-Brow is still there on account of me and my request. I'm sure she loves Enos and Pouncer … but she has her own life, too. I did not intend to relegate her to the role of housemaid forever."
"Request?" Willow tilts her head to the side until realization crosses her face. "Oh. You asked her to take care of the children? Well, she doesn't seem bitter at all, and she really seems to love the kids. Although I have noticed that when she's away from the children she sort of turns into a different person. Not a bad person, mind you … but more adventurous and cunning. Her and I almost snuck into that forbidden temple thingy in the City of Hands once."
Inri raises an eyebrow. "Forbidden Temple?" She mouths an "oh", and nods. "The tabernacle that I declared to be off limits."
"That's the one. We ended up not doing it because Nene was with me and I really didn't feel like getting in trouble with my daughter in tow. We never got a chance to try again, because I growled at Jade-Eyes over untested faith and got myself chunked out of the city. Not before finding something interesting though. The chamber where the Creen Ship was held had a history of the Savanite Empire written on its walls and then covered over." The Skreek smirks. "I also found out that underneath it is something called the Seraph Titan, some whompingly powerful thing that needs the ring of someone with royal blood to access it."
Inri's ears flick at this. "Does Jade-Eyes know about this now?"
"In all honesty I don't know. I've been saying so much that there's bound to be some detail I've missed." Willow sticks her tongue out. "I could send word to her about it, perhaps."
Inri nods. "It would be best for her to know, lest someone surprise her with such a thing. I gather that 'Titans' are not to be trifled with."
The Skreek pauses to spit out a chunk of blackish gunk out the carriage window. "Peh. The stuff gets sour if you gnaw on the same bit for too long." She wipes her mouth and then settles in again. "Are you going to stay for Ring Day or do you think you'll be wanting to get to Rephidim as soon as your sister arrives?"
Inri signs, "I think I shall be leaving at the first opportunity. No offense. I am glad to see you again, but I have a very dear friend I have not seen in a long, long time, and I feel I owe it to him to let him know I'm around."
Willow looks a bit dejected but doesn't argue this time. "I hope you'll come back to visit." She folds her hands in her lap again. "I'm not disappointed in you, by the way. You've handled all of this a great deal better than I would have in your shoes. Getting mutilated by Khoman, and all of this I would have gone on a jolly little rampage or just curled up and waited to die. I just wish I could do or give you something that would make the next few months easier for you." Her fingers fidget a little. "Just promise me you'll take care of yourself. I don't want to lose you a second time. I shouldn't hoard you like some hunk of gold, but I'm scared that if I let you go, I'll lose you forever. It's part of why I've been so insistent that you come to Dack."
Inri smiles faintly. "I appreciate your concern. I promise not to do anything stupid … I'll follow Moon-Brow's lead."
The Skreek wipes at an eye and nods. "So … what do you think of Nene?"
Inri's eyes crinkle in a smile. "She's adorable! … A little fussy sometimes, but I'll wager a bit better behaved than I was at her age."
"She's a great deal better behaved than I was at her age as well, but she's mostly got her pap's personality, thank the Star." Willow's eyes roll in emphasis. "The funny thing was that this was all part of Dagh's big maniacal plan. Getting me married off to Sebazhan and me having a child that would be an heir to both Naochi and Dack. But I don't think he counted on us actually falling in love, or me renouncing my title, or us having a daughter instead of a son. We sort of saved each other."
Inri just … nods. This might bear further, more detailed explanation later.
The Skreek chuckles and mashes her palm against one eye. "I'm probably confusing you. I'll fill you in on the whole history of Kroz and such sometime soon. Suffice it to say that my family is a bit odd, although only the adopted relatives are the really strange ones. I hope I can introduce you to Ariel sometime." She sighs and leans back into her seat again. "But on to other things, I suppose. Have you decided what to do about the arms? After having the surgery explained to me, I can see why you might not quite be ready to have them amputated, and I unfortunately know firsthand what having your body altered by magical means does to you. For someone of your status, I don't think that putting yourself in danger against other mages is worth it."
Sebazhan just smirks through the whole explanation. Better to laugh than to cry at something like that, after all…
Inri signs, "I think I shall leave it for now. I've been given no indication that it will be any more or less difficult if I put it off, so I needn't rush. I have no plans to take up juggling or exotic dancing, I assure you." Her smile is strained.
"I suppose they just bother me a bit because they remind me of what Khoman wanted to do with you." Willow presses her fingers against her left cheek under the black slash marks near her eye. "But there is something to be said about keeping one's scars as well. When I had my fur changed I had them paint some on my back as just a little reminder, and of course I've got scars you can't see because of what the magic did to me. I doubt anything will be able to reverse that." She shakes her head, as if rattling a thought free from it. "So what were you like as a child?"
Inri signs, "I was wild, and more than a handful for my parents. I was rebellious long before the years most children do. Only my grandmother could keep me in line, and then only barely. I was spoiled, I think, by my parents' positions as shaman and chieftain of the tribe. My father, I think, was overly generous toward me."
Willow is quiet for a time, her eyes lingering on the sleeping kitten. "Do you wish you could have been a mother?" She bites her lip. "It's a cruel question for me to ask and I'm not sure why I'm asking it … but some part of me wants to know for some reason I don't understand."
Inri's face contorts. "I don't know. I thought I did … but I'm not so certain I was ever really ready for it. I had a very … odd sort of motherhood. I thought of Pouncer and Enos as my children, really. But … the Champion … was undeniably their father. And there was never anything between us. Oh, I tried to flirt with him, early on … but I think it was simply because he represented a challenge … a moral pillar, something I most certainly was not … and at first maybe I just wanted to tear that down… " Inri shakes her head.
"But he was always a gentleman to me, even fatherly, and definitely a father to those two. Maybe for a time I was jealous … maybe I wanted a Pouncer and an Enos of my own … It's not something that I really thought about as such," Inri signs.
"I think I understand. I understand a little too well, actually. When I was a pup running around Elamoore, I'd see happy kids with loving parents and I'd feel so hateful and jealous because nobody treated me that way." The Skreek plants her chin in her palm. "So what is the Champion to you? As far as I know he never married. Maybe he just secretly carried a torch for you all these years? Maybe you should ask him?"
Inri shudders. "No. No, that would be like asking my brother if I had one to marry me. Or my father. I guess you don't know him quite the way I do."
Inri shakes her head. "I do not think I will be looking to remarry in any case. I found love once. With Star's-Vision … That is the name that the Champion gave him. Prior to that, he was Born-in-Shame."
The Skreek's ears drop. "We don't talk much. I'm closest to Moon-Brow and Testament-Blaze, really." She clears her throat. "I'm sorry to have asked such an uncomfortable question. I … I hope your reunion with him goes well. I'll admit I'm a little worried since his kids tell me he specializes in fighting ghosts and spirits, and I worry how he'll react to seeing you again. He's never acted impulsively or violently around me, but he's still such a huge fellow, and that sword of his probably weighs as much as I do."
Inri swallows and nods. "Well … if anything that horrible should happen … I would pray that you never speak to him of me. But I do not think he would do such a thing. It is just as well you had me wait for Moon-Brow, though. I needn't put him through any more anguish than necessary."
Willow's eyes narrow. "You're asking me to do a very very difficult thing, you know? But I'll do my best."
Inri tries to smile. "I'll just have to make certain I don't get skewered. And then you won't have to worry about it."
"That sounds fair." Willow also tries to smile. "I know this is another odd question to ask, but what do you think of me after all of this? We were together for such a small period of time, and now you've seen me at my worst as well as my best. And I want you to be honest, because this means a lot to me to know."
Inri signs, "I still hurt a bit from … earlier. But I don't hold it against you. Surely you can understand. I do intend to visit again … It's just that I'll have some matters to sort out first."
Willow sinks in her chair. "I've got no excuse for that. Like I said … I yell loudest when I'm scared. It's almost funny in a really sick way. Khoman made me see him and you in a mind vision and I attacked him, but I think he was setting me up to attack Sebazhan instead. I think the only thing that kept me from hurting him was that at the time I didn't want to kill Khoman I wanted him brought to justice." Her hand clenches into a fist. "But if I'd run into him after that, I don't think I would have spared him. I was just in a lot of pain. I saw you … the old you with the scar on your lip and everything … and you were just staring off into space like one of his zombies. I just had all of this hate and resentment boiling up inside of me … and then when you said … about … the torture and murder … it pushed me over the edge." She rubs at her eye. "I just lost control. I've got no excuse."
"It's been a very long four years," Willow quietly adds.
Inri looks down, signing, "I did not mean to hurt you. I was not thinking about the impact of my actions. I wasn't even thinking of you as being real. Not for certain, in any case."
"Well, most people don't pop out of situations like yours and instantly start concerning themselves on the well being of the people around them. I don't blame you, not in the slightest. I suppose at the time I really wasn't thinking of you being real either." She shrugs. "But every fire dies down, even mine. I'm glad that I was so insistent on the decision of not killing any of the clones … even the Naga Emperor. I get the feeling that all of the troublemakers in Nagai are going to have some time to think about things while they digest in his majesty's stomach."
Inri suddenly snorts at this, and throws her hands over her muzzle, as her ears wiggle fiercely!
Nene squirms. "Nnnuh-ma?"
"Hey! They wanted to rule as emperor! Now they can … just not in the manner that they'd hoped. It kinda reminds me of a story about a fighter that was granted a boon by the … whoop!" The Skreek leans over and rustles the kitten's hair. "Hey there, apple-top. You have a nice nap?"
Nene answers by yawning widely. "We there yet?"
"Not quite yet, but soon enough." Willow leans back in her seat again and flashes a smile to Inri, a mischievous glint returning to her eyes. "How about you show Auntie Inri that cantrip Daddy taught you? I'm sure that we could practice a bit and see if we can make a shadow-poly to show Uncle X by the time we reach Dack."