The lifeless, golden form of a winged Drokar plummets from the sky towards the uncaring gray ocean. On its back slumps a white furred poodle uniformed in blue, sword sheathed at her side. As the gold hooves near the surface, the gray souls surge up to meet and surround them, clutching and tugging them downwards. Abruptly, the head of the Drokar lifts, eyes flicking open, wide with fear.
"By the First Ones!" cries the lady poodle. Her eyes come to meet the scene before her and she instinctively reels her head away from the surge of angry souls.
The bright Drokar beats her wings, and the motion reveals rivers of crimson blood streaked across her chest and front. She screams plaintively, but even as she struggles to pull her feet free from the gray surface, she sinks deeper into it, gray matter pulling her in to the knees.
After a bit of recoil, Elise reaches to unsheathe her sword and attempts to see if she can cut away at the gripping sea of those passed on. "Fight them … do not submit to their pull," she tells the Drokar, though her fighting spirit is dimmed by the realization of where she is.
Mystery seems to take encouragement from the words. She screams again, this time in defiance, and the noise sounds out of place in the stillness of the gray world. With asurge of effort, she pulls her left fore-hoof free from the sucking sea, and thin gray hands drop away from it like tendrils. Her hindquarters sink deeper, however, with the reaching gray arms brushing against her belly and pulling in her tail. The bright gold of her hide dims, and the shimmering rivulets of blood turn rusty and dull as the tide of souls circles around her, a clawing whirlpool dragging her down.
Twisting around from her perch upon the flying Drokar's saddle, Elise begins to hack defiantly at the reaching mass, aiming for arms and the mass itself whichever target seems to have a greater hold upon her mount. Though she is careful not to injure Mystery further, she has a nagging feeling that additional wounds would do no further harm.
The hands and the arms recoil from the vigor of Elise's attacks, and even the parts of the grayness which are unidentifiable seem to shrink away from the poodle's vicious strokes. Mystery howls her rage again, and her wings pound powerfully, each beat reflexively stopping shy of striking the clinging sea. Each down stroke pulls her upwards, though when she furls and lifts her wings for another beat, a little of her gain is lost.
"Good! Though we have passed on, we can still fight!" shouts Elise to her mount. She finds encouragement in the act of shouting her refusal to submit to the gray ocean, and her own swings become more confident and less desperate. She glares at the gray mass as she continues assault it. "Father, mother … the soldiers of Rephidim and Babel, the nameless … I despise death, and all it has taken from me! Back!"
The sea recoils further, and with a sudden surge of Mystery's wings, she and her passenger tear free from the ocean and soar … skywards? The dull, lifeless sky over the dreary sea seems scarcely more inviting, but for now, mount and rider hang within it. Mystery's dulled golden sides heave with exertion, but her eyes are bright and fiery with determination.
Tiring from the angry and at times desperate swings of her blade, Elise sheathes her sword and takes a moment to rest on Mystery's back and come up with what next to do. "We have passed on … but I know now that it is not to be for an eternity. This is not the Procession. However … ," the poodle takes a deep breath before exhaling, "… I am certain of Envoy's success. And I have nowhere to go, now … except … ?" She tilts her head, peering off into the emptiness as her eyes widen with a sudden thought.
Mystery's ears swivel as her rider speaks, and the Drokar snorts, tossing her head in the pause while Elise thinks. She beats her wings steadily. She and her rider are the only color in the world, soaring over an infinite sea that moans and whispers enticingly, both repellent and attractive, in its way.
The Templar sits up and nods to herself, reaching out to run a hand through Mystery's mane. Her eyes narrow as she searches the horizon. "Let us pay a visit to this 'death-goddess'. Mystery! Do you know where she is? Take me to Sunala, Mystery!" commands the poodle.
The Drokar's ears flatten back for a moment at the mention of the goddess's name, and she snorts, pivoting around in the empty sky. The view in all directions seems identical: calm gray sea and endless gray sky. Only directly beneath them does the vista seem different. Below, the sea roils, thin tendrils and grasping hands reaching feebly from the mass of the ocean towards the vividly colorful pair.
"Then, we will go forward. Forward through the sky! This is a sea of death, perhaps she holds power over it and reigns from somewhere amongst this empty place." With a tug of the reins and a spurring from her boots, Elise directs her mount off.
Delivering one of her characteristic cries, Mystery plunges ahead, wings widespread as she sweeps through the air. The rippling roil in the sea follows them, but otherwise the seascape seems little different, and the horizon unchanging, as they fly.
"Perhaps I am going about in the wrong fashion. When last I was here, there was nothing to find but him, and even he is absent this time. But I did not venture upward … Mystery, to the heavens." The lady poodle pulls back on the reins and directs her mount to ascend.
With a toss of her head, Mystery redirects her attention overhead, and begins to climb. The ascent is disorienting to watch, for though she can feel the Drokar moving, there is nothing in the featureless sky to move towards and no way to see that they are, in fact, climbing.
Elise holds on to the rein with her left hand while using the left to brace herself against the ascent. Though she does not witness any visual cues as to their upward climb, the movement is somewhat jarring, and the poodle fears falling once again.
The longer the flight continues, the more dizzying Elise finds it. Further compounding her disorientation, she seems to hear a call, like a long-forgotten voice repeating her name in warm, loving tones. "Elise … Elise … "
The lady poodle's ears flatten against her head. She did not believe the voices could reach her so far from the sea below, or perhaps, she just did not wish to consider it. "Leave me be, and seek to torment me no further, ghost," she whispers into the wind. In an effort to ignore the call, she nudges Mystery to go faster.
"Elise… ," the voice calls, softer, sadder, a woman's voice filled with mixed hope and sorrow. Mystery's ears are flattened against her skull, and at Elise's urging she whickers before putting on a burst of apparent speed that does not seem to carry them anywhere.
Using her one free hand, Elise tries as best she can to cover her ears. She does not stop her winged mount's upward climb, continuing it in sheer defiance of this place and that which calls to her, and in part because she has nowhere else to go.
The female voice fades as Elise covers one ear, but another sensation replaces it; this one not a voice, but a feeling of dread, hatred, anger a dull, throbbing sensation, like an open sore, unhealed, unable to heal. Mystery's wingbeats flag, and the Drokar's head droops beneath the reins.
"Ahh … ahh! Leave me be, spirits! Do not direct your anger upon me … Mystery, we must continue. Ignore them!" The poodle's eyes close to squint as the wash of emotions strike at her like storm churned waves against a rocky shore. She again spurs her winged Drokar to action.
The Drokar shakes her head, then bares her teeth as she surges again under Elise's encouragement. Mystery screams, and for a moment her voice silences the pressure of the dead souls calling to them.
Elise inhales again, holding her breath as she removes her hand from her head and lets her ears straighten again. She exhales as she finds the depressing expanse quieted, and takes heart in how their defiance cows the souls. "Into the sky, to find Sunala!" she cries out as if to snub the ghosts who try and haunt her.
The pressure of death seeps back in around them all too quickly, and this time with a mocking edge. You've already found her, a chorus of voices seems to say. Now you will join us.
"Silence!" yells the poodle to the sea. "Mystery, onward!"
You are just like us, the chorus continues, while Mystery grinds her teeth together and soars onwards. You are dead like us.
"I am not dead! I have fallen before, and I returned! And should I fall again, again shall I return! I defy death, and her goddess!" The poodle sits up in the saddle and leans forward, spurring her mount all the more and shifting to a position of a rider intent on moving like the wind. "I will not let death take anything more from me!"
A pressure like the weight of a hundred thousand bodies presses in upon them while Elise cries out her determination and the winged Drokar flies, a golden arrow through the sky. Suddenly, they pierce it, as if breaking through an invisible barrier.
A starry night sky shines down from above, devoid of sun, Procession, sky island or cloud. The ground is gray and silty, and a gray mist clings to the dirt, sometimes stirred up by an unfelt breeze. At the intersection of seven roads paved in dull gray stone with flecks of imbedded crystal, is a circle ringed by broken pieces of Babelite architecture columns and crossbeams that once formed a stone gazebo of sorts roofing this intersection. Where the architecture is broken, the remaining pieces float in place. Before each path, in the archway, a small statue of a goddess stands, save for one. At that one, the archway is dramatically colored and gilded, almost complete. The statue within it is a larger-than-life image of a voluptuous Eeee, leaning against one side of the arch with her arm spread to block the other side in a sultry pose. Seven roads radiate outwards like spokes on a wheel, one beginning at each broken archway. Somehow, however, they all lead to the same distant cluster of seven mountains.
Mystery surges into the air above the ground, at the center of the gazebo, then, with a bemused whicker, she flutters her wings to set herself and her rider gently onto the silty earth between the archways.
The poodle relaxes some now that she has again freed herself from the dreary hell of what she can only imagine is an Eeee underworld. Her head turns and she takes in her surroundings, noting the arches each in turn until she spots the one she recalls to be Inala's. At least, it vaguely resembles the arch of Inala she knew, but now it is quite a bit larger. The poodle woman smiles a little. "I do believe Envoy is close to success," she tells her mount as she pats it.
Mystery ruffles her wings, which have regained some of their former sheen, and snorts. She tosses her head, then noses at Elise's uniform.
Tilting her head downward, Elise watches the Drokar nose her, laughing softly. "Well then, I have my grim task set before me. Will you accompany me, Mystery?" asks the poodle.
The winged Drokar tilts her head and whickers inquisitively at the poodle, then stamps her hoof against the ground. The sound is surprisingly loud, especially given the apparent softness of the earth here.
Looking up again, the poodle searches for the archway that leads to Sunala's realm. Upon finding it, she straightens herself and retakes the reins, holding it with both hands. She nudges her mount forward and directs Mystery toward the archway. She does however cast a surprised glance at the ground, not recalling it ever sounding so solid.
The winged Drokar steps in the direction her rider indicates, the sound of her hooves even louder now, and her steps are jarring and uneven. Her previously smooth gait rocks wildly, almost pitching her rider off as she approaches the archway. Then…
Vision of Battle
This proud member of the Rephidim air fleet is one part military vessel to two parts luxury yacht. Cramped barracks on the lower deck house the crew and troops, while lavish accommodations on the main deck provide ample space for the ship's captain and the vessel's most important passengers. The diplomat and the captain of his honor guard qualify as the latter, while Lt. Jaskar and de Bellefeuille, as lesser lights but still officers, share a room so small it would fit easily within one of Elise's closets at her manor on Rephidim. Nonetheless, it offers far greater comforts than the inhospitable mass quarters below.
Elise awakens, disoriented, to the sounds of clattering on the deck, which in her dream were the Drokar's hoofbeats. The poodle is, oddly, in the ship's tiny infirmary instead of her room. The airship is undergoing considerable turbulence, judging by the pitch of the room, and she is alone, with the door leading outside wide open.
The poodle opens her eyes slowly as she adjusts to the light and the disturbing sense of having shifted location suddenly. After a moment, she sits up from whatever she is laying upon, for at the moment she isn't sure what she is on let alone what she is doing here.
The last waking memory she has is of going to sleep in her own bed the night before, after an uneventful evening of cards with the diplomat and other officers on board. Judging by the light she is squinting at, it's now mid-afternoon at the earliest. The clattering on deck resolves into the sounds of individual footsteps, and now that she focuses, she can hear shouting, as well. And … the clash of weapons?
All at once, the poodle's eyes widen and she moves to leap from where she was resting and check herself. Quickly she tries to see if she is unhurt, and where her weapons might be.
Although she seems unharmed, she's wearing her nightgown, and her weapons are not in sight. However, her room where she last saw her arms is just a door away from the infirmary.
Without waiting a second more, Elise dashes out of the room. She clutches her nightgown to herself and tries to recall what last happened as she races to gather her equipment and make ready.
The poodle's sword and pistol are in her locker, where she left them. Something about the tiny room she shares with Jaskar seems wrong, though she's not sure what. Both her bunk and Jaskar's are made, with military thoroughness, though still the last thing she recalls is retiring the night before.
"Am I … still dreaming?" wonders the poodle quietly, though out loud. Regardless if this is or is not a dream, she feels obligated to prepare for the worst. She gathers her flintlock pistol and its powder bottle and then her sword before she searches for her Templar robes. Given that the battle is already occurring, she does not feel she has time to prepare her armor.
Like her weapons, her robe is folded in her locker, where she left it.
Quickly, the lady poodle puts on her hooded robes, the blue length having an embroidered Star and Anchor design on the back. She then quickly clasps her belt around her hips and makes to load her pistol even as she heads out of the room.
Jamming powder into the pistol as she steps towards the door, the poodle hears footsteps in the corridor outside before she steps through, giving her cause to hesitate.
The officer poodle pauses and steps to the side. She places her back against the wall near the entryway and finishes loading her pistol as she listens for signs that the person outside draws near.
Chitin boots echo against the deck. The sound stops before her door probably at the infirmary door adjacent.
Seeing this as her chance, the officer steps out from behind the doorway with the pistol leveled and ready to fire on who every may be standing outside. "Halt," she tells the figure in a commanding tone.
The figure an unfamiliar Vartan in plain brown clothing, holding a steel longsword pivots rather than obeying, preparing to bring his sword to bear on her.
There is a loud explosion, the tell-tale signs of a powder weapon being fired. Elise reels as the recoil of her flintlock pushes her arms up and back. The area in front of her is engulfed in the smoke of burnt gunpowder.
An abbreviated cry turns into a low moan as the figure before her collapses to the floor with a dull thump.
Without hesitation, the blue dressed poodle holsters her flintlock and draws her sword. She holds it aloft, ready to swing as she carefully checks to see if the fallen figure does indeed lay dead beyond the dispersing smoke.
The Vartan is not yet dead, but dying. Feeble clicking sounds burble from his beak, along with blood and spittle. The pistol ball has torn a hole through the side of his throat, and feathers flap loosely around the grisly wound as he draws breath.
Rather then allow the Vartan to suffer further, knowing his wound to be grievous and the chance for drawing any information out of him now poor indeed, the poodle turns her rapier so that she can make a clean downward strike at the disabled target. "May your journey through the Procession be as merciful," she says.
Having finished off the intruder, Elise hastily tries to reload her flintlock as she walks down the hall, though she holds her sword still, which hinders the reloading process. Her destination is the deck above and she is determined to discover what is going on, and do something about it.
At the stairs leading to the main deck, Elise looks up to see intense fighting underway. More plain-clad invaders mostly Vartans, but also a smattering of some other species a Rhian there, a Jupani, a Korv are fighting with the members of the crew and the honor guard. Neither Lt. Jaskar, Capt. Granistar, nor the diplomat is visible from her position.
From her position, Elise takes careful aim at the nearest and most easily shot individual amongst the enemy ranks. She shifts her sword to her left hand and holds her arm aloft, using the length of her arm as a platform with which to steady her aim. Soon, she fires.
The ship lurches, and her shot goes wide of the mark. A Rhian appears from somewhere previously outside of her line of sight, almost on top of the staircase. He charges down the steps towards her, wielding a massive double-bladed axe.
Elise immediately back up and abandons her flintlock to the floor. She retreats into the corridor enough where any swing against her would likely find itself buried only in the wood of the ship. She holds her thin rapier at the ready, finding a thrust defense the only viable combat option. Even she is too big to swing her sword in such a confined space.
As the Rhian steps into the corridor after the retreating poodle, he grins widely. His first awkward attempt to swing his weapon is easily dodged by his smaller opponent, however, and the disadvantage of this terrain slowly dawns on him.
Finding her attacker's miss to provide a window of opportunity, Elise hops forward and thrusts her rapier in a quick stab. She doesn't grin like her attacker instead she carries a focused and determined expression, eyes narrowed against her attacker.
Her jab passes harmlessly through the cloth of his tunic as he steps quickly out of range. Wielding his axe like a polearm now, he tries to poke the poodle with the sharpened top point, although the heft on the axe makes this blow clumsy as well. He does have a distinct advantage in reach, however, being much taller than the poodle.
The poodle holds her blade out and at the ready. Unlike her opponent, she needs but one hand to wield her weapon effectively. Her other hand reaches to undo the clasp of her cloak, and then she tosses the fabric forward at her enemy's weapon.
The Rhian jerks his blade back at the unexpected maneuver. The cloak flutters harmlessly to the floor, but his move leaves his lower ribcage briefly exposed, and the poodle takes swift advantage of the opening, plunging her thin blade into his diaphragm.
Elise presses the blade further into the man's abdomen. The strike puts her right next to him, so much so the hilt of the blade touches her target and her shoulder quite nearly does as well.
The Rhian twists, looking more surprised than anything else by this turn of events. He drops one hand from his axe to try to push Elise away, but his maneuvers only serve to do further damage to his body. In moments, he slumps backwards, dead, his weight dragging the poodle's blade with him.
Not about to leave her blade wedged in the man and risk it snapping, Elise steps backwards and plants a food on the falling Rhian's leg. She pushes back and draws her blade out of him even as he falls backward from his mortal wound.
Elise stands there for a moment and makes certain he has indeed passed on before she whips her bloodied blade through the air to cast off some of its gore, and dashes over and past the corpse back to the deck.