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Order of the Sword & Rose
Elorick wakens from his mediation and slowly opens his stone-grey eyes. A small, dusty room greets him. Dark grey floorboards and stone walls of a similar hue. Four plump cots. Three other elves, all sitting or lying in some comfortable position on their respective bed, their eyes still closed. A collection of wands and daggers on the desk. Four travelling packs piled neatly in a corner.
Gingerly, he rises from the cot and stretches. He glances out the window. Still dark, early morning by the looks of it, four hours past midnight or thereabouts. He departs the room, stepping lightly to avoid rousing the others. The hall is much like the room from whence he came: drab and unassuming, but surprisingly homey. At either end, stairs lead both up and down. He takes a flight of stairs up to a door that opens onto the flat rooftop of the tavern and opens it.
Outside, the city of Atur is bathed in pale yellowish moonlight, cold and unwelcoming. From below he can hear the creak of the wooden sign proclaiming The Burning Flagon swinging in the dawn. In the distance he can make out a streak of scarlet luminance.
The fresh air is invigorating after the stuffy tavern. He takes a moment to soak it up, breathing deeply. There we go.
For as long as he can remember, Elorick has appreciated some solitude, but this particular instance has a motive. Training. A true martial artist is never truly finished training; there is always room for improvement. A little swifter here, more precision there. He places one foot behind him and drops into a crouch. Ready.
With a muffled warcry, he thrusts a fist forward in a swift uppercut. A distraction. His left leg follows, prolonging his momentum, assailing an unseen foe. In his mind’s eye, Elorick envisions an adversary, a cloaked priest of Vol. He tumbles to the right, dodging an attack that never comes.
Alone on the rooftop, he wars with himself. Occasional crackles of lightning or whispers of flame accompany his strikes; otherwise it’s just him and the air. Kick, punch, elbow, dodge, running through a ceaseless exercise until he is satisfied with his progress.
‘Swift as a breeze but strong as a gale,’ isn’t that what Vance used to say? Something like that, anyway. Agility had always been a virtue of Elorick’s, an innate talent honed to its best. He had inherited that trait from both his parents, or so Elvinor had said—that and his Phiarlan blood. Sometimes he wondered what they had been like, in what other ways he resembled them. Would he want to know? Where they parents to be proud of? It was easier, he’d decided many moons ago, not to dwell on it.
His attacks had a certain rhythmic quality to them, half combat and half dance. They call it ‘martial arts,’ he had learned. A fitting name. A blending of artistry with violence. Beautiful and deadly efficiency.
Orange and rose smatterings in the sky were first beginning to presage the sun’s rise when Elorick noticed movement to his left. He turned towards it and beheld Eryll, leaning lazily in the doorframe.
“So this is where you’ve gotten off to.”
“Yeah.” Elorick responded, pointlessly, “Hope I didn’t worry anyone.”
He wondered, briefly, how long his partner had been watching him. Not long, or surely he would’ve noticed before now. His senses were sharp – they had to be in his line of work – but Eryll, too, was trained in stealth. Perhaps he had been there longer. It didn’t really matter.
“Nah,” Eryll said, waving a hand in apparent indifference, “Just noticed you’d gone, and the others were wondering if perhaps you were already out scouting.”
He pauses. “What are you doing up here anyway?”
Eryll raises an eyebrow in bemusement, smirking slightly. “At this hour?”
Elorick shrugs. “Started when I was young. Always up before everyone else.”
It was true. Growing up with a family of half-elves, Elorick had had lots of time to himself while they slept. Once he’d started learning to pickpocket and defend himself, he’d adopted those pre-dawn hours as his training time. Even now, in the company of elves who didn’t sleep any more than he did, he was often the first to rise, so he had carried on the ritual.
Satisfied with the explanation, Eryll nods and then motions towards the stairwell behind him. Let’s go. He doesn’t need to say it aloud; Elorick gets the message.
Duty calls. Isn’t it always that way? Across the modest houses of Atur, Elorick can see again the faint red glow from across the city, more distinguished now in the daytime—The Crimson Monastery. A reminder of why he’s here. He follows Eryll down the stairwell, back towards his associates and his life, closing the door behind him on the peace of the dawn.
Aluatris (Part the First)
Slow and pensive, Aluatris’s humming hovered about the deck of The Raven, partially drowning out the low thrum of the bound elemental keeping the airship aloft. Glittering waters and verdant Aundairian lands passed below—an inspiring backdrop for the bard’s virtuosic musings. She scribbled flourishingly in a small black book that had once served as a journal. Some time ago, she had discovered that thoughts came easier to her in music than in prose and so it had become book of song, cathartic in its own way.
The sun was high in the sky when the first sight of Stormhome rose up on the horizon, and before long the majestic, sky-scraping towers could be seen in something resembling their true dimension. Throughout the voyage, Aluatris had felt calm, confident. Now that the city loomed before her, however, she felt suddenly anxious, and had half a mind to request they turn back. But she had a duty to fulfill. There would be no running this time.
“Look how far I’ve come…” she thought aloud, her voice scarcely more than a whisper.
Thadden d’Lyrandar, the vessel’s captain, was evidently close enough to hear. “We are many miles from Sharn now, milady,” he offered, “Almost to the northern edge of Khorvaire.”
Aluatris gave a soft, lyrical laugh and turned to face the captain. “I meant it figuratively. Not three years ago I was what; a spoiled aristocrat’s daughter, a fledgling musician, and wannabe adventurer? And now here I am, en route to Stormhome to treat with lords and ladies in my father’s stead, on leave from an even more exciting life.”
“You belittle your past, Aluatris.”
His voice had taken on a more sympathetic tone; these were the words of Thadden the friend, not Thadden the colleague, she knew. Having served as Aluatris’s father’s navigator for as long as she could remember, Thadden had been around often enough while she was growing up, and she had come to consider him as something of a friend.
At Thadden’s command, The Raven began its descent to the port. A warm vernal wind rose up to tousle Aluatris’s hair, and she sighed and shook her head.
“No, I simply speak truthfully. I was foolhardy, and weak; idealistic, and naïve enough to think my wealth and status could make my dreams come true and that everything would come to me if I hoped hard enough. Perhaps I am still a fool, but at least I can say I have carved my own path and understand the importance of working towards your dreams.”
Lightning flashed suddenly across the sky—curious, considering there had been no sign of a storm approaching. The Mark of Storm on Thadden’s jaw darkened momentarily as he winked at her. “There’s something to be said for things that come to you,” he said. “Still, perhaps you have the right of it after all.”
“Believe me,” Aluatris replied as she rose to her feet. If she was to play the role of dignitary, she would not greet her guests on her ass. She brushed her hair into place and put on a proud face. For as long as she was in Stormhome, she would play the part of the noblewoman. A mask, now; no longer the extent of her character.
“Dreams without action are but words.”
Aluatris (Part the Second)
Dawn’s first rays shattered into a million scintillating fragments on the calm surface of the Scions Sound, painting the coastline of Stormhome in brilliant multicolour. Atop the airship tower, surrounded by men hard at work preparing The Raven for take-off, Aluatris took in the breathtaking spectacle in thoughtful silence. She had made an effort to watch as many sunrises as she could during her relatively short trip, even since one had taken her by surprise the first morning when a sudden clatter had waken her. She was going to miss these sunrises…
A hand touched her shoulder. Unsurprisingly, it was Thadden, who greeted her with a polite nod when she whirled around to uncover the origin of her serenity’s disturbance. His posture and hint of a smile betrayed an ease that had not been there on the voyage from Sharn; the time spent at his House’s seat of power seemed to have sat well with him.
“Time to go, milady,” he announced once he was sure he had her attention.
“Just a moment.” Aluatris turned back to the ascending sun and committed the sight to memory, so that she might relive it later, when its splendour was far behind her.
It seemed only yesterday they had docked on the island paradise, or so it seemed to Aluatris. Trade negotiations, business luncheons, and other such boring affairs had kept her busy, but she had nevertheless found time to take in the sights and relax. Even in those few short days, she had grown accustomed to the water and the climate and the easygoing atmosphere that surrounded Stormhome. She was loath to abandon it.
Reluctantly tearing her gaze away, Aluatris sighed.
“It would be so easy to just stay here,” she admitted, looking to Thadden, “to leave all the excitement and uncertainty of Stormreach behind and hide behind my father’s coin. I could send you away with a word, and then it would just be me and the sea.”
The d’Lyrandar smirked, somewhere between amusement and reproach. Likely he had considered the same thing—these were his people, after all.
“I’m sure you could, milady. Yet you don’t truly want that. By now I’d be aboard and on my way to Sharn if you did, you and I both know it.”
Aluatris nodded. “Had someone dropped me off here after Fred died, I would’ve. I was at the lowest point I’ve ever been.” A sea breeze rolled off the water and up towards them, and Aluatris took a moment to take in the soothing scent of brine. “But I’m not the same woman I once was. I have something to live for now, more so than I did then; a reason to want to return to my life.”
“You’re in love,” The words were said so matter-of-factly Aluatris wondered for a moment if she had been mumbling things in her sleep. Then she decided it wasn’t such a peculiar thing, and that it might well have been as much an educated guess as anything.
“Yes,” she replied, almost as bluntly. She smiled, and her voice cheered up with it. “Honestly, I don’t know exactly how long I’ve known, but I do know that this is the happiest I’ve ever been, and I don’t want to run anymore.”
At this, Thadden gazed towards the sun and lifted an arm in line with it. Then, as Aluatris watched, he moved his arm in a wide arc that, she presumed, was meant to symbolize the sun’s trek across the sky. “Running is a curious thing,” he explained. “For to run from one place is to run towards another.”
Aluatris clapped her hands and teased, “Wise words for a sailor.”
“Yet true,” he affirmed, as if the two ought to have been mutually exclusive, wagging a finger in mock lecture.
“Yet true,” Aluatris echoed, raising her hands in defeat. “I suppose I’m just being nostalgic. So desperate to get away from Sharn was I that I jumped on the first opportunity I could get to travel to the fabled City of Dungeons. I took a ship to Stormreach, and I could just as easily not take this one. Funny how things have a way of coming back around.”
“Isn’t it so?” Calls from the deck of The Raven announced the ship was prepped for departure, once her captain and most prized passenger were on board. “Walk with me.”
It suddenly occurred to Aluatris as they slowly began making their way towards her father’s airship how very openly she was speaking, and the thought made her laugh, for reasons she could not fully comprehend. “Well, you’ve sure gotten me talking. Anything you want to share about yourself, there, Thadden?”
Somehow she had a feeling he had come to the same realization, and his impish grin all but confirmed it. “Oh my life is terribly boring, Aluatris. It wouldn’t interest you one bit, I reckon. But come now, I don’t believe you’ve fully explained how you know you don’t want to abandon your life for the luxuries of Stormhome.”
“Very well. As I was saying, I have grown much during my time in Stormreach. The life I lead now, it’s toughened me, wizened me… Sovereigns and Six, I fear it might even have matured me.” She grinned, and then continued. “A wise woman recently told me that to love someone is to risk having them hurt you, but choosing not to love is to risk living your life alone. I made my choice long ago, though I did not know it then.”
Thadden hopped up the gangplank in a few flighty steps and held out a hand to help Aluatris board. Waves crashed below. The sun had risen fully above the horizon during their conversation and bathed the waters in a reflection of flame.
“So, milady, what will it be? The choice is yours.”
“Easy,” she responded as she accepted his aid and climbed aboard The Raven. “Love.”
Naked—that was how he felt without his armour. Holden had argued against wearing the plain roughspun robes of a disciple for weeks, but eventually he’d conceded. If the gods willed their devout to dress themselves thusly, who was he complain? Humble clothing for a humble servant, Holden mused dryly as he knelt before the altar, and I am ever your willing slave. The stone floor was chilly, yet even he had to admit it was more comfortable than attending to his devotions in full plate.
Black silk was draped over the altar, and upon it burned nine candles; a tall, red one and four smaller white on either side. A faint cloud of incense hung about his head. Behind him, pale moonlight dappled the floor in red and goldenrod from the dome of stained glass above, but through closed eyes, Holden ‘saw’ only flame, flickering fickly.
Prayer was hardly unusual for Holden. Most days he carved out an hour or so just to venture down to the temple and give obeisance.
This was not one of those days.
“Dol Arrah, heavenly protector, make bright this dreary day.” The prayer came as easily as breathing, so often was it that he had recited it. “Cast your light down to me to guide me on my way.” Invocations to the other Sovereigns followed, some less imaginative but no less earnest.
Holden raised his head and searched the tapestries hanging on the wall before him for a particular image. Followers of the Host held diverse opinions on how the deities ought to appear, and these tapestries depicted all nine in a number of their guises. Though generally indifferent towards the matter, the smiling crone his eyes settled on before long always struck him as apt. This venerable Boldrei reminded him of his grandmother, who had embodied everything he thought the Sovereign of Hall and Hearth ought to. Fourteen years ago, illness had taken Glinda Milner from him, but this woven deity still remained to him.
As ever on this date, Holden felt a slight heaviness on his heart, a twinge of what he assumed must’ve at one point been pain. He hadn’t allowed himself to feel pain in what felt like a very long time. Now all his emotions felt the same—numb and faint.
Alone in this cold temple, he whispered, “Half of my life. You’ve been gone half of my life now, and I still remember like it as yesterday. Things are different now, and I… I think that’s a good thing. I have friends now, at least I think I do, I’ve grown to like them I think, despite myself, and they even seem to enjoy my company now, Host knows why. Do you watch me from up there, I wonder?”
Wonderwonderwonderwonder echoed off the high domed ceiling as Holden paused. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, he glanced down, and the absurdity of his garb almost made him laugh. Almost. Laughter had scarce touched those lips in fourteen years.
“Don’t let these robes fool you, grandma. I assure you I am a warrior, just as I dreamed I would be, and your husband’s grandson through and through. You and mother tried to soften me, but I was born with grandpa’s cold heart and skill at arms, and my father’s ambition. You always told me I was meant to do great things. This is it. This is my calling.” My calling. He remembered well when the church first started beckon to him, when he was dealing with his grief; the priest, all aglow and half-blurred, offering him a hand. Offering him a hope. Like it was yesterday…
Swallowing the lump rising in his throat, Holden tore his gaze from Boldrei and cast it up to the heavens. “Would you be proud of me?” The moon-dappled stonework of the ceiling made no reply, nor his gods. “I joined the Faith to become a healer, do you remember? To be there for people the way the Korthosi priests should’ve been for you. But I was born to be a warrior, and so I became a paladin instead. I intended to prevent deaths, and instead I deal them out.”
This time he did laugh, and the bitter chuckle sounded hideous echoed back at him.
Silence reigned for a time after that. Where do I go from here? As if in answer, a hand gaze his shoulder a squeeze, warm and comforting. Holden gasped; he hadn’t heard anyone come in. The touch was gone as quickly as it had come. Common sense told him to rise and see who was behind him, yet somehow he knew he would find no one.
In his mind’s eye, he could see a page from one of the holy texts he had read a month or two ago. On it was a story of Dol Dorn leading the Sovereigns into battle, championing a cause of great good, and a beautiful illustration of the Sovereign of Strength and Steel accompanied it. He was glorious in armour of copper scales, Holden could recall, and his sword was raised victoriously above his head.
Holden glanced over at his own weapon. For much of his career, he had fought with the standard sword and shield of his profession, but week after week of combating undead in Jorasco’s crypts had led him to adapt to wielding a mace, which he now did nearly as well.
“I am your Vassal, and your champion,” he announced to the empty cathedral. “You placed a sword in my hands when I was but a boy, and you would not have set me on this path if my cause was not just. Our cause.”
Rising to his feet, Holden leaned forward and blew out the candles. Devoid of their illumination, the altar grew darker, but the moons had shifted during his prayers and cast their light nearer where he stood so that the darkening was minimal. Fervour emboldened his voice. “Sovereigns above, you have helped me to see. I do not deliver death—I enforce justice.” The word rang around him like a chorus, as if the gods were giving voice to their approval.
He strode over to where his holy mace lay, and lifted it high, as Dol Dorn in the illustration. Shafts of moonlight glinted off the metal, and as he watched the head was momentarily engulfed by a swath of silver fire.