Ring Of Fire
There was no time. It was more sudden than I could have expected. There was another attack further south in a mountain town called Hepnil and my squad was lotteried into going. MAx would stay behind, but my team was on the move and we were heading south by wagon upon wagon. It was an arduous journey that took days, but I got to know some more of my Deitrons and Cenitrons on the trip. There was one in particular, a Toddtonite with a heavy hand towards his racist speech, though he often praised River People for their resilience and whatever else he could think of. I usually shut him up one way or another because there were Chorets and Denosian’s in our squad that were under him, but the prick just about never really wanted to close his fat ass mouth.
The longer we spent on the road, the more I missed my home. My friends. My Alana. I often found myself looking at the locket and smiling to myself at the memories I’d already made, sharing them with my peers, regardless of rank. Come to think of it, most people had little to no problems coming to me to talk rather than going to Julay or Hema. In fact, I actually got most of the requests and shit taken care of, which was probably a part of why Hema stuck so close to me. If I didn’t tell her what was going on with our people, then no one else wanted to talk to her because of her accent and harsh demeanor. Julay was just a pervert with a loud mouth and a habit of trying to sleep around, which I thought was kinda gross, but the gal could do as she pleased as long as she didn’t do anything too stupid. As far as I was concerned, I liked the dynamic well enough, but I still thought that Hema could find a thing or two to make herself more approachable. Like not cursing people down to the level of doggydom. That might help.
In other news, we’ve bedded down for the night. This hasn’t taken too long to get written out and I’m glad for the time to myself, but now I already have someone on their way to bother my ass. I fucking hate being so high up since everyone else lower than me gets their work done in a couple of hours and everyone above me basically just supervises. I mean, Julay’s not above me, but all she fucking does is hit on people.
Have to catch you later, Booksy. Duty calls.
So as it turned out, Felsh was coming to bring me to Hema, though why she didn’t just come herself, I’ll never know. In anty case, when I got to Hema’s tent, she was already drinking and it wasn’t a good sign from what I could tell in the past week. Someone had gone and pissed her off. “Well, well, well, if it is not Mr. Quartermaster himself.”
I took a short breath and let it out. “Yeah, what is it Hema?”
She glared at me. “What makes you think you can talk to me like that?”
“... What makes you think I’m going to put up with your bullshit?” I gave her a fucked up look. “Browbeat everyone else. I’m fuck-mothering Gatian Gauner.”
“Hard to pronounce. Are we done with the barbed stuff?” I checked the flaps of the tent and cast a quick, altered Murka called Murkasi that shrouded the inside of the tent with a silencing fog. “You really look like you need a hug.”
She waved some of the fog away from where she was standing, the Planning Table being covered in fog soon enough as she collected her prize and sighed. “Thank you…”
I cracked a small grin and held her at length. “You can always lean on me, Hema. I got your back, right?”
She kept it brief as she had the last two times. “I appreciate it, but this is no small matter, Gatian… Our men… They do not respect me. They have no reason to respect Julay. You are effectively the only one anyone listens to.”
“It’s because I’m nicer than you,” I said bluntly.
“Of course you are, but they are-”
“They’re not soldiers, they’re Masters from all over the continent. There’s no reason for any of them to want to talk to you outside of work, and you make them work. No one likes to work other than crazy people.”
She sighed and folded her arms, her modest bust heading north temporarily. There was a certain elegance to Hema that I appreciated, but it’s not like she had much on my sweetheart. I could see myself pursuing Hema in another life or on another path, but that’s not really here nor there. “I see the wisdom in your words, but… How else does one lead if not by example?”
“... What example are you trying to set?” I asked, folding my own arms.
Hema noticed the motion. “... I suppose that I was trying to make our men more aggressive toward the enemy.”
“You’re making them more aggressive toward each other. Shut that Toddtonite with the loud mouth up and all of the people as dark as me and darker are going to follow your lead. Hell, come out and be friendly with me in front of people. I know you like to save your face or whatever, but why don’t you show the people who you really-”
“No! Th-That would be wildly inappropriate!” Hema gasped, frantically waving her hand at me. “What if our men came to me with their personal issues!? How would I handle them!?”
“... You know it’s gonna take more than being cool by association for people to do that. Hell, the only reason I do it now is because I was a Counselor at a Welcome Center.”
“... You- You were a Counselor?” Her eyes went wide.
“So… You know how to help our men with the horrors they will see?”
“I do, though it won’t be anything I say or do that makes them better,” I answered uneasily.
“Be that as it may, I would like to be able to speak to you on how to help our men.”
“You know me,” I shrugged, “always willing to help.”
She gave me a rare smile, though it only curved one side of her mouth. “Always, are we?”
“I’m not helping Julay.”
“I never even thought to mention her.” She chuckled, her face falling back to her usual neutral expression. “No, I was going to ask for your assistance. The matter you spoke of just a minute ago. Cool by association.”
“Ah, yeah, I’m cool, so if you’re cool with me, everyone else might think you’re not mean. You just have to be the me you are when we’re alone-”
“In front of others? Simply preposterous.”
“So you say, but you don’t know how far it’ll go into getting you back to the top of the totem pole.”
She raised a brow. “You speak of your rod?”
“I speak of a literal pole with imagery carved into it. Being on the top would mean being the most important or respected.”
“I see. I shall join your totem pole and we will… Try.” She frowned, blushing hard.
“Hey- Woah. Woah, there’s a lot of smoke in here.” Someone said with a Choresh accent.
“Who is that?” Hema barked.
“Illuminai.” I said softly. Once the fog cleared, I saw for myself that it was Weyll, a Choresh man with a habit of picking bad times to say things. “Two-L, what’s up?”
He scratched his head and glanced at Hema. “Um… Permission to use extra rations…?”
“Why?” Hema barked.
“Hema, we just talked about this, right?” I said softly.
She blushed again and still wore her frown. “I see. For what purpose are extra rations required?”
Weyll looked at me and started to speak, but I gestured toward Hema with my head. “Uh… N-No reason, we-we’ll make do-”
He flinched when Hema opened her mouth, though all I needed to do was raise a brow. “... Perhaps I could be convinced. There is no shortage of food here yet. Why do we need to expend more resources?”
He cracked a small smile. “Uh… Ramune burned the stew?”
Hema tilted her head. “Does that not add the flavor?”
“No. It just tastes burnt.” I chuckled.
“Oh. Very well, then. Save what has been made so far for whoever can stomach it. Wasting food altogether is pointless, but do not halt from making more edible sustenance.”
Weyll looked at me. “... Yes. Yes, I’ll go now.”
I raised a brow. “I’m not in charge, Weyll. Hema leads the front for a reason, and it’s because she knows this stuff a lot better than I do. Trust me, you can lean on her for the logistics and nitty-gritty as well as myself.”
“Right… He glanced at her and asked. “C-Can I borrow Intron Gatain for a bit, Ma’am?”
“Allow his return to be swift.” She huffed, going back to the magic map on the table.
I nodded toward Weyll and he lead the way out, but we didn’t go far. “Wow, you really are too nice, man.”
“What do you mean?”
“How can you be friendly with that?” He asked quietly.
“She’s a great gal, it’s just her station makes her think she has to be a hardass. I meant what I said though, and it’s really better if you just get used to her barking at you. She gets the point across and it’s usually something important if she’s loud about it.”
“Yeah, but she doesn’t yell at you.” He snorted.
“That’s because I know her well enough to dissuade her from that. You guys either think I’m a goody-two-shoes or too nice for my own good, but you guys have to realize I’m just laid-back. Not much gets to me. A lot gets to her. It’d mean the world to Hema if you kept trying to talk to her, even if she got sullen and moody, y’know?”
“... Are you saying she’s a-”
“Yes, she’s a complete and total Duanite,” I rolled my eyes, “and as such she needs a gentle approach from a strong spine, know what I mean?” Duanites were basically Tsunderes, Muginites were the Yanderes, and Hoarinites were the Kuuderes.
Weyll chuckled. “I can’t believe our leader is a Duanite. I’ll have to ask for her address so I can keep in touch if she’s really sweet on the inside.”
I punched him lightly. “Save some for the rest of us, Casanova. In fact, why don’t you go see how my other Intron is doing?”
“Gods above, don’t make me do that!” He laughed, shoving me right back .”The way that woman talks, the Kinfaun must do it in the streets!”
“I don’t intend of finding out, but there’s always-”
“Telmell is not the kind of woman I thought she was.” He rubbed his cheek, looking a little irritated.
“Don’t take it to heart, bud. The gal probably just wasn’t in the mood with what’s coming up, you know?”
He gave me an odd look. “You don’t do a Luck Fuck before a fight?”
I had to laugh at that. “Christ, why would I!? All it would do is drain my stamina and get me killed in the long run. There are better ideas to be had.”
“I see your wisdom, but how else would this fight be fair?”
“It’s not fair in the first place.” My tone turned cold and I glared at Weyll. “You’d do well to remember that our dead join their army.”
I nodded at him. “Go get your Luck Fuck and wisen up, Two-L. Things are about to get a lot worse from here.”
He shrugged. “At least I die with my pride. Until next time.”
“You won’t die if I have anything to say about it.” I said it more to myself than to him, but I figured he heard me anyway when he blew out a little chuckle. Walking back to Hema, I said, “That didn’t take long. Are you ready to be liked?”
She furrowed her brow. “I am liked.”
“Not by him, but I did tell him you were a Duanite-”
Her face exploded with color and she practically popped her top. “I am no Duanite!”
I raised a brow and cleaned my ear. “Even if you aren’t, you’re still loud. My ears hurt now.”
“Hush, insolent man!” She turned her back to me.
I had a couple options as the flag raised, but I decided to take the flag and stick it in the past. “I’ll hush later, we have to walk and talk.”
She held her tongue for a long moment until she turned back to me and said, “I am not a Duanite.”
“And I’m not half black-”
“You are yellowish at best.”
“First off, fuck you, I’ve just spent a lot of time inside in Thesuvia. Second, I’m leaving and you can come with or you can do whatever you want. It’s not like I’m the boss of you.”
“Something you would do well to remember.” Hema huffed haughtily, giving me some serious side-eye.
“... At least you are consistent.” She sighed, giving me another rare grin.
I raised a brow and gave her a smirk for hurrying up with it. As she came to a stop next to me, I stood and offered support. “You got this, Hema. Just try to relax and act like you’re on a friend-date or something.”
“Did you ever have a practice date?”
“Yes, with my elder brother long ago.” She said flatly.
“Treat me like your younger brother, like you’re trying to show me how to communicate with women or something.”
She rolled her eyes and walked out. “With your charisma, it would be a failure before it launched.”
“Yeah, but we’re not doing this for me, we’re just trying to get you out and about, right? Let people know you’re not all scary all the time.”
I got whacked for that. “I am not scary to my allies.”
“Right, and I’m not yellowish at best.” I said mocking her super-thick Danish-like accent.
“I do not sound like that!” She protested.
I pushed her lightly, smiling. “I’m not mocking you, I was just making up a silly voice.”
“You were mocking me, and my voice is not silly!”
“Your voice is normal, it’s your accent that’s silly.” I chuckled as we walked to the Mess Wagon, passing people on our way.
We attracted a lot of attention. “Gatian, why are you making fun of me?” I demand to know!”
“I’m not making fun of you, I’m making you make fun of yourself by leading you in verbal circles.”
She stormed up in front of me and held out a hand. “I said-”
I grabbed her hand and started dancing. “You said…?”
Hema wasn’t impressed, but she danced along with me anyway, placing a hand on my shoulder. “I was going to say that your merriment must be appropriate of your station.”
“We’re not soldiers, Hema. We’re all individual fighters who all know that we’re deadly. How you have us set up is based off of that, but you expect us to be…” I stared at her and stopped moving.
“So you finally see why I am so harsh?” Hema asked softly.
“... Damn. Most of us are gonna die.” I muttered.
“Most likely. There is no discipline within the ranks.”
“We never had time to instill any…”
Hema patted me on the cheek and let go of my shoulder so she could lead the way. “We are strong, are we not? Surely we will make it back?”
She stopped when she saw that I wasn’t following. “... Hema, meet me in the War Tent with food. We’re going to be up for awhile.”
“Are you trying to give me an order?” She asked.
“I’m asking you a favor. Tell someone else to do it, I don’t particularly care.” I turned and started heading back.
“Gatian, what are you-”
“I need to talk to an Artificer and get an amp made. I can make this a lot easier on us…” I shook my head, having spoken over my shoulder.
Hema let me leave without any fuss or bluster and when I got back to the War Tent, I studied the map we’d been given and saw the landscape as a challenge to overcome. The village we were supposed to be going t0o was still holding strong, but there were Char, Dreadnots, and Scorched at their door, knocking louder with every day. However, there was a point in the village that overlooked the flaming horde, and that’s all I needed to know that my plan was going to work. If only I could carry it out, that is. There was a lot for me to consider, so I zoomed in and out on the map all around the valley the regiment of Char were stationed at and saw that there was another battalion of the bastards coming in from the southeast, heading nonstop toward the town. With the information I had at hand and the power vested in me, I created a new song and parsed it out even while Hema tried to tell me that she’d had a great conversation with someone.
I eventually came out of my song-based reverie and took notice of her and my now-cold stew. “Gatian, have you finally stopped your ruminating?”
“... Hema, you’re not gonna like this.” I said softly.
“I already do not. Spill.”
“... We have to make an example out of someone. Throw a group at the Char and see if they come out of the other side. If Hepnil is in too good of a condition, no one’s going to realize how deadly this battle can be. Everyone’s going to be fighting for glory, but no one’s going to listen until they see for themselves.”
“We’re not sacrificing-”
“Not our people. We might be able to get the Hepnilians to tell our soldiers of the war. Let me go ahead and I’ll prep the town.” I looked her in the eye. “If anything I can thin the numbers before they come any closer, but it’s not a guarantee, and it’s a wing and a prayer in the first place.”
Hema stared me down. “You. You think one man can turn the tide when an entire town could not?”
“Let me prove it to you and judge me from there.”
“Then…” Hema frowned, her brows furrowing. “... At least take someone with you. A small reconnaissance squad.”
“I’ll take Delmar and a sniper.”
“The best we have outside of Julay is Fredea, and she uses a Coffing.”
I nodded. “It’ll do. I have your blessing, yes?”
Hema gave me a look. “You were going to do it anyway to save as many lives as you can.”
“Open book, aren’t I?”
“No, but you are a good man and a stalwart guardian.” She said firmly, making me blush. “It is hard for you to lead when you know that your men may not return to their homes. You would rather shoulder the world and drag yourself to the finish than make another fret for the sake of their own safety. You are good. You are kind. You are wise, but in this I believe you are most foolish. Therefore, As I have learned from my husband-”
“My husband is a good woman.” She raised her chin at me.
I raised a brow in turn. “That would be a wife, and I hope she is. Otherwise I might have to shoot her for making you upset or something.”
Hema rolled her eyes. “She is my husband. What is your plan?”
I smirked and let the piece of Gage I still held onto so dearly shine through. “... I’m gonna try and save ‘em.”
She stood stock still and stared at me until I walked out of the tent, following me for but a few steps. “Gatian.”
I looked back. “Yeah?”
“... Come back with Delmar and Fredea. I will court martial you for any other result.”
I snorted. “Tch, like I can up and ditch my team. If I succeed… Well, this war might just go a different direction.”
“You do not see this going well for you.” She surmised.
I gave her a sad smile. “Would you even hold onto something for me if I asked?”
“I would not let you leave if I did not feel that you were in your right mind and sound of body. You will return. Take your charm with you and return as a whole being.”
“Sure thing, Hema. You’d better be waiting for me in Hepnil in two days.”
“We surely shall.” She nodded.
I returned it. “Take care, Hema. It’ll be like I wasn’t even gone.”
With that being said, I turned and left on my way back to my tent. All of the thingS I’d brought with me came along and I sent a couple runners out to get Delmar and Fredea. Neither of them actually liked me all that much, which was a part of the reason why I wanted them to come. They were carefree and strong in their own minds, which would go far in teaching the others if something went wrong. If two of the biggest idiots in camp were scared of fighting the Dreadnot horde because of their own experiences , then it would serve well to make anyone who felt unruly be a little more susceptible to suggestions and orders. Unlike anyone else, however, they chose to come together as they’d already been eating together during their meal time.
Delmar stopped in front of me and clapped a fist to his chest as I took down my tent. “Intron Gatian, I answer your summons.”
Fredea was with him, though she wasn’t half as serious about it. “Cenitron Fredea, reporting for duty.”
“Fredea, Delmar, I need you two to pack up the essentials. We’re heading to Hepnil early.”
“Any reason why?” Fredea asked, giving me a look. “It’s been a long day.”
I glared at her. “It’ll get shorter for you when you fuckin’ die, which is what I’m trying to prevent. Get moving, we have to try my plan before we just up and throw ourselves at an entire tiown’s worth of Char.”
“Why doesn’t anyone just call them what they are?” Fredea huffed.
Delmar smirked until I barked, “Did I give you fuckin’ order or did I ask you a question? Pack your shit. MEet me here. We move in fifteen, and if not, I’m slapping you.” She rolled her eyes and I slapped her. When she stared at me, I said, “Disrespect me all the fuck you want, but when I say jump, you ask how high from six inches in the air.” I glared at Delmar. “And you, Mr. Smiles over here. Go do what I fuckin’ told you to do.”
He clapped hsi hand over his chest and Fredea did the same, glaring at me all the while as she followed Delmar to the rows of tents. I myself started playing a song to soothe my nerves, not really meaning to go anywhere with it. I ended up playing We Never Change and led into Clocks by the time they returned, having enough time to get them on the road and away from the main wagon-train. We took two of the spare things that reminded me far too much of Hornmun and how she’d been eaten previously. Fredea refused to ride with me, even though we were both smaller than Delmar’s Denosian ass. Serious, the guy looked like the eight foot tall version of Terry Cruz, but with a gut and a little buffer. Fredea, instead, wanted to ride with Delmar since he ‘Was less likely to get bucked off’ than I was. However, I quickly proved that my horseback-riding lessons had not gone to waste in my highschool years, though I had to thank Grandpa and his prickly self for that. He’d been insistent that I learn how to ride and shoot at the same time, so I could still probably hit the broad side of a barn and avoid getting killed by my steed. However, the going could have been faster since the Hornmuns we borrowed were either tired or uninterested in traveling so late at night. However, it only took us a night and half a day of riding at a decent pace to make it all the way to Hepnil.
When we got there, the town was still being prepared for an attack and my companions sobered considerably. There was plenty happening with people drilling bars and planks over their windows, barricades being built, and a good number of weapons being doled out to the healthy-looking, strong FListian men and women that had gathered to protect their town. We had to be let in once we came to the town proper, and I had to say that they were geniuses for building fortified walls out of stone and mortar. It was good sign to be sure, but the village wasn’t happy to see me and my cadre. Apparently they were very unfriendly toward the Burnaks, which was what Fredea just so happened to be.
Hoiwever unwelcome we were, our power and abilities were accepted, even if there were mutterings in Fre- Flistian, about the Burnak who was out of place in the world. Fredea took it kinda hard at first, but I had something to say to her while we were getting the animals tied up. “Hey, Fred.”
She glared at me. “I bet you’re loving this.”
Delmar folded his arms, his expression neutral as I responded. “While you’re with me, I’m not. This bullshit isn’t going to last much longer if I have anything to say about it.” I snapped right back. “Lose the damn chip on your shoulder and realize this; I don’t give a shit about what you are. I care that you go home. I care that you cover my back. I care that you look out for our brothers and sisters in this fight.” I stomped my way up to her and jammed my finger in her chest. “If you can’t fight with this situation, tell me now. I’ll change it, and if shit don’t go smoother for you, I’ll have you head back, no strings, no demerits. I wouldn’t have even brought you if I knew the town was racist as shit.”
Delmar poked my shoulder. “What of me?
I looked at him. “What about you? I haven’t heard a word about Denosians. It’s not an issue for you.”
“There is a Toddtonite-”
“Next time he says something, remind him that Gatian don’t play that shit.” I barked. “If you need to, smack him one and bring him to me or Hema. Her tolerance for pointless hate is about as high as mine.”
Delmar gave me a smile and a nod, so I looked to a red-faced Fredea. “... You’re different…”
“From Hema? Not all that-”
Delmar burst out into merry laughter. “Fredea disliked you because she thought you were an arrogant pretty boy! Your compassion and ‘get it done’ demeanor fit you well, as I have said.”
“The fu-” I looked at her, seeing that she was doing the thing where women close their eyes and hit someone. She wisely chose Delmar. “First off, don’t hit your peers. Second, since when the fuck am I even considered cute?”
Fredea stared at me and Delmar laughed some more. “Oh yes, your River Person standards are strange indeed.”
“Yeah… Like, you’re… A little more than cute, if I can say that. I’m not coming onto you, but...” She scratched her temple, a blonde lock jostling with the motion. The look Fredea was giving me insulted my intelligence.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, okay. I already have a woman I plan on making my wife when I get home, so don’t worry about ‘Pretty Boy’ trying to smooch you or some shit. I’ve got better lips to kiss, thanks.”
Freda cracked a real, genuine smile, confusing the shit out of me. “You’re not as bad as I thought.”
“Then here’s hoping I can tell you exactly what to expect and have it taken it seriously.” I shook my head and started explaining the plan.
I finished up before the village’s Chief came by to see us and ask what we were doing here ahead of time, so I looked at the hairy, short old man and told him that I was planning on making Magic music in the mountains, asking if he knew the best place to cause an echo around Hepnil. He told me that there were multiple points where they chanted their prayers into the mountains and said that it would be useless, but I just nodded at him and asked him to take me to one of the points. There were four in total, so it was going to take a good little bit to go to each point. Fredea and Delmar were tired, so I told them to take five and rest so I could get some more info from the Chief and grill him about the Char incursion.
According to the old man, they’d attacked the lower part of the valley and stayed there, most likely trying to kill off the last of the life the village used for pretty much everything. I suggested that they all get the fuck out of town, even if they were settling in for the long haul. Village elder-guy wasn’t having it. In French, he asked if I would just have them leave their homes and livelihoods, what made their village great. In response I toild him that living to see another day was more important than having a place to lay your head at night ad he heartily disagreed, opening a discourse htat continued for hours upon hours until we were well and truly at the top of the mountain we’d been on. From the hights point, I could see plenty of Char, Scorched, and whatever else was in the army now. However, all they appeared to be doing was waiting and milling about, practically like they’d just waited for me to try my position out. However, the natual acoustics weren’t good enough, so I had him take me to two of the other points before we settled on the fourth. It had the best echo out of every other point we’d tried and it still overlooked the Dreadnot/Char Horde. It had taken ius four hours to get everywhere in town, but it was worth the trip, even if I did feel like I was about to die. The Chief let me be as I traveld out onto the rock that jutted from the mountain side, guitar on my back and a plan in my mind.
Without further delay, I got up to the top of the rock and shouted, “Hey you, Char-broiled cock-suckers! Y’all ready to Rock!?”
Okay, so wiser, more intelligible, less idiotic things had been shouted at an army before, and then I heard myself on the wind and I hated that I could, but from what I could see the Char were a lot more active than they’d been. There was no reason left for me to not try, so I did what I do best; Played my music as loud as I could.
Solar Beam by Gatian Gauner
I hope to God I see you one more time~
Can’t play this game no more or fall in line~
Won’t you come, come break me
And I will open up your eyes~
Show you all of your lies~
Together- in time
I trust that I will make you mine~
Coalesce and fly~
And you will be so high~
I hope to God I see you doin’ fine~
Can’t see your face or feel your hand in mine~
I see you, yeah you there
Will you make me turn a blind eye~
Miss all of the lines~
Together- in time
I trust that I will make you mine~
Connect with- this night~
I’ll set you alight~
I pray to God you take me back when I~
When I come home I swear it’s the final try~
This battle, is won~
I’ll show you fire from the sun~!
As I played the final notes of Solar Beam, I noticed the crowd below… It dimmed down. The fires that were lighting up the dark parts of the valley were flickering and going out piece by piece. I smiled to myself and played a few more notes, just a trill to get the blood calmed down after such a good song. However, the moment I turned my back and smiled at the openly-staring Chief, the valley erupted in a fucking geyser of Goddamn flames! I could feel the heat from where I was standing, the violent, violet light spilling upward into the sky, eradicating any trace of clouds that lie below or near the pillar of fire. I… I stood and saw as thousands upon thousands of people ascended through the pillar, each person wreathed in flame as I made out Human-shaped dots trailing up into the light. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing, but I knew for certain that I had caused it.
The village chief climbed up behind me, his voice small. “You… You did it.”
My head swiveled on my shoulders and my body hesitated to follow the motion. “... You speak Common…”
The wizened, elderly man started removing his robes. “Yes, yes, I tricked you. I do apologize, my young son.”
His plain, dirty, muted robes fell as he finished undressing, revealing a pretty dapper suit (For a Septurn), even if it was horribly mismatched and only had two buttons on the jacket. The man also started patting his pockets and looked confused until he checked his breast pocket. “One moment, dear boy, it’s been some time since I’ve had to do any of this. I’ve taken to wearing the disguise all the time, just in case you stopped by a little early.”
I had nowhere to go, but I still had my wand on me. I brandished it with the awe-inspiring event still going on behind me. “Chief Alfweir-”
He pulled a small gua-sha from his pocket and a whetstone along with it. “Ah, you might as well know my real name. They called me John Donne, though in my time it was pronounced quite differently. You may call me Father John, if you like.”
“... John. Give me one reason not to kill you.”
He raised a brow before peeling his face off. When he finished, the mask was gone and had revealed a man not a great deal older than me. I would’ve put him in his forties, but I remembered John Donne from my shitty English 101 professor, Margaret Holmes. He died at sixty something. When John finished peeling the mask off, he busied himself with pulling bits and pieces of it from his moustache. Looking quite unimpressed by my efforts, I opened my mouth to cast a spell and he raised a hand, a shot ringing out and a bullet hitting close to my foot. There was no telling where the shot came from, no telling if another was coming for me, and no telling what I was wanted for.
“Is that a good reason?” He asked.
“I’m familiar with-”
“Yes, some of the Grantonid, but not enough to dodge a bullet when you can’t locate the origin point, no?”
I glared at him, unsure of how he’d known that particular flaw in the art. Most people thought Grantonid experts were practically invincible against bullets. “... What do you want?”
He raised his brow again. “For you to join us, of course. Don’t tell me you thought those silly Songweavers sent you the note in Hooversdum, did you?”
“... Kinda forgot about it. Jog my memory?”
“The Terruc will become Mundane and the Mundane Terruc.”
“... Gonna end the world or something?”
“Ha! Or something, I would say.” He smiled at me easily before backflipping off of the rock.
I looked behind me to see that the pillar was dying down with there seemingly being no survivors on the ground. My eyes followed the stream of flame to where the pillar seemed to be fading out above the clouds.A sane person wouldn’t have believed the sight, but I know damn well that I saw just about everything that got sucked up on the edge of a big hole in the sky. “... Fuck me…”
“Are you coming, son? We haven’t got all day.”
I looked down and saw that he was indeed waiting on me, so I hopped my way down and stood in front of him. “... Who did you say you were with again?”
“I didn’t. We call ourselves the Riverborn in this particular language, though we use Greek as our common tongue.”
“A Clan of River People?”
“Yes, free from the constraints of the old world, you know.”
I shook my head slowly. “Are you behind the Char?”
He shook his head. “We are fighting them as you are. Are you the cause?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Then won’t you walk with me? If your subordinates are cooperating, they should still be alive.”
“Should be. That’s promising.” I snarled.
“And you would take that tone with me because…?” John seemed considerably less amused than he had.
“Because Donny, this is sketchy.”
“Sketchy, but it’s what you have to work with, is it not?”:
“... Can you give me a fuckin’ straight answer for once?”
“In due time, though I suppose it would be a little quicker if you were to join us.”
“For what? For what reason would I join a clan of people hundreds of miles away from the life I built for myself?”
He raised a brow. “You, Gatian Gauner, are the most powerful Minstrel to walk Septural in the past… Say, five hundred years? The Dark War was heralded by a Minstrel with too much power-”
“You keep saying Minstrel when I’m a fuckin’ Bard.”
“... You willingly-”
“The definition doesn’t define me, I define me.”
“Fair enough.” He cracked a grin, seeming less amused than he had. It was more of a ‘I get that’ kind of look.
“So all you want me for is my fuckin’ power?”
“You just released thousands of captured soldiers and civilians from a hellish life of being on fire and never extinguishing the pain. The Char are just people, Gatian. People waiting to finally die.”
“... Then lead the armies-”
“It won’t work like that.” He chuckled. “Your idea to use the mountains as an amplifier, utilizing nature itself to do your dirty-work… Simply brilliant! However, if you’d tried with a conventional amp, you might as well have been shouting in Prussia for a volcanic eruption.” He shook his head and chuckled some more. “No, Gatian, I need you to do something other than fight. I just needed a taste of your potential, and now that I have what I needed, I can ask you a small favor. Something you’ve surely already found a song for in your travels.”
John’s smile faded. “Gatian, as a fellow River Man, I promise I will not cause you or your loved ones any harm. I suppose I should have opened with the offer to walk away with no rebuke.”
“That might have been nice. I’m taking that offer, so-”
“You won’t even hear my request?” He asked, obviously surprised.
“You’re being cryptic, won’t give any real amount of information, threatened the lives of my kouhai-chans… I don’t have a reason to like you. If you would’ve just sent me another letter, I probably would have come and taken care of it.”
“... I see.” He nodded a couple of times. “... Would it change your mind at all if I were to mention that you could help people who have not crossed you?”
I gave him a baleful glare. “Appealing to my better nature doesn’t change the fact that you’re trying to use me for whatever purpose. You could have reasonably asked any Minstrel-”
“The Weavers are behind the Char.” He said solemnly. “Rozana is not a River Woman, but she is a reliable ally all the same.”
It answered a lot of questions. I didn’t like that. “... So you arranged for me to be freed.”
John nodded, stroking his beard. “It was not in the plan at all for you to join the Weavers. Rozana tried to break the mind control early in your stay there, but it was too strong, too recently set in. She had to craft something specifically to break the heavy somnerre on you.”
“... So when she broke my fingers-”
“Yes, she was trying to wake you up.”
“Damn. And I shot her for that.”
John Donne started at me before walking up to me and socking me in the fucking stomach one good time, but I jabbed back and caught him in the jaw. “You fool! How could you k-” He blinked, arm cocked back for another punch. “Wait…”
“In the leg, you asshole.”
“... Still justified.” He shrugged.
“To free you. People have lost their lives over the freedom she gave you.”
It hit me. “... Stellara is with the Weavers.”
He made a face. “And the Guardian, Bastet.”
“Is Bast evil too?”
“She is a sister to Cosma. Not evil, but misguided all the same.” John rubbed his temples. “I cannot explain to you just how furious I am that you left your Partner, but I understand all the same. She was in her right mind, you were not.”
“... So Stellara really didn’t want anything to do with me.” I took a deep breath and sighed as the wound reopened.
“It’s for the best. Your love was star-crossed indeed-”
“Can you just explain everything? From like, the beginning?”
John inhaled heavily and gave me a droll look. “If you’re not joining the Riverborn, then there is no reason for you to know.”
“Other than the fact that Stellara and I are halves of the Moon River Prophecy.”
“Walk away and it will likely never take hold. The Prophecy was hardly legible when it was taken down in the first place. Much of it could very well be wrong, and I doubt you have killed Yuria-”
“Ooo.” I hissed.
His brows raised. “Really now?”
“That sounded like a good kind of ‘really’.”
“Well, it’s a step in a dangerous direction for you, but that ancient whore is better off dead than poisoning the planet. That does explain the retarded advance of the Char…” He stroked his beard thoughtfully. “...Yes, this is indeed good news. How did you manage this before you left the Academy? I was under the impression that you barely managed to escape with your life.”
“I went back.”
The look I got from him was hilarious. “... You haven’t left Thesuvia. Not until you were called for the garrison.”
I winked at him. “Don’t piss me off. Again, I should say.”
John licked his lips and smiled deviously. “There are more that you could bear to relieve of their lives, if you ever felt so inclined.”
“I’m not an assassin, I’m a murderer.”
“And the difference is whether or not you get caught. You didn’t get caught.”
I shrugged. “Yeah, okay. Why is it good that Yuria’s dead?”
“It means that Yureki has most likely taken her place as she was the most popular choice for her successor, though I have my doubts about her true abilities.”
“Yureki’s a Shade.”
“Still quite killable, I assure you. Come, Gatian. Let us go check on your subordinates at the very least.”
“You know I’ll kill you if you try to fuck me over, right?”
“And your entire life would be thrashed before you. Should that ever happen, of course.”
“I can make sure it’s worth it.”
He paused for a moment. “... You speak far too casually of throwing everything away.”
“Because I don’t really give a shit.” I scoffed. “Take from me and I’ll just find you, kill you, and make more things. I can be happy anywhere, I just need someone worth being happy with.”
He didn't even seem to notice my bluff. “... Then what is it that you would want from joining us? Because we can offer you much.”
“First off, no more bullshit like this. You got something to say to me, write a note or just say it.”
“Okay.” He seemed to be growing salty.
“Second, we take down the Char.”
“I was already doing-” He started.
“Third, Stellara gets her freedom. I fought for it once, and I’ll fight for it all over again if I have to.”
Johnny Donny kept giving me increasingly shitty looks. “That’s more up to her than either of us.”
“Then I don’t want her killed for being led down the wrong path.”
The shit was flushed from his face and a modicum of respect replaced it. “Doable. I suppose you’d like to order an extraction?”
I shook my head. “It’d be unreasonable. The Warriors let me go because I was brainwashed into being there. Stellara chose to stay. I won’t take her from a place she calls home.”
“You still love the woman.” John surmised.
I thought about it briefly, finding an answer I was comfortable with quickly. “She kept me alive when I wanted to lay down and never get back up. She helped me find out that I was being betrayed, and she…”
“She protected you and showed you love.” He said it like it was already obvious, like he hadn’t needed to hear it at all.
“... Yeah. I owe her. At least for the kindness she showed me.”
“And you would owe what to whom now?”
I glared at him. “I owe it to my future wife to come home having been faithful to our rules the entire time I was away.”
“A heavy toll to bear during the tides of war, though we both know this is unlike any other.” He shook his head.
“... All I want is to get rid of the Char and go back home to my sweetheart, John Donne. Promise me that and I’ll heal your person.”
He raised a brow. “I can get you home right now without worrying about any pesky problems that might pop up.”
“I don’t need to go now, I need to go when the Char are dead and gone.”
John extended a hand. “Save my people from this disease and I will save the life you held in Holloway Halter. I promise you that much, Gatian Gauner.”
I grasped it and shook. “I’ll save your people, I guess. Just point me to them.”
“How about I lead you there?”
“Are we walking into a trap?”
“Only if you consider altruistic obligation a trap.” He answered flatly.
“Then let’s get obligated.” I sighed, following as he started walking away.
Between the sketchy situation and the sketchy flame thing that had just happened, I was looking for an opportunity to cut and run all the same after I healed his people. I didn’t want to be beholden to the man in any sense, even if he’d come across as genuine for a good part of the conversation. The thing was that Yuria had genuinely seemed to want to help me and now I was conversing with a man who was clearly no friend to her. However, he knew Rozana without me saying anything and knew of the music box. He knows a lot about stuff he shouldn’t, however, that’s usually a bad sign. Then again, I have to think of the fact that he’s known where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing, where I’ve gone and what I’ve done. He’s had an eye on me for a long time and just now did something when the war was in full swing. Call it auspicious timing or call suspicious, either one works.
There were a lot of things I didn’t like about the situation, but I only had so many options
if I wanted to get back to Alana alive and keep my team from dying along with me. When we got back to the village, a party was being thrown and my subordinates were making merry like they hadn’t just about died. The people of the town were wearing normal clothes at the moment, so I went over to Delmar and got his attention as soon as I walked up to him. The guy flinched at the look on my face, put down his cup, and went to get Fredea. They returned, both high off soma but pretty much okay in anyone’s eyes. I still gave em’ both a bonking for doing dumb shit on the job and they apologized, having found a noticeable amount of respect for me in the hours since my song made a fucking valley erupt. When they got their shit together, I had John lead us to the villages sick ward and we were asked to don masks for our own safety. Delmar and Fredea were a little worried since they hadn’t known anything, but I figured that the cheers from the Riverborn when I returned was enough of a tell for either of them. If not, it wasn’t my fucking problem.
We went to the damn clinic-looking place and I played the song I’d played for Erina in Ilpturn once we got to the center of the quarantine room. Most of the place was gray or beige, but I didn’t really give a shit. However, what hit me was… The pure misery, the reek of decay and illness hung heavily in the air, smelling similar to the Char. As I looked around, I saw people of varying ages and both sexes as they lie in wait for an ounce of peace, and… I understood whty John had been so subversive, but I still didn’t approve. I could imagine myself doing something similar if I felt my options were dying as my friends and family were around me. It wasn’t an obligation when I saw the level the people had been reduced to.
As I sang and poured the compassion I did my best to keep healthy and strong out into the song, about half of the people saw damn near immediate results. I combed my mind for another healing song, but it didn’t turn out to be necessary. A lot of the people just needed me to play it with a little more heart behind it, which I did as an encore when a little boy asked me to. It was a touching moment because the little bastard was obviously on his last legs. His lips were cracked and raw, even though there was balm on them, and fluid ran from sores on his face, chest, and arms. The fluid looked as though it was… It was fuckin purple and gross, I’ll say that much. The song healed people to the point where the sores were little more than acne scars, but it healed them all the same. I wasn’t surprised, but I was happy to see that people had actually needed to be healed instead of there being some kind of trick. The tears in people’s eyes, in John’s eyes, were true and were full of gratitude. He’d hidden it well, even from a guy who was getting to be more and more skeptical of the people around him. The anxiety on the walk back had kept him talking, and I’d noticed that he seemed impatient while I was talking to my cadre. However, I hadn’t put two and two together until I’d seen him hugging a woman around his age and a young man who seemed to be his son. The joy they shared was enough to make the endeavor worth it, and to know that I’d helped along with it meant a little to me.
When John left his family to come talk to me, his voice was shaky and he seemed to be very close to hugging me. “My dear man, whatever you need: name it and it’s yours.”
“Are there any more sick people?” I asked politely.
“Across the planet, there are. We have our strongholds, but many have passed and
would pass before you made it to their doors.” He shook his head. “... If I’d been able to convince the Council of your power before… We could have saved my daughter as well.”
“There’ll be another time for mourning. How many of the Char did I just take care of?”
“The Dreadnot Horde has been thinned by a margin that I would not consider unimpressive for but a single man. The mountains and valleys may very well be your playground.”
“Then…” I opened up my tablet map and zoomed out. “Where are they?”
He looked at the map and furrowed his brow. “Hm… This is not a populet, is it?”
“Nah, just a maplet.”
“Semora Omniboe.” He pressed a finger into the gem of a ring on his hand, the red jewel glowing before adding colors and more detail in general to the map. “A temporary though quite effective Arca.”
“What were those Archs?” I asked, never having head ‘semo’, ‘omni’, or ‘boe’.
“Ah, they’re long lost to the River People, but your Tempestian Arch may be able cast the Arca if you’re even more lucky than you seem to be.” I thought God was going to strike him down for calling Gum-Gum Gauner lucky. “The ‘semo’ was fire, but I can only tell you that ‘boe’ is for death, and I doubt you have the alignment to properly cast it.”
I made a face. “Fair, I guess. What was your Arch?”
“Ah, they called it ‘Man’s Malice’ some time ago, but I’m sure you know that Archs have little to do with one’s being.”
“If I hadn’t just seen your face when your family was healed, I might be tempted to get the fuck out of here.”
“Indeed. In any case, there are no Char or Dreadnots left in the area.”
“Then it’s time to get back to camp.” I nodded thrice.
“Wasn’t your regiment coming here?”
“It’d be-” I yawned hard. “Fuck me.”
“How long have you been awake? I’m sure it’s been a long day or two now.”
“It’s closer to three. Guess I’ve just been busy.”
“If you want to return to your people, I will arrange a guard to escort you in case you fall asleep. The ride would not be comfortable to one fresh from the River-”
“I’ve slept in wagons before, but I won’t be sleeping quite yet.”
“Then carry on, my good man. Write a letter and send it with…” He made a face. “Wait, do you have a tellette?”
“I do not.” And it was mostly because I’d never wanted to get too attached to another phone-like thing as I had in my previous life.
He pulled something that looked like a smaller version of my maplet out of his pocket. “I’d thought not, otherwise it would have been much easier to get you here. I’m glad I came prepared.” He smiled and handed it to me.
I opened it and frowned. “Is this based off of Apple?”
“Ah, I believe some of our people have mentioned the… Company, I believe. Why do you ask?”
“Because it sucks.” It tapped the notepad icon on the screen and it opened up a small… Notepad… Yeah, it was straightforward, but it was no V series. “At least it’s user friendly.”
“I’ll never understand some of our people and their aversion to types of technology, but I make no judgements. I’m sure it works similar to something you’ve used?”
“Do I actually have to write on it?”
“Stupid, but I can deal with it.”
He just chuckled. “Then I take it that this is goodbye for now?”
“Yeah, I guess. You could always give me money, land, and women.”
“Don’t tempt me.” He said flatly. “It would be more trouble to you than you’re willing to deal with.”
“... Okay. I’m gonna grab my guys and go.”
The expression on his face irritated me before he even spoke. “One of them-”
“It’s a general term.” I groaned, turning to leave.
I didn’t to leave right away. There were plenty of people who wanted to thank me for healing tham and I bore their praises with as much of my pride intact as I could. Even if all I had done was play a song, it helped people and they were grateful. I accepted the accolades, but they just made me uncomfortable and that stated coming across to the crowd. A man asked me if I’d meant to save them and I told him that I had, making him inquire about my modesty. Being called out made my face flush furiously and I was laughed at for a few seconds before I got a hug from the boy who’d asked me to play the song again earlier. I felt him slip something into my pocket and resolved to see what it was later.
On the road back to camp, Fredea sat with me and Delmar’s Hornmun seemed a lot happeir for it. I ended up checking out the little totem the boy had given me, the thing just being a carved stick with a pair of snakes in the wood. The small token of apprciation meant more to me than all of the words that had been said, so I tucked it into a pouch and carried on until we met back up with our people. Hema wanted to talk to me, but she understood that I wanted to write in my journal and rest for a bit.
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