Beneath the Dragoneye Moons

by

Selkie

Chapter 272.2 - Major Interlude - Iona - Sigrun I

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It took some hiking, and some prodding around the Wakacola sea, but Iona found the pirate’s hideout again. She dove down to the wreck, and spent a relatively relaxing day looting the pirate ship of all the Arcanite it used to hold, along with picking up as much silver, gold, and other precious metals, gems, and general valuables as she could find.

There was something magical about getting richer every minute, getting heavily rewarded with each motion.

With her sack filled to the brim with Arcanite, and two entire treasure chests stuffed with more of the stuff, along with a cache of gemstones she’d found, Iona felt positively piratical. Shame that she’d lost her tricorn hat.

She did enjoy a few nights with fellow travelers she met on the road, occasionally with a local resident in a place she stayed. It was the rare night that Iona wanted companionship and didn’t get it.

A [Highrise Burglar] tried to rob Iona one night.

She put him through the wall, then handed the dazed and confused would-be thief over to the local guards, along with detailing to them exactly what his classes and skills were, and what they did.

The guards were beyond delighted to get the information. He’d been a real nuisance, and now they knew exactly how he worked, and how to properly deal with him.

Without further ado, Iona arrived at Castle Valkyrie, her mood steadily getting more and more dour with each step she took towards her "home".

It was too… quiet. Too… empty.

Too cold. It was a lifeless husk, not the thriving training ground of squires.

"Ho Iona!" One of the staff members hailed her as she arrived at the drawbridge. One staff member, and not four squires.

"Jens!" Iona called back with false cheer. "Glad to see you again!"

The practice yard, built for a thousand, had a single Valkyrie and her squire sparring, the older woman trying to teach the girl without a proper practice partner. Gone were the days where Iona trained with nearly 200 of her fellow squires in the grounds.

Each echoing step through the castle, each hallway without another Valkyrie to greet hammered home their lack, their fall.

"Goblin’s Death" the bards called it.

"Valkyrie’s End" would be just as appropriate. Except, instead of a clean death, the Valkyries had a lethal gut wound, and were slowly limping along as they bled out, stomach acid eating through their flesh, agonizingly prolonging their end.

Iona made it to the [Quartermaster], and dropped the chests and the sack down.

"Special delivery!" Iona put some real cheer in her voice. [Knightly Accountant] Sophie had been there when Iona was growing up, and she was still alive, well, and grumpy. A thread to the past, a reminder that they were not dead.

Yet.

Iona gave one of the chests a calculated kick, and it burst open, the crystal Arcanite tumbling to the floor.

"Oooh, you shouldn’t have!" Sophie cooed over the overflowing piles of Arcanite, the diamonds, rubies and other gems glinting underneath. Iona grinned. The only time Sophie was happy was when she was getting lots and lots of money. The moment she needed to part with any of it?

Grumpiness.

Iona just grinned at Sophie as she started to sort the gems by size.

"Oh this is like yuletide come early! This isn’t a town’s payment, and you’re just messing with me, right? No, of course it isn’t. They pay in proper coins, not pure crystal."

Sophie froze.

"You didn’t rob a [Tax Collector] did you?"

"Ummm." Iona scratched her head, thinking about it.

"No. I don’t like the sound of that. No." Sophie started to pile the Arcanite back in the chests.

"Indirectly at worst?" Iona finally hedged. "Took it off a pirate."

"Hmmm." Sophie gave the chests a measuring look, before shrugging and opening them back up. "Well, more for me!"

"Us."

"Yes, yes, that’s what I said, now shoo. Close the door on your way out."

Iona left. Sophie hadn’t said it, but from her questions it was all too clear. Towns had stopped paying the Valkyries for their protection. Their sphere of influence, area of protection, and just sheer clout and numbers were on the downswing.

Unburdened, she made her way to the chapel, where she knelt in prayer.

Selene. Lunaris.

I need help. I don’t know what to do. There are fewer and fewer Valkyries. I’m doing everything I can, but it’s not enough. How do I fix this? How do I solve this? I need your guidance.

There was only silence at Iona’s prayer, but the silence was answer enough.

Instead of Iona trying to take all the problems on her shoulders and do it herself, she was going to visit Sigrun, the Valkyrie’s Grandmaster, who was in charge of fixing the Valkyrie’s problems.

Iona knocked sharply on Sigrun’s door.

"Enter." Sigrun’s clipped voice came from the door.

Iona entered and saluted, standing ram-rod straight. She held her salute for a few minutes, while Sigrun finished penning a letter.

There were four smaller desks in the room, for four [Secretaries] or [Assistants] or whatever was needed.

Only one desk was in use, and the man wasn’t exactly drowning in paper.

Finishing up, she quickly read over it, nodded to herself, rolled it up, and sealed it. The seal had some fancy enchantments on it, proving that this seal in particular had come from that die.

They weren’t impossible to forge. Just difficult.

"Iona. The Dusk Valkyrie." Sigrun slumped in her chair, some weight leaving her. She waved to her assistant, who got up and left for another room.

"Relax. How are you?" Sigrun asked, and Iona let go of the carefully-held salute.

"Fine. Took out the pirates on the Wakacola sea. Managed to loot the wreck, Sophie’s got it now. The Immortal healer’s dead. Cleared out a few bandit nests around Burnsley and Wolfden. Skinwalker near Monchester. Killed a giganotosaurus roaming near Northon."

"A giganotosaurus? Near Northon? That had to have an intelligence behind it, did you find who was responsible?" Sigrun asked, as the assistant came back with a thick folder. He quietly placed it on Sigrun’s desk, then headed back to his own work.

Iona shook her head.

"Vorlers were nearby."

Sigrun gave a curt nod of understanding. Vorlers were one of the biggest threats, worth dropping nearly everything for. Between the goblin invasion, and a mature nest of Vorlers, the Valkyries would’ve gone for the Vorlers.

A small nest? Three Valkyries were enough. One to exterminate the nest, and two to prevent accidents, and make sure the job was done thoroughly.

"Any Pekari?" Sigrun asked after the strange subterranean metal golems.

"One village got abducted, but the Order of the Red Lion got to them before I did."

Sigrun thumped a fist onto her desk, half-snarling as she spoke.

"Those rat-faced thieving bastards encroaching on our territory. Let me guess. They insist that we’re unable to properly look after the area, and it’s now under their protection."

Iona gave a curt nod.

"The villagers are understandably scared after getting abducted, and there’s nothing quite like a band of knights freeing them all to make them grateful."

Sigrun pounded on her desk twice, making her displeasure known.

"If the Pekari weren’t endemic to the rest of the world, I would’ve sworn that was a setup by the Red Lions. What else?"

Sigrun continued to debrief Iona, getting the full breadth of adventures and questing she’d been up to since the Dusk Valkyrie had last been at home base.

Sigrun flipped it open, and started scanning.

"That’s right, divinely blessed. Your track record is impressive. It’s like you’ve been a full Valkyrie for twenty years, not four." Having gotten what she needed, Sigrun snapped the folder shut.

"To serve and protect is my calling." Iona modestly accepted the compliment, not sure where Sigrun was going with this.

"When was the last time you took a break?" Sigrun leaned back in her chair, giving Iona a pointed look.

"Last night? I slept?" Iona wasn’t used to this line of questioning.

"No, I mean relaxed. Had time off. Did something for yourself. Talked with a mind-healer."

"Last night? It was, uh, relaxing?"

Iona wanted to cringe at Sigrun’s look, but she was more professional than that.

"Who’s your closest friend?"

"Julie." Iona snapped back without thinking.

"The same Julie for whom I’m holding a letter of complaint from the convent dedicated to Ness? The same Julie who’s now a nun, and not easy to talk with?" Sigrun gave Iona a piercing glare.

"Yes?"

Sigrun gave a disappointed sigh.

"Iona. You’re not the first to push yourself so hard, nor will you be the last. However, I’m not losing one of my Valkyries to overwork. You are taking a break. You are getting some friends, and if I have any say in it, a companion."

Iona saluted.

"Grandmaster. What would you have me do?"

Sigrun pulled out a fancy letter from Iona’s file. It was written on pristine, white paper, with a number of fancy flourishes and seals.

"We’re not doing well." Sigrun seemingly changed the conversation. "Under my leadership, the Valkyries have declined."

"It’s not your fault!" Iona protested. "The goblins-"

Sigrun held up her hand, and Iona closed her mouth.

"It’s not my fault. It is my responsibility. Such is the price of leadership. Speaking of leadership." Sigrun gave Iona one last measuring look.

"You’re going to be one of the officers." Sigrun told Iona. "You’ve worked hard enough, shown admirable dedication to the order, but most importantly, you’ve solved numerous issues with tact and diplomacy, rather than simply resorting to cracking the responsible party’s skull. You work well with people, and with a bit of training up, I believe you’ll make a fine officer."

Iona remained silent, one part feeling chastised, seven parts not knowing what to say. Sigrun was showing a shocking amount of trust and faith in Iona, and it took her by surprise.

"My plan for you is simple. You’re going to find a companion. You’ll then head off to the School of Sorcery and Spellcraft, to learn everything you can about leadership and administration, along with the whole host of other skills you’ll need to properly be an officer. Your companion will have a chance to grow up safely, and you can learn more about him or her. You’ll get a chance to make new friends, and establish proper networking. Meet the up and coming movers and shakers. Have people you know around the world."

Iona bowed her head.

"How can we afford it? Doesn’t the school practically charge a barony for admission?"

Sigrun got a smug look on her face.

"Yes. I’ve been talking with them though, and they’re interested in you. Very interested. You’ve been offered admission with no examination, and all expenses paid to attend."

Sigrun continued to look like a cat with cream, as Iona tried to parse how, or why, the School of Sorcery and Spellcraft would be interested in her.

Sigrun let her struggle for a bit, then showed some mercy. Mostly out of a desire to get the meeting over with, and get on with the rest of her work.

"It’s your blessing. Your ability to speak and know every language. The linguistics department wants you to work for them, helping them translate old texts, and correct any misunderstandings in words they have. They think having you for five years will be the same as less-blessed researchers working five hundred years."

Iona frowned.

"The linguistics department? With all due respect, I’m not sure how much I’d learn at the linguistics department, even at the School of Sorcery and Spellcraft. Wouldn’t Calador be better? You went there, right?"

"Just because the linguistics department wants you, doesn’t mean you can’t attend the rest of the School." Sigrun pointed out like it was the most obvious thing in the world. "Plus, I doubt they’d let you take the Linguistic Track, or any other language Track. As for Calador, it knows war, administering armies, and not much else." Sigrun gestured broadly at the room, the three empty desks hammering home their situation once more. "Look where we are now. Look where that’s brought us. Also, I hate to say it, but the School of Sorcery and Spellcraft gives a better education than Calador. We never managed to beat them while I was there. Lastly, nearly every officer ends up at Calador. We’re trying something new with you."

Sigrun drummed her fingers for a moment.

"There’s also the matter of your third class, which I don’t doubt you’ll unlock. I personally think you should look into a Mallium [Warrior] class. You’ve got a full set of the metal, and the amount you’ve been using it should offer you a strong class in that direction. At the same time, the professors at the School can guide you better than I ever could. They have tricks to help unlock powerful classes, and attending will be a boon."

Sigrun’s eyes flickered to a timepiece, and the pace of her speech picked up.

"The School will be passing by Lyon in the fall. Be there. For the next nine months, you are on companion acquiring duty, and taking a break."

Iona bit her lip to keep her protest unvoiced. Sigrun gave her a knowing glare.

"Companions take time. You can’t just snap your fingers and acquire one. We have no stock, the goblins saw to that. You can ask the local branch of Florence’s Friends if they have anything, but the latest report I have from them isn’t promising." Sigrun paused to collect her thoughts.

"While I won’t gainsay you if fate intervenes, and you bond with a golden eagle or something, I’ll remind you that companions will end up being a significant part of your personal power. A friend to lean on. A mount. Transportation. An ear for your troubles. Someone who can stand by you, through thick and thin. I’m not knocking the majestic eagle, but when push comes to shove, would you rather a spinosaurus or an eagle at your back? I suggest you ponder the question while you winter here. You’ll most likely be heading to the Dairalt Republic in the spring. Dismissed."

Iona saluted, turned on her feet, and left.

Iona pondered her new… mission? Find a companion. Take a break.

She had mixed feelings about wintering at Castle Valkyrie. On one hand, she wouldn’t need to be riding through snow and freezing mud, always a plus. On the other, being cooped up in the nearly empty castle for a season?

Well, more Valkyries would find their way home as the winter storms rolled in. Iona reassured herself that there’d be more people around.

Iona made it back to her spartan room, her home in a sense. There she added her sketchbooks onto the piles of other sketchbooks she’d filled while traveling around.

She paused a moment, then reached out to grab the one she’d just added in. She idly opened it, and flipped through some of her drawings.

She smiled, memories washing over her as she looked through the pictures. Bird’s Eye in the crow’s nest. The ruin of The Black Shark.

She frowned as she flipped to the sketch she made of the healer, her head on a pike. It was worth drawing and remembering the bad with the good.

She flipped to Julie, and smiled a sad, bitter smile as tears welled up in her eyes.

There was a good chance that picture was the last she’d ever see of her.

Iona closed the book with a snap, and tossed it back onto the pile with the rest. She got up, stretched, and left her room, looking to see who else was around.

The silver lining in the whole mess that was Goblin’s Death - there’d been one Valkyrie casualty in the last four years. Each survivor was a powerhouse in and of themselves, and there were still the large numbers of Valkyries who hadn’t been nearby when the call came out. Not all was lost.

The vast majority of the squires, the future of the order, were gone.

Iona didn’t want to spend all her time stuck inside though. She spent one ridiculously memorable night with Randall, the idiot werewolf forgetting what phase the moons were in and turning what should’ve been a fun night into a near life-or-death scrap, Iona’s [Vow] not kicking in when it was pure self-defense, and the starting angle being terrible.

She didn’t see Randall again. Not after that magnitude of mistake.

Iona did respect the rule on no fraternization among Valkyries, and her winter was miserable as a result. She spent some of her time playing games and telling stories with the other Valkyries who’d made it back for the winter, along with training the three poor squires who had the undivided attention of half the order.

Many days would find Iona in the chapel, kneeling in prayer. Communing with her patron goddesses. They’d talk back, the three of them having the most wonderful conversations.

Iona prayed for peace and guidance. She prayed just to talk. She made reasonable requests and outrageous jokes.

She prayed for her dead friends to come back. The squires and Valkyries who’d died in Goblin’s Death. She prayed for Lux to come back. Impossible prayers, but she made them nonetheless, Lunaris and Selene never tiring of her.

Iona also brushed up on her combat fundamentals, and started a refresher course on mounted combat. Lances were the undisputed king of mounted combat, the only differences being varying schools of thought of which types were better. Many one-and-done lances, mundane lances, enchanted lances, skill-reinforced lances, there was a dizzying array of options.

Iona also took the time to practice and learn a number of esoteric weapons, weapons that hadn’t been covered when she was a squire learning from Alruna because, quite frankly, they were rare, hard to obtain, and not in common usage for a reason.

Mallium made obtaining the weapons trivial, and to Iona’s surprise, she discovered that she had a real affinity for glaives, the elegant weapons fitting well with her.

At the same time, rattling around in the empty hallways - especially without Alruna, who was off doing something - was driving Iona nuts, and the moment spring started to hint at showing up, she was off.

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Selkie

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