The blossoming lass, perched upon a clifftop, would gaze down upon a forlorn chasm littered with the bones of giants. No flora grew. No birds bantered. Vultures had long since migrated to greener pastures. Not even pests of any sort could be seen or heard droning about. And each breath young Sunastia took in felt livelier than the last.
The scarred valley before her was exactly as her nightmares portrayed it, but the many blessings of the Weaver of Dreams in recent moons revealed little about this place, and her own dabbling in torpormancy revealed only enough to add to the mystery. She dreamed the dreams of scholars and superstitious commonfolk alike. She knew of theories which claimed this valley was the site of a great battle between giant and man during the latter’s age of migration. She knew of folktales which claimed the Perished God Narhamatas peeled away the land to reveal a sliver of the outermost of the Seven Hells as a final act of spite. Naught brought her any closer to the truth of what transpired here, as if it and all within had died without having lived. The spectacle marred the robust terrain of Urnfeldt, the ‘Land of Giants’ whose bones became trees to the untrained eye. Death nurturing life: a cosmic cycle. And yet, here, the cycle seemed to break. Now these colossi, whose every step once roared across the land, were still as the air sang their song of silence.
"There!" reported the nearby spotter with confidence. He pointed to the northeast where flew, in the distance, his trained falcon in a circuitous frenzy. Hoping to catch a glimpse of their quarry--a colossal wolf--Sunastia extended her scope and held it to her eye, but there were far too many gargantuan skeletons blocking her view. Upon lowering her scope, she noticed the hunting party was already en route. True to their word, they left their horses behind so that they might approach their quarry undetected. The clouds overhead obscured the imparting stars and conjured a wind with a whistle most unusual. Perhaps the elementals here, unaccustomed they surely were to visitors, were simply greeting them--or so she hoped. As the wind took reprieve, a howl crossed her ears. It was not, however, a howl like any she'd heard from a colossal wolf before. It seemed like a languished cry from a beast that had lost its way. For Sun and her twin sister Luna, it would herald what would either be the best or worst night of their blooming lives.
"Well, Sun, you dragged me along on this. Don't let me drag you now. Let's go!"
"Of course, Your Impetuousness!"
"Grechen take the hindmost!"
The two made haste down a rocky outcropping toward the band of Colossi Hunters. What a rare sight it was that these twins, each of affluent nobility, would involve themselves in performance of a service which many in their station would consider beneath them. Well, perhaps themselves is an overstatement. Luna could not be expected to help. Sunastia liked to think of her as the tail of a horse: that which adds to the fairness of the whole but not the usefulness, and which conceals the ass behind it. And she would mean that in the most flattering way possible. Sometimes.
Initially, these hunters dreaded the idea of letting them participate, as they presumably--and justifiably--feared the infamous wrath of their father: the Nasidh of Dorme Province himself. It took no piddling use of actuapathy magic on Sunastia's part to convince them to do so. And it took a more traditional and individualized sort of persuasion to convince her sister to tag along with her. Soft? Boring? Luna, the majestic, martial danseuse of the Sparring League of the Syndicate of the Kurmalgan Arts? Never! Sunastia always delighted in getting under her sister's skin.
But to more serious ends, she wanted to impress upon Luna the reasons why the mirk--the commonfolk--looked up to these Colossi Hunters the way they used to look up to her fellow Kurmalga. Indeed, a mirk boy of tender years would rarely aspire to be aught else. Just to behold them left quite the impression on Sun. Decked from head to toe in their faelsium plated armor, enchanted to provide camouflage which conformed itself to whatever environment they tread upon, they appeared, even from a dozen or so paces behind, a translucent haze. Yet the sharp contours of their armor gave them imposing and captivating silhouettes. Even the scabbards for their displacer swords received this enchantment. They appeared as though they could vanish from sight completely should they gain a few paces on her.
Luna, despite her spiritual shortcomings, was a majestic sight in her own right. Those highborn scarlet eyes seemed to singe Sun's own whenever they crossed her gaze. Yet she could not deny there was a certain persuasive grace about them. A magical one, in fact, much like their mother's. Even Sunastia, as bright and scrupulous as she was, found herself moved by them from time to time. And Luna's long hair was as silver as Messer, the greater moon, which her silky strands would momentarily caress in a picturesque splendor. From the greater moon, tears of envy flowed with streams of moonlight glistening in the strands. They were like rivers, winding and wending toward a serene sea: Luna's marble face. And from two humble moons, tears of envy might have trickled onto the ashen ground before Sunastia's feet.
Indeed, when the greater moon was full, the lesser moon was umbral. Oh, what Sunastia once would give to wake up one morning blessed with the noble scarlet eyes and silver hair of the Kurmalga! Then she might have inherited the destiny of a stateswoman or married a Rondelian prince. Alas, those recessive features eluded her at birth. Despite her otherwise conventional attractiveness--those soft features, delicate lips and fair skin--her pale blue eyes and sandy brown hair rendered all of it moot in the eye of prestige. And Sunastia, perhaps due to her inconsistent dedication to martial training or her tendency to get lost in thought, soon found herself trailing her nimbler sister.
"Behind as always, eh Sun?"
"Pft. Small wonder. It must be killing you that you can't see their backsides from here."
"Tcha. Just try not to preoccupy yourself with whatever pests crawl about in this Gods forsaken place, yeah? Just this once?"
Upon reaching the bottom, the two quickly found themselves immersed within the labyrinthine menagerie of bones. They skittered through ribs and vertebrae and around femur and fibula. Each step produced a ghastly echo threatening to rouse some unseen threat from its slumber. The spectral forms of their guides grew dim. The larger bones screened them from view, her eyes straining each time to recapture their feint visage. The hunters were quite obviously not accustomed to being guides. Fortunately for Sun, she made sure to take note of their ethereal essences, the likes of which she possessed a strong sensitivity to. She would then recite mentally the relevant astral verse:
The scent they bear the stars shall know.
The trail they leave shall aether show.
The ursine nose reveals afar
To lion's eyes its quarry's scar.
And simultaneously, with her right pointer finger, she traced the constellation of Ranli, a giant mountain lion from Urnesian folklore that was said to offer guidance to Nasidha of ages past. She would then briefly close her eyes and bring her hands together, her fingers laced but for her pointers, which came together to form a triangle, its apex in line with the bridge of her nose. Once she opened her eyes, she beheld them illumined with a phosphorescent glow. To her astonishment, they must have been hundreds of paces ahead.
Luna's pace began to wane as she struggled to ascertain the whereabouts of the hunters. "Gods take them, Sun! How inconsiderate of them not to leave us some way to keep track of them."
"I think it's time I showed you who the inadequate one is. Just follow my lead."
"Hmph!" Luna scoffed, but she'd acquiesce.
The more they traversed this terrain, the less congruous Sun felt. She and Luna may have descended from the elite class of warriors who vanquished the native giants nearly a millennium ago, but an age of peace had since morphed their once noble caste into something preoccupied with affluence, comfort and purity. Now, on so unlikely a quest and in so wretched a place, she felt like a pitiable pup in search of her wayward masters.
Their footsteps saturated the ashen ground. Each breath they drudged up would slice the deadened air like an embalmer's blade upon a cadaver's flesh. The bones became denser in number the further they tread. The earth cast a pervasive gray dust, ravaging the air about their senses and burying the heavens in a thick haze. Blinded thus, the moons could no longer amuse themselves at their misfortunes.
"Wow, Sun, this is a blast. Can't think of anywhere I'd rather be right now," remarked Luna between sporadic pants and coughs. "I'm so glad you dragged me along on this. I can definitely see why the mirk look up to this lot. No nobler way to die than by choking on dust or getting lost in a graveyard!"
"Oh, stop being such a baby, Luna," Sun chided. She looked ahead and gestured toward Luna. "They've stopped just ahead. It must be close. Time to put on your big girl pants!"
Luna grunted. Sun relished every opportunity to use her sister's propensities against her. It was mutual, though. Passive aggression was like a game to them.
They lightened their footsteps as they approached the hunters who could barely be seen squatting behind the round epiphysis of some manner of bone, which was somehow severed from its other end with the chipped upper portion protruding like a dagger which hung from above. Upon seeing the thing, Sun felt disconcerted. Nearly all the bones they hitherto encountered were whole, though many were partially buried. The chill of the saturated air grew more vexing as the sun parted completely beneath the horizon. The air was now as thick and gray as the fog which would set upon the meadows east of their palace every morning. This was no fog, however. And it being late evening meant the modest light of the stars and moons could not crack the murk, the resulting darkness shrouding whatever creature might have been present on the other side. As she fruitlessly peered around the jagged end, her imagination was left to wonder if the creature, or some other horror, had been responsible for the severance. No hint lie before her but the oppressively heavy breathing. 'Twas a colossal beast with colossal lungs. But was it its enormity or its closeness which made it so loud? Sun shuddered to ponder it. Yet she discerned from its breathing pattern that it must have been sleeping.
Just as Sun resolved to cast another detection spell, one of the hunters' number approached to meet them. He did so hastily, yet still crouched, and always on the balls of his feet. He moved as though he were a sort of animal himself. Sun released her active detection spell to ensure there would be no discrepancy between her perception and Luna's. His form now appeared full. And yet, decked as he was from head to toe in the same dashing armor as his comrades, she could not discern who he was until the moment he lifted his visor. His doing so revealed those dingy eyes which she knew belonged to Pharmalg Graymar, whose diminutive pupils seemed to probe and scrutinize her every word and gesture.
"Now's the time to apply that cloak o' yers," the hunter spoke in a hurried but hushed tone. "Yer aptitude had better be on point today--for all our sakes."
"I understand, Graymar. Don't worry yourself. It's pardoned me from my share of predicaments before. That isn't about to change."
"Well ye may be right about that, if yer blasted mind tricks are anything to go by."
Sunastia's breath momentarily halted in surprise. She thought she had been discreet in applying her manipulative magics, yet naught seemed to elude Graymar's seasoned perception. She thought it best not to respond.
"Don't look surprised, lass." Graymar's hand came crashing down on her shoulder. "Your kind are renowned for that sort of thing. And we aren't the sort to be given to sentiment, either. Now cast yer damn cloak, will ye?"
Sun nodded. She closed her eyes to better envision the constellation known as the Tears of Marisce, the mythical endless waterfall which crests at one edge of the universe and plunges at the other, obscuring from view even to the Living Gods the truth that lies beyond. Its vision in mind, she gestured with one hand in front of her face and her other hand toward Luna. Her fingers would then dance in emulation of a pristine shower which descended to veil them. She'd recall the astral verse:
Her face sublime, her deeds a tonic pure,
Conceived did she a fiend, and cast with wail
And bawl, cascading tall for want of cure
A waterfall. A sheltered scion's veil.
Her spell descended upon them in a similar manner and with a flickering spark. Though she could still see herself and her sister as though nothing had happened, she inferred from the spark that the spell was successful.
"Love of Nemma, I'm an arm's length away and I can't see ye at all. Consider me envious," said Graymar. His expression morphed from humble to smug with a snicker. "Can still smell yer perfume from hills away though, ye daft glitterati."
Sun and Luna glanced at one another in consternation. It did not take Luna long, however, to correct her composure with a grin before speaking. "Well now, Sun. Using the magic of a Perished One? You really are a problem child."
"Shh! Hush, Luna. Now's not the time."
With a satisfied smirk, Luna panned her gaze to the side.
It wasn't until now that Sun noticed the absurdity of their choice of attire. Luna stood adorned in her usual style, which she would cling to as if it were sacred. She wore a black brocade dress with narrow flounce sleeves and cloak, and a silver pattern of laced knottery decorating the sleeve ends and the outline of the cloak and neck to match her hair. For a mercy, she elected to do without the usual red ribbon she would wear on the back of her head, probably for fear that she'd lose it. Sun wore grey robes of fine satin with black floral patterns down the center of the fore and hind, and with a large hood that she always wore down, as she was fond of how her long, wavy locks sat cradled within it. Their outrageously fine garments now wore a coat of grime. Sun had hoped to make an impression on her sister this night. Now, she was already beginning to feel ridiculous about it. She tried to write it off, however, assuring herself that the good part was still to come.
"I know I don't need to remind you two to stay a safe distance away, but I will anyway," advised Graymar. "Ye've got the easiest jobs of all of us, so don't go mucking that up."
He pivoted and started back for his comrades, who were whispering amongst each other and snickering here and there. Of their number had one, presumably scouting the area for hazards or other threats, disappeared from view. As the hardy huntsman rejoined the rest, another gust of wind finally broke the stillness and cleared the haze before them. Sun, who didn't want to waste the chance to catch a good glimpse of the beast on the other side, instantly grabbed Luna by the wrist and led her to a clearing with such haste that she neglected to mind the clamor of her footsteps. Fortunately for her, the colossal wolf on the other side was indeed asleep, its back resting against a giant's skull. And it was likely too far away to be roused by modest sounds. Though its size was difficult to appreciate from such a distance, its head alone Sun knew to be as large in diameter as her entire body was tall, and she was just above average in height for a young woman of her generation. She also read that the beast's jaws were powerful enough to snap her in twain thrice over, and a single step from one would crush her bones, but this one almost seemed too peaceful in its slumber to be a threat. It quivered from time to time as if dreaming. It was as the reports had said: a lone wolf making its home in, of all places, the Graveyard of Giants. Considering the lack of local wildlife to serve as prey, Sun suspected that the beast raided the cattle of local walloch ranches to sustain itself. What confounded Sun is wherefore it chose to make this place, pulled straight from the Four Hells, its home. Walloch was a great source of nutrients, but the closest ranches were many felspans away. The same could be said of any appreciable wolf habitat. In that regard, she wondered where it could have come from.
"That creature looks sad, Sun. It must be lonely out here," remarked a stuttering Luna. "Do we really have to kill it?"
"I didn't know you had a soft spot for wolves of all things! And to think you call me a pity slave and a moralist. Hm, hm. I suppose it makes sense, though. You are something of a wolf in lamb skin, after all."
"Oh, you flatter me!" said Luna, feigning embarrassment with a recomposed smile and a press of her fingertips to her lips. "Why, yes, I suppose you could say I have something of an attachment to the creatures. A spirit animal, perhaps? Anyway, I just think it's a shame to see such a majestic creature meet its end in a place such as this. I know I wouldn't want that. Isn't there some way they can lead the thing to better surrounds?"
"I concur, Luna, but I doubt even they possess the means or the stamina for that. This place is vast, and there isn't proper woodland for many felspans. And these colossi are dreadfully fast in person. Besides, it's a necessity that they come to terms with taking the lives of creatures that are just trying to survive. It's easy for us to forget ourselves, being detached from the world as we are, kept up in that palace. Honestly, don't you just want to adventure out into the world and live a little from time to time?"
"Don't be ashamed of your privilege, meat. I'd trade my life for yours in a heartbeat," a voice interjected from behind them. Sun turned to see a female Colossi Hunter whose armor she wore fitted neatly to the contours of her body to reveal an athletic, toned physique. A steam-powered crossbow made of faelsium was strapped to her back. It was almost as long as she was tall. It was a wonder how she managed to carry it so effortlessly, her posture not hampered by its bearing in the slightest. Indeed, it more closely resembled a sort of ballista than a typical crossbow. Hers was a sight that rivaled Luna's in its majesty, though it was majestic in a wholly different sense--imposing yet gorgeous. She continued. "That's what we humans live for, to make survival an easier feat. It's why we do what we do, so that we all have an environment more conducive to our survival. Surely you didn't think it was about 'preserving the natural balance' or some such tripe? We don't have the luxury of frivolity like that."
"A-hem," Luna interposed, visibly offended by the interruption and unsettled by having been taken unawares. "To answer your question, dear sister, I do indeed get that urge sometimes. I'm keeping a list of many adventures I hope to undertake one day. Ideally, they would be done alongside a handsome provincial prince. I would show it to you so we could embark on one or two of our own, but with you badgering me so rudely today, I'm rather inclined not to."
"Well, aren't you a little miss sunshine?"
"Come now, you two," Sunastia pleaded with a giggle. "You're correct, madam. Even so, life is more valuable when it's fulfilling. We all want for what our daily lives fail to provide. For you, that's comfort. For me, it's excitement. I want to better acquaint myself with the people we Kurmalga have the gall to lord over. For that matter, I don't believe we've been properly introduced. I'm Sunastia, and Her Impetuousness over there is named Luna."
"Name's Naya, and I'd take the time to get better acquainted with you both, but we've got a job to do, and it looks like they're about done squabbling over there." She grabbed the strap which held her crossbow sheath and pulled on it, foisting it higher on her back. "Not gonna lie. I was hoping things would be more interesting than this, but it seems like that beast is content to just snooze away while we kill it in its sleep."
"You and me both," said Sun.
The huntress turned toward the rest of her band, made her way toward them with a swagger in her step and waived nonchalantly while addressing them. "Sorry I'm late to the picnic, fellas."
"Do you think she followed our voices, Sun, or do you suppose she saw us? Because it seemed to me that she saw us. Looks like your little spell isn't as impressive as you made it out to be!" Luna giggled. "But, you know, she had a point. And so do you, for that matter. Things are a little too uninteresting right now, and this filthy air is getting to be rather bothersome. I think I might--achoo!"
Luna feigned a loud, high-pitched sneeze which echoed perilously throughout the valley. Everyone present turned and cast their gazes in their direction before the stirring wolf recaptured them. It grunted and growled menacingly upon waking. Emerging on all fours, it sniffed the air and directed its gaze toward the twins' location. It snarled, and its hair stood on end like pikes emerging from its flesh. Its growl deepened as it tread cautiously forward, as though it could not see what it was up against but knew about where it was. The colossal threat approaching Sunastia dispelled her urge to chastise her sister's reckless behavior.
Graymar pressed down on his right wrist plate, releasing the camouflage enchantment and revealing the dark green hue of the faelsium. The hunter who had parted to scout ahead followed suit, rushing to join him. They swiftly made for the wolf's right flank from their respective positions with displacer swords drawn. It turned its gaze toward them and howled with deafening potency. Sunastia loathed feeling like a burden. She thought of aiding them. And so she performed a dance of enervation to cripple the beast's vitality. She'd gradually squat to the ground, her arms undulating slowly and ominously in front of her--a charm to trance the current of aether within the wild behemoth. An unseen current seemed to be commanding her movements. And she'd sing in whispers of the Old Tongue a song by the name of Valkra's Lingering Hex. Yet she could only manage to recite a few verses before the behemoth redirected its attention to their location. Its growl became more venomous as it bore the fullness of its teeth. Her spell had only managed to recapture its ire. Sun cursed under her breath. Her spell was too weak. If only she had her wand or her caribou antlers with her; then it would surely be potent enough! What's more, the spark returned, this time from feet to scalp. A wave of dread washed over her in reverse manner. Her efforts had relinquished her cloaking spell. The behemoth, at a slow and emboldened pace, resumed its pursuit of them. Before long, Sunastia could feel the heat of its immense breath bearing down on her like a humid summer squall.
"What're ye doin'?" Graymar shouted. "Vark! Wister! Protect them with yer lives, or I'll kill the both of ye me-self!"
Two of the four hunters who remained behind rushed to position themselves between the beast and the siblings. They, too, released their enchantments and drew their displacer swords: long, slightly curved blades of greenish faelsium. The wolf was undeterred. Sun was not about to let her inadequacy be the reason for anyone's death. She could not bear the thought. She peered about hysterically, managing to spot a splintered shard of bone on the ground beside her. She hastened to gather it and brandished it in front of her before chanting and gesturing in fervid desperation. The beast's face became awash with terror. Sun had used the bone as a catalyst to channel her own fear into the creature. It recoiled momentarily before turning and retreating in the opposite direction, where Graymar happened to be. The wolf halted upon noticing him.
The hunter who remained with Naya had prepared a crossbow stand that he carried folded at his hip, much like one would a sword in its scabbard. Naya drew her crossbow by reaching over her shoulder and grabbing its riser, and with one hand she immediately foisted it off her back and let it fall forward onto her readied arms. She placed it onto the stand with a snap. Her partner would then remove a bolt from his back quiver and fasten it to the bolt track against the serving.
The beast, cornered, retreated to its hind legs before vaulting toward Graymar. In two long strides, the wolf was upon him. It bore jaws like a dragon's and teeth like curved swords. Graymar pulled a trigger on the underside of his crossguard, and with that his blade would turn an incandescent red. With a forceful diagonal slash, he struck the beast's lower jaw. The towering creature's momentum flung Graymar from his feet. His sword, rived from his grasp, plummeted flimsily, its blade scorching the soil as it landed. The wolf would recoil, smoke spewing forth from its face as its skin and tissues cauterized, and erupt into a harrowing howl, which would quickly contort into a racking cacophony of wails and throes. Vark and Wister waylaid the wolf from behind. They too would trigger the displacer magic in their swords. They would then slice mercilessly into each of the wolf's hind ankles. Its vital tendons severed, the anguished animal instantly collapsed, its cries morphing into whimpers. It tried in futile desperation to drag itself away. Sunastia watched on, her face wrought with pity from the creature's plight.
Naya maneuvered the crossbow at its stock, rotating it toward the creature's head as she peered through the mounted scope. Her cohort pulled a lever down the length of the foregrip, drawing the bolt back on its track. As he did so, air was drawn through a vacuum into a pressurizing chamber. Naya gestured toward him. A hiss pierced the air. He released the lever. The bolt flew ahead as the pressure was released. It could scarcely be seen on its path before striking the beast through its rib cage, its head crashing lifelessly to the filth ridden ground with its face half buried in ash. Naya and her comrade then made their way toward the rest of their band, who were gathering by the creature as if to check its vital signs for life.
Sunastia stood motionless for a moment or two, her eyes welling with grief.
"I--I'm so sorry, Sun!" pleaded Luna, fighting back tears of her own. "I didn't know what their swords could do! That poor wolf. What have I done?"
"You mooncalf!" Sun would struggle to keep her voice from breaking. "They could have simply put the beast down with Naya's crossbow while it slept, but you had to make things more 'exciting.' Well? Was it exciting enough for you?"
"I know, Sun. I'm so sorry. I wasn't thinking."
Sunastia's urge to retaliate with a 'what else is new?' quickly dissipated upon witnessing Luna fall to her knees. It wasn't often that Luna's sentiments went unchecked by her ego, but it was not an unprecedented experience for Sun. Indeed, Luna's vainglorious temperament often belied how protective she was of the people to whom and the things to which she felt an emotional attachment. Sunastia bore witness to each of these paradoxical traits of hers, likely more often than anyone else in Luna's life. Not lost on Sun was how exclusively her sister would open up to her, the one person in Luna's life who did not assail her with unattainable expectations. She began to suspect that, fond as Luna was of the creatures, she woke the wolf so it might've had a chance to fight for its life.
"I--I'm sorry for the outburst, Luna," said Sun, placing a hand upon her shoulder to console her. "It's over, alright? Its pain didn't last long. It could have gone worse."
"No. You're right. I have been a damned mooncalf today, haven't I?"
The wolf suddenly stirred once more. His whimpering now espousing an amalgam of anguish and sorrow, he dragged himself across the tarnished earth with his fore feet toward the skull against which he had slumbered. Every step he took was a dismal struggle. He collapsed here and there before picking himself up again, leaving trails of blood on the grimy ground as he went. The hunters looked on, seemingly unsure of how to proceed. At last, with those precious final reserves of living willpower and strength, he reached the skull. Then, beset with frailty, he rested his chin on its temple before closing his eyes as the aether finally left him. The greater moon would reemerge from the haze and weep its light upon him. Not one to miss a spectacle, the lesser moon's silhouette peeked above the distant hills for the first time this night. All present--even the seasoned huntsmen--stood spellbound.
"So that's it," said Sun in transfixed monotone. "The Wyrfeldt would keep these wolves as their companions. That's why he made his home here. He didn't want to leave his master's side. And now his master's memory dies with him."
The wolf who died a body-less shadow would lay still on its fallen master's flesh-less cheek. In that moment, Sunastia's posture straightened. Her eyes fixated on something out of reach yet gleamed with a purpose to snatch it. She endeavored that this creature's howl would be heard through her living voice, that a million and one lives not lived she would live, and cries not heard she would cry 'til phantoms carried her deadened voice to hearts untouched. Breathing life onto death, she would see the cycle restored.
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