The air is still. Sharp knives of mist slice through trees and bramble, vines and moss. It's quiet, deathly so. Aching and sick, the forest wilts and shudders, the echo of soldiers' feet pounding through soil, bark, and branches. Feathers rustle, a dove warbles a mourning sigh, sticks crack and break. Trembling hands and shaking fingers, a breath catches and eyes water.
The forest lives, it fears and hopes. It's a being of its own, spreading vastly outside the once great walls of Solace. Storytellers call the ancient trees cursed, a blight, a horrible, vicious thing that consumes those who enter with a hateful heart.
Those who wield angry axes and cruel hands are whispered to have been swallowed whole, dragged under soil and suffocated in roots and brambles. The trees grow at an alarming rate, and vines swirl through branches unnaturally.
Rumors from townsfolk of the once great empire tell of a lost hope, a prayer to the vines and bushes, a desperate plea for pity from the cruel thicket and barren lands. Most travelers will go a day's worth or more to avoid the forest and the sparse fields around it, tales of the cursed lands and foul creatures that dwell within the dense thicket on their lips.
Amongst tradesmen and refugees, travelers and huntsmen that take heed to such warnings, a swarm of metal-clad soldiers also heed the tale.
The leader of the legion, adorned in gleaming armor and a flowing cobalt cloak sits on a broad war horse, its flank steaming and nostrils snorting. The ground shudders under the creature's hooves, its rider's head on a pivot. Silver eyes take in the towering trees from beneath a big cat bone mask as the warrior rides towards the walls of Solace, crests flying high above the army's head. The path changes from grass and alfalfa, wild roses and weeds, to cobble and stone.
Blood-spattered men surge forward, metal clunking and scraping as calloused hands reach to pry apart doors for their leader. The newly conquered empire's gates open with a sobbing groan, a creak of weary chains and hinges.
Weary heads turn to the sound like moths drawn to a flame, the incoming armada greeted with hopeful glances. Starving people turn hunger-dulled eyes with growing optimism as the Warrior's steed trots into the town. A towering statue of the newly slain ruler stares down the army, stone eyes cruelly glaring, cracked hands wielding a useless sword and shield. The statue's smug features no longer match the muse, the man it was molded after rotting and festering in a ditch, maggots and flies eating away at skin.
No longer a cruel tyrant, a bastard and whoreson, starving his people while he feasts, the children hold no fear for the visage. Nothing but a meal for the vultures and doves, the King's body rots just as young hands beat and chip away at the memory of the leader that laughed as they writhed in dirt and ruin.
With a wave of a gauntleted hand, the Warrior’s men disperse with quiet chattering, spreading out into the ill city like a cure. There are resources, food, medical supplies, and manpower to nurse the shabby walls and empty souls back to its former glory. A small group of four remain and flank the leader's sides as travel weary heels prod the dusty steed onwards, heading towards the sprawling castle at the center of the city.
People reach for their savior, dusty hands, trying to touch the shining metal covering the warrior's body in reverence. Whispers ring through dilapidated streets, titles and names, legends and stories.
“The Undying Sword, The God of Nine Lives, Soul breaker.”
Thanks and praise follow the subtle voices in a much louder tune, filling the air with the most noise the sad city walls have heard in a long while. It’s a bizarre thing, to have suffering people that are now under the warrior’s protection reach out like they are a god, for the armor-wearing legend is not. The legend is a man, a mere mortal of half blood.
When the warrior finally enters the inner walls, into the castle's keep, metal legs swing down from the war horse, feet hitting the ground with a heavy thud. The soldiers dismount in suit, but the warrior towers over them, as well as the guards that usher them into the warmth of the building.
The first official order from chapped and bitten lips is to open up the castle gates for those whose homes were destroyed, soldiers fanning out to retrieve those in need. Metal boots clank against the stone floor, echoing through the walls of the castle as exhausted villagers file into the building, and into the Soul Breaker’s care.
It’ll be backbreaking work to build the fallen empire back up, patch holes and mend seams, but The God of Nine Lives has done it before and can do it again. Aching limbs and grinding bones, the warrior searches for a place to rest and finds a balcony through pretentious silk curtains. With a much-needed breath, the warrior steps into the outside air. Wind whistles through the eyeholes of the cat bone mask, and the warrior leans against the stone banister with a sigh and unclips the false face, setting it on the worn railing.
The Undying Sword tilts her chin up, the air cooling her sweaty brow, and looks over the kingdom now under her protection. She can’t help but feel exhausted. Though she fights like an animal, kills like a demon, and towers over her opponents like a god, Talanah is only human. Or, close enough. Tugging long ashy hair from her ponytail with a wince, rolling her neck as the wind brushes over her pointed ears and through the flowing locks that cascade down her back in snarls and tangles.
She closes her eyes, and faces the setting sun, enjoying the heat that runs over her scarred skin. There's so much to be done. Rules to enforce and trip apart, homes to build, gardens and crops to plant, armies to strengthen, people to keep alive.
Sparks and swirls flash behind her eyelids and she sways on her feet, exhausted. The scent of iron and sweat clings to her, blood crusted to her knuckles and plates of armor. A soft warbling coo filters through the air and she flicks open her eyes with a jolt.
A beige dove circles above her head, and lands delicately on the roof of a spire. The creature tilts its head at her a few times, then ruffles its feathers and nestles in to rest, soft plumage rustling in the breeze. She smiles at the feathered critter, watches it watch her, then drops her head to look at the homes sprawled out under her feet.
The wind curls around her, swirling through her cape and dancing over her form. The weight of the world rests on her armored shoulders, the baggage of spreading an empire of peace and prosperity heavy on her heart. The dove takes off with a flurry of wings, and Lana watches the bird soar into the air. She might stay here, at least longer than normal, that is.
Kingdom hopping takes its toll, after all. Following the summons of a few desperate townsfolk, the plea of an untarnished dignitary amongst rotted ones, or just stumbling across some shit infested rats nest of royals just to tear it down to rebuild it is exhausting. Her lungs burn as she deeply inhales, trying to get the feeling of termites in her bones out, and exhales into the cooling air. Footsteps ring out behind her, and she immediately fastens the cat skull back to her face before spinning on her heel. Her work is never over.
It’s been a week since Talanah has added Solace to her list of conquests, and progress is being made slowly but surely. She rides a wagon into the city square, body swaying with the motion from where she hangs onto the back. Clad in light armor, the sun beats down on gleaming metal and scarred skin, her eyes shadowed by her mask. The rickety wagon is filled with paintings and small figures of the King she had slain. A crowd begins to gather as the stocky workhorse huffs to a stop, voices murmur and whisper, waiting for the new leader to speak, for her to speak, and with a vicious grin, she unlatches the back of the gate.
Figurines and canvas tumble out, once forcibly revered items sprawling in the dirt. The crowd falls into a tense silence, and Lanah surveys them. Cheeks gaunt and hollow eyes, ratty and thin hair, tattered clothing, they stare at her. She raises her arm, waves it at the once precious artwork with a mighty flourish.
“Have at it.”
She speaks in a raspy, rich voice, spite, and a little bit of humor, laced into her words. The townsfolk shift from side to side, a throng of wary beasts once stricken. For a moment Lanah has to consider that they are too broken, too beaten and scared, but her heart settles from where it had climbed into her throat when an elderly woman steps out of the mass of bodies. The solid thunk of her dry and brittle walking stick seems to shake the earth, the world holding its breath as she hobbles forwards, watchful eyes trained on a woman who has seen many suns. Old weathered hands, wrought with wrinkles and veins, calluses and scars from a well-lived life, reach out.
It seems to take supernatural strength, the woman carefully taking a framed painting with a reverence that has silence sounding deathly. Cloudy eyes trace over the canvas, her lip trembles, and she purses it.
And she drops it.
Hurls it, to be more accurate, as hard as she can into the dust and mud and filth. Down it goes, painted faces staring emotionlessly upwards as she lifts the walking stick in her hand like a goddess, and brings it down hard. She grinds the end into the canvas, a small and satisfied grin spreading over her weather face, and she spits onto the image.
The citizens swarm the wagon after that, starving for retribution. The sounds of ripping paper and fabrics fill the air in a beautiful symphony. A burly man in an apron emerges from the throng, wielding a torch. He tosses it, pupils alight with flame as the torch lands on the shredded ruins of a cruel man. A cheer erupts, trembling the statue that stares impassively at the center of it all.
Painting after painting, figurine and cloth, it meets its fate of fire, a small inferno licking away at whatever is fed to it. The air feels lighter, children wielding sticks and picture frame remnants and beating on whatever they can reach, young adults slinging mud and hoisting each other up to chip away at the massive, gaudy statue that kept them all in chains. It’s wonderful chaos, one that Lanah somehow gets lost in. She can’t help but feel a sense of pride when there’s a shout of triumph, another of glee, and the Tyrant King’s stone head falls, just like the one of flesh and blood had under her blade.
It lands with a mighty sound, dust pluming up around it. The cheers somehow grow louder, dirty hands clasp, and the youths dance around the decapitated visage with glee. It seems to be the start of something wonderful, others rushing forwards and showing the statue what they think of who it represents. Chips and cracks caused by swinging wood chunks and hammers spread over the smooth surface of the tyrant king, chunks of stone flying left and right. It's beautiful.
Talanah knows this isn’t her celebration. Unhitching the old workhorse, she pats it on the snout before guiding it through the crowd of destruction and joy. She slips away amidst the cheerful destruction of a tyrant king’s likeness unseen and returns to the castle, a smile branded on her lips.
Hooves clod against cobble and dirt, Lanah sways in the saddle. Metallic eyes sweep over the outside walls of Solace, searching for cracks and seams in the sky-high walls, trying to discern if any of it was weakened under her siege. Lanah had tried to keep the city as intact as possible, but one can never be certain of the damage of a full-scale assault.
The slow patrol is halted by a dove landing in her path, the creature fluffing its wings and pecking at the ground after it lands. Urging her horse forward the slightest bit, the mourning dove merely warbles and turns its blue beak towards her, head tilting side to side. A grin cracks at her lips, and she shifts, reaching into her saddlebag to retrieve a handful of dried nuts and fruit from her provisions.
Tossing it to the feathered creature, she dismounts her horse, tack jingling. As the bird feasts on the offered food, she steps away from the towering walls and faces outwards. A breeze ripples through the field under her gaze, and her eyes rest on the expansive forest that lies just outside of Solace. She simply watches, notices butterflies that flit through the field, a deer creeping along the edge of the thicket. her sharp eyes pick up the movement of a faun following the doe, and she smiles.
There’s an odd feeling in her mind when she looks into the woods and tries to make out anything of significance within the trees. It reminds her of the Temple of Gatholes, whispers of an ancient religion humming through painted lips and the jingling bells of the priestesses. She's not naive, she knows that she doesn't own the land the empire sits on, the ground she walks on.
Something much more powerful than man could ever be has laid claim to the area, and she would be a fool to believe otherwise, to try and fight it. Talanah is no fool.
Lanah feels nothing but relief when the corn and wheat fields take seed and grow. The soil hadn’t yielded much before she had arrived, and the people had suffered greatly for it. She does her best to help the empire crawl out of famine, working her share in the fields, but she's not certain that the good harvest is any of the people’s doing. They added manure and fertilizer to fields under her instruction, but the soil hums with a warm life when she runs her fingers through it to plant seeds.
She can feel the strength of something fresh and clean when she works in a garden, tends to a crop. The produce has been bountiful, and she only hopes the good luck the empire seems to lie in now stays. She hopes the gaunt look on children's faces will lessen with the food grown and parents will no longer go hungry.
There are more birds in the city now as well. Chirps and whistles fill the air as she works in the fields, the sun beating on her back as she pulls weeds with battle-weathered hands. It’s different. The land had been so quiet before, but it’s slowly starting to teem with life.
A storm batters the castle, thunder and lightning filling the air with noise and cracks of light. Talanah pushes open the large wooden door, forcing her body against the strength of the wind. Pulling the hood of her cloak over her head, she braves the raging downpour.
Rain beats at her body, ice-cold and harsh. Mud slicks her boots as she fights toward the stables, and she stumbles into the safety of the barn with a huff. She stomps her feet and flicks back the hood. It hadn’t done much, ashen hair soaked through. She pushes the sopping mess out of her eyes and gets to work.
She brushes the horses, refills water, and adds food to empty troughs. There's an odd scratching at the stable door, and she almost misses it over the sounds of the raging storm, but her keen ears pick it up. Lanah hesitantly creeps for the door, and pushes it open, hand on her sword.
She's greeted with a one-legged mourning dove, hopping in a funky limp, desperately trying to get to shelter from the freezing rain. She doesn’t think before she slams the door open as wide as she can under the force of the wind. Swearing under her breath, she scoops the wet bird up as fast as possible.
The creature squawks in fear and rage, wings flapping in an attempt to escape, and she sets it down as fast as possible inside the stable. The winged animal hobbles away from her, screeching the whole way until it buries itself into a pile of hay. The bird is soaked, and from the looks of it, rather sick. Its feathers are ratty and soaked to the bone, and it blinks blearily at her.
She can feel it watching her as she works, its eyes following her movements. It makes the skin on the back of her neck prick up. The scent of damp hay fills her nose, and she dazes out as she completes the work. Before she leaves the stable, she tosses a handful of barley in front of the bird and then faces the weather. When she goes to the stables the next day, the dove is gone.
Water drips from the roofs, landing in puddles. An orange cat weaves in and out of crates, then wraps in finality around Lanah’s legs, its hair frizzy with humidity. She watches as droplet after droplet falls, weighing the sword in her hand as the cat yowls up at her. Piles of mediocre weapons sit in water-logged trunks, waiting for her decision of either reforging or tossing the item. Unfortunately, her musings about rain and weapons are cut short when a soldier marches up to her side and salutes her. The sharp clank of light armor signifies the knight’s movement, and Lanah tilts her head to stare at the man.
The soldier wavers under Lanah’s gaze, eyes not quite knowing where to land on the mask she wears. “Ma'am, Reports say there is a band of the King’s men attempting to torch the outer ring of houses. We’ve stationed extra soldiers, but I’ve been told to notify you.”
The man speaks it all in one hurried breath, and Lanah merely nods. Her voice crackles with unuse, raspy and deep.
“Alright, Thank you.”
She dismisses the soldier with a nod, but the young man merely stares silently, standing at attention. She blinks once before speaking again.
“Back to your post. Stay safe.”
The soldier departs quickly, and she watches the man leave. The knight is relatively new, from Solace. He's a good kid, a decent fighter. In her opinion, too young.
She rolls the sword in her hand and swings it idly as she mulls over the report. She supposes she should take a watch at the outer ring, possibly waiting on the outside of the walls. Her soldiers had searched the city for any more of the tyrant’s men, and she was fairly certain there were none of the Old King's sympathizers left inside the borders.
Lana leaves the stacks of crates and the street cat, mind already turning over strategies to stop the rumored arson. The wind blows, and the ground is slightly damp under her boots, but she's lost in her own thoughts, swirling over ideas as she makes her way back into the castle. She’ll be busy these next nights.
The men who planned the fires have been detained, and Lanah lets the townsfolk decide what to do with them after she interrogates them for roughly a week. She doesn't wait to hear the final judgment, instead, tells the captain of the guard to carry out the people's wishes.
She's leaning on the balcony she had first found the day she conquered the empire many months ago, staring out over the land. Her eyes rest on the forest, dark and green on the horizon. That little itch of something ancient tickles at her brain again, and she taps her fingers in a steady rhythm. She supposes that she should spare a visit to the thicket, try and greet whatever centuries-old creature owns the land she inhabits.
She had meant to sooner, but throughout the politics of settling a war, claiming an empire, and signing peace treaties, all while trying to build up a broken city, she had no time to spare. The wind blows, pulling through her braid, and she closes her eyes.
She’ll visit the forest soon.
She doesn’t tell her men where she's going when she leaves in the morning. It’s a cloudy day when Lanah mounts her steed and rides through the city gates, following a path that no one travels but still remains clear. She's wearing armor, a sword strapped to her side and a crossbow tossed over her back. The big bone cat mask on her face blocks the little rays of sun that manage to creep through the overcast weather.
It’s windy, the breeze tugs at the cloak over her shoulders. The forest looms in front of her, tall and unwavering while the birds sing and fly through the field that she travels through. Nothing soothes the unease swirling in her stomach as she gets closer.
The field thins out into a clear border, and she stops her horse on the outskirts of the forest. The wind stills. The wildlife is quiet. her steed shifts, braying uneasily. She swings off of the horse, and pats the firm neck of the animal, looking up at the towering trees.
She takes a deep breath, ancient magic swirling into her lungs. She feels the urge to turn away, to leave, but she shakes her head and takes another breath before stepping into the woods.
The air is cool, a crisp cleanliness that runs into her chest like spearmint. Sunlight speckles through clouds, dances through leaves, sprinkles onto the forest floor as she walks. There’s a faint path, most likely from a deer, and she follows it silently. The clearing seems to disappear behind her almost immediately.
Moss spreads over bark and stones, vines hang daintily from branches, and the forest feels safe, alive. She almost feels bad for trespassing, but the gentle song of the trees tells her to drop her hand from her sword. She doesn’t.
Mushrooms grow here and there, along with wildflowers and local herbs and spices. The soil under her feet springs back under her as she walks, and she tilts her face up, looking into the canopy of leaves above her head when a dove coo’s softly.
Just as quickly as she looks up, she jolts her head to the side when a snap of a twig rings out. she freezes in place, hand curling over the hilt of her weapon. She prepares for something, anything, but she isn’t prepared for what she sees.
It’s a white stag, weaving through the trees, antlers spread wide and high, and Lanah watches in awe as the magnificent creature moves away from her, and deeper into the forest. Her feet move on their own, and she silently tracks the animal, observing it peacefully.
It takes a while, but she eventually finds herself walking through an opening. A gentle stream babbles through the air, and she leans against a tree as the stag bends down to drink from the clean water. Birds are chirping, and she tilts her head into the wind as it picks back up again.
The leaves rustle, and she listens, watches, waits. The stag leaves. Lanah turns and continues into the forest. She wanders off on her own accord, coming across a clearing within the thicket rather quickly. It’s a plush carpet of grass and moss, soft even through her boots, and she stills when she feels eyes on her.
Ah. There is something here.
She raises both hands into the air in surrender and speaks. Her voice seems muffled amongst the trees, and she wonders briefly if it's the creature's effect.
“I’m not here to fight, I just want to talk.”
Silence. The trees stop swaying, plants and leaves quiver. The forest stops breathing, holds its breath. The air is so still it’s frozen. Nothing happens.
Alright, Plan two.
Slowly, so very slowly, she drops one hand to her side and unsheathes her sword. The sound is jarring in the quiet, like she broke something sacred. Tossing it gently away from her and further into the clearing, it bounces in the grass. Dread curls in her gut, the weight of her missing weapon increasing the feeling. She slides the crossbow off next and places it by her feet before kicking it away. She raises her hands in surrender once more, palms open.
“If you can hear me, I’m not going to do anything. I promise.”
There's rustling in the bushes. She freezes, her heart pounds in her throat, her stomach churning.
A brunette head tilts out from behind a tree, piercing blue eyes staring into her mask. She's a statue under the gaze, her breath catches like her lungs are sticking together. The figure walks lightly towards her, and it’s the most beautiful thing she's ever seen.
The figure looks soft but dangerous. Green robes flow over a lithe body, billowing over pale skin. The way the being approaches her is timid, and she tries to even out her breathing when she notices beige and creme wings sprouting from the creature’s back. Brown hair barely reaches the figure's shoulders, braided and pulled away from a pretty face, and Lanah slowly drops her hands to her side. It feels like she’s underwater, drowning in front of the creature.
It begins to circle her, shining eyes traveling over her, observing. Every inch of her skin erupts in bumps, ice dances up and down her spine. The only sound is the soft rustling of emerald robes against shrubs. This creature is powerful, dangerous, dancing around her like prey. Something creeps up her legs. She can feel it shift the armor and boots, the pressure of it winding upwards.
She dares to break her gaze from the stalking deity and glances down. Green vines and thick brambles wrap over her ankles, holding her to the ground, and she faintly considers that this was a horrible, horrible idea. The brunette is in front of her when she looks up, and she flinches, jerking her head back on instinct when thin hands reach for her mask, heart rate picking up exponentially.
The being tilts its head in what seems to be curiosity, then steps out of her space. She dares let her shoulders relax at this and takes another breath, quite alright with having a little distance between herself, and whatever this thing is. The creature is much shorter than her, much tinier as well, but the way the being holds itself oozes power and she knows when she’s outmatched.
The forest watches with bated breath as the being tilts its head in a birdlike fashion, robin’s egg eyes roaming Lanah from head to toe. She flinches when the creature speaks with a voice soft but demanding. The voice shatters the silence, the trees inhale.
“Why have you come here, King slayer?”