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The Storm Winds of Glazglubin

Chapter V: The Binding of Orzelgryf

 In a long strip through the west-side of Aerialis lay the Old Market, a district that could best be described as an incredibly broad cobblestone street that stretched on from Lake Ripploch to the west to the eastern edges of the Royal City at the heart of Aerialis. With the walled-off Royal City itself as well as the pristine Flügelwind District on its south side, the Gravensbug District and the New Market on its north side, the Old Market acted like a conveyor belt that moved wares and people from across the lake to and from the heart of the city. The sun was still just below the horizon but already, the light of dawn illuminated the gentle clouds that were dappled across the sky in all hues of dark orange to gray purple. The Old Market, however, was already wide awake, busy with the hustle and bustle of people setting up their stalls, receiving crateloads of fresh wares and occasionally bumping into each other.

Marcus navigated the packed street with great alacrity and skill, making his way towards the lakeside as he did every morning. Against what one might expect, the construction of the surrounding buildings incorporated more and more wooden, Yamato-style architecture, the further he moved from the Royal City towards Lake Ripploch, even though the Yamato Mountain Range lay in the opposite direction to the east. Surprisingly, though Marcus noticed this peculiarity every morning, by the time he arrived back at the Lord of the Wind's mansion in the Flügelwind District, he never quite got around to finding out why.

After dodging various carts, donkeys, people, and people that were clearly donkeys in disguise – judging by the haphazard way they just pretended any given obstacle wasn't their problem – he could finally see the glistening waters of the lake. They appeared just where the broad street that was the Old Market bent down a gentle hill, the vivid blue framed against the houses of the western Gravensburg District, extending unobstructed to the south where the ornate parks of the Flügelwind District lined the lakeside.

Marcus stopped by the odd stall, picking up vegetables and sausages to stow in his wicker basket as he neared the coop haggler's den. Chicken duty… how he loathed chicken duty… He was a young man, nineteen years of age, considered a boy by most, but he had become an apprentice footman for the Lord of Wind's household almost seven years ago now, showing loyalty and decorum just as the head butler had taught him. He was certain that he would soon be elevated to the ranks of the pages. Still, despite his faithful service he could not shed chicken duty. Perhaps he was too good at his job. Perhaps the Crone was using her influence to keep him where he was: getting the chicken every morning. The damned chicken. Marcus felt as though he was party to a truly blasphemous act, each and every time. But how to escape his lot? If he were to become deliberately tardy, or perhaps claim he could not procure the chicken, or even just show his dejection in his attitude… well, it might work. However, it might also draw the Crone's ire. Marcus would lay a thousand-thousand chickens before her feet before taking their place… The thought alone made him shudder…

“Ah, little Marcus! Here for the chicken, are you?” the shrewd old man gave him a wink. He was the coop haggler: An unofficial title derived from his name and occupation. His name was Mr. Kopenhaagen, and he brought chickens from coops around the city to the Old Market to sell. “All is well at the estate, I trust?”

“Quite well, Mr. Kopenhaagen,” Marcus replied politely, placing the empty cage he'd been carrying in his other arm before the grinning merchant. It was a wooden box with wooden bars to its sides, easily stackable. “And I am indeed here for a chicken, if you'd please.”

“Only one, eh? You must have a lot of people living in that big mansion, right? But you only ever want one.” The man's grin widened into a conspiratorial smirk: “Soup stock, am I right? Your cook knows his stuff.”

Marcus shrugged his shoulders, “I get the chicken for her kitchen from the butchers.” Then he snapped his fingers in sudden realization. “Oh, right! Not today! Today, I need two chickens, not one.”

Mr. Kopenhaagen laughed. “You've come here every day rain or shine for two years now, always buying a single chicken from me. And today you want two? Some venture up in that venerable old house must have doubled in scope, I suppose!” He drummed his fingers on one of the chicken boxes that surrounded his niche. Large, white cloths had been prodded up on poles to cover part of the avenue into which he had crammed his merchandise, some billowing down like curtains to spare the chickens the view of the rather busy market street.

Marcus looked to the ground uncomfortably. “A special occasion, I suppose.”

“Oh, yes? What's that then, my boy?”

Desperate to steer the conversation away from the chickens' fate, Marcus blurted: “Well, you see, the Lord of Wind has arrived last night.”

Mr. Kopenhaagen gave an impressed whistle. “Well, well, well. First I've heard about it, and right from the source too, I suppose.”

Marcus regretted saying it immediately. Suddenly the lid had been lifted. Of course, no one had told him to keep the Keeper's presence a secret, but some things one just knew not to do, especially if one was an ambitious page-to-be… “Keep it to yourself, Mr. Kopenhaagen, please…”

The coop haggler smacked Marcus on the shoulder and gave him a conspiratorial nod: “Mum's the word, of course. Now, which chickens would you like, Marcus?”

“Uh, yes, two young ones please. Preferably ones that were well treated…”

“Always got a soft spot for the little critters, Marcus. That's why I like you. Let's see… I've got this pretty white one here, still nice and fresh. An old lady raised her in her backyard in the Severlin District. Good folk, the Severlin people, honest. And perhaps this brown one? Picked it up at one of the farms on the south side of the city. They get plenty of space over there, and good kibble too. Though I bet they prefer the grass where they can get it.”

Marcus inspected the two chickens the man presented to him. They looked alright: No deformities, no discernable sickness. “I'll take them.”

“Cage and all? I see you only have one to turn in.”

“Yes, I'll take them with the cages, you can subtract this one from the price.” Marcus fumbled for his coin purse.

Mr. Kopenhaagen stacked the two chicken cages and put them forward for Marcus to pick up, then he gave the animals a last inspective glance. “Alright then, it'll be one blue and five pennies for the lot then.”

The coop haggler didn't particularly try to stiff him, but Marcus never haggled. It was the Crone's coin, and not getting her a bargain was the greatest resistance he was able to bring to bear. A pittance, certainly, but more than nothing at all. He produced a shiny cobalt shekel and five slightly larger copper pennies, passing the coins into Mr. Kopenhaagen's outstretched hands. “Thank you, Mr. Kopenhaagen, have a nice day.”

“And you have fun with your chickens, boy! Give my regards to the Lord of Wind!”

Marcus's mouth twitched in disgust at the former remark and displeasure at the second, which was uttered far too loudly for his liking. He gave the man a nod and a slightly forced smile, then he bodily lifted the cages up onto his shoulder, securing them with one arm, while he picked the grocery basket back up with the other hand.

On his way back along the Old Market, a voice called out to him when he had passed the houses of the Gravensburg District and reached the large training grounds for the margrave's forces. “Marcus! What a coincidence!” A slight but wiry Yamato man, roughly Marcus's age rose from a barrack wall in front of which he had been kneeling. He was almost a full head smaller. He had also been sharpening a long, Yamatonian curved sword on a rectangular grinding stone.

“Takagi! You can't just pull your sword out in public, are you insane!” Marcus hissed, hastening over. He tried to obstruct the weapon from the eyes of other passersby. “Quick, put it away!”

Takagi looked down at the sword. “I can't? Oh, but I should oil the blade, or it will rust quickly…”

“Three Winds bless you… you are going to get yourself into so much trouble if the guards see you!”

The young man sighed. “Alright then. Cover me for a moment. I'll apply the oil quickly and sheath the blade, no problem. I see you carry more cages than usual; I will help you carry one, yes?”

Against all better judgement, Marcus put down the cages as additional cover and kept standing in front of Takagi. “Well hurry up! Has no one told you to keep your swords peace-bonded in the city?”

“Curiously enough, no one has, Marcus.” Takagi pulled a flask of clear liquid from a small, wooden box with Yamato signs etched onto its lid, uncorked it, and dabbed a small, white cloth with the oil. Then he wiped it across both sides of the blade and stowed it in its wooden sheath. “What does peace-bonded mean?”

Did Yamato folk just walk around with swords on their streets? How dangerous were Yamatonian cities? “It should be visibly tied or locked in a way that makes it difficult to draw.”

“Hmm. In the Valley, swords are worn on the right side when one wants to show their lack of hostility. You cannot properly draw them from the right if you are right-handed. Of course, a lot of my people are left-handed…”

Marcus had trouble processing this non-sequitur, so he simply ignored it, instead saying: “No, that is not enough! Tie them to the sheath or something!”

Takagi seemed thoughtful for a moment, then he untied an ornate cord that was wrapped around the lacquered sheath in a neat bow, threading it through a holed knob at one side, and then knotted it firmly through the ornate guard of the sword. He did the same for his second sword and strapped them over his back. “There, now they are peace-bonded. Additionally, one shouldn't draw their sword from their back. It is very poor form.” He picked up one of the cages. “Perhaps it is no coincidence we meet after all. I have seen you bring chickens along this street several times now.”

Marcus picked up the other cage. “Yeah, well, you're not wrong.” He looked behind Takagi where a battalion of soldiers were going through what looked like a morning jog across the wide range. “And I guess it is no coincidence you are here either, I suppose? If you are looking for Lady Gram Vul Dun, you won't find her here.” There was a twang of amicable ribbing in the way he spoke her name.

Takagi picked up his pace to go level with Marcus. “You have seen through me, my friend. But I must ask you, how do you know I will not find her here? She was here yesterday.”

“Yeah, the captains are in Gravensburg on Keepersdey and Odendey, but from Kvarsynodium to Briestag they are at the Margrave's estate.”

Takagi scratched his head with his free hand. “I am not used to the Middlish weekday names… Today is… Kvarsynodium?”

“Yeah. Blame the Altonarians for the names if they bother you, they made the calendar. Come, we'll cut through the parks, I got everything on my shopping list.” Marcus steered them across the Old Market and past the many stalls that lined the border to the Flügelwind District. Once they emerged from the thicket of people and wares, it was as though they had stepped into different world: an arch had led them through tall, deep green hedges and onto a white gravel path over freshly mowed lawn. Flowerbeds were arranged around venerable cherry trees that had been planted in a regular grid pattern with wide patches of grass in between for picnicking. However, since it was still rather cold and early in the morning, the park was mostly deserted save for several gardeners who busied themselves clipping hedges that had finally begun to sprout proper foliage again.

Takagi looked around, the chicken cage swinging back and forth on his shoulder. “This place always makes me think of Tokuhara. The Square of Circles has this kind of well-tended appearance; though there are more gazebos.”

Marcus nodded towards their heading: “Those would be over there, lakeside. Let's pick up the pace, the Cro…” He bit his tongue, correcting himself: “The Lady Kiewek seemed in a bit of an apprehensive state today.”

The slender Yamatonian matched his pace with ease. “You are a diligent servant, Marcus, I have great respect for that.”

Marcus would have waved the compliment away, but both his hands were full. After a little over ten minutes at a brisk pace, crunching over the gravel paths, the two of them arrived before the Lord of the Wind's mansion. This ancestral villa of respectable size was decked from top to bottom in polished, white wood, and its extensive garden, itself surrounded by parks, was walled off by hedges and filled with strange sculptures that looked a bit like water being flung around in various ways. They had been carved out of logs by Heinrich van Haag-Taira, a previous Lord of Wind who hadn't contributed any great deeds or military accomplishments to the title but had left a well-respected artistic legacy behind. Some of his paintings still adorned the corridors of the mansion, while others had made their way into museums and private collections. Here too, gardeners were at work, making sure everything looked meticulous. Not just because the Lord of Wind was in town, but because the inhabitants of the Flügelwind District, all servants of the Lord of Wind, took great pride in the perfect appearance of the parks and the estate, considering it a mark of honor.

Marcus led the two of them to the servants' entrance and said his goodbyes. “Alright, Takagi, thanks for the help, but I'll take it from here. If you pass further through the parks towards the lake, I'm sure you'll find a barge that can take you across.”

Takagi handed over the chicken cage and nodded. “Master Plâton said we would be here in the evening for some sort of state dinner, perhaps we'll see each other again then,” he suggested.

“State dinner?” Marcus asked, rolling his eyes. “They'll send me back out shopping right away; why didn't I get an updated grocery list?”

Takagi shrugged his shoulders.

With a sigh, Marcus shouldered both cages, picked up his basket and made his way inside. As always, the corridors and hallways seemed unnaturally dark and long when he performed his chicken duty, as though the house itself disapproved. Any other time, it was his home, ostentatious but welcoming. Only in the morning, when he brought the quarry to the witch, would the shadows conspire to weigh on his mind.

He made his way through the imagined gauntlet until he reached an open door at the far side of the mansion. Almost imperceptible vapors were escaping the dark room, which housed a plethora of exotic plants and, Marcus was sure, animals. He carefully shuffled closer, the aperture growing like an opening maw. From inside he heard voices:

“The chicken will be here soon; it'll be enough to finish the braid. But to place such a thing on yourself, my Lord… It'd be like a bird eating its own wings.” It was the voice of Kiewek, the Crone. But all the melodic and pleasant tones that were interwoven into it usually had vanished. What remained was a cold, evil rasp.

A man's voice replied: “The braid is not for me.”

“It will only work on you, my Lord, surely you realize this…”

“Not quite…” In the darkness, Marcus could suddenly see a single, gray eye focus on him. “Ah, come in!”

Shakily, Marcus made his way into the chambers of the Crone. “M-my Lord, my Lady, I have brought the chickens you ordered.”

Lord Sokolow helped him unload the cages. “Two chickens?” he turned towards the Crone.

She cracked an evil smile. It did not suit her at all, for she was a woman of staggering beauty, standing in the darkness without a piece of cloth on her alabaster body, black hair framing her perfect bosom. Of course, Marcus had the dubious advantage of primal fear fighting off his more base urges where the Crone was concerned. “Oh, one is for me. I need to keep my strength up after all. Long ago, the villagers would bring me…” her eyes rested briefly on Marcus, “ah, well, it does not matter. It'll do for a soul, both of them will.”

Lord Sokolow eyed the cages, shaking his head. “You call those souls?”

“They are close enough, my Lord. Close enough for my purposes at least.” She turned her inviting gaze back on Marcus: “Now, fly along my little bird. What happens next does not concern you.”

Marcus had already turned on the spot, preparing to stride away as quickly as etiquette would allow, but the voice of the Lord of Wind stopped him in his tracks.

“One moment. What is your name again?”

“M-marcus, my Lord!”

“You get this woman a chicken every day?”

Marcus turned around and he glanced over to the Crone, sweat beading on his brow. She gave him a sweet smile and an almost imperceptible nod. “Yes, my Lord.”

He scratched his chin thoughtfully. Something smooth and white was covering his left eye. There was a silver glint to it. “You're reliable then; and fearless to boot. Good, I have a special task for you.” He removed a ring from his finger and handed it over to Marcus. It was his signet ring. “Go to the barracks of the White Lancers across the lake and get me the Cape of Adelbert Trast.”

Marcus's eyes widened. “They won't give it to me!”

“They'll complain. But you'll make sure they understand that I have ordered you to retrieve it, and they will hand it over to you or face the consequences, do you understand?”

Marcus swallowed and nodded. The signet ring felt incredibly heavy in his hand. First chicken duty, now this…

“Alright. On you go. And bring me that cape…”

Takagi was grateful. He was grateful for a great many things these days. The Grand Master himself taking him on as a squire was foremost in his mind, but the things that came with this particular circumstance were to be relished all on their own. He had grown up in a small farm village near Tokuhara in the fertile Yamato Valley. And though he had prepared and harvested the fields with his father just like the other boys in the neighborhood, he had also studied the old teachings his grandfather had passed down to him diligently: The secret arts of his house that had, eventually, led him to Plâton's monastery… But in all those years, he had never left the Yamato Valley. Now, he was seeing new and exotic places, meeting new and exciting people. He was accumulating experiences he had never even considered existed. Born and raised to serve lofty masters and uphold lofty traditions, he felt his horizons expanding beyond the small world of saying ‘yes sir!' and doing what he was told. Not that he wasn't an obedient squire.

Passing through the wonderous parks of the Flügelwind District, he made his way to the shore of Lake Ripploch, the long lake on the west-side of the great city of Aerialis, which now stood behind him in all its splendor. As the capital of the Eastern Fiefdoms, it was impressive in size, comparable, perhaps, even to Yamato's capital city, Yamaseki. One thing stood out to him, though: You saw a lot more different faces in this place. Seeing how it wasn't walled off by enormous mountain ranges to either side but instead embroiled in vigorous commerce with all its neighbors, one could find people and wares from all sorts of places here.

Still, not everything appeared alien to him once he had started to take in the lay of the land. The architecture in many places of the grand city resembled the kind he knew from his homelands. There were wooden houses with tall, curved roofs and expertly worked beams that could be naught but true Yamato craftsmanship.

These little pearls of Yamato culture sometimes clustered together, and sometimes they appeared in between more typically Middlish buildings. On the whole, they formed a sort-of blend that, fortuitously, served as a rather pleasant transition into the outside world for young Takagi.

Of course, there were other things that held his fancy here. He cast a secretive, longing gaze across the still water of the lake that lay before him now. Piers and fishermen's huts lined the shore here, and he was sure to find someone to ferry him across for a couple of pennies. As he took in the lakeside view, thinking about how to best find just such a ferryman, he heard heavy footfalls and heavier breathing approach him from the rear. Turning around, his face suddenly brightened. “Marcus, my friend! Did you forget to tell me something?”

Marcus held up his hand as he bent over, catching his breath. “I… huff… gotta get to… huff… the barracks…  huff… too!”

Takagi nodded. “So, you have come to join me? You are an auspicious companion, my friend. I must admit I was a bit nervous going on my own.”

Marcus patted him on the shoulder, still a bit hunched and huffing.

Takagi wasn't used to how physical the Middlishmen were, though the Grand Master certainly enjoyed hearty back- and shoulder-patting. He was doing his best to get used to it.

As luck would have it, they caught a fisherman who was just about to depart for the far shore to deliver his catch to the Margrave's estate. On the way across, Marcus filled Takagi in on his precarious quest. “The name sounds familiar,” Takagi mused. “Was he a magus?”

“A Lord of Wind, actually,” Marcus explained. “Adelbert Trast fought in the Great War and was defeated by a platoon of Valkyries. He sacrificed himself to secure the retreat of his two Guardians.”
“What a strange thing to do,” Takagi said with mild shock on his face.

Marcus raised an eyebrow. “Come again?”

Takagi shrugged his shoulders. “Why would the Lord of Wind sacrifice himself to protect his Guardians? Should it not be the other way around?”

The apprentice footman had to think about that one. “I guess… they couldn't have bought him enough time to escape? Probably. Maybe him dying was the least number of casualties that were possible at the time.”

Takagi nodded. “Well reasoned, my friend. I am sure he was an excellent strategist. If not, he surely would have died sooner during the war.”

“Or maybe he thought he could win on his own and wanted his Guardians out of the way to let loose,” Marcus added. “I don't actually know the answer.”

To that, Takagi laughed. “He would have gotten along fabulously with my master in that case.”

The two of them were squatting down at the back of the small fishing ship. It had one sail with its relatively short mast planted atop the roof of a tiny cabin in the center of the vessel. The fisherman, a young-looking Aerialinger with the short but promising stubbles of a full beard in the making, had a whistle on his lips. He had used two large oars to row them slowly but steadily until they were a relatively short distance from the shore. Then, he had hinged the oars to the sides of the ship and started unfurling the little sail.

Takagi had eyed his work with some interest while he and Marcus spoke, mainly because there was barely any wind. But this did not perturb the fisherman: Once the sail was in place, he went past them to the rudder in the back. There were two lines on pullies to turn the sail and one lever to steer the rudder. There also was a small plinth with a wooden base and a clear-coat panel on top. This was where the fisherman placed his hand, causing it to light up in a gentle glow. A sudden jerk went through the ship as a gentle breeze began to blow from the city side of the lake, moving them forward towards the Willowood.

“Look at that!” Takagi exclaimed excitedly to Marcus. “Even your fishermen are mages!”

Marcus sniggered. “Not as a rule, I'd say. He is using a magic engine. If you placed your hand there, it'd do the same thing.”

The fisherman agreed with a leisurely nod as he effortlessly steered the little vessel onward. “Oh ye~s, tha alkimists done this'n nie~cely. Costs a arm and a leg, mind ye, but tha city gives ya them subsidies. Good investment, now ma ship's werth sumthin when I'm ter old ter fish.”

“Common folk don't use magic in Yamato then?” Marcus inquired eagerly.

Takagi swayed his head noncommittally left and right. “Knowledge is power. I can see that you let it run free in these parts and it… multiplies quickly because of that, I suppose. It certainly gives you Middlishmen an edge. In my homeland, the mahôtsukai, our word for magus, they pass their knowledge down along family lines. It is called ‘iemoto', from the house, a system where one master teaches his secrets to the first son and so on. Sometimes an outsider is allowed to take over the iemoto, but that happens rarely. Secret arts, magic or other, are something that garner status in Yamato society.”

“And you have nothing like spell ink?”

Takagi scratched his head. “The way I have heard the story told, many Middlish mages from all corners of your land worked together to invent that. You wouldn't usually see something like that in Yamato. Our mahôtsukai guard their secrets jealously. A lot of them do use ink for magic, however. They write prayers to the kamigami, the most powerful denizens of the spirit world, onto prayer tags, which they use for their magic. Some also write down quotes from the scriptures of Yilik, I hear, while others draw diagrams passed down from their ancestors. But even those who prepare the ink in special ways cannot create anything closely resembling your spell ink. It is… to their magic what the millstone is to mortar and pestle.”

Marcus looked back at the city. “Well, you still got the blight though. I here there are more blighters in the Middle Lands than anywhere else in the world. What about you sir, aren't you worried about spellblight?” he had directed the question at the fisherman.

“Ah, well. They teach ya about tha blight in school these days, so ya kno' how ter pace yerself wit the engines. They even train kids young now. Mah bruther he's a teacher at tha Magistorium, and he reckons it's tha organized crime in tha cities that squeezes folks for their souls' werth.”

Takagi nodded. It wasn't all that different in Yamato: The Black Market was a powerful organization on par with even the strongest clans. And the way he had heard it, they owned quite a lot of ‘blighters'. The white-haired, blue-eyed people, who had used magic too greedily or were victimized by animancers, were called ‘yasha' in Yamato. Demons. Here in the Middle Lands, they were pariahs, in Yamato, they were monsters, condemned. Yasha had no rights to speak off in his homelands, and even killing them was a forgivable act. Of course, the Black Market did not kill them as a rule, seeing how such people had immense value as a slave labor force. In fact, Takagi had heard rumors that magic engines had been imported from the Middle Lands at a high price just to purposely turn abducted people into blighters and add them to the illegal labor pool. Once their hair was white and their eyes blue, they no longer had a future in the Yamato Kingdom.

He kept all of this to himself. Some truths, you didn't bother others with. “Those marvelous weapons the White Lancers use are magic engines as well, are they not?”

Marcus nodded. “Impractical things if you ask me. They must be pretty heavy when carried.”

“Well, they need the heft to pierce steel and rock,” Takagi noted. “And the howl is quite fierce, enough so to intimidate your opponent, I would say.”

Marcus raised an eyebrow. “You, intimidated? Please, I've seen you knock those amateurs around.”

Takagi laughed. “They were just trainees. I am hardly worthy of fighting a fully trained knight.”

“Isn't your master a general or something?”

“That is a complicated topic. Still, in their eyes I am a mere squire. Your countrymen have a complex court etiquette, much like mine. It is nice to see that wee can see eye to eye on things such as this.”

They had to brace themselves a bit when the boat came to a stop by a small wooden landing pier. The fisherman tied down the ship and started unfastening some crates. “Don't suppose ya lads would lend me a hand haulin' crates to tha margrave? There's some fresh fish in it fer ya,” he said hopefully.

Marcus shrugged his shoulders. “We are headed for the barracks, we could take a crate or two that far, but not all the way.”

The fisherman shook his head. “Nah, it's fine. Three winds guide ya.”

Marcus returned the words and the two of them made their way along the unpaved path into the Willowood.

“What are the three winds?” Takagi inquired.

“Hmm? Oh, the Wind of the Sea, the Wind of the Land, and the Wind of Change,” Marcus explained. “They each have their own meanings and purposes I suppose. It's an Aerialis thing. City of Wind and whatnot.”

“There is no sea on this half of the world,” Takagi noted.

“Doesn't mean the sea wind can't make it here. Besides, it's not about the sea, really. The Wind of the Sea stands for fertility and rebirth, souls and the arcane. Maybe because the sea is so far away, you know?”

“I see.” Takagi thought about this for a bit as their feet crunched across the lightly graveled ground. “And which wind is blowing through your life right now, my friend?”

Marcus laughed. “I'd have to say the Lord of Wind.”

Takagi joined in the laughter. “I suppose we are both being swept up.”

“Heh, yeah, I know which wind you want to blow through your life.” Takagi felt a friendly elbow nudge in his side.

He felt an uncomfortable warmth rise to his cheeks and did his best to ignore the remark. “Do you think they will give it to you? The cape, I mean.”

Marcus sighed. “I really can't say. I am not looking forward to standing my ground against the First Wind, or any of the White Lancer top brass, to be honest. All of this is several rungs above my station, if you ask me. Then again…” He put his hand in his pocket and retrieved an ornate silvery ring with etched waving patterns around tiny slivers of clear, lightly blue gems. “If they turn me away, they are turning away the Lord of Wind. I don't think they can do to that.”

Takagi considered this. While he did not recognize the ring, he could guess that it was some sort of token or signet carrying the Lord of Wind's authority. “I do not know, Marcus. My understanding of your court is still incomplete, but I gather that the White Lancers are retainers of the Margrave, not the Lord of Wind. Will they not forestall you and appeal to the Margrave if they deem your request unreasonable?”

“I hope not…” Marcus grimaced. “The Lord of Wind has a lot of influence here. And it isn't just political, it is also spiritual. His word carries a lot of weight, and it's his request, not mine. If they say no now, they'll pay for it later, I can pretty much guarantee that.”

By now they had taken a right turn and were headed towards the barracks. The path forked after a while, one way leading to the Margrave's manor, and the other to the White Lancers. In the distance, they could already hear the intermittent howl of the terebras. Takagi felt anxiety bubble inside his stomach, and he could see the feeling mirrored on Marcus's face. Though, of course, they both had different reasons to feel nervous, he was glad to have a friend by his side. It somehow lessened the pressure he felt.

When the training grounds came into view, they could see a group of five knights clad in their white wingwraps, moving purposefully around a tall, wooden pole. The sound of their intermittent chanting echoed over to the two of them from time to time, and it was clear by the archaic sound of the few words Takagi could make out that they were performing wind magic. He looked up and saw a strand of brilliant red on white flowing in the breeze. Atop the pole, several shaku above the ground, the Lady Astera Gram Vul Dun squatted unimpressed, her feet firmly planted on the narrow surface. He swallowed and kept his eyes transfixed on her stoic form. Magnificent.

Marcus and Takagi made their way towards the pole, though Marcus was headed for one of the three longhouses beyond. When the Lady Astera noticed them approaching, she flashed Takagi an impish grin. It fell rather quickly when she noticed Marcus moving on towards the barracks. She dropped down from the pole, the fall slowed by her magic, which, incidentally, also knocked her trainees off their feet. She landed right in front of Marcus, blocking his path, her silky red mane gently wafting down, settling on her shoulders.

She looked right past Marcus, her grin returning: “Tahkagi, yer a godsend, ye are! I've been runnin' meself ragged tryin' ter get these bloody wimps up ter shape. I wus just thinkin' ‘bout sendin' fer ye.”

Her voice was thick with a Skôtish accent, and he couldn't help but find it quite exotic. She wasn't done, however.

With a cool, sideways glance, she noted to Marcus: “Goin' sumwhere, lad?”

Clearly standing far too close for comfort, Marcus tried to take a step back, but found that the Lady Astera just mirrored his movement, staying right up close. Under different circumstances, Takagi might have felt a pang of jealousy, but he wasn't nearly smitten enough to want to trade places with someone at the receiving end of her scrutiny… or her ire. To Takagi's surprise, Marcus's gumption seemed to hold quite firm. “Good morning, Lady Gram Vul Dun. I am, in fact, headed to see the First Wind.”

“Ferst Wind's busy, lad.”

“I'm afraid I cannot be mindful of that today, ma'am.”

Her eyes turned frigid. “Cannot be mindful of that? Yer got some impressive boulders in yer pants sayin' scite like that in frunt of me.”

Marcus was clearly holding things together by a thread, and Takagi felt more and more like he should come to his friend's aid. Though he was utterly clueless on the how. Negotiation made him sweat and mumble. Clear-cut discourse and solitary asceticism were more up his ally.

Still, Marcus kept holding his ground: “I am here under the auspices of the Lord of Wind. If you wish to lodge a complaint, you may do so at his manor, ma'am. Meanwhile, I will thank you to let me pass.”

The Lady Astera's mouth twitched dangerously, twisting into a facetious smile. She put a hand on Marcus's shoulder and said in a motherly tone: “Oh, tha Lord of Wind, ye say. I must offer ye mah assistance then, lad. What's tha Lord of Wind want with tha Ferst Wind, hm?”

“He has need of the cape of Adelbert Trast.”

Her face turned ashen. She glanced over her shoulder towards the longhouses. Between the three wooden buildings, a flagpole rose from the graveled ground, a white flag billowing gently at its top. “No.”


“I said no. Bloody Lord of Wind comes around town once a decade and now he wants our banner? Piss on that! Yer go right back now and tell him ter shove it.”

Marcus's brow furled in anger. “I'll gladly do that, once the First Wind has told me to.”

She grit her teeth. “Yer think tha Ferst Wind's gonna cowtow to tha Lord of Wind, lad? Be mah guest then! I'll take ye ter him. Tahkagi! Knock some sense inter these amateurs, will ye? Just don't kill ‘em.” Grabbing Marcus by the scruff, she strode angrily towards the smallest of the three longhouses, leaving Takagi behind.

 As the radiant heat of her anger plowed on and away from the training grounds, the Lady Astera left behind her a chilling wake that grew more and more frigid by the second. Takagi had not yet taken heart to turn around, but the silence behind him crept up on him like a looming avalanche, waiting to be set loose.

Finally, when the moment had lasted as long as he could afford, he slowly turned to the five young knights behind him. They were rookies, low in the ranks of the Order and still practicing their basics in windriding and wielding the traditional weaponry of the White Lancers: the curved Yamatonian short sword, and the terebra. Even so, they each already possessed certain degrees of martial training and magical education, especially the eldest, a golden-haired aristocrat from, Takagi believed, the Severlin Family. As he could recall, the tall Aerialinger had studied wind magic at the Rickard Leeuw Magistorium for several terms before joining the ranks of the White Lancers.

Understandably, he likely hadn't looked favorable upon a foreigner such as Takagi being asked to teach him martial arts.

Feeling a bead of sweat on his brow, Takagi cleared his throat and said: “Well, perhaps we could continue working on those wrist locks I showed you yesterday.”

The Severlin gave him a wide grin, baring his teeth. “I have a better idea, master Tahkagi,” he replied. The mockery in his words was all too clear, especially in the way he imitated the Lady Astera's accent upon speaking his name. “We'll have a little sparing match. What do you say, lads? The five of us against him? Unfair, I know, but I'm sure if we work together, we can muddle through somehow.”

There was general laughter and murmured approval. The other began casually circling around Takagi.

Takagi himself was less amused. He had feared something like this might happen, as the Lady Astera's mockery of her students had been quite vicious these past few days, and Takagi had been her instrument of choice during those training sessions. “I think, one on one will suffice for now. It wouldn't be knightly of you to outnumber a single opponent so completely.”

“Wouldn't it? But we are not merely knights, my little friend. We are soldiers as well, and war is all about tactics and strategy, is it not. Please be not too harsh on us as we demonstrate how well we can press the advantage.” He drew his short sword, still grinning.

Now, Takagi was in a bind. There were a couple of rules he had been taught regarding combat with multiple opponents. They went something like this:

  1. Bring additional combatants with you to even out the numbers, or
  2. Run away, or
  3. Employ magic to close the gap.

Takagi had no backup to rely on at the moment, and running away was out of the question. Not because it would be cowardly or any such nonsense – there was nothing cowardly about fleeing from an unfair fight – but rather because fledgling as they might have been, his opponents were windriders. No matter how fast his legs could carry him, they'd overtake him in a single leap.

This left the use of magic as his final option. At Plâton's monastery, the masters taught the martial art and philosophy of Taishôgeki, the great book that master Plâton had written. It taught how to best utilize the body as a weapon and how to defend against physical attacks as well as how to attack others efficiently. And those, who progressed far enough along the path were taught how to mantle themselves in power. This unusual form of magic forced the soul of its user into the living flesh, significantly augmenting its power. Takagi was only at the very beginning of grasping this high art. The reason why Plâton had taken him under his wing, however, was that he had his own, unusual form of magic: When he achieved the right state of mind, he could, briefly, ephemerally, summon one of his gates into the world, and behind that gate, there was a great deal of power. But it was an incomplete technique, and he had lacking control over it. If he employed it now, there was a good chance that he would kill up to all six of them. Unfortunately, or fortunately, the Lady had specifically told him not to do so, which meant he was now utterly, as people here liked to vulgarly say, fucked.

He searched his mind for a fitting musing from the Book of Taishôgeki, and came up with this: “When a step in any direction leads away from your goal, inaction is your gain.” Drawing his two swords out of their sheaths, he gave his assailants a moment's pause. But then, to their surprise, he gently put them on the ground beside him and sat down on his knees.

“What is the little monkey doing now?” asked one of the five anxiously.

The Severlin spat. “You think you can avoid a beating by sitting down, you mountain ape? First you insult us by acting like the superior fighter, then you insult us further by refusing to fight! Come on lads, the boy needs a good kicking!” They closed in swiftly, and eager feet rose up, crashing down on Takagi.

He breathed in deeply and tried to recall his training. If he could mantle himself, he would be able to weather the blows… But there was no way. With little time to meditate and lacking experience, the relentless kicks drove any hope of reinforcing himself right out of his mind. He felt heavy boots batter his shoulders, back, and stomach as he winced and suppressed screams. Having trained with other disciples at the monastery, he was no stranger to pain, and the ability to take a good hit with composure was considered a basic skill up there. Still, this savage beating was quite beyond his pain threshold.

They are going to kill you. There it was. He could hear his own voice, yet not his own voice.

Let us open the gate, just a crack. Another one. Technically he was not insane, but he was suddenly close to going mad. Madness was one of the five gates within the soul, and to his shame, it was the only one he had been able to open in his meditations. In the Book of Taishôgeki, there was a whole style dedicated to harnessing the power of madness. Plâton himself had devised it to fight the gods.

“Step back! Let him breathe a bit.” There was a smug satisfaction in the Severlin's voice that rubbed Takagi the wrong way.

He was breathing heavily, tasting blood in his mouth. With some effort he pushed himself off the ground back into a sitting position. “Surely,” he coughed, “you've had your fill now. It was never my intention to make you look foolish.”

One of his five attackers howled with rage: “Not your intention?! Guess you were too busy impressing the captain to even give a shit about humiliating your betters, filthy mountain ape!” The young knight was raven-haired, and set in his ashen face, two dark eyes glared at Takagi with utter hatred. He unclipped the heavy terebra from his belt and lifted the weapon like a bat. As the skin of his hands touched the hilt, blue lines lit up across the surface of the implement, the magic engine springing into action. The conic lance-head, shaped like a rifled drill head, began spinning with a deafening whine, as the spell ink mandalas worked into the metal unleashed powerful wind magic.

One of his comrades step forth, putting a hand on his shoulder. “Put that away! They'll hear us.”

The raven-haired knight tore himself free: “Shut up! I'll just bash his face in a bit, make sure the captain looks the other way next time.” And without hesitation, he swung the terebra at Takagi's head.

He felt a sharp pain in his side as someone gave him a gentle kick. A familiar voice called out to him: “Oi, Tahkagi! Wake up, lad!”

Takagi's eyes snapped open. Had the blow knocked him unconscious? He lifted his hand to his head, fearful to find a bloody dent. There was another sharp stab of pain, but not from his head: when he tried to touch it, his fingers hurt as though the bones in them had been shattered. “What- what happened?”

“I wuz hopin' ye could tell me that. I know I told ye not ter kill ‘em, but that's about tha only thing yer di'n do ter tha poor bastards.”

 Takagi tried to lift himself up, but for the moment, the pain was too crippling. He turned his head, trying to take in at least some of the scene that surrounded him. All he could see was a terebra lying by his side. There were deep indentations on its tungsten shell. They looked like the imprint of a hand tightened into a claw.

Lady Astera lifted him up by the shoulder, pulling him to his feet. He could see Marcus, a gray-haired man with many scars, whom Takagi thought to be the First Wind, and a third man he didn't recognize tend to the fallen. Clearly, the young knights had been bruised quite badly, and he could make out at least one broken leg. He lifted his arm shakily, and looked at his hand. His fingers were covered in blood, quite possibly all his own, for there were gashes along all the phalanges.

“There, there. I'll have tha medic take a look at that hand,” the Lady Astera consoled. Then, her voice grew sterner again: “Tha lads'll make it, don't ye worry ter much about it. But I think ye're due some punishment, don't ye think?”

“Punishment… yes…” Takagi mumbled. He was still a bit beside himself. However, she was right: he had failed to restrain himself and this was the result.

“Indeed, lad. Let me think… how about ye take me out ter dinner tonight?” She gave him a wide grin.

Takagi's head slowly turned towards her. He was dead. Dead or dying. Clearly, this was not reality but some sort of fabrication, doubtlessly made up by his delirious mind; a side effect, perhaps, from having his head bashed in with a terebra. What other possible explanation could there be for what he was certain he had just heard?

From behind him, he heard the disapproving voice of the First Wind and Marcus both at once. The former: “Astera!” The latter: “you have got to be kidding!”

Takagi barely heard them. After all, why care about them? It was his delirium, and he was most certainly going to play it out to his full enjoyment before he inevitably slipped away. “I, uh, I suppose so.” He had trouble maintaining eye contact with the Lady Astera, yet those blue wells somehow kept drawing him back in like an inescapable maelstrom.

“Good, good,” she grinned. “Now I believe yer master will be cordially invited ter a state dinner this evenin'. He'll be sure ter take ye along. I'll be yer plus one.”

Takagi's shoulders slumped. “Ah.” So, he wasn't dying and delirious. He was being used.

Kenji watched the young servant scurry off with his signet ring. His head was hurting; a side-effect of the mask-sliver pushing against the bone of his eye socket. He rubbed the surrounding area wearily. Behind him, Kiewek's voice demanded his attention.

“What were you going to say about the worm braid, my Lord?”

He sighed. He had kept the old Outcast around his estate for just a time like this, but he still did not enjoy having to rely on her for anything. She was the monster he had stolen away from his father's collection when he had fled Vechnaya Bramma all those years ago. And just as wicked as the witch, was the worm braid spell. To make a proper braid, or perform any other animancy requiring a part of his body, he had taken cuttings off his own hair from when it had been longer and hidden it away in Clarie's tail. Now, Kiewek had woven it into a braid. “It's not for me. It's for Orzelgryf. You will seal the sword, forcing me to forge my own connection with the Wind.”

Silence greeted him in reply.

He could not help but wonder what kind of face she was showing behind his back. Shock? Greed? To seal away a Keeper's powers, surely she would find some sort of gain in this. He would have to be careful not to let her work any of her own intentions into the spell. He turned around reluctantly. The illusion of youth and beauty she had wreathed herself in disgusted Kenji. “Well? Get going!”

“My Lord.” Kiewek's face was inscrutable, her reply slow and measured. “Your soul is still twisted out of shape… There is no telling how placing the wormbraid upon Orzelgryf will play out. Let me alter the seal before we sever your connection!”

Kenji's brow furrowed in anger: “Oh, you would love to get your bony fingers on the Mask of Brynwain!”

Her tongue darted across her lips. “Yees… The audacity of procuring such an artifact and hiding it away from me…” For a moment, he could almost see the horrid abomination of her true form behind the glamor. “But since you have broken it… this shard will not seal a Keeper soul, there are few sinister uses I could still put it to.”

“So there are still sinister uses you could employ it for.”

“Perhaps. Do you still intend to claim your birthright?” Her black eyes fixed him with a piercing gaze.

He grunted. “I am out of other options. Tonight I'll forge the first link in a secret alliance. Vechnaya Bramma will be the final link to close the chain. Then, the war begins.”

“Good, then I am still your humble servant, Lord Sokolow. Command me, and I shall heed you.”

Kenji clenched his jaw for a moment; then he opened it again and spoke: “Fine! Alter the seal, and then ready the braid. I grow weary of this curse…” 

Kiewek wasted no time. She pried open one chicken cages, the young apprentice footman had left by the door, and grabbed the animal by the neck. As she commenced her dark chants, she glided across the dark, dank, jungle-like room, passing from this pot to that, picking leaves and flowers and mushrooms as she went. The bird, lively and struggling in the beginning, became more and more apathetic as her chant progressed. She carried it over to a heavy earthen bowl on her workbench and slit its throat with one swift motion. She let the blood wash into the bowl and tossed the chicken aside when she was done. Then, she moved towards Kenji, carrying the heavy bowl with ease. There was a shimmer in the air, and around her, it crackled with terrible power. As she dunked her index and middle finger into the dark, red liquid, and slowly moved them outstretched towards Kenji's face, he could see a ghostly image surrounding her arm, the silky, smooth skin superimposed by the bloated yet wizened true form of Kiewek, moments at a time.

He did not flinch. After all, he had seen worse. Though not much worse. He felt her fingers press against mask sliver above his eye, felt them shift, as she painted a rune in blood, and finally, a warm and wet touch as the markings expanded and she put her macabre artwork across his face, moving outward from the remnants of Brynwain's mask in a spiral pattern. When she had spoken the final word, her animantic spell was complete, and Kenji felt the bloody runes burn on his face briefly.

She breathed out, her breath trembling slightly, and stepping back, she held out the worm braid. “Everything is ready.”

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Stay tuned for Chapter VI!


©2017-2023, Koray Birenheide

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