Dragonsden, The Sunthravale. Early Summer, Dragon’s Accord Year 307

In a forest this large, Stigan almost felt at home, despite the absurd heat. The Sunthravale, as the short-snouted reytra called their land, was a forest almost as expansive as those around the fjord that was his home. The realms of the alien flat-faces they moved through to get here was so much rolling hills and prairies, like an ocean of grass, and it all had unsettled Stigan in a way he couldn’t quite articulate.

He felt the travel did him good, though. Home was getting stifling, with its rigid structures of power, its large but closed community, and the constant fear surrounding wandering beyond the Lady of the Fjord’s influence. The short-snouts – ancient cousins, he knew – from the south promised safe passage, likely following the same routes they did long ago. He didn’t know what they wanted, but he saw in them an opportunity to gain influence. Maybe even enough to displace the Elder, on his return, and take that sacred place at the Lady’s side.

Something must be done about the unbearable heat, though. At this rate, the waters of their destination would be too hot to swim.

The soft sound of a wary predator deeper in the jungle set his heart pounding. Not with fear, but bloodlust, and an echoing sentiment of power biding its time. The next blood he’d spill in his homeland would be kin, much closer than those escorting his small band. They would learn to heed the Huntmasters again. The short-snouts had a similar event happen several decades ago, so they had more than just their interesting technology to offer.

Many of the interesting innovations he’d encountered would be useful in that endeavor, and for the restructuring he’d bring about after. The flat-face communities worked with stone as if it were wood and clay and mud, but their ranged weapons made an incredible racket. The short-snouts they traveled with had impressive weapons of a special form of iron, as well as more conventional bows, and armor made of plate sheets. It made even more noise than Stigan’s own white chain, but probably offered better protection. He’d have to find a way to test it, one that didn’t anger his new hosts.

“It’s too hot here, how are we supposed to live?” one of Stigan’s companions muttered to him, neither taking his eyes off the path ahead.

“We’ll survive. We’re on a mission, remember?”

“Which one are you talking about; yours, the Elders, or our friends’ here?”

Stigan shrugged. “All of them. We will not fail.”

His ally snorted. “A lot to ask of us.”

“I selected you all because I knew you were capable.”

“Well, at least let me complain about it while we do all that’s required,” his friend said, shrugging. He then turned to Stigan finally, and said in a harder but quieter tone, “And don’t think all of us will fall in with your insane vendetta, Stigan. We will help you this far, but not necessarily any further. Your rank means nothing here.”

Stigan didn’t respond, instead eyeing their escorts for the hundredth time. Whatever they’d wanted, it had better not take long; he had a meeting with destiny to attend, whether his comrades joined him or not.

―――――

“What do you want us to do?”

Chalchi found herself unable to respond to the northerner’s abrupt question, even after she had worked her way through his accent. She looked over to her comrade Aghi, who simply grunted and shook his head, then back to the new arrivals. “Well, I, uh… I don’t know.”

The apparent leader of the band looked down his wolf-like snout at her. “Why are we here?”

“Not my place,” she shot back, trying not to be unnerved by the difference between the leader’s height and her own.

“We’re here,” Aghi interjected, “to welcome you. Her brother will give you your marching orders.”

“I thought we had finished this march of yours.”

Chalchi snickered when Aghi sighed in exasperation. “Just a figure of speech. Here, sit down; you’ve come a long way and the seats are right here.” Aghi gestured to the center of the room, where two dozen stools had been placed. The newcomers had given the seating as wide a berth as possible, but now – reluctantly – complied.

“Alright,” Aghi continued. “Now we can get to business. I’m Aghi Fė’kelti, and this is Chalchi R’all. We’ll do our best to catch you up on how this place works.”

“I am Stigan Vė’sharnel.” The leader eyed Aghi critically. “We got our new surname prefixes from yours?”

“No, but it’s intended to be similar. That was actually her brother’s idea,” Aghi gestured to Chalchi. “I don’t know why he chose it, but he was quite insistent, and the Fieldmaster agreed.”

The northerner perked up when the rank was mentioned. “Does this Fieldmaster lead your people?”

“In this city, yes. Marshal A’tandet leads the Authority as a whole.”

“Yes, I have heard of this Marshal.” The large foreigner slouched on his stool again.

“Well, I hope you never meet the man, for your sake,” Aghi continued. “You’re not going to be invisible, since we want rumors of you getting out, but the Fieldmaster has enough sway, and enough people in the right places, that he can prevent you from being accosted and sent away. You haven’t told us much of your origins, and that’s just fine, as long as you keep everyone else even further in the dark.”

“Do you intend to interfere with this Marshal’s rule?”

Aghi looked to Chalchi, who nodded.

“I think we can cooperate, then, on one condition,” the foreign leader said, smiling.

“What’s that?” Chalchi asked.

“When we are done with your schemes, you help me do the same, when I return home.” The large reytra grinned, an expression much at odds with the way a few of his companions looked at him.

“We can come to an arrangement,” said a voice behind Chalchi. She turned to see her brother Dimo in the doorway, leaning against its frame. “Exact details will have to wait until we see how well you help us. I understand that you have a disagreement with your seniors.”

The foreigner grunted and nodded once.

“I understand perfectly. As my sister indicated, our aims may be similar. If it wasn’t clear, you are here as mercenaries. If you desire payment in services or arms instead of gold, that is negotiable.”

“I think,” called out another of the northerners, “we will have to discuss payment among ourselves first.” The leader’s expression grew grim, but he made no comment.

“You have time,” Dimo said, before stepping between Chalchi and Aghi. He turned to his sister and handed her a wrapped bundle. “Send them to the capital when you’re done here, through the trade district.”

Chalchi nodded, then looked inside the bundle as her brother whispered something to Aghi. Three dozen metal badges sat inside, equally divided between two types. One of them matched a badge she wore on her own strip, the badge for Dragonsden itself. The second bore a new design: a pair of golden dragon’s wings that reminded her of Aghi’s Current badge, but instead of a trio of geometric shapes, those wings flanked an inverted bronze V. Dimo must be very serious about blurring the lines between these newcomers and the majority of the city’s residents.

Aghi stepped forward once Dimo turned to leave. “Though my Current has volunteered to take care of you, you will be taking orders from Chalchi’s; they don’t have the supplies to house all of you and the many more yet to come. We will find odd jobs for you to work, to expose you to our city, and whatever ways our home is different than yours. When the time comes, Chalchi’s people will have orders for you. Until then, your job is simply to be visible in everyday life. Now, if you’d please, come up one at a time and receive a pair of badges. You should wear them as long as you’re in public, on or near your right shoulder.”

The leader made a gesture, and one of his allies – the one who spoke, Chalchi noted – quickly stood and approached the front. She handed him a badge for the city, and a badge for the fake Current. As soon as he sat down, another stood to take his place.

Their leader was last, and when he took his, he examined the gifts of precious metals thoughtfully. “Back home, these are probably valuable enough to be an advance payment on their own. Gold and silver are not nearly as common as they seem to be here. I suppose calling us mercenaries was apt.” He looked back up at Chalchi with a stern look. “But tell me, why overthrow this Marshal? What has he done to you?”

She held his hard gaze for several moments before responding. “Decades ago, his predecessor stole our independence. Instead of accepting it, Riptide decided to do something about it.”

“Yes,” the northerner said, grinning again. “I understand perfectly.”

―――――

Stepping back out onto the street, Dimo nodded to the guards posted at the door to the impromptu welcome hall – both Riptide themselves. Unusual for most reytra cities, Dragonsden featured an inner wall. He passed through its main gate without issue, before angling towards the residential areas of this side of the city. He’d take a more direct route back to the capital than he’d given his sister.

On the other side of the wall stood the Great Library. Though this city had been a center of learning in its past life, whose name was lost to the intervening centuries, the library was special for other reasons besides its current catalogue. He marveled at its facade as he walked by, how the city had enshrined and exalted in the building’s obvious ancient damage, the repair work emphasizing its scars rather than hiding them, memorializing the fact it once was Dragonsden’s current namesake. Of course, no such occupant lived there now, and recently the building started to once more suffer due to lack of maintenance.

Cooler air caressed Dimo’s fur as he entered the antechamber before the library proper, a welcome respite from the day’s building heat. Inside, the elderly head librarian, Tora, spoke to a huddled group of ragged reytra before a large stone pedestal, the best of whom were disadvantaged, and the worst destitute. There were more than the last time he’d seen such a gathering, which itself had been larger than usual, the sorry group increasing in size every time Dimo looked. Each listened to the librarian with rapt attention, and scurried Sunder-knows-where when she had finished with a hand gesture. The once-priestess then turned her attention to Dimo. “Come to see the fruits of your labor?”

Dimo made a grimace, and looked to where he’d seen the last of the driven reytra vanish. “Their condition is our fault now?”

“No,” Tora said. “Every day, our Current becomes more like yours, sending our most unfortunate on our most critical tasks. I’m sure Fėlehoseru is rolling in her grave, wherever that may be. I doubt she would have approved of her chosen becoming more like…” The librarian made another gesture, this time of contempt, “whatever she’d call you scoundrels.”

“I’m sure she’d understand, considering your dire circumstances.”

Tora eyed Dimo suspiciously. “I’m still not convinced those circumstances,” she emphasized the word as an ear twitched, “are not your fault. Your people run this place after all. What is stopping your plans from going into motion tomorrow?”

“We’re almost done assembling the pieces,” Dimo said, leaning against the pedestal and resting his arm on the book-stand summiting it. Though far too high for a reytra to comfortably read from, it was perhaps a bit low for the dragon who once used it. “But it can’t be as bad as it was before Fieldmaster R’essin came to power. Hasn’t he let you speak to the sentinel recently?”

“Oh, sure, a couple weeks ago.” Tora rolled her eyes and flicked her tail against the floor. “How generous.”

“Well that’s better than what you had before we started our work here.”

“Heh, you think-” her sentence was cut off by sardonic laughter that unnerved Dimo- “You- you think it matters? You think Dragonsden and I discussed anything important? We exchanged pleasantries. It talks to the Fieldmaster once in a while, in my place.” She laughed to herself more, as if enjoying a private joke. “When it feels the need. Rarely, I figure.”

Dimo tried to get a grip on the librarian’s sudden change. He knew Cerrayd occasionally conversed with the city’s sentinel, but he was never told about what. “Why do you figure that?”

“Because,” Tora started, then laughed to herself again and looked around the room. “I’ll tell you something, only because I know you’re too good about keeping the important things wrapped around your chest. I’ll tell you why I don’t miss my old life.”

She gestured to the Great Library around them as she continued, “Everything I once did in Dragonsden’s light I can do here, where it is cool and comfortable. Here, I can still give guidance to those who seek it. I can educate the young about the importance of our traditions. I can help keep my Current together. Now I merely need to appeal to history, instead of faith. I just use different books than I once did. Do you understand what that means?”

Dimo thought he might, but he wanted confirmation. “No, what?”

“It means that being a priestess wasn’t anything special.” She snorted, but her near-maniacal giggles had subsided. “Not to sentinels. Sunder cares for us, takes us up when we die, scatters our ashes and combines them with others so they may form something new, and linking all the souls whose matter makes that new object into its own community. The sentinels play no part in this. They don’t care, not like their creator. Sunder put them here to watch over us, to make sure we didn’t all erase each other from existence and disrupt her cycle. To Dragonsden, I was just another reytra the city decided to make their mouthpiece. When I pleaded with it to do something about the Authority, you know what it said?”

Dimo could only shake his head.

“It said it was an ‘interesting development.’ As we watched our way of life fall apart before our eyes, the one we trusted to protect us told me it thought it was interesting! Your Fieldmaster can get away with all he does – all you Riptide can get away with your schemes – because as long as you don’t kill anyone, the sentinels don’t care. Whatever pattern is on the flags above, whatever badges are on the chests below, they are satisfied as long as life goes on.” The elderly librarian seemed to collapse, then. “Fėlehoseru is a kinder mistress to represent. At least she is dead, so I never have to wonder about her motives.”

“So,” Dimo started, then stopped again to assemble his thoughts. “So… you don’t care if we win or lose this fight?”

“I want to see my Current thrive, instead of descend further into poverty as the Authority takes even the scraps we have left. Your schemes will see that happen.” Tora’s expression hardened again. “But that is our only association. This is an alliance of convenience, and nothing more.”

That, at least, was something Dimo understood. “As far as we’re concerned,” he said, his smile returning, “those are the only true alliances, in the end.”

“Bah,” Tora said, waving her hand towards the door dismissively. “Go back to your nest of vipers then, and continue your plots to bite the hand that holds both of us down.”

That, Dimo decided, was a good idea right about now.

―――――

A noise some distance behind Cerrayd prompted him to turn. Peering back into his office through an open window he noticed a figure had entered his suite’s door and walked towards him. As he placed the papers he held on Cerrayd’s desk, enough light hit the newcomer’s face for Cerrayd to recognize him.

“It’s all in the report,” Dimo said. He craned his head upwards to catch a glimpse out the window of Dragonsden’s sentinel, floating overhead. “So far, so good.”

“Thank you, R’all. Return to your preparations,” Cerrayd said, then glanced up from the pages Dimo had just handed him. “And do make sure Fė’kelti doesn’t try to trample your sister.”

“Of course,” Dimo said, looking at Cerrayd once more and nodding, before retreating back to the stairs.

Fieldmaster Cerrayd R’essin looked back out across the city he oversaw. Anyone who paid attention to what was going on within its confines and was further brave enough to speak out about it would say it was a city on the brink of collapse and anarchy. Soaring poverty and homelessness, two seemingly-opposed power bases, strange foreigners with wolfish faces coming from who-knows-where to settle in this tight-knit community; the whole city was looking to receive Sunder’s grace, and fast.

The thought of it all made Cerrayd grin. One must die before one can be reborn.

“It is amusing, isn’t it?”

He turned to regard the crystalline entity behind him. “I thought your kind didn’t like reading our minds.”

“I can put together most of your schemes simply by observing your interactions up here, where you and your co-conspirators are alone but for my constant presence.”

“Be fair to the people you protect, Dragonsden; these plans are theirs, not mine.” Cerrayd turned back to survey his city. “I just line them up in a specific way.”

“Your unique combination of arrogance and humility never ceases to amaze me.”

“It’s a Riptide thing.”

“Belanflow lacks my patience with it.”

Cerrayd shrugged. The recent incident in the capital following an altercation with a Dawn Bay agent was unfortunate; he’d been looking forward to the information central to that dispute. But Dawn Bay Current had little presence in his city, and if that wasn’t true, he’d be even less inclined to bother them than he was now. “Sometimes setbacks happen. Best to take them in stride, instead of with spite.”

“That is certainly not a Riptide thing.”

Another shrug. “You haven’t been this talkative since I gained my post here.” He turned back to the floating crystal, then grinned. “Unnecessary chatter isn’t a Sentinel thing.”

“I’m bored.”

“Hah! Imagine, an entity with the power to level this city with a thought, afflicted with boredom! Could there be anything more terrifying?” Cerrayd swept an arm across the city’s expanse, ending the gesture with a dramatic slap of his chest. “I will take the grim responsibility of keeping you sufficiently amused. Please, continue.”

“It is true most of my kin do not speak much with their charges. Detachment is a virtue, they say. As of late, I am not sure I agree, and some… distant cousins engage in a peculiar arrangement from time to time. That, too, I find interesting. Perhaps I should speak with you more often.”

“Speaking of interesting, what do you think of our recent guests?”

“The ones you spent so much effort, clout, and resources to bring here?”

“The same,” Cerrayd said, casting a sidelong glance up at his massive conversation partner.

“Less interesting than you think, but that may only be because they are much more mysterious to you than I.”

“Oh? Do they have their own sentinel, wherever they’re from? Do you speak often?”

“I will not spoil such secrets, except to say that they have more than one guardian.”

“Why reveal even that?”

Dragonsden paused before responding. “It is amusing.”

Cerrayd sighed. “As I said; a grim responsibility.” When Dragonsden remained silent, he continued, “I have my own theories on who the Lady of the Fjord is, yes. If I’m right, my plans for this city will be inconsequential compared to the chaos such news would unleash.”

“I know you feel a perverse joy whenever you’re proven wrong. Just like us, you love it when the world surprises you.”

“Am I wrong this time?”

“I will not say.”

It was Cerrayd’s turn to remain silent.

―――――

“Things are grim.”

Dragonsden turned its attention away from Cerrayd and the rooftop it and he occupied, focusing far northeast towards Liyeland’s capital. “I was just discussing grim matters with the Fieldmaster. What an interesting coincidence.”

“Is it also an amusing one?”

“What is on your mind, Shrine Island?”

“The High King’s health declines even faster than before. His retainers are drawing battle-lines around his sons. We may soon see our first real war in three centuries.”

“Ah, even Cerrayd’s drama isn’t as intricate as your palace intrigues. Backwater duty is so dull.”

“Not exactly a backwater, and you have it better than most,” Shrine Island replied. “What’s happening with the Fjord reytra?”

“Another group has recently arrived. Did you know they’re setting up a cover story as some ‘lost Current’? They took the Dragon’s Current’s prefix and voiced it. Imagine thinking you can get away with just flipping the first character.”

“Such an alteration would at least be accurate, if they want to adopt that particular convention.” Shrine Island paused in thought before continuing, “Besides, it’s not flipping the character in the First’s script.”

“Accurate, yes, and the script point is true as well. I suppose that’s the only script that matters,” Dragonsden sent. “Still, I thought it was-”

“Interesting?”

“-amusing.”

Shrine Island sent an approximation of a laugh. “Never change, Dragonsden. Just don’t mess with the Fieldmaster too much.”

“I know; no meddling with individuals but for their protection.” A note of irritation accompanied the message.

“You don’t want to end up like Daegria.”

“Grim indeed,” Dragonsden sent.

“Oh no, not another little quirk,” Shrine Island replied, before leaving Dragonsden to its thoughts.