The Hungry Keep

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The Hungry Keep

Postby Kestrad » October 26th, 2017, 9:09:12 pm

A Magistream story, set in a dystopian AU, borrowing characters belonging to MageLorelei, xmands, Foleo, and Karzarill.

____________

Father woke me in the middle of the night, his voice low and urgent. "Pack your things, Verdandi," he hissed, as I shot up, my hand already reaching for my sword.

"What's going on?" I asked as I rushed to comply. Hurried midnight departures were common enough in our life as traveling mercenaries, but rarely so soon after arriving at a place. We'd only reached the Etain desert a day ago, only reached the city last night. My father's demeanor, too, alarmed me. Never before had I seen such deep fear in his eyes, except in my first real battle, when I'd taken a sword to my gut.

"We arrived at a very bad time," Father whispered, throwing the last of his gear into his own bag. "Tomorrow morning, the Keep claims its annual tithe."

I froze, nearly dropping the knife I was shoving into my pack. "No," I said, with more confidence than I felt. "We've been counting the days. It's not for another three days." For as long as I could remember, we avoided other people altogether when this day of the year approached. The magi at the Keep demand one child from every large city remaining, once a year, as payment for the spell that keeps the Great Plague at bay. I've been called "leech" or worse, for being a traveller, for avoiding the tithe, never mind that the spell sometimes fails outside cities, or that they often grab wandering children like me to sacrifice. Better a stray, than someone the city folk will mourn.

"We counted wrong," Father snapped. "Hurry!"

Spurred on by his urgency, I threw the last of my things into my bag and roughly crammed my bedroll on top. Father waited the few seconds it took me to clip my sword to my waist and then blew out the candle. We waited a minute or two for our eyes to adjust to the darkness. Then he gently eased open the door to the hut we'd rented for the night, and we tiptoed out, making for our horses.

We'd barely both stepped through the door when light blazed all around us. Years of training kicked in and without thinking I threw up one hand to shield myself, drawing my sword with the other. Something cold and sharp pricked at my neck. I jerked my head back and kicked out viciously, smirking as my foot connected solidly with someone and sent them staggering. At the same moment I heard footsteps coming up behind me and swung around, bringing my sword up to parry the incoming blow. My seared eyeballs were starting to clear, allowing me to see the cowards who had ambushed us. Aside from the two I'd engaged so far, I made out at least three more, two of whom were fighting Father, the third rushing towards me.

I dropped to a crouch, sword ready to parry whoever reached me first. Father didn't enjoy fighting, despite his skill at it, but it was all I knew, all I was good at. Unlike my magic, which always came out twisted and sideways and wrong, I was skilled with my sword, far better than anyone who saw my scrawny teenaged frame expected. And I would die before letting these cityfolk kidnap me just to spare themselves the guilt of sending one of their own.

As I expected, my first two attackers charged at me together, hoping to overwhelm me together. I sidestepped one spear and parried the other, then kicked the fighter into her oncoming comrade before she could recover. He failed to raise his spear in time; it impaled her through the shoulder, splattering the three of us with blood. I pressed my advantage, knocking her aside such that the spear shaft was wrenched from the male fighter's hands, and slashed at him. He stumbled backwards, just barely avoiding my attack, and ran.

Good, I thought with satisfaction, as the injured woman staggered away as well, spear still in her shoulder. Two down. One to go. I grinned viciously at my remaining opponent, savoring the way her expression had changed from boredom to surprise, and then to fear. Whoever had sent this group had obviously been overconfident, probably expecting surprise and numbers to overwhelm us, when anyone with brains would have realized our occupation often meant surviving far worse odds than this. This fighter wasn't stupid - she could tell she was outmatched. I circled her, moving so I could monitor how my father's fight was going. He had dispatched his opponents and was running towards me. As far as I could tell no other fighters were left, and if anyone else had been around, they had dropped their torches in the sand and fled.

It was time to end this and make our escape. I slashed at the woman opposite me. She knocked my blade away with her spear tip and lunged; I skipped aside and thrust my sword out. She twisted at the last minute to avoid being impaled, but it gave me a chance to slam my sword up into her spear shaft, hard enough to embed into the wood. With a twist, I wrenched the weapon from her grasp. The last straw for her seemed to be the sound of my father's footsteps as he ran up to us and she too fled into the dark.

"Let's go," Father gasped, prying the spear from my sword. I nodded, sheathing my sword, and we sprinted towards our horses. We swung onto their backs, not bothering to saddle up, and spurred them into a gallop away from this accursed city.

After a few minutes of hard riding we let the horses slow. Father pulled up next to me, his face hard.

"I'm sorry, Verdandi," he began. "I should have counted the days better - "

"I share the blame in that," I said, cutting him off. "And besides, we got away."

Perhaps, by saying that, I invoked the wrath of the gods, as at that moment we both heard the sound of pounding hooves. Father swore. We kicked our horses back into a gallop, but they were not bred for speed, and already tired from earlier. It wasn't long before we were forced to slow down to keep them from injury.

As the approaching horses drew closer, I reached into my pack, pulling out a small satchel of throwing knives. My aim wasn't good at the best of times, let alone from atop a moving horse, aiming at moving targets. Still, perhaps my desperation helped, as when the first rider came into view, my throw landed true. The horse reared, panicking as its rider fell from the saddle and dragged on the ground behind it. The confusion was enough to delay the other riders. I seized the opportunity, urging my horse to go faster. At some point, hopefully soon, they would have to decide I wasn't worth the trouble!

Just as I finally thought we were free, a rider seemingly materialized from nothing next to me. They'd made no sound at all - I barely had time to react as they flung a spell at me. I shrieked the words to a shield spell, but it came out feeble and wrong, fizzling out the instant the other spell came into contact with it. The magic enveloped me, exploding into a net and neatly dragging me off my horse. I hit the ground hard, the fall knocking all the breath from my lungs. I didn't even get a chance to recover, as the mage immediately turned, using the net to drag me along behind them. I swear they purposely found every possible rock to bump me against.

"Verdandi!" My father, the idiot, wheeled his horse around, trying to catch up to me. Hearing his cry brought me back to my senses and I grabbed at the magical net, trying to tear it, but try as I might, I could not grasp the strands.

I took a deep breath, trying to fight off the panic bubbling up in my throat. "Go!" I yelled at my father, who hadn't given up chasing me. I hated to say the words, but it would do neither of us any good to be sentimental right now. "Run, Father, damn you, run!"

Perhaps he heard my desperation, or perhaps he finally came to his senses. Either way, he pulled his horse to a stop. I watched him disappear into the distance, too quickly for me to even commit the image into my memory. It finally struck me, then, how most likely I would never see him again, and before I could help it, an ugly sob erupted from my throat. I angrily squashed the rest that tried to burst out. I would not give the scum who had captured me the satisfaction of seeing me cry.

______
first person was such a mistake orz orz orz

Kestrad has been eaten by life. She'll probably pop back in occasionally.

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Re: The Hungry Keep

Postby Kestrad » November 2nd, 2017, 2:55:24 am

"Psst, Kieran!"

Kieran glanced up from his book, where he had ostensibly been practicing scribing but had actually just been scribbling doodles of various chimeras for the past half hour. His best friend Donovan tapped at the window to the tiny study he was in. Kieran gave up even pretending to be productive and got up, brushing strands of dark hair out of his eyes. "What is it?" he asked, approaching the window. He was pretty sure Donovan was supposed to be balancing the account books for his master, the smith, right now.

"I've got something to show you," Donovan said, his blue eyes sparkling. "Come on!"

Kieran glanced at his desk, and at the door beyond it leading to the rest of the temple. He could hardly go out that way - Lucifer was a tolerant enough master, but would certainly not let Kieran leave before he'd finished copying at least fifty pages. Sixty, actually, to make up for the pages he'd wasted by doodling. Sighing, he pulled the window open and clambered out. It was a small space, but Kieran was slight and gangly and mostly slipped through easily. It didn't stop Donovan from trying to help by pulling him through, which only resulted in Kieran falling flat on his face on the other side.

"Idiot," Kieran said as he picked himself up and dusted himself off. "I was fine without your help."

Donovan stuck his tongue out at Kieran. "Go faster next time, and I wouldn't think you needed it."

Kieran made a rude gesture in return. "Hey, usually I'm the one instigating stupid adventures when we're supposed to be working," he pointed out. "I'm out of practice. What's so important that you have to show me now?" Donovan's usually bright golden hair was dull with ash from the forge today - he resisted the urge to reach out and brush it clean. Donovan was the sun to Kieran's moon - everything about him was bright and radiant, in contrast to Kieran's dark features. It was even true of their magics - Donovan could throw fire around with ease, while Kieran manipulated shadows with much effort. It didn't sit right with him for anything about Donovan to be dull.

In response, Donovan dug around in his pocket, eventually pulling out a silver ring and holding it out to Kieran with his palm. "What do you think?"

Kieran raised an eyebrow. "While I'm flattered, Donovan, traditionally you're supposed to get down on one knee."

Donovan closed his hand over the ring and punched Kieran. "I was just asking you how you thought it looked, you dolt," he said. "It's not done yet."

Kieran rubbed his shoulder - Donovan hadn't pulled that punch at all. "I was just joking, you know. Show me?"

Donovan huffed but handed the ring over for Kieran to inspect. It was thin and simple-looking at first glance, but as Kieran turned it, the striations on its surface caught the light, revealing a woodgrain-like pattern. Kieran hummed, impressed. After a quick glance at Donovan and a nod in response, he tried slipping it onto his finger. The band had probably been made for someone with less slender fingers than him, as it slid on and off with far too much ease. Kieran slipped it off and handed it back.

"So," he teased, as Donovan put it back into his pocket. "Who's the lucky lady?"

Donovan blushed, glancing away. "I-I'll tell you when it's done," he stammered. "Anyway, I better go, or Master Thorrin will use my skin for leather."

Kieran blinked. Was that it? Donovan could have shown the ring to him later, while they were making dinner, if that was all, and since he clearly couldn't wait until then, he could have at least told Kieran who it was for. Well, he supposed love made people do illogical things all the time. "I guess I should go actually get some scribing done," he said. He waved goodbye to Donovan and crawled back through the window.

He passed the rest of the afternoon actually working. Kieran didn't particularly enjoy scribing, but he happened to be good at it, and having an apprenticeship of sorts kept him relatively safe from being Raza's tithe. Ostensibly every child between the ages of fifteen and nineteen might be chosen, but the tithe just happened to be a child from the orphanage most years. Having a master meant having an adult who might care enough to keep his name out of the pool. This year's sacrifice was to be announced in a few days. Just thinking about it made Kieran write a little bit faster. By the time Master Lucifer came to inspect Kieran's work, he'd done enough pages that Lucifer only raised his eyebrows a little at the doodles.

"Kieran," Lucifer said, as Kieran was stepping out the door. "You know the tithe is being announced soon."

"Yes," Kieran replied, confused. Of course he knew. Everyone did.

Lucifer sighed, running his fingers through his graying hair - a gesture Kieran had learned meant he was stressed about something. "Don't do anything stupid."

Kieran gulped. "I-" Did Lucifer mean he going to be the sacrifice this year? Was he threatening Kieran? He wanted to ask, but wasn't sure he wanted to know the answer. If he was, he'd find out soon enough. "I won't," he finished instead.

"Good," Lucifer replied, and made a shooing motion with his hands. Kieran took the hint and left.

_____

splitting this chapter into two parts because it needed a break in between, oops

Kestrad has been eaten by life. She'll probably pop back in occasionally.

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Re: The Hungry Keep

Postby Kestrad » November 4th, 2017, 12:32:12 am

All through the next few days, Kieran couldn't quite get over the sense of impending doom. He went through the motions of doing his chores, unable to properly focus. Every mistake added to his nervousness, until he could barely shake the feeling he was already dead. That sense of foreboding was common to all the children he lived with, especially as the particular night arrived. But whereas Kieran usually distracted himself by sending shadows to play tricks on the younger kids, this year he found himself stirring his stew aimlessly, unable to bring himself to eat as the meal passed in unusually subdued silence.

"Copper for your thoughts," Donovan said from his seat beside Kieran, breaking him out of his reverie.

Kieran shrugged, because he didn't have anything specific to say. "Just wondering who's going to be the unfortunate bastard this year, I guess," he said, when Donovan raised an eyebrow at him.

Donovan patted him on the back. "Hopefully not us," he said. "With any luck, we've made ourselves too useful."

Kieran continued stirring his stew, not particularly reassured. Pretty much everyone in the tithe age range had found themselves apprenticeships or jobs, and there were only ten of them this year. The odds were not particularly good.

Probably realizing that Kieran wasn't feeling particularly reassured, Donovan kept talking. "We've just got to get past tonight, and then we're free," he said. "I'll finish learning the craft from Master Thorrin and open up my own shop, and you can keep working for Master Lucifer. Hey, maybe he'll even designate you as his replacement! Whatever happens, we'll never have to worry that one misstep will end up with us at the Keep again."

Kieran managed a smile. "Don't put your cart before your horse," he reminded his friend, punching him lightly. But he appreciated the effort to cheer him up. He shoveled stew into his mouth, mostly to reassure Donovan more than anything else, and even sent a few shadows to spook the kids cleaning up after dinner. Then the orphanage head - a tall, skinny woman who only ever wore grey and whose mouth was perpetually set in a tight line - herded Kieran, Donovan, and the other correctly aged children to the city center, where the city Elder and her council were already waiting on a makeshift stage. Kieran's group was soon joined by the children with living parents.

Kieran glanced around. There were maybe forty-odd children total this year. The Keep might consider Raza a city, but they weren't much more than a glorified village. The plague had struck the jungle particularly hard, especially since settlements had been sparse and spread out to begin with. They were simply the only settlement known to still exist, and the Keep had foisted them with the name formerly given to the entire jungle. For simplicity's sake, so it was claimed. Kieran suspected it was just to make keeping track of tithes easier for some stuffy scribe at the Keep, who didn't want to deal with regions and cities having different names.

Once everyone was assembled, the city Elder stepped forward. "Thank you all for gathering here," she said, as if they had a choice. Not for the first time, Kieran wondered why they didn't just send someone to collect whoever they'd chosen. It would certainly be less bother for everyone involved, especially the non-orphaned children, who were here only for show anyway.

"Today," the Elder continued. "We choose our annual tithe to the Keep. The gods have decided that this year, we will be sending - " she paused, as one of her council members passed her a slip of paper - "ah, Donovan."

Kieran jolted as he processed the name - first giddy with relief as he realized not me, not me! Then, just as quickly, his relief flooded away, replaced by horror as he realized who had been called. Beside him, Donovan stood frozen, stiff with shock. Something inside Kieran rebelled at the unfairness. Donovan had plans for the future. He had a shop to set up, a girl to marry. Kieran goofed off most days in an apprenticeship he didn't much care for, for the hint of a promise of a job he certainly didn't care for.

Donovan twitched, seemingly unfreezing himself. Kieran punched him hard in the stomach so that he doubled over - a move he knew to be particularly debilitating for Donovan, from the days when they were younger and much worse at getting along. Then he kneed his friend in the balls for good measure. As Donovan tried to recover, too winded to even curse, Kieran dashed to the front.

The Elder lifted an eyebrow at his appearance before her. "You're not Donovan," she observed. "Kil...ah, Kieran, right?"

Kieran started, partly in surprise she knew his name, partly because his brain had finally caught up to how stupid of a thing he'd just done. Maybe this was what Lucifer had meant all along. He took a deep breath, plucking up his courage, and nodded. "Yes. I'm Kieran. Donovan's indisposed, so you'll just have to take me instead."

The Elder furrowed her brow at his statement and turned to confer with her council. Kieran plowed forward - it was too late to back down now. "Donovan's got a useful apprenticeship and magic that goes with it. Master Lucifer can pick any random kid to write things for him." The Elder made no sign of having heard anything he'd said, so Kieran played what he hoped was his trump card. "Donovan's going to get married!"

The Elder turned, surprised. Kieran mentally cheered at having provoked a response. The Elder turned again to chat with her nearest council member, her look now thoughtful. Finally, with a nod, she turned towards Kieran.

"Kieran, in light of your statements, and the fact that you clearly wish to be the tithe, we've decided to respect your wishes." She glanced to one side, and a warrior stepped seemingly out of the background. Kieran started as the warrior grabbed him - it was one thing to see this happen to someone else every year, and another to actually experience it. "Do you have any last words?" the Elder asked, as the warrior brought out a small needle. Kieran knew from the previous years it was coated with sleeping potion.

He shook his head. "Please. Just get this over with." She was just being nice by asking, anyway. Most tithes were presented and then hauled away immediately. Some had to be dragged up. Some made their way forward voluntarily but then fought viciously when being hauled off. It was really no wonder the council had decided it was better to sedate their tithes quickly. The warrior nodded, lightly pricking his shoulder.

At that moment Donovan must have finally recovered from the pummeling Kieran had inflicted on him. "Damn it, Kieran! It was you! The ring was for you!"

The sleeping potion was starting to take effect; Kieran's limbs felt far too heavy and he could barely get his mouth to work. "Donovan, you idiot," he managed, and that was as far as he got, because after that darkness overtook his vision; his eyelids grew too heavy to stay up. He made one more effort, but it was too hard to open his mouth, and he flopped backwards into the arms of the Razan warrior.

_______
why yes the premise of this fic was originally very heavily inspired by hunger games why do you ask
also oops I may have just made Kieran a more compelling protagonist than Verdandi
also oops I'm bad at actually making the jungle setting matter

Kestrad has been eaten by life. She'll probably pop back in occasionally.

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Re: The Hungry Keep

Postby Kestrad » November 21st, 2017, 3:44:20 am

tw: mentions of suicide and self harm

In the year 225 of Archmage Thane, 748 years after the establishment of the Keep's first Archmage, the Great Plague struck the world. I will spare you the unpleasant details of the ways it causes the demise of those afflicted, save that none of them are pleasant, and the only mercy from it is to possess magic, in which case the diseased dies quickly rather than slowly. None know how it came into being, though speculation and whispers would suggest that it originated in the Keep itself, either brewed by a dark mage unknowingly fostered by the magi there, or through the careless experiments of an alchemist. The Keep is quick to silence these rumors, claiming it has traced the disease to find it natural in origin, having formed in Razan creatures and made the jump to humans, and then to other species. Some evidence would support this, as while magical creatures everywhere have been decimated, the magical creatures of Raza are all but extinct.

In the year 230, the surviving magi at the Keep released a spell, known as the Great Barrier. No one outside the Keep understands the way this spell functions, but the Keep claims it covers the known world, and as long as it is active, prevents the disease's symptoms from manifesting. There is no way to check the first claim, as the lands traditionally considered under the Keep's protection are still recovering from the disease and cannot muster up forces to check on such faraway locations as Triathe or Tetzcotal. It is, however, certainly true that since the Great Barrier was cast, no one previously uninfected has died of the disease. As a price for casting the Great Barrier and maintaining it, the Keep has demanded an annual tithe from each of the largest remaining cities in its territories: Synara, Voltar, Nareau, Arkene, the Alasre Mountains, Silva, Etain, and Raza.
Each city must provide a child between the ages of 15 and 19 to a representative of the Keep on the eve of the autumnal equinox. It is unknown what these children are used for, as they are never seen or heard from again.

As a result of this tithe, every city has developed its own customs to select a child of the appropriate age, though the Etain and Arkene are not above kidnapping travelers to suit their needs. While the actual method used to carry it out varies between cities, generally the custom is to draw lots. One notable exception to this is in Synara City, where the nobles provide sacrifices from amongst their children. This is said to originate from the first year tithes were required, when the nobles rounded up their peasants and forced them to choose one of their own. The Lord of the North and the Lady of the West expressed their great displeasure at this by causing all the flowers and vines in the city to wither overnight. In response, the Grand Duke returned the peasant child, and provided his own youngest daughter in their stead, and the gardens of Synara returned to their former glory once more. These days, it is considered something of a status symbol, as well as a sign of selfless sacrifice, to be able to raise a child for at least 14 years, and then give them up.

In true Synaran fashion, the sacrifice provided by the city must always be the best of all the tithed children. The tithe is educated in manners, arts, sciences, and, if applicable, magic. The day of sendoff, he or she is dressed in their best finery and handed off to the Keep on a well-bred steed. The higher the quality of their sendoff, the more prestige for their family. The Synarans claim that if one tithe is to ever return, it will be one of theirs. So far this claim remains unfounded.


Lachesis blew softly through her mouth, recalling the text she'd stolen from the library years and years ago, the one that had finally made her understand exactly what fate was allotted to her. The maid arranging her hair glanced disapprovingly at her for the slight motion. Lachesis ignored the look and closed her eyes, trying to empty her mind. Trying not to think, because then her mind would wander back towards her fate, and then she would certainly not be composed enough to sit still.

Today. Her fate was coming for her today. She sat still as a statue now, letting servants decorate her as current fashion mandated. Like her older sister had been, on her wedding day, except Lachesis had no ceremony waiting except a long ride to the Keep. No groom waiting except her death. Life really wasn't fair sometimes.

The maids were done with her makeup and starting on dressing her when her mother strolled into the room. "Give me a moment alone with my daughter, will you?" Moira Varn Raella said, dismissing the maids.

Lachesis stared wordlessly at her mother as the maids left, worried that any movement would somehow ruin her makeup or hair. Not that it it particularly mattered as, once they were alone in the room, Moira's perfectly composed exterior crumbled, and she folded Lachesis into her arms and sobbed into her hair.

"Mother, you're ruining your clothes and my makeup," Lachesis protested. Her mother's display shattered her own carefully cultivated calm. She blinked away tears, trying hard not to let them run down her face - not that it made a difference. Gold paint and pale foundation left a shiny brown smear on the front of her mother's fancy dress as she pulled away. Part of her longed to bury her face in her mother's dress again and have a good cry herself. A decade of training kicked in and she instead returned to proper posture, back and shoulders perfectly straight, hands folded demurely on her lap.

Once, years ago, she would have welcomed the disruption. Even without her mother's accidental assistance, she would have ruined her appearance herself. She still could, in the short window between her mother leaving and the maids returning - break the makeup bottles and use the sharp edged shards to chop her hair irreparably. Drench all her clothes in their contents. Not even magic could fix all of that quickly enough.

Or, much more effectively, one good cut would ruin her parents' plans permanently.

Once. Years ago. Lachesis felt so tired now. She'd run the full gamut of emotions about her fate already, and now there was nothing left to feel. Her father had thrashed the rebellion out of her years ago; her mother wept bitterly when she'd tried to defy him one final time. Better to be a tithe, and perhaps live, she had begged Lachesis.

So she lived and behaved for her mother, and so she turned to her mother now, to listen to her final private words to her daughter.

"I'm sorry," Moira said, wiping her tears away on her sleeve. It was clearly not going to be a good day for her clothes. To Lachesis's surprise, she didn't move away, but remained kneeling before her, clutching at her hands. "I should never have brought you into the world for this."

"Mother-" Lachesis protested, but Moira shook her head, cutting off her protest.

"You have a twin sister."

Lachesis stared blankly at her mother, not sure she'd heard correctly. "I...what?"

Her mother took a breath, looking away from Lachesis. "You were an accident, so to speak. When I realized I was carrying a fourth child, your father was insistent he didn't want any more heirs. If we were to have to raise another child, then it would earn us prestige in exchange. I'd hoped to change his mind in the six or so months before you were due, but that clearly didn't pan out."

Lachesis nodded dumbly. She knew all this already. Her mother had been over this many times before, but there had never been mention of a sister previously.

Moira continued. "When you were born, your father refused to be in attendance. He didn't want to get attached, you see. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it turns out I was carrying not one child, but two."

"But what happened to my sister, then?" Lachesis asked. She felt as if she had just walked over a cliff, hanging in freefall as the air rushed by too fast to breathe, as the world no longer supported her weight.

"When I held both of you in my arms, I didn't know what to do. Surely my husband wouldn't be so cruel as to send both of you to be sacrificed. But if he didn't, how could I raise one of you to be a tithe, seeing her sister, her twin, having all she couldn't have?" Moira shook her head, still unable to meet Lachesis's eyes, her voice shaking with emotion. "I was a coward. Maybe if your father had seen that we'd had twins, he would have taken it as a sign that you were blessed, and both of you could have been raised to have a happy life. But I didn't want to risk it. So in the days I was recovering from the birth, I had the midwife pick one child and smuggle her away. Her brother was a traveler - he promised to take the child far away, to a place where she could live a normal, happy life."

There were a multitude of questions Lachesis was sure she should ask, but only one came into her mind clearly enough to be articulated. "Why are you telling me this now?" She felt her breaths, quick and shallow, easily condemning her carefully maintained mask of serenity as a lie. She needed to be calm for the sending off in only a few hours, and now she felt like she could never be calm again. That thought only made her want to panic more. She pulled her hands away from her mother, tightened them into fists, nails biting into her palm deep enough to leave marks, trying to force herself to be composed again.

Her mother cupped Lachesis's face in her hands. "I'm sorry," she said. "I didn't want this for any child of mine. But...I'm asking you to live. Escape from the Keep. Do whatever it takes to build a better life than the one I gave you. Maybe find your sister." She grabbed Lachesis and enfolded her into another hug. "Please." Her voice broke on that last word.

Lachesis closed her eyes, finally allowing her tears to spill over. "It's not your fault," she said, knowing it was what her mother wanted to hear. She believed it was true, too.

But believing wasn't the same as forgiving.

Finally, her mother pulled away again. "I'm sorry," she whispered. She gave Lachesis's hand one final squeeze, and then slipped away.

A minute later, the maids stepped back in, exclaiming with dismay when they saw the mess that had been made of their work. One of the jars of makeup had been overturned. One maid went to grab a broom while the others hurried to fix up Lachesis's face and hair and re-straighten her ceremonial clothes.

Lachesis sat still as a doll, calm and compliant, carefully keeping her hands folded over the seam where she'd stashed a sharp fragment. Just in case.

____

I really have no idea where I was going with this section, except as an excuse to infodump
Also to show that no one in Synara is really okay
Okay, no one in this AU is really okay period
Last edited by Kestrad on November 22nd, 2017, 8:29:44 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: The Hungry Keep

Postby Kestrad » November 21st, 2017, 11:31:58 pm

The ride back to the city was long and bumpy. I was sure my back would sport several impressive bruises by the next day. Even so, I managed to clear my mind during the brief interval between jolts, to catch brief glimpses of my father riding through the night. Scrying was the one magic that came to me easily. With a surface - a mirror, a crystal, even a puddle - I would be able to see more, but it was enough to me for now to know that Father was safe, and free from pursuit.

After what felt like several hours, the rider mage jumped off her horse, hauled my net up over her shoulder, and walked into a palace to dump me like a sack of potatoes before someone who looked all fancy and rich. The silver paint around their eyes signified high rank, as did the symbols drawn in blue on each cheek. They lounged on an ornate silver chair, holding a silver goblet. I couldn't easily guess at their gender as they glanced me over - their hair was dark and mid-length, cut in a rather neutral style, their painted facial features ambiguous, their body covered in loose silver robes that concealed their shape.

"So," the person said. Even their voice was ambiguous. I remembered now that my father had mentioned once, in passing, that some Etainians grew up genderless - a custom that they shared with, of all people, the Arkenians. Even so, my thoughts kept slipping up as I could not categorize this person neatly.

Of all the things to be bothered by, this was definitely not my top priority, I thought, annoyed with myself. Far more pressing was the fact that I was still in a net, and completely at this person and the mage's mercy.

"So," they repeated. "You are the child the gods brought us as Etain's tithe this year."

"The gods did no such thing," I growled. "You did this."

"The gods brought you to us. I simply took the action this required of me, to capture you." They smiled slightly ruefully. "You exacted quite a price, too. Three of my best warriors are dead or badly injured. If I had not already promised to provide a child this year, I would offer you employment as one of my warriors yourself."

"Fortunate for you," I replied through clenched teeth. "I would have stabbed you the first chance I got."

During this exchange, I had still been thinking - going through all my father and I knew about the Etain in my head. This person must be one of the five city chiefs. All of them were required to become genderless upon ascending, if they weren't already, and they alternated responsibility for bringing in a tithe each year from among their portion of the city.

The mage snorted. "And even if you had managed, I'd fry you immediately afterwards - if you're lucky. That's likely the quickest death you'd get." She turned to the chief. "What do you want to do with her?"

The chief looked me over once more and shrugged. "I'd love to send her to assassinate Lilael tonight, before we send her to the Keep." As they spoke, I closed my eyes, hoping to envision who they were speaking of. An image flashed in my mind, of another androgynous person, eyes rimmed with gold, face painted with scarlet, an elaborate golden circlet on their head. They were robed in gossamer-fine golden silk.

The chief who currently held me sighed, breaking the vision, and continued speaking. "But I suspect letting this girl loose would only end poorly for us. Toss her where you usually throw potential tithes."

The mage nodded and hauled me back up by the net. This time she held the net such that my head was hanging towards the floor. Probably intentionally, to make it more likely I would pass out and be unable to see where they took me, unable to resist being disarmed when they removed the net. My head was already pounding unpleasantly as the mage moved to leave the room.

Rage boiled up within me, an inarticulate growl erupting from my throat. At how much they didn't care I was a person beyond my use to them. At exactly how helpless I was.

Or was I? The net binding me clearly did not hinder non-battle magic. The mage clearly had nothing but contempt for my spellcasting ability - but I could find other ways to use my magic.

Channeling my anger, I used my magic to make my eyes glow and my voice echo - a trick Father had taught me for battle, as intimidation sometimes won fights swords could not. It didn't even occur to me that the spell might fail, I was so focused on getting some measure of revenge.

"Beware the golden chief," I intoned, as the mage holding me jerked to a stop. In case she had a particularly fine magic sense, I scried for the chief named Lilael again. Their golden image floated before my eyes as I continued. "They will not forget. Golden will be your doom, at their hands, if you do not strike by the morrow's noon."

I let the spell drop. For a moment there was no sound except the pounding of blood in my temples. The chief stared at me, face pale as a ghost, jaw slack, before her grip on her goblet failed. The silver cup clattered onto the ground, its contents staining the fine carpets deep wine-red.

Good, I thought. I hope those carpets were expensive. Then, between the magical effort and the blood still pounding into my head, I passed out.

____
We return to original protagonist....wait what was her name again?
I still have like 5 more characters to introduce orz

Kestrad has been eaten by life. She'll probably pop back in occasionally.

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Re: The Hungry Keep

Postby Kestrad » December 4th, 2017, 9:06:09 pm

I came to in a dark cell that smelled of mold and stale urine. The ground was slightly damp and I shuddered, trying not to think about how dirty it probably was. If the mages at the Keep had any sense of decency, they would at least let me bathe and change before they used me for whatever foul ritual the tithes were for.

As I scrambled to sit up, someone shone a bright light into my face. I reflexively threw an arm up to shield my eyes. "Don't you people have anything more original than light shows?" I snapped.

"Don't be saucy, or I swear by the Desert God I'll kill you and catch a replacement myself," the person outside my cell replied. I recognized the voice of the mage.

I snorted. "As if. You have what, maybe four hours before the Keep representative comes? Good luck getting a replacement that quickly." My eyes adjusted as I spoke and I was rewarded with the sight of the mage looking through the bars, her expression as if she'd just sucked on a lemon. A magelight bobbed to either side of her.

"Lucky for you. What did you mean back there, by 'Golden will be your doom'?"

I stared blankly at her, feigning ignorance. "Golden doom? What does that mean?"

The mage made a noise of frustration. "You were the one who said it! Don't tell me you don't remember."

"Well, I don't," I replied. "You're sure you didn't imagine this?"

"I'm entirely sure, thank you," the mage said. "Don't tell me you don't know you have visions."

"I can scry," I told her. "I can't see the future." It was true, too, for the most part. I could sometimes see small fragments of potential futures, but they were rarely more than a few hours away at most. Often, at least when it applied to me, they didn't even come to pass, if only because I could avert them when necessary. Father and I made a living off of this skill sometimes, when other work was short. It was how I'd learned what phrasing to use, to sound the most mystical, and to use what little I gleaned to make guesses at what would affect people the most.

The mage shoved a mirror into my face - she must have come prepared. "Scry, then."

I frowned at her. "What makes you think I want to help you?"

"This," she replied, and flung a spell at me. She'd definitely had it prepared beforehand - I didn't have a chance to think of countering it before it was upon me. Suddenly the world around me disappeared, so that I was floating in absolute darkness. I couldn't feel anything, not even my clothes or the location of my limbs. Everything around me was an absence - of sight, of sound, of touch, of scent. I couldn't even hear myself breathe, nor feel my heart pound as I began to panic. Without any senses, I couldn't tell how much time was passing. Seconds? Minutes? How long before I simply ceased to be?

The darkness disappeared as suddenly as it came, and I found myself collapsed onto the ground. Never before had I been so glad to feel and hear myself gasping for breath! The cell floor was cold and damp and every bit as smelly as before, but at the moment all three were a welcome relief from the sensory absence of moments before.

"That was fifteen seconds," the mage said calmly. "Next time it'll be thirty. Now pick yourself up and scry, unless you want that to happen again."

I considered being difficult and telling her that mirrors didn't work for me, before deciding not to push my luck. I slowly pushed myself up and reached through the bars to take the mirror.

"So, golden doom, was it?" I asked, trying to sound as if I wasn't shaken at all. My voice came out entirely too wobbly for that to have succeeded. "You'll have to be a bit more specific than that."

The mage shook her head. "As if. Prove to me you can scry. Tell me what my name is."

It was my turn to make a frustrated noise. "That's not how it works. You gave me a mirror. How often do you hear your reflection talking? I can only see things. If you want sound, you'll have to go to someone else."

"My name is written on my contract with the Silver Chief," the mage snapped. "If you're worth anything at scrying, that should be enough."

Had scrying come less easily to me, her confidence would have been sorely misplaced. During my travels I'd met a few other people with a gift for scrying. One was capable of seeing far into the future; another could see anything she wished without even needing a focus. But the remaining three or four could only see anything with a focus, and most of the time could only scry for things they had already seen before. Now was neither the time or place to point that out, though, so I set to work.

I pulled up the image of the Silver Chief in my mind, as well as that of the woman before me, and thought of the idea of a contract between the two of them. While juggling all of those thoughts, I breathed on the mirror and waited for the fog to clear. In a moment, the mist melted away and the mirror showed me an image of the mage kneeling before her chief. The Silver Chief gestured and the mage stood up, holding out her hand. The chief drew out a dagger and, in one deft movement, slashed open the mage's palm, then her own. They pressed the wounds together and alternated reciting what I assumed was a ritual oath. The vision ended as they pulled their palms apart and the mage began healing the chief's hand.

I looked up from the mirror. "There is no physical contract," I said. "You are bound by blood."

She smiled, a sharp and not at all kind expression. "That's right," she said, holding up her left hand. I could see the mark on it clearly, though she held it between me and her magelight on that side. "My name is now Scar."

"And you are every bit as pleasant as a badly inflamed one," I said, then instantly regretted it as she pointed at me. I flinched, remembering the nothingness she'd flung at me, and she laughed.

"You're a quick learner," she said. "Don't annoy me again." She waited, seemingly for me to nod or otherwise acknowledge her statement, grunting when I did no such thing. "Now tell me what your statement means. 'Golden will be your doom.'"

"I told you. I can't see the future," I said.

"Well, you'd best learn to do so, and quickly," Scar replied.

I sighed and got to work. Most likely I would see nothing she was interested in, but there was always a chance I'd get something useful enough to fabricate a prediction out of. I was starting to very much regret my earlier show. As satisfying as it had been to see the Silver Chief's terror, this interview was certainly not worth it. I suspected at the very least I would be the least well-rested of the Keep's tithes this year.

I breathed on the mirror again, and was rewarded immediately with a vision of the Silver Chief sending out what looked like assassins - three people swathed in dark grey and blue, their outfits designed to minimize the amount of cloth that could move and rub against itself and make noise. I guessed that this vision must be happening at this moment, or either in the very recent past or very near future - the wine stains were still on the carpet.

The scene then jumped to two assassins engaged in a deadly, high-speed scrap. The battle ended quickly - the instant one made a mistake, it was simply over. The victor drew aside the other assassin's veil. I assumed from this action that the Silver Chief's assassin was the loser.

The scene changed again, and the Silver Chief knelt before the Gold Chief. They appeared to exchange pleasantries, before having a conversation that clearly grew more and more fraught, with the Golden Chief's expression growing more and more ferocious, the Silver Chief's more and more worried. In a surprisingly short amount of time, the Golden Chief waved, and several golden armored warriors revealed themselves from behind tapestries. The Silver Chief shouted something, and several more assassins dropped from the ceiling. They seemed for a moment to be sizing up the golden warriors, before abruptly turning on the Silver Chief as well. The daggers they drew were golden-hilted.

The image faded from the mirror at this point, and I looked back up at Scar. Barring the Silver Chief being an unnaturally spectacular mage or fighter, their doom seemed rather assured.

"Well?" Scar prompted.

I took a breath in order to not have to answer immediately. Apparently my thoughtless prank from earlier had set in motion far more than I'd intended. I thought furiously, thinking through my options.

Scar tapped her foot impatiently. "What did you see?"

"I know how to avert your chief's doom," I told her.

She narrowed her eyes. "Just a moment ago, you claimed you couldn't see the future. What changed?"

I shrugged. "I guess I just needed some proper motivation. Do you want to know how, or not?"

Scar sighed. "I'm listening."

"Wait," I said. "I'm not giving you this for free."

For a moment, Scar stared at me incredulously. It was probably the best reaction I could have gotten, as I'd half expected her to immediately react with another blast of her spell.

"I think you've forgotten," Scar said, raising a hand menacingly, "who makes the demands here."

I shook my head, glad I'd mostly succeeded at not flinching again. "You could do your sensory deprivation thing again, I guess," I told her. "But if I lose my mind, you definitely won't learn what I know."

Scar hmphed. "What makes you think I don't have other ways of making you talk?"

I shrugged. "I would think you'd be trying them by now, if you weren't afraid of the consequences."

Scar blew a long, contemplative breath out through her lips. "By the gods," she finally swore. "If we hadn't already announced that there would be no lottery this year, I'd bully the chief into offering you employment." She rubbed her temples. "You know I can't let you go free."

"I know," I said. "But wouldn't it be nice to not have to do this in the first place?"

Scar stared at me, really stared at me this time, as if I had sprouted two heads. "You're asking that the Chief rebel against the Keep in exchange for your information."

I nodded. "That's right. You clearly agree that it's a waste of resources."

"You know I'm not the one in charge of this decision," Scar said, looking genuinely distressed.

"I know," I replied. "But Etainians don't forget their debts, or so I've heard."

Scar sighed, and extended her hand through the bars to me. "I can't speak for the Chief, but if what you tell me saves her tonight, I'll do my best to fulfill your request. This much, I swear."

I hesitated for a moment. Was that enough? That had to be enough. It most likely wouldn't save me from whatever fate the Keep had in store for me, but maybe - just maybe - their tithe system would at long last fail, the magi no longer able to sit secure in their high and lonely castle, demanding tribute for their hoarded magical knowledge.

And that would be the best revenge I could possibly get.

I took Scar's hand. "Deal."

______
this chapter got away from me a little bit, oops

Kestrad has been eaten by life. She'll probably pop back in occasionally.

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