Side A – Yasgrid
Yasgrid was alone. Once Kayelle had taken Endings, she’d left, just as Yasgrid had expected her too.
“I won’t leave Blue Falls,” Kayelle had said. “But I don’t want the rest of you caught directly in the crossfire when the Troubles that are coming start to arrive.”
With that she’d leapt away into the early morning air to find some defensible bolt hole where she could hold off an army. It was an impossible task to do alone, and everyone present knew it, but Yasgrid allowed Nia’s sister to go with only a single reminder.
“Remember, you’re not alone. You’ve got Endings with you. Always.”
Yasgrid could have said more, could have spoken plainly to Kayelle, but given that she wanted to be alone, anything else might have been too much.
“That doesn’t seem wise,” Marianne said. Yasgrid turned to find Marianne gazing at her through narrowed eyes.
“It really doesn’t, does it?” Yasgrid said. “And speaking of unwise, is it okay that you stayed out all night with me? Won’t your family be wondering where you are by now?”
Marianne’s eyes tightened even further.
“You think your subtle don’t you?” she asked.
“But your family will be concerned won’t they? And worry is a great attractor of Troubles unless I miss my guess.”
“So you’ll come with me then, won’t you, so that I don’t need to worry about you,” Marianne said, a wicked smile slicing across her face. “My family would love to see you after all.”
“I suppose I should visit,” Yasgrid said. “But not now.”
Marianne stared at her, but they both knew why Yasgrid being around anyone else would be a very bad idea.
“You shouldn’t be alone,” Marianne said.
“She won’t be,” King said. “I am here.”
“I’m afraid I need to ask you to leave as well,” Yasgrid said. “We don’t know how perceptive the Troubles who are coming will be, but the last one knew you well enough to stay far from your claws.”
“Yes. This is true,” King said. “Very well. I shall see how things fare elsewhere then.”
He trotted into her shadow and was lost in its empty depths.
“Where will you be?” Marianne asked, her frown parting only slightly to let her words pass.
“I don’t know yet,” Yasgrid said. “I’ll wander a bit I think. Blue Falls is new to me. I’m sure there’s plenty of nooks and crannies with fascinating stuff in them.”
Isolated, forgettable spots. Places where someone might go missing without attracting any attention.
“If I don’t see you again, I will kill you,” Marianne said. “You don’t know me yet, but know that I will do this.”
Yasgrid had to smile. As illogical as it sounded, she could almost believe that Marianne would make good on her promise.
“Then I’ll have to see you again I suppose.”
And like that, she was at last alone.
Free to wander through Blue Falls.
King had guessed that they had at least a day before the army of Troubles arrived, but Yasgrid had played enough games of Battle Leader in her youth to know that any well led army had spies and scouts.
The last Trouble she’d ended had been a spy, stationed in Blue Falls as many others likely were in other points of interest on the chance that Ending’s Bearer should travel there.
With the spy removed, the army would be moving, which meant its scouts would be flying ahead.
How long would it take them to arrive?
Yasgrid was walking down an unused alley, between a set of three story buildings on either side which seemed to have stood vacant for several years. In the middle of the alley, a small courtyard had been made to allow room for a well, which was at least as disused as the buildings around it.
“What have we here?” a man made out of twigs asked he rose to life from an old wood pile on the ground.
“It looks like a Bearer,” another said as it crawled out from the ceiling of an empty doorway and slithered up the wall. It watched Yasgrid with eyes on a head which had been wrenched completely around.
“Only not bearing anything,” a third said, dropping with slime as it climbed out of the well.
“Vulnerable,” they crooned togther.
Side B – Nia
Rising up after the bell was impossible.
As Nia struggled to her feet, she gave a silent prayer of thanks to Yasgrid for being born into, and maintaining, a body which was so far beyond the fragile elven form Nia was used to wearing.
A glance over to Margrada showed that she was as capable of regaining her footing as Nia was but seemed to be as challenged by the prospect too.
“Ok, that was a fine show,” Feldrak said. “Let’s see what the judges have to say.”
“I thought this fight was till one of us won?” Margrada said. “You didn’t mention anything about judges!”
Nia saw in an instant where Margrada’s thoughts had gone.
The competition was supposed to be fair and clean. Two fighters enter. One fighter emerges victorious, either by knocking the other out, or because the other formally admits defeat. The presence of Judges turned things subjective, and when it came to biased judgments, Margrada wasn’t likely to come out on top.
No. Nia blinked. It wasn’t just that.
Margrada didn’t want to come out on top because of a judgment. Not a fair one, and especially not one biased in her favor. What she wanted, what Nia wanted too when she thought about it, was for there to be no doubt.
If she was going to win, she didn’t want the spectre of someone else’s partiality being responsible.
“We’ve got other fights to get through tonight, dearie,” Feldrak said. “If you two can’t get the job done in a timely fashion then, the judges’ll sort you right out.”
Nia hadn’t been fighting Margrada in anger. There’d been no rage filling her heart. No fire quickening her pulse. If anything her guts and head seemed to stuff with exactly the wrong sort of fluffy nonsense to evoke the depths of strength she’d tapped into during the Calling.
Feldrak’s condescension wasn’t directed at her, but it still struck sparks of fury inside her. The funny thing about fluff feeling, Nia discovered, was just how quickly they could turn to kindling under the right provocation.
“You want to try rephrasing that first bit,” she said, dearly hoping that Feldrak would miss the low warning tone in her voice.
As someone who made his living dealing with violent, drunken people, Feldrak did not however miss Nia’s intent.
“Sorry, my bad,” he said. “But we do need to wrap this up.”
“Give us another minute then,” Margrada said.
“That works for me,” Nia said, a moment before another idea hit her. “Or, maybe there’s a better approach. If Mar’s up for it.”
“What are you thinking?” Margrada asked, suspicion of yet another trick.
“No Judges,” Nia said. “And no waiting for the next match. Send the next two in. I’ve had enough fighting with Margrada. She’s too tough. Our fight will go on forever. You send whoever’s up next in though, and the two of us will take them both down. If we don’t, then we both lose.”
“That’s not really fair,” Feldrak said. “You two are both tired and you’ve pummelled each other to pieces already.”
“No, she’s right,” Margrada said. “Send the next two in. We can take them. Together.”
Side A – EXTENDED PLAY! – Yasgrid
Yasgrid watched the Troubles creeping around the courtyard. The slimy one from the well didn’t come directly at her, instead oozing sideways while the one on the wall with the backwards head crept in the other direction and the twig man stood motionless except for his head which was rotating up and right and down and left.
“Oh no, you have me, whatever will I do,” Yasgrid said, her voice lacking either fear or surprise.
“You will do what all Bearers must,” the twig man said.
“You will suffer,” the wall walker said.
“You will scream,” the slimy one said.
“You will die,” they chorused.
“You’re probably right,” Yasgrid said. “I’m mortal. We do all those things. And usually in that order.”
“There is no escape from this,” the twig man said.
“We know the True Bearer is elsewhere,” the wall walker said.
“We know the blade is not here,” the slimy one said.
“You are alone,” they chorused.
“So why haven’t you killed me already then?” Yasgrid asked. “Why approach me at all? Why not just wait till I’m sleeping and do me in then?”
“If you seek mercy you will not find it,” the twig man said.
“We will feast upon you,” the wall walker said.
“Drain the fear from your eyes, gnaw the terror from your liver,” the slimy one said.
“Beat you, break you, make you one of us,” they chorused.
“Oh, so this is a recruiting effort then?” Yasgrid asked. “And why would I want to be one of you? Most people can’t even see you, can they?”
“We pass unseen,” the twig man said.
“We strike from the shadows even in the brightest day,” the wall walker said.
“We cannot be evaded, we cannot be escaped,” the slimy one said.
“We hunt and kill as we please!” they chorused.
“Except you don’t. Do you?” Yasgrid asked. “I can see you because I’m the Bearer, and you can affect me in turn, but you don’t have that same power over regular mortals do you?”
“We can corrupt their hearts,” the twig man said.
“We can steal their joy,” the wall walker said.
“We can gift them with misery untold,” the slimy one said.
“Their lives are ours to shatter,” they chorused.
“Yours or the one you are enslaved to?” Yasgrid asked.
“We are not slaves,” the twig man said.
“We are vanguard. We are scouts,” the wall walker said.
“We are exalted,” the slimy one said.
“We are your death!” they chorused and began moving closer to Yasgrid at last.
“I see,” she said. “And that’s your plan? Kill me so that when you fight the Bearer, you’ll only have to worry about one set of hands holding the blade? Or are you too lowly to be assigned the duty of facing Endings directly?”
“We are the first to battle,” the twig man said.
“We will cut down the Bearer and be freed,” the wall walker said.
“All shall feel our touch,” the slimy one said.
“The world shall drown in chaos before us!” they chorused.
“Ah, so you do have a plan. That’s good to know,” Yasgrid said. “Or rather your boss has a plan. I mean it’s not a great plan, so they’re clearly not much of a boss, but at least it’s something.”
“When we beat you, you will see the glory of our master,” the twig man said.
“When we break you, you will accept the master’s wisdom,” the wall walker said.
“When we raise a new servant from your destruction, you will sing the master’s praises,” the slimy one said.
“But first, we feast!” they chorused and leapt to devour Yasgrid.
They’d maneuvered themselves close enough that Yasgrid couldn’t have leapt away to a rooftop no matter how fast she jumped. The three scouts were predators who were used to working together. They knew how their prey moved and they could see how far Yasgrid was from any sort of cover or safety.
They’d planned their assault perfectly. She couldn’t escape what they intended to do to her.
But Yasgrid had no intention of escaping.
Or allowing them to escape.
Rainbows travel at the speed of light and that was how Endings arrived in her outstretched hand.
With her first swing, she sliced the twig man in half and watched as fire burst where Endings passed through him. She felt the pull into his heart, but resisted it, holding back the fire that was consuming him the same as she held her disgust of them in check.
“How?” the wall walker asked.
“You gave away the blade!” the slimy one objected.
“It’s not a blade,” Yasgrid said, the multi-hued light from Endings filling her eyes. “And I am its Bearer.”
The two remaining Troubles turned to run, but they’d closed in too far.
There was no escape for them.
Side B – EXTENDED PLAY! – Nia
With four people in the iron barred cage, there was no chance Nia was going to escape a beating. Especially not when she saw who the next two fighters were.
“I thought it was Shatter Band drummers for this tryout?” Margrada said, looking up at the two giant bruisers who stepped into the ring with them.
“No, this is for everyone who’ll be going along,” Feldrak said. “Roadies included.”
Nia looked at the “roadie” who was nearest to her. The top of her head was even with the middle of his chest, his arm looked to be as thick as her torso, and if he didn’t at least double her weight it could only be because he tripled it.
She cast a glance over to Margrada, who was sizing up her opponent who was essentially interchangeable with the one in front of Nia.
“You ready for this?” she asked.
“Perfectly,” Margrada said. “Should I save a piece of either one of them for you?”
“If you can get to mine before I’m done with him you can take all that you want,” Nia said.
“It’s cute how they think they’re going to win isn’t it?” the one in front of Margrada said.
“Not so much,” the one in front of Nia said. “Let’s show ‘em how it’s done.”
The bell rang as Nia’s opponent said “done” and he didn’t hesitate, throwing himself at her with his fist swung back for a devastating haymaker.
Had the blown landed cleanly it would have done more than knock Nia off her feet. The impact would have certainly knocked her out, assuming it didn’t knock her head clean off her shoulders.
Unfortunately for the giant man, Nia stepped back just as quickly as he advanced, causing his swing to fly wide.
More unfortunately, for him, the momentum of his charge propelled him right into a crushing uppercut from Margrada, who hadn’t needed to dodge.
Nia watched Margrada’s fist impact her opponents jaw and lift him off his feet. Forward motion was translated almost entirely into upwards velocity though the man retained enough of his charge to crash face first into the bars of the arena.
Nia wanted to squee in delight, but a more pressing need arose.
The other opponent, the one who’d been closer to Margrada was slightly slower to react to the bell than his companion had been, but only slightly.
With a yell he barrelled towards Margrada, his arms outstretched to catch her in a bear bug. Nia took a step forward and slammed a straight kick with the heel of her boot directly into his face, taking the shock of the impact all into her back leg.
She was braced for the blow. He wasn’t. She wound up stumbling backwards a pair of steps while he flipped end over end, reversing direction and crashing to the floor head first.
The man Margrada had downed tried to shook off the blow and the impact with the wall, rising in time for Margrada to hammer a haymaker of her own into his face.
Nia eyed the man she’d downed. He was getting up too.
People are supposed to get up from hits like that, she groused silently, ignoring the fact that she’d taken some brutal hits already and was still fighting.
It was tempting to close in with her opponent and start stomping. People on the ground made wonderful targets and stomps were stronger blows than any punch could be. She met his eyes though and saw that he was ready for exactly that. Or he thought he was.
If I kick him to death, does that count as bonus points or a disqualification? she wondered and decided that ‘murder’ was probably a step beyond where she was willing to go in the arena.
So she let him rise.
And then kicked him.
Someone who was halfway to standing up had their stomach in a beautiful position for blunt and simple kick.
At the very least it should have put him down again, and in a just and fiar world the pain would have convinced him to give up then and there.
Instead, Nia found her leg caught in his grip while at the same time Margrada crashed to the ground behind her.
Nia heard the other man moving to finish off Margrada and decided to take a risk.
Jumping into the air she pulled her trapped leg inwards and slammed her other leg outwards. Her opponent had been able to grapple one leg but it meant not having an arm free to defend against the other.
Nia’s boot hit his head like a sledgehammer, stunning him long enough to make him drop her leg. That would have made her planned move simple, but lacking the fluid grace of an elf, she wasn’t even close to being able to get her arms behind her and flip into a backwards roll. Instead she flopped onto the ground in front of the man who had clobbered Margrada and tripped him up as he stepped all over her.
His feet weren’t aimed or swung like proper stomps but the effect still wasn’t pleasant as he trampled Nia and tumbled to the ground across her.
Through the pain, Nia held onto one thought, Don’t let him get to Margrada!
She didn’t have ap lan beyond that but it was enough. The seconds she bought were all Margrada needed to get up and begin mercilessly pummeling the man as he tried to extricate himself from Nia’s wildly grabbing arms.
A roar reminded Nia that the fight was not a three person affair, and she looked up to see the man she’d been fighting towering over her with a wild look of rage in his eyes.
She watched him raise his foot over her head and thought, Sorry Yas! I didn’t mean to break your body!
As the fatal blow fell though, Margrada appeared, throwing herself between Nia and the heavy kick. Nia still felt the hit as the force transmitted through Margrada and into her like they were some kind of “Shoe Stomp Sandwich”.
Margrada let out a gasp of pain and Nia was on her feet before she was aware of it, hammering man who’d hurt them with a lightning flurry of blows.
Her fists were smaller than his. She lacked both mass and leverage. And Stonelings were tougher than granite. There was no way she could win in a straight up contest of strength.
She saw the man recover from the shock of her initial attack and smile. He could take her hits and lot better than she could take his.
He swung and missed, but not by much.
She couldn’t dodge him and keep up the pressure on him.
He was going to win.
But he’d hurt Margrada.
Nia reached into her heart and she found rage.
And one of the sleeping Troubles.
Fire roared through her.
When her fist struck it wasn’t with the force of an Elven girl, or a Stoneling woman, or even the fury of a Trouble. Nia stood on those and reached for something divine.
And the divine answered.
Side A – ENCORE! – Yasgrid
When Marianne found her, Yasgrid was resting against the side of the disused well.
“You’re not dead, but I’m not early,” Marianne said as she walked over and sat down beside Yasgrid.
“Those are both true statements,” Yasgrid said, raising her head and opening weary eyes.
“They came for you?” Marianne asked. It was obvious Yasgrid had fought something, but far from obvious how she’d survived.
“They did,” Yasgrid said. “I learned some things too.”
“By any chance does that include not sending away those who would help you?” Marianne asked.
“You’re going to stab me if I give the wrong answer to that question, aren’t you?” Yasgrid asked.
“A gentle and demur maiden like me? Stab someone?” Marianne asked, caressing the blade of the knife which had inexplicably appeared in her hand.
“I don’t know why I even asked,” Yasgrid said. “You’ll definitely stab me. Fortunately for me, I can say that going off alone like this isn’t a tactic that’s worth bothering with again.”
“It didn’t work?” Marianne asked.
“No, it worked perfectly,” Yasgrid said. “The scouts are gone. Or at least the first batch of them. There’ll be others.”
“What do they want?” Marianne asked. “Aside from killing you so they can survive another year?”
“That’s part of it,” Yasgrid said. “These ones had bigger plans, or are acting on someone else’s bigger plans.”
“That fits. There had to be someone behind organizing the Troubles. They’ve never formed an army before.”
“I’m wondering about that,” Yasgrid said. “I think this might have been building longer than we know. This kind of sudden movement feels like a contingency plan being put into effect.”
“Of course it is,” Marianne said. “You said Kayelle vowed to end all the Troubles in the Darkwood and they could sense that? That’s exactly the kind of thing to trigger a response from someone who’s been building their power over time. It sounds like you’ve learned what they’re building that power towards though?”
“Maybe,” Yasgrid said. “The Troubles I just fought seemed to think if they can kill Kayelle and I they can accomplish two different feats, which may be related to one another. First, our deaths aren’t meant to be normal ones. They want to raise new Troubles from us.”
“That’s probably not possible, but I could see it making a good story to motive troops with,” Marianne said.
“True, but the other feat is even better,” Yasgrid said. “The Trouble’s true aim is freedom. Right now they exist within the Darkwood because that’s where their creator’s power still hold sway. Somehow with the deaths of the Bearers they believe they can be loosed upon the rest of the world where they’ll be free to drown everything in chaos and destruction.”
“Well then, we better get on with stopping that,” Marianne said.
“Yeah, we better,” Yasgrid said.
“And you’re not going to run off and try to do it alone?” Marianne asked.
“Nope. You, me, Kayelle, everyone here, we’re better together,” Yasgrid said holding up her fist, which Marianne met with a fist bump of her own.
Side B – ENCORE! – Nia
Nia sat holding an ice pack to the side of her face, beside Margrada who was doing the same. Neither one was going to look like anything except walking bruises for a few days but the important part of that description was that they were both still walking.
“Nice punch at the end there,” Margrada said.
“Thanks,” Nia said. “For everything. You didn’t have to go along with any of that nonsense.”
“I couldn’t believe when you suggested it,” she said.
“Seemed like a good idea at the time,” Nia said, wincing as she moved the ice pack to a fresh location.
“It was,” Margrada said. “Seriously. Thank you. I didn’t want to lose in there.”
“Me either,” Nia said.
“And it was nice to fight with you,” Margrada said. “I was…happy, when you said you wanted to fight together.”
“I’d rather fight with you than against you,” Nia said and tried to smile but that drew a wince of pain. She saw Margrada glance away and sag a little.
“You fought really good.” Margrada said.
“So did you, but that’s not why I wanted to fight on your side,” Nia said.
Margrada looked up, half questioning, half waiting for an insult or back handed compliant to cut her down.
“I like being with you,” Nia said, feeling at a loss for any clever words.
“We haven’t exactly seen eye to eye up till now,” Margrada said.
“Apparently we needed a pair of black eyes each to manage it,” Nia said and then felt a more honest spirit move her. “We haven’t been friends, but you’ve always been honest with me.”
Margrada laughed again.
“Brutally so, you might say.”
“Fearlessly so,” Nia said, turning to face Margrada and holding her gaze. “Can I tell you something?”
“Maybe? Can I stop you?”
“Definitely,” Nia said. “This is about me, and it’s personal. If you don’t want any part of that, I’ll understand. You’ve got my respect. I’m not going to ask for anything from you that you don’t want to give.”
“No. I do,” Margrada said, flushing. “What is it?”
“I’m really not the girl you knew,” Nia said. “It’s complicated, but what’s different about me? It started before the Calling. That morning in fact.”
“Wait so you had this fugue state thing before you started playing?”
“No. There’s more to it than that, and I can’t really prove any of easily. You’d probably think I’m crazy if I tried to explain it all, but the short form is, for me, everything and everyone here is new. The day of the Calling was like a whole new beginning for me. I think it let me become someone I was always meant to be. I’ve been reforging old ties, because I know what they mean to the people who knew the woman I was, but I’d like to make some new ones too. I’d like to…”
“What?” Margrada asked. “Like to what?”
Nia sighed. It sounded stupid when she thought of it, and painful to contemplate saying.
“I’d like you to be a part of that,” she said, her courage running out with her breath as she spoke the words. She’d been down this road several times and each new rejection was no easier to bear than the last. If anything they compounded, digging the hole in her heart deeper and deeper.
“I think I’d like that too,” Margrada said and leaned over to give Nia a quick peck on the cheek.