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Wundan didn’t stop to catch his breath, didn’t stop to look behind him, the carrite crashing through the undergrowth in his wake sounded close enough that he couldn’t spare the glance. The other carrites slithered through the brush on either side of the mad dash pursuit, keen not to intervene as it seemed they were moving towards the same goal anyway—the village that was currently being raided, Wundan’s home.
Wundan slid under a log and drew his knife as the carrite dove over it. It was sleek and lean like a coyote, but had hideous, saggy black skin and a red hooked beak for tearing through carrion. It slashed down at Wundan and he slashed back with his knife, slicing it across the face.
The beast clucked and howled and tore away through the undergrowth. The other carrites cooed in laughter at their overzealous companion’s failure. Wundan gasped and sped ahead of them, his gait faltered as the slope levelled out on the last leg towards his his village.
Even from this distance, the screams were palpable. They competed to be heard over the clash of weapons and the sickening thud of metal impacting flesh and bone.
He was too late, the raiders were inside.
A group of villagers fled through the gates only to be shot, or ridden down by horsemen with nets and spears. Some were being rounded up and that meant Wundan’s Mum might still be alive . . .
“I have to get to her.”
Wundan ignored the incessant clicking of the approaching carrites, ignored the bile in his throat, and he tore through the patches of wooded farms towards the smell of smoke and burning flesh.
20 years later
Of course nymphs could bleed, they just had to be distracted enough that they couldn’t water form around the danger. That’s what Seria was so pissed off about when the iron tang of her own blood oozed over her tongue. She was pissed not that she had been struck, but that she had lost focus.
She didn’t have time to regain her focus because Rafek body slammed her into the training floor.
“Again,” Drade said, “And this time try not to fail so much.”
Seria spat the blue fluid from her mouth as Rafek chuckled and rolled off her. Drade had been different since he came back through the portal from the Knights Council. He wasn’t monotone and dutiful, instead—without his armour conjured—he was sassy and upbeat and it egged Rafek on insufferably.
“Yeah, ook ook,” Rafek chortled, a laugh that rolled up from his belly. “A voir would have had time to dissect you before you summoned your armour.”
“Look!” Seria barked as she struggled up, “I don’t KNOW how to summon this fucking armour! You say you can sense the Celestial Spark or some bullshit, but maybe you just saw a lonesome nymph in the wild and decided you needed a new servant to dust this fucking castle!”
Leppin chuckled and looked around, “the place could use a dusting actually.”
The training arena was the cleanest room in the Roaming Wall by far, and that was purely because it received the most use from the Squadron. The dust simply didn’t have enough time to settle before it was disturbed by the constant ruckus the Knights caused.
Somewhere in the high rafters, Arachton scuttled and the dust trail fell behind her. “I don’t mind it, it makes a nice place to find bugs,” she said.
“Well maybe you should stop focusing on those bugs and feast on the rats that got into the pantry like you said you would!” Rafek barked up to her.
“Why would I feed on the rats before they were fattened?” Arachton retorted.
She swung down by the web from her abdomen and landed on the side of the arena where Drade was smirking.
“It defeats the point of you telling us not to worry about them!” Drade said, shoving her playfully. “It’s no good to us if you kill them after they’ve eaten through the food.”
“EXCUSE ME!” Seria yelled, marching right up to Drade, a fire burning deep within her so hot that water steamed from her pores. “How does this nonsense help me channel my fire?”
The Squadron stifled as Drade stared her down, all of her sudden fire petered out and her steaming stopped.
“Do you feel . . .” Drade spoke in that monotone now, his soft features hardening without so much as a flicker of movement, “. . . hard done by?”
Seria willed her voice not to squeak, “Yes.”
Drade’s stern stare cracked, “Excellent, hold onto that feeling!” he clapped her on the shoulder with a beaming smile and marched into the arena. “Now, a paladin’s power is bestowed upon them by the Sun Guardians. This is for their service to the divine . . . or purity or peace or . . . whatever it is paladins tell themselves.” Drade waved his hands in a dismissive manner. “But a Knight Cosmic’s power is something inherent in us from birth. It emerges in response to a need, specifically a need to rectify a wrong. The Voir feed on lost souls, people who find themselves adrift in the void through no fault of their own. This is usually a fate reserved for the wretched. The wretched are so few they aren’t enough to sustain a voir until it becomes corporeal. But as you have seen, things often go wrong. Many good souls are consumed.” Drade sighed before continuing. “When this wrong—when a voir—is presented to someone with the Celestial Spark, it can ignite. When this happens it conjures Prismatic Fire, which forms our armour, grants us power, and allows us to soar between the stars. It might manifest in the uninitiated as anger, but the real word for it is fury. A righteous rage bent to righting a wrong. This is the power one gains when evil rears its head and must be smote.”
“I prefer to say smitten, ook, ook,” Rafek laughed.
“Shut it.” Drade said seriously, he turned back to Seria. “Did that voir in the swamps attack anyone close to you?”
“No, it . . .” she paused, biting back the rising fire.
“Don’t resist it.” Drade said, and beckoned for her to continue.
“It barrelled down on an old human lady. Frail . . . she couldn’t move fast enough. The scream was . . .”
“And so you acted.” Drade said, his skin was pulsing, “With that feeling, and the Spark, you can conjure vast power.” Drade shone brighter and his armour coalesced, it had changed since he went through the portal, promoted now to Knight Captain. His helm had a crest that fanned backwards and his pauldrons and chest plate had similar decorations.
“So when Rafek was pummelling me just now, it was to help me feel that feeling?” Seria asked, squinting through Drade’s light.
“No,” Drade said. His armour faded and his warm demeanour returned somewhat, “Rafek is just an asshole. Now focus on that feeling, remember the old woman, remember the sound she made when the voir got her.”
Seria gasped and the heat within her flared.
“You weren’t capable of saving her.” Drade’s words bit like cold steel. “Focus on what you would have needed to help her, armour, strength, speed. You had none of it. You couldn’t do anything . . .”
Seria started panting, her eyes scrunched closed, her brow furrowed, steam billowed from her skin.
“Channel the feeling, channel the need.”
Seria cried out and her skin shimmered for a moment before winking out of existence, and then she collapsed on the ground sobbing.
“It’s okay, little one,” Drade leaned down and clasped his strong hand over her shoulder, “That was brilliant.”
“But it wasn’t!” she cried, “I couldn’t save that woman!”
“You can save the next one. Remember, focus on the need.”
Coarse, grating rage ebbed from Seria’s innards, replaced by the smooth flow of the cool, calm waters that she imagined her emotions to be. Drade spoke to her like something she could not quite describe. He was a vast ocean, with darkness and crushing depths the further into him you looked. But he was also pristine, fresh and full of life and movement about the surface. She looked up into his deep, dark eyes and nodded.
“Need,” she said, “how will I know I’m ready?”
“Because you’ll have to be,” Drade responded.
“Map room’s blinking.” Drawg—the lizard man—scurried into the training arena, breaking their revelry.
Seria coughed and righted herself as she realised the others were all watching her training intently. “Map room?” she asked.
Drade chuckled, but his eyes turned hard again, “Knights, map room, now.”
The Squadron picked themselves up and bumbled out of the training arena like a pack of hooligans let loose from class—loud and boisterous. They ushered into a compact room by the common nexus. The room was carved from starlit stone with a trough bisecting it from the wall to a floating basin in the centre . . .
No, Seria realised, not a trough, but a low lying aqueduct. The knights piled in around the basin that the aqueduct fed.
“Lights,” Drade ordered.
Rafek clambered around the room and smothered the torchlight in the small space. As their flames winked out, a luminescent blue light emanated from the stone in the room, particularly from the stone in the well of the basin.
“Water,” Drade ordered.
Leppin huffed and jumped up to the sluice lever, where the aqueduct protruded from the wall. He grabbed the lever pulled it down with his weight, raising the sluice gate. The familiar bubbling of flowing water poured down the aqueduct and into the basin, circling around it before siphoning out through the bottom.
As the waters flowed through the basin, something wonderful happened.
Seria gasped as her eyes filled with stars.
From the depths of the stone basin, thousands, millions of bright lights sprung into the room, along with nebulous dust clouds.
“What in the . . .” Seria reached out to one of the stars in wonder and giggled in delight as it splashed and rippled at her touch before returning to normal.
“From here, Seria, The Knights Cosmic can coordinate. There is very powerful magic which shows us the movement of lost souls in the ether. They’re shown as green. This room also warns us of when Voir energy spikes. This happens when they are about to become corporeal and feast on the living.” Drade said.
“Those are the orange throbbing lights.” Rafek grunted and pointed to one.
“And the blue lights are other Star Forts like the Roaming Wall.” Arachton pointed to several of them with her many legs.
“What is this spot?” Seria pointed to a star that had no visible movement of knights, voir, or souls.
“Ah, that is Trist, a world where most species of the cosmos live.” Rafek said. “It was founded many millennia ago by travellers between the worlds who used magic. There were many wars, many species did not like each other, but certain members of their races enjoyed the variety. Most of those travellers are now dead, and Trist, like other worlds, lives in isolation from the others. Many are surprised it still lives.”
“But there is nothing happening there?” Seria asked. Not even from souls . . . Every world had a stream of green channelling into their suns, but not Trist.
“No,” Drade answered, “But there is a shit load happening elsewhere. Look at this, guys. Star Forts are heading in all different directions chasing more and more Voir incidents.”
“Things are getting out of hand,” Harahn—the orc—tutted.
“Especially here at Aefellion.” Arachton hissed and pointed to an orange and blue convergence. “A whole Star Fort at an Arachtoid world and the Voir glow persists. It isn’t far Drade, we should lend assistance.”
“But there is a Voir attack brewing here, a star over. We should not leave it abandoned.” Rafek said, “Especially as the Arachtoids already have a Knights Cosmic presence.”
Drade studied the worlds thoughtfully. “That’s Hord Squadron . . . they have more knights than any other squadron. If they are bogged down the voir there must be formidable . . . but Rafek is right, it would leave this region undefended. I’m not sure what we should do.”
“Come on, Drade, leave the Arachtoids with Hord Squadron.” Rafek suggested with a cheeky grin. “It’s not like people enjoy having an Arachtoid colony this close to their home world anyway. Let them fend for themselves lest they survive to send forth another warpath.”
“And how many war bands have your monkey kind sent out in search of fucking fruits?” Arachton’s hairs bristled, causing Seria to shiver.
“A fair point,” Rafek puffed his chest. “I only jest, noble critter.”
“Rafek, Arachton,” Drade said, ignoring their minor squabble. “I need you both to head through the portal to Hord Squadron’s Fort. Then report back to me. I am going to direct the Roaming Wall to this Voir presence nearby. It’s only a small incursion, great practice for our new recruit.”
If you insist, Captain. Ook, ook, you are so bossy since your got a crest on your helmet!”
“Don’t give me that shit, Rafek, just get it done.” Drade said.
Leppin ceased the water flow and the star map faded from view as the waters that fed the basin drained. The knights shuffled out into the common nexus and Rafek and Arachton headed for one of the inert portals.
“So, how do you steer the Roaming Wall?” Seria asked.
“It responded to my decision the moment I made it. Its magic and mine are linked.” Drade answered.
“Then explain why this blasted portal won’t open!” Rafek yelled from the inert portal.
Drade furrowed his brow and stalked up to it, staring it down with smouldering intensity. “What the fuck is happening?” he muttered. “Leppin, Drawg, Harahn, check the other portals.”
The knights bustled around the different portals and stood by them, frowning as none winked into existence.
“None are working boss. We are cut off from the other Star Forts.” Harahn said.
“Could Rorc’s death have affected the Roaming Wall?” Arachton asked.
“It did, until his brother made the puny human here the new captain.” Harahn said.
“Please, shut up.” Drade paced the nexus, going from portal to portal. “Whatever has happened, it doesn’t change the immediate threat. Rafek, Arachton, get to Hord Squadron.”
“It’ll take days to go via pillars of fire.” Rafek said.
“Then you better get gone, now.” Drade replied. “Something is amiss. Be careful and report back as soon as you are able.”
“Yes Cap’n!” Rafek saluted as he and Arachton summoned their amour and flew out of the doors of the nexus towards the gate. Jets of Prismatic Fire pirouetted in their wake.
“But that leaves us so few?” Sierra asked.
“No matter, liquid one.” Drawg said, “Five Knights Cosmic can face down any threat in the cosmos.”
“That seems a dubious boast . . .” Seria said, “But I’m sure we’ll soon find out.”
The Roaming Wall drifted through the tendril wisps of stellar debris, and Pride Squadron—minus Rafek and Arachton—stood in the gate, donned in their translucent, technicoloured armour.
“Gods help us.” Leppin breathed
Drade was silent, staring down the scene with a brimming fury that threatened to boil over.
“What?” Seria looked into the black void, bordered by stars eons in the other direction. She was the only one among them who was unarmoured. “I see nothing.”
“Focus your fire.” Drade all but spat.
His voice was hard again as he channelled his righteous fury. His armour grew denser as he spoke, pulsed brighter as he breathed.
Seria did as she was told, and focused back on that need, standing only in her robes on the precipice of the abyss. Images flickered before her eyes, of great Voir monstrosities and terrified, disembodied faces. Their screams echoed on non-existent winds. The sound rose and died in her heart as she broke her concentration.
“What was that?” she gasped.
“Focus!” Drade ordered.
Seria focused her need, and the ethereal images re-faded into existence before her. Voir in their dozens were feasting on fleeing souls in the abyss, growing larger and more corporeal with every victim.
“How, how can we fight them when they aren’t corporeal yet?”
“Our weapons from the armoury give us that privilege. The silver is forged in the hearts of the stars. They themselves are ethereal by nature.” Harahn answered.
“But I have none,” Seria’s shoulders drooped. She was hopeless to do anything to help the poor souls who were being slaughtered before her very eyes. “I can do nothing.”
“And you will do nothing but guard the Roaming Wall.” Drade ordered. “You are not ready for this contest, water nymph. Harahn, throw open the soul gate, let them take refuge while we fell these beasts.
Harahn grunted and threw his hand out, gates on the outer walls opened in response to his call. The souls, green wisps of now dead people, poured into the safety of the Fort, pooling in the common nexus behind the knights.
“Once we have secured these souls,” Harahn explained to Seria, who looked back at the nexus in wonder. “We can escort them safely to their stars for the afterlife. You stay here, little one, let us do battle with these fiends.”
“Knights!” Drade barked, and the four knights launched out of the Roaming Wall on jets of fire to clash with the Voir.
All Seria could do was watch as they battled. The voir looked like decomposing maggots—like the one Seria had already battled. Yet these ones were still ghostly things at this stage of their development. They had large, nightmarish mouths at their heads with rows upon rows of teeth lining the whole way down their innards. And they had dozens of horrible spider like legs sprouting irregularly out of their grey, gelatinous flesh all the way up and down their segmented bodies.
They screeched like scraping metal and met the knights in combat.
Seria watched in wonder—and then in horror—as one of the voir slipped past the knights’ formation. It tore through the ether towards the Roaming Wall, open and unguarded, save for Seria . . .
“Drade!” she cried into the embroiled abyss, “Captain Drade!” but her voice could not carry over the air that was not there, over the void between the Roaming Wall and the magically sealed atmosphere around the knights. She could not warn them unless she too conjured her armour.
The ethereal voir ripped a swathe through a stream of souls, scooping them up in its horrid jaws and munching down as their unearthly wails reached Seria’s ears. She was transported back to Marsil, where that frail old woman was trying to hobble out of the beast’s path.
But Seria still couldn’t do anything.
Drade, Leppin, Drawg and Harahn dispatched a lesser voir and converged on the largest one on the far side of the fray, driving it further into the abyss with lance and sword and fire. The voir threatening the Roaming Wall had nothing to stop it as it crashed straight through the gates, passing through Seria like a ghost, and consuming the souls in the nexus at its leisure. With each kill it grew larger, more corporeal, relishing in the suffering of its victims. It keened and vibrated as if in ecstasy as it bound their energy—their essence—into its insidious flesh.
Seria scrunched her eyes and focused on the Fire that Sparked deep within her. This was not her simmering water, not boiling seas, nor frothing madness, this was Fire. It raged and spread throughout her, burning all that it touched. With a flash of colour she wrenched her eyes open and focused on her target—the voir—that had just now noticed her.
Her hair ruffled and her robes billowed in the windless void, and she screamed as the fire burst forth from her, enveloped her and formed translucent, protective plate.
She had conjured her Prismatic Fire. And the voir reared in fear as it recognised the danger.
Her helm formed last, the face plate slamming over her snarl, “Get your fucking maw away from these people!” Seria screamed.
She lurched forward—not caring that she had no weapon—and slammed into the voir with speed she had never known, with strength she could never hope to possess, and with a rage . . . It was a rage she hoped never to stifle.
She slammed into the beast and knocked it back into the walls of the common nexus. It screeched pathetically, a coward caught in the act of bullying.
And it was a coward, it had not expected resistance, it had sniffed out the weak and the helpless, and for that Seria was going to make it pay.
It slammed her with its tail. It had not yet taken physical form, but as Seria had summoned her armour she now contended in its realm. She flew back from the impact and smashed into the far table. Coughing, she leaped up on a pillar of fire and urged the souls to shy back, to keep their distance.
The green ephemeral wisps obeyed her urge.
She reached forth her hand feeling something call to her from the armoury. Her weapon—a great halberd of star forged silver—burst through the astral doors it was housed behind. It raced towards her grasp and fit into her hand like one would fit into the embrace of an old lover. The halberd, the spear, had chosen her, and she had accepted it.
Seria lowered her new weapon to menace the voir as it tried to twist away and flee. It was fast, but it only had one exit, and she knew where to strike. She aimed for the gates and jetted towards them on pillars of flame. She reached the gates as the voir did and skewered it through and through. A death blow. It cried and writhed and burned as it shrivelled into nothing.
Seria hefted her halberd and roared in fury, “You shan’t harm another soul!”
She heaved, unable to contain the brimming emotions. Her armour was a paradox, it warmed her like a mug of tea between her palms on a cold day, and it burned like a hot bath at the same time. It hurt in a comforting way, like tearing off an old scab. It was a release, an easing of tension to finally wear her flame, her fury, her Fire.
She gazed at the other knights and called to them. They had driven the voir into oblivion and were soaring back to her. She expected cheers, congratulations . . . but as they landed, as their helmets dissolved form their faces and they entered the Roaming Wall, their expressions were that of fear. Drade’s was that of fury.
“W-what’s wrong?” Seria asked as her armour dissipated.
“Voir are unable to enter a Star Fort,” Leppin said.
Drade clenched his fists so tight that his star forged sword quivered in his grip, “Something is terribly wrong . . .”
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