Among new and old friends alike, Natalia has finally found a temporary peace. A peace that she will embrace eagerly knowing that more work is soon to come.
The featured art was done by Mattias and you can see more of his work here – website.
The editing was done by Luke Thompson and here is his – website.
My latest experiment was mostly a success… The act of creating a Familiar and linking it to an Esper or Thaumaturge is an incredibly difficult process. With the funds starting to dry up once more, I’ve been unable to purchase the necessary resources to truly advance to the next stage. I have noted during this process many curious mutations in the experiment. I’d very much like to advance my experiments to other races. A silvrik would do nicely, what with their biology being so immensely different from ours. If you supply me with further funding, Mr. President, I believe I can produce a great biological weapon that could tear even the greatest machines apart!
-Head Scientist Ozki, The Creation, Experimentation, and Purpose of Espers
Natalia sat at the table; empty plate set before her. She rubbed her stomach with a content smile. The room had a gentle glow with the fireplace close by, the crackle of wood easing her mind further. Sitting around the table were her brothers and sisters, along with her father and mother at either ends of the table. Her father was busy telling a story, his voice, hoarse from war, strained with the effort of his boisterous tale. Everyone was intently listening, including Natalia, with smiles on their faces and laughing as the story turned to a humorous part. She rubbed at her eyes, tears in the corner from laughing so hard. Her heart was aflutter with bliss as she felt true peace and joy.
Something brushed up against her and she turned away from her family to see a dark shade. Blinking her eyes, a few times her vision cleared to see four yellow eyes staring down at her. Her heart skipped a beat as reality struck her hard. She blinked a few more times while her mind raced through recent events as she calmed her nerves.
“Pleasant dreams, Natalia?” he asked.
“Yes, they were,” she replied.
“A human’s laughter. An amusing sound it is,” Xililkdur said, fangs vibrating as if in amusement before he straightened himself and turned back to his task at hand.
“I was laughing?” she mumbled, rubbing her eyes awake. A smile on her lips as she faintly remembered the dream. How wonderful, but it’ll never happen, again.
“Yes, you were, and I humbly apologize for putting you to rest. Please understand we must keep the passages to our hive a secret.”
“Of course,” she mumbled and pulled the heavy quilt made of a white silk off and pushed herself up onto her elbows to see Xililkdur holding reigns in one pair of his hands. Following the thick silk bands, she could make out four large black horns expanding outward. “What are we riding on?” she asked realizing that the padded surface she was sitting on was atop something else.
“A four-horned beetle.”
Natalia rubbed her head and blinked her eyes a few more times, ridding herself of the haze of sleep. “A giant beetle? I guess that isn’t a surprise anymore.”
“For your situation, no.”
Natalia yawned and rubbed her eyes again. She looked to either side of the basket and relaxed when she spotted her pack along with her belt and rifle waiting for her.
“If you are tired, you should rest more,” a smooth, quiet voice said.
“No, I am honestly fine,” Natalia murmured in reply and looked behind to see a white furred moth face hidden in the shadow of a black cloak. “Aren’t you the princess?”
She simply nodded in reply.
“Shouldn’t you be with the king?”
“Indeed, the princess should be, but she insisted to accompany me in your departure, Natalia,” Xililkdur said.
“Is it to thank me? If so, you really don’t have to. Being escorted safely back to my friends is all the thanks I need,” Natalia said.
The princess shook her head. “Safe passage equals little to your actions.” Her thin fingers gently brushed a small pouch held between her hands. “Even this is little for the health you have given the king.”
“What will happen now that the king is healed?”
“We will depart from this area,” Xililkdur said.
“Really? Why? Is the Scar not your land?” Natalia asked, turning her attention back to Xililkdur who pulled and twisted the reigns to guide the beetle around a bend in the rocky road.
“The Scar of Yul, as other races call it, is Coronam’s cry of pain. It will only worsen if nothing is done. Thus, we must leave and siphon the magic so the surface dwellers cannot harvest it.”
“If that is the case, why did you not leave sooner?” Natalia asked before yawning again as she tried to stay awake.
“Because,” the princess began with a soft murmur, “the king was hurt in the resurgence of battle eleven years ago and the queen perished just before. I am still too young to take the queen’s place thus our hive has been trapped since.”
“And doomed to perish until your arrival, Natalia,” Xililkdur mused. “Our hive both hurt and saved by humans. A chaotic world it is.”
“Surely someone would have helped sooner if you had asked,” Natalia said.
“We tried, but being trapped between warring nations that care little for diplomacy creates a most difficult situation to seek assistance in,” Xililkdur replied.
“I am sorry for your hive’s troubles with this war.” Natalia rubbed her eyes as she tried to force back a yawn.
“You should rest more, Natalia.”
“No, I’m fine,” she said looking back to the princess with a weak smile as she tried blinking her eyes awake.
Natalia frowned at the cold response of the princess who now turned away, her attention now on the road behind them. She studied the princess’ elegant, furred antennae, enamored by their beauty. Blinking her eyes, she felt an ache in her muscles joined by an urge to lay back down. Seeing no further response from the princess, she gave in to her exhaustion.
The gentle rocking of the beetle below eased her back into a light slumber. Drifting in and out, she was met by the high rock walls to either side and the silvery moon further beyond with stars twinkling brightly. The thumping of the beetle’s feet was rhythmic and created a drumming echo against the rock walls. Time slipped by as she would come to and want to get up but find a lack of strength and instead ease back into her sleep.
In the dark of sleep, she was met with glimpses of friends and family that brought comfort to her soul even though she could barely make them out clearly. Hints of the smell of the countryside and running through it left her overjoyed.
A gentle shaking of her shoulders brought her out of the faint dream world. Opening her eyes slowly, she was met by the princess’ black-eyed gaze, the hints of purple more vibrant than usual.
“Pleasant dreams?” the princess asked.
“Yes,” Natalia replied.
“It is time to rise, Natalia,” Xililkdur’s gravelly voice broke in.
The princess backed away to reveal Xililkdur standing at the head of the basket.
“Okay,” Natalia said. As she rose into a sitting position, Xililkidur motioned her to a gap in the walls of the basket. Once there, the large silvrik climbed down then helped Natalia do the same. Back on her feet, her muscles burned anew with fresh energy as she arched her back in a stretch. She took a deep breath of the chilled air of the night, a growing excitement brewing within her. It feels like an eternity since I’ve felt this good!
“This is as far as we can take you. Your companions have laid their magical sensors just ahead and I will not risk the princess’ safety.”
“I understand,” Natalia replied.
Xililkdur reached into the basket with his long arms with ease. “Your belongings, Natalia.” He turned around to offer the pack, belt, and rifle in three extended hands to Natalia.
“Thank you, X-ilk-door,” Natalia said, struggling with the name. “Sorry,” she replied, quickly taking the pack and rifle to place it to the side then the belt which she looped around her pants, securing it in place. Her hand moved to the familiar spot on her hip, finding the accessible revolver by her side a comfort.
“No, need. Most human tongues lack the complexity.”
“Um, right,” Natalia said, unsure how to continue as she instead focused on securing the pack on her shoulders then the rifle beside it.
Xililkdur turned to help the princess down the ladder. The lithe moth came before Natalia, hands clasped around the small pouch with delicate care. She looked up to Natalia, antennae quivering and eyes blinking. “The gift I mentioned previously, please take it,” she said offering up the pouch to Natalia.
Taking it, Natalia was surprised by the heft of the small object. “What is it?”
“Open it, open it!”
Doing so, Natalia looked at the small circular object quizzically. She slid a finger across the smooth bone-colored surface. Turning it over, she was met with the same surface, however in-between the two plates was a thin layer of a dark, spongy substance.
“Two shards cut from the shell of a proud fallen warrior of the hive. The shards were soaked in the clear waters of the caverns to bring forth the white purity.” She reached out to close Natalia’s hands around the object. “The medallion shall be a reminder to all silvrik of your friendship to us. All you must do is show it and the pheromones locked between the shards shall give you safe passage.”
“Th-thank you,” Natalia stammered.
“Keep it close, and I look forward to our next meeting, Natalia,” the princess said and she turned to head back to the basket’s ladder.
“Wait, I never got your name,” Natalia said.
Xililkdur murmured a rough tone to the princess who shook her head in reply.
“Muilmeyil,” she said, eying Natalia with a side glance one last time before climbing up the ladder and settling into the wide basket.
With a muttering vibration of fangs, Xililkdur turned his attention to Natalia to bow his antennae slightly. “I should add that medallion is linked to your own natural pheromones. Do not try to use it to give passage to any of your allies. Better yet, do not even mention us to them.” He tightened his coat around his body, eying her up and down with his keen yellow eyes. “Understood?”
“Yes,” Natalia said weakly, nodding under his gaze.
“Good, I hope you never have need to pass through silvrik lands again. It is not a place for humans as you witnessed,” Xililkdur said as he climbed up into the basket, his attention now focused on taking hold of the reigns and moving the great beetle.
Stepping back, Natalia watched the four-horned black beetle rise onto its six thick legs and begin marching the way it had come. Along the rim of the basket, she caught sight of the princess peeking above. Waving her hand in farewell, Natalia watched the beetle turn down the path, its thumping feet soon vanishing into the night.
She stood there for a while longer, her mind racing through the past day’s events. Looking down at the medallion, she stared at the smooth surface for a while longer. I actually made it through. Natalia wrapped the cloth back around the medallion then placed it into a hidden pocket within her coat. I’m alive. With a deep breath, she turned around to face the direction laid out before her. The rocky walls were much lower, giving her a greater view of the starry night above. This must be the end of the Scar. Another deep breath and she began to walk forward.
With just the silver glow of the moon above to guide her, she made her way through the rocky path. With her eyes adjusted to the dark and her body well rested, she found the incline easy to manage. The silence of the night left her to her thoughts as she kept retracing her steps of the caverns, trying to comprehend the silvrik and just how close she had been to her death.
Just as when she was laying in the basket, she felt at peace walking through the still night. The thoughts of the silvrik caverns turned to her light dreams of home. She tried to latch onto clear images of her family and friends. For a moment she succeeded, which brought warmth and comfort to her heart in the cold. She reached up to the locket hidden beneath her blouse. Another step complete, just how much further must I go before I reach home again?
“Natalia? Is that really you?”
She paused and looked around, her mind so hazy from daydreaming that she had not realized the valley walls were now gone, replaced by rocks and thin shrubs and trees growing in the dry dirt. The rising sun in the distance lit the land ablaze with an orange glow.
“Wow, all this time we’re talking about how we have to go back and save your ass and here you are just taking a morning stroll.”
“Vakhno…?” he questioned, starting to recognize the voice as she turned in the direction of the source to see in the dim light a young man with a gray cap and a mustache kept perfectly trimmed.
“In the flesh.” He gave a big grin as he idly walked up to her, rifle slung over his shoulders. “Better question is, are you the real Natalia? How Alek was talking it sounded like you should be food for some overgrown monsters.”
“Silvrik. They are called silvrik.” She scowled at Vakhno and crossed her arms. “And of course I’m the real one, what idiotic question is that?”
“You know how magic can be.” Vakhno rubbed his hands together.
“Well, if I was using magic to hide some sort of real identity then you must be a terrible esper to not spot such an obvious trick. Now where are the others?”
“Fair point.” He cracked his knuckles then twisted on a heel to start marching off. “This way and let’s hurry. I’m starving and I’m sure you are too!”
At the thought of food, Natalia felt a low grumble in her stomach. “Food does sound good… Please tell me it was Orsolya cooking?” she asked, hurrying to keep up with Vakhno who was taking long strides.
“I did, but trust me it isn’t that bad. Let me guess, you tried some of Alek’s cooking?”
Vakhno let out a snort. “It sucks! Of course, Orsolya insists it doesn’t! Honestly, she’s a bit crazy if you ask me.” He glanced back at her. “So, how’ve you been holding up on your first mission as gamayun? You seem intact enough.”
“Intact is a good way to describe it.” Natalia laughed.
“That’s better than me. By the time I came back from my first mission I nearly lost my right arm. Thankfully, it was near the end, so I was able to get back across lines in time to save it. Just a day too late and I’d have a prosthetic.” He chuckled while slapping his right arm. “Just keep doing whatever you’re doing, and you should get out well enough. And you better, we have a rematch when we get back to our side.”
“Of course, you think I’d forget so fast?” Vakhno turned to face her down. “I can’t let the youthful upstart defeat me. A draw is bad enough!”
“Right, right.” She waved him off. “Why are you here anyways, Vakhno?”
“My mission orders put me out here, and, well, they changed a bit to include the five of us.”
“Oh, right, you came in with Alek and Orsolya so you don’t know.” He turned and began to march along again. “Zack came in just a couple of nights before you three.”
“Zack? Was he one of the gamayuns who hadn’t reported back yet when we were sent out?”
“That’s right, Ishtal.” Vakhno paused beside a tree. Down the hill, a large group of rocks and trees rose with the end of the rocky wall of another section of the Scar and the rise of a large hill. The plains of Glodan went beyond towards distant buildings only visible with the clear sky and rays of growing sunlight. “The others are down there.”
“What are those buildings?” Natalia asked, squinting her eyes to try to make out distant structures.
“The outskirts of Yulhilven we’ll be entering tomorrow.”
“It looks in terrible condition, what happened to it?”
“War, of course. Just past it we’ll find the Union’s main encampment.” He stood there looking out at the distant place, pausing to take it in.
Natalia rubbed her shoulders as she shivered in anticipation. I knew we’d be close coming out of the scar, but not this close.
“Well, best we get down. Tonight is probably some of the best rest we’ll get for the next few days.” Vakhno started a quick walk down the hill.
The decline was gentle and evened out by grass giving a soft impact in comparison to the rough, rocky terrain that Natalia had been walking on for the past few days. Even with her body feeling well-rested, she could feel discomfort in her feet with a couple of growing blisters from the near-constant days of traveling. Her eagerness to find herself a seat by the fire with warm food urged her onward.
With the ground evening out, Natalia saw the gap in the rock wall just ahead, hidden by shrubs and trees with low-hanging branches. A glimpse of a fiery red glow made her heart beat fast in anticipation for the comfort that lay within. With Vakhno pushing some branches out of the way, she stepped in. The space was small with rocky spires which rose unnaturally acting as the walls, the ground uneven from the disturbance that had created this place in the past. At the center, a low-burning fire kept the contents of a black pot which gave off the smell of sweet honey sizzling. Lying beside the fire was Orsolya, fast asleep beneath a quilt with Alek by her side. On the other side of the fire, a muscular man sat with a small wooden lute.
Alek looked up and his eyes widened in surprise. Standing, he took a step toward her, “Natalia, but how?”
“Well…” She trailed off as she remembered what Xililkdur had said to her.
“And to be stuck in the Scar all night. Surely you ran into some silvrik?”
“Just a few.”
The other man in the corner chuckled. “I doubt it.”
“As do I,” Vakhno added, walking into the space to sit by the fire. He took a bowl from his pack sitting close by and used the ladle to spoon some of the stew into his bowl which he promptly began to eat. “But here she is, alive and well.”
“Guess I’m lucky,” Natalia said. Peering past Alek, she noticed Orsolya undisturbed by the quiet discussion. “Is she okay?”
Alek look back and sighed before settling on the ground beside her. “She’ll make it, but the fool went so long with the poison in her. It’ll take another day or two before she’s anywhere close to her full strength again.”
“I’m glad she made it though, I was worried after we got separated.”
“As we were for you.” Alek chuckled. A smile crossed his lips as he kept his attention on Orsolya. “This stubborn fool was about to run blindly back in even with Zack and I pulling her back, only the poison could keep her down.”
“Speaking of Zack,” Vakhno began and waved for Natalia’s attention before looking toward Zack in the corner. “Our resident quiet musician. Be nice and he might play you a song or beat you over the head with his instrument. Which number is that lute?”
“Twenty-seven,” Zack grumbled. He placed the instrument to the side and stood.
Natalia was forced to look up as Zack approached. He doesn’t look like a Derdainian at all… More like a Sween or even Union.
His trench coat hid much of his muscular mass except for his arms, which strained the sleeves. The sides of his head were shaved and along the top three thick braids of orange hair ran to the back of his head. The intense gaze of his green eyes softened as he outstretched a hand to Natalia. “It is a pleasure to meet you, Ludmila. I am Ishtal. As a friend you may call me Zack.”
She placed her hand into his and it was quickly enveloped by his strong grip. “It’s great to meet you and just Natalia is fine.”
“Natalia, it is.” He smiled, his thick mustache rising. Releasing his grip, he went back to his lute to settle down and resume his work on tuning it.
Natalia stood there watching in awe at how his thick fingers easily handled the instrument.
“Natalia, as promised, breakfast. Still plenty of it and kept nice and hot.”
She took the offered bowl and looked down at the brown sludge skeptically. The only saving factor was the honey aroma that wafted out the top. Scooping up a spoonful, she took a whiff of it. The honey smell is really great… She eyed the brown goop. With another grumble in her stomach, she closed her eyes and took in the spoonful. Her senses were enveloped by a sweet honey taste mixed with warm spices.
“Well?” Vakhno asked.
“A lot better than it looks,” Natalia replied, taking another spoonful and eagerly slurping it down.
“Good enough for me.” Vakhno chuckled.
“So, tell us Natalia. What happened after you got separated from Orsolya and I in the Scar?”
In between spoonfuls, Natalia shrugged her shoulders. “It isn’t that exciting, when the large floating rock fell down and blocked the path you two had taken, I just took another path.”
“Makes sense, but how’d you make it through the entire night and not get swarmed?”
“Same way us three made it the other nights. I was paying attention you know.”
“She’s got you there, Alek,” Vakhno said with a laugh.
“I suppose so… just hard to believe. There were quite a few chasing us at the time.”
“They seemed determined to chase you and Orsolya.”
“Maybe because she was injured?” Vakhno suggested.
“Maybe…” Alek shook his head.
“So, we’re waiting here until Orsolya is better, then heading off to that ruined town?” Natalia asked, eager to change the subject.
“That’s right,” Alek replied and looked out in the direction of the town even though he could not see it from within the camp. “We’d go now, but we need all of us at our best strength for what is to come.”
“Why, what’s in the town?” Natalia asked.
“Union patrols surely,” Vakhno said while starting to clean his bowl. “I’m typically all for marching into danger, but our target is the camp past the town.”
“It’ll take too long; winter is coming,” Zack said. He plucked a few strings of the lute, grumbling as he began to turn another knob trying to further fine tune the instrument.
“Winter? Surely, we have enough time to go around the town like Vakhno is suggesting,” Natalia said.
“Not unless we want to get stuck in the snow on the return trip,” Alek replied and turned his attention back to the fire. “Trust me I’d rather not go through the town, there are sure to be some Union patrols in it.”
“Well, surely it can’t be worse than the Scar, right?” Natalia said with a thin smile to Alek.
He looked to her and returned the smile. “That’s true.” He rubbed his tired eyes. “Well, best we use today to rest as much as possible.”
Natalia looked over to Orsolya, watching her chest rise and lower with even breathing. “Will she really be ready in just a day?”
“She’ll have to be, we can’t waste a second day,” Alek said with a sigh and got up to walk over to a corner with his belongings. “Can you all keep an eye on her?”
“Of course, get some shut eye, Alek. Gotta keep that look of yours nice and sharp.”
Alek laid down with his back to them, not caring to respond.
“Was he up all night?” Natalia asked.
“Yep, I told him to sleep.” Vakhno shrugged his shoulders. “Damned idiot insisted on staying up.” He stood and began to march off. “I’m going to reposition the sensors now that you’re out of the Scar, Natalia.”
“Sure,” Natalia said watching him go before returning her gaze to Orsolya. I can’t believe all three of us made it through there. She finished the stew left in her bowl and reached for the ladle to scoop herself some more. She glanced over to Zack who was still busy working on the instrument. And now we have two more companions. This mission isn’t seeming so impossible now. Turning her attention back to the stew, she busied herself with eating it, finding it warm and filling.
Zack strummed the lute with the gentle beginnings of a song.
Between her full stomach and the plucking of the strings, Natalia felt a surge of comfort. Either in the basket atop that beetle or here by the fire, I’m not sure which is better. placed the bowl to the side and hugged her legs close and rested her head atop her knees. Exhaling deeply, she thought of home once more. The countryside seemed a step closer now with the Scar past her.