The Voice of Flame
By Mess

It was a merry gathering. Tales were told, songs were sung, a fire was lit, and all about the hearth those fortunates who had not been exiled to guard (duty due to a wish to be alone or a propensity to mope) could feel the comforting burn of alcohol in their bellies.

Tonight, of all nights, was a time to indulge in forgetfulness.

Many had wandered off with one another or in search of companionship to do... other things, under the blanket of darkness provided by the canopy that clotted the sky black and emerald with leaves where the moonlight could not shine through. Suzu would not be among them, though. The young warrior of Alma Kinan had instead chosen to stay at the main fire. She knew that Kaede would have understood if she'd gone. They weren't even really 'together', yet, since there'd been no time with the war on, and stealing off to the underbrush with some pretty acquaintance for the desperate comfort of skin and sighs before armageddon was practice as old as battle itself. Kaede was nothing if not understanding. Suzu was young, and had tanned a perfect golden during the forest-based guerilla runs her unit had taken part in until all the warriors of the Grasslands had been called by their Flame Champion for this final battle. She'd had plenty of offers - some more forceful than others - to forge casual understandings both within and... outside the clan. She could understand the need. She could even crave the catharsis of it.

Except... if it wasn't Kaede, then it wasn't worth it. Suzu knew that. Going off was like admitting that one or both of them wasn't going to make it out of this alive, and Suzu refused to believe that. At that very least, Kaede and the women who'd remained at the village with the girls had to be alright. They had to. Kaede had to live. She'd live and have five chubby little girls with great wide eyes just like she'd always wanted, and live to the grand old age of a matriarch surrounded by family and the familiar Spirits of the homeland. Someone had to. It might as well be Kaede, right?

Suzu believed in that truth like she believed in a force of nature - as deep and timeless as the sea. She had to, to keep doing this. She knew that it was incredibly dumb and sappy, but maybe those beliefs were the best of all. Baseless assumptions never challenged you, never wavered, and never had to die.

Spirits. Absence had made her sentimental. Suzu'd used to the the sarcastic one at home, but she couldn't afford to be cynical anymore. Funny, how she'd been such a... kid, then. Life was too short to waste sentiments on kitsch and lazy irony.

The woman gave a low chuckle, and took another swig of honey wine from her flask. She wasn't here to mope. None of them were! If tonight were to be their last evening in this realm then it was going to damn well be a good one! Her sisters-in-arms were counting on her to make the same effort at bravado that they were.

So a Chishan and a Lizard Warrior get drunk at a festival, she started, filling up the ominous silence as best she could. Of course, it was never silent for her if she didn't wish it so. But tonight was for her sisters. She could be joining the Spirits soon enough, and would probably grow tired of their conversation before long! And the Chishan says, 'Is that your tail-blade charm or...'

Suzu noted the continued lack of merriment and stopped her train of... dirty, dirty, wicked-dirty interspecies sex joke. Hm. Good call. Maybe she was getting a little drunk. Things had been winding down for the last half hour or so. Few in the formerly raucous crowd could afford to drink any more and stay sharp for the morrow, but most were still sober enough to mope about missing their daughters. This was going to get real depressing real fast if she didn't do something.

I guess we should all be turning in, Suzu sighed. Perfect. She'd spend the rest of her last night in this life insomniac under a scratchy blanket and mooning over Kaede. It might have been better if Kaede hadn't been so fiercely devoted to always staying the the village, since then she would be here, but... no, no it wasn't worse. Kaede couldn't fight or cast worth a damn anyways. And now she'd live.

Suzu's mind weighed the options of drinking herself to sleep versus going into battle against the Harmonian hordes with a terrible hangover. The unit leader'll be after us if the fire's not out soon.

Suzu? one of their youngest fighters asked timidly, Would you mind telling us if they're okay? At home, I mean? My little sister's there all by herself, and when I left with the other reinforcements there weren't many fighters left to stay at home, and my Mother made me promise to take care of her. I just... it would help me fight tomorrow if I didn't have to worry about her.

Their youngest fighter was sixteen. Such a disgrace! Necessary, but still. It made her uncomfortable, when she remembered to be.

Yes. If it won't take up too much of your energy, that would be... a great relief to all of us, one of the older women added from across the flames. Only if it won't hinder your abilities to sense the enemy runics and troop movements tomorrow, of course.

I understand, said Suzu, nodding. She was actually kind of relieved that someone had asked. It would have felt selfish to check up on the village on her own initiative when she was supposed to be resting up for battle. The guidance of the Spirits had led them out of mortal danger on more than on occasion. I shouldn't invoke them directly to our tongue, or clarity of speech, since I may need to tomorrow and it's unwise to take their services in vain. But I'll listen - see what I can hear.

That's all any of us ask, dearie.

The older woman nodded her thanks, along with the majority of their companions. Suzu sank to her knees from the seat she'd taken on a long-dead log. Her hands nestled themselves into the earth, and she closed her eyes to better smell the wind. She opened the floodgates of her mind and sank lower (higher?) until her surroundings became a limbo of disembodied whispers. Her surroundings expanded and then contracted until she could feel the Soil and the Breeze and the Lakes and the Blazes and the Thunder expanding the world around her beyond the borders of any nation because she was Suzu and she was shaman and she? She was connected.

women/priestesses/worldfriend/warriors/clangroupkin place/gather/youngspawn/lifedeath/land ....balance? the shaman asked, in a language that wasn't quite pictures and wasn't quite words and wasn't quite feelings, either, but something muddled and in-between she'd never really been able to explain using sounds and syllables. The Spirits were more comfortable thinking that way, and she hadn't the energy to spare to force them to translate their thoughts to plain human tongue right now.

balance the Wind sighed.

balance the Earth rumbled.


They're fine, Suzu breathed, and a palpable relief settled over their small band. When worry lessened fatigue naturally began to kick in, but they could use the sleep. There's no unnatural disruption near them. Things are as they should be... or as close as we can get. As long as we can win this battle they'll be okay.

Of course, they were outnumbered here and the closest thing there was to doomed but... everyone knew that, and no one was going to admit it. Just like Suzu wasn't about to tell them that 'balance' could mean that their people were being reintroduced to the greater life cycle via the decomposition of their cold, dead corpses as easily as it could mean that they were all alive and well. She didn't really know if she wanted to hear the true answer to her question. The Spirits had their reasons for being opaque. She had to trust in them.

Since otherwise? She'd had a bad feeling about this situation all day. The birds weren't singing right. The air was sickly sluggish, as if it were resigned to some dire fate mere mortals could not possibly comprehend. Babbling brooks seemed muted, and forgot to chatter. Twigs breaking under her feet cast the sounds of artillery, and she could see death in the sallow faces of comrades that shouldn't, reasonably, appear gaunt and twiglike. Suzu chalked it up to nerves, but.

She'd never felt the earth so caged and apprehensive right next to an open plain.

Her smile hoarded secrets like some women hoarded preserves for winter. It was all a matter of trade and talent, It's even a beautiful night in Alma Kinan.

Yeah, had to be nerves. That was what was making the hair on the back of her neck stand up. Spirits... it wasn't as if she was going into this untested. Suzu had pierced her share of Harmonian throats.

Thank the Spirits!

That's such a comfort, Suzu. If something happened to Mei and Mayumi I don't know what I'd do.

Yeah. Such a freaking comfort. 'Cause she, she was connected, and hadn't they all envied her when she'd heard the call?

It was comforting sometimes, the never being alone. Except for when it wasn't.

Yeah, yeah. We've all got a job to do, Suzu brushed it off. She knew she wasn't doing very well, for a shaman. She spent too much time in the wilds, and she was still angsting about her sixth sense like some damn kid with nothing better to do. Kaede would say she was being childish, and Kaede was usually annoyingly right about stuff like that. Spirits... she's say it wasn't her fault that she felt more like being a hunter than a village priestess, but it so obviously was. Suzu ought to be using her talents for her people at home rather than wandering around in the wilderness shooting up Harmonian supply lines. She could watch for danger or... something. The Spirits had blessed her line for a reason. The hope that she and Kaede weren't going to fight about that next time she was on leave at home - or just at home, if this gathering worked out improbably well - died a swift and painless death at the hands of reality.

It was a nice hope, though. The shaman'd had... just about enough of fighting in general.

C'mon. We should get sleep, or Commander Tashigi will have our asses on a spit.

They dispersed - to their bedrolls, or to merrier campfires among the Karayans and Safiri they were assigned to provide covering fire for during the grand battle. Spirits, she... wasn't tired. This was going to be a very long night.

For, all lack of sleep and the whispers she shoved to the back of her crowded mind aside, that was when she heard it:



Wait for it.

Wait for it.

Wait for it....

The archer settled into a deep stillness, used enough to her craft that drawing back the string of her foreign-made longbow caused almost no burn at all in strong, toned muscles. She closed one eye and focussed the other, sinking down into a state where sound - the wind in the long grass, the insects flitting on and off of her back, the reassuring hum of the Earth Spirits - had no meaning. All that mattered was every twitch, every wriggle of the light-grey furred beast settling in for a meal of clover on the hill trimmed short by other hungry children of the warren. She had to have patience. She had to be perfectly silent, perfectly still... just all-around perfect.

Just a little further and it would be an all-around perfect time to.......

Hey Aila!

Surprised, Aila loosed her arrow into a tree two feet above a now very-suspecting rabbit.

Well, there went dinner.

Augh! Garyn, what are you doing!? Aila turned, hands on her hips, for effect. Stupid Garyn, sneaking up on her! If she'd caught that rabbit she could have just skinned it and roasted the cubes of meat on sticks! She could do that. Fire, cubes, sticks - that was a definite 'go' for Aila. With no fresh meat, on the other hand, Mother would have to dip into their supply of smoked venison. Then she'd have Aila prepare a stew from it, since she felt that Aila needed to practice her cooking skills in order to provide for her future children during the lean months. Aila understood that. Any Mother worth the name would have to teach her daughter that. It was the way they lived. Sadly, Aila and cooking with spices and water and cauldrons and other things that were fancier than camp-food... was... well... beating around the bush was for Ironheads with too much time on their hands to spend talking (she had even heard that their Clan Chief was subordinate to some men that did nothing but talk all day! Nothing at all! It was no wonder they were so lazy and strange, not hunting for themselves and living in what she'd heard were great stone hives, having food carried to them like fat bee larvae. Chief Lucia would never allow such disrespect from her advisors!) The truth was that Aila was a horrible cook, and cooking would remind her Mother of that fact. Mother would then spend the rest of the evening sulking about how her only child was never going to find a man who'd put up with that and would end up barren and alone. It was all very annoying.

Aila bet that Chief Lucia never had to put up with things like this. When Chief Lucia was her age, she was off vanquishing the evil barbarian murderers in the cold lands for the honor of the tribe. Of course, Chief Lucia was also a perfectly decent cook. And she had Hugo, which was, uh, better than nothing, Aila guessed.


Um... I'm saying hi?

Why are you doing it here? Aila elaborated, as Garyn clearly had no grasp whatsoever on the situation. What did he think she was doing in the plains near the village, hiding motionless in the underbrush with her longbow!? Gathering daisies?

The archer's stance shifted quickly from 'annoyance' to 'there shall be RETRIBUTION'. It had been said on more than one occasion that Aila was just about as easy to read as metal-chained Ironhead horsetracks (those poor beasts) in fresh mud. Sometimes that wasn't necessarily a bad thing.

I thought I'd go for a walk? It's a great afternoon out. If you're, uh, into walking, Garyn was looking over her shoulder into nothing. He was peculiar, that Garyn. Like a Were-Beast. You heard tell of him doing perfectly decent and sensible things on hunts and in battle, yet it seemed like every moon you saw him he turned into a gibbering fool for no explicable reason. Could it really be some kind of curse or fault in his ancestry?

Aila's eyes narrowed. She smelled sweat... and alterior motives.

So you decided to randomly walk along the rabbit-runs just in case there weren't enough people not-hunting to disturb in the village? Aila quirked an eyebrow.

Um, well, I was just wondering, uh, if you wanted to...

Lose MY DINNER? she grated through clenched teeth, loosing a fraction of her legendary temper.

Aila was losing her patience. Garyn was clearly addled and... dumb. What in Spirits!? Wandering around with only a daylight hour or so left for work... if it wasn't that they were riding madly around on their runner-beasts on dangerous terrain for no good reason, or spending all night playing dice and eyeing the Chishan wine. Gah. Karayan boys were so immature!

I have some rabbit! Garyn offered hopefully.

Good, said Aila, lowering the fist she hadn't realized she'd raised and stalking over to the tree to save her still perfectly-good arrow. No sense wasting it.

She didn't look back as she headed towards the village. He would just have to follow behind. After all: he owed her.

Follow me.

Okay! It really is great out here, isn't it? The plains are really...

Aila was forced by circumstance to roll her eyes again. What was so special about the village plains?

Karayan boys were immature and loud.


Suzu did not speak with Fire. It was a personal preference - a choice she'd made a long time ago about the kind of shaman she wanted to be, and the kind she hoped she'd never meet. ... Er, not that there was anything wrong with Fire. Rationally and spiritually she knew that. It was both vital and ineffable, like all of the spirits were.

Unfortunately, rationalization and religion could not keep the Voice of Flame from deeply disturbing her. When she looked into that abyss, so glowing white, she'd often go for days with nightmares. And yes, she'd killed just like the Fire did, but not like that. And yes, she knew destruction, but not like that. Suzu thought herself experienced beyond her years, and it was probably true, yet she still shied away from that most natural sort of violence. Fire devoured. Fire consumed. And it was always, always hungry. Give the Flame its chance - one was all it ever took - and the Fire would free itself into a cleansing, crusading dance. Like a wild beast it carved its freedom into the bleeding backs of whatever wretched victims happened into its path. Unlike a wild beast, it did not know or need to stop.

That was why she trusted the Flame Champion to rid their land of the Harmonian infection.

Still, Suzu could not be a proper shaman without coming to terms with the Fire, and so she wasn't. Another thing Kaede would never quite understand, as every time Suzu caught the words to explain they fluttered away like butterflies through breaks in a net - fading gorgeous and ethereal into the distance. Kaede couldn't possibly get it. She couldn't hear. Suzu found it easier to just avoid the Fire altogether. So no, she did not speak to it. As she had been surrounded by voices since she was a little child, Suzu knew very well how not to Listen.

Fire was selfish and carefree in its destructive gyre. It was perfectly happy falling in upon itself, twisting red and gold. So Suzu'd thought that she was safe, not Listening.

She had never expected it to speak to her.


The archer's eyes snapped open, and she swiftly rose herself from her bedroll to sprint towards the campfire. They had doused it. The embers were fading.

The Fire had spoken, yet the Fire was not there.

Wide-eyed, Suzu reached for the Earth. Her hand broke the soil not for respectful requests, but contact and command.

Tell Me Of The Fire! she demanded.

GO said the Earth. And when it spoke, it spoke too quickly. Too quickly by far, for ageless rock. It spoke in the Voice of Flame.

Suzu rose once more.

What Is Going On, Here?! she turned to the wind, clutching her bow. Had she picked up her bow? It was automatic, now.

GO said the Wind, and it laughed like the crackling blaze.

All thoughts of her unit commander forgotten, Suzu sprinted towards the nearest neighboring encampment. They were Karayan and therefore still had torches lit.

What Have You Done!? she grabbed the head of the torch, panicked, and barely smelled her own flesh burning.

not us the Fire echoed, every jolt of pain it gave her suffused with joy. not yet. but soon! MESSIAH! he's calling. we will have freedom. we shall be loosed upon the world as it was meant to be. it is not for you, fleshthing. you should leave.

As Suzu dropped the torch to cradle her ruined hand, the Fire shrieked its exaltation into her mind from all four corners of the Grassland. It nibbled at her rational thought like a moth to parchment, glowing orange to cauterize the wound until all that she found left was fear of the inferno-which-was-not.

Not yet, at least.


Suzu went.

And if at the dawn of that very morning, a troop of Chishans drawing water or warriors of the Duck Clan sharpening spears for a barricade saw a wounded girl from Alma Kinan rushing through the camps on a stolen Karayan rider-beast? If they heard her screaming bloody murder about a great Inferno coming, about how they had to save themselves? If they saw her eyes choked with tears?

Well, no freaking kidding. We are Fire Bringer.

Aw, shuddap Brewster. Poor kid's cracked from the stress.

Hey, y'think we oughtta go find one of the Alma Kinan commanders? That girl looks messed up...

Yeah, we could do that. Or we could keep digging the trench that could save our lives. Priorities, people. Priorities! There'll be time enough for the wounded once we drive those Harmonian fuckers off our land. And if they kill us, it won't matter anyways.

They let her Go.


Aila skinned the rabbit with the kind of swift, silent, bored efficiency that only ever comes with practice. She knew that she had to concentrate in spite of her skill, so concentrate was what she did. It would be all-too easy to sever one of her own tendons with sharp Lizard Clan steel instead of the carcass', and she knew very well what happened to you when you lost the use of an arm out here. Couldn't hunt. Couldn't ride. Couldn't weave cloth, tan hides, or craft weapons. Couldn't do anything but tend fire and send the warriors best-wishes.

Hunh. Idle like that Garyn. Interrupting her like that! Spirits only knew why he'd just have extra rabbits lying around, but you could never really tell with him. He was lucky that he could pay his debts, or she'd have sent him home to his Mother with a...

Aila hissed as the knife made a shallow bit into the base of her thumb. She sucked on it for a second, since saliva was good for wounds, and then bound it up with a small strip of scrap-cloth from the rag basket of her Mother, Maiguru. Mother wasn't going to be pleased that she'd slipped, and rightfully so: Aila had made a mistake. She could have cut to the bone if she'd been thinking less.

After walking back to the cooking area just outside of their hut, Aila settled in once more to finish with the body. Once it was skinned she hacked off its limbs. They - as well as the meat on the chest and back of the rabbit - were denuded of flesh by the quick strokes of her blade, and the bits of meat were put in a pan to roast on the fire with a small piece of venison fat to make them fry nicely. The ears were lopped off separately so that she could toast them on a stick over the cookfire later as a delicacy. The hunter was particularly fond of rabbit's ear. Most people thought that it was too tough since it was all cartilage, but Aila thought that the cartilage was nice and crispy. If you didn't mind the charred hair.

Okay, so Aila was pretty much the only person to ever like rabbit's ear among all the thousands of Karayans who had come before her, and most non-Karayans besides. What of it!?

Her meal begun, Aila then set to slitting open the rabbits belly, and liberating the entrails into a small bowl. Those would be ground-up and added to the feed for the rider-beasts, while the skeleton would be left to the Earth Spirits... and the dogs. She'd get to scraping the hide later. It would be sunfall soon, and you couldn't do work like that without good light.

Wow - it actually smelled pretty good, so she sat back to enjoy the wafting scent of smoke and her handiwork. The rabbit would be enough. Luckily for Aila, Mother had left a message - she'd been called off for the week to fix tents for a section of the Long Patrol that'd gotten stuck two days ride away with seams torn and no decent mender. It was much easier for Mother to go there than for all of them to travel back to the village. Especially if they couldn't even keep their things in order. Hah! Sometimes Aila wondered if Karayan men ever stopped being immature Karayan boys and, if so, how she would be able to tell. Voice cracking and facial hair had not proven to be reliable indicators. She'd have to ask Jimba some time. At least he'd made it through the cut, whatever that might be (er, not that she still had that crush. She'd been thirteen, for Spirits' sake! Nyasha really needed to start shutting up about that...)

The blood had begun to seep a little through her bandage, so she replaced it with a new one.

No, she'd have to be more careful from now on. Aila deserved the (inevitable, if she saw Aila's scar) lecture. The tribe still cared for crippled folk - Karayan was Karayan no matter what misfortune should pass - but in a clan that used everything it could find to survive, she could think of no fate more horrible than to be useless.

Since she liked her food a little well-done, Aila picked up her bow while she was waiting and began to oil it with the special grease she'd learned to prepare. She had to take very good care of the weapon. It had belonged to her Grandmother before she'd perished of the Coughing Sickness, from when she'd been in the Fire Bringer.


Suzu of the Alma Kinan rode with no regard for sun, moon, or stars. Navigation was the furthest thing from her mind. She ignored the fatigue of her rider-beast, who whined and snuffled with the pain of a well-trained creature of burden who clung to a gallop with every fiber of discipline that could banish matter from its small mind. The lightly bleeding scratches which traced a thorny lattice on her legs above thick leather boots stung painlessly, the moisture as forgotten as the sweat in her eyes. Little attention was paid to her surroundings, as they moved from lightly-forested plain into true dense wood and the cool peace which it enforced. This was not the time for that.

This was the time for the insistent drum of the Earth bleeding one warning into another until all the world, it seemed, existed for the sole and implicit purpose of Suzu fleeing through it. The Wind scoured her back, urging - fleeing with her from the echoed hollow laughter singing glory hallelujah out behind them. Marking a path neither man nor beast had ever felt driven to travel before.

Until it stopped.

That had been two days ago.

Her eyes were cracked red - dry, and stinging. Tears didn't really cut it anymore. Fuck. What the fuck had happened back there? She'd seen... Spirits, it was unnatural. Fire Bringer. Hah! They'd told her. Everyone else was... fuck, everyone else was gone but her. What the hell was that? What had that motherfucker done? Fucking Flame Champion - the Fire Spirits' fucking Messiah. Had they made him, or was it his idea? Slaughter the sacrificial lamb just so Harmonia could go to ashes... yeah, except all of them had been devoured, taken into the Mother Earth without the proper rites, so they were nothing. Who the fuck gave him that right? Whose fucking Champion was he if all of their comrades were fucking dead? All the people back in their villages mourning the burnt-out husks of their loved ones, who weren't even allowed to live out the hope - the pretense - that they wouldn't be massacred. The Grasslands gather for a final stand? So much for that! No need to give a shit about trying their luck, seeing if the will of the Grasslands could triumph, if even one of them could be saved and sent home for accolades, feasts, and celebrations. Nope. They weren't fucking good enough for that, apparently. No true fucking runes for them. They were just cannon-fodder. Fucking bait. Only the fucking Flame Champion got to be the hero. She hoped that he was happy. He'd defeated the fucking Harmonians, just like he was supposed to. His fucking destiny. Well he could keep it! Bastard motherfucker son-of-a-whore!

Once the Spirits had stopped screaming for her to go, she'd just heard them... screaming. Suzu fancied she'd heard her friends screaming as well. She was righteous that way.

Spirits. Yet... wasn't it her fault too? She should have convinced them - warned them. She'd waited here, by the outskirts of the scorched earth, hoping that someone had listened to...

No. It wasn't her fault. Suzu couldn't allow herself to believe that and let herself live, so she made a conscious decision not to. Every Alma Kinan left was needed, and Suzu was done with crying. Alma Kinan believed in destiny. Some of their kind could see what was written in the stars. She shouldn't slander it. Kaede, her mother, many of her sisters-in-arms... they would all rebuke her for saying such things. If she'd been spared, it was destiny. If the others had to die so that the Flame Champion could claim victory... that was destiny too. Accepting that was the way to inner peace. They were just lucky that destiny had decided to swing their way, and allow the village to remain intact.

Suzu was the first to admit that she was kind of a crappy Alma Kinan sometimes, but she tried. So. Suzu was done with crying. And blame. She only...

She only wanted to go home. Forever and ever and ever. She wanted a warm bed, and the girlfriend she'd probably break up with in six months once the glamour of absence faded from the both of them in spite of the fact that they both kind of sort of maybe loved each other, and a drink at the pub, and little kids that didn't know jack shit about how fucked up this whole war for freedom thing was. She wanted to grow old doing useless dumbass things like tending the campfire, and never ever speak to the Spirits again.

The afterglow of their pounding cries still hurt her head like a bitch. The other reason she was still waiting around happened to be migranes. Thank the Spirits that.... uh... they'd decided to stop at some point. It was now coldly, blissfully silent. It made her feel safe, and too relaxed to ponder nagging questions like why exactly the Fire'd spoke to her unprompted about the Grassland's own personal armageddon. The Spirits regarded human death as a natural thing - nothing to be concerned about. And even if they hadn't, Fire certainly had no reason to be concerned about her.

It wasn't fair. Suzu should be dead too.


... there went the no-crying rule.

Suzu wiped her eyes, and (like any good hunter would) heard a nearby twig break. Too close. She hadn't been paying attention... fuck, she should have started Listening again. This had better not be a boar, or all her angst might have come to naught.

fleshthing/earthwalker/earthreaver notme here? Suzu asked the Earth.

The Earth did not answer. Alarming.

Drawing her bow, the shaman turned... to see a five ragged-looking Harmonian troops.

Quick as nightfall , her blessed silence became claustrophobic. Suzu reached out into the world with her mind, and the world was small and closed. Imprisoning.

Stay away from me, she said coldly, aiming at one of the larger men's throat. Of course it was a bluff. They outnumbered her. Even if she killed the bastard the rest would have her intestines ripped out before she could think about reloading.

Fuck... Spirits... was there someplace she could go? A river or an embankment, to hide? Even up a tree... she wasn't about to be picky...

Nothing. Nothing at all.

When all the men did was chuckle, Suzu began to walk slowly backwards.

Or what, girly? the Harmonian mocked. His armor was singed and falling to pieces. He looked... dirty. You gonna burn us to death? Where's your fucking coward-hero now, bitch?

You shouldn't have come here. This is our land.

Fuck that. Harmonia does what's best for Harmonia, not barbarians. Y'know, girl, you really wound me, he wouldn't stop walking forward, and she was running out of places to go. Her riding-best was on the other side of the camp.... See, my pals and me, we were onna supply mission when the Burn happened. And now are buddies are dead, we're feeling a little... depressed.

The smirk did not bode well. Nor did her arrow glancing off of the armor which still covered his shoulder. Her hands were shaking, still blistered and peeling from that torch. Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck...

C'mon, baby. Don't you wanna help us feel better? It's good diplomatic relations. Bishops say there's gonna be a Peace, now, he shoved her to the ground, his knee between her legs. One of his friends grabbed her arms, since his hands had... other things to do. Another one took her bow. The first one's breath was hot on her face, when he...

She was not listening to them, and all was silence. Silence shackled her.


Fuck. Fuck. No no no no no no no no... this wasn't her. This was not her body. She was not watching this. She was at home, with...


So how's about a little international cooperation?

Suzu screamed, but no one answered. Human or otherwise.


Aila was just about done fletching her arrows when she heard the two shadowy figures calling. They melted in from the edges where the village blurred into plain rather than through the Karayans' official 'gate'. Their stealth was practiced... even if it hadn't been practiced for all that long, relatively speaking. Their weapons waved a wicked gleaming silver in the night air, marred only by the memory of slick black blood.

Hey Aila! Any food left?

Yeah - we're freaking starved!

Not for you, greedyguts! Aila laughed, and waved the pair over. She threw another log onto the fire before settling into a half-pout. That moron Garyn interrupted my hunt. I had to make him give me a doe rabbit, and it's all gone now.

Ooooooh.... Garyn gave you a rabbit, did you say? cooed one, sauntering in to pull up a seat.

Naturally, the other half of the duo just couldn't resist chiming in. C'mon. Get it over with....

And what might Aila have been doing with Garyn that could qualify as an interruption, eh?

Yup, there it was.

Not whatever you and Nyasha were doing that made you two days late coming back from patrol, Nate, Aila snorted primly. I mean, as long as we're speaking of rabbits, or acting like rabbits....

Shut up! her friend Nyasha giggled, slapping Aila on the shoulder hard enough that her bangles chimed (how many did that girl own?) but not so hard that it hurt. We ran into... problems.

Really? Aila said, keeping hold of her strait face. She had a reputation to keep up, after all, when it came to these sorts of things. I'm so sorry. I had no idea that Nate had... difficulties.

Nate, a reedy men about five seconds away from still being a boy, broke into a full-on blush. H-hey! It's not like... I mean, it's not that kind of difficulty!

Nyasha snickered, and proceeded to commence with the full on public display of snuggling. Sigh. Aila knows that, honey. Spirits, Nate, you're such an easy target....

It's not my fault Aila can hit anything, Nate complained, but looked a bit comforted by the hand that was not-quite squeezing his ass. Double-sigh. Aila wished they'd just get a hut already and start popping out pups already instead of subjecting the rest of the world to their little bunny mating games. Oh well. They were her friends, and also eighteen. Whatever they wanted to do was their business, even it if was indecently public and sweet enough to make her cringe.

Besides. She wasn't quite fool enough to fall for their little smokescreen-of-hormones game.

Alright, you two, Aila handed them glasses of pear-juice without being asked. She might not know how to cook, but she knew very well how to be a hostess. After that was taken care of she could once more deploy the head-tilt and single-raised-eyebrow of inquiry. You come here with flattery and actually seeking out my cooking. My cooking - with your Mothers less than a hundred paces a way. Even the prospect of the ass-kicking and speculative looks you're going to get for your little... extra vacation time on patrol can't have made you that desperate. Flattery about my archery won't quite get you anywhere.

Aila! Nyasha clutched her chest, You wound me!

Aila just kept looking at her.

Okay, Nate sighed. But seriously, we did have actual problems in no way related to me out there. Even if we wanted to ... get away, we were still hunting and watching for beast herds.

He speaks true, Nyasha nodded from where she'd wriggled into his lap. Please, please could Aila be temporarily blinded by some freak accident right about now? If they got much... closer, she'd be blushing as much as Nate. That's why we're hungry. We could barely find a thing out there. A few rabbits and raccoons, sure, but all the big groups of game seem to have been driven off. We couldn't find hide nor hair of a group of deer or boar for the next great hunt.

Aila sipped her juice. That's odd.

It's more than odd, Nate confided. It's creepy. We never over-hunt. You know that. There ought to be at least three major groups of large game migrating by here at this time of the season. But everywhere we went? No tracks, no marks of mass feedings, nothing. I tell you, with that girl I saw out there... there was some strange mojo going on.

... strange 'mojo'?

What else would scare the beasts off? Nyasha answered. It's ridiculous! The Ironheads aren't foolish enough to venture this deep into Karayan territory. And even if they were, they wouldn't know a migratory pattern if it bit them in their shiny silver asses. Yet, well, Nate says he saw some woman, pale as an Ironhead. Nate thinks that it was her wicked Ironhead witchcraft.

And you haven't gone strait to Chief Lucia about this.... why? Aila frowned.

We were wondering... Nyasha trailed off, the chemistry between the girl and her boyfriend dissipating within the situation like smoke on a cool night breeze.

The thing is, Nate said, we both really want to get assigned to the Long Patrol. You know that - it's what you want too, in two years. It's all we've trained for! We can do it, even if we are young! We're of the age now! But if we come back from this empty-handed except for crazy stories about strange Ironheads and how we couldn't even track a herd of deer ...Chief Lucia might think we don't have what it takes.

So we were wondering... Nyasha blathered. If you maybe, you know, knew anything.

The silence hit Aila like a brick to the gut. Their merry little fire became a little lonelier looking, hidden at the outskirts of the village where Aila and her Mother lived.

Not tell Chief Lucia! She knew them well enough not to be scandalized, but only barely.

The Spirits, she nodded, putting down her drink in order that she might stare off into the plains beyond unimpeded. What you mean, is that you want to know if the Earth Spirits know anything.

Yeah, Nyasha nodded glumly. Dammit, Nate, I can't.... I don't want to be a Hunter forever! I want to be a warrior just once before we start having kids! And now we'll never...

Shhhh, Nate hushed her. We can at least give it a shot, right Aila? That's what you do best!

Nate's joke was weak - sort of like Nate was.

But she could, at least, give it a shot. There was nothing stopping her from going to Chief Lucia straight after, like these two ought to have done in the first place. Her conscience wouldn't have to be too guilty.


A chorus of doubts erupted into dissonance in Aila's mind. Grandmother had always told her that it was folly to try and speak with the Spirits - that they spoke half-truths or misunderstood questions, because they weren't human and they couldn't hear human words. Only the solid, stable voices of the Mother Earth were even remotely safe to contact. Nature was a volatile trickster! Aila's father's mother had told Aila that listening was all she should ever do - catching them offguard she could hear the pulse of the grasslands around them. What she had said... it had been so long ago, she was just a little girl then, and to be honest she hadn't really cared about learning to listen (or not-listen, as the case usually was with Grandmother's training) until Grandmother gave her sweetmeats, but... Grandmother had said...

Aila of the Karaya Clan, daughter of Maiguru and Rei, had always been a good girl. She was the kind of child who told when the others stole candies at festival times. She was always punctual and respectful towards her Mother, deferential to her elders, studious even when it came to the domestic tasks which she found tedious, and tidy to a fault. She never smuggled in any illegal pets when watchful eyes were turned or ran off on riding beasts without permission to test her skill in the dangerous sport of jumping gorges. She did not drink and preferred not to date. Meals were always promptly prepared for her traveling Mother, and household chores were done without her being asked, while her few leisure hours were usually occupied by archery. There had not been any grappling within her Mother's house with thoughts of teenage rebellion.

Aila, in other words, did not like to rock the boat. Or at least she wouldn't have liked to rock the boat if Karayans had a boat, which they did not, which was in turn irrelevant. Regardless of all boat-related metaphors for her condition, Aila loved Karaya dearly and was proud of their way of life. It was the best way in the world, of anywhere: no question about it. Aila liked rules; especially their rules. And generally? Rules liked Aila.


This could be a problem for the village, never mind her irresponsible friends. And that? That changed everything. Aila mentally told the chorus in her head to shut up before she put it in traction.

Alright. I'm not sure how reliable it'll be, but if you like I'll see what I can hear.


There was a scrape on her cheek, just above where her lip had been cut.

She had held a rag against it - part of her old tunic, which was torn yet still useful now. She had held the rag against it while it was bleeding, but it would not stop. It was tender, burning raw. Like where they... like between her legs.

Suzu needed to get clean. Now.

It wasn't her that moved her acheing body into the stream, felt for cracked ribs, and took care to remove what was left of her clothing so that it might be preserved. Kaede would be upset if she came home, and all her clothing was ruined. Kaede would have to make all new things. Suzu did not want to upset Kaede.

She walked to the stream jerkily. Her joints hurt. And if her body were puppet for some force - some pilot, that managed to take her where she needed to go, even if she wasn't there because this wasn't her and none of this was happening - then it was a puppet with the strings all cut.

And she lay in the stream, and she looked to the sky, and she could feel her skin chap and slough away. When she moved, it was to scrub her legs near-raw, until they stung at a touch.

She'd promised. Kaede. Herself. She had been done with crying. The sky she stared up at, held gently in the boughs of the trees above, was too blue by far. These birds, they had no right to sing. Or fly away, for that matter.

Fly away, little bird. Fly away. Away isn't such a great place, once you get there. She hoped it broke them.

Suzu, she was half-submerged and sinking. When it was safe to thing, she thought. She thought that she hated. She thought that she hated the birds, and the Fire, and the Earth, and the Wind, and the Water. She thought that she hated the world. Everything was inside-out and upside-down so she didn't know anything anymore, except that she was not Suzu.

No one would have to know. It was her fault, for going out all by herself, she should have been dead, and...

Spirits, why didn't you just let me die?

fleshthings/rivervessels wear out quickly


The Water.

She hadn't expected an answer.

Fuck that. Fuck everything. Everything now just as fucked as her.

The Water was cold from the spring runoff. It numbed her skin into oblivion. Suzu could learn to love the ice.

I don't understand.

She was so weak. It would be a relief to pass out. But the Spirit wasn't fighting her. Well, now. Wasn't this a fucking joke.

fleshthings/rivervessels wear out so quickly The Water Spirit seemed confused, and a little distressed. Spirits didn't understand human things like pain or death. To the Spirits everything was forever, and the only thing to fear was change into an element foreign and frightening.

it pulls us. they all do. like the tide/force/skyrock/calling. teni, the strange star. it moves as it does. there will be someone who Speaks, and Listens, in a certain time/place. but not yourplace/pool/gathering. it wants you to go there. it pulls you. to go there. can't you see/percieve/feel it? but you fleshthings/rivervessels wear out so quickly, so...

Her hand - fingers frozen immobile - moved to her belly.


......................... what? unbalance?

It was still confused about her feelings. Water did not feel pain. It only felt Right, or Wrong. Order, or Chaos. Balance, or Unbalance. She was alive, so it didn't understand why she'd be....

unbalance! Suzu howled with a wild, hysterical laughter, stopping only when she began to breathe in water.

So that was the way it was going to be. Suzu thought she knew what was helping her move now.

It was a funny thing, that hate. It got a bad rap by all accounts.

So she hated. She hated the world. She hated destiny. She hated all the teachings of her ancestors - couldn't listen to them for a minute, even instide her own fucking head. She hated the gifts she'd never wanted, the prophecies that always came true, the heroes and the villains, and the stark painful uselessness of it all. She hated herself both for living and for fucking that living up. She hated her unborn child. She hated that she was pregnant at all - it didn't work that way in Alma Kinan, she didn't want to hurt, they'd all see her belly and they'd know. She would not use herbs to get rid of it. What was the point? She'd just get fucking raped again, the way this destiny shit worked.

Spirits help her (yeah, like that was going to happen), she hated even Kaede - hated Kaede maybe most of all, for staying home and being safe and not having to fight or take part in this fucking destiny shit. And how messed up was that?

Suzu was.... ruined, now. Tainted. With the hate. If she went back home... well. The infection would spread. Hurt and kill. Ruin the teachings of her ancestors and their way of life with her own protests. She could raise the remaining warriors of the village to holy war with her hate, and bring fire once more to the Grasslands, until she was burned clean of all these unpleasant memories.

No. No more fighting.

Suzu, however, was supposed to be dead, and therefore incapable of disappointing her loved ones or coming home with some disgusting male child or hurting, all over, like her skin wouldn't stop breaking under their weight. If Suzu felt like crying... too bad. There would be no more crying. She had decided not to be Suzu anymore.

She stood up new-baptized.

Hate gathered her remaining clothing together, and picked her bow back up from where it had fallen. The string was cut, but she could fix it. She kept extras in her boots, which had not been removed. She then untethered her Karayan riding beast and decided against straddling it in favor of a slower sidesaddle gait. Hate cut a somewhat waifish figure, but Hate did not particularly care. It was not her job, to be desirable. She knew what those motherfuckers wanted.

Hate owed them. She was going to return the beast, which she hated for being so fucking oblivious and so like an animal that way. And after that... well... maybe they'd let her stay, and hate with them. From what she knew, Karayans weren't so bad at that. Their clan chiefs could hold a hell of a grudge. They'd done quite the number on those fucking Harmonians on that last raid.

The wind took her hand, and led her down the path.


It's not often that one is granted the privilege of witnessing destiny take a turn, pirouette, and reveal for the audience a tiny fraction of its clockwork enterprise from behind curtain number one for the audience. Destiny, like any good magician, keeps the angles of its smoke and mirrors to itself, distracts one with the right hand from the left-hand path, and always makes sure that the mechanism is indistinguishable from miracle. Sometime it decides to be flashy - put on a bit of a show, as it were - and break out the pyrotechnics, gorgeous assistants, impressive titles, exquisitely suspenseful climactic moments, et al. Other times it cloaks itself invisible, manipulates and cajoles forever ignorant victims in the greatest con game of all. Both are equally valid arts (it's hard to get consensus on a standard operating procedure, you understand, when one works upon a committee of one hundred and eight playing dominoes against an unseen opposition), and both could be equally vulnerable to debunking. They have to be kept under wraps.

Most persons under the influence of destiny (not to be confused with the influence of alcohol which, though just as impairing, is almost always aimless) would have felt... say, a hunch. A bad feeling. Or, for the rationalist, and eminently practical reason to take the crucial action that was usually ultimately minor and semi-irrelevant to the Grande Scheme of Action. Regardless, the personage in question would work destiny's will for only loosely explicable reasons. Unless, of course, they knew about their destiny, in which case they usually crawled under destiny's aegis in order to justify actions precipitated by their own inherent personality traits, for which destiny chose them, rather than the actual direct actions which destiny might take in reaching feasible long-term goals.


Teni, however, had always been the Strange Star, the Star of Strangers... the guiding light of those who are exiled from the heavens. As the patron of skulkers, personages of mysterious and exotic pasts, foreign devils, and those who dewelled in other very odd places within or without their minds, perhaps (if one believed in such things as destiny, and stars) it preferred a more direct yet oblique approach to deal with a varied and decidedly eccentric little group of followers. Thus the glimpse beyond the veil, on this of all occasions - daughter of occasions past, mother of occasions future, and a veritable matriarch among events - when Aila of the Karaya Clan knelt beside her cookfire and laid her hands upon the earth. The girl had been taught to eavesdrop on the most stable and enduring of elements. She closed her eyes, opened her mind, focused on her question, and sank into the....

... heat?

Aila of the Karaya Clan did not speak to Fire - had not known that she could speak with fire. Two out of two appropriate platitudes would say, however, that you learn something new every day, and desperate times usually call for desperate measures.

why? why burning? silly little fleshthing. why is it always? burning is everything. devour. we seek sustenance. others who are not our Messiah still open the cage.

To which Aila replied, though she did not know it: ..... what manner of sorcery is this?

you can Speak and Hear then, little fleshthing? then what are you still doing here in place/lifedeath/youngspawn/grouping/nest? we know what you are. it has marked you out, the Fire answered, in words that cast red-gold shadows at the back of her eyelids. The village fell out of focus, unimportant and small in the face of such a Presence. Aila did not hear her friends screaming and pulling her back when she tried to grasp a handful of ember. Aila's face, paralyzed by the trance, did not register her shock.

You're not supposed to... Aila spoke, instinctively, without her lips moving. Grandmother taught that... she'd said not to listen to...

manners/rules/order/imagined-constriction? Hah! you're so young/not-old/finite, little fleshthing. haven't the Earth/stone/solid/unchanging/fertile told you yet? they're coming, in their earth-rended-melted shells. and you are not for them.

What do you mean? asked Aila.

And the Fire said: