ARC 2: Distrust (name pending changes!)
Something stood in the shadows around Athia’s camp. It paced in silence around her circle, a dark from that never strayed close enough for her little campfire to catch. When she didn’t stir from her slumber, breaths slow and relaxed, it lowered itself to just outside the barrier. The creature felt the power of the symbols, the oppressive heat radiating from it. A sense of motion permeated the area, like the air itself wished to repulse the lurker. Something else looked out at it.
Nothing sounded in the forest, not in its presence. Even the crickets knew to quiet when lurkers roamed, even for the lowliest of their kind. Creatures of the unseen were not welcome in the Wilds, but the Wilds only acted when provoked. Bats and birds, moths and more watched the lurker, giving their silence as silence.
Long, spindle like fingers, their tips pointed and covered in fur, reached out for pebbles. It flicked them out, one at a time. They skidded against the base of Athia’s symbols, each one further marring its intricate design. Practice and diligence changed into encroaching success. The heat of the barrier dimmed with each toss.
The seventh rock severed the base’s design. It cooled and the night stilled, empty as the night’s sky when the stars did not show.
An emotion filled the lurker, like a hungry joy. Something needing and voracious, but light and compelling. Both its large hands reached out for Athia. As they crossed the threshold of the circle, it activated once more. Invisible power sheared its arms at the wrist.
A spike extended out, through its torso. Barbs expanded from the spike, impaling the creatures unnatural innerworkings in a hundred places. The sound it made leaves curl and darkened the night.
Athia’s blanket shot up as she stood, a new base drawn under where she’d pretended to sleep.
“Got you,” she said, on her feet now and spinning her other spike. “What are you after? I know you can still talk.”
Eyes opened upon the creature, but they did not see Athia. Something else did, something she felt but couldn’t know. It shrieked for another instant, then went still.
Athia took slow breaths, body tense and eyes sharp. “Tell me why,” she said, voice a low growl. The barbs grew, inch by inch inside the creature.
It spoke, in the way a big cat’s cry imitated an infant.
“I watch. On behalf of another.”
Athia’s hand went white as she gripped her impaling spike. “On his behalf?’
“Warm greetings, Athia. You aren’t forgotten.”
She put more power into the spikes. Their barbs burst from the creature in a spray of white ichor. It fell limp, weightless on her weapon, then faded into ash that caught in the breeze.
Athia turned, scanning the area. “Underestimate me at your own peril. I don’t care what you are.”
. . . . . .
Travelers knew they reached Tricorn lands when the potholes ended. It cost a lot to maintain the roads, but the Tricorn made it happen. Holding Loiys’s mining and minting center, Tinwald, helped. Wasn’t fate that lead them to take over the city when everything went bad. Still, they made better use of it than the old king of Loiys ever did.
Not that he sat the bar particularly high.
Athia’s mom grew up in Tinwald. Her mother and father lived there, having settled after two decades of life as mercenaries, bounty hunters, and general problem solvers. Assuming the solution could come via a heavy enough pop on the head.
Her parents weren’t together, though they maintained amiable relations for Athia. Or, because of her. She wasn’t sure if it was her efforts or theirs that kept things from souring too much, and she didn’t much want to know the answer. Preferred to imagine they still felt a little something, even if that was selfish of her.
But Athia didn’t go to Tinwald. She’d assured her mother she would come back with fifty rens in hand, more than a year’s income for a typical tradesperson. No matter how much she stretched and massaged the number, her four rens wouldn’t add up to fifty. She’d go visit her mom later when they would. Her dad too of course. She loved them both, but she didn’t boast to him.
The difference was simple. Fenrir, her father, was just happy she’d turned out smarter than him. Casa, her mother, was upset Athia turned out too smart for her own good. Athia disagreed. That meant she needed to prove her point when next she saw her mom. And she didn’t want to visit her dad without stopping to see mom too, so Fenrir would have to wait. That her boasting of an absurd number only hurt her chances was not lost on her. Her mother might be right, but she didn’t need to know! Yet.
For those reasons, Athia came to a stop outside the city of Olstin. Workers toiled on the wall, at least a year away from finishing. Below them, intricate symbol work rolled across the gate and main towers. Tricorn recruits checked people in, wearing the three horned herald on blue tabards. They moved quick, inspecting and ushering people on without ceremony.
It took ten minutes for Athia to get through the line. Inside the walls, empty space greeted her. The Tricorn, the best funded of Loiys’s heartland remnants, built this city in the years after the war. Walls surrounded a vast swathe of land, leaving ample room for it to grow. One day it was meant to surpass Clarient in size.
Starting from scratch also meant they could put in the most modern and advanced symbol-work into every inch. Captured light powered streetlamps that would turn out at night, by themselves, and stay on until morning. Conjured wind, like in her kite, spun massive turbines that powered the city. They pumped water through buildings and worked all sorts of industrial tasks like trash compacting. Automated carts, on complex pully systems, pulled raw materials to refineries and finished goods to sellers.
Mirrors laced with symbols and other effects caught heat and repurposed it into warming homes and cooking food. Word was, though Athia never saw it herself, that all rain that reached the city fell in one spot, no matter how big or powerful the storm, gathering in tanks for later use.
The wind provided the power, but the symbol work used the Suns. In essence, the Creator and the Shepherd brought it all to life, as no one yet knew how to directly turn sunlight into power. Instead, they lent themselves to various effects, most stemming from the old gods’ boons.
Athia stopped at a map and pressed her finger against it then said, “work.”
An illusion activated, showing on the map where job postings would be listed. Below that, a page lit with information on other people and locations she could go inquiring. She took note of that, then took off down the road.
She’d make money after her other business.
Most buildings appeared identical from the outside, as they largely were. They used a modular design, reusing the same basic stone outside walls but with varying interior configurations depending on the needs of the owner. Some stood taller, some connected more than one together, some used differing exterior colors, but the stone brickwork and rough dimensions stayed the same.
Athia liked how much easier it made the city to navigate, with everything neat and organized, but she didn’t care for the aesthetic. Too clean and uninteresting. She’d compare it to a row of well-kept jail cells.
The simplicity of it meant the builders slapped up new homes, stores, and whatever else within days of commission. She watched it once and couldn’t argue with the results. The Tricorn claimed this would become the standard across the human world in time, though Athia kept some doubts.
Militia trainees took up much of the empty space between walls and built city. The Tricorn demanded a hefty levy. Every male would be trained and serve a least a year in the militia. Failure to do so meant severe punishment, potentially death. Athia avoided it by being born well before the Tricorn took Tinwald fifteen years prior and living on the road. Tricorn members found many, more surprising, exemptions to those rules.
The company began as a mercenary group and, while many did get specific assignments and postings, they were afforded a lot of freedom in carrying out jobs and their day to day lives. Assuming no major, immediate threats. Those who shined among the militia or could get a Tricorn member to vouch for them, could join the company proper. In general, this meant majority of new Tricorn recruits were the children of members. That wasn’t to say ever member’s child would become a Tricorn, but it was far easier. That turned the Tricorn into the new aristocracy.
Their members wore the blues of the company and carried weapons. Most gave them space and saluted as they passed. Militia trainees stood straighter and put more into their practice. For her part, Athia paid little attention. She focused on her destination.
First, she stopped at a messenger station. There, she rolled up two letters to thumb size and handed them over to a mailer. He pushed them through portals that lead back to Tinwald after several hops. They’d wind up in her parents’ hands within a day or two. Just a check in to keep them from worrying. She made sure to pay for premium service, just to make herself look good. She’d make it back soon. Probably.
Next, she headed further in the city, toward a double building with a sign that read, “Practical Self Defense – Kamil Nazari.”
Several people loitered outside, in various states of, consensual, injury. The sight perked Athia up. It meant he was here. They muttered about their day’s training while Athia bent down and loosened one boot. When she finished she stretched deep and strode forward.
Athia busted into the place, pushing past the doorman and into the main practicing area. A man stood near the center, inspecting someone’s form as they practiced a kick. He stood tall, even compared to Athia, and powerfully built with a foreign, dark ruddy complexion and accent that belonged to the Keshin people.
Serpentine art crisscrossed the walls, representing a foreign deity and legend that crossed the great sand seas. All manner of weapons hung on wracks from one side to the other. Some typical to Loiys and others from every far corner of humanity.
“Kamil!” Athia shouted. She ran to him and jumped into a hug before he could reply.
Kamil stumbled back and she slammed into him. “Athia? I thought you were heading west,” he said, returning the hug.
“I did, now I’m back this way for now.”
“You did not profit much then?”
She groaned. Kamil was about ten years older. He traveled with her parents for a time and trained her in combat. Which was great, considering she doubted any six people could beat Kamil in a fight, all at the same time. The Zweiheln himself would be lucky to last a few minutes. That absolute, effortless mastery did come with a drawback. Kamil struggled to teach people the things he did. Athia counted herself among a very short list of real success stories.
“I need some help,” she said as the hug ended. “Trying to brush up on my fortification after an injury. You’re the expert.”
Kamil looked back at his, paying, students. “After my classes today.”
Athia grinned and took a step back. “Let them learn by watching.” She fell into an aggressive, unarmed stance with one hand forward and legs waiting to pounce.
“I would rather-“
Athia’s forward fist flew at him. Kamil brought up a hand to catch her strike.
She knew he’d expect a follow up with her other hand, that was a typical combo. He’d also expect her to deviate to try and trick him, with a leg sweep. Instead of those, Athia did something new. She put her weight into the punch, not for impact, but to shove. When her strike landed it pushed Kamil’s arm just enough to force his back step to keep his balance.
When she heard his feet move to reset, her own foot rose. She swept a foot up and kicked the bottom of his defending bicep. Her foot landed square and, with his own feet in motion, it left Kamil only one response.
Few kept up with Athia in a fight, whether in movement or striking speed, most couldn’t track her even without her power. When Kamil struck, Athia struggled to follow. That’s why she planned ahead.
His other hand moved and caught her ankle in an instant. Athia pulled back and her foot slipped free of her loose boot, still in Kamil’s hand.
He squinted at it and said, “it seems you lost your-”
When Athia’s first leg touched down, she torqued her hips and brought her other leg around and into Kamil’s side. A strike that should have broken ribs shoved Kamil a step to the side with a mild amount of annoyance.
“Get serious,” she said with a laugh.
Athia slipped around him as her empty boot dropped. She advanced and he spun. His fist moved and she noticed at the last moment. Her body twisted and his knuckles glanced her side, hard enough to spin her around.
When she came back around to face him, she dropped low under his counter. The force of it blew her hair back as she pounced.
Her arms wrapped his and her body twisted, legs moving up to encircle his shoulder and neck. Her body torqued again and Kamil rolled forward on the ground. Athia pulled on his arm, about to lock her hold.
By the time they came to a stop, she found herself being choked out by Kamil’s legs instead, her own grip having slipped free somehow. She got one hand under her and pushed, forcing herself up and him with her. She tried to get to her feet, carrying them both, but realized she’d lost. She could stand, slam him down, but the best result would be him having his feet planted and ready first. She didn’t want to take one of those hits to the face. Not without a chance of winning to dull the blow.
She tapped his leg and Kamil let up, rolled back, and sprung to his feet.
“Excellent,” he said to her. “Have you been practicing your unarmed and grappling?”
Athia rubbed her neck as she sucked air. “Yeah, a little. It Below, how did you get out of my hold so fast?”
“And how many times have you practiced, specifically, countering that take down? How many people could even pull that off against you?”
Kamil rubbed his chin in consideration. “At least one, thus it is worth my time to practice.”
Another of the students, mid-twenties, rubbed his own neck with a whimper.
Athia laughed and rubbed at her sore side. “Who is training here, you or them?”
From behind, someone said, “I thought I’d find you here, Athia.”
Athia hunched forward and put a hand near her mouth, to whisper at Kamil. “Who is it? Good or bad? I know at least three ways out of here.”