Onyx hadn’t considered that she could be recognized in Cillandar. And like all things one doesn’t consider, there became a steady increase in the odds of it happening. The realization struck her the same way the icy cold water had. It was too late now.
She made her way through the crowded harbor streets, her footfalls sent crabs scurrying to the gaps between the cobbles. Above her glided a few gulls on the breeze. They followed her for a few dozen paces, until they found she had nothing to throw aside that they might squabble over. It was a grey, yet relatively warm day, and she was grateful for the chance to dry the large cloak she now wore over her armor and tunic. The large hooded garment clung thickly to her and instead of providing any heat, it had instead insulated the cold inside of itself. She couldn’t remember the last time she felt warm, despite being layered several times over. Underneath, hidden like her thoughts, the tunic was cleansed of blood and grime, the filth of battle. It shone emerald green now. It was a handsome and rich hue, and attractive. The seams were made of thick gilded thread and she thought that whomever had sewn it must have given it great care. She hadn’t had time, or opportunity yet to inspect her armor, but it fit well, and she had a sense, although she wasn’t sure how she knew, that it was also of fine craftsmanship. Whomever had owned it, had kept it well cared for, and also had prepared a high quality armament.
She had found the cloak sometime later on the edges of the battlefield. High up past the treeline where less fighting had been, yet where she had still come across the dead–most likely hit from the magical bombardments used by either the Celns or their enemies, the Tyrians. It was the perfect accoutrement, and she donned it quickly. It, like her, had come a long way.
Like her, it was filthy and torn. Like her, it wasn’t quite sure who it belonged to.
What was obvious, and she was glad for it, was that Pudd nor any of the rabble associated with him had recognized her. More importantly, he didn’t question why she was hungry, or why her cloak made a clinking noise when she sat on the barrel–why a dark emerald corner of a tunic protruding from the dirty cloak was the only part of the tunic showing.
She at first thought he might ask or wonder or worst case recognize, but after a few rounds and given the location of their “briefing”, she soon felt sure that he wasn’t exactly the type that worked with the lighted infantry on the side of his bread and butter pursuits. Her suspicions had paid off. Pudd, she figured, was in need of what he thought her skill set might be. All she had to do was prove herself and she’d be one step closer.
She had chosen well. She was confident of it. This was her in. Prove your worth, collect resources, keep your head down, gather information. Those were the steps she had made. That was how she’d accomplish her goal. It would take time.
But something told Onyx time wasn’t an issue.
Gilded banners fluttered from the parapets and dangled with a flick and a swish from the shop signs. There was an optimism in the chilly air that she hadn’t seen these many miles, nor days. Days quickly turned to night now and one didn’t see optimism in those either. This was a time to buy, and a time to sell, and everyone was looking to do one or the other, or both. She was interested in neither, and so she was careful how she moved through the busy crowd. She was a taker, and a taker wasn’t going to be welcome in the best of times in Cillandar. She doubted they’d be any more welcome under too grey skies and uncertain stars.
She hadn’t gotten further than the Heroes Plaza when she heard the wild shouting. She recognized the type because she knew too well what often followed, and before her eyes fell upon the man, she knew what she would see because she had seen it in every village and hamlet on the way here. There in the center of the plaza dedicated to the four heroes stood a stone platform. Around it, placed at the four cardinal directions were four statues, each roughly 12 feet high. Once, years ago, the statues had been old, worn, taken from somewhere, brought to here. They were only vague depictions of the four: The hero, duty bound in armor with sword, the trickster, his tool held aloft, the dying god, on bended knee, and the great mother, always located at the north, head bowed in prayer. The four mythical heroes from the ballad of light and darkness. Known to all, every land, and every culture in some way.
Now though, the statues, made of solid granite slabs were hewn in the likeness of the four great lords of Three Harbors: Thrak the warrior, complete with tail and axes ready to strike, Phreynk the magnanimous, shield atop his back, bent on wounded knee. There was of course Lady Areia, the trickster incarnate, the only one of the great lords of the West who had been known or thought to survive the great Sarasin Wars. She, in carved stone, lunged out from her pedestal, frozen, face etched in wicked triumph, above her wild hair and pointed ears, her gleaming dagger, made of polished steel, ready to strike. And finally, stood Lady Iricah, taller than the others, perhaps at fifteen feet. Below her, and at her pedestal’s base were flowers, not much really, but in times such as these, they were a glorious testament to her following. Pilgrims bent over around the square base in supplication, and reverence. Above them, the great mother, the soon-to-be queen, bowed her head, her stone lyre in her hand at her side as if she were about to play at any moment. Many a devoted worshipper below, tears streaking through the dirty faces, no doubt hoped she would. Play for them, save them.
The plaza was clear of merchants, for it had for some time been a place where travelers arrived and stayed, sometimes for days, the pilgrims of despair. The center platform, often reserved for lordly events, now was noisy. The edges where jostling men and women waited for their turn was chaotic. Some waited in silence, but most did not wait patiently, nor quietly. The square was packed, undulating bodies tried desperately to make pathways but there were too many people going one way and not enough people going the other. Onyx found herself needing a strategy as the wares district was just on the other side. Without crossing here, she’d have to navigate the nobles quarter and that would not be wise.
She decided to make her way towards the southern statue, that of Lady Areia, the trickster. She was coming closer and closer to the shouting and soon she was able to look up past the faces, and helms, the outstretched arms trying to spare a few inches to squeeze through. There, in the dim light of a sun just peeking over the red roof tops of Cillandar, she saw a grimy-faced man, no older than his mid 80s, half-elven she thought. Dangling from the upturned arm of the surely rogue, he leaned out over the crowd, preaching his truth.
“The End Days is upon us, I tell you! It is nigh. Look to the skies! Look to the stars foretelling the darkening has come! Ket comes for us all now! Prepare! Prepare yourselves! These heroes are no more! They are gone!”
“Come down from there you darkened fool! You will hurt yourself!” Onyx saw a fawn, half goat-half man bray upwards from the crowd.
“I will not! Keep your hands from me, foul demon. Half man! Your foreign infection shall not touch me! I speak truth here! Truth you all must hear!”
“You blaspheming bastard! You half devil! I said…”
A woman’s voice broke the shouting. Onyx was only able to see through gaps in those around her, but she caught a glimpse of a petite woman, wrapped in a tattered shawl. She clutched a babe to her chest and although Onyx could not see her eyes, she knew from her voice that the woman was crying. “Let him speak! Let him!”
Something like a silence filled the plaza once more. Onyx watched the man, leaning out above her. His grin spread wide, his eyes mad but joyful and merry. “Good woman! Your babe is not well! I know it has the malady. It does. Does it not?”
The woman did not answer. She did not need to. There was a stillness in the crowd around Onyx now. Perhaps, it was in the entire plaza. The lunatic had his audience at last.
“You brought him here tonight to be healed! To be cleansed. The mighty Flame of Silver has left us. Crimson, like blood, stains are fair city, our once mighty Realm! He shall not be healed here good woman. The four have left us!”
The man shrieked because someone from the crowd had grabbed for his ankles. There were calls of Inquisition. Yells and catcalls erupted. “Blasphemer!”
And yet, somehow, the crowd silenced itself once more. Onyx wondered how many others had the malady too. She felt a dread seeping into her bones. The man’s face almost looked puzzled in it’s excitement. This was clearly the moment he had dreamed of. Someone was listening at last! This was indeed desperate times. The man, whomever he was, leapt from side to side of the pedestal, ducking in and under Areia’s stony stance. His voice bellowed with his truth. His voice rang out into the dreary multitude. “The lords of Ket have been here for ages! They are among us! They were among the Alphans, the very lords of Three Harbors you come to idol worship! They’ve infiltrated the Flame, broken man’s convenant with the healing word! They killed good queen Iricah! Defeat the Sarasins on their host isles? Ha!!!! Those dark tides will find our shores soon! Ket is coming! They’re coming for you! But not for me!” The perspiring man was now a lord in his pulpit, his words flowed and rang against the buildings bordering the square, the bakeries and weapon smiths, the fountains and the cobble stones of the streets. Veins stretched taught across his face, he wasn’t shouting words he was assaulting them with words. He told of the uprisings in the South, the migrations of the North, the shadowy figures that drove these lesser beasts on, because they were coming for their greatest of prey, man himself. And spellbound, now with upturned eyes, the crowd, and even some of those who had been prostrating themselves on the platform, listened–of the living coming back after dying, souls taken. The disappearance of the so called Heroes. The man was no longer telling, he was preaching. Feverishly, the words flung from his mouth. His eyes looked sharply back at the mother.
“Mother, cling carefully to your babe!”
And the crowd now couldn’t get enough. There was no more Lunatic! No more Charlatan!
“Hark! He speaks the truth!” Yelled someone beyond Onyx’s vision, far off into the crowd. And there were agreeing nods all around her. She found herself taken up with it. Before she knew it, she had been jostled around and now found herself before his feet at the foot of the rogue’s statue!
“Sir, I beg you, take this token. It will guard you!” The man reached down quickly and held out a single small object of some kind. Onyx reached up to grab it, but before her fingers could close around the wooden thing, many other hands reached out. It was wrenched out by someone in the crowd, a tall man, who lost it to another man, and it was gone from there. The bodies nearby erupted in motion around her. There was chaos.
Onyx was being squeezed, she tried to push back on the bodies, but in so doing had her arms stuck to her sides. She was being squished. Squeezed to death, like….and then she knew no more. The world was blackness. The smell of dirt, mud. Twisting and turning. Onyx tried to breathe, but there was no air.
And then there was the sounds of horns blowing. Her eyes snapped open and she heard the sound of men shouting, “Halt! Stay there! Under penalty of …. The crowd was dispersing. She could feel her chest expand outwards, and air, sweet air swept into her throat and down slowly into her lungs. She gasped, and sucked in another breath as quickly as she could, coughing in the attempt. Finally, she found she could breathe again, but her chest hurt now. Part of her chest felt crushed and was sore. Above her, the preaching man was looking for a way down. The green and gold clad guards were maybe a dozen paces back in the crowd, but were still trying to move through the mass of bodies.
“You’re lucky the Inquisitioners are in attendance at the Temple Mount tonight, fool. Throw this filth out in the street. Next time, you’ll be tied to a post,” said one.
“And you’ll not have to worry about Darkness after that,” said another.
But above them, the man still had his audience, and jumping from place to place, he carried on. When the guards would come closer, somehow the crowd seemed to hold them back. It was as if the crowd needed to hear him speak! Onyx couldn’t help it, she did too.
“They’re coming for you! And you! And you! They’ll crawl from the ground, through the fissures and cracks and crevices below your bed! They’re like maggots in a dead street dog, they’ll swarm like cockroaches through the shadows. Only they’ll be no sun to keep them back into the shadows. Oh no! When silhouettes a ring of three! There will in time come darkening! Dare you look upon the three sisters?! Dare you look upon the fates in the night sky? Do you know what the last darkening brought? Do you not see the signs? They are there all around you. It is time to prepare! Time for tokens. For I have read the signs! I know what is coming. I know how to stop the demons from entering your chamber doors! You wish to pray? Pray to the three! They did not desert us! That is what the Order does not want you to know!”
“What are the signs?!!!” Someone shouted.
“You ask me, and I’ll ask you now! Can you see the signs? They’re all around you! Do you think ale at a silver a pint isn’t a sign? Wheat grown in cold weather leaves a fine musty odor when fashioned into bread, does it not? Tribes of tabaxi and Trebians and far worse than those outsiders moving into the Carr’n lands! The loss of the colonies to the West? The Lords of Alpha, the Lords of Three Harbors? Where are they now? The King, Good Borindin gone. No body. Just tales.”
“Where will your precious great mother be then? Eh? Where will Taryn’s Bane and the Cult of the Shielded Mothers be when the three rise to claim your soul? When they bring Ket upon you again?”
Guards broke through the crowd then. “I will be in the Rusty Sabre. The Rusty Sabre from sunset ‘til highnight! There you may find your token. If you dare!” He slipped behind the backside of Areia’s statue and was gone.
The guards moved through the crowd settling the gatherers once more by their presence. Onyx figured she should be gone too, and so quickly, head down, she made her way towards an alley behind a large cart and was gone.