Blood of Fire
Kunda pulled her rough-spun cloak tighter as the chilling rain began to pour down around her. The early spring brought hot, humid days in the marshes belonging to the Okkan city-states, but the night air and cold rains were accompanied by the familiar chill of winter. Using her quarterstaff to support her, Kunda made her way along the overgrown road toward the shelter provided by some of the many trees that surrounded her. The fierce chilling wind rushed through her thick black curls, thankfully kept out of her face by a simple bronze circlet she wore above her brow. Reaching the dense copse of rubber trees, which gave sufficient enough shelter from the rain, she unslung her pack, jostling the familiar drum she wore hanging to her side as she set the pack down next to one of the trees toward the center of the thicket while whistling a jaunty tune. Placing her quarterstaff in the crook of some branches, she began to gather a variety of wet twigs she found lying on the ground before tossing them into a small pile. Pulling some dry kindling from her pack she had stored away for times like this, she threw it on the pile as well.
Kunda sat down with her back to the tree, letting out a soft groan that abruptly halted her tune as she crossed her bone-weary legs under her, and stared across to the pile of kindling. She pulled the drum from its sling at her hip and placed it in between her legs, closing her eyes as she rested her palms on the drum’s well-worn head. Kunda began to enter a meditative state as she slowed her breathing, holding it in for a short moment before letting it out in a soft rush. She focused on the soft thumping of her heart, drowning out the ambient pitter-patter of the rain and the distant peels of thunder. Focusing, the thumping of her heart became its own thunder and she began to thump her drum along with the rhythm of its slowing pulses.
She began to imagine a small flame in her mind’s eye, flickering weakly but white-hot nonetheless, and began to feed the flame her passion. In time with the beat of her heart and smacks on her drum, Kunda focused on what stoked this flame of her passion: Thump, her stern but wise father, whose lessons still rang in her heart; Thump, the art of the quarterstaff, and the feeling of her adrenaline pumping as she spun it masterfully; Thump, the beauty of the land, and how it stilled her heart every time she came upon a new horizon; Thump, her old drum, and how playing it made her heart sing; along with many more as the beating of her heart sped up. As the rhythm sped up, she began to drum a half-beat between the beating in time with her pulses with a Thump-a-Thump.
The white-hot flame began to burn brighter and larger as her passion grew, and Kunda began to feel a faint heat emanating from inside her chest, causing a single bead of sweat to roll down her olive-skinned face. With this flame now begun to really burn in her mind’s eye, she imagined her surroundings: The thick copse of trees with her staff resting in its make-shift crook, the abandoned road almost overgrown with marsh plants, and- most importantly- the pile of kindling in front of her. She imagined the flame feeding into the pile, and suddenly she heard a slight snapping sound along with the feeling of a wonderful heat from where the kindling lay. With her task complete, Kunda banished the flame from her mind’s eye with a final Thump-a-Thump of her drum.
Opening her eyes, Kunda was greeted by the blaze of a small but healthy campfire that banished the chill from her weary bones. Kunda reached over to where her pack sat, reaching in before producing a fig. She absent-mindedly began to hum that same tune from before as she split the fig in half with ease before beginning to eat each of the halves as she stared into the middle distance. She could see now that the copse of trees, and by extension the part of the worn road she had used to travel through the marshes, rested on a large hill that overlooked the marshlands. Kunda looked past the trees nearest to her, as some of the temperamental clouds parted to reveal the scattered light of the shattered moon, and not only did these pieces of light show her parts of the winding road she walked many times before it also revealed several immense structures overgrown with flora and slowly sinking into marshland. The variety of ancient structures rested at wild angles in that marshes, with some entirely on their sides and others only sitting crookedly as if they wished to join their friends on the ground.
Kunda could tell from the architecture that these were made by the Mystics of Old, possibly created even before The War of The Mystics, the conflict that wrought the land, the sea, and the stars asunder. She suspected that if she were to explore these buildings, it would reveal that they might be parts of the famous floating cities The Mystics had created. She put the thought aside as she relaxed by the fire and waited for the storm to pass.
Kunda had begun to doze by her fire until there came the sudden snap of a stick breaking, causing her head to whip toward the direction of the sound. She looked to see a figure walking toward her small fire, who seemed to be accompanied by some sort of beast of burden. The light of the fire revealed the figure in pieces from the legs up: he wore once-fine shoes that Kunda knew wouldn’t survive this figure’s journey, baggy blue pants that clung to the figure’s stout frame due to the rains that looked to be dying out, a silken cream shirt and blue vest also made of silk that wouldn’t ward away the biting cold that was now probably seeping in, and- as the fire revealed his face and head- a fine blue headwrap; however, Kunda found the figure’s most striking feature to be his skin. Parts of his fairer skin were covered in large swathes of iridescent fish scales, and along his neck he seemed to have gills that moved and rippled in time with his breathing.
“Hello,” the figure began heartily and full of mirth, “I saw your fire while walking the road and wondered if you wouldn’t mind company? I’m rather ill-equipped for these rains.” Kunda looked at the figure ponderously for a moment, then laughed. Her laugh was like her voice: deep, rich, and throaty; however, this burst of emotion from the seemingly stoic traveler confused the figure who asked, “Pardon me, but what’s so funny?”
“It’s ironic, don’t you think?” Kunda replied as her laughter slowly died away, though her good humor did not. “I don’t see ho- ah. yes.” The figure cut himself off as he put a hand to his gills, chuckling lightly as his face flushed. “Come, have a seat by the fire, friend. To be honest, I could use the company,” Kunda said as she gestured to the spot on the opposite side of the fire. The figure nodded gratefully and tugged on the reins of his pack animal: a large horse-sized goat with thick, coarse fur and two sets of large spiraling horns known as a Gotan. Seeing the creature as it and its master settled down made Kunda feel homesick, remembering looking over her father’s farm on the hill in the Gotan pastures on warm summer days in Jetia.
Quickly thinking of something else, Kunda asked, “Tell me, friend, what’s your name?” The figure gave a toothy grin- revealing a set of serrated teeth with several replaced with golden copies- and said in an obviously well-rehearsed tone: “Alexios Gil, at your service, fair lady.” Kunda snorted, “That’s the first time anyone’s called me ‘fair.’ What is it that you’re doing out here, Master Gil?”
“Why, I’m a traveling merchant,” Gil said with a practiced flourish before asking, “now if I may have the honor of knowing your name, oh-so-effortlessly-fair lady?”
“Kunda,” she replied before holding her hand up in a warding gesture, “and please just call me Kunda from now on. I’m no lady.”
“Well, Kunda, can I inquire as to your motives for traveling this blasted bog as well?”
“I’m a nomad. I go wherever the roads care to lead me. It’s not as illustrious as the life of a wandering merchant must be, but it’s enough for me.”
Gil chuckled slightly and rubbed the back of his neck before replying, “Truth be told, I owned a shop in Zara not too long ago.”
Kunda perked up at this, asking, “Why’d you leave?”
“Well, the new king of Zara has begun to crack down on all Shudan in the city. For me, it was only an upsurge in tax costs, but for those less fortunate, it’s… worse. I figured I’d leave before things got too bad and try my luck on the open road.”
Kunda was shocked to hear these dark tidings. The Shudan were a people like Gil, those born with strange properties due to the latent magickal fallout caused by The War of The Mystics, though not all looked like Master Gil. Some had bat-wings, cat’s eyes, goat’s horns, and a variety of other mutations that generally force them to lead ostracized lives outside of most normal society; however, Kuda hadn’t ever heard of Shudan being public enemies.
“Say,” Gil said as he looked up with a glint in his eye, “with all of the… baggage of being a Shudan right now, I could use a guard. You seem quite capable, Kunda I’ll reward you handso-”
The mercantile Shudan was cut off by Kunda raising her hand to silence him, to which he complied, as she said, “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve sworn an oath of nonviolence, Master Gil; although….” Kunda examined her bag, then Gil’s worn shoes, before replying, “… I could help to guide you through the wilds.” Gil pondered this for a moment before he stood up and gave an even more elaborate bow while saying “Happily, my lad- uh- Kunda.”
Kunda chuckled as she stood up, before walking over to the fire. “Well Master Gil, we’d better get some sleep then. The closest City-State is Uten and it’s still a several days walk from here.” With that Kunda put the fire out.
The walk toward Uten was uneventful until the third day. The roads deep within the marshlands hadn’t seen any care since the founding of the city-states, and it showed. The crumbling bricks were overgrown with swamp flora, tree roots caused bumps in the road consecutively, and parts of the road were submerged in swamp water. Throughout it all Kunda led them masterfully, as Master Gil regaled her with stories of his former life in Zara, his journeys so far, and several humorous anecdotes involving several ex-wives.
It was during one of these stories on their third day of travel, that they came upon a fallen log in the middle of the road. “How’re we going to move that!” Gil wondered, all his good cheer stolen by the log. Kunda approached to examine it when she heard a familiar snap come from the trees next to the road. She quickly managed to interpose her staff between her and the arrow now lodged into it, and she fully turned to the trees now while she shouted “GIL! TAKE COVER!”
The Merchant did- not needing to be told twice- as several figures sprinted out of the wood. Kunda counted six of them in total, four with blades and newly lit torches and two with short bows, and they were all closing in on Kunda and Gil; however, the detail that stood out to Kunda was that all of them had the red headscarf that showed they were agents of Zara. “Please, don’t do-” Kunda began, but was cut off by another arrow being shot toward her. With only a split second to react, Kunda spun her staff around her and cracked it into the arrow mid-flight. As the would-be assassins stood shocked, Kunda took a calm centering breath and repeated, “Please, don’t do this. We mean you no trouble.”
Recovering from their shock, the assassins rushed in to surround Kunda. Kunda made no effort to stop them as they took her places around her, but she did try to look each in their eye. Before she could ask again, one of the assassins took a swing. Kunda blocked the blade with her staff, and as the assassin was unbalanced Kunda saw an opening. One quick blow to the leg would open them up to further punishment and give her an opportunity to deal with the others, but she stopped herself from seizing upon this weakness. Suddenly she was raked across her back by another blade, causing her to reel and grunt in pain while she cursed herself for getting lost in thought.
Kunda turned with her staff in both hands, trying to keep an eye on each of her assailants. This led her to see another of the assassins advancing, and thinking quick, Kunda waited until they went to strike. Kunda blocked the blow with her staff, as the blade embedded in the staff Kunda pulled the assassin forward and around her so that she switched places with them and was on the outside of the circle of thugs. Kunda let go of her staff, even though it pained her. She doubled back hurriedly toward the Gotan and Gil, and as she did she felt the familiar drum on her hip.
Kunda began to enter a meditative state as she slowed her rapid breathing, holding it in for a short moment before letting it out in a soft rush as she grabbed her drum, and set it under her arms. She focused on the rapid thumping of her heart, drowning out the sound of rushing thunderous feet. Focusing, the thumping of her heart became its own thunder and she began to thump her drum along with the rhythm of its slowing pulses.
She began to imagine a small flame in her mind’s eye, flickering weakly but white-hot nonetheless, and began to feed the flame her passion. In time with the beat of her heart and smacks on her drum, Kunda focused on what stoked this flame of her passion: Thump, her stern but wise father, whose lessons still rang in her heart; Thump, The beauty of life and the sanctity of it, and how it burdened her heart to care for all; Thump, Master Gil, and how he made her heart warm with his wit and well intentions; Thump, These misguided people, and how it pained her heart to think of how they got to this moment; along with many more as the beating of her heart sped up. As the rhythm sped up, she began to drum a half-beat between the beating in time with her pulses with a Thump-a-Thump.
The white-hot flame began to burn brighter and larger as her passion grew, and Kunda began to feel a radiant heat emanating from inside her chest, causing her to pour sweat that rolled down her olive-skinned face. She then began to imagine her surroundings, the overgrown road, Master Gil hiding behind his nonplussed Gotan, and the four assassins gaining ground on her.
She imagined the flame splitting in two, then four, then six different flames that she sent into the assassin’s weapons and their torches. She suddenly heard cries of alarm as her eyes shot open, and she saw that the torches were now white-hot blazes that lit the surrounding area in light, and the bronze swords had begun to melt in the assassin’s hands. They looked up alarmed, and all muttered warnings about “Magick” as they fled back into the wood.
Kunda doubled over, drenched in sweat and bone-weary tiredness, as she shuffled over to the Gotan. Master Gil looked up at her, obviously shocked to his core, and began to say something but Kunda held up her hand. She took several gasping breaths before saying, “I’m no Mystic.”
“Buy you-” Gil began to protest before Kunda cut him off, saying “The Mystics were power-hungry maniacs who used the forces of creation to try and subjugate not only each other but the world itself, and in so doing they eradicated themselves and everything they built.” Kunda squatted down on her bone-weary legs to be eye level with the still cowering Gil. “The Mystics sought to enslave their Magick, while I live in Harmony with mine.” As Gil stared into Kunda’s warm brown eyes she stood up and dusted herself off before offering a hand to Gil, which broke his focus. He stared at her outstretched hand for several heartbeats before he took it and pulled himself to his feet. Kunda smiled as the merchant checked over his Gotan while he shouted out “This has definitely put us a tad behind, Kunda. We’ll have to get a move on if we’re to reach that glade you spoke of yesterday.” Kunda nodded, her smile still plastered on her face, as Gil took his Gotan’s lead and took his place beside her, beginning one of his many long and winding tales as they walked the similarly long and winding road to Uten.