Lore:Between Stolen Stars
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"You are cold, child."
Eramis's world was a choking smother of darkness and pain. She could not move. She was only vaguely aware of the voice.
"We have a use for you."
A mass of frozen splinters sealed her eyes. How long had she been here?
"We would have you find something for us. Something which was lost."
The voice swirled around her like smoke, echoed inside her mind. Though terrifying, it was something to focus on amid the surrounding nothing. Who was speaking?
"Answer," said the voice, convincing and commanding.
Eramis paused. As if in response, her perception began to dim, and she felt the crushing darkness closing in around her once more. There was no fight here. This was no choice.
She remembered her people.
Yes, she thought. And the pain ceased.
"Gather those who would serve you, and know you serve us."
A surge of images filled her mind: tendrils of inky vapor trailing through the stars, hidden vessels secreted amongst long-forgotten treasures, a whisper rising to a roar, the Great Machine beginning to—
And then, from everywhere, shattering.
Arask sat in the heart of his Ketch, lit only by the weak amber glow of his viewscreen. He frowned as he charted another trip through the Themis Cluster with a quarter-load of Phaseglass. The job would barely pull enough to cover the voyage, and Ether reserves were dangerously low. How long could his crew—
A blinking light caught his attention—chatter on a long-dormant channel.
Arask leaned forward in his seat, his ancient leathers creaking as he moved. He tapped at the screen with one gnarled claw.
The missive was direct and merciless. A jagged grin crept over his face: she hadn't changed.
The comms system squawked from disuse. Below decks, a patchwork band of Dregs and Marauders looked up in confusion.
"A call's gone out," Arask's voice rasped from the speakers. "Raise the old flag."
"We sail once more!"
"And if Mara demands his extradition?" Ikora crossed her arms behind her back and arched her eyebrow at Zavala. The Vanguard leaders were sequestered in Zavala's office—a terse missive from Petra Venj lay at issue between them.
"Then we'll happily accommodate her," the commander responded with a wry smile. "But I suspect Mara's attention is elsewhere."
"Perhaps she needs a reminder," Ikora floated casually. "It would give us the political cover to act."
"It would," Zavala frowned. "But even if we evict him, I'm reluctant to send him back to the Reef."
Ikora chuckled dryly. "A fate worse than death. I can only imagine what the Techeuns have dreamed up for him."
"Besides," the commander said, "turning an asylum-seeker over to the Awoken would needlessly provoke the Eliksni." He tried to keep his tone light, but it betrayed him as he felt the seeds of an argument start to form.
Zavala grunted in reluctant acknowledgement.
"In Spider's case, the anger would be entirely justified," Ikora pressed, trying to forestall Zavala's inevitable objection. "He would give critics of Eliksni resettlement plenty of fresh ammunition. It would set relations back by a year. And we've only just stabilized."
"You're right," he conceded. "Spider's more trouble than he's worth."
Ikora sighed. "If I'm right, then why are you about to fight me on this?"
Zavala smiled softly. They knew each other so well.
"Is that how you're framing his Ghost shell collection? Cultural exchange?" Ikora wrinkled her nose in distaste. "That's a mark against on my ledger."
"Mine as well," Zavala replied. "But we have to accept the Eliksni for who they are. Warts and all. If we're going to live with them, we have to understand them. And nobody understands both sides like Spider."
"And second?" Ikora prompted.
"We never know who might become an ally." Zavala gestured in the direction of the Eliksni Quarter below. "The number of Guardians that Mithrax has killed over the years…" He trailed off with a shake of his head.
"But now Mithrax fights for the Last City as his home," he continued, turning back to Ikora. "It was unimaginable even a decade ago, but here we are. And in Eido, I see the first real hope for collective peace in my lifetime. Not just a cease-fire, but a real peace."
Zavala shrugged. "In a century or two, who knows what Spider might become."
Ikora narrowed her eyes and pressed her lips together in firm disapproval. Zavala smiled to himself, knowing he had won.
Eris Morn's workspace was organized. Clean. A camp stove. A burned wok. A crate of rations to keep her fed until the next supply drop to Luna. A metal worktable with a neat arrangement of medical equipment, carefully kept. Half of a Thrall's skull, a saw resting at its side. A collection of discarded chitin. A skein of Hive leather.
Drifter picked up a jar from a shelf. The container was filled with pickled Hive eyeballs, the green dimmed by death.
"You live like this?" Drifter asked, incredulous. Eris looked at him with a frown.
"What do you mean? Like what?"
Drifter gestured around the room. When she said nothing, he continued.
"You called the Derelict a heap."
She switched on one of the harsh halogen lamps hanging over her worktable. The light cast everything in hard lines of shadow.
"So what d'you call this?" He shook the jar of eyeballs. They rolled and thumped together in their glass container before settling into a teeming stare.
Eris silently returned her gaze to the reliquary. It was an unassuming vessel, its contents obscured, save for a strange interior glow.
"Undoubtedly, the Scribe of House Light has examined these," Eris said. "Why bring one to me?"
"Eido ain't exactly a Darkness expert."
She felt the grooves and patterns under her fingertips as she turned the reliquary in her hands. She felt the shift and shudder of the Darkness as it responded to her touch—to her silent inquiry. She ran the pad of her thumb over the seal's edges.
When Drifter had first offered the relics to her, Eris had called them a gift. Now that she had one in her hands, she did not think she should unwrap it. She looked back to him.
"What is your motivation for helping the Guardian? I do not assume altruism."
Drifter gave her a look of mock offense. "Hey, why not?"
"Hm. I did assume deflection. Speak plainly."
Drifter fell silent for a moment. His face was pensive. When he finally spoke, his words were carefully chosen.
"And defeating Eramis will be 'a win'?"
"Yeah. Hope it sticks this time."
Drifter leaned back on his heels and grinned. "Plus, always nice to be owed a favor. Don't know if Spider'll make good on his… But I bet Captain Kell would."
Again, deflection. She placed the reliquary down on her worktable. Drifter didn't move to pick it up.
"You sure you don't want to keep 'em?"
His tone was genuine. Eris considered this. Not the offer, but the sentiment behind his words. The implicit, unspoken faith.
"You trust me?"
He shrugged. "Who wouldn't?"
There was a smile—slight, careful—at the corner of her mouth. Something close to delight.
"Then stay, be silent, and listen. I have thoughts on their utility."
Drifter did as she asked.
IV. Law Of The Land
"To what do we owe the honor of your presence, Mithrax-kell?" Spider asked loudly, over-pronouncing the Human version of his name. "Surely you have more important people to see than a humble entrepreneur like myself. Those at the top of the Tower, for instance."
Mithrax noted a few sharp scoffs amongst the crowd at Spider's mention of the Tower.
"I wish to make clear the rules of the Eliksni Quarter," Mithrax said, "so that there are no… misunderstandings."
"Of course," Spider proclaimed with faux deference. "Misunderstandings are how people get… left behind. We wouldn't want that."
Mithrax huffed at Spider's indelicate allusion. His retort was interrupted by a polite chitter at his side. He looked down to see the Dreg from behind the bar proffer a small Ether canister.
Mithrax attached the Ether canister to his rebreather and took a sharp pull. He was pleasantly surprised by the sensation. It was at once filling and effervescent. The House of Light had been living on the most basic Ether for so long that he forgot how delightful such concoctions were. Spider noticed the Kell's appreciation and scoffed.
"So, the rules," he prompted.
"Agreed," Spider nodded. "The Humans can be… peevish. Especially when you kill dozens of them at a time."
Mithrax ignored the jab and pressed on. "That is why there must be no violence inside the City walls. Ever."
"This is the Eliksni Quarter, is it not?" Spider bristled. "The Eliksni should be free to mete out justice as needed… in our own way."
"I did not say there must be no violence," Mithrax muttered in sotto voce. "Only that it must not happen inside the walls."
Spider nodded at the concession. "Very crafty. Agreed. Is that all?"
"No. That is not all. From today forward, there will be no more docking in your organization." He nodded toward the Dreg behind the bar, whose lower arm stumps were covered with studded leather caps.
"What!" Spider exclaimed. "That's preposterous! Eliksni have been docking Dregs since the Whirlwind—it's tradition!" The crowd murmured restlessly at the prospect of confrontation.
"Not in my House," Mithrax boomed. The room went silent.
Mithrax turned to address the crowd. "I am Kell, and I decree that no Eliksni in the House of Light shall be docked." He turned back to Spider and lowered his voice. "Unless you wish to be the exception to the rule."
Spider chuckled. "There's the Misraaks I knew," he said slyly. "As long as you're still willing to draw blades when the time comes, we'll be just fine."
V. Credible Threat
It was the small hours of the morning and the Eliksni Quarter was quiet aside from the low chattering of the scattered Eliksni guards and the electric hum of Spider's gaudy signage. Crow had slipped easily into the empty bar.
Crow had carefully stuck a knife into the stool beside him, perfectly placed so that Spider would see it when he woke.
Spider coughed softly. Crow looked at the big Eliksni, took a measured breath, and saw him plainly: as someone sleeping alone in a city of enemies.
He looked around the tawdry interior of the bar, decorated with what scraps Spider had managed to bring as he fled the Shore for the safety of the Last City, where he now survived on the charity of Drifter and Mithrax alone.
Crow shook his head with a smile and pulled the knife from the stool before sliding it into its sheath. He was at the doorway before he heard a fizzling noise behind him.
Glint materialized in midair. "What are you doing?" Crow hissed, but the Ghost was already zipping toward Spider.
"Hey!" Glint yelled, and Spider snorted himself awake.
Glint increased his lights to a dazzling gleam and hovered aggressively before Spider's face. The Eliksni recoiled and raised his arms, but Glint wove between them like an angry bee.
"Crow may be too nice to send a message," he shouted, "but I'm not!"
"What—" Spider managed before he erupted in a fit of confused coughing.
"We're watching you," Glint snarled, his voice quivering with tension. "And if you step out of line, so help me, I'll deal with you myself!"
Spider caught his breath and sat motionless as the little Ghost fluttered furiously before him.
Glint lurched forward and bopped himself against Spider's faceplate with a thunk.
Crow covered his mouth as Glint delivered another ludicrous bonk. The Eliksni blinked, too shocked to react.
"Forget it!" Glint shouted, his voice breaking. He whirled his shell defiantly before transmatting away, plunging Spider into darkness once more.
Crow was still laughing as the pair approached the lift to the Tower. Glint hung sheepishly in the air.
"I'm sorry," Glint said. "I guess I didn't have to do that."
"Actually," Crow replied, reaching up to scratch his friend's shell, "I think you did."
Saint-14 and Lord Shaxx stood shoulder to shoulder outside The Ether Tank, Spider's establishment in the Eliksni Quarter. They were kitted out with full armor and a close-quarters arsenal. Shaxx unholstered his sidearm and confirmed that the clip was full. Saint stared at the bar's entrance and slowly spun the cylinder on his hand cannon with a methodical click, click, click.
They glanced at each other and shared a nod. They were ready for trouble.
When the Titans stepped through the saloon doors, the whole crowd froze. The Guardians towered above the seated patrons, their helmeted heads the blank visages of death. They slowly stalked the perimeter of the room, moving in opposite directions, optimizing their fields of fire, prioritizing their targets.
There was a moment of silence before the coming storm.
* * *
A short time later, disarray filled the room: Eliksni lay strewn across the floor. Dregs cowered behind the bar.
In the center of the chaos stood three Wretches, facing off against Saint-14—his fist crackled with Arc energy. The Wretches approached in a line, holding hands to create a chain. Then slowly, solemnly, the two Wretches on either end reached out in unison and grabbed Saint's fist.
The Wretches' cloth wrappings sizzled, and the lenses on their helmets flared as the Arc coursed through them. However, they did not break contact, and the circuit remained intact.
From a nearby table, Shaxx's massive voice counted out, "…SEVEN, EIGHT, NINE, TEN!"
Saint let his Light ebb, and the Wretches staggered backward. There was a moment of silence before Shaxx boomed, "And the winner is… THE SKIFFBLADES!"
Halsiks, a Vandal in service to the Guardian, leapt into the arms of the Wretches, and the four of them bounced up and down in jubilation. An Eliksni lying on the floor feebly lifted their upper arms in celebration.
"The next round," Shaxx continued, "is on the great Titan, the Violet King… THE SAINT!"
Saint-14 nodded grudgingly to the Dreg behind the bar, who was peering over the edge in apprehension. Any Eliksni who could still walk began mobbing the bar for a concoction at the Titan's expense.
Halsiks approached Saint and tapped at his metal breastplate playfully. He drummed a complex polyrhythm and chittered excitedly.
"Yes, you're welcome," Saint replied dourly. "But don't get used to it! I will not fall for the same scheme again."
"Today will live in infamy!" Shaxx declared, clapping Saint on the back. "The day the Hero of Six Fronts was bested by three Wretches and eight liters of rotgut!"
Saint harrumphed. "This is why I prefer pigeons to people," he muttered.
The datapad hit the tiled floor with a sharp crack as it slipped from Eido's shaking hands. Jumping to her feet, she scrambled to pick it up, inspecting hurriedly for damage. Her shoulders slumped slightly as her eyes landed on the thin fracture across its face.
Eido took a breath, Ether hissing through her rebreather. It didn't calm her.
She stood within one of the half-ruined rooms of the Eliksni Quarter. Privacy was a luxury in this place, and Eido took it where she could. Now, staring at her datapad, she was even more grateful for the quiet.
Eramis had heard Eido recording her Scribe's logs. What else had Eramis intercepted? All of House Light's communications? The petitions to the City for supplies, the transactions for The Ether Tank, her father's instructions to his people?
Eido knew that this wasn't possible—or shouldn't be. But her Scribe's logs were unencrypted. She realized now how naïve that had been.
She took another breath. Eido had reached out to Eramis before, calling for Eliksni unity, and did not think she would receive a reply. But now she knew that Eramis had listened. The Kell had reached out in turn. When Eramis interrupted her Scribe's log, there had been pain in her voice. A pain Eido had never known—a pain she realized her father had tried to keep from her.
"Eido," Misraaks said, appearing at the threshold of the door. His voice was gentle, but Eido flinched nonetheless as her thoughts broke apart. It was worse, somehow, hearing him speak gently. She turned over the cracked datapad, as if to hide what had just transpired.
"Yes, Misraakskel?" she answered, too clipped. He bowed his head. Eido stared at her father's silhouette offset by the crumbling building.
Silence hung between them for too long a moment.
"The Guardian has returned," he said, eyes averted. "We have collected another relic."
Even now, there was so much unsaid.
"A relic of Nezarec," she finished flatly for him. He had known since the beginning. He had known and he had lied, while Eramis had not turned away from the truth.
Misraaks said nothing. Eido had been insulted, hurt—and she knew deep down, he would not apologize for any of it.
"I will study it once I am finished with my Scribe's log," Eido said. She turned away from him, and soon, her father's footsteps faded.
She looked back to the datapad as if Eramis would speak to her again, now that Misraaks had left. But there was nothing. Eido sighed, her thoughts still racing.
Eramis had said she could not turn away from her violence or her vengeance. Eido did not believe that—she could not believe it. This violence was not the Kell's spirit. Eido had to find the part of Eramis that did not rage at the past. Eido had to show the Kell of Darkness a future.
Silently, the Scribe of House Light began piecing together the coordinates to the next hideout herself.
The console went dark. The message had ended. Eramis knew there would not be another.
"Come home, Eramis."
Eramis closed her eyes. The words settled into the Kell's thoughts. They were heavy. Sharp. She felt herself bleed with them. She had begged for death in the moment that Misraaks's blades were at her throat, and his mercy was a deeper wound than any. It was reopened, now, by the kindness of a child.
Eramis remembered her home.
Her home was her hatchlings, at her mate's side.
Eramis remembered watching them grow and molt. How they had chittered their delight and looked to her with their wide, luminous eyes.
"Come home, Eramis."
Eramis lived—she lived, and knew what the Eliksni had lost.
The dream of a new Riis was delicate, and beautiful. Eramis had held it in her hands, close to her chest, for so long. She knew, now, that she had smothered it. In all her violence, in all the death that followed her, she had curled her hands into fists.
The dream of a new Riis would have died with Eido, if she had been left to the Hive and their putrid Light. But Eido did not know Riis, and neither did her father. They could look beyond that loss.
"Come home, Eramis."
Eramis knew she would never see anything but terror in another's eyes.
Eramis knew that the Eliksni would find a new home with Eido.
Eramis knew there was no place for her in it.