Lore:Voices of the Haunted
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"You made your return quickly." Eris crouches, hunched over bundled splits of pine arranged atop a thick log and resin-rubbed moss. She strikes a well-worn flint with her knife, and flame ignites.
"You're not hard to spot at night." Crow averts his gaze from Eris's sideways glare and looks up to the haunting glow of the Dark Shard of the Traveler. Shivers convulse down his vertebrae, and his eyes drop to the freshly popping wood.
Eris breaks the silence. "Why did you volunteer for the severance operation? For… most operations?"
"To make a difference where others can't. Same as you."
She shakes her head. "No," Eris mumbles.
Crow watches her deftly coax the fire, considering the answer he'd given. He looks up to the distant tree line and changes the subject. "There are still a good number of Hive here."
"But no Nightmares," Eris remarks.
"Is that why you brought me here? This… isn't a place I want to revisit." Crow steps back from the growing flames.
When Eris doesn't respond, he asks his real question:
"Why did I fail?"
"You didn't fail. Our strategy was flawed." Eris stands, stowing flint and blade, then steps in front of him to meet his gaze. "We will attempt the severance again, soon."
"Yeah," Crow replies in a clipped tone. Eris tilts her head, and he can see the green orbs narrow beneath her blindfold.
She points to the ragged, mountainous shard twisting in twilight roil. "Even that toxic piece, separate from the Traveler's purity, can be wielded for good."
The fire roars. He kneels to break her stare and warms his hands. "I know what it can do. I used it—"
Eris sits beside Crow and drinks from her canteen. Crow braces for her to continue, but she does not. The bundle of burning kindling collapses into a heap of cinders. Flames spit between the gaps and ash drifts on heated air.
"I'll get more wood," Crow says, hastening to step out of the fire's glow.
"Crow. Small fires like this kept me alive in the Hellmouth. I did not have the luxury of more wood." Eris grips a piece of rusty rebar taken from the Sludge and thrusts it into the sputtering fire. She stirs the cindering wood, opening new gaps and concentrating the larger pieces over a pile of glowing kindling. The flame surges, and heat intensifies. "During these long nights, we must make use of what is available to us."
She knows he understands her but hasn't accepted the lesson.
She hands him the bar, shows him how to maintain the fire's heat, how to find worth in remnants. How to rebuild from ash.
The pair converse as they take turns keeping the fire alive long into the night. The warmth soothes, their shoulders lighten, and Crow pulls back his hood.
When the fire finally dies, Eris gestures to the embers. "Now, you can fetch some wood."
Crow smiles and gets to his feet. "Eris… did you ever try to get your Light back?"
"The past is not for dwelling."
Crow nods and sticks out his hand. She looks at it inquisitively.
Eris stands next to Crow; he clasps her palm and ignites a Golden Gun between their hands. Solar flame dances across Eris's fingers. Crow guides her arm and lifts the gun to the sky. He inhales sharply and howls before cracking a shot through the clouds.
"You're up, Hunter."
Eris depresses the trigger, slowly, doubtful that it would fire. A second Solar streak pierces the atmosphere. Crow laughs. They send round after round skyward, howling pent tension into the night until finally, even Eris finds herself smiling.
II. Death and Desertion
An air of palpable tension permeates the room. in the time since the Imperial fleet had formed a blockade around the Leviathan, three separate frigates had defected to Calus's side. A fourth has just followed suit.
Caiatl began this campaign with fire in her heart. Now, she feels only cold and tired.
"A total of 250 soldiers, Empress," Taurun answers.
"We must strike!" Ca'aurg shouts suddenly, slamming his fist on the table. "Anything less will be seen as a sign of weakness!"
A clamor ripples through the rest of Caiatl's advisors. Only Valus Forge remains silent.
"Inaction is anathema," says Tha'arec. "Our warriors long for the glory of battle, not the dormancy of a blockade."
"Even if it means fighting for Calus," sneers Ca'aurg. He spits the name as if it were made of bile.
A bitter fury builds in Caiatl toward her father. He had ushered in an era of decadence that left the Cabal military dull and complacent; she had sought to be a different kind of leader. But her people remain adrift—this time, among the stars. Perhaps her defectors prefer the pleasure of certain death over the agony of uncertain survival. Or perhaps, she is merely the next in line to lead the empire to ruin.
"The Leviathan reappeared with no warning," Caiatl declares. "We do not know what else lurks beyond our sight. Our blockade may soon see more battle than we bargained for. Until then, we hold the line."
She speaks in a tone that brooks no argument. Her advisors leave the room, wisely keeping any further misgivings to themselves. Saladin nods to her, as if to say he and he alone agrees with her decision.
Caiatl can only wonder if she agrees with it herself.
It's quiet in Zavala's office, save for the sound of clicking as the tiny steel pendulums on his desk swing back and forth, hitting against each other. Rahool once told them that they were a "Newton's Cradle"; a pre-Golden Age relic named for one of humanity's greatest scientific minds. The trinket is all that remains of a life's work lost to time, consumed by the Collapse and the ensuing Dark Age.
Like so many other things.
As he stands at the window, brooding in shame and guilt as he silently contemplates the Traveler, Zavala hears a knock on his door.
"Come in," he calls over his shoulder.
A moment later, Amanda Holliday steps into the room. Dark circles frame her eyes, and her shoulders slump with a weight unseen. No Nightmare hovers behind her, hounding every step, but she seems haunted, nonetheless. Zavala is certain that, given his own ordeals, he must look much the same.
"Hey," Amanda says quietly as she crosses over to his desk. She leans against it and joins him looking out over the City.
They stand in silence for a long time and watch a small fleet of civilian ships weave its way between the buildings. The clicking of pendulums marks the time as it drifts past them.
"The Last City," Amanada murmurs. "Wish my folks had lived to see it."
"As do I," Zavala solemnly replies.
"You would've liked them," Amanda says with a sad smile. "As stubborn as they were kind. They gave everything to make sure I reached the City. Bravest people I've ever known."
"Devotion inspires bravery," Zavala says, almost absently. He turns from the window and glances at a low shelf, where a cracked white mask is displayed under glass. "Bravery inspires sacrifice. And sacrifice..." his voice quavers as it trails off.
"...is worth it for the ones we love," says Amanda. "My parents didn't have the Light. But they had me."
She meets his eyes, her own filled with a light all their own. "We can't all live forever. But being remembered? That's the next best thing."
Amanda laughs and sniffles at the same time. "Didn't mean to talk your ear off. Sorry about that."
"Don't be," Zavala replies with a small smile and a sigh of sadness. "I just wish I could return the favor."
He moves from the window and leans on the desk next to her, gazing out at the Traveler and the Last City as they settle into a comfortable silence. The pendulums on his desk continue to click and clack, the echo of a life lived long, long ago.