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The Stars Our Destination

Chapter Text

The Pale Priestess is a blaze of white before her, the thunder of their horses echoing against the castle walls as they depart Highgate and ride blindly into the night. Her armour is heavy on her, her sword a trusting weight on her left hip, their blinding sun banner snapping in the wind.

Fareeha gallops silently beside her charge, her black destrier bearing her easily down the road. The veil of darkness is still around them, the Pale Priestess’ white cloak almost blinding in the gloom, guiding their way away from safety to the perils of the wilds. Highgate’s surrounding lands are peaceful during the long, endless days of the summer. But the autumn is falling thick and fast around them, the leaves crushed under her steed’s hooves is proof enough of that, and Fareeha knows that with autumn comes hunger.

The Pale didn’t call autumn the Season of Decay for nothing.

“We ride to Overwatch.” The Priestess calls back to her. Fareeha nods silently, knowing her helm would swallow any spoken answer anyway, and urges her horse faster, drawing level, and then ahead of her charge.

They gallop on through the night, the road taking them past the vast lake of Highwater. Large enough to be a small sea, even Fareeha cannot see the farthest shore. Here and there the glimmer of dockside towns against the waters offer wordless safety and a warm bed. The Pale Priestess gives no word of stopping, though, and they continue on their way.

Dawn finds them on the eastern road. The first blush of light burns as brightly as a star and Fareeha knows the Pale Priestess must stop to rest soon. Her own body is aching with exhaustion, eyes burning behind her falcon-headed helm, legs almost welded to the saddle beneath her. But she keeps going, her silence bought through both exhaustion and habit. The Priestess also holds her peace, moving in the saddle with practiced ease. Fareeha throws her a glance, then offers her god silent blessings, praying for a sharp vigil as they continue along the shore of Highwater.

Overwatch is a tiny hunched mass in the far distance. Its buildings are curled in on themselves, like forgotten clay men hunched in defeat. Fareeha has the overbearing sense that Overwatch isn’t a pretty place, but understands that the women there aren’t so hard to look at. Even she, a Sworn Sword to the Pale and a Knight from the Barrens of Arga, isn’t above the tender heat between a woman’s legs.

The gates are barred to them when they come to a halt. Fareeha remains silent and still as the earth, one gauntleted hand clenched around her standard, the other curled around the reins. The Priestess wheels her horse back and forth, clearly agitated. Beneath her white hood, Fareeha can see her full lips are pressed into an irritated line.

“Who goes there?” Calls a voice.

“A priestess from the Pale, seeking sanctuary,” her companion replies bitingly. Her horse snorts, pawing the earth as though sensing her mistress’s anger.

“Hail. May the sun banish the night!” The voice replies.

“Stars guide your path.” The Priestess says the words automatically; the correct reply to the blessing.

With that, the gates creak open. Their horses walk through side by side - white mare and black stallion, one hooded and cloaked in the white of her office, the other armoured and armed, bearing the standard of the sun. They must make an impressive sight; Fareeha feels the stares of Overwatch’s people, and ignores them, trusting her helm to hide her face.

“My lady.” A huge man lumbers towards them, standing near as tall as Fareeha on her horse. His remaining eye is huge with wonder, grizzled hair falling about his face like a mane. But beyond the lines of his face, Fareeha sees the muscles of his arms and legs - even more so when he bends into a deep bow. He wears a purple cloak, emblazoned with the sigil of a roaring lion.

“Ser Reinhardt. It is good to see you.” The Priestess drops her hood, revealing her beauty. Even though Fareeha isn’t looking directly at her, the dawn seems duller for the shining radiance of her blonde hair, and the beautiful smile which she knows graces her face.

“It has been too long, Mercy. Too long indeed.”

As the Priestess dismounts Fareeha’s eyes flicker about the village square. More people are creeping out of their homes, disturbed at this early hour by their arrival. She sees more foreign faces; men, women. Even children, who clutch at their mothers’ skirts and gaze wide-eyed at her and the Priestess from the North.

The knight embraces Mercy tightly, murmuring something in some strange tongue which Fareeha does not know. She pretends not to listen, instead giving her destrier the rein and allowing the stallion to stretch out his neck. He does so, snorting and shaking his mane, eager for rest. Her horse seems to draw the attention to her, and she straightens in the saddle as Reinhardt and Mercy turn to face her.

“Ser, this is my Sworn Sword, Pharah of Aquila.” Mercy says. Fareeha stares steadily into the Priestess’s blue eyes, wondering how much more she would tell. “I would have her placed beside my quarters, if that isn’t too much to ask.”

Reinhardt gives her a very obvious once over, clearly looking for faults in her armour, or an unsteadiness in her resolve. Apparently seeing none, he gives a snort and claps one massive hand on Mercy’s tiny shoulder. She nearly collapses knee first into the mud, but her staff stops her.

“Is it just Pharah of Aquila, or do you have other names?” Reinhardt half shouts. Fareeha says nothing, the only hint she heard a tightening of her fingers around her banner.

Mercy rests a tiny hand on Reinhardt’s massive arm, patting it soothingly before speaking, “She is my loyal protector. But please, I ask that we are given shelter. It has been a long night’s ride.”

A stable boy hurries up to collect their steeds. Fareeha dismounts easily, relinquishing her banner to some other boy, who carries it carefully away after their horses. Her every step creaks, her armour rattling as she follows Mercy and Reinhardt silently, entering an enormous longhouse, carved from the bowels of a ship, long ago beached and set upon the earth, never to sail again. She almost feels the ship’s longing for the sea as she enters the cavernous room, taking in the sweeping heartfire and the long wooden tables and benches which make Overwatch’s court.

Reinhardt and Mercy are talking in their strange language again. Fareeha has little choice but to follow as he leads them both out of the main hall and into a narrow corridor. The mouth-watering scents of breakfast reach her even as Reinhardt leads them away from the kitchens and towards a pair of solid oak doors.

“Your rooms.” He opens one, biding Mercy entrance. She thanks him courteously, bowing her head delicately before shutting the door behind her. Fareeha waits impassively while Reinhardt eyes her over once more.

“Mercy is important to us.” He says gruffly as he shoulders open the door to the next room.

Fareeha nods once. She is important to me too, knight. It doesn’t become you to doubt me. She dares not say these words out loud, but instead clings to them as a drunk clutches his ale, desperate and pleading. When she doesn’t answer, Reinhardt grunts and shrugs away from the wall, allowing her to pass him.

The moment the door closes, Fareeha allows her shoulders to sag. Exhaustion worries at her heels, doglike and unforgiving, until she reaches up to pull her helmet off her head. She nearly lets out a groan of relief, striding further into her rooms. They are small, but lavish. A huge bed occupies one wall, a set of doors opening onto a balcony overlooking the valley below. It takes Fareeha a moment to comprehend the physics of it, before she realises the house is built on the edge of a cliff, allowing the spectacular sights without the use of staircases.

She sets her helmet aside, pulls off her mail coif and lays it out carefully beside the falcon helm. Before she had become a Knight of the Barrens, she had had her own sigil to bear with pride - the striking falcon on her cloak and her helm are the last vestiges of her dying house.

It is with practiced ease that she unbuckles her armour, leaving her in a set of comfortable leathers. With a sigh, she removes her final boot, wiggling her toes before crossing the room and collapsing onto the enormous bed.

She is aching. Wearing her armour for so long, and the ride around the lake, has tired her out so much, she barely has the energy to wait.

But wait she does.

After ten minutes of forcing her eyes to stay open, her door creaks open quietly, and shuts just as softly, the click of the lock quelling any fear of discovery. She lifts her head, allowing herself to smile as the woman creeps towards her bed.

“I hoped you’d still be awake.” Angela murmurs. She has changed into white cottons, leaving behind her cloak and her sigils and her staff.

“I hoped you’d visit.” Fareeha replies, voice cracked with disuse. She pats the bed, and Angela joins her, curling up at her side before placing a gentle kiss to her forehead. Fareeha makes a tiny noise in her throat, and sighs happily when Angela rests her head on her shoulder.

“I’m sorry to have pushed us so hard,” Angela murmurs drowsily. “We got here just in time.”

Fareeha smiles to herself when Angela yawns so hugely her jaw cracks. No more is she Mercy the Priestess from the Pale North. Instead she is just Angela, a healer and a lover. A woman Fareeha has come to love.

It is only here, in the privacy of a locked room, that they can be themselves, rather than who they have to be. Fareeha isn’t Pharah of Aquila, Sworn Sword and Knight of the Barrens. She is just a woman who loves another woman, curling herself protectively around her soon-to-be wife as their conversation is forgotten.

Sleep takes them both. A sweet release from the trials of the night.

Chapter Text

One Year Earlier

 

“That’s it, strike from behind!”

A roar of laughter greets her as she enters the courtyard. The heavy Argan sun is beating down on her, blistering and indefatigable, a summer haze hanging across the city. It is so hot the very air shimmers and dances, a dry breeze providing little relief. Birds and insects flutter listlessly, sounding half-hearted calls to the clear sky as she sets herself on a bench in the shade.

Her fellows are dancing. Swords flash and crash together, blunted for training, as the two men flit easily across the stones. Dressed in loose leathers and spry boots, dust follows them and she watches coolly, taking a swig from her waterskin.

“Good!” The elder of the two draws back, lowering his scimitar. “Very good. You’re getting better, Hassan.”

Hassan, a green boy from the Riverlands, bows, panting. His violently blue eyes are at odds with his dark complexion, white blonde hair curled and cropped close to his head. He boasts in his cups that his father is a prince of Arga, who visited a Riverlands pleasure house and begot him to the most expensive courtesan available. Fareeha doubts this, thinking that his Westerling features tell of a different father.

“You are a good teacher, Leif.” Hassan replies with a wolfish grin, baring yellow teeth. “But one day I will be better than even Pharah.”

Leif bellows his laughter, clapping a huge hand on Hassan’s shoulder and throwing a grin Fareeha’s way. She smirks back, raising an eyebrow. The pair sheath their swords and wipe their foreheads of sweat, trotting into the shade to gulp well earnt water. Fareeha hums and joins them.

“No doubt you will be ready for battle soon, Hassan.” She says. The boy swells with pride. At barely thirteen summers, he is just growing into his puppy fat - Fareeha thinks that he will have the stature of his Westerling father, and the features of his Argan mother. No doubt he would father many bastards before his time is done. She makes herself smile, and continues, “But it will be many years before you can best me.”

“Of course, Ser. You honour me.”

He bows again, so deeply he nearly has an encounter with the stones. Leif catches Fareeha’s eye and rolls his eyes, struggling to contain laughter by binding it with a smirk. Fareeha feels her eyebrow rise again.

“The Pale Priestess is coming today, no?” Leif asks as all three of them start back towards the barracks.

Fareeha nods, “I had the thought that you would be chosen.”

Leif laughs. “I doubt it. She will want the best of the Barrens, the pride of Arga herself. She will want Pharah the Unbroken, Pharah the Noble, Pharah the-”

Fareeha gives Leif a shove, snorting with mirth. Both Leif and Hassan guffaw, stumbling away as she shakes her head and continues ahead of them. The pair of them shout after her, telling her not to be a bad sport and to join them for wine after dinner. She lifts a hand noncommittally in answer and heads to the barracks.

An hour later finds her fully armoured, her falcon helm set low over her face as she stands vigil beneath the jackal headed god of her order. One mailed fist rests idly on the hilt of her scimitar - named Raptora for its speed and swiftness in battle - as she stares down the ranks of those under her command, including the trainees assigned to her. Standing in two lines, all the proven soldiers dressed in their finest armours with their animal helms, and the trainees wearing their leather training clothes, Fareeha knows that her command is impressive. As their captain she has trained with each of them - all seventeen of them.

Yaser is closest to her. Standing proud with his lion helm shuttered over his scarred face, her second in command is her finest warrior. Known with no irony as the Lion Of A Thousand Fights, his scimitar Mukhallab rests idle on his hip. Fareeha knows that Claw is not usually idle for long.

Each of the rest of her warriors have a litany of honours and victories to their names. Leif the Jackal, Nazir the Heron, Tariq the Oryx, Saleh the Fennec Fox – her eyes find each of them and her heart swells with a savage sort of pride. They had been her mother’s people before she had disappeared into the west, never to return. They are Fareeha’s people now. Each and every one of them. Her brothers and sisters in more than blood. They are her family in arms, bound by their oath to serve the God and each other.

Voices echo from just outside the room. Fareeha straightens slightly. The sound of mail clinking passes down the two lines as her warriors do the same. The Priestesses of the Pale are renowned healers, fabled for their ability to resurrect the dead and heal any wound. Fareeha knows only fables of the reclusive order; they are rare in number, impartial in any conflict and all women.

“Here are the Knights, my lady.” Faisal, the master of the house, is speaking in the Westerling tongue as he opens the double doors at the end of the hall. At his side, the Pale Priestess walks soundlessly. Dressed all in white, a hood concealing her face, she follows after portly Faisal as he makes his way towards Fareeha.

Fareeha notices the beads of sweat on Faisal’s forehead, and the way his brown eyes grow large in the late afternoon sun filtering in through the high windows. Fear. He reeks of it.

“If you have the desire to see other Chapters, my lady, you need only ask.” Faisal is saying as he comes to a halt in front of Fareeha. The Pale Priestess says nothing. Her gloved hand tightens around her staff, every inch of her covered by her blindingly white cloak. In the shafts of light she practically glows.

Finally, she lifts one hand and tilts back her hood, staring right into Fareeha’s eyes through the slit in her helm.

She is beautiful. Clear skin, enigmatic blue eyes, cheekbones so sharp Fareeha thinks she might be able to cut herself on them. She has a narrow, long nose and full lips, her chin and jaw as slender as the rest of her. Her hair is spun gold, drawn up into an explosive ponytail at the back of her head. She is clean and neat and Fareeha feels as though her heart has lodged somewhere in her throat.

“What do you call yourself?” The Priestess asks in Argan. The syllables trip easily off her tongue and Fareeha allows herself to be impressed.

“Pharah, my lady,” she responds at once. “I am Fareeha the Falcon, Knight of the Barrens and Captain of this Chapter.”

Nodding, the Priestess circles around her slowly, and then reappears. Her eyes are narrowed in thought, lips pressed thinly.

“I am known as Mercy, Priestess of the Pale and Emissary of the North. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She sweeps into a swift, respectful bow. “I am here to find a guardian, and a guide to show me the way to Ljosalfheim in the West. I have heard many of your Order are fabled trackers and warriors of great renown. How many battles have you seen, Captain?”

Fareeha hesitates for a brief moment, then, “Many, my lady. I have ridden with the Magi of Axis, driven pirates from the shores of Arga, served the Barren Knights all thirty-two years of my life. Each battle I have faced with my Chapter, noble and loyal all.”

The Priestess doesn’t spare a glance for the others. Instead she continues to examine Fareeha thoughtfully.

“I would be honoured if you were my Sworn Sword.”

Fareeha hears the words, and the startled intakes of breath which ring around the hall, but she doesn’t understand. The Priestess known as Mercy shows little of her name as she turns to Faisal and offers him a slip of parchment. With shaking hands the Master of the House takes it, breaking the silver wax seal and reading its contents.

“Captain, get your things.” Faisal says at once, looking up at her. His expression is grave. “The Pale have called upon the Knights of the Barrens. We must do our duty. You will leave as soon as you are ready.”

She rattles a salute - a fist against her heart - and strides down the lines of her warriors. They are watching her silently. She can feel their eyes from under their helms, their silence two walls on either side of her. The trainees don’t hide their confusion. Hassan’s gaze bores into her as she passes him, his mouth opening as though to speak. Leif’s hand catches his arm before he utters a single sound.

A Knight’s word is their honour. Fareeha knows this. Her mother knew it before her. If the Barren Knights had been pledged to the Pale, she would answer the call on behalf of her Chapter. But Arga, and her dusty wastes and beautiful oases, are all she has ever known. Her mother had gone west and never returned. She does not know what to think or what to feel. Mostly she feels hollow and dazed, caught wondering if this is a bad dream.

The low bumble of dread in her stomach tells her that this can only be real.

She reaches her room and peers around it. It is bare of many personal items; a narrow cot she has had since childhood is pressed against one wall under the shuttered window, a narrow wardrobe made from driftwood occupying a corner. She has a small mirror and a wash bowl beside the door and a narrow shelf nailed to the wall above her bed. She has few belongings - her training clothes, her cloaks, her daggers and boots. Pulling off her helm, she sighs and sets about gathering them up into a small sack, clearing her shelves of the interesting stones she had collected as a child, and the falcon pin her mother had made her for her seventh summer. The room is familiar to her as the back of her hand.

She dares not think about the Priestess. Or her warriors - her family. All she has left in a world that had taken her mother and denied her a father.

Do your duty.

Packed, she turns her back on the only bedroom she has ever known. Pulling her helm back on her head as she walks, she ignores the sounds of the other Chapters in their halls, talking and laughing together as she had done so many times with her own people. She locks the swelling feelings of fear and grief tightly in her chest, resolving to be as steady as the mountain and as dutiful as her mother.

Married to honour and oath. Never sway or falter.

She would say her words before the statue of the god, and then her life would be the Pale Priestess’s, to protect and serve her as loyally as though she were her own blood. It is a vow she will take very seriously.

When she slips through the temple doors her warriors as still standing in steady lines. But at her entrance they draw their swords, raising them into a salute so their very tips touch, forming an archway for her to walk under. Heart swelling with an emotion she cannot name, she does so without a fuss, her tiny bag heavy on her shoulder as she strides towards the Pale Priestess.

Mercy turns to her as she approaches. Fareeha sets her sack on the ground and draws her blade, bending to kneel at Mercy’s feet. Her sun-bleached leather boots are painfully clean, unmarked by travel or misfortune. Fareeha wonders if this Priestess has ever truly suffered in her life. If she has felt the hard hunger of the starving or the throbbing ache of the thirsty. She wonders if Mercy really knew the meaning of her name, and how the God so rarely dispensed it.

Raptora gleams as Fareeha lifts it towards Mercy, the blade flat and cool against her palms. Written on its flat are the words of her mother in Argan script; The Stars My Destination. An oath to fulfil any duty, to the death where she will finally ride through the stars, Fareeha takes the words to heart.

“Before the God of death and life, in this Season of Life, I, Pharah of Aquila, Fareeha Amari, the Unbroken, the Falcon, the Unbent, Daughter of Ana Amari, Falcon of the East, Forger and Wielder of Raptora, Second of her name, do pledge my life to you and swear to follow you until my body is broken, or you see fit to release me from my oath.”

“Sworn to the sword,” her warriors chant. They tap their blades together three times, the sound echoing around the temple while Fareeha thanks her helmet for concealing her face. Even she cannot stop the tears which threaten to spill over.

The softest hand she has ever felt cups her cheek and she is persuaded to gaze upwards into a pair of eyes so blue they threaten to drown her. Mercy’s expression is gentle, her full lips twitching into a sad smile as she leans down and presses them against Fareeha’s mouth. Despite knowing the meaning behind the kiss, the traditional acceptance of an oath, Fareeha feels her cheeks flood with heat.

“I take you as my Sworn Sword.” She says in her perfect Argan. “Rise, friend of the Pale, and Knight of the Barrens. Your watch begins.”

Fareeha does as she is told, sheathing Raptora and staunchly ignoring her warriors. They are watching her - she can feel them through the thin lining of her blue cloak. Mercy breezes past her down the corridor of swords and Fareeha has no choice but to follow. She picks up her bag, her boots thumping against the stone as she is led out of the temple and into the late afternoon sun of the entrance courtyard.

Two horses are saddled and ready for travel. One white one Fareeha doesn’t recognise has the shining sun of the Pales emblazoned on its saddle. Mercy walks right to it, swinging herself onto the horse’s back with practiced ease. She sets her staff into its holder on her saddle, taking the reins and wheeling her steed around. The horse snorts and whickers softly, pawing the dusty ground.

Fareeha’s horse awaits her. A black stallion, his saddle bags are stuffed with water, food, goods and tokens, a sleeping roll tucked neatly behind the cantle. A bow and quiver filled with eagle fletched arrows hangs easily from one side within easy reach. Satisfied, Fareeha heaves herself upwards, getting comfortable as the beast huffs beneath her. She can feel the strength in him, and wonders what his name is.

Faisal is standing in the entrance to the temple. Her warriors are at his back, silent and steady, their faces hidden behind their animal helms. She looks over them one last time, trying to commit to memory the scratches on Leif’s breast plate so she can take note of any new ones the next time she sees him; or the haphazard way Tariq’s cloak hangs off his shoulders. He never did learn how to fasten it properly. Hassan and the other trainees are less able to hide their emotions. Hassan looks angry, his hands clenched into fists at his sides.

This time no one stops him from speaking. “I’ll look for you on the western winds, Fareeha. Don’t take too long returning to us.”

“I will try. When I come back, dinner’s on me.”

There is a chorus of crowing laughter, sedated by a welling sadness which Fareeha tries very hard to quash. Burning the image of them all into her mind, she wheels the horse around, leading the way to the gates. Mercy follows close behind her quietly, drawing level with her as great wooden gates open wide onto the desert beyond the temple walls.

Fareeha glances around one last time. Her family are watching her. One by one they break into song, their voices rising and falling as the dunes of the Argan desert do. Haunting, heart-breaking, Fareeha knows the words well. It is a song to bring home the lost and the broken, calling to those who need aid to join the Barren Knights in honour and glory.

The singing follows both Knight and Priestess as they step out into the world, falling behind as they ride on through the dusty, dry day.

Chapter Text

It takes them a week to reach the forest.

“It’s like an ocean,” Mercy exclaims as they stand on the brow of the last dune, shading her eyes against the day. The forest spreads like a great green sea from north to south, forging further and further west. The Pale Priestess has never seen it before. Fareeha can tell by the way her blue eyes have widened with wonder and fear. Shala’Zor’s eastern border mates easily with the desert sands of Arga; dust morphing slowly to dense trees through a band of scrubland. The Dead Lands, as the Argan named them.

Fareeha doesn’t verbally reply to Mercy. Instead she urges her horse down the bank; Silas, she has named him, for the star of white on his chest. The evening is drawing close around them, and she wishes to make camp on the border before darkness truly sets in. To enter Shala’Zor in the night would be foolish, but staying out in the open even more so. The past four days they had been lucky - neither beast nor man had troubled them. Fareeha knows their luck will not last.

Mercy follows close behind her. She can hear the careful picking of her horse’s hooves crunching against the sand as they walk the last several hundred yards to the border. Her whole body aches with the journey. Every muscle burns numb and she knows Mercy mustn’t be faring much better; she isn’t sure how strong Mercy is, but the Priestess doesn’t seem the type who has struggled for much in life. Probing glances at her hands have revealed long, delicate fingers, unmarred by toil.

The sun just kisses the horizon when Fareeha draws Silas to a halt and slides off his back stiffly. Gathering their firewood off Silas’ saddle, she goes about lighting their fire while Mercy slips off her horse. The kindling is easy to light, catching sparks with dry fingers; Fareeha blows steadily on the tiny fire until it blooms like a red flower, licking the wood hungrily.

With the fire lit, they start building their camp. The lack of rain means they don’t need shelters. Instead they unsaddle their horses, brush them, and settle their sleeping sacs out beside the fire. Fareeha says nothing, keeping her mind occupied with the tasks at hand, and the path they will take come the dawn. Fareeha knows that Mercy went west to go east, spanning the world from the opposite direction to where they are going. The quickest way to the western lands, known as Ljosalfheim, is along the trade routes; around the forest to the port town of Razad. From there, Fareeha is confident she could buy their passage onto a ship to take them to Ljosalfheim, or even have Mercy use her status as a Pale Priestess to secure them a cabin.

“Pharah?” Mercy’s voice jerks her from her thoughts. She looks up, eyebrow arching in question as Mercy fiddles nervously with her fingers. Her lips part slightly and Fareeha has a brutal flashback to how that cool mouth felt against her own.

Shaking the memory away, Fareeha falls into a sitting position beside the fire, gesturing across the flames for Mercy to sit. She does so. Her white cloak is stark against the sand as the sun brushes its light against her pale skin. Fareeha has to admit that Mercy is beautiful.

“You know we are going to Ljosalfheim?” Mercy asks. Fareeha nods once.

“I recall you saying so. Yes.”

Mercy shifts slightly, lips pursing for a moment. “I would like to hear your thoughts on taking a stop in Axis Mundi, and its library.”

Fareeha takes a moment to reset their course. Rather than going around the forest as she had wanted, they would have to go through it, heading south west. It would lengthen their journey by more than a few weeks - rather than six months, Fareeha knows it would amount up to a year or more with great ease, depending on the weather and how much time the Priestess spent in the Axis library. It is a long journey, full of peril, and Fareeha finds herself wondering why the Priestess would ever want to go that far.

“Your thoughts?” Mercy says pointedly. Fareeha looks up from the fire, brow furrowed.

“Those do not matter, my lady,” Fareeha replies, “you are a Priestess. It is my duty to take you where you wish and to defend you.”

Mercy draws herself upwards like some lioness. Her gaze is sharp, flinty, with something like displeasure. Fareeha stays very still, wondering how she angered her charge and how best to rectify it.

“Is that why you’ve been so quiet?” Mercy exhales slowly, then she gets to her feet and walks to her saddle. Fareeha watches mutely as she pulls out several sheets of lambskin parchment, as well as crumpled letters and a single, shimmering dagger. Mercy returns to the fire, sitting right beside her, knee pressed to knee as she lays her papers over her lap. The lambskins turn out to be maps; Fareeha briefly sees the three-pointed star of her temple home before Mercy covers it with what looks like a letter. Fareeha reads one word before Mercy starts speaking again - Overwatch.

“I want us to start over.” She prods the fire and it laps happily at her stick. “I’m a priestess, not a noblewoman and I want you and I to be friends, rather than bound by duty. Is that clear?”

“My lady-” Fareeha begins.

“Angela.” A thin hand rests itself lightly on Fareeha’s arm. Mercy is smiling slightly. “My name is Angela Ziegler.”

Taken aback, Fareeha doesn’t quite know what to say. Instead she stares dumbly as Mercy extends her hand, wiggling her fingers with a small grin which reveals extremely white teeth. Fareeha looks down at the hand, then back into Mercy’s face. She sees no mocking, or any hint of trickery; instead she sees only a fierce light which speaks of joy and hope. So she takes the hand, shaking it firmly.

“My mother called me Fareeha Amari.”

“Ana Amari?” Angela’s eyes widen in surprise. Fareeha drops her hand lamely to her side, and sinks her fingers into the sand. The grit is soothing against her skin, familiar and warm with the day.

Fareeha nods. “She was captain of my Chapter before me. A bow woman, famed for her ability to shoot and ride. They called her Ana the Talon. I took her sigil when she did not return from the west.”

Angela bows her head. “I knew her.”

Dusk has fallen fast around them. The first blossoming star gazes down upon them as Fareeha struggles to compose herself while Angela turns fully to face her. Her legs are crossed neatly, her papers crumpled and forgotten in her lap as she reaches out and takes both of Fareeha’s hands in hers.

“She was very brave.” Angela says, smiling sadly. “I served with her during the war.”

“War?” Fareeha makes herself say the word, ears ringing. She didn’t know about any war. She knew only that the west meant death for Argans like her.

“Ten years ago there was a Magitorium uprising.” Blue eyes skirt away, fixing on the ground between them as long fingers tighten around hers. “Their constructs attacked the mainland, so the world’s greatest warriors were called to fight. Your mother was one of them.” Angela sighs sadly. “She didn’t make it. I’m sorry.”

Fareeha wrestles with several emotions at once; anger and resentment, but also relief and grief. She had always hated that her mother had left her behind to serve a thousand miles away, always felt second best, from the moment Ana had rested a hand on her shoulder and told her to wait for her. But knowing her fate, and that she would not be returning, meant that Fareeha could breathe easy. She didn’t have to wait anymore. She didn’t have to search the horizon for Ana’s red horse and the falcon feathers in her hair.

“Thank you,” she murmurs. “It is… reassuring to know that my mother rides in the stars.”

She gets to her feet, fetching her sword from her saddle, and settles a little distance away from the camp to pray. Drawing Raptora with the bright sound of metal on metal, she rests both scabbard and sword in the dust before her, sitting cross legged and facing the setting sun. Mercy, or Angela, or whatever she wants to be called, knows better than to disturb her as she closes her eyes and feels the last tendrils of warmth against her face. She hears the Priestess singing softly in her harsh, strange tongue, her boots crunching against the sand as she fetches kettle and water for tea.

Inhaling deeply, Fareeha sets her mind aside and allows the world to fade from her awareness, welcoming the calm haze of prayer. Privately, she asks the God for guidance and safety on the road, and hopes that her mother has good hunting in the stars. Finally, she prays for the dawn, as is custom, imagining the sun rising in the west; the shimmering hub of light breaching the rolling dunes, blessing all with its warmth and goodness, driving away the darkness of the night. In that brief image of the sun rising, Fareeha sees the Priestess, mounted on her horse, silhouetted, dark on light, her white cloak blazing out behind her.

Angela offers her a small steaming mug of tea when she returns to the fireside. She takes it gratefully, sipping slowly and thanking her. Angela smiles, and goes back to her maps, laying them carefully out over the sand, humming.

“You don’t mind if we go to Axis, then?” Angela asks.

Fareeha shakes her head, shuffling to her side to stare down at her maps. “If we head south west, we will make good time.” She indicates several dots amongst the green of Shala’Zor. “These villages are quiet, and protected by a group known as the Marguey. According to legend, they ride giant cats through the trees. Armoured by enchanted bark, they are fierce enemies.”

“Giant cats?” Angela has a hint of a smile in her voice. Fareeha glances at her, raising one eyebrow.

“Fierce creatures which scale the trees as easily as a horse gallops across the land.” Fareeha nods to the wall of trees facing them. “The deeper we go, the darker it gets, and the taller the trees. In its midst, the forest stands as tall as a mountain.”

Angela laughs merrily, folding her hands comfortably around her mug. The coolness of the dusk is settling around them, and Fareeha notices how Angela curls into her cloak more. She shuffles closer to the fire, allowing the flames to soothe her.

“Next, you’ll be saying there are dragons in these woods.”

Fareeha smiles briefly. “No dragons. But snakes so big they can eat a horse whole.”

“Oh,” Angela shivers. “I don’t particularly like snakes. They, mm. What’s the word in Argan?”

“Scare you?”

Angela shakes her head, one thin finger tapping her chin in thought. Fareeha waits patiently, wondering if she was searching for the word in the Westerling tongue, or another language. She knew Westerling, the speech of the Ljosalfheim. Asad had taught her it after her mother had gone away, on her orders, to hear him tell it.

“They disgust me.” Angela says at last, the word ‘disgust’ spoken in Westerling. Fareeha feels herself smile more easily.

“Why? They are creatures like any other.” She replies in kind, to Angela’s apparent delight. Her eyes brighten, and she rests a hand on Fareeha’s forearm in surprise.

“I didn’t know you knew how to speak Westerling!”

“It is something often overlooked, and has proven useful.” Fareeha shrugs. “When clients come to ask for our aid, they speak such. If they don’t know we understand, they say things they might not otherwise.”

Prodding the fire, Angela regards her, lips pressed together as she considers her intently. Fareeha restrains the urge to shift under the weight of her gaze, instead glancing around them to make sure they are alone. Nothing stirs, save the leaves on some of the trees near them, and a small fennec fox’s eyes glow bright as it glances towards them.

“Brave, wise, and intelligent.” Angela says finally in Argan. Fareeha glances at her to see her smiling happily as she continues. “Your Chapter chose their captain well.”

“It was more to do with my mother.” Fareeha replies. The old discomfort of duty weighs heavily on her shoulders. She sips some tea, glad for the distraction. It is too hot, but she gulps it down anyway.

“How so?” The question is probing, but spoken idly, as though Angela doesn’t care either way. Fareeha notes the curiosity in her eyes, though, and the angle of her body. She is facing towards her, open and close.

“My mother was a great woman,” Fareeha answers honestly. “I should like to uphold her legacy, and my family’s legacy. The Amari have been Arga’s defenders since its formation.”

A pale laugh bubbles up her throat, and she lets it out, shaking her head. She doesn’t look at Angela. She doesn’t want to see the pity in her gaze; she can feel it, scorching the side of her face. So, she takes another sip of tea.

“What about your family?” Fareeha says eventually.

“They died.”

Angela disappears behind her mug for a moment, before reappearing. They catch each other’s gaze, a small smile twitching across the priestess’s face.

“I was four. Some lord or other raided our village and killed my father. Raped my mother, no doubt. They’re both gone, now. I was lucky not to be picked up by a slaving ring - instead the Pale found me, clutching some doll and running down a muddy road, naked. Or, that’s what they tell me. I don’t remember it very well.”

“I’m sorry.” Fareeha feels compelled to say. The words sound awkward between them.

Angela laughs, and pats her thigh. “Don’t be. I’m not. The Stars guided the Pale to me, and here I am. A dutiful servant. It’s why I’m out here, with you.”

“And why are you out here?”

Another thigh pat, and Angela heaves a sigh. “I can’t tell you that. Not yet. Let us get to Axis first, and then I can be more forthcoming with you.” She finishes her tea, sets the mug aside, and stretches with a yawn.

Fareeha plucks both empty mugs up and tidies them away, securing her sword to her saddle. The stars are bright above them, wheeling overhead. Fareeha can almost feel her mother’s gaze as she sets about getting comfortable against her saddle.

“I’ll take first watch,” she says. Angela puts up a weak protest, but finally concedes, tucking herself into her sleeping sack with another yawn.

“Wake me up when you get tired.” Angela manages to say. Fareeha nods, and rests her head back against worn leather, staring blindly upwards. In the distance, she hears a fox scream, the tired snort of Angela’s horse. They are safe, for now.

Chapter Text

They break their fast on cooked sausages and cool water. The morning is sleepy; a fine mist has settled over the Dead Lands, dusting every dry leaf and brittle branch of the scrub with dew. Fareeha has seen it before, and she pays it little mind as she leans idly over one of Angela’s maps, chewing mechanically. She wants to be as close to the nearest settlement as possible before dark, not liking the idea of camping in the perpetual dusk under the trees. Her finger rests idly over a small dot labelled Atdal, eyes narrow as she follows the winding blue line of the river Klorc. It leads straight out to the sea.

Wondering if perhaps it would be easier to sail around the bulk of the forest, despite how long that may take with the summer storms, Fareeha turns to find Angela gazing, misty eyed, at the rising sun.

At the sound of her name Angela turns, blinking quickly and pulling her ever-present cloak tighter around her shoulders. She offers Fareeha a watery smile.

“You must think I’m silly,” she says, wiping her eye with a knuckle. “It’s just so beautiful here.”

A glance at some sun-bleached bones sticking out of the sand a few meters away makes Fareeha doubt that the word ‘beautiful’ applies to the Dead Lands, but she decides to humour the priestess and nods.

“The God provides in all Their places.” She bundles the maps away, tucking them into her belt as she rises to her feet. “We should make a move. I want to be near the closest village by dusk.”

Angela nods. With a quick scrape of her boot the fire is extinguished, and they are soon mounting up, sleeping sacks rolled onto their saddles and horses watered. Silas huffs, pawing the earth as Fareeha does a final sweep of the camp. Satisfied they haven’t left anything behind, she urges Silas along the border, looking for the path. Angela rides beside her, singing quietly, her face tilted towards the pale blue sky.

They continue in this manner for almost an hour. Fareeha scours the ground, Silas picking his way over fallen branches and bushes delicately while Angela sings, her voice gaining in strength as she gains confidence. Some of the words Fareeha understands; it is not the Westerling tongue, but something rougher, possibly Staturi from the Northlands. She catches ‘river’ and ‘stars’, and the rest is nonsense. All the same, she can’t help but hum along with the priestess, finding the tune is catchy and heartening, similar to a mulled wine after a long day.

“I could teach you the words, if you like.” Angela says finally. Fareeha smiles tightly, catching sight of a limp sign post.

“I don’t sing.” She replies, and she pushes Silas into a faster walk. Angela follows easily, keeping apace with her.

“Everyone can sing.” Angela sounds adamant, and they draw to a halt. The signpost is made of carved wood, the glyphs embedded there reading Atdal. Fareeha peers into the gloom beyond, noting that the path is wide enough for two horses to ride abreast, and continues in a single straight line. Useful for them; there would be no corners for highwaymen to hide behind.

Steering Silas into the forest, Fareeha laughs and shakes her head. “You’ve met someone who doesn’t. I only sing in prayer to the God. And even then, I only sing alone.”

“You must tell me about your God.” Angela keeps her horse beside Fareeha’s. Her cloak practically glows as they are swallowed by the trees, dapples of sunlight lighting their way from above. A glance further down the road shows a deeper darkness, unhindered by sunlight or torch.

“What is there to know?” Fareeha lets Silas have the rein, pulling off her riding gloves and tucking them into her belt. She fetches herself a crisp apple, offering another to Angela – the priestess takes it with a smile of thanks, and continues.

“Everything. Who are they? Why do you call them ‘They’? Aren’t they a ‘Him’ or a ‘She’?”

Rubbing her apple on her cloak, Fareeha shrugs. “The God doesn’t need a gender. They are eternal. They are genderless as the sun, or the moon. They just are.”

“In the West, the sun and the moon are male and female respectively.”

Fareeha raises an eyebrow at Angela, then laughs and shakes her head, marvelling at the strangeness of the Westerlings. Who ever heard of a sun and a moon having a gender. She says as much, at which Angela chuckles, and admits it sounds stupid.

“They’re lights in the sky.” Fareeha says. “They give us Light, but the God does too. They are the fire in the night, or the brilliance of love. They’re every star and every moon in the universe. And every sun too.”

“But what about balance?”

Fareeha shrugs, crunching into her apple. It is sweet, the juice exploding against her lips as she takes another bite, eating it with relish. Refreshing and good, the apple refreshes her in the depressing dark of the trees.

“Who needs balance? We have changers in our temple – Asad and Leif are those. Whatever hangs between your legs doesn’t change who you are.” She brushes a speck of dust off her next bite. “We have people like the God too. A good number of our people are like that. Balance is where you want to see it. Not dictated by two lights in the sky.”

Angela chews thoughtfully, brow furrowed in thought. Fareeha lets her have her silence, finishing her apple and offering the core to Silas. He eats it, flanks expanding as he heaves a heavy sigh. A quick glance behind her shows the faint yawn of the entrance, growing narrower and narrower with every step; she briefly considers picking up their pace, but the thought of being followed dissuades her. Slow and steady would be their course. Besides, it gives her a prickle of unease when she realises she cannot tell night from day.

They continue in silence for a while. Conversation seems cowed in the quiet under the trees. There are no birds, and no sign of any other animals, even as they draw further and further into the forest. Dry leaves crunch under their horses’ footsteps, and Fareeha finds herself missing Angela’s singing. At least it had been something to listen to, other than imagined footsteps and the faint beating of her heart.

Eventually Angela draws a leather-bound book from one of her saddlebags and opens it in the middle, squinting in the perpetual dusk. Fareeha sighs, and unhooks a lamp from her saddle, setting it on the lap and fetching her flint and steel from a pocket. The fresh candle cradled in the cup of glass sparks to life easily, illuminating the world around them with surprising strength. Satisfied, Fareeha leans to Angela’s horse, hanging the lamp delicately from her saddle horn.

“Oh, thank you.”

Fareeha feels herself smile. She shakes her head, “It is nothing. My old physician used to warn against reading in dim light.”

“And why was that?”

“Turns you blind, apparently.”

Angela laughs happily, smiling kindly as Fareeha feels herself blush. Finding herself slightly befuddled, Fareeha clears her throat, trying to ignore how the light makes Angela’s eyes dance, or the way her teeth dig into her lower lip just before she’s about to speak.

“I have a Barren Knight defending my life and protecting my eyesight. By the Dawn, I am lucky.” Angela chuckles again and Fareeha quashes her own mirth.

“It’s my job, my lady.” She says instead, sounding so morose she even surprises herself. Angela reveals very white teeth in a small grin. Then she leans over and swats Fareeha’s arm lightly.

“Don’t call me ‘lady’. It makes me feel old.”

“Of course, my lady.”

“Stop!”

Fareeha finally allows herself to laugh. Angela is pouting, tilting her nose upwards as she pushes her horse forward, setting a faster pace. Silas keeps up easily and Fareeha admires the way Angela’s cloak blazes out behind her as it catches the wind, white and blinding as the sun, it is a beacon in the grim dim under the trees.

“I will have to add ‘tease’ to my list.” Angela murmurs under her breath, examining her apple and settling deeper into her saddle to read.

“You have a list?”

Angela taps the side of her nose, winking and smiling sweetly. “Maybe.”

Cheeks still uncomfortably warm, Fareeha swallows and turns her attention back down the path. They are coming to a fork in the road; another sign looms before them, one arrow brutally torn in half, what look like claw marks marring the post. Drawing Silas to a halt, Fareeha rubs her mouth, eyeing the ruts driven deep into the wood with some trepidation. Whatever made those is big enough to cause some concern. She is about to say as much, when Angela grabs her arm tightly.

Her words die in her throat, her hand going immediately to her bow and quiver, drawing them silently. Ears pricked, she skilfully strings her bow, using her stirrup to bend the wood as she steers Silas around with the other foot. The silence is absolute; not even the trees whisper. The path is empty and they are quite alone, Fareeha represses the urge to shout out, instead drawing an arrow and carefully arming her bow. At her side, Angela has drawn her staff - her hands clutch it in a white knuckled grip as she stares wide-eyed into the wall of wood surrounding them.

They both stay absolutely still. Every muscle in her body is poised, ready to strike. Not even her feet are relaxed - instead they are resting very slightly against Silas’ flanks as though about to spur him into a charge. The horse can feel the tension, and he paws the earth, pulling at the reins.

“There,” Angela breathes, indicating a gap between the trunks several yards away. Fareeha looks, heart leaping up her throat when she sees a pair of shining yellow eyes reflecting the light from their lamp.

She doesn’t have time to think. The creature explodes out of the dark - foul and huge, as big as a bear, all lacerated flesh and burning, soulless eyes. Fareeha lets her arrow fly, and Silas charges forward, braying bravely as they gallop forwards. The arrow finds its mark, burying itself deep into the creature’s eye. With a scream which makes the hairs on the back of Fareeha’s head stand on end, it lumbers aside, giving her time to draw Raptora and howl a war cry.

“For Arga!”

Raptora is alive in her hands as she urges Silas forwards; the fine steel slices through fur and flesh as easily as a hot knife through butter, black blood bursting all over Silas’ flank. She ignores the stench of it - like rotten meat - and wheels her horse around for another attack.

The creature rears up onto its hind legs. It is huge, at least twelve feet tall. Foot long fangs scythe down from its upper jaw, enormous claws bearing down on her as it swipes at her. She feels her hair flutter as its paw passes, Silas dancing aside as she shoves her boot into his flank just in time. The ground shakes when it lands on all fours, jaws opening in a snarl. Fareeha snarls back, drawing her heels against Silas’ sides. He follows her command, backing away from the creature and pawing the earth in challenge.

Its remaining eye is like a portal to hell. Burning with fire, bright and cruel, Fareeha feels as though she is being sucked into it as she stares. Frozen, horrified, feeling her heart thundering madly in her head, she is unable to look away from the beast. Black fur barely hides the corpse beneath; the pale white of a skull glancing through as the creature opens its jaws into an ear-splitting roar, before wheeling around and charging with surprising speed towards Angela.

With a mixture of desperation and fear, Fareeha does something she would reflect on being either very brave, or very stupid. Seeing Angela’s horse rear and panic, she barks an order, sending Silas galloping forward as she jumps up onto her saddle, balancing with Raptora clutched in one hand.

With a wordless cry she makes a wild leap, soaring through the air like the feathered sigil of her house, and lands squarely on the beast’s back. It gives a scream, twisting its head as though to catch her leg in its mouth, but she is too quick. She plunges Raptora downwards through its skull. The blade sinks through flesh and bone, driving the beast to the earth. She wrenches the sword upwards and stabs downwards again, and again, and again, the sounds of the dying beast ear splitting and agonising; it’s all she can do not to clench her hands over her ears and scream along with it.

“Fareeha!”

She buries the sword into the creature’s eye one last time, and then staggers away, covered head to foot in stinking blood. She spits some of it out onto the ground, shuddering in disgust, feeling her gorge rise at the stench of it. Rotting meat, and filth, and the sickening musk of urine assault her senses as the creature lays bleeding before her.

“Well done.”

Fareeha wheels around, wrenching her dagger out of her belt, ready to fight again.

Standing before her are three giant cats, armoured in bark and mounted by cloaked riders. At their front stands their apparent leader, her hood pulled down over her shoulders. Her face is angular, eyes as narrow as her steed’s as she examines the scene before her.

“You killed one.” She says.

Fareeha nods, and she hears Angela’s footsteps approach from behind. She catches her with her arm, keeping her securely behind her, eyes darting around, looking for more burning eyes, and finding the silver weaponry of the riders before them. The Marguey.

“Speak quickly. Who are you? What are you doing in Shala’Zor?” Their leader says. Her spotted steed shakes its great head. Fareeha glimpses dagger-like teeth from between black lips.

Angela speaks up, her voice shaking slightly as her thin hand finds Fareeha’s and clutches it tightly, “I am Mercy, from the Pale. This is my Sworn Sword, Pharah. We are travelling to Axis Mundi to the library there.”

“Shala’Zor’s borders are closed. You are not welcome here.”

“We have no choice. We travel from Arga, and the Qriln Sea is too rough for boat travel.” Angela’s grip on her hand has not lessened. Indeed, Fareeha finds herself grasping it in return, tangling their fingers together, sticky with blood.

The Marguey are watching them silently. Then their leader sighs, looking beyond them to the dead creature. Fareeha glances back, eyes trailing over the hunched shoulders and black blood, her arrow sticking bravely out of its head, Raptora glimmering off the lamp’s light still hooked to Angela’s saddle.

“My name is Yeisa. My Outriders and I will lead you to the closest village.”

“Atdal?” Fareeha asks, turning to face Yeisa. Yeisa’s face shutters, her mouth pressing into a thin line.

“Atdal is gone. Destroyed by the demons. We will be taking you to the treetop city of Ashrah.”

Fareeha doesn’t know of any Ashrah, but at mention of demons she feels her heart leap up her throat. Angela’s sharp inhale of breath confirms her fears. Demons can only mean one thing; a Gate has been opened. She knows only a little about Gates; that they had been closed long ago by heroes forgotten by time, and that when opened, they unleash the demons of the Otherworld into their realm.

She glances back at the slain demon, then strides to it and wrenches Raptora from its head. At once the corpse disintegrates, sinking into the earth and leaving nothing except its bones behind.

Repressing the urge to be sick, Fareeha turns her attention back to the Marguey. “How do we get to this village?”

Yeisa clicks her tongue, and another of their cat creatures merges out of the treeline, saddled and ready for them.

“You will ride Nee’Sah. She will take you to Ashrah - we will take your horses somewhere safe so you can collect them in the morning.” Yeisa’s mouth quirks unhappily at the corner. “I suggest you wash that blood off you. It will burn you if you leave it touching your skin.”

Fareeha wipes Raptora on the leaves below, lip curling in disgust before she sheathes it easily. Angela hovers at her side, peering at her searchingly. They share a look - Fareeha raises her brow in question, asking the only thing that matters: trust these strangers, or go it alone?

Angela dips her head, and turns to Yeisa. “Thank you. We will take your advice and your Nee’Sah. I ask only that our provisions be brought with us.”

Yeisa waves a hand. “You need not worry about that. Your horses are safe with us. Now, we must move quickly. Where one demon goes, the others will follow.”

Sensing the urgency, Fareeha strides to the cat creature, glancing up onto its narrow back and experiencing a vague wonder of how it would support her weight. But she dismisses the thought, kneeling and offering Angela a leg up. She takes it gratefully, a hand pressing into her shoulder as she hoists herself upwards and settles herself easily onto Nee’Sah’s back. Fareeha follows her, sitting behind her. The saddle is narrower than any horse saddle, and made of a thinner leather than she is used to. They are pressed together; front against back, and Fareeha is suddenly very aware of how much the demon blood stinks.

Angela leans forward, her hands curling into a pair of handholds at the very front of the saddle. Fareeha follows her example, trying to ignore the softness of her body beneath hers as she folds her fingers over Angela’s.

She catches one last glance of the Marguey leading their horses away before Yeisa utters a word, and Nee’Sah is off, released like an arrow from a bow. She shoots through the trees, making barely a sound as they speed away from the path and into the dark. The wind stings her eyes, so much so that she has to press her face into the space between Angela’s shoulder blades, breathing in her clean scent.

It is nothing like riding a horse. There is barely any movement; they could have been flying for all she knows. The cat’s gallop is so smooth, and so agile, she finds herself feeling vaguely envious - horses are so rough.

That is, until the cat makes an impressive leap, bouncing up onto the trees and leaping from trunk to trunk, drawing them both up into the treetops. Risking a glance upwards, Fareeha sees glimpses of daylight; here and there birds take flight, squawking indignantly as the enormous cat crashes through their nests. She thinks she hears Angela laughing, but she ignores it, instead feeling their fingers tangle together again. She clutches on for dear life, shutting her eyes and asking the God to end this.

Finally, just as Fareeha is starting to feel slightly sick, Nee’Sah makes one final leap, and lands on what seems to be flat ground. Fareeha opens her eyes, and feels her breath catch in her throat. There, in the treetops of Shala’Zor forest, sits the most obscure city she has ever seen.

Carved into the gigantic trunks, and linked by swaying bridges and carved branches, sits Ashrah. Here and there people are going about their business, sunlight slanting through the leaves. Lamps with fireflies buzzing in them illuminate the darkest of spaces. Nee’Sah treads soundlessly along the narrow walkway, bark armour creaking as they pass the dark huddles of huts grown into the very tree branches themselves, roofed by leaves and protected by doors made of engraved wood.

Fareeha takes it in with awe, and sits back in the saddle, wondering how such a place could have been created.

Chapter Text

“I can’t get it out.”

Fareeha is standing nervously on a net, cold water coursing down her back as she stares down at the forest floor. Protected on all sides by panels of beautifully carved wood, depicting cat riders and their steeds, she isn’t worried about Angela seeing her. Rather she wiggles her toes, peering between the gaps in the woven rope; she isn’t concerned with heights, but the thought of plummeting naked to the ground a hundred metres down doesn’t fill her with joy. Her hair sticks to her face, the heavy golden beads on her braids swaying in front of her as she tries to wash black blood off her skin.

“Are you sure?” Angela’s voice sounds from just on the other side of the panels.

Scrubbing her skin with a brush, Fareeha shakes her head and sighs. The blood has stained her skin like ink, forming splatter patterns to her elbows, the dark marks dying her fingers and nails.

“Perhaps it will fade,” she replies half-heartedly. “Most of it is gone. And it doesn’t smell anymore.”

She sets about washing her hair with tallow soap which smells of some forest herb she doesn’t know. It is a sweet scent; a relief from the decaying stench of the demon. “What of my sword? Does the blood come out of it?”

She hears wood creak, and the tell-tale slide of a sword. She imagines Angela holding Raptora upright, examining the blade and the inscription engraved there. The Stars My Destination; a vow to return to the stars once her duty is complete, when death finally comes to her. Her mother had lived and died by their family’s words. Fareeha hopes only to do the same.

“Your sword is clean.” Angela says, and Fareeha hears Raptora returning to its home. Relieved, Fareeha rinses her hair and reaches up, tipping the bucket upright so the flow of water stops before she grabs a large section of cloth to dry herself.

The Marguey captain, Yeisa, had arrived shortly after they had, instructing the villagers of Ashrah to provide food, a place to sleep and clean clothes for them both. Everything had been provided, and Fareeha had been expected to wash and dress properly before they were invited to dinner; what would no doubt be a political affair. Fareeha is not looking forward to the dinner. Her body aches, residual fear of losing Angela and fighting the demon leaving its mark in the way of exhaustion.

However, she knows better than to refuse a leader. So, she finds the loose, cool clothes the people of Ashrah had loaned her, and pulls them on; cloth trousers and a blue blouse rest comfortably against her skin. She smooths down the front, inhales deeply, and steps out from behind the panelling.

Angela is settled on a seat beside their window, peering out into the foliage. Raptora rests on her lap, sheathed and attached to Fareeha’s belt. Knowing better than to disturb her, Fareeha trots to one of the two separate beds they were provided with, settling on its edge and pulling on her boots. The familiar texture of subtle leather is a comfort to her, and she happily tucks her trousers into the cuffs, making them as neat as possible.

“Fareeha.”

She looks up. Angela is standing before her, holding out her belt and sword. She looks troubled, her lower lip pulled in between her teeth; Fareeha gets to her feet, taking her belt and strapping it around her waist. Raptora hangs heavily off her hip, its weight a further comfort.

“What’s wrong?” She asks, studying the way Angela’s eyes pinch at the corners, her narrow eyebrows pulling into a frown.

“We have to help these people.”

Fareeha fiddles with the buckle on her belt, making sure it is secure. The prospect of fighting more demons does not fill her with glee. She recalls, briefly, and in terrible detail, the burning eyes of her last foe. She has never seen so much anger and hate in a creature before; it doesn’t scare her, but she cannot help but feel a certain, terrible kinship with it. How many times had she succumb to anger? How many times had she hated the west for taking her mother away?

“What do you propose we do?” She asks instead. Angela strides to the small table sat by the window, her cloak fluttering in her urgency. With a snap of parchment, she opens another map, spreading it across the table quickly and brushing the other rolls aside onto the floor. Her movements are feverish, her accent coming through stronger as Argan trips off her tongue.

“I was looking through the maps while you washed and I think I know where the demons are coming from.”

Fareeha hastens to her side. Angela’s finger is resting on a small upside down triangle, labelled simply with the Argan glyph for ‘death’. She snorts with mirth, straightening and shaking her head. Angela looks around her, her expression disbelieving.

“The demons would come from somewhere called ‘death’, wouldn’t they?”

Angela sighs. “People aren’t inventive when they’re afraid. That’s beside the point. Look, it’s only a few miles north of Atdal.”

“The Marguey won’t be pleased with us treading on their territory.” Fareeha heads to her saddle bag, which is set neatly beside the bed, and starts rooting around in it, searching through her packs of clothes until she finds her cloak of office. The blue fabric unfurls easily as she draws it out of her bag. She shakes it free, eyeing the falcon sigil emblazoned in gold on its back.

“I couldn’t care less if the Marguey curse us for helping them.” Angela’s voice is fierce, much to Fareeha’s surprise. She turns on her heel to look at the priestess, taken aback at the anger writ across her face. “These people are innocent, and they’re in danger.”

“The Marguey can look after their own people. It’s not our place to get involved.”

Angela slams her palm into the table top, upsetting a mug of water. “It is our place! I am a Priestess of the Pale! I swore to protect the common people. These forest dwellers can’t live their lives in the trees forever!”

Completely blindsided by the fury in Angela’s eyes, Fareeha stands dumbly, unsure what to do or what to say. Instead she watches as Angela gathers herself, righting the mug and brushing the water off their maps. She leans over the table, brushing her fingers through her hair and exhaling slowly, murmuring in her strange tongue which is neither Argan or Westerling.

Hanging her cloak over her arm, Fareeha approaches Angela slowly, resting a hand on her shoulder. Angela glances up at her.

“Am I wrong in this?” Angela murmurs softly, seeking something Fareeha cannot name as they search each other’s gaze. Fareeha squeezes her shoulder gently.

“Let us talk to the Marguey first. See what they say. If they give us permission, we can help them rid their forest of demons. If they don’t, we should head for Axis.” Fareeha offers Angela a small smile. “You aren’t wrong. I want to help too. But people in the East are their own people. We must not meddle in affairs that are not our own. The Marguey will not thank us if we interfere. They have their own way of doing things.”

Angela inclines her head in understanding, then gets to her feet. They stand chest to chest; Fareeha takes a hasty step backwards, unfurling her cloak. Wordlessly, Angela takes it from her, sweeping it gracefully around Fareeha’s shoulders before she can protest. Fareeha lets her, lifting her head so Angela can pin the cloak closed, wondering privately if Angela understands the meaning of the action.

How could she, Fareeha thinks, ignoring the sensation of Angela’s hands smoothing her cloak over her shoulders to ensure it sits neatly. Angela is a Westerling, ignorant in the ways of the East. If she knew, she would never have done something so intimate. To claim Fareeha as her own.

Feeling uncomfortably warm, Fareeha strides to the door, sweeping it open as Angela grasps her staff.

“Shall we?”

Angela walks past her, out onto the open. Fareeha follows her, closing the door behind them both.

 


 

 

The banquet hall is so impressive, Fareeha is reluctant to touch anything for fear she might break it. Constructed from the very branches of the trees which hold them, the hall stretches long enough to accommodate the entire village. Seven long tables are full to bursting with dishes and dishes of delicious food, wine and ale as Ashrah’s people eat and drink their fill, laughing and talking easily under the continuous melodies played by both men and women secluded in one corner.

Fareeha and Angela have the seats of highest honour. Sat in the very middle of the highest table, which overlooks the hall, they dine quietly beside the Marguey captain, a thin man who introduced himself as the town’s Farak - a leader of some description - and the healer, known only as Kin. Together, they name themselves the Triumvirate. Angela is sat neatly on the left side of the captain, deep in conversation with all three proclaimed leaders of Ashrah while Fareeha breaks her bread and eats her soup in silence.

“We can help,” Angela is saying. “I can heal your warriors, and Pharah can fight as well as any man. She is a Barren Knight - I vouch for her as though she were my own kin.”

Yeisa takes a sip of wine through her thin mouth, narrow green eyes fixed determinedly ahead, not looking at either Angela or her companions. The Farak is fiddling nervously with a thin chain around his neck, while Kin has their fingers steepled in front of them, listening intently.

“We have a healer.” Yeisa grits out. “We don’t need some Westerling getting involved.” Fareeha takes note of the tightness in her jaw, and amuses herself with the thought of her teeth snapping under the strain. She mislikes the disrespectful tone Yeisa is using to address Angela.

“Forgive me, Captain,” Angela entreats with much more dignity, “but I am not some hedge healer. I am a priestess from the Pale.”

“You’re still a Westerling.” Yeisa snaps. Her goblet slams onto the table so hard wine spills over the lip. “You have no right to this. My warriors are quite capable on their own.”

The Farak clears his throat weakly and speaks with a stammer. “The Cuh-Captain is quite ruh-r-right. Yuh-you had b-b-buh-best be on your w-wuh-way.”

“How long have the demons been running wild through your forest?” Fareeha chips in, sensing the imminent explosion next to her as Angela’s grip tightens on the edge of the table. Gentle and kind though Angela may be, the same righteous light of fury she had displayed earlier is blazing in her eyes.

“Six m-muh-months.” The Farak replies. His fingers slip on his chain and his throat bobs. He hasn’t touched his food, which is steadily going cold. “The a-attacks stuh-started six m-months ago.”

Fareeha wraps her fingers idly around her goblet. “How many villages have your people lost?”

The Farak lowers his eyes, Yeisa scowls ahead mutely and Kin murmurs softly in answer, their voice so quiet, Fareeha barely hears them over the music, “Ashrah is the last village standing.”

Angela bows her head sadly. Worries confirmed, Fareeha takes a sip of her wine, savouring the fruity flavour and the savage punch of alcohol as she swallows. The situation is as bad as she had suspected, and she knows Yeisa’s pride is doing nothing except destroying what little remains of their people. Given the chance, Fareeha would have suggested falling back to Arga, and summoning the rest of her Knights to deal with the demons once and for all.

But she knows they do not have the time. Under the merriment, and the loaded tables, Fareeha can see panic in the people’s eyes. The laughter rings a little too loud, and the music does not conceal the low, urgent huddles of people gathered around corners of the hall.

She places her mug down carefully, inhales deeply, and addresses the Triumvirate in their own language.

“You are losing this war. And this is a war. You have fallen to your final outpost.” She ignores the surprised looks they throw her way, instead watching a small boy clutch his mother’s arm. “We can help you. Do not let your people suffer for your pride. I should not need to list the triumphs of our orders; you know how the Barrens aided the Marguey in ages past, and how the Pale vanquished the Val’ayre four hundred years ago. Time has not diminished those battles.” She lifts her blood-stained hand for them to inspect, still not looking directly at them. She can feel their gaze. “I fought one. Killed one. That should be enough for you to take our offer of aid.”

“We are not dogs who beg for help from the likes of you.” Yeisa replies shortly. But Kin rests their hand on her arm, silencing further protest.

“You speak truly. And in our tongue.” They say. There is a pause while Kin considers their next words. Yeisa and the Farak watch them, apparently with baited breath. Then, Kin speaks gently, switching to Argan. “We will think upon your offer, Knight. The evening draws close. I entreat you to enjoy the rest of your meals.”

Kin gets to their feet, chair scraping back against the wooden floor. They gesture to the others, and the rest of the Triumvirate follow; Yeisa shoves her chair into the table so roughly the entire thing jolts forward. She stalks away after her fellows, straight backed and furious. The Farak stutters out an apology before hurrying away, his robes making him look slightly absurd as he practically runs out of the hall.

Fareeha sips her wine coolly. Angela turns to her, expression a mixture of elation and surprise.

“What did you say?” Angela asks.

Fareeha laughs softly, shrugging and dipping some bread into her still warm soup as she speaks, “I reminded them of who we are. We aren’t peasants, Angela. We are Knight and Priestess both. Those titles carry weight. Besides, we should help them. They’re dying.”

Suddenly, she has a face full of blonde hair and a pair of arms tightening around her neck. Angela had leapt from her chair, embracing her tightly and leaning precariously over her. Fareeha steadies herself, blinking owlishly as her heart lodges itself in her throat like a cuckoo, throbbing and squawking.

“Thank you,” Angela breathes in her ear, and she places a small kiss right on Fareeha’s cheek. “It means so much to me. Thank you, Fareeha.”

“Uh...” Fareeha struggles to organise her mind, vaguely aware that her soup soaked bread is disintegrating in the bowl. She wishes Angela wasn’t so touchy. It is a distraction, and one which fills her with feelings and thoughts she would rather not question, or own up to.

Angela pulls away, smiling that watery smile. She leans closer, her cool fingertips trailing idly over Fareeha’s tattoo, as though worshiping the black lines. The touch sends sparks straight into Fareeha’s gut, igniting something she had thought long buried. She pushes Angela away roughly, sending her stumbling back into her chair. Fareeha clenches her jaw as words spring up her throat, trying to ignore the chaos of her insides. First the cloak, then the kiss, and now touching her tattoo. This isn’t acceptable behaviour for some Pale Priestess.

“It was nothing.” Fareeha grunts, ignoring the look of hurt which flashes across Angela’s face. Fareeha turns solidly to her meal and finishes the soup quickly, barely tasting it. Angela does not try to touch her again, instead finishing her own food in complete silence. Finally, when they have both finished, they rise together and make for the exit. Fareeha leads the way into the dark, following the firefly lamps across hanging bridges and along narrow walkways pathed by carved wood. All the while her skin is burning red hot, her tattoo tingling vaguely with the imprint of Angela’s fingers.

It unnerves her that she likes the attention.

They reach their room; Fareeha opens the door and Angela passes her, thanking her in a quiet voice before disappearing behind the carved panels of their shower. Fareeha closes and locks the door, unbuckling her sword belt and hanging it over the back of the chair. The map from earlier is still sprawled across the table, half curled at the edges. She leans down to inspect it. She counts twenty-five villages - Ashrah is not one of them - and imagines them all ransacked and empty. twenty -five villages. Destroyed and their people pillaged and dead. How hadn’t the Barren Knights received word of this? How had anyone allowed the demons to spread so quickly through the forest? Shala’Zor is not some small orchard. It stretches from coast to coast and up and down the country for a hundred leagues. A vast, unbroken stronghold of trees, ruled by the Marguey and their allies.

Mystified, and troubled, Fareeha begins to undress, hanging her clothes on the back of the chair and redressing in comfortable cottons before climbing into her bed, settling there as she listens idly to Angela getting washed. They would have their answer tomorrow, no doubt, and Fareeha finds herself wondering if they would be allowed to help, and at what cost.

She falls into a troubled sleep, full of burning eyes and Angela’s expression of hurt.

Chapter Text

“If we flank the Eye, we’ll be fine.”

“That’s foolish. They’ll know we’re coming. We should come in from above with your cats - rain arrows upon them, and fire.”

“I-if I m-muh-may have a w-word?”

“Fire will destroy the forest. Quentin, sit down. Your wheezing is distracting me.”

Fareeha stands quietly at the war council at Angela’s back, watching as the Triumvirate argue fruitlessly. The Farak, Quentin, does as he’s told, coughing weakly into a scrap of cloth as Yeisa sweeps a hand across her maps. The table they surround is perfectly round, carved from the trunk of some ancient tree. Legend would have it that the table is all that remains of the oldest tree in Shala’Zor, whose seeds sowed the entire forest.

Apparently, though, the war council is not thinking of how many trees the table fathered in life. Kin has their head cradled in their hands, Yeisa’s lips have formed what is becoming a familiar line of displeasure, the Farak is proving as lame as his cough, sputtering vaguely about a retreat and Angela is unusually silent. When they had received word that they would be allowed to help the Marguey and Ashrah’s people, Fareeha had expected them to have already come up with a plan. It had taken them three days to decide whether or not to take Angela and her’s help, and they were well into their second day of planning any sort of attack. She wasn’t sure whose heads she wanted to bang together more: the craven Farak, the proud Yeisa or the far-too-calm Kin. It wasn’t difficult to see how Shala’Zor had fallen, with the Triumvirate unable to decide anything without an argument.

“Fire can be controlled.” Kin says sharply. Their deep black eyes burn in the candlelight. “Have you forgotten that I am a mage?”

Yeisa sneers, “It is exactly that reason why I don’t trust you, Kin’Torah. Magi aren’t to be trusted, no more than these outsiders.” She gestures briskly to Angela. “They haven’t even suggested anything to help us.”

Fareeha restrains the urge to speak up. We’ve been listening to you bicker and squabble like children. Angela’s thin shoulders shift under her white cloak, apparently unaware of the brewing storm before them. Her eyes are trained on the red centre of the map; on her own maps, it had been marked with the sigil for ‘death’, but Ashrah’s people named it only the Eye.

“They have been keeping a respectful silence.” Kin intones. Their voice is hard with irritation. “Possibly because anything they say you will shoot down. If I didn’t know better, I would accuse you of wanting to keep the demons coming, for all the help you are.”

Yeisa swells with indignation, straightening to her fullest, and most impressive, height. Her dark skin gleams in the firelight, and Fareeha wonders dully if she is flushed with fury. It is hard to tell, but her eyes are flinty, lips peeling around what would no doubt be a harsh, and biting, retort.

Kin is saved the trouble when Angela finally speaks. Her voice is soft, soothing, and Fareeha feels her heart bounce painfully in her chest. Angela has been painfully polite since their argument, removed, even.

“Forgive me, friends, but I believe Kin has the right of it.” She rests a thin finger on the map. “With their magi fire, they can form a defensive ring around the Eye, trapping the demons within. From what I know, only a mage can close a Gate. Is this true?”

She glances up at Kin, who dips their head courteously. Fareeha examines them, for the first time taking note of their appearance. They have skin similar to hers; the burnt flesh of the Argans, and deep black hair, braided about their ears and decorated with feathers. They have a nondescript face, one she could not pick out from a crowd, but their eyes are coal black, as deep and dark as the gaps between stars. The mark of a magi, or a magic user. Fareeha feels her fingers flex on Raptora’s hilt.

Magic has not been trusted since the Reckoning, when the demons were locked behind their Gates.

“Only a mage can open the Gate as well. Perhaps you should meditate on that, Kin’Torah.” Yeisa hisses. Her hands curl into tight fists. The Farak fingers his amulet nervously as Yeisa prowls away, slipping out of the room for a breather. Kin runs a hand through their braids, sighing and closing their eyes. Then they rise from their place, shaking their head with a delicate clink of beads.

“I believe we shall retire for the day,” they say. They turn, and bow deeply to Angela, their robes pooling about them like water. “Thank you, my lady. You honour me with your support.”

Angela smiles, and reaches out to take the magi’s hand. “It isn’t honour that drove me. Your plan makes sense.”

“We can only pray to the Dawn that Yeisa sees sense.” Kin sighs, and pats Angela’s hand gently. “A good evening to you. Rest well.”

With that the magi is gone, disappearing behind the curtain which shields the door. The Farak stammers his excuses and follows quickly, glancing at Fareeha’s sword nervously and clutching his talisman as though his life depends on it, knuckles white with the strain. Coward, Fareeha thinks unkindly. The Farak had done nothing for two days but bray about a retreat to Arga. She might have agreed with him, if she thought they had the time and the resources. But moving five hundred people through a forest plagued by demons is no small task. Had they retreated four or five months ago it might have been possible. But not now.

Angela gets to her feet, tucking her chair under the table neatly before speaking. “Shall we go, then?”

“Certainly.” Fareeha replies.

Angela sweeps out of the room, Fareeha following close behind, slowly growing used to this polite, removed version of the Priestess. Indeed, it suited Fareeha. Ever since their argument, Angela had been civil and reserved, not touching her for five whole days. A tiny, vain, part of her misses the attention, but mostly she is relieved, even if she misses Angela’s sweet laughter, or the way her eyes tear up when she sees something beautiful, or how her lips would form a tiny smile when they looked at each other.

When they return to their room food has been provided. Hot meat and a variety of forest greens are waiting on their table for them, steaming under the open window. Angela goes to it at once, pouring herself a mug of wine from the jug and seating herself down, facing determinately away from Fareeha. Fareeha closes and locks the door, feeling neither hungry or thirsty, and unbuckle her sword, finding herself a clean patch of floor to pray. Laying Raptora out in front of her, she closes her eyes, and listens as the world comes alive around her.

She can hear the tree-top city’s business: people talking and laughing as night draws close; children running up and down the bridges and pathways, shouting in Zorrian, their native tongue; the Marguey speaking in low voices about patrols and hunting and weaponry. In the far distance she can hear the night birds calling their final songs, chattering and humming and then falling silent.

Why do they fall silent?

The voices have turned urgent. Fareeha opens her eyes, staring hard at the wall, her stomach turning queasy with unease. She grasps Raptora and gets to her feet slowly, buckling the sword to her belt before she walks calmly to her saddlebag, grasping her bow and quiver, counting the thirteen arrows there. A lucky number.

“Fareeha?” Angela has looked up from her meal, a spoonful of gravy halfway to her mouth. Fareeha slings her quiver over her shoulder, stringing her bow with a quick, practiced movement. Angela half rises, palming her staff as though preparing to fight.

“Stay here.” Fareeha growls in reply, and unbolts the door, stepping out onto the path. The firefly lamps are lit, their occupants buzzing quietly and filling the night with yellow light. There are people leaning over the edges of the paths and bridges, peering down into the dark below. Fareeha copies them, looking for something she cannot see. There is nothing out of the ordinary; the forest floor is clear of anything suspicious.

She looks up and down the paths, watching the Marguey. Their bark armour is loose about their bodies; they are not expecting an attack. Indeed, they have not drawn their weapons. Instead they walk calmly through the crowds of people, directing them to their homes and brushing off questions with firm nods and pointed fingers.

The hairs on the back of Fareeha’s neck rise, and she heads towards the nearest bridge where a child is playing with a small cat doll. Their mother is on the other side, chatting amicably with one of the Marguey, laughing and flirting and taking no notice as the very forest seems to darken around them. Is that the dusk drawing close, or something else?

Without warning, something erupts out of the understory.

A great black, monstrous hand reaches for the child. Fareeha hears herself shout something, but her warning comes too late. The bridge shatters with a snap of wood and rope, the child sounding a single scream of fear before they’re gone, vanished from sight.

There is a moment of frozen terror, the child’s mother whipping around to see the bridge gone, before several things happen at once. Across the village, the Marguey sound their warning horns - a long, pale shriek which arches to the sky, summoning all who can fight. The mother howls in anguish, clawing her way to the edge of the platform and shouting indecipherably. Fareeha has a breathless second of shock before she sees the fiery eyes of a demon come barrelling up the nearest tree. Shaped like some grotesque monkey, it makes a wild leap for her platform, claws outstretched and teeth bared.

She draws an arrow, backing up quickly - but there’s no time. The demon is on her before she can fire. It slaps her bow away, sending it careering off the platform, then grabs her leg, dragging her off her feet. Her head slams into the wood below, stars popping in front of her eyes as the demon drags her close, the sickeningly sweet stench of death upsetting her stomach. She struggles to breathe through the retching, her eyes and nose streaming, fingernails catching and scratching at the platform as she fights to free herself. Raptora jams uncomfortably against her belly, hilt digging into her so hard it knocks the breath out of her, panic driving her to thoughtlessness.

The sword! You fucking idiot, the sword!

Somehow, she rams her hand under her, wrestling with the scabbard as the demon pulls her under it. Its fur is as foul as the rest of it, soft belly heaving. She stares, horrified, as its belly opens, rows upon rows of teeth snatching at her, the cavern of its insides bleeding black blood. She can see its heart, rotted and throbbing like a wound gone bad. She presses herself against the platform as its belly lowers towards her - her only thought is something about how she’s glad she hasn’t eaten, or she’d be vomiting everywhere, when she finally frees Raptora.

Somehow, she drives the blade upwards into the demon’s heart. It unleashes an unearthly bellow of pain, winding up the octaves until she can’t stand it. She screams right along with it, heaving her full weight behind her sword until she is drenched in black blood.

The belly jaws go limp, and the demon dies. She yanks her sword from its heart, shuddering as it disintegrates around her, flooding her with the warmth of the rotting. She shoves its bones aside, rising unsteadily to her feet, checking her breeches vaguely, glad to find she hasn’t pissed herself.

Ashrah is on fire around her. Flames tower above her, the Marguey riding their cat steeds through the trees, bows singing as demons plunder and tear and rip people apart. Blood makes the wood below her feet slippery as she scrambles back towards her and Angela’s room, panting in fear and dread. Stupid! Stupid! How could she have left Angela alone? She should have stayed with her, to protect her.

She opens the door to a floorless room. Everything is gone - the table, their bags, their maps, the bed and most importantly, Angela.

“Knight!” She doesn’t have time to mourn. Yeisa is suddenly beside her, astride her mount, shoving a bow into her hands and pushing her towards another cat. “Fight! We’ll find your Priestess later!”

Numb with shock, Fareeha nods and heaves herself into the saddle. The cat yowls as she grabs the saddle handles, pushing her new bow between her and its back. Yeisa sounds her horn again, trumpeting bravely as her mount launches away into the canopy. Fareeha’s cat follows; she braces herself, flying blindly through the air. She can hear the flames, smell the tang of blood as her and her steed soar gracefully around the village. The brief glimpses she sees are of the dead and dying; one man is being torn apart by two demons, his cries cutting out as one demon drops its head to feast on his innards, purple and bloody against the wood.

Panting with panic, Fareeha tightens her legs around her cat, drawing her bow and arrow, and taking aim for a small child-like demon which is chasing a woman across a bridge. She fills it with four arrows as she passes, shifting her hips with every move her cat makes. The woman collapses, sobbing, and then vanishes as the leaves swallow her.

Even though the Marguey are putting up a valiant fight, Fareeha can see the tide of the battle with ease. The shouts of the dying mingle with the fire’s roars. She sees seven Marguey die to a bull-headed demon with clubs for hands: it swipes them from the platform like flies, sending them tumbling to their deaths. She urges her cat onwards, catching sight of Kin astride what looks like a giant lizard.

Giant cats, demons and dragons, oh my! She thinks, and then she starts laughing.

Her bow twangs again and again and again until she has no arrows. Demons fall to her left and right, but more swarm up the tree trunks - their unholy eyes savage and burning in the night. Her cat makes use of its claws, swatting smaller demons away as she draws Raptora, stabbing on either side of her to rid herself of dog shaped demons with foot long spines down their backs.

Somehow, through the chaos, she catches sight of Yeisa, bleeding badly from a terrible wound on her thigh. The red shock of her blood pours down her leg and saddle, littering the ground as she wields a spear taller than Fareeha. Her voice is raised to the heavens, her warriors swarming over a nearby platform beside the banquet hall. Fareeha urges her cat towards them, holding on one handed as the beast makes an enormous leap across empty air.

They land heavily. Fareeha stands in her stirrups to lessen the blow, Raptora singing as she beheads another demon. Yeisa calls to her, and she joins their forces, catching a thrown quiver and sheathing Raptora in the same breath. Her heart is thundering, her breath sawing in and out of her as she and the remaining Marguey form a protective circle around the hall, shooting and stabbing and their steeds clawing at anything that comes near them.

Kin bursts out of a burning tree beside them, their black eyes blazing with the light of their magic. Their hands cradle fistfuls of green fire, their lizard screaming as it swipes its massive tail from side to side, smiting demons. Kin throws their fire, speaking words Fareeha doesn’t know.

The sky is black and cold, and time stretches before her. Fareeha doesn’t know how long she has been fighting; just that her arrows ran out again and that Raptora is slippery in her hands. Yeisa has not faltered. Her spear knows no bounds. It strikes like lightning, her war horn calling other Marguey to join them - more and more come, some bleeding, others broken. Some come without their cats, some cats come without their riders. Together they form up, bolstering their ranks as a red moon rises high above them.

Fareeha’s arm is numb with the battle. Still more demons come; an unending wash of them big and small. Blood covers her head to foot, but she cannot smell it. Instead she feels tears come to her eyes, and her breath catches in a strangled sob. She knows Angela must be dead. She knows it in her heart of hearts; she isn’t sure how she survived the onslaught, but a Pale Priestess, armed only with a staff, has little hope of surviving.

Angela, whose smile and laughter she misses so much. Her hair the colour of the radiant sun, the hope of a thousand souls. A healer and a friend who had been so kind to her. Who she had failed. Failed, just like she had failed her mother.

Her sword falters and a demon leaps at her face, cruel claws carving a path through the flesh on her cheek. Her neighbour Marguey rids her of it, tearing it from her and breaking its neck with her bare hands. She can’t even summon the strength to thank them as blood fills her mouth. She spits it out, swallows the rest, and wonders how much more she can take.

“By the Dawn’s Light, begone from this place!”

She looks up, and is blinded by light. It explodes around them, sending demons screaming and scrambling away, their black flesh burning when the white glory touches them. Hope swells in her chest, her body coming alive as she finds herself filled with fresh resolve. Around her, the Marguey take up another war cry, sounding their horns as their cats’ roar. Raptora comes alive in her hands as Angela’s name escapes her lips and she leans forward, hacking and slashing at the retreating demons, snarling and killing in Angela’s name. Still the light burns, illuminating the world so well the fire seems to shrink from it. She sees Yeisa’s tearful face, torn open in a prayer, and Kin’s green flames destroying demons wherever they send them.

When the demons are done, the light fades. Fareeha blinks the spots out of her eyes and looks for their rescuer. Her heart leaps up her throat when she sees Angela standing on the bridge, her staff clutched in both hands, her white cloak soiled by blood and smoke. More survivors of Ashrah stand behind her, holding each other, looking about them to reassure themselves that the fight is really done. Angela turns to them, her smile tired as she inspects them.

Fareeha slips off her cat, knees weak as she pushes through the Marguey, staring at Angela; she is the only thing that matters. Her boots slip against the blood slicked wood, but she ploughs on until she wraps a hand around Angela’s elbow, her name escaping her lips like some half thought blessing.

Angela turns to stare up at her, but Fareeha doesn’t wait for her to speak. Instead she wraps both arms around Angela’s small body and lifts her up into a tight embrace, pressing her face into a warm shoulder, relief flooding her so keenly she feels her legs collapse under her. She falls hard, the bridge shaking under her, but doesn’t let go, feeling Angela return the embrace.

“I thought you were dead,” she says thickly three or four times. Angela cradles her head, thin fingers digging into the blood drenched hair at the back of her neck.

“I thought you were dead as well.” Angela replies shakily. “I thought you had been taken.”

Fareeha shakes her head. “No. I fought. I fought so hard.”

“I know.” Angela sighs, the air puffing softly against Fareeha’s cheek. “And I was right. There are dragons in Shala’Zor.”

They pull away from each other, and laugh. Arms wrapped around the other, covered in blood and gore and sweat, they laugh until they are crying. Fareeha feels herself dissolve into tears, pressing her face back into Angela’s shoulder, her body shaking with it as she cries for those they lost. For the child who was taken, and the man who was ripped apart. Angela rubs her back soothingly until she is spent.

Sniffing, Fareeha gets to her feet, helping Angela up.

Yeisa approaches them both, her spear snapped cleanly in half, bloody and exhausted. Fareeha meets her tired gaze, seeing the resolution there.

“Rest today,” Yeisa says at once. “Tomorrow we go with Kin’s plan. I want these demons out of my forest by the week’s end.”

Fareeha nods, and falls into a deep bow.

“Your spear was true, and your heart strong,” she utters in Zorrian. Yeisa dips into her own bow.

“Without you, Knight, we would have surely fallen.”

With a final glance at the devastation, Yeisa turns away, walking back to her warriors as the remaining villagers file past them, taking shelter with the rest in the banquet hall. Fareeha feels a light sting as Angela inspects her face, narrow fingers brushing against her torn cheek. She allows the touch, blinking as warmth fills her face; Angela's staff glows with yellow light, her wound stinging as the skin and muscle knit together.

When she is done, Angela nods with satisfaction, patting Fareeha's healed cheek.

“There. It won't even scar.”

Fareeha lifts a hand to feel for herself. Where two deep ruts had been there is only smooth skin, and the crackle of drying blood. She blinks down at Angela, raising her eyebrows. Angela laughs softly.

“I am a Priestess of the Pale. A healer. The clue is in the title, Fareeha.”

Patting her arm, Angela shuffles past her, striding to the hall to tend to the villagers. Fareeha watches her go, struck dumb for a moment before she follows. Somehow, the God had spared Angela's life. Fareeha knows in that moment she would follow the priestess to the ends of the earth, and beyond.  

Chapter Text

The forest is dim and quiet. Stiller than water. Not even the trees move. There is no bird song; there isn’t even the sound of creatures foraging in the underbrush. The silence is oppressive, pressing in on all sides, as though the world is waiting, breath baited, watching and listening as the hunting party of a hundred strong wind their way along the prey track. The Marguey lead the group, followed closely by Kin and their dragon. It winds its way across the leaves easily. Shaped like some great snake, its mane billows across its back and under Kin’s saddle, tongue flicking out of its mouth every so often to taste the air. Behind the dragon come the volunteers from Ashrah; men and women, armed with spears and bows, faces painted with the blood of the demons to mark them warriors. The blood would stain their skins forever: a reminder of the war they fought, and those they lost.

Mounted upon Silas at last, Fareeha watches the group, taking up the rear with Angela and several Marguey, and the Farak, who sits nervously behind one of the warriors, fingering his amulet and chain and looking generally uncomfortable atop a giant cat. Fareeha ignores him, her hand resting idly on Raptora’s hilt, checking and rechecking her quiver and arrows.

It would take them all day to reach the Eye. Yeisa had instructed them to make a camp a mile away from the Gate, and that they would attack on the morrow; Fareeha agreed, thinking it would be wise to attack at dawn, rather than at dusk. The demons seemed to grow in power at night. A chilling thought, but a truth nonetheless. A quick glance upwards saw Yeisa riding abreast with Kin, talking to them in a soft voice which didn’t carry. Fareeha wonders what they are talking about.

“They’re finally working together,” Angela says in Westerling, secure in the knowledge that the Zorrians couldn’t understand her.

“All it took was the death of three hundred people.” Fareeha replies grimly. The cries of the survivors still rang uncomfortably in her memory. The screams of the dying, and those who had lost fathers and mothers and daughters and sons.

Angela stirs on her horse, mouth turned down unhappily, no doubt remembering the carnage. She had saved many lives with Kin’s help, but Fareeha knows that Angela will blame herself for every soul she couldn't save. Her white cloak is still stained, draped loosely over her horse’s hindquarters, her staff strapped to her saddle. As for the rest of her, she is clean. They had been given time to rest and wash after the attack, lest the demon blood do more permanent damage than staining their skin. Fareeha’s arms and legs are still covered, her fingers entirely black. But Yeisa had said it would fade with time and distance from the Gate.

The day passes slowly. Fareeha and Angela mainly ride in silence, not wanting to disturb the others. Eventually, Angela spurs her horse to ride alongside Kin, while Yeisa falls back. Her cat purrs loudly as it falls into step beside Silas, huge yellow eyes examining his haunches hungrily. Fareeha twiddles the reins, drawing him slightly away from the cat. Yeisa notices, and laughs softly.

“She won’t eat him.” Yeisa fetches a wineskin from her saddlebag and offers it to Fareeha, shrugging when she refuses.

“You seem very sure of that.”

Yeisa swallows a mouthful of wine. The wound on her leg has healed perfectly, but her saddle is still blood stained. Fareeha glances at it every now and again, remembering the raw red of her thigh the night before. Angela’s magic had proven to be lifesaving.

“I know my mount, Knight.” Yeisa tucks her wineskin away. Since Angela had healed her she had become much more amicable, proving herself to be bawdy, light-hearted and even joyful. “My question to you is, do you?”

Fareeha frowns. “What do you mean?”

Raising an eyebrow, Yeisa nods towards Angela, adjusting herself slightly in her saddle as she takes hold of her reins again. Fareeha follows her gaze, nonplussed for a few moments, before she figures it out. Cheeks filling with warmth, she scowls and shakes her head.

“I’m not sleeping with the Priestess.”

“Does that mean I can?”

Clenching her jaw against the sudden rising tide of confusing anger which fills her like hot water, Fareeha eyes Yeisa critically. Yeisa is taller than her. Her hair shaved along the sides of her head, a single thick braid falling from the crown of her forehead down her back. Beads and feathers are interwoven in the thick black hair, as well as several demon teeth, huge and bloody. She sits poised on the back of her cat, entirely relaxed, her leathers tight but worn across her strong body. Fareeha’s grip on Silas’ reins tighten.

“Mercy doesn’t do that with anyone. She’s a Priestess, by the God.” With a snort, Silas jerks into a faster walk, no doubt in answer to his mistress’s fury. Fareeha feels her lip curling as she continues.

“Besides, I thought you didn’t like Westerners. Mercy is from the West.”

“Your pure Priestess is a woman, Knight.” Yeisa smirks. “Women have natural urges too. And it doesn’t matter if she’s a Westerling. She’s beautiful. And she saved me. It seems only fitting to pay her back, no?”

“Mercy is a Priestess, not some tavern whore. She doesn’t sleep with anyone.” Fareeha says agitatedly, unsure why she’s so flustered. Who cares if Angela sleeps with someone? It isn’t for her to police her private business. Still, the thought of Yeisa and Angela… it leaves a nasty, hot feeling in her belly.

Yeisa hums. “You seem very sure of that. Why, have you tried?”

Appalled, Fareeha nearly draws Silas to a halt, “No! I am her Sworn Sword, and she is my charge. It wouldn’t be proper. I have a duty to protect her, not… not-”

“Fuck her?” Yeisa supplies unhelpfully. Fareeha fumes silently, clenching her jaw so tightly she feels her teeth creak. The word seems too violent for Angela. The whole business too crude. She experiences a few, awkward moments of thinking about it; imagining the arch of Angela’s back, the taste of her sweat, the heat of her body. Briefly, she wonders what Angela would sound like.

Yeisa claps her on the shoulder, jerking her out of her thoughts. “Half of my warriors want to be her, and the rest are in love with her. Just watch.”

Sullenly, Fareeha turns her attention to Angela. She is chatting happily with Kin about something, her smile bright and beautiful even in the gloom of the forest. Fareeha’s stomach squirms uncomfortably, bouncing against her insides. As she watches, one of the Marguey rides up beside Angela, holding out a fistful of flowers. Angela takes them, sniffing them delicately before thanking the Marguey warrior with a tender touch on the arm and a radiant look which, even from this distance, makes Fareeha’s heart do a funny sort of hiccup. The Marguey falls back, smirking triumphantly and elbowing their neighbour in the side.

“You see?” Yeisa smirks at her. “Now, if you will excuse me, I’m going to make myself known.”

With that, Yeisa urges her cat forwards. Her warriors part for her, giving her a clear path to Angela’s side. Fareeha fights an internal battle with herself; to follow would admit some sort of defeat. On the other hand, the hot, violent feeling in her gut is rising like a snake, rearing its head. She didn’t want to think of Yeisa and Angela together, but the thought comes to her anyway.

Eventually, as night is setting in, the hunting party comes to a halt. They make their camp in a huge clearing, working swiftly to fashion rough stakes to guard the perimeter. Fareeha wanders a little way away from the others to do her business behind a tree, relieved after the long ride. When she returns she finds Angela blushing prettily as Yeisa sets up her tent, muscular arms flexing and rough voice entreating her to some story or other.

“So, you see, we are chosen from a young age.” Yeisa is saying, tying off the last rope with nimble fingers.

“It sounds difficult,” Angela says. Fareeha watches as her eyes flicker across Yeisa’s broad shoulders. She restrains the urge to scowl.

Yeisa seems to notice the attention. She straightens to her fullest height, grinning so widely Fareeha wonders if her cheeks might crack. All's the pity they don’t when she starts talking.

“It is a great honour to be chosen. We are trained, and given our cats in our first year. They are our partners for life. We spend a lifetime honing our skills to become the finest warriors in the East.”

“Second only to the Barren Knights.” Fareeha stalks to Angela’s side, eyes narrow. She can’t help it. She feels anger burning in her, scorching and wild, like the demons they have been fighting.

“That’s debatable, Knight.” Yeisa says cheerfully. Fareeha finds herself missing the surly version of the captain all the more. Who knew a Marguey could be such a bother?

“Hardly,” Fareeha replies coldly. “History proves the Marguey always needed the Knights to help them, not the other way around.”

Enormously satisfied when she sees Yeisa bristle, Fareeha steps forward and opens Angela’s tent door, dipping her head to the priestess. Angela shuffles past her, peering at her quizzically as she disappears into the tent. Fareeha raises a single eyebrow at Yeisa in a silent dismissal, before grabbing both hers and Angela’s bags and turning into the tent, knotting the flap closed behind her.

The inside of the tent is bare but spacious. Fareeha sets their bags down in one corner, having to stoop so her head doesn’t brush the ceiling. When she looks up Angela is still watching her with a puzzled expression.

“What?” Fareeha squawks a little indignantly.

“What was that?” Westerling is quick on Angela’s tongue. Fareeha shrugs, bending to unpack their bags, freeing their sleeping sacks. New, and woven in the Zorrian style, their own bags had been lost when their room had been raided. Luckily, after Fareeha had left, Angela had followed, sparing herself a nasty fall to her death. Most of their most precious items had been recovered from the bottom of the tree; Fareeha’s trinkets, and Angela’s papers and maps, but their bags and sleeping bags had been shredded to pieces.

Unfurling their new sleeping sacks with a flourish, Fareeha answers carefully, still feeling giddy at the scowl on Yeisa’s face. “Nothing. I just don’t like to hear people speaking falsely of the Barren Knights.”

Something in Angela’s face softens. Fareeha tenses slightly at her approach, seeing her hand lift as though to touch her. The hand falls to her side limply, but she speaks anyway. “You don’t have to be jealous.”

“I am not jealous.” Fareeha frowns, and moves past her, unbuckling her leather bracers for lack of anything better to do. “What do I have to be jealous for?” Unbidden, the image of Yeisa and Angela curled up together on the floor pops into her mind. She shakes it away, frowning.

“You’re my Knight, Fareeha.” Angela’s voice is soft and gentle as a breeze. Fareeha’s fingers slip on her buckles. “Even a strapping captain of the Marguey isn’t going to change that.”

“Strapping?” Fareeha can’t help the sharpness in her voice. “She’s not strapping. She wants to fu- uh-” She falters over the word. Her cheeks burn. “Use you.”

Laughter fills the tent. Fareeha turns to stare at Angela, astonished that she’s laughing about such a matter. But Angela seems blissfully unaware of Fareeha’s feelings. Indeed, she cups her hand over her mouth, giggling and wiping her eyes of tears. Tears of mirth. Fareeha’s bracers slip off her arms and hit the ground, making a stupid thudding sound which serves only to add to the billowing humiliation she feels rising in her face.

“It’s not funny!” Fareeha’s voice is shrill in her ears. She can’t understand why she’s so upset about this. Angela has stopped laughing. She’s looking at her with that strange, soft expression again. Fareeha continues, unable to control the volume of her voice. “She wants to use you like some tavern whore and I won’t allow that to happen! You’re a Pale Priestess, not a camp follower! You deserve better than that!”

Angela is suddenly in front of her, taking her hands in hers and holding her tightly. She stares up at her plaintively, and her words die in her throat. She could look into those eyes forever. Deepest blue, as stern as the sea, Fareeha remembers thinking she could drown in them. She experiences the same feeling now, the world becoming a dull throb in comparison to those eyes.

“I may be a Priestess,” Angela murmurs softly. “But I am not defenceless. I won’t let her just use me.”

She steps closer, anchoring Fareeha to the spot by her hands. A pale tongue darts out to wet lush lips; Fareeha feels herself watching it, head pounding, heart thrusting. She’s going to kiss me. Angela goes up onto her tip toes. Fareeha can smell her clean scent, and count the faint dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks, like stars in the sky of her face.

I can’t do this.

Fareeha feels a tiny puff of breath against her mouth before she steps away, inhaling shakily. Angela rocks forward on her toes for a moment, then finds her feet, blinking up at her, taken aback and confused. Hurt is gathering in those eyes and Fareeha tears her gaze away to stare at the ground.

“It’s not proper.” Fareeha hears herself say. Angela’s grip on her hands tightens.

“Who says it's not proper? Your God?” Her voice is fierce, a low hiss of Argan. “Why did your God give us bodies if not to use them?”

Fareeha doesn’t know the answer to that question. Instead she says what she does know. “I’m your Sworn Sword. I’m your Knight. I swore to protect you, and to guide you. I can’t… take advantage of you.”

Face full of a mixture of disbelief, Angela is about to retort when a voice calls out from behind the tent flaps. Composing themselves, Fareeha and Angela both inhale at the same time, before Angela opens the tent. Kin is standing outside, their hands tucked into their sleeves, a thin black eyebrow raised as they study them both.

“If you are both finished unpacking,” Kin says pointedly. Their eyes linger on Angela’s flushed face and Fareeha notices, to her horror, that her belt is loose and askew. “We are conducting some last-minute battle plans to finalise them before telling the warriors. If you would like to join us?”

Fareeha tightens her belt and follows Angela out of the tent, struggling to contain herself. Angela nearly kissing her, Yeisa speaking of the Priestess the way she did, the argument, Kin thinking they were sleeping together… it is too much for her. Fareeha prides herself on being an extremely private person. She hates people knowing too much; almost as much as she hates being unable to understand herself. Her feelings for Angela are strong. She knew this would happen the day she took her vow. She is protective, and she feels a connection with Angela she hasn’t felt before.

It terrifies her.

The war tent is already set up. Yeisa and the Farak are standing around their maps, talking in low voices when they arrive. Fareeha takes her place at Angela’s back, staring resolutely at a spot over Angela’s head, trying to ignore the smirks and touches Yeisa throws Angela’s way. Don’t think about it. It isn’t your business to think about it, or be bothered by it. Angela is her own person.

Instead, she throws herself headfirst into memorising the plan. First, they would surround the Eye; according to Yeisa’s scouts, the Eye is located down a tunnel, which is swarming with demons and their spawn. The creatures, mating and killing and feasting on those they had captured, are easy to distract. The warriors would form a circle around the tunnel, killing any demons who got in their way. The warriors behind them would take their places if they fell, keeping a tight knot around Kin and Angela, who would lead the assault on the Eye itself. All they had to do was collapse the tunnel - a simple task with a mage and a Pale Priestess. While Kin hurled fireballs at the demons and the tunnel, Angela would heal the wounded. Once the tunnel had collapsed, they would slay the remaining demons and Kin would seal the Gate by speaking the ancient words. Then, the final hunt would begin; to find the person who had opened it in the first place.

“No doubt they are a rogue mage,” Kin is saying conversationally. They take a sip of wine and continue, “but I highly doubt they are still in the area. I suggest sending words to the outposts to keep watch for any magi whom we do not recognise.”

Yeisa, frowning, nods. “I will lead the search myself. I want this mage dead.”

“Suh-so do we all,” the Farak pipes up, mopping his sweating forehead with a cloth. He fingers his chain, and then his amulet, thin throat bobbing as he swallows. Fareeha restrains the urge to hit him. Then, she feels guilty, wondering where the aggression is coming from.

“Very well.” Yeisa rolls her maps up smartly, straightening. “I think we are done for this evening. We should tell the others of the plan, and rest. Before that, though. Angela, may I have a word? Alone?”

Angela’s gaze finds Fareeha’s, but Fareeha turns away sharply, marching back through the camp and to their tent. One handed she rips the entrance open, shoving it shut before lashing out at one of their bags with her foot. Control yourself! She thinks, astonished by her own fury. She is Angela’s sword. Her Knight. She is not a lover, and Angela is fooling herself if she thinks they could be. Still, she desires nothing more than to stride right back to the war tent and tell Yeisa to take a dive into the Otherworld. With a Gate open, she knows it wouldn’t be hard for Yeisa to find the way.

Angry, and scared by the intensity of her emotions, Fareeha draws Raptora and sets it on the ground, sitting cross legged and closing her eyes to pray. Gradually, the deep breathing and the calming, comforting thoughts of her God soothe her thrashing heart and cool her temper.

Methodically, she breathes in and out. In through her nose and out through her mouth, feeling the hot burn of fury fade and finally fall into slumber. Unbidden, caught in the misty calm of her meditation, Angela comes to her. The lilt of her voice, the gentle touch of her fingers against Fareeha’s arm. She is so beautiful. Fareeha feels her heart pick up at the thought of Angela’s eyes widening in wonder, of the comforting, welcoming taste of her scent.

But she also thinks of the strength between them. Angela is a Pale Priestess, and Fareeha is a Barren Knight. They are bound by the oath Fareeha spoke in the temple, so many weeks ago, and she is content with that.

Satisfied, she prays for the Dawn, and then falls into a slow and gentle meditation, listening to the hustle and bustle of the camp around her. Kin is talking to the villagers, explaining the plan and reassuring them of his power. The Marguey are sharpening their weapons and feeding their animals. Gradually, the world around her fades, and she allows her mind to take a familiar path, falling deeper into her meditation in the quest to find some sort of solace.

When she opens her eyes, she is surprised to see Angela has returned. She is sitting on her sleeping sack, hair pinned back and mouth busy at eating an apple as she pours over one of her books. Fareeha leaves her to her business, tidying Raptora away before pulling off her boots and the light mail which covers her shoulders. Dressed lightly, she reclines on her own sleeping bag, staring blankly at the ceiling as she watches firelight flicker against it. Dusk had come quickly, then, as it usually did in the forest.

Rolling onto her side, she fetches some jerky from her bag, chewing it methodically, barely tasting its peppery spice. She needs to keep her strength up.

“She wanted to know how long we were going to be staying in Ashrah after the Gate is closed.” Angela says suddenly, not looking up from her book. Fareeha makes a noncommittal noise in her throat, trying to seem unbothered. Angela continues, “I told her we would be leaving as soon as possible. We must get to Axis.”

“Right.” Fareeha replies. She eats another bite of jerky.

“Also, you wouldn’t be taking advantage of me.” Angela says. She snaps her book closed. “I find you attractive. And in the West, we act on those feelings without guilt. But you made yourself clear. I will not pursue you any further. I made a mistake.” Angela leans to her lamp and blows it out, speaking again into the dark. “I’m sorry if I disgraced you.”

Fareeha doesn’t know what to say to that. So, she says nothing, keeping her silence long into the night, far after Angela’s breaths have softened into sleep and the camp has gone quiet. When sleep finally finds her, it is broken by thoughts of just how she could disgrace her honour with Angela, and a familiar, if not unusual, ache between her legs.

Chapter Text

“Draw.”

The hunter drops low, pressing herself against her cat’s back, bow primed and ready. Amongst the trunks of the other trees, her companions are copying her in a bristling circle of arrows, faces shielded by the rough bark helms of their order. Their eyes glisten wetly between the narrow slits, all trained on the gaping wound in the forest floor. The demons are everywhere. They are a boiling mass of bodies; shaped like horrific animals and distorted humans, they devour anything they get their teeth on, lazy with the dawn. The bones of the dead crunch and crack, and the heady stench of rot steams up the trees, setting many gorges to rise.

“Hold.”

Fareeha is in the trees astride Yeisa’s cat. Her bow is taut, her front pressed tight to Yeisa’s back, breathing in her thick scent with every breath. Yeisa looks more feline with her helm on, a mane of feathers bursting out of the bark of her mask, her braid hanging loose about her hips as she fingers the shaft of her arrow. Fareeha, meanwhile, is sporting her falcon helmet, the visor hung low over her eyes. The rest of her is covered in the bark armour of the Marguey; lighter than steel, it would not hinder Yeisa’s cat in the battle to come. Her blue cloak, emblazoned with the striking falcon, is draped over the cat’s hindquarters, clean and inspiring. She takes comfort in it as she peers searchingly at the ground far below.

The warriors from the village are crowded in the underbrush around the Eye. Shields raised, forming a protective barrier around the clearing, they are watching Kin as their serpent dragon coils up a nearby tree. Their eyes are aflame with green light, robes billowing as a wind whistles through the trees. Angela is sat behind them, hooded, her staff glowing slightly.

The sky turns pale, and then brightens. The first rays of sunshine dust the tops of the trees, sending fingers of light into the Eye. The demons stir uncomfortably, but otherwise slumber on undisturbed. Yeisa presses her heels into her cat’s flanks and leans forward to lie against the creature’s neck as it starts crawling slowly down the trunk, head first. Fareeha closes her eyes briefly, pressing herself against the cat’s back and praying to the God that she doesn’t fall. Despite the straps anchoring her to the saddle, she isn’t comfortable being fifty feet in the air. Still, she clenches her teeth, and waits with baited breath when Yeisa raises her hand.

The glade goes still. Yeisa and Kin share a look, and a nod. Fareeha releases one last shaky breath, and the fight begins.

Kin’s eyes blaze with green fire, sparks flying off their shoulders as they raise their fists. With a flick of their wrists, flames erupt in a great ring around the Eye, shielding the warriors on the ground. At once the demons are on their feet, screaming and snarling and glaring hatefully upwards. Fareeha shivers, feeling their gaze, even as her hand tightens on her bow.

“Loose!” Yeisa’s voice cracks harshly over the crackle of flames. Fareeha sends her arrow soaring, lost amongst the murder of feathers. The Eye itself, a yawning cave in the centre of the glade, belches demons, replacing each fallen foe with four or five more, all of them. They hurl themselves against the ring of fire, screeching as they burn and die, their bodies evaporating into the rising day.

“Draw!”

Fareeha nocks another arrow into her bow, aiming down the shaft towards a bull-headed beast whose mane is aflame. Its enormous horns scythe left and right, killing smaller demons in its path.

“Hold!”

Her arrowhead pointing for the bull’s rump, she inhales slowly, keeping her bow arm steady as Yeisa waits breathless moments. Out of the corner of her eye she can see Kin chanting mindlessly, standing up on their saddle, arms outstretched to the heavens as the sparks on their shoulders burst suddenly into arching spectres of animals, twisting and leaping into the air.

“Loose!”

The arrow sings as it flies, embedding itself deep into black fur. It has the desired effect. The demon bellows and ploughs into its fellows, bucking and bleeding and killing as it tears a path blindly towards the flames. It dies there, twitching and vanishing as a wind curls the flames higher.

Yeisa calls another command, and Fareeha obeys at once, looking for weaknesses. The demons have started swiping through the fire, to meet the pointed tips of spears and the enchanted husks of bark shields. Kin’s animal spectres are coalescing into a great, hulking mass of green light, surging and throbbing like some organic body, heaving as it builds into the sky. Their chanting increases in speed and volume, Angela’s staff glowing yellow as she sends beams of healing to those on the forest floor.

Fareeha smites a winged demon before it can take flight, driving iron through an eye. It crashes to the ground and blossoms into dust, only for another to take its place. Small claws slash at the air, wings aflutter as the demon soars towards her. She meets its burning eyes for a moment before stabbing it with a fisted arrow, sending the same one soaring back into the fray as the demon dies.

Kin’s voice bursts into fevered chanting, their arms cast upwards as their green mass takes form into that of a giant owl. Its wings spread, beak opening, flames and sparks bright enough to dull the sun flying out. Fareeha watches, grip on her bow going slack, as the owl rises slowly into the air. She can feel the heat of it on her face, and the warriors around her halt their attacks to stare, awed, at the magi’s magic. The demons are frantic, scrambling over each other as they run headlong towards their Gate, howling loud enough to hurt her ears.

The owl’s wings surge, and it takes flight, diving towards the Gate, monstrous talons tearing up the earth. Kin slumps back in their saddle, the buckles keeping them firmly in place. Fareeha cannot see what is happening to them clearly, but their hands twitch, mouth moving in silent enchantments.

“Dive! Dive!” Yeisa is yelling, and Fareeha grabs hold of a handle. The cat makes an enormous leap, the other Marguey following their leader with wild battle cries so loud they shake the canopy above. Fareeha feels herself joining them, the air rushing past her face, stomach soaring, as she draws Raptora from its scabbard, bringing the sword upwards into a salute as they hit the ground hard. The cat propels itself into the demons, jaws open, claws catching and snatching while Yeisa abandons her bow completely in favour of her spear.

The flames circling the camp die, and the warriors from Ashrah rush into the fight, singing some song in Zorrian, the wall of sound crashing into the clearing as effectively as their shields and spears as the owl gives an ear-splitting cry. Half blind with battle, Fareeha drives her sword into a demon’s mouth, wrenching it out and slashing at a paw that comes hurtling her way.

“For Shala’Zor!” Yeisa screams, and she digs her heels into her cat’s sides. The beast roars, charging headfirst towards an enormous worm demon, her spear rising like a lance while Fareeha clings on for dear life, feeling the straps tying her to the saddle digging into her thighs so hard she fears they will snap under the strain. Instead she is thrown forward as the cat crashes with the demon’s tough hide, Yeisa’s spear piercing leathery flesh and snapping in half. The worm hisses, undulating its horrible body until it hurls pale yellow ooze into Yeisa’s face. She lets out a hair-raising shout of pain, slipping sideways as she writhes in apparent agony; Fareeha grabs the scruff of her armour, hauling her upright as the cat bounces away.

“Acid!” Yeisa howls, trying to wipe the yellow liquid out of her eyes. “It’s acid! I- I can’t see!”

Keeping a tight hold around Yeisa’s waist, Fareeha looks around frantically for Angela. Acid in the eyes can mean blindness, and even death. She doesn’t have to be a demon hunter to know that.

But before she can locate the Priestess, she comes face to face with another demon. She hears herself yell, but it crashes into their flank, knocking them sideways and into the bloody, muddy, earth. She has a single moment of panic and then the breath is knocked out of her, being crushed into the ground as the demon pounds at the cat’s chest, clawing and biting, black blood mixing with red. Please, she thinks, spots dancing around her eyes as the air is crushed out of her lungs, hand groping uselessly at her belt until her fingers finally close around the hilt of her dagger. She wrenches it out, slashing at the leather belts keeping her held to the saddle, breath coming in quick bursts until suddenly she is dragged upright, the cat regaining its feet. Still attached to the saddle she feels as useless and limp as a rag doll, slipping backwards with the force of the cat’s sudden charge.

Yeisa has managed to regain the use of one eye. She clutches at her saddle, her other hand full of a foot-long dagger. Fareeha heaves herself upright, raising her arm just in time as a wolf demon comes lunging towards her. Its jaws wrap around her bark covered arm, eyes blazing and wild.

“Get! Off!” She stabs it through the head, shaking its disintegrating body off Raptora. The crystal-clear panic of battle affords her a singular concern; freedom of the cat and its saddle. The battle is raging around her. Humans and demons falling and rising alike - the owl spectre still clawing at the Gate. Angela’s soothing yellow magic is dancing like lightning across the clearing, healing all who it touches; Fareeha sees her briefly: a white cloak atop a red serpent, staff raised.

She wrenches herself out of the half-cut buckles. The leather snaps and she tumbles backwards to the ground as Yeisa and her beast disappear into the bloodshed. Slipping to her feet, she turns on her heel. Slavering jaws. Burning eyes. She cuts through them, blood splashing into her face and mouth - she gags, stomach heaving, before slaying another.

The stench of blood is overwhelming. Deafened by the chorus of voices and bestial roars, Fareeha kills another demon, nearly falling headlong into a pile of bones. Human bones.

Her boot smashes through a skull too small to be an adult’s, catching on the bone so she has to duck briefly to tug it off. She throws the skull aside, bringing Raptora up to block a claw, and then a fang. Blood sprays in a graceful arch, her body falling into a natural rhythm. She dances through the demon horde, forgetting to question when it will end, if it will end, forgetting even the smell and the sound. She is a blade. Her entire being focuses on the edge of her sword, and the way it slices bone and muscle and fur.

She thinks she hears someone shouting, “The Gate is closed! The Gate is closed!”

She cannot be sure. Instead she keeps going, only to feel a powerful rush of energy.

Blue light blazes around her, filling her heart and soul. Sucking in air, she raises a prayer to the God, offering Them a kill, and then another, wondering where the magic is coming from.

It doesn’t take her long to guess.

All at once, Angela is beside her, her staff twirling through the air as she drives the end of it into a demon’s eye. Fareeha doesn’t have time to chastise her. They fight back to back - sword singing, staff humming with power. Fareeha can hear Angela speaking in her strange language, saying either spell or prayer, she cannot be sure. All she knows is that the ache in her body has gone, and she is fighting harder than she ever has before.

“I finally get to see you in battle,” Fareeha shouts to her Priestess, kicking a demon away before slamming her foot down onto its skull. It vanishes from existence. Somehow, having Angela at her back makes the battle more bearable.

Angela laughs breathlessly, “You will see it often. I don’t sit on the side-lines like a lady.”

“Of course, my lady.”

There is a menacing hiss and they turn to look at the same time. It is the worm demon again, sliding towards them. Yeisa’s spear is still embedded in its thick body, oozing blood with every movement as it slithers closer and closer, slow but deadly. Fareeha can see its acid curdling at its mouth, eyeless face searching for them blindly.

Blue light erupts out of Angela’s staff and Fareeha feels a rush of energy. She bellows a battle cry and leaps forward, grasping what is left of Yeisa’s spear and wrenching it from the worm’s body. Thick, glutinous blood erupts from the wound, dribbling down its pulsating belly as it shrieks in pain – acid attack forgotten.

Backing up several steps, Fareeha aims with the spear, waiting for the perfect moment, feeling the flurry of Angela’s staff as she drives off a stray demon.

Her mother’s voice, faint in memory, comes to her on the breeze. Strike true, Fareeha, my daughter. You have my aim, and my skill with the bow. The spear is not so different.

She takes a breath, holds it, and strikes.

The spear sails through the air, arching over the muddy, bloody ground and piercing the worm’s mouth. Its body gives a writhing, aching spasm, before it hits the ground and dies, its body disintegrating into nothing.

Flushed with victory, pleased to have avenged Yeisa in some way, Fareeha takes hold of the spear, attaching it to her back and flourishing Raptora, looking for the next fight. Instead, Angela grabs her hand, slippery with gore, and drags her away. Together, they run through the fight, stopping only to slay a demon or heal a warrior quickly, before they are off again. Looking over the heads of the people around her, Fareeha sees they are running towards the Gate; now a pile of earth, Kin’s owl is hovering above it, vomiting flames left and right.

They reach the mound of earth that was the Gate, climbing up it, scrambling and kicking at demons when they draw close. Angela yanks a dagger from her white belt, plunging it into an eyeball and shoving her boot into a broken chest as it dies. Fareeha blinks, surprised at her ferocity as her mouth curls into a snarl of her alien tongue, spitting what can only be curses as she surges up the bank.

From the top of the Gate, Fareeha can see the battle clearly. The demons are dwindling, outnumbered by humans and growing smaller and smaller in number. Angela is murmuring some sort of spell, her staff glowing brighter and brighter as the owl above lands behind them.

“Fareeha, I need your help.”

She obeys at once, coming to stand beside Angela. Between them, in the earth, is a tiny, glowing seed.

“Give me your hand.” Angela says, holding out her own. Fareeha gives it her, watching when she wipes her dagger clean on her pale leather trousers. Angela raises her eyes to hers, expression serious as she speaks. “Do you trust me?”

Fareeha nods.

“This is going to hurt.”

Before she can protest, Angela slashes through the palm of her own hand, and then Fareeha’s, pressing the wounds together tightly. The sting of it fades quickly, the warmth of their blood dribbling from between them and landing on the seed. It wriggles. Another drop of red, and it starts to bloom to life. Fareeha watches, amazed, as roots take hold, leaves and a green shoot sprouting forth, borne of their blood, mixed as one.

Warmth passes against her hand and she understands that Angela is healing her. Apparently satisfied, Angela gives a tired nod, still holding her as she drags her back down the bank and into what remains of the battle.

The last demon is slain by a fifteen-year-old girl. Shaped like a lion, covered in winding tendrils of living fur, the girl drives a spear so far down its throat half her body is in its mouth when it dies.

Fareeha feels an overwhelming wave of sickening relief when its body disintegrates, its bones joining the thousands upon thousands of others which litter the battlefield. An eerie silence falls over the warriors, the morning sun blazing down upon them and bathing them in the goodness of the day. Bloody and exhausted, shocked to have won, and to be alive, they stare around themselves like new-borns, watched only by the mountainous spectral owl which is perched above the Gate, and the rapidly growing plant between its claws.

Fareeha wipes Raptora on her ruined cloak, cleaning the blade as best she can before sliding it into its home on her belt. It’s over. She thinks. It’s done. Her knees shake under her, her heart still throbbing wildly in her head as she turns to face the owl. Angela is standing at her side, looking up, her face shining in triumph.

“Watch this,” she whispers.

The plant, which had been a seed only minutes ago, suddenly erupts into a tree. Roots pool outwards over the Gate’s closed maw like waterfalls, a trunk thickening and creaking as it drives upwards, the sails of leaves unfurling to taste the sun. Fareeha stares upwards, jaw slack, eyes wide in surprise as she watches the tree grow taller and taller, swallowing the owl and the Gate. She murmurs a prayer, feeling the shock and awe of the people around her as they stare in silence until finally the tree grows no more.

Birds begin to sing. Insects buzz and flutter.

Like a low rumble, the cheering starts. It is a low hum, building and building until an explosion of sound drives the birds in nearby leaves to flight. Fareeha finds her voice, embracing warrior after warrior, heart swelling with pride and love for all those around her until she is faced with Angela, her beautiful face shining.

“We did it.” Angela says.

“We did.” Fareeha replies. She steps to the Priestess, hands trembling, before wrapping her arms around her and holding her so tightly she fears she might break her ribs. Angela hugs back just as fiercely, covered in blood and sweat and mud, her white cloak barely white at all. Like snow, pink blossoms from the new-born tree flutter down, grass springing up between their feet to cover the bones of the dead, drawing the demons back into the earth, where they belong.

Fareeha barely notices, her head full of Angela, her arms full of warmth, the triumph of Shala’Zor’s last warriors filling her ears.

Chapter Text

Fareeha is well and truly drunk.

Slouched back in her chair, one hand wrapped around a carved wooden goblet, she stares hazily out at the banquet hall, trying to pull herself together. The wine is thick and heady, sweet and rich, imported from Arga and housed in Ashrah’s only remaining stores. Someone had told her, as they’d cracked the fifth barrel open, that it had been aging for a century. The strength of it does little to dispute this fact and her head swims as she bends over to peer beadily into her mug, seeing she has run out.

She lifts her hand, and someone refills her cup, spilling the wine everywhere when they start shuddering with laughter at someone’s hailed jest.

The hall is throbbing with noise. Ashrah is alive with music and dancing - people are jerking drunkenly on every table, the remains of the enormous feast that had greeted them upon their return jumping everywhere. Fareeha nibbles at the remains of her meal, cracking open a bone with her teeth to suck the still warm marrow out, swallowing gratefully and sighing. Full, and content, she feels the aching exhaustion of a battle well fought settling over her.

Angela is to her right, talking animatedly with Kin who looks similarly engrossed. She tilts her head lazily towards them, tuning into the conversation briefly.

“It’s simple, really,” Kin is saying, their hands carefully folding a piece of cloth in half, and then into quarters. Both them and Angela have drunk less than Fareeha, and seem to be mostly sober. “Magi magic derives from spirits of nature who bind themselves to us when we are conceived.”

Fareeha has a grotesque mental image of some spirit finding its way into the nooks and crannies of two people coupling and has to muffle laughter into her wine, nearly choking. Somehow, she can’t get the image out of her head, even as Angela gives a noise of comprehension.

“That is why you are born with black eyes, no?” Angela rests a hand on Kin’s arm, squeezing gently and entirely ignoring Fareeha as she wrestles with her goblet.

“Yes. Communication between human and nature spirit is extremely important. Balance must be kept.”

Fareeha turns her attention to the rest of the hall, watching as the young warrior girl who killed the last demon is paraded about on Yeisa’s shoulders, being hailed as ‘the Hero of New Tree’. The Farak is watching on dully, his hands clutched tightly around his goblet, forehead glistening with sweat under the dancing lights of the candles. He had remained behind at the camp during the battle, promising to hold the clearing in case they had need of a retreat. Even though he had not seen any bloodshed, he looked his usual timid self.

An old man with too much responsibility. Fareeha thinks. She finishes her wine and gets to her feet, swaying slightly as she says something about getting some fresh air. That much is true - the hall is too stuffy for her, and her thin clothes chafe at her skin. She wants nothing more than the cool, billowing robes of the Argan style. They’re perfect for hot summer nights, even late summer nights such as this.

Angela waves her away, still talking with Kin about magic or other. Fareeha staggers down the table and into the mass of the party, ignoring everything except the pang of her bladder. Someone collides into her, and she goes sprawling into a bench; laughter roars around her, whoever it is struggling to their feet before pulling her up too, dusting her off and apologising in a slurred voice. She dismisses them with a grunt, hauling herself towards the exit to find somewhere to relieve herself.

The night is like a slap in the face. Dizzy, Fareeha spends a moment to lean back against the door, breathing in the cool air. Ashrah had not been damaged as previously thought. Only half of the village had been destroyed by the fires, leaving plenty of room for the others while they rebuild.

When she feels confident enough to walk she shrugs off the door and staggers along the pathway, keeping one hand on the banquet hall wall. The idea of tumbling to her death because she is drunk is something which makes her laugh, but she makes sure she stays clear of the edge of the platform, thinking dully that the Zorrians didn’t seem to drink much if they didn’t have safety nets hanging under every tree.

She crosses a bridge, the noise of the party fading to the soft sounds of people joining, hidden behind closed doors and tied curtains. She keeps going, finally finding the small room she and Angela are sharing and somehow manages to push herself behind the protective screen, loosening her breeches just in time.

When she is done, she feels more sober. Casting her eye longingly towards the double bed, feeling the way her eyes burn with tiredness, she trods out of the room again, closing the door behind her and stuffing her hands into her pockets. They would be leaving tomorrow, starting their long journey to Axis Mundi and its library. The Marguey would be accompanying them as far as the furthest border - Yeisa had insisted upon it, saying that they were to be checking with the outposts anyway for signs of the mage who had caused so much strife.

The Captain’s burning desire to find the cause of the demon invasion had not faded with the closing of the Gate. Indeed, it had only grown in determination, and she was not the only one who wanted to see the mage dead. Fareeha had more than a small interest in finding the mage. But, Angela had reminded her that their work was done, and that they had to move on.

So, they would be leaving the forest behind in favour of the leagues of grasslands known as Senak; rich and fertile, Senak is populated mainly by farmers and their Horse Lords. Fareeha cares little for the Horse Lords, glad only that the road would not be empty of a quantity of inns and taverns for them to sleep in, as well as vast towns and walled keeps. Senak is easily the safest place for many thousands of miles, well protected by the militia of the Horse Lords and their barons.

The music is still a thunder of drums and pipes when Fareeha slips back into the hall. Angela and Kin are still at their place, deep in conversation, the Farak is sitting alone in one corner, and Yeisa is drinking deeply from a horn as her warriors cheer her on. Fareeha runs the gauntlet again, narrowly avoiding a candle being thrown onto her as it topples off a table under the continuous pounding of feet, and takes her place at Angela’s side.

“What happened to you?” Angela asks as she eases herself back into her chair.

“I got too hot.” She replies.

She is about to ask Kin their thoughts on Axis Mundi when a shadow falls over her. She looks up into a flinty green eye and a grin so wide, Yeisa’s cheeks look as though they’re about to crack.  She leans bodily over her, placing her hands on the arms of Fareeha’s chair and smirks at her.

“You saved my life.” Yeisa says. Her scent is hot and heady around her, flavoured by the rich spice of the forest. Half her face is hidden beneath white bandages; her right eye had been blinded completely by the demon’s acid, her face baring terrible marks from the burn. She doesn’t seem to care, though, maintaining heartily that she is honoured to have such a wound, and refused Angela when she offered to heal it. Fareeha studies her coolly, privately thanking the God she isn’t as drunk as she was. She might have said something unkind, about how Marguey and Barren Knights are not an equal match. She hasn’t forgiven Yeisa for speaking about Angela like a whore.

“I did what I had to.” She says instead, ignoring the look on Angela’s face as the priestess watches them. Perhaps she is recalling Fareeha’s anger, and wondering if she will have to break apart a fight.

Yeisa leans closer. Fareeha can feel her breath, warm on her face, and surprisingly pleasant to smell; like spices, putting Fareeha in mind of the markets which would visit the temple in Arga, always bursting with red and orange and yellow powders.

“I have to pay you back.” Yeisa’s hands slide along the arms of the chair and Fareeha presses herself back, feeling her cheeks flush when lips brush against hers in speech. “My people firmly believe in paying debts.”

Fareeha isn’t sure how saving a life meant sleeping with someone, but she doesn’t have time to raise questions. Yeisa presses forward and kisses her before she can speak, a hand shoving against her chest to keep her still. Too surprised to do anything, she stays quite still even as Yeisa’s teeth nip at her lower lip in an attempt to get a response. She jumps at the sharp pain, gasping and Yeisa pulls away, smirking smugly.

“My door is open to you, Knight.” She murmurs huskily before walking away. Fareeha watches her go, seeing her strong shoulders and firm legs in a new light. All in all, despite everything, Yeisa isn’t hard to look at. Striking in her own way, the strength of her is obvious as she grasps the hailed Hero of New Tree and hauls the girl onto her shoulders for another victory lap around the banquet hall, much to the enthusiasm of the other villagers and Marguey.

“Well,” Kin’s voice shakes with suppressed laughter, “you seem to have won the captain’s favour, Knight. Well done.”

Head spinning like she’s still drunk, Fareeha turns to look at the mage, feeling herself grin stupidly. Angela’s fingers are clutching her goblet so tightly her knuckles are white, her face tight in the corners. Fareeha thinks she looks almost angry. But before she can remark on it, Angela vanishes behind her cup, gulping down her wine like she is dying of thirst. Kin glances at her, raising an eyebrow, before shrugging.

“I wanted to ask,” Kin says, leaning over the table to see Fareeha more clearly. She can still feel how hot her cheeks are and she sneaks a glance at Yeisa, curious. She looks as strapping as Angela had said she was, standing tall and proud while she enacts something from the battle. She mimes someone falling off something, and the group around her roar with laughter, slapping the table. The Farak, sitting only a few yards away, takes a sip of his drink and frowns at their brevity.

But then Kin is talking to her. She drags her mind back to the conversation, ignoring how Angela pours herself more wine.

“You are going to Axis?” Kin fiddles with their cloth again.

Fareeha nods, “Mercy wishes to see the library. I go where she goes.”

“Indeed?” Kin smiles. “I have an acquaintance there whom may prove useful to you. She goes by Symmetra; she’s an excellent mage. Seek her out and tell her Kin’Torah sent you.”

“I will do, thank you.”

Kin dips their head delicately, then yawns massively, hiding it in the sleeve of their robe. They excuse themselves, bowing deeply when they get to their feet before leaving the hall, leaving Angela and Fareeha to themselves. Angela is sucking back more wine and Fareeha takes to watching the Farak as he plays around with a plate of congealed ribs.

Angela mutters something angrily, and Fareeha looks at her, frowning.

“What?”

“Nothing.” Angela replies icily. She gets to her feet, steadying herself on the table. “I’m going for a walk.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” Fareeha half rises, but Angela shoots her a look which clearly dismisses her.

“No thank you, Knight.”

She stalks away. Fareeha shrugs, amusing herself with the idea she was worried about Angela and Yeisa sleeping together while she toys with one of the wooden forks, which had been abandoned. She doesn’t think Angela is petty enough to be upset Yeisa wants her when she had been going after the priestess before the battle.

She’s jealous.

She shakes the thought away at once, and gets to her feet, trotting down the table and heading for the Farak’s side. He looks up at her when she sits beside him, shuffling slightly awkwardly when she leans over the table on her elbows and watches as Yeisa arm wrestles with another of her warriors, the crowd around her hooting so loudly the mugs and plates rattle.

“Huh-hello,” he mutters nervously, glancing at her. He mops the top of his head.

“Evening.” Fareeha rubs her nose. They sit together in total silence for a while - Fareeha watches as Yeisa wins the first arm wrestle, then loses the next, much to her apparent mirth. The Farak takes a sip of his drink; water, Fareeha notes, when some of the clear liquid dribbles down his chin.

“I-I am suh-so pleased we w-wuh-won.” He stammers eventually, fingers fluttering to the amulet around his neck. It is a glass orb, swirling with colour.

“It must be a relief to you.” She replies. “You can start rebuilding your town.”

“Oh yuh-yes. Quite.” His throat bobs. “Thuh-the d-duh-demons destroyed so m-much… It will take us suh-so long t-tuh-to rebuild…”

Fareeha nods, resting her hands together on the table, fingers tangled. Yeisa bellows for more drinks and is obliged, the tight line of her shoulders flexing as she lifts the enormous barrel over her head with ease.

“Call for the Knights of the Barrens,” she says, amusing herself with imagining Leif and Yaser contending with Yeisa. “They will come to your aid, no doubt. Indeed, ask for my Chapter. I know my people will help you.”

The Farak offers her a wobbly sort of smile, his fingers slipping on his amulet. Fareeha looks into his eyes, seeing how they flicker and grow dark. Darker than brown. Black. Black like the backs of beetles, glistening and sly in the firelight. She blinks, and his eyes are watery blue again.

Mage. It’s him. He’s the mage they’re looking for.

Fareeha has an awful moment when she realises that he knows she saw, and has no time to do anything except gasp as a dagger blossoms into his hand. He grabs her shoulder with surprising strength, aiming a wild stab for her stomach. Acting instinctively, she grabs his wrist as he drives forward, lifting his arm with ease and slamming it against the table so hard the dagger bounces out of it. Wild, inconsolable, fury surges into her breast and she takes a hold of the back of his neck, shoving his face against the table; his nose breaks with an audible snap. Blood bursts across the table like juice from a fruit, and she snarls in his ear as he whimpers in pain.

“You will face the full force of justice before I let you go.”

The arm wrestling has come to a halt. Yeisa pulls herself to her feet, heading towards them and frowning when she sees Fareeha shove the Farak’s face into the table more firmly.

“What’s this?” She asks, leaning on a hip.

“He’s a fucking mage,” Fareeha spits, grabbing the chain the amulet hangs from and tearing it off.

At once, his appearance changes; he becomes thinner, hair sprouting out of his head and growing longer and longer. He twitches, moaning pathetically as three of his fingers sever themselves, leaving stunted knuckles in their wake.

“It wasn’t me!” He screams, writhing against Fareeha’s grip. “It was Kin! It was all Kin’s idea!”

Yeisa is blinking slowly, trying to understand what is going on. Her warriors are watching on, some half risen as they take in the scene before them. Fareeha grabs the mage’s hair and yanks his head upwards so they can see his eyes. Yeisa’s face darkens like thunderclouds over a horizon. She plucks up the dagger, inspecting it carefully. It is a thin, delicate blade, as though made of spun glass. The hilt and cross guard are brightest gold, the pommel inlaid with a single red ruby the size of Fareeha’s thumbnail.

“This isn’t a Zorrian dagger,” Yeisa says. Her voice is a good deal calmer than Fareeha thought it would be, but she notices the way her hand trembles as she examines the blade, turning it this way and that. Like lightning she strikes, twirling the dagger and stabbing downwards, embedding it in the mage’s hand, pinning him to the table. His shrieks are so loud the musicians stop their playing.

“Who are you?” Yeisa is bellowing in Zorrian, leaning over the table to shout in the mage’s ear. She keeps saying it, slamming her palm against the dagger’s pommel until its cross guard rests against the back of his hand.

“Zeni’Maz,” the mage promptly pisses himself. Fareeha shifts her boots to avoid the mess as he squeals his information. “Talon sent me! Talon sent me!”

Yeisa glances at her, as though to ask if she has heard of Talon. She shakes her head, and Yeisa snarls, grabbing the dagger’s handle as though to twist it. The mage yells in panic.

“Who is Talon?”

“I- I don’t know! They’re mercenaries! That’s all I know! I swear! I swear on the Dawn!”

Yeisa yanks the dagger out if Zeni’Maz’s hand and orders her warriors to take him away. They oblige; Fareeha gets out of their way as they heave the mage up off the table and drag him away. Blood follows them in tiny drips on the ground, soaking into the floor. Yeisa cleans the dagger off on a scrap of cloth, and holds it out for Fareeha to take.

“When you get to Axis, ask around for Talon,” she says briskly. “I can’t leave Shala’Zor while they are still rebuilding.”

Fareeha nods, holding the dagger carefully and eyeing its tip, trying not to think how close she came to it being buried in her gut. Yeisa gives her a once over, then dips her head, striding back to her warriors, barking orders for them to find Kin and take them to the strange mage. Fareeha sneaks out of the hall, running a shaking hand through her hair as she makes her way back to her and Angela’s room. She has nearly died before - she isn’t a stranger to death - but the idea that it could have happened in a crowded hall surrounded by allies has shaken her. What if he had gone for Angela? What if she hadn’t grabbed his arm in time? She rubs her chest, squinting at the weapon in the light from the firefly lamps, imagining what it would feel like piercing her heart.

When she enters their room, she arrives to darkness. She closes the door behind her and leans against it, inhaling deeply and closing her eyes. The peace is a welcome relief from the noise of the party, the dark closing in about her like the wings of a bird, soothing her nerves.

“Fareeha?

She yells like an animal, raising the dagger against invisible assailants as a lamp comes to life in the corner. Angela is in bed, blinking owlishly at her, hair tousled. She has the sheets clutched up to her chest, her bare arms goose bumped in the cool air.

Feeling like an idiot, Fareeha lowers her arm. She strides to the table, setting the weapon down and fetching her cloak to lay on the floor.

“Please...”

She half turns, peering at Angela. She looks nervous, vulnerable, and the expression finds a place in Fareeha’s heart she cannot deny. Despite herself she approaches the bed, standing before her, straightening her back as though about to be inspected. She avoids looking Angela in the eyes, not quite wanting to feel as though she is being prized apart and her soul peered into.

“Whose blood is that?”

Fareeha glances down. She notices spots of blood on her tunic - the mage’s. She explains in a rush what happened, sparing no details as she describes Yeisa’s brutal questioning, or the way the mage had nearly stabbed her. By the end of her tale Angela is apparently wide awake. She shoves the sheets off herself, revealing her nakedness - at which Fareeha stares pointedly at the ceiling while she scrambles for a robe to slip on - and makes her way to the table, picking the dagger up in thin fingers.

“Talon?” She asks. She puts the weapon down, then strides to Fareeha to inspect her. Fareeha lets her, standing still until she is satisfied.

“Yeisa asked me to ask about them in Axis.”

All business, Angela sets herself on the bed, patting the space beside her for Fareeha to sit. She sinks gratefully onto it, stretching out her stiff legs with a groan.

“I should have brought Raptora with me to the feast.”

Angela heaves a sigh, rubbing her forehead. “No. I shouldn’t have walked off in a huff. I seem to be making some serious mistakes these days. If he’d stabbed you…” She inhales sharply, her hands clutching her robe as though fighting off a chill.

“You weren’t to know.” Fareeha fiddles with her fingers awkwardly. “We didn’t know. But he’s been dealt with.”

Angela nods, and in a small voice speaks, “May I take your hand?”

Fareeha offers her a demon blood stained hand; her skin is still blackened, the fingertips tingling vaguely most of the time. She forgets the tinges when Angela tangles their fingers together, settling their hands on her lap and stroking the back of her hand with her thumb, holding her tightly.

“Why were you so angry with me? When we first got here after that dinner?”

Fareeha casts her mind back, and recalls Angela’s fingers pinning her cloak around her, and the way her fingers had felt like a brand against her tattoo. She heaves a sigh, rubbing her eye. “In Arga, the things you were doing were signs of ownership. If you had been anyone else…” She considers an easy way for her to understand it. “If you were Argan, it would be like you asking me to marry you.”

To her surprise Angela blushes. She clears her throat, making a tiny noise of understanding in her throat.

“I never wanted to own you. I don’t want to own you.” Angela squeezes her hand again. “You’re free to do whatever you want, or… whoever you want.” She glances shyly up at Fareeha from under long lashes. “I hope you can forgive me for overstepping my mark. You’re just so easy to look at.”

Angela giggles, and Fareeha realises she is drunk. Her realisation is compounded when Angela leans into her side, resting her head on Fareeha’s shoulder and clutching her arm tightly to her chest. A tiny part of her enjoys the attention, unable to stop herself from feeling the swell of Angela’s breasts on either side of her trapped arm. Mostly though, she resigns herself to whatever happens, recalling briefly the first time she had gotten drunk. She had kissed Nasir sloppily, and then fell into the fountain outside the Chapter’s sleeping quarters. Her mother had smacked her so many times she hadn’t been able to sit for a week.

“It’s all right, Angela,” Fareeha looks around at the bed, wanting nothing more than to crawl under the covers. “Why don’t you sleep? We have a long journey tomorrow.”

“Only if you sleep with me.” Angela laughs when she sees Fareeha’s expression and gives her a friendly little shake. “I mean sleep beside me. In this bed.”

She tries to say no. She really does try. But Angela is staring up at her with those huge blue eyes, her lips slightly parted, the opening of her robe revealing the slight swell of her breasts. When Fareeha finally gives in Angela lets out a small laugh and leans up to press a sweet kiss against her cheek. Dazed, and amused, Fareeha watches as Angela crawls into bed, securing her robe around her and patting the other side of the bed, watching expectantly.

Fareeha gets to her feet and kicks off her boots, yawning so hugely her jaw cracks. Then she sweeps aside the covers, slipping under them and settling on her back, staring blankly up at the ceiling while Angela blows out the candle.

“Good night, Fareeha,” she murmurs sleepily.

“Good night, Angela.”

Even though she is only a foot away, Fareeha finds sleep easily. Her eyes drift closed, her nose full of Angela’s clean scent, feeling the heat of her body against her side even across the gap. Her last thought is an image of them, standing in front of the tree they had made together, holding hands and searching each other’s faces, feeling the dawn rise.

Chapter Text

She wakes up feeling warm. Someone is curled around her, their breaths puffing against the back of her neck, their arms and legs entwined around her like the roots of some great tree. Hazy with sleep she pushes her face deeper into her pillow, reluctant to open her eyes and begin the day. A light headache is stinging behind her right eye, threatening to bloom into a dull pound. She wonders where she even is. Her mouth feels like something died in it; she moves her tongue thickly, moaning softly. Whoever is embracing her tightens their grip, burying a cold nose against her back.

The scents of the forest blossom around her. The sweet tang of decaying leaves, and tree sap, do little to hide the smell of cooking. Forest? This is not Arga.

She opens her eyes. The treetop room comes into focus slowly. Her cloak is abandoned on the floor, lain out as though she was going to sleep on it. Her boots are similarly lost - one hunched beside the door like someone being sick, the other standing resolutely under the table: a silent vigil against the night. She blinks a few times, then muffles a yawn into her pillow, trying to remember if she went to bed with anyone the previous night. She draws a blank.

Yeisa kissed me.

She burrows her face deeper into her pillow. Clearly whatever had transpired hadn’t been particularly inspiring, or she would have remembered it. She gropes at her tunic and breeches. But I’m not naked. So I didn’t…

Unbidden, an image of Angela scurrying naked out of bed bubbles to the forefront of her mind. She thought she’d looked away quick enough to not see anything, but apparently, this is not the case. She recalls the smooth contours of pale flesh, the little pink nipples and the thatch of pale hair between her legs. Legs that were strong and lithe with riding and fighting. Fareeha shifts her weight, trying to ignore the sharp twist of arousal in her gut. Her sleeping companion snuffles.

“Morning,” they say sleepily, punctuating the greeting with a yawn. Fareeha tries to stem the surge of dread and excitement she feels when she realises it’s Angela. So much for trying to distance myself.

“Good morning.” She replies shortly before extracting herself from the tangle of limbs, feeling very much awake. Angela lets her go, her arms slipping away from her as she sits up, twisting her body to settle on the edge of the bed. Guilt brays at her heels. She tries to ignore it, getting to her feet and riffling through her bag, drawing out a loose herb pouch. She pulls a small stick of arak out, inspecting it before sticking it into her mouth. Chewing methodically until it splits into bristles, Fareeha cleans her teeth while gazing idly out of the window, peering up at the sky. It is a bright, but cloudy day. She wonders if it will rain. The arak is bitter on her tongue, and the scents of roasting meat make her stomach bugle half-heartedly.

“We’re leaving today, yes?” Angela asks. Fareeha can hear clothes rustling, so she concentrated on the leaves of a nearby tree, examining how green was turning to yellow with the autumn.

“We are.” Fareeha finishes brushing her teeth, her mouth cool with the bitter taste of arak, reaching to the nearby table and plucking up the strange dagger from the night before. She inspects it briefly before shaving the used bristles off her arak and abandons them to the wind. “I would like to be out of Shala’Zor by tonight. We have many miles to go.”

Angela comes to a halt beside her, dressed in her white clothes and cloak. Fareeha watches the way her bare toes wiggle against the wood for a moment before turning away, fetching her own clothes from her bag. Trusting Angela not to look, she gets undressed quickly, shoving her scarred legs into leather breeches and lacing them up, before pulling her cotton shirt over her head. As she gets trapped in the arms and wrestles with the cotton, a flash of memory makes her cry out. Hot, burning eyes, like portals to hell, guarded by a mouthful of teeth. She tastes blood on her tongue, nose full of the scent of decay, compounding her rising swell of fear.

Ravaged by remembrance, it takes her a while to orient herself. Her knees throb dully where she had fallen, her head trapped in the arm of her shirt still as a soothing hand rubs her back. Flushing, mortified, she finds the opening and shoves herself into her tunic, trying to ignore how hard her heart is pounding in her throat, or the faint line of sweat which cools rapidly over her forehead. She would not let herself be a slave to demons, even in memory.

“I’m fine,” she says gruffly to Angela’s probing, pushing herself to her feet and stomping to her boots. She yanks them on, rubbing her knees surreptitiously; they would bruise, no doubt, but she doesn’t want to draw too much attention to herself.

Angela seems to know better than to pry. Together they pack their meagre belongings away; Fareeha shackles Raptora to her left hip, breathing a little easier at its familiar weight, before shoving the strange glass dagger into her belt. Angela pulls up her hood, palming her staff in one hand and her bags in the other. Fareeha does a final sweep of the room before following Angela out into the day.

It is raining lightly, pattering on the pathway as they trot neatly towards the banquet hall. Fareeha finds herself enjoying how it feels against the top of her head, cool beads of water dribbling down her scalp and neck. The air is fresh and it drives the last lingerences of her headache away. She sucks in another lungful, peering around at Ashrah with its treetop rooms and firefly lamps. People are peering at her from their doorways. Children clutch at the trousers of tired parents, dark eyes silent and judging as Angela and her pass. Perhaps it is because Angela is radiant in the half-light.

Yeisa and three helmed warriors greet them at the banquet hall. Dressed in her armour she cuts a dashing figure, her feathered helmet clutched under one arm. Her remaining eye is hard, face set and mouth a thin line of displeasure. A leather patch hides the disfigured half of her face, and she fiddles with it as they approach.

“Your horses await you,” Yeisa says stiffly, all business.

“Thank you for feeding and sheltering us,” Angela says, taking Yeisa’s hand in both of hers. Yeisa bends over them to kiss Angela’s knuckles, her voice rough with either a hangover or emotion, Fareeha can’t be sure, but she watches on sharply anyway.

“You saved us. My warriors and I owe you our lives three times over.” Yeisa steps aside and dips her hand into a sack one of her companions’ cradles, drawing out a small kitten. It mewls pathetically, tiny mouth opening in the cry, huge blue eyes staring at them all with the wonder and fear of a child.

“To repay our debts, I grant the Pale Priestess and her Knight of the Barrens one of our riding cats, to nurture and care for, so that we may ride with you in spirit.” Yeisa’s voice is ringing, carrying proudly around the village. Angela, her hands full, steps aside so that Fareeha can take the creature. It is so small she can cradle it in one hand, fur so soft she wants nothing more than to press her face into its warm little belly. It peers up at her, all four paws curled to its chest, tiny tail shivering.

Fareeha tears her eyes away from the kitten to stare into Yeisa’s face. She doesn’t have to see the expression of torn grief to know that the gift is a great honour, and comes at great cost to the Marguey. She dips into her lowest bow yet, holding the cat against her chest securely.

“You honour the Knights and the Pale with your gift, Yeisa. May the God shine upon you from the Stars, and the Dawn always come. Send for my Chapter, and they will come to your call, have faith in that.” She straightens. Yeisa steps forward and, to her great surprise, wraps an arm around her in a tight, but platonic, embrace. They pat each other’s backs awkwardly, then part.

“Look after yourselves,” Yeisa grunts gruffly. “My warriors are needed here, but the path is safe, you can be sure of that.”

“Dawn protect you and your people, Yeisa,” Angela murmurs. She shifts onto her tiptoes to press a sweet kiss against the captain’s cheek. “You will need the light in these dark times, I fear.”

“The forest is already dull at the thought of your leaving.”

One of the warriors offers Fareeha a cloth cradle to strap to her chest. She takes it, setting the kitten into it carefully and glancing down at it, making sure it is comfortable. It is purring, tiny mouth spreading in a yawn as it settles against the fabric to sleep. I’m glad it isn’t more worried. I would be, if I was it. For now, though, it seems content to rest. Fareeha envies it.

She steels herself, saying her final goodbyes to a grim faced Yeisa before starting her descent down the ladder nailed to the tree. It is a dizzying distance away from the ground, and she dares not look down. Instead she stares resolutely at the tree, making her way towards the forest floor as smoothly and quickly as she can. Risking a glance upwards, she sees Angela following her lead, receiving an eyeful of her tight leather pants. Don’t even think about it.

Face flushed, Fareeha keeps going, finally reaching the ground and stepping away from the tree. Silas and Angela’s horse are waiting for them, browsing the leaves below, saddled and ready.

“That wasn’t so hard.” Angela says cheerfully, patting Fareeha’s hand. “I’m glad they gave us one of their cats. I wonder if it will be hard to train?”

Fareeha doesn’t answer, checking the kitten to make sure it is all right. It is sleeping soundly, tiny claws curling into the fabric of its sling. Their bags are lowered slowly, hitting the ground with a soft flump; Fareeha affixes them quickly to their saddles, surprised when another bundle arrives for them.

Two bows, two quivers full of arrows and two war horns sit in the small basket. She plucks the bows up, testing the strings on both, pleased to find them in extremely good shape. She looks upwards and thinks she sees Yeisa’s face peering back down at them. Fareeha raises a hand in thanks and receives a bellowed horn call in return, which sets nearby birds to flight. Gathering the final gifts, she tucks the bows to their saddles and swings the war horn around her waist, handing the other to Angela. She takes it, studying it for a moment, before hanging it around her neck and hauling herself into the saddle. Fareeha copies her, glad to be on their way once more.

They glance up towards Ashrah one last time. Fareeha feels something like sadness filling her chest; she blinks quickly as she takes in the tree top town with its half burnt buildings and great banquet hall where they had dined with the clouds.

“May the Dawn always rise for them,” Angela says. She urges her horse down the trail, tugging her hood over her face as rain cascades from above.

May the God protect them, and the Stars watch over them. Fareeha thinks before following Angela, settling into her saddle for the journey ahead.

 


 

They reach the forest’s edge as dusk is falling. The vast grasslands of Senak stretch out before them as they stand in the treeline, swaying like a sea of green in the light breeze. The path is now a worn road, winding its way lazily through the grass like a river. Fareeha’s eyes follow it, looking in vain for the lights of a tavern or a town they can spend the night in. Senak is a great deal cooler than Shala’Zor and Arga, supplied by the cool sea breezes from the south.

Angela sits up in her saddle, eyebrows raised high.

“I recall thinking Shala’Zor was daunting,” she says. “Somehow Senak looks more treacherous than the forest.”

Fareeha nods, “There is no shelter. No hiding from other people.” She taps Silas’ flanks, urging him forward. The kitten is exploring her back and shoulders, clawing its way around her cloak and nuzzling her face. Every now and again she feeds it a tiny morsel of jerky from the pouch on her belt, eating a few herself and offering more to Angela. Angela refuses more often than not.

“Do you wish to make camp soon or try to find a place to stay?” Angela is keeping apace with her, regal and tall on her white steed. Fareeha shrugs, rolling her shoulders as they finally step out of the forest and into the wider world; the grass seems to whisper of their passing, swaying with the wind.

“It would be safer to find a place to stay. From what I remember from my maplore, there should be a village a little way away from here. I would have to check to be sure.” Fareeha feels herself quiver as the kitten’s cold nose brushes her neck, whiskers tickling her. It meows at her loudly.

Angela smiles at her when she glances her way. The sun’s light has turned her hair rich, the graceful arch of her neck drawing Fareeha’s eye when she looks away. She has a brief moment imagining what it would be like to mar the perfect flesh with blushed teeth marks. Would Angela like her doing that?

“Then we continue. I think we should pick up the pace, however.” Angela pats her horse’s shoulder. It snorts, shaking its head. “Come now, Meissa, carry me strong and true.”

Fareeha almost feels her ears twitch at the name. “You named your horse Meissa?”

“No,” Angela replies, her white gloved hands flexing on the reins. “She was named that when I bought her. Her old owner said it was a name of good fortune.”

Fareeha smiles, chuckling and looking away across the fields. Her mother feels closer than she has been in years. Fareeha feels as though she can look up into the sky and find Ana’s face smiling down at her.

“It isn’t just a name of good fortune,” Fareeha peers searchingly at the sky, then points to a brilliant star, shimmering in the middle of a band of three. “You see that? That is Meissa. We Argans also call it Al-Maisan. The Shining One. They say Meissa welcomes home the warriors when they go to rest in the stars.” She glances at Meissa’s gleaming white coat. “She was well named, your mare.”

Angela peers wonderingly upwards, her expression wistful. “I have always loved the stars. No one taught me their names though.”

“My mother did.” Fareeha catches the cat and holds it up, peering into its eyes. Then she tucks it into its sling where she feels it settle down to sleep. “She taught me the constellations as well. Perhaps one day I can teach you.”

“I would like that very much.” Angela’s voice is surprisingly full of emotion. Fareeha glances up to see her watching her. Her expression is intense, breathless, eyes dark with the dusk. She looks as wild as Yeisa did as the wind catches her hair, giving her an air of something ethereal.

Fareeha hears herself speak without thinking, “You’re as beautiful as the Dawn, Angela.”

The priestess blushes but laughs, shaking her head. Her otherworldliness is gone, replaced by the woman who sits astride a horse named for the stars. Fareeha swallows, rubbing her forehead with her free hand, wondering what possessed her to speak so frankly. She risks another look at Angela. I want to kiss her. Her lips are parted in a sigh, eyes roaming the rolling fields of grass. I can’t overstep my mark.

Fareeha looks away.

“We should get moving.”

“Of course.”

Fareeha puts her heels into Silas’ flanks. The horse snorts but obeys at once, bursting into a trot, then a canter before galloping swiftly down the road, kicking up dust. Fareeha can hear Meissa following and does not look back, confident that Angela is following her.

They ride well into the night. Dusk fades and night falls like a shroud, covering the grasslands in shadows. The stars flicker bleakly from behind thin clouds, a half-moon lighting their way as they thunder onwards, watched only by the creaking crickets and the swaying stems. Gradually, in the far distance, Fareeha sees the glimmer of torches. Emboldened, she urges Silas onwards, sitting up in the saddle despite her body’s weak protest, the thought of a warm bed and a hot meal spurring her onwards. Angela matches her pace, her white cloak streaming out behind her as they continue, flapping and teasing the wind. They make a pair; one white and one black, coursing down the road like comets.

It is well past midnight when they finally reach the town of Ezzrah. A post with the word emblazoned on it welcomes them as Fareeha rides Silas into it, breathing a sigh of relief when she sees the swinging sign of a tavern. The Four Ploughs’ sign swings idly, a pair of drunkards spilling out of its door, splashing the road with temporary light.

A stable boy hurries to her, staring up into her face as he raises a lantern to inspect her. She peers down at him, trying hard not to blink at the searing brightness of the flame.

“Four silvers for the horses to stable,” he squeaks. Fareeha nods, fiddling blindly with her coin pouch and finding the money. She tosses it to him before dismounting, sighing when Angela does the same. Unbuckling their bags, Fareeha bids the boy to take the horses away. He does so, walking them into the stables beside the inn, his companion aiding him. Silas and Meissa disappear into the dark, leaving Fareeha and Angela standing alone in the dark street.

Legs leaden, Fareeha leads the way into the quiet tavern. Angela does most of the talking, trading silver coins for a room and food. The tavern owner bites the silver to check its authenticity before nodding them up the stairs, saying that bread and cheese would be brought up to them.

The stairs are as hard as scaling a mountain.

Their room is cramped, and only one bed occupies the wall. Fareeha doesn’t have it in her to care, though. She sets their bags down with a groan, collapsing onto the bed and stretching out, gazing blindly at the ceiling.

“Thank the Dawn,” Angela says tiredly as she closes the door behind her, locking it at once. “I thought we would never get here.”

Fareeha grunts. She struggles against sleep until their meal comes, only just summoning the energy to sit up to eat. Angela sits beside her, wolfing the food down. The bread is stale, the cheese weak, but Fareeha doesn’t think she’s ever eaten a finer meal. Her stomach feels hollow with hunger and, when the kitten comes out to sniff at the food, she feeds it some bread. It sets out to explore, pawing across the bed and curling up right on the edge; a fluffy ball of snoring. Angela watches it, amused.

“What are you going to name it?” She asks, swallowing some water from a skin of theirs. Fareeha shrugs.

“I’m sure it will find its own name. I’m not sure even what its sex is.”

Angela makes a soft noise in her throat and spends the next several minutes stroking the cat. Fareeha busies herself with getting changed for bed, kicking off her boots and finding comfortable clothes to wear. Angela keeps her gaze respectfully averted while she gets dressed. Or, at least, Fareeha thinks she does. As she pulls a fresh shirt on over her head she thinks she feels eyes on her scarred back. A quick glance back shows Angela cooing at the kitten, though, so she shrugs the feeling away.

She climbs into bed with the gratitude of the dying. Angela starts stripping off her travelling clothes, casting them messily aside and yawning hugely. Fareeha studies the threadbare sheets until she feels the bed dip and hears Angela settle back against the cushions. Together they lay in silence for a moment, staring blindly at the wall.

Eventually, Angela says, “I hope every inn we sleep in from here to Axis is as well-furnished and cheap as this one.”

“Senak never wants for anything,” Fareeha replies. “It is one of the largest trade centres in the east, supplying Arga with most of her grains. The East’s Bread Basket, it calls itself.”

Muffling a yawn into her hand, Angela turns onto her side away from Fareeha and Fareeha does the same, blowing the lamp out.

“You know so much,” Angela mumbles, “it makes me envious.”

Fareeha feels herself smile even as her eyelids droop. “I learnt from my mother. You served with her, and I never got too. We are both envious, it seems.”

Angela doesn’t seem to know what to say to that. But even if she did, Fareeha doesn’t hear anyway. She is soon asleep, clutching her pillow as dreams haunted by burning eyes fill her mind.

Chapter Text

“I didn’t expect to see ya here, love.”

“Nor did I! You’re looking well. A lot better since I last saw you.”

A bubbly giggle jerks Fareeha out of sleep with all the savagery of a war hammer. The bright Westerling voice is strange to her, and she opens her eyes blearily to find Angela speaking with someone leaning in the doorway. She yawns into her pillow, still half asleep, tired after her long night of disturbing dreams and inappropriate thoughts about her charge.

“Who’s that, Angela? Doesn’t look half bad. You been shagging your way from Eastwall to Ljosalfheim or somethin’? Why didn’t you invite me along?”

Angela’s laugh is so infectiously girlish Fareeha has to raise her head, squinting at the stranger. Dressed in a thick riding leathers and a glowing harness, the stranger offers her a wave and a grin, displaying very white and very pointed teeth under a mop of brown hair. A pair of sharp daggers hang from her belt - Fareeha takes note of them, and wonders how quickly she could disarm her if it came to a fight.

“Lena, please, she can understand.” Angela seems unaware of Fareeha’s concerns, laying a hand lightly on the other woman’s shoulder and squeezing, her cheeks flushing slightly red.

“When has that ever stopped me?” Lena replies, nibbling her lip. She gives Fareeha a very obvious once over. “She’s got a nice arse, that’s for sure. Makes for a nice riding companion, if you know what I mean.”

Angela laughs despite herself. Fareeha feels her face flush and she grumbles, shoving back the covers and getting to her feet. She positively towers above the other woman, crossing her arms over her chest and scowling.

“Who are you?”

“Lena Oxton, ex-Overwatch soldier and a mate of Angela’s.”

A mate? Fareeha glances at Angela, frowning deeply, feeling a surge of confusion and that hot, nasty feeling in her gut again, similar to how she felt with Yeisa in the forest. Angela looks puzzled for a moment before she snorts and shakes her head.

“She means a friend,” Argan colours Angela’s tongue and Lena fiddles with her coat, apparently unable to understand. “She’s from the North West.”

“She speaks strangely.” Fareeha replies stoutly. “How did she find us? Is she to be trusted? Who is she?”

“She’s a friend,” Angela pats Lena’s shoulder again. “She served with me and your mother in the war.”

Fareeha eyes Lena in a new light. Beyond the childish grin and the way her fingers tap impatiently against the doorframe she can see the hard lines of a warrior under her clothes. She gives a grunt, brow furrowed, and rummages through her bag for her arak to clean her teeth. Angela invites Lena in, closing the door behind her and setting her down in a chair, chatting with her amicably.

“We just travelled from Shala’Zor. They were troubled with demons.” Angela pours three mugs of water, offering one to Fareeha. She takes it, muttering her thanks as Lena gets comfortable in her chair. She sits like she is trying to take up as much space as possible, arms swung over the back, legs spread with the easy assurity of overconfidence. Although, if she fought beside Ana, the confidence is not without justification.

“They’re not the only ones,” Lena replies. She pulls her thick gloves off, flexing long fingers and bitten short nails. “I’ve seen at least four bloody villages abandoned in Senak alone. But it’s not like the Horse Lords are doin’ anythin’ about it.”

Angela pauses mid drink, brow furrowed. Fareeha turns to Lena mouth full of arak and head full of questions.

“Another Gate has been opened?” Angela asks.

“It was, before I closed it.” Lena grins wickedly, drumming the tabletop and rocking her leg as though she is bursting with energy. “Now I’m headin’ outta here to Overwatch. You received the letters too?”

“I did, yes.” Angela replies reluctantly. Feeling suddenly unwelcome in the conversation thanks to Angela’s side glance at her, Fareeha finishes cleaning her teeth and heads to the bundle of fur with is their kitten. She gathers it up, cradling it to her chest. At her attention it squirms, yawning minutely and purring, rubbing its cheeks against her hand. She murmurs soothingly in Argan, fetching her clothes and disappearing behind the convenient screen in the corner of the room.

Dressing swiftly, she marches out into the open, the kitten perched on her shoulder, nibbling on some jerky and purring loudly in her ear. Angela and Lena are settled at the window, deep in conversation, speaking the rough, hard tongue Fareeha does not understand. She excuses herself with the excuse of checking on their horses and leaves the room before Angela can reply, closing the door solidly behind her and making her way down the stairs and into the day.

The sky is a brilliant blue, a cool breeze rustling her hair as she wanders through the town. Ezzrah is bustling with life, the market callers selling their wares at fair prices. Here and there butchers are making offers on their meats, fishermen advertising fresh fish and a whole stall of baked goods makes Fareeha’s mouth water. She trades several coppers for two small fish for her kitten, and then a few more for a hot pie, finding a place to eat her food on the worn steps of the town’s war memorial.

The kitten devours a fish hungrily, tiny claws and teeth making short work of the scales and bones. It peers up at her, meowing piteously until she gives it another, watching with some amusement at the way it crunches the fish’s head, its little fluffy belly swelling with its meal.

“Fierce, aren’t you?” Fareeha murmurs, then she tucks into her pie. It is too hot to eat, but she glories in the burn to the roof of her mouth, moaning softly at the thick gravy and chunks of meat. She hasn’t eaten a hot meal since the banquet.

She gives the last chunk of lamb to the kitten, feeling herself smile when it rolls onto its back and claws at her fingers. She plays with it for a few minutes, earning herself a few scratches and bites - her blood blackened fingers hardly feel the sting. Far from disconcerted at the loss of apparent feeling in her extremities she resigns herself to forever feeling vague pins and needles in her hands and feet. She didn’t need to feel things to be a good warrior.

The kitten gives a mighty hiss and pounces for her hand. She laughs, and rubs its ears until it calms down, raising an eyebrow when it starts licking her thumb clean of crumbs. She allows it, warmth filling her heart as it nuzzles into her palm and claws happily at the air. She lifts it up, holding it up above her head to peer into its bright blue eyes, admiring the patterns of dark fur spanning across its back. A quick glance between its hind legs reveals its sex and Fareeha smiles.

“You will be Rastaban,” Fareeha decides. The kitten blinks at his new name, then yawns, apparently unimpressed. She scolds him lightly, setting him on her shoulder and getting to her feet.

“You should be honoured,” she tells Rastaban. He nibbles her ear. “I have given you the name of a king. Ra's ath-thu'ban,” Old Argan is rough in her mouth, the unfamiliar phrase reminding her of her mother. “Head of the Serpent, and the last king of the Argans.” Rastaban entirely ignores the history of his name, instead choosing to make a climbing wall out of Fareeha’s back. She allows him, figuring the climbing is good training for his future. She doesn’t think she will ride him, but perhaps make a fighting companion of him when he is grown.

Making her way back to the baker’s stall she picks up a pie for Angela and, after some hesitation, one for Lena. Armed with her food she returns to the tavern, ordering the stable boys to have their horses saddled and ready for travel within the hour. He stutters an affirmative and gets to work while Fareeha enters the inn and trudges back up the stairs, finding Angela and Lena as she left them.

“If ya want shelter, head for Yas’iraj.” Lena is saying as Fareeha kicks the door closed. She sets the pies on the table, waving away words of thanks and sweeping her gaze around the room, gathering their possessions and packing them into their bags. Rastaban settles himself on her shoulder, making it hard for her to buckle on her mail and chest armour. She eventually has to put him on the bed, ignoring the way he mewls at her to be picked up again.

“Why there?” Angela replies as she nibbles on her pie.

“Hot springs. And its Lord is the least hostile of the Horse Lords. His name is Dustra’an.” Lena points to one of the maps laid on the table, clearly indicating whatever town she’s speaking of.

Fareeha tightens her sword belt around her waist, stowing her helmet under an arm and rolling her shoulders, feeling the give in her shoulder guards. Satisfied, she clips her cloak to her shoulders and plucks Rastaban off the bed, settling him into his harness on her chest.

“I’m not sure we want to be getting involved with any Lords, Lena.” Angela says carefully. “We need to get to Axis as soon as possible.” She finishes her pie delicately. “Do you know about something called Talon?”

Lena’s brow furrows while her mouth bulges with food. Swallowing with some difficulty, she shrugs. “Mercenary group, from what I know. Dunno what they’d be doin’ this far east. They’re in the west mainly, pissin’ off barons and shite. Why?”

Angela finishes her drink, mouth twisting at the corners in thought. She glances at Fareeha who levels a steady look at her, wondering what she wants while Rastaban claws his way back onto her shoulder. She calmly removes him, settling him back in his harness, not looking away from Angela’s expression. Lena is looking between them, eyebrows rising so rapidly they threaten to disappear into her hair.

“Tell her if you want,” Fareeha says finally. “She’s your friend.”

“It’s not that. I want to keep her safe.” Angela bites her bottom lip in that way which makes Fareeha realise she is thinking.

Fareeha pads to the table, drawing the glass dagger from her belt and setting it in front of Lena, nodding down to it before speaking. “We found this in Shala’Zor. The mage who opened the Gate had it on him.”

Lena plucks it up, inspecting it and testing its weight. She hums softly, casually flicking it into the air and catching it with the same easy confidence. “This is from Axis. Dunno how you found it all the way out ‘ere. Not like Axis Mundi sells its wares this far out. What’s this gotta do with Talon?”

“The mage mentioned them when questioned.” Angela replies. Lena shrugs her shoulders and offers the dagger back to Fareeha, who takes it. Then she gets to her feet, stretching and patting the glowing harness around her chest.

“I’ve gotta go. I’m headin’ West. Good luck, Angela, and see you in Overwatch, right?”

Angela gets to her feet. Fareeha bends down to grab their bags while the two women embrace, chattering in their strange tongue. Rastaban makes another bid for escape and she lets him, straightening only when she is sure he is secure on her shoulder. He nibbles her ear, then paws at her beaded braids, making them swing stupidly. She lets him though, watching as Angela and Lena part.

“Cheers for the pie, love,” Lena says cheerfully. Unsure what she means, Fareeha just nods mutely and with a woosh of magic, the strange woman is gone. Feeling ruffled and bewildered, Fareeha stares out of the open door, blinking and adjusting her grip on their bags. Angela has the decency not to laugh at her and plucks up her staff, donning her cloak. They glance once more around the room before leaving the tavern, mounting their saddled horses in the yard and starting afresh on their journey to Axis.

The village is still bustling as they ride through it. Fareeha settles into her saddle, giving Rastaban free rein of her shoulders and cloak. He clambers everywhere, making himself at home on the back of her saddle and meowing at Angela until she comes to ride beside them. She coos at him, and strokes his head and he hops lightly onto her lap.

“How brave!” She exclaims, rubbing the cat’s belly as they leave Ezzrah and enter the grasslands once more. “Have you named it yet?”

Fareeha nods, and explains Rastaban’s name and meaning, much to Angela’s apparent delight. She lifts him high into the air, nuzzling his nose with hers and smiling when he purrs loud enough for Fareeha to hear a whole metre away.

“Do you think we should see this Lord and his hot springs?” Angela asks eventually. Fareeha shrugs.

“Do you want to go? It may be useful for information. I want to know more about these demons.”

Angela hums softly, “Well, according to Lena’s map, it’s not far from here. We could get there tonight without much difficulty, even at a walking pace.”

Fareeha agrees and they set out together north. The day is a fine one. The sun is hot and warm, the last few days of summer proving their worth. A soft breeze cools them as they walk, their mutual silence only broken by the steady clop of horse hooves and the clink of mail on steel. The acres of grass open onto a vast lake, its river following their course through Senak; birds and creatures of all sorts sate their thirst at the lake. Towering herons and querulous sparrows sup beside a pride of lions and a herd of stately antelope, the water holding a peace that few other places have. Fareeha watches them, taking note of a lioness and her golden fur while Rastaban trundles his way across her shoulders.

“I didn’t realise this place was still so rich in life,” Angela says cheerfully, clearly watching the same animals as Fareeha is. “You were right when you said it is the East’s bread basket. I haven’t seen so many animals in one place before.”

Fareeha glances at her curiously. “You’ve travelled far afield before. You must have seen more beautiful lands than these.”

“An experience shared is more beautiful by half than when you see things alone.” Expression wistful, Angela peers at her until Fareeha busies herself catching Rastaban before he topples off her back.

“Besides,” Angela continues, “I travelled west to get to the east, across the sea and the mountains around Arga. So I didn’t see much of the land at all.”

“The sea is treacherous this time of year. Pirates and storms are the least of your worries.” Fareeha tucks Rastaban into his carrier. “Why did you come that way?”

“It was quicker.” Angela leans off her horse slightly to pluck a flower from a passing plant, smelling it delicately before presenting it to Fareeha. “Here. It matches your eyes.”

Fareeha takes it, taking a sniff. It smells sweet, pouting yellow petals soft against her nose. When she looks up at Angela, still holding the flower, not entirely sure what to do with it, the priestess laughs and steers Meissa closer. She gently takes the flower, leaning perilously over the gap between them to deftly weave its stem into Fareeha’s hair. Angela’s cool fingers brush against the top of her ear delicately and she suppresses a shiver. Face growing warm, she tries not to look at Angela when she leans back, humming as she inspects her work critically, tongue just poking out between her teeth.

“I don’t see how this helps me,” Fareeha says, just able to see the petals out of the corner of her eye.

“It just looks nice. Like I said, it matches your eyes. Brings out the colour so you can charm wayward farmers’ daughters.” Angela smiles radiantly, her lips parting to flash her teeth. Despite herself, Fareeha feels herself smiling back, cheeks growing hotter as she reaches up to touch the flower.

“The farmers can keep their daughters,” Fareeha replies, unable to stop herself feeling charmed. She fiddles with the reins. “Thank you. For the flower. I’ve never been given one before. It’s not an Argan custom.”

Angela’s lips purse in a pleased sort of way. She looks away as though to hide a grin. But when she speaks Fareeha can hear it in her voice. “It’s a Westerling tradition. Don’t pay much mind to it.”

Throughout the day Fareeha continues touching the flower as though to make sure it’s still there.

The sun is just dusting the horizon when they reach Yas’iraj. Towering walls hide the keep from the rest of the world, the river coiling like a snake around it, forming an impassable moat. The drawbridge is locked to them, firm and steady as a few guardsmen blink down at them, armed with crossbows. When Fareeha peers off their end of the bridge she sees spikes in the water. Whoever this Dustra’an is, he isn’t expecting friendly company.

“Hail!” Angela calls up to them. “May we have passage into your fine fortress? I am Mercy of the Pale, and this is my Sworn Sword, Pharah of Aquila, Knight of the Barrens. We seek sanctuary.”

One guardsman shoves his helmet up his face, squinting down at them before speaking. “Hail. The Lord isn’t accepting visitors today. Go back to Ezzrah and wait with the other pretenders.”

There is the clatter of metal on metal as the guardsman’s companion slams his fist over the back of his head. “You idiot, that’s a Pale Priestess, not some fucking mummer.” The second guard leans further out over the parapet. “Begging your pardons, Priestess. May the sun banish the night.”

“Stars guide your path.” Angela replies, every bit Mercy the Priestess now. Fareeha straightens in her saddle, setting her face into the firm stone of indifference. She knows her role; it is one she slips into like a pair of old boots. The stoic bodyguard.

The drawbridge lowers for them with a creek, the muffled thud of it hitting the ground doing nothing to distract from the fort before them. Built of red stone, the courtyard beyond is buzzing with courtiers and guards, the ringing of a blacksmith’s hammer echoing around them as they spur their horses through the thick gates. They are greeted by a tall man in violently purple robes, his strong jaw highlighted by a few days’ worth of dark stubble. His wavy brown hair falls out of place as he bows deeply at Angela’s approach, flopping back into a playful mess when he straightens.

“Greetings, Priestess,” he says in a deep, soothing voice which matches his bulk. His shoulders are so wide they are their own horizon. Fareeha wonders if he is a blacksmith. “I am Lord Dustra’an, of Yas’iraj. You are welcome to my hall.”

“Greetings to you, my lord.” Angela replies. She smiles prettily, regarding Dustra’an curiously. “I ask only food and shelter for myself and my companion.”

Dustra’an spreads his arms wide in welcome, smiling warmly, his icy blue eyes glimmering with the sunset. “What is mine is yours, Priestess. You honour myself and my house with your presence. Mataine, Musah, have their horses housed in the finest stables we have. I’m sure you wish to wash after your journey. Please indulge in our famous hot springs.” He claps his hands together and at once two small boys appear as though summoned, taking Silas and Meissa’s reins in hand.

Angela dismounts and Fareeha copies her, striding to her side mutely, hand resting idly on Raptora’s hilt. The Lord’s eyes flicker down to it but he makes no comment, instead leading them towards his great hall. It is an impressive sight. Towering steeples pierce the belly of the sunset sky, carved vines crawling up their buttresses and opening into vast leaves which decorate the roof. They step through his enormous carved door and into a room thick with wood smoke and the scents of a half-eaten feast; a quick glance around reveals dinner guests in their cups, roaring with laughter and singing to the music winding its way out of a corner.

“This way, please.” He smiles enigmatically at them, leading them into a narrow dark corridor, paved with rearing mosaic stallions of marble. The heat of the place quickly turns Fareeha sweltering in her armour - not even the sweat beading on her forehead cools her. Dustra’an seems unbothered though, his robes sweeping the stone floor as he walks and talks. “We have been expecting you, Priestess.”

“You have?” Angela sounds surprised, her grip tightening on her staff.

Dustra’an laughs like coals. “We were aware of your person the moment you stepped into Senak. There are more than trees guarding my boarders.” His eyes flicker back to Fareeha, eyebrow rising. “I did not expect you to have company, however.”

“She is my loyal companion, and my Sworn Sword.” Angela replies at once, her voice sharp. “Where she goes, I go.”

Dustra’an dips his head into a slight bow. “As it should be.”

He comes to a halt before a door and opens it. Steam gushes out, billowing around them and raising the temperature of the corridor by three-fold. Stifled, Fareeha prays for a breeze to release the pressure on her chest as she sucks in a breath of wet air. Dustra’an smiles serenely.

“Here are the baths. You will be undisturbed and fresh clothing provided. You will find that my household is very efficient.” He stands slightly aside. “Please, go on ahead. You will find your things in your rooms when you are done.”

He dismisses himself with a neat little bow which sends his flyaway hair into chaos again before striding away. Angela watches him go, eyebrows raised as she glances Fareeha’s way, letting out a stream of air from her mouth. Fareeha doesn’t think he is attractive in the slightest, but apparently Angela thinks so, so she shrugs and enters the baths.

The steam is so thick she can barely see. Squinting, she hears the sound of water lapping against stone and she heads towards it, nearly toppling head first into a deep pool. She lets out a tiny cry, balancing herself on the edge as Rastaban peaks his head out of his carrier, yawning sleepily.

“They’re very accommodating,” Angela says from nearby. She thinks she hears cloth hitting the floor so she moves away from Angela’s voice, finding the wall. The steam is so thick even the God could not see through it. Rastaban mewls and curls back into his carrier. She unties it, comforted by the thought, and starts to unbuckle her armour, hoping the thick air will not drive the mail to rust.

Naked and sweating, Fareeha makes sure Rastaban is not like to wander off before tentatively searching for the pool. She finds it with her toe, surprised at its heat, before sliding into the deep water. At once the aches of the journey ease out of her muscles. She lets out a sigh, relaxing against the stone side of the bath and resting her head back, closing her eyes. The water is scented with roses - a few petals stick to her chest and she flicks them away, shuddering at the slimy texture of them.

Roses in water. Who puts roses in water?

She is reminded of her flower. She snaps up a hand to touch it, heartened to find it is still there, bound by her dark hair and tucked behind her ear. A Westerling custom, Angela had said. The memory makes her heart flutter, stomach squeezing uncomfortably.

A very feminine sigh reaches her from just to her right. She blinks, covering her chest uncomfortably and peering through the fog. All she sees are ripples and rose petals.

“By the Dawn, they weren’t lying. These springs are lovely.” Angela is close by. Much closer than she thought. Fareeha holds herself tighter, and the fog parts.

Angela’s cloak is pooling around her shoulders, her bare leg poking out from white folds to touch the water with her toe. Fareeha stops breathing, staring at the graceful arch of Angela’s neck and the narrow angles of her bare shoulders, swallowing with some difficulty as she imagines the cloak slipping further down.

By the God. Give me strength. Give me strength.

The God is not kind. Angela glances up at her, their eyes meeting across the space and her lips part into a small ‘o’. Frozen, they watch each other, transfixed as the seconds lengthen. Then Angela looks over her shoulder towards the door as though to confirm it is shut, before she finds Fareeha’s gaze and slowly, deliberately lets the robe fall. It flutters to the ground, a graceful arch of cloth, pooling around her feet.

Fareeha forgets to pray to her God. She forgets that she is a Barren Knight and that looking at the Priestess is almost a sin. She forgets even to breathe, eyes widening as she looks. Angela’s body is as graceful as the rest of her. Pale skin, marred here and there by scars and marks, shifts in the vague light from above. Fareeha stares like a starving man at a feast, devouring her body from across the distance: her breasts; the blonde thatch of hair protecting her sex; her toned stomach flexing as she lowers herself slowly into the pool. Goosebumps flutter up Fareeha’s arms, her jaw growing slack as she watches the water swallow the woman before her. And, by the God, is she a woman. Somehow, even while travelling with her, Fareeha hadn’t realised she was a living, breathing woman and not just a priestess.

Approaching her slowly, the petals stick to her chest and she ignores them, moving through the water with apparent determination. Fareeha sucks in a breath, pinching the skin on her elbows with her fingernails. Her feet shift on the pool floor and she presses herself bodily to the wall, her heart jackhammering so hard against her ribs she fears it might burst out of her. God, God give me strength in the dark night. God, help me. Help me.

Angela comes to a halt before her. They are level in height; Angela’s noble nose nearly brushes against hers, eyes almost black in the gloom. Fareeha tries to remember a prayer. Any prayer, but only scraps come to her. Her mouth is dry. She aches to touch - at the impulse she tightens her grip on her arms, exhaling shakily.

“We… we can’t,” she chokes out. The words are becoming harder to say, the reasons why paling in comparison to the vivid woman in front of her. Angela cups her face in her hands, brushing her thumbs against Fareeha’s cheeks and smiling gently at her.

“We are two people, Fareeha.” Angela’s eyes blaze, intense and enthralling as she presses her whole body against Fareeha’s. She feels her nipples harden against her; Fareeha’s hands abandon their posts on her elbows, snatching out to grasp Angela’s hips. Her deadened fingers barely feel the smoothness of her skin, but she can imagine.

“If you truly do not want this, tell me.”

Mute, words forgotten, she goes still as Angela leans up slowly. Soft puffs of air ghost across her face, a chest heaving against hers, Angela’s lips brushing hers in the barest whisper, peering into each other, searching, seeking, questing for something neither of them can name. Fareeha’s fingers tighten around Angela’s waist.

The door opens with a bang. They jerk away from each other guiltily. Angela drifts away, submerging herself under the water as Dustra’an’s household servants set clothes and towels for them to dry and dress, their eyes respectfully lowered.

Clearing the lusty fog from her mind, Fareeha resolves to wash and dress as quickly as possible. She does just that, pulling the flower out of her hair in her haste and abandoning it as she clambers out of the bath, drying herself harshly as the servants leave. She barely notices what she is dressing in, pulling on trousers and shirt and stuffing her feet into her boots. Angela says nothing. Fareeha is glad of the silence.

Hitching Rastaban back around her chest, she sees that the servants took away her sweat stained clothes, relieved to find Raptora still in its sheath on her belt. She snaps it around her waist, leaving the hot springs as quickly as she can and leaning against the corridor wall.

A thousand curses on Angela. A thousand curses. She tries to steady her heartbeat, taking several deep breaths and closing her eyes. The moment springs to life again before her. She slams her fist into the wall to chase the image away, barely feeling the rough stone against her skin. She is lost. Drowning. Forsaken. No vow would keep her from feeling the way she does. No vow would stop her remembering how Angela’s soft skin felt against hers.

She is about to return to the stables, wanting nothing more than to escape, when a tight mailed fist grabs her arm. She is jerked with the force, free hand grasping for Raptora. But before she draws the sword from its sheath, more fingers close around her, rendering her useless. She almost yells, squeezing the first syllable of Angela’s name out of her chest when something crushes into her stomach, knocking the wind out of her.

Breathless, dizzy with confusion, she is dragged backwards down the corridor, away from the light and into the dark.

Chapter Text

She paces like an animal. Her cell is cramped, the solid iron door providing little in the way of comfort as she walks from one wall to the other, too angry to sit down, too furious to do anything except follow the invisible path set before her. She is defenceless, naked without her blade, trying not remember the hot springs, trampling the weeds of fear threatening to plant themselves into her mind. She is a Knight of the Barrens, and a Sworn Sword of a Pale Priestess. They cannot imprison her without just reason.

“Where is your lord?” She demands of the servant girl who brings her a flagon of weak mead and a bowl of stew. The girl doesn’t even look at her, placing her offerings on the ground before walking away and locking the door behind her.

She does not eat. Instead she kicks the flagon over with a quick strike of her boot, watching the mead bleed across the floor. Rastaban squirms against her chest, mewling, so she pulls him out, cradling him in one arm as she finds her seat on the thin cot by the wall.

She had done nothing to warrant arrest. She knows this. But knowledge does little to comfort her. Her belly aches from the punch and she rubs it, inhaling deeply and setting Rastaban onto the ground. He wobbles, then trots to the stew, lapping at the soup. She lets him. She has no room for hunger in the tumult of her mind.

Through the narrow window near the ceiling of her cell she watches as day turns to night, the moon spilling over the floor and up the wall, unfettered by clouds. Rastaban finds a place at her side, kneading her thigh before settling down to sleep, his snoring the only sound as she stares mutinously at a corner.

Still, no one comes for her.

Dawn disturbs her from an exhausted sleep. She sits up, blinking once or twice, wondering when she slipped away. Rastaban is curled on her belly snoozing and a fresh plate of food has been provided for her. Stomach rumbling, she smells freshly baked bread, spotting the heel of it next to a hunk of cheese. But she ignores her hunger, staring resolutely at the ceiling.

Where is Angela?

Unbidden, her face swims into Fareeha's mind's eye, dark and close in the shadows of the hot springs, lips parted, cheeks flushed, eyes a pair of wounds.

I should have stayed in the bath.

Still, she replays the moments in the pool over and over again as the light from the window lengthens and grows warm with the sun. She can hear voices outside, horses hooves, the creak and slam of a gate. She reasons she is near the courtyard, and wonders again why she is in a dungeon.

It is well past noon when she hears keys turning in the door. She is on her feet at once - Rastaban clambers up her chest to her shoulder, stretching himself across the back of her neck, large eyes fixed ahead. Straightening her shoulders and brushing out her clothes, she tucks her hands behind her back and stands to attention, wanting to both intimidate and impress whoever walks through the door.

Dustra’an himself sweeps into the cell. He looks troubled, wavy brown hair in disarray, violently blue robes fluttering around him as he comes to a halt before her, peering down at her. She stares right back, stoic and sure, maintaining her silence until he speaks, not daring to give him quarter.

“My deepest apologies,” he says and he dips into a low bow, “I believe there has been some mistake.”

Fareeha keeps her silence, watching, feeling Rastaban’s claws digging into her skin. Dustra’an pulls a sheet of parchment out of his sleeve, holding it out to her. She takes it, scanning the writing and feeling her brow furrow. It is an arrest warrant for her, detailing her apparent crimes against the Senak people: pillage, rape, sacrifice to false gods and torture to name just a few. She scowls at the dancing horse seal at the bottom, recognising the Horse Lord sigil, before glaring fiercely at him.

“This is not me.” She all but throws the parchment into his face. “I have never been out of Arga.”

“Indeed, indeed,” he says fretfully, eyeing his parchment again before tucking it away. “There has been a mistake, I am sure. I will write to the council about this at once.”

She nods, and speaks swiftly, “Where is the Priestess?”

“In her rooms eating, I would imagine,” Dustra’an replies. He smiles kindly at her. She does not smile back. I will not waste smiles on the likes of him. “She is being well looked after, I assure you.”

“I will go to her.”

She takes a step towards the door, only for him to block her way. He looks mournful, kind brown eyes widening as he pats her shoulder.

“I can’t allow you to do that.”

Irritation rears its head, but she clenches her teeth against it. “Why?”

The Horse Lord smiles apologetically, tucking his hands into the sleeves of his robes. He does not move from the doorway and Fareeha restrains the urge to shove him aside. Her place is at Angela’s side, day or night. Her stomach clenches with a wave of anxiety, hardly daring to believe she had left her charge naked and vulnerable in the baths.

“My people are understandably concerned,” Dustra’an is saying. “They have been troubled by this blackguard for some time, and since they believe you to be him…” He leaves a telling silence as though waiting for Fareeha to finish his sentence. She doesn’t and he sighs. “They feel safer with you in here. Indeed, you are safer in here. It is easy to lay blame at a stranger’s feet and I fear what they would do to you if you were not protected here.”

“I need to be with the Priestess.” She replies. “I don’t care what your people think. I am her Sworn Sword.”

Dustra’an nods. “Of course. And I understand completely. You are a Barren Knight and your order takes its vows very seriously. But it would be safer for both of you if you would stay here, at least until the council releases a pardon for you.”

Despite herself she sees sense in his words. An image of an angry mob pops into her head and she feels her body go slack. Rastaban claws at her shirt. It would not do for her to get killed by angry townsfolk for crimes she has not committed, and she knows that fear overrides reason most of the time. Guiltless, she is as much to blame for the disturbances as the faceless bandit in the people’s eyes.

“How long will it take for the council to pardon me?”

“I will send my swiftest rider. You will be out of this cell and at your Priestess’s side within the week, I can assure you.” He snaps his fingers and another servant enters the cell, bearing a bowl of fruit. “For now, enjoy the finest comforts I can provide you. I am deeply sorry for this inconvenience.”

Her stomach growls loudly and she dips her head, sighing in defeat. “Will you bring her to me? Mercy?”

Dustra’an’s smile grows wider.

“Of course.”

 


 

 

A week goes by and Angela does not come.

Each passing day Fareeha can feel her anxiety growing, filling her to the brim with nervous energy. At first she paces from wall to wall, then around and around her cell, listening to the sounds of the bustling courtyard and missing Raptora’s weight on her hip. Rastaban ambles after her, meowing and clambering all over her back and shoulders. She notices he is getting bigger - where once he could curl up in the palm of her hand, he has to stretch out over her wrist, his tail growing in length so from nose to tail tip he spans her forearm. The bigger he gets, the more he eats, and she finds herself sharing half her meals with him, watching as kitten gradually turns to the beginnings of a Marguey riding cat.

When she grows bored of pacing she begins moving through the training exercises her mother had taught her. She stands on one leg for half a day, and then the other until sunset, meditating and trying to will her worry away. After that she does sit ups and push ups until she is in a lather, sucking back the weak mead they slip her through a hole in the door.

Every second she spends she listens for the jangle of keys, or Angela’s footsteps approaching. Every day brings a fresh wave of disappointment. She takes to walking around her cell well into the night, only to fall exhausted onto her cot. She sees no one, and no one speaks to her, even when she takes to hammering on the door, calling over and over for a guard until her voice is raw and cracking. Her food is given to her through the slot in the door but she rarely eats it, kicking it back out into the corridor.

Rastaban follows her pacing. He catches the rats and mice that scuttle across the floor and hide in her straw bedding, crunching into them while she sits and waits, and prays

In the dark of the night, when Rastaban is curled at the end of her bed, snoring, she remembers the hot spring and gives up trying to forget, her heart aching as she recalls Angela’s clean scent.

A week and a half after her imprisonment she hears Angela’s voice. She sits up sharply, breath catching in her throat as she listens intently. She cannot catch the words, but Angela’s tone is hard, demanding. She looks around her frantically, hurrying to the door and pressing against it, trying to find its source.

Up. She’s above me.

The window.

She scrambles to her cot, standing up on it and reaching upwards, straining to catch the edge of the narrow slit. She barely reaches it, the tips of her fingers dusting the edge. Cursing in frustration she jumps for it, scrambling up the wall with her worn boots, finding purchase with her toes, heaving herself upwards until her face is pressed into the tiny space.

Body vibrating with the strain, she listens as hard as she can, hearing the ring of a blacksmith’s hammer, and the clatter clop of horses.

“She’s long gone,” someone is saying. A man – not someone she knows. A horse snorts and she hears the tell-tale thunder of mail on mail as someone dismounts. “My Lord, we found no trace of her.”

“What do you mean no trace?” Angela. She sounds furious and Fareeha presses her ear tighter against the window, pulling her legs further up the wall to hold herself steady. Even hearing her lessens the tremble of anxiety in her stomach. “Pharah wouldn’t just run.”

“Of course not, my Lady,” Dustra’an’s voice is louder than the others, right outside her cell. “Perhaps she was taken… the warrant is very clear. Dead or alive, and a thousand gold oryx to the man or woman to brings her to justice.”

She catches the rustle of parchment and imagines Angela reading through a sheaf of it, her eyes skirting across the page from right to left. Maybe her bottom lip would catch between her teeth while she thinks, her fingers tightening around her staff.

“She wouldn’t do this. Any of this.” Angela’s voice trembles. “She’s a woman of honour. A Knight of the Barrens – that must count for something, even here.”

“The Knights are always welcome in my halls.” Dustra’an’s boot comes into her view. “But the other Horse Lords are not so open minded.” He clears his throat. “Long ago the Barren Knights took up arms against us, destroying our villages and homes and sending our trade networks to ruin. Some of my people have not forgotten.”

“I will not sit here idly while she is out there.” Fareeha hears parchment being torn. “I- she means too much for me to abandon her. Have my horse saddled. I’m going to find her.”

“Angela!” she shouts, her voice high with panic, calling through the window. “Angela, I’m here! I’m here!”

No one answers. Angela’s voice drifts away, Dustra’an’s boot disappearing from view. Heart pounding erratically, she heaves herself further up the window, calling the Priestess’s name, pressing her face into the narrow gap, shouting so loudly she feels her voice strain.

“Angela…” Her voice cracks, fading as the silence above echoes around her. Angela is gone. Nobody is coming for her. It hits her like a wave, her stomach lurching, something like fear pricking at her eyes until she has to squeeze them closed to stem the flow of tears.

I will not cry. I am a Barren Knight. Barren Knights do not cry. We never give up.

Her fingers are starting to sweat with the effort of gripping onto the ledge, legs shaking, breath heavy with the effort of finding a purchase, and she knows she cannot hold out much longer. She hears a soft, concerned meow from below. She speaks as if to comfort Rastaban, but instead she whispers Angela’s name again to an empty room. Pathetic.

Durstra’an. That dirty, lying rat. Fareeha’s harsh breath catches in a growl at the thought of wringing his self-satisfied neck. She could do it. She knows she could kill him as easily as snapping a twig. But killing a Lord… it would be worse than any crime his people have levied against her. She would be hunted like an animal. And even if she escaped and murdered him, Angela wouldn’t understand. Would she?

Even now Angela rides away from her, loyal to a fault, and nobody is coming.

Fareeha’s fingers clench, her feet scrabble against the wall, and then with a warning yowl from Rastaban coming too late – she lurches and falls with a cry.

Crack.

She tastes blood. Flowers blossom in dark spots behind her lids and she slips backwards into unconsciousness, ignoring the growing warmth under her head, pooling across the stone floor while Rastaban licks at her cheek.

Moonlight is bright against her eyes when she comes to. She comes awake slowly, feeling the keen throb of her head. She muffles a curse, a hand going to her mouth as fresh pain lances through her mind. She’d bitten her tongue when she’d fallen.

“Don’t bloody move.”

The Westerling voice startles her. She hears something heavy being heaved out the way; her head gives another nasty throb as she twists around to look behind her at the door, which is opening slowly but surely. Blue light issues through the gap, painting the cell eerily, stinging her eyes with the glare. Rastaban hisses, bunching up like a snake preparing to strike - she grabs for the scruff of his neck, dragging him back when the door pops open to reveal tight riding leathers and an iron harness.

“This place fuckin’ reeks, mate.” Supple boots pad quietly against the straw strewn floor. Fareeha squints against the brilliance of the harness, clutching Rastaban tightly as she sits up slowly. The figure stands proudly in the doorway, dark hair falling into her eyes. The stranger grins.

“Don’t worry, love, the cavalry's here!”

“Lena?” Fareeha’s tongue moves thickly inside her mouth, swollen with the wound at its corner. Lena’s grin somehow grows even bigger.

“That’s me! Come on, we’ve gotta get you out of here.” Lena approaches swiftly, grabbing her under the arm and heaving her onto her feet. Her head spins wildly, nearly making her drop Rastaban - his claws dig into her arm, faint pin pricks against the tingling. Lena steadies her, though, and starts guiding her to the door.

“A-Angela?” She stammers.

“Safe, for now. C’mon, mate. Move your legs!”

She does as ordered. Finding her balance, she manages to stagger out of her cell and into the corridor beyond, surprised to find they are utterly alone. Lena keeps up a constant stream of whispering, telling her that it’s safe, and that she was unguarded. She only half listens, seeing a weapons wrack, her hip hungry for Raptora’s weight. Her heart sinks when she does not find it, staring back as Lena drags her away, feeling as though a piece of her has been lost in the deep dark of her cell.

Somehow they make it outside. Lena pulls her through the muddy courtyard, hiding the glow of her harness under her coat as she slinks towards the stables. Fareeha looks up towards the castle, at the towering walls and carved columns, impassable and cold in the chilly night She feels a lump rise to sit at the back of her mouth, searching for a sign of life, seeing the flickering of fire through a window. A wild impulse grasps her - she spins away from Lena, staggering and falling into the mud, choking as she scrambles to her feet, a yell catching in her throat. Angela is there. She knows it.  Angela is in there, waiting for her, praying for her. She can see it, the Priestess sitting on some cold bed, face drawn and worried. Angela, who she needs to protect, who she swore to die for, who she-

“Knight!” Lena catches her around the waist and yanks her back, laying a hand over her mouth before she can shout out. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Angela,” she hisses in reply from under Lena’s thick gloves. She receives a sharp, short cuff to the side of her head which makes the world flicker around her. Something warm dribbles down her neck; she doesn’t need the sharp ache to tell her it’s blood.

“Angela doesn’t need you fuckin’ dying here, idiot.” Lena grunts as Fareeha struggles feebly, shoving an elbow into her stomach. Rastaban hisses, tiny claws slashing out for Lena’s cheek - she avoids him, but barely, whispering into Fareeha’s ear. “We need to leave. Now! I’ll explain when we’re out of here.”

The lighted window shimmers before her, her stomach roiling with anguish, but she finally submits, allowing Lena to lead her to the stables. The horses are sleeping - she sees Silas and Meissa sleeping side by side, white and black, gladdened that they had not slain her horse. Lena ducks into an empty stall, sweeping straw away from a sizable hole in the wall and gesturing to it.

“Through there. Go.”

She obeys at once. Sinking to her hands and knees, feeling Rastaban crouch against her back, she crawls through the hole, trying not to think about the filth under her. Lena follows her - she can hear the Westerling cursing.

Fresh air hits her like a punch. Dazed, she tumbles out onto a narrow ledge, nearly slipping over into the moat below. Water laps at the side of the fort, a dizzying distance below; Lena grabs the scruff of her neck, dragging her back to sit against the wall. When she is sure Fareeha isn’t going to tumble to her death, she points along the ledge to a length of rope, spanning across the moat to the other side, attached to the castle wall by a hook, the other tied around a withered looking tree.

She turns her head to look at Lena so fast she cricks her neck. Lena raises an eyebrow in return.

“I can’t save Angela by myself, Knight.” She gives Fareeha a light shove. Fareeha closes her eyes, inhaling deeply, before tucking Rastaban into her shirt, holding him there as she shuffles towards the rope. Her boot disturbs a stone. She watches it tumble away and hit the moat below with a splash. This is ridiculous. I would fare better fighting my way out. But she keeps going, finally grasping the rope and trying hard not to think about the wooden spikes waiting for her in the water.

Hemp taut under her fingers, she pulls herself onto it, hanging by her hands and knees. Lena nods in encouragement, pushing against her thigh to get her moving.

“I’ll meet you on the other side.”

With a whoosh and a flash from her harness, Lena disappears. Heart in mouth, Fareeha inhales shakily, staring up at the stars above as she murmurs a quick prayer to the God. Let me survive this, God. Let me survive this so I can get to Angela again.

She inches out over the moat. Her legs shake, her body weak with exhaustion, her head pounding with pain from where she cracked it against the floor. She keeps going. Hand over hand, dragging herself onwards, feeling Rastaban squirming against her chest and stomach, meowing pathetically.

Please, she thinks as a wind rocks her wildly. Her grip tightens on the rope, fingers tingling madly. Please, don’t let anyone see me.

The water laps against the walls surrounding it coyly, beckoning her, tempting her with an easy death, to a watery end where she does not have to regret. She ignores it, gazing up at the three stars for which Meissa was named, thinking only of reaching the far side. Her mother would never forgive her if she gave up. Angela would never forgive her. She would never forgive herself. She has to keep going, even though her fingers are burning painfully, the tingle turning to a roar, joints clumsy and painful with the demon blood staining her skin. The rope burns through her stained trousers, rubbing against the skin of her calves, another discomfort to add to the litany of pains. Swordless, armourless, and without her charge, she is a failure of a Knight and a disgrace to her order. She can’t help the wetness dribbling into her hair from her eyes.

Lena’s hands guide her the last few meters until she can set her shaking legs on firm ground. Gasping in relief she leans against the tree, pulling Rastaban out into the open so he can run around, bandy legs springing to action as he bounds through the long grass, dodging in and out of sight, happy to be free of walls and wool.

“Thank you,” she says finally. Lena laughs and shakes her head.

“Don’t thank me yet. What’s your name again?”

“Fareeha.”

Lena nods, rubbing her hair off her face and sighing. “C’mon. I have a horse. We need to get away from here. I need to tell you about Angela.”

The thought gets Fareeha to her feet. She stoops to grab Rastaban, setting him on her shoulder, filled with new strength. Lena leads her into the grass, leaving the Dustra’an’s castle behind, silent and sure.

Chapter Text

The water is cool and soothing against her.

She is leaning over the river, splashing herself clean while Lena tends to the fire. The smell of cooking rabbit makes Fareeha’s stomach rumble loudly, but she ignores it, dunking her entire head into the water, glad to wash her hair of the remains of the dungeon, and half wishing she could dive right into it. Her fingers find the tender place at the back of her head, washing the wound and wincing at the sharp pain. Thankfully it doesn’t feel bad, but she can feel a sizable lump springing up in its place.

She lifts her head out of the river, shaking the water free from her ears and savouring the cool trickles dribbling down her back and soaking her sweat stained shirt. Rastaban paws at her leg, tiny claws catching the cloth trousers. She rubs his head lightly, thumbing his ears until he purrs and flops onto his back.

“Food’s ready.” Lena grunts. Fareeha shuffles to the fireside, taking the leg offered to her gratefully.

They eat in silence; grease dribbles down Fareeha’s chin, staining her already filthy clothes, but she doesn’t care. She eats quickly, sucking every last shred of meat off the thin bones, chasing the rabbit down by finishing off the wineskin Lena provides. Lena eats just as heartily as she does, scoffing meat and wine without pause for breath, cracking open bones with her sharp, pointed teeth, her harness glowing enigmatically as the night wheels overhead.

When they are done - and after Fareeha has had a proper wash in the lake - they settle exhausted by the fire. Lena has provided fresh clothes for her and she straightens them, watching Rastaban nibble on his own cache of rabbit, feeling vaguely at peace. Lena picks her teeth idly, watching the fire, her dark eyes reflecting the light. Their horse, a thin, swift mare the colour of sand, picks at the grass a little distance away, huffing and snorting, tail flicking. She examines it for a moment, then stares at the river, and the distant lights of Dustra’an’s fortress.

“I need to know what’s happening to Angela,” she says softly. Lena looks up, then sighs, nodding.

“Right.”

Fareeha watches as she pulls a parchment out of her belt pouch, unfolding it and holding it out to her over the fire. Fareeha takes it, squinting down at the text. It is a letter written in a brash, hard hand, detailing a tournament which is to take place the next day. She frowns, and looks up.

Lena is peering at her, eyebrows rising at her confusion. “Dustra’an’s raising an army.”

“Why?”

“Because he’s a greedy cunt, in‘e?” Lena shrugs. “He wants to be king or something. I dunno. The point is he has Angela and he’s going to use her to get what he wants.”

Fareeha all but crushes the letter in her hand. Anger brays in her chest and she clenches her jaw against it, restraining the urge to leap onto Lena’s horse and gallop all the way back to Yas’iraj.

“You told us to go there.” She says instead. Lena’s mouth twists guiltily, her eyes skirting away to fix on a point across the river.

“He provided food and shelter for me - said he was friendly to Overwatch. I thought he would treat you two the same.” Lena pokes at the fire with her stick, then exhales slowly. “I shoulda known when he kept askin’ me about Angela. It’s too late to cry over spilt milk.”

Fareeha thinks now is exactly to cry over spilt milk, if crying over it includes driving a sword right into Dustra’an’s heart. But she contents herself with listening to Lena as she starts to speak.

“Pale Priestesses aren’t just healers. They’re powerful, righ’?” Lena taps her fingers against her knee nervously, jogging her leg impatiently. “I dunno how much Angela’s told you, and I ain’ gonna tell you everything, but if Dustra’an has Angela on his side, he’s gonna be the most powerful man in Senak. Or even in the East.”

Fareeha nods, brow furrowed, glancing down at the advertisement for the tournament. Lena nibbles her lip, looking truly nervous now, shuffling around the fire as though to put it between them.

Fareeha clears her throat, watching as Lena sucks in a breath.

“He’s gonna marry Angela.”

Marry? Marry? She blinks stupidly once or twice while Lena seems to be hunkering herself down for an explosion. When none comes, Lena tilts her head, raising an eyebrow.

“Why ain’t you havin’ a fit or somethin’?”

Fareeha shrugs, “He can’t marry her by force. The East has laws in place to prevent that.”

Lena’s expression goes from puzzled to horrified and she points at the tournament advertisement.

Fareeha squints down at it again, taking a vague note of the prizes - five hundred gold oryx to the winner of the jousting, four hundred gold oryx to the winner of the archery, and a special prize for the winner of the melee. She looks up at Lena again.

“No law stops him from winning her hand in fair combat.” Lena pokes the fire again. “That’s a thing here, innit? Marriage by combat?”

Dread hits her like a wave. Lena is right. It is an old law from before the Reckoning, often overlooked, and used mainly to settle disputes over lands and children. She hasn’t heard of it being called into use since before the Dawn came to the land to drive the demons away. If Dustra’an wins the melee, he has every right to force Angela into a marriage she will not be able to rid herself of. The enormity of it is dizzying - Fareeha has to get to her feet and stride away from the fire to the riverbank, her body alive with a mixture of anger and fear. Of course he’s going to win, she thinks, he’s the size of a small house, and just as strong.

“Don’t worry, love.” Lena’s voice is close behind her. She turns to face the strange Westerling, trying to hold together the pieces of her heart as she imagines Angela being wed, someone else’s cloak hanging around her shoulders, and someone else’s sword being sworn to protect her. Lena grins, cocking a hip. “I’ve got a plan.”

They leave as dawn is breaking after a scarce four hours sleep. Lena bounds on ahead with a woosh of her magic, leaving Fareeha astride her horse, armed and protected by borrowed armour. The black jackal helm sits a little tightly on her head, her sword and shield heavy on her back and hip; she can use both, having trained with them during her youth, but she misses Raptora, her prayer feeling half-finished without it.

Lena’s plan is simple. Fareeha is to turn up to the tournament, Lena posing as her squire, and enter the melee as a faceless knight. In the chaos and confusion, she is banking on her anonymity to grant her a fair fight with the Horse Lord, beating him fair and square and winning Angela’s hand. Fareeha decides to ignore the implications of this, favouring instead the idea of them riding off into the sunset, free from tournaments and armour that is too tight. We will reach Axis one day. I swear it.

She grabs what sleep she can in the saddle. Lena’s boundless energy does little to keep her awake, and she allows herself snatches of rest in between adjusting the horse’s course on the dusty road, and making sure Rastaban is tucked safely away in a saddle bag. The sun wheels overhead, promising a bright day - birds flutter and squawk, springing gazelles making their way across the grass plains as Fareeha rides on.

“It’s all right,” Lena says as they walk, patting her leg reassuringly when Fareeha stirs to take a gulp of cool water. “We’ll get her back.”

“I know we will.” Fareeha inhales deeply. “I just hope we are not too late.”

They continue in silence. Fareeha fiddles with her borrowed armour, some small part of her pleased that it all matches. The jackal head reminds her of the statue of her God at the temple - she brushes a mailed finger over the steepled ears, growing warmer and warmer as the black metal absorbs the heat from the sun. She eyes Lena as she walks, wondering if the Westerling has ever fought in a desert.

Rolling sands. Dry dust in her mouth. The memory comes to her as if on a breeze; her mother showing her how to aim a bow, adjusting her stance, telling her to strike as the falcon does, straight and true. To hesitate is to fail, she had said. To hesitate is to die.

I will not fail again.

She draws the horse to a halt when Yas’iraj looms over them. Its gate is open, courtyard abuzz with people. The road is swarming with knights and squires, men and women both, testing their arms and leading the way around the castle to the tourney field. Fareeha glances down at Lena, sharing a look with her, before directing the horse after the crowd.

The tournament grounds have taken over an enormous field. A thousand scents and colours assault her - tents of every hue fly flags of every lord and noble this side of Arga. She thinks she even sees the riding cat of the Marguey on a field of green, but it is quickly hidden as they pass a huge pit of roasting pig. Her mouth waters, stomach rumbling so loudly she has to lay a hand over her chest plate. I need to find Angela. Turning her face into the wind she searches, eyes roaming the area around her through the narrow eyeholes in her helm.

“This way,” Lena leads her away from the main crowd, nodding to a large area of sand which has been ringed off with wooden posts as they pass. Fareeha takes note of the sitting stands at one end of the arena, wondering if Angela would be sat there. Even now they are filling with ladies and their children, all talking excitedly; it feels like a bizarre sight to her. This is not the Argan way. Women fight alongside their men, equal before the eyes of a genderless God.

“We’ll wait here for the melee,” Lena says as she sits herself under a rickety old tree, rubbing her hands over her legs. Fareeha dismounts, her armour ticking with the heat of the day. The horse lets out a snort of relief - she offers it a pat on the muzzle in thanks.

“What if this doesn't work?” She asks. The ‘what if I am beaten’ is implied. Lena squints up at her, face twisted as she shades her eyes from the sun.

“You won't.” She shrugs. “You're in love with her.”

“I am not in love with her.” Fareeha snaps. She nearly grabs Lena’s scruff to give her a shake - she settles for gripping her sword’s hilt as tightly as she can, savouring the way the tingle in her fingers turns into a sharp burning. Lena just laughs at her.

“Sure you aren't. That's why you’re fightin’ a Horse Lord for her hand.”

Fareeha all but growls, Westerling falling thickly off her tongue. “I am her Sworn Sword. It is my duty. I am not-”

“I knew it the moment you tried to get to her when we were escaping, Knight.” Lena rubs her nose with the back of her glove. “You can preach all you like to yourself about duty and all that shite, but that doesn't change anythin’. Your anger just confirms it, if ‘m bein’ honest, mate.”

Fareeha stews in silence, half angry, half terrified that Lena is right. Is she in love with Angela? Surely not. Surely she hasn't muddied the waters of her vow so thoroughly. Even so, her heart sings at the thought of the Priestess, the worry and pain at her absence making her stomach a wild roiling mess. Angela is fierce, brave - a woman who goes after what she wants when she wants it. Fareeha cares for her, of course, but love? It is a word that holds too many unknowns for her. She has never felt love. Not romantic love. She wonders if it's supposed to hurt.

The arena is filled first with jousting. Fareeha watches the strange Westerling custom with something akin to disbelief - the crowd seems thrilled to watch it though. Horses and riders gallop up and down, thrusting spears into each other's shields until one is unhorsed. There is still no sign of Angela or Dustra’an, even as a purple knight heaves another off the final horse to tumultuous applause. Fareeha takes to leaning against the tree, fiddling with the hilt of her sword as morning turns to afternoon.

The archery is next. Fareeha feels her stomach start to bumble nervously at the prospect of the coming melee. As many warriors as they can fit in the arena, fighting with dulled weapons, each to their own. She watches as arrow after arrow hits the targets, the crowd clapping politely at the end of each round. Lena takes to playing with Rastaban, rolling the kitten onto his back and rubbing his belly while Fareeha stares blindly at the sky.

She wouldn’t just have to win against Dustra’an. She would have to win the whole melee. Knocking people out, forcing them to yield, all while defending herself and saving herself for the inevitable difficulty of forcing Dustra’an to his knees. She could not afford to fail. Angela could not afford her failure. The Priestess’s life was in her hands in more ways than one.

It is an Argan who wins the archery competition. Fareeha recognises the patterns on their bow as traditional Argan bands for luck. Her countryman bows and takes their leave, a huge pouch of golden oryx jangling merrily off their hip. She shrugs herself off the tree, rolling her shoulders and inhaling deeply.

It’s time.

Lena gets to her feet and dusts herself off, setting Rastaban onto her shoulder. The kitten purrs, blinking around happily as Lena leads Fareeha towards the arena. They push through the crowd, leaping over the fence to join the other fighters who are lining up in front of the stands.

“Just fight as hard as you can, love.” Lena says when they come to a halt. Fareeha is sure to set herself directly in front of a pair of ornate chairs, letting Lena help her fasten her broad shield to her forearm.

“And if I fail?” Fareeha glances down at Lena, studying the way her harness makes her coat bulge oddly. Fareeha wasn’t the only one hiding their identity.

Lena claps her on the shoulder, making her armour clatter loudly. “You won’t. But if you do, I’ve got a plan.”

“All hail Lord Dustra’an of Yas’iraj, Horse Lord and Defender of Senak.”

Fareeha turns her head to watch as the lord strides into the arena. The warriors around her snap a salute, but she doesn’t move, watching him. Covered head to foot in gleaming armour, clutching a warhammer easily the size of her head in one hand, Dustra’an strides down the line. She stares at him, glad that her helmet hides her eyes widening as she fixes her gaze onto his sword belt. It is a sword belt she would recognise in an instant.

Raptora hangs idly off his hip. A bolt of indignation hits her like lightning, and she is about to stride forward and demand her sword back - the sword that she spent hours on hours forging under the stars, forming it out of the fallen star her God had sent her - when the caller’s voice rings around the arena once again.

“All hail Angela Ziegler, Mercy of the Pale, Light of the Dawn and Lady of the Morning!”

Seeing Angela roots her to the spot. She walks slowly down the stairs, a familiar blue cloak wrapped around her shoulders. Fareeha’s cloak. It falls about her perfectly, fluttering as she takes her seat, eyes roaming across the line of warriors - deep shadows linger there, as though she has not been sleeping, and her hand rests on her staff idly. She brushes out her clothes, sitting up straight, not taking much notice of Fareeha as she rattles off the proudest salute she can.

“Welcome,” Dustra’an’s voice rings around the arena, booming out of his helm. The buzzing crowd falls silent - a slight wind blows up sand, making banners and flags snap and writhe. “Welcome to the melee. This evening we dedicate the noble fight to a fallen sister, whose bravery and honour set a precedent to us all.”

What is he talking about? Fareeha keeps her eyes fixed on Angela, watching as the Priestess’ face tightens in pain. Why is she wearing my cloak? Who died?

“Fareeha Amari was the noblest woman I ever knew,” Angela’s voice shakes slightly as she speaks. Fareeha tightens her grip on her shield, reeling, gripped by a sudden urge to laugh. The Horse Lord told Angela she was dead? Lena grabs her arm as though to steady her - she barely feels it through her armour - and Angela continues. “May her quiver never empty, and her sword never dull. May prey come easy to her in the stars, and the God keep her safe from harm.”

Fareeha knows the mourning prayer better than anyone. She had said it every day from the moment her mother had left their halls. Still, it is hard to hear coming from Angela’s lips. The warriors around her utter several words, unsheathing their swords and aiming them for the sky - she hurries to copy them, trying to unsee the way Angela’s fingers clutch at her cloak. Her torn, and bloody, cloak.

Someone rings a bell. Lena gives her one last look before hurrying out of the arena with the other squires, keeping her harness hidden from view. Angela stares at the ground and Fareeha resists approaching her, wanting nothing more than to tilt back her visor and to see her face light up in recognition.

Instead she joins the other fighters who are pressing themselves against the fences, checking their weapons and adjusting their armour. She takes a deep breath, closing her eyes and standing vigil, going over the plan in her mind. Defeat the Lord. Win the melee. She cracks open an eye to peer around at the others. Easier said than done. The warriors around her are formidable. Even she can see that.

All fifteen are armoured and ready, faceless behind helms of all colours and shapes, hefting axes and swords and maces. She unsheathes her sword. Tests its weight. It is heavier than Raptora, but still a fine blade. She gives it a testing twirl, enjoying the sound it makes as it thrums through the air. Lena hadn’t skimped when she’d stolen the sword and shield.

Another bell chimes. Fareeha rolls her shoulders, glancing up at Angela one last time. Even in mourning she is hauntingly beautiful.

“Ready!”

Her heart is beating steadily, the last vestiges of nerves fleeing her mind as she sets herself to her task. Win the melee. Safe Angela. Make the Horse Lord yield. He is there, standing proud and tall, his cloak billowing out behind him as he unclips it, hefting his war hammer from hand to hand as easily as though it were made of twigs. Raptora looks tiny on his hip. She clenches her jaw. How dare he presume to wield her sword.

“Charge!”

Fareeha leaps into the fray with the others, crashing into the middle, shield raised and sword flashing.

The world erupts into chaos.

She blocks a mace and it bounces off her shield, numbing her arm as she brings her sword heavily down onto someone’s head. They scream in pain and stagger backwards, receiving a crushing blow to the ribs. Fareeha ignores their squeal in favour of hammering a mailed fist into someone’s neck, kicking them away as they crumple like parchment. Shouts and screams echo around her, sand flying left and right as she muscles her way through the press of people.

A sword crashes into her side, driving the breath out of her. She twists at the last moment, knocking the weapon out of a hand and driving her head into a nose. Blood explodes everywhere and her would-be attacker yelps something about yielding. She tosses him aside, using her shield as a bulwark to drive herself forward.

The warhammer comes out of nowhere. It slams so hard into her shoulder she hears bones crunch. Yelling in pain, she staggers aside, staring as Dustra’an heaves the hammer over his head, aiming to crush her skull. She dodges at the last moment, driving her metal boot into his side so he over balances and crashes to the ground.

Raptora flashes and she makes a mad grab for it, only for another warrior to slam into her, shoving her bodily away from the Horse Lord. Heated breaths scorch her face. Sand slips under her and she goes down, dragging her wounded arm up to protect herself as a mace hammers down onto her shield.

Once.

Twice.

Three times.

She bellows and shoves herself to her feet, driving her sword forward and shoving her attacker backwards. They stumble, only to have another mace crack into their face with the snap of a jaw breaking. Howling, they stammer out a cry to yield and Fareeha finds herself lost in the mess of people.

She tastes blood. Spitting some out and swallowing the rest, she drives the pommel of her sword into the back of someone’s head, knocking them to the ground instantly. Scrambling over their body, she shoves some other faceless warrior aside, finally seeing Dustra’an.

He swings his hammer, taking down four people at once, roaring with battle lust as he goes after one of them, ignoring their squeals of surrender and crushing their hand with his boot. She feels a fresh wave of anger overcome sense and she charges, Angela’s name flying from her lips.

Dustra’an isn’t expecting her.

She barely notices that they are the only fighters left. Barely feels anything outside of the steady thunder of her heart, or how her sword seems to fly through the air as she lands a blow on the side of Dustra’an’s helmet. He grunts in pain, turning slowly, wielding his hammer one handed only for her to dance aside with ease as he slams it into the sand. He snarls with fury, heaving the hammer up with both hands, breathing like a bull.

She circles him like a wolf at a kill, sheltering behind her shield, moving her feet around and around. He mock charges. She hops backwards.

“Begone, warrior,” he says, just loud enough for her to hear. “Yield as you were instructed.”

Fareeha snorts, readjusting her sword, barely feeling the throb in her wounded shoulder before she speaks in a loud, ringing voice. “Afraid you can’t beat me, Horse Lord?” She lifts her visor to spit blood onto the sand. “That’s what I think of yielding to you, sword stealer.”

His grip tightens on his hammer. Make him angry. Make him charge. He is a bull with parchment for horns.

“You give me no choice,” he grunts in reply. She watches his body tense, the way his feet move on the ground, kicking up clouds of dust. Come on. Charge me.

“You are no Horse Lord,” she growls. “I take you for a dog, braying about mercy and honour. Fight me, dog. Fight me.”

He does.

He bellows like a wounded hippo, galloping towards her and heaving his hammer as he prepares to strike. She waits, hunching behind her shield, eyes fixed on the way his armour hangs heavy about him. He is like any bull. Stupid and slow. And she is a falcon. Swift as the breeze. She will strike like lightning.

She dodges out of his way at the last possible moment. She feels him pass, hears his heavy breaths rattling inside his helmet. People are screaming, the crowd howling as she sweeps her sword around and catches his leg, sending him fumbling over his own feet and slamming into the sand with an almighty rancour of metal on metal.

Twisting, she slams her boot onto his back, shoving him back down as she grabs his helmet, ripping it off his head and throwing it aside. His face is the brightest red she has ever seen. He snarls into the sand, trying to get his arms under him to heave her aside. Her blade at his neck stops him.

“Yield.”

He growls, spittle flying out of his mouth and she watches the way he struggles under her. She presses her foot more firmly against his back.

“Yield.”

“I- I yield.”

She straightens, sheathing her sword and throwing her destroyed shield aside. Fresh pain lances down her arm as she takes a deep breath, turning to face the stands. Angela has half risen, her face shining with confusion. Fareeha strides towards her, mailed fingers struggling with the buckles of her helm until she can throw it off. It lands somewhere behind her, a single jackal head amongst the bloody sand, black and gold on red.

Angela stands fully, then launches herself over the edge of the stands, hitting the sand and hurrying towards her, the cloak streaming out behind her. Fareeha can’t help it. She breaks into a run, grinning so widely she feels as though her cheeks are going to break. Angela is grinning too, her cheeks wet with tears; she is glowing as the sun blazes down upon them, blessing them with its light.

They collide together, arms wrapping around each other and squeezing the words from both of them. Fareeha lifts her into the air, laughing happily, burying her face into Angela’s clean scent, forgetting her bloody, sweaty face.

“He- He said you were dead!” Angela is saying as Fareeha sets her back on her feet.

Fareeha shakes her head, voice rough as she speaks, “I swore an oath to you.”

She leans over Angela, holding her close, pressing their foreheads together, shaking with relief. She won. She won. Angela is safe. Safe and warm and good in her arms, against her chest, laughing happily.

She is so beautiful.

Deaf to the screams of the crowd, deaf to Lena’s shouting her name, deaf even to the echoing words of her oaths and duties, Fareeha kisses her. Angela stiffens as Fareeha crushes their lips together, gasping in surprise, but Fareeha doesn’t care. She kisses her with every savage shred of love in her heart, tasting her sweet breath, savouring the way thin fingers clutch at her hair and drag her closer until the world is gone and the only God she needs is the woman in her arms.

Breathless, giddy, Fareeha pulls away to suck in air, eyes watering. Angela is blinding with joy, the cloak of Fareeha’s office streaming off her back as a wind curls around them, blessing them with its tender caress.

The sword explodes through Fareeha’s chest with a splatter of blood so vivid she thinks she is hallucinating. Raptora’s blade pierces her through her back, finding a home in her heart, its hilt pressed against the worn steel of the back of her breastplate. She hears her heart stutter pathetically, a jarring stammer she’s never heard before. Her heart has always been a strong, steady thump. She feels the warmth of blood pooling across her chest and blooming, and she imagines poppies bursting open.

Her legs go weak under her.

She collapses to the ground with a meaty thud, staring sightlessly up into Angela’s terrified face, her confession seeping out of her like the life which dribbles onto the ground between her legs.

I love you, Angela.

The thought drifts out of her on a sigh. She tips forward, breathless, boneless, and finds her resting place in the sand.

Chapter Text

She is falling.

A star, bright and brilliant as the dawn, is rushing up to meet her. A pinprick in the black sea surrounding her, smothering her, drowning her until her chest feels too tight and she wants nothing more than to suck in a breath. Still the star comes. It falls towards her, or she is falling towards it - she can’t tell - fast and faster, soundless and indefatigable. But it doesn’t seem to be getting bigger.

I can’t go yet. The thought finds her vaguely, floating across the surface of her mind. She struggles to remember something, or someone. Someone good and pure. Someone who made her find hope again when all else had seemed lost. She feels lost. Broken. A piece of her is missing and as she falls further and further away from the world the memory slips through her fingers like a half-spun dream. Golden hair. Blue eyes. The sun personified.

“Heroes never die!”

The star explodes. Life fills her like hot water, bubbling and burning and forcing her broken chest to seal itself shut. She gasps for breath, back arching off the ground as her heart stutters, and then thunders, pounding in her head. Blood rushes from the tips of her fingers to her toes, and she sucks in more air, coughing and struggling.

The sand is in her mouth, the ground solid and hot against her, but she is still falling. Angela is screaming, Lena is cursing, the crowd is howling and snapping and braying at the wooden fence as she lays dying at their feet. Someone is kicking her foot - she feels it vaguely as though from a great distance away, her blood rushing in her ears. Or is that the wind? She can’t tell.

Someone screams her name.

She hauls herself to her feet, Raptora clutched in her hand, an arrow pinging off her blade. She tilts alarmingly, nearly hitting the ground, but Angela is at her side, radiant, glowing, blinding. Fareeha’s cloak billows off Angela’s shoulders as though in a sudden invisible wind, a wave of power sending dust swirling, her staff ripping through the air, face contorted with rage.

Fareeha hears herself say something, making a grab for Angela, but she forgets the words as two enormous wings tear through Angela’s tunic. Huge, white and feathered, they spread so wide they almost swallow the slight priestess, catching the sun as they sweep out with a rush of air. Stunned, breathless, Fareeha feels her jaw drop as Angela pushes past her and shoves her staff into Dustra’an’s stomach. His blood runs thick and hot over Angela’s fingers, dark eyes blooming open with pained shock.

“Find peace in the dark.” Angela snarls.

Dustra’an explodes. Light as bright as the sun fills him and drives him apart. Blood and gore rain over the arena, splattering Angela and drawing Fareeha’s attention to the chaos surrounding them. People are fighting and dying, swords flashing, armour glowing in the dusk - horses gallop this way and that, spears launching themselves over their heads. Still in shock, awed, she stands gaping as Angela shakes her staff off, her wings tucking themselves neatly under the cloak.

“What-?”

“I will explain later,” she says sharply, wheeling around to face Fareeha. “We need to get out of here.”

Fareeha stares down at her sword. Raptora is still stained with her blood - she snaps a hand to feel her chest, mailed fingers brushing the ruptured steel and probing the tender skin underneath. I should be dead. I should have been killed.  A shaking, wheezing inhale confirms that she is still alive. We should be buried with our blades, her mother had said. Buried with our blades. The blade that killed her. The blade she’d bled for fifteen years ago, on her seventeenth nameday, when she’d spent a week forging and reforging the meteorite into the scimitar she loves.

Angela seems to see the mounting panic in her. Cool hands cradle her cheeks, a thumb sweeping across her tattoo, the sounds of the growing slaughter ringing fainter in Fareeha’s ears. Angela searches her gaze, eyes full of something akin to fear.

“I need you to fight.” She murmurs. Fareeha barely catches the words. “Can you do that for me, Fareeha? I need you to fight.”

Fight? She can fight. It’s all she’s ever known.

Angela’s staff glows blue and fresh resolve rushes through her, dizzying and familiar, the closest she has felt to home in her life. She nods grimly, tightens her grip on Raptora and takes stock of the situation, her mind flying through irrelevant questions to a simple plan. Escape.

Dustra’an’s household guard have rallied. She watches them fighting an entire army - strange battle standards have arisen across the tourney field, all bearing similar sigils of horses. The other Horse Lords have come. Come to crush his rebellion. How they knew, Fareeha has a faint idea, Lena’s words ringing in her head.

And if I fail?

I’ve got a plan.

A horseman comes crashing past them, bleeding badly from his missing arm - Fareeha catches a glimpse of the black hole of his mouth as he screams. His horse is panicking, jumping the arena fence and leaving its rider behind. Grabbing Angela’s hand, she starts in the opposite direction, hurrying back towards the distant shadow of Dustra’an’s fort. I need to get my helmet and we need our horses.

Angela follows her without question. Together they surge over the fence - Fareeha’s Raptora howls as she slashes and parries, driving back one of Dustra’an’s warriors. Angela finishes him with a quick thrust of her staff, burying its end into his eye. He goes down with a yelp, but Fareeha doesn’t waste time checking if he’s dead. She bulls her way through the fight, ignoring the way the grass below grows slipperier and slipperier with blood and mud and death. She can smell it, the scents of the dying. It makes her gorge rise, half imagined demons dancing in the spaces between fighters, burning eyes judging her from under visors.

“Oi!”

Suddenly Lena is with them. Rastaban teeters on her shoulder, hissing and clawing at anyone who comes near enough for him to hurt. Her hands are full of her daggers, both bloody and quick as she kicks another attacker aside.

“This was your backup plan?!” Fareeha bellows. She sidesteps a flying mace, narrowly avoiding being trampled as a horse charges past.

“Didn’t realise it was gonna go to utter shit!” Lena yells back. “The Horse Lords ain’t just attackin’ Dustra’an. They’re goin’ for each other!”

Fareeha looks, and sees it is true. War horns harooooo and dah-dah around them, adding to the din of clashing and fighting. She tries not to see commoners being rode down by bloodthirsty knights, ignoring gut wrenching screams of women with the same difficulty. War. I’m in the middle of a war.

She doesn’t have the energy to think about it. Together, all three of them edge their way slowly through the battlefield, back to back, driving off knights and horses and archers alike. Angela’s staff glows a brilliant blue, filling Fareeha with hope, even though they are lost amongst the hellish fighting.

Time stretches, narrowing only to the edge of Raptora. Her arm aches. Blood sprays over her again and again, her boot finding a home in someone’s ruptured chest as she pushes another corpse back. Shuddering, she wrenches her foot out of someone’s lung, only to hear the smash of metal on metal. Stunned, looking up, she sees Angela’s staff parrying a sword. Their attacker blinks stupidly through their helmet. Fareeha drives Raptora through their stomach, pushing them aside and trying to ignore the heat of their blood seeping through her gloves.

“I’ve already brought you back from the Night Lands once today,” Angela growls, “I don’t have the energy to do it again.”

Fareeha laughs a little hysterically. “I love you.”

The confession has no time to stick. A horse whose mane is on fire comes galloping out of nowhere; Fareeha shoves Lena out of the way, watching as the poor animal disappears from view, free falling into water guarded by spears. They have fought their way to the edge of the moat - Fareeha sees the drawbridge is still hanging open, the flash of swords and steel filling her with a fresh wave of dread. If the fighting has reached here, she isn’t sure of their chances. But she needs her helmet. And she needs her horse.

Somehow, the other two follow her as she makes her way around the fort. Lena is babbling in Westerling too quickly for Fareeha to understand, glancing up at the sky every now and again as though looking for something. Fareeha ignores her, somehow managing to pick up an enormous shield. She hefts it up onto her arm, sheltering behind it.

“Form up behind me,” she grunts. The other two comply. She can feel Angela’s body to her left, painfully aware of its every move as she starts walking slowly across the drawbridge, wedging her way through people as Lena and Angela protect their sides. They go relatively unharassed. Angela’s wings flare once or twice; people fall aside, gabbling and pointing and saying a word Fareeha doesn’t know.

They force themselves into the courtyard, the ringing din of battle becoming unbearable as they pass through the gate, echoing against the thick stone walls. The inside of the fort is as chaotic as the tourney ground. The great hall is a terrible nightmare of flame, mud and blood splashing up Fareeha’s boots; she pushes onwards, heading towards the stables. A sickening rush of relief greets her as she spies Meissa and Silas alive in their stalls. Thank the God. They smile on me today. She glances at Angela, distractedly taking note of the ethereal hue of her skin and the feathered wings hunching under her cloak. Or perhaps I have a goddess with me.

They scramble into the stables. Angela flicks gore off her staff, grimacing, then slams the gate closed.

A brief silence falls over them. Out of breath, trying to catch it, covered from head to foot in the hard iron tang of blood, they lean against the walls. Fareeha looks to where their saddles hang, pleasantly surprised to see her falcon helm, bow, quiver and armour stuffed into the bags.

“You’re well prepared, aren’t you, love?” Lena snorts, nodding to the saddles and wiping her daggers clean on a nearby flag.

“I was going to leave after the tournament.” Angela replies softly. “I had no reason to stay and when Dustra’an said you were dead…” She glances at Fareeha. “I didn’t believe him. Not totally. I wanted to find you myself. If I failed, I was going to take your armour and sword back to your temple so you could rest in… in peace.” Angela says the words with some difficulty, her throat bobbing as she swallows.

“He wouldn't have let you.” Fareeha cleans her sword, glancing around for its sheath. Angela raises an eyebrow, holding it out - Fareeha takes it, feeling grimly surprised. Trust Angela to think of grabbing a sheath in the middle of a battle.

“What do you mean?” Angela asks indignantly while Fareeha unbuckles her belt, winding the scabbard onto the thick leather. “I am a Pale Priestess. No law in the East or West can hold me against my will.”

Fareeha feels a surge of fierce jealousy rise in her stomach, mind full of how narrowly Angela escaped having to marry the Horse Lord. She secures her sword belt with a savage wrench of her fist, clenching her jaw so tightly she fears she might crack her teeth. Unbidden, she has another terrible image of him wielding her sword, of him offering it to Angela as she had done in the temple. Her sword.

“Why did he have Raptora?” She asks sharply in Argan. Angela nibbles her lip nervously.

“He said he wanted to honour your memory.” She fiddles with the cloak. Her wings shift under it, just hidden by the blue cloth. “He asked in front of his court. I could not refuse him.” She inhales sharply, frowning. “What did you mean about him not letting me go?”  

Fareeha feels her lip curl. She wrenches the saddle blankets off the wall, settling them over the horse’s backs. Lena hurries forward, helping her heave her saddle onto Silas’ back. The battle has quietened in the courtyard. Only the dead and the dying attend them now; she can hear them, and feel Angela’s dagger-like gaze on her back.

“Fareeha.” Angela’s voice is full of unspoken warning.

“He was going to marry you.” She snaps a buckle, making sure the saddle is secure on Silas before reining him. “That was what the tournament was for. Combat for your hand in marriage.” She adjusts the straps of Silas’ reins, making sure they rest comfortably against his head. He snorts. She earns herself an affectionate nibble.

Angela seems to absorb this information in silence, blinking once or twice before taking to staring out into the courtyard. Lena helps her saddle Meissa quickly, keeping uncharacteristically quiet as they lead both horses out into the yard. The ringing silence is deafening. The sounds of battle echo dimly in the background, becoming even more muffled when Fareeha pulls on her falcon helm, inhaling deeply with relief. It is a comforting weight on her head. She feels more herself than she has in two weeks.

Rastaban leaps from Lena’s shoulders onto her own, finding his place in the crook of her neck, purring loudly. She murmurs assurances to him as she shoves a boot into a stirrup, heaving herself up onto Silas’ back, her body growing lighter and lighter with every moment. Silas stirs under her, snorting and shaking his head, eager to be off. She cannot help but agree with him. She wheels him around, having him to walk up alongside Angela, who is muttering lowly to Lena at Meissa’s side.

“Ride with me.” Fareeha says, offering her hand to Angela. She does not question the nagging need to feel the Priestess against her, or the urge to have her close by. Her questions have been answered.

Angela peers up at her, tightening her grip on her staff. Even bloodstained she is enthralling.

“Is it not against your duties?” Angela replies coolly. Fareeha has a brutal recollection of the hot springs. Warm breath. Smooth skin. Her stomach lurches with something akin to arousal.

“You are my duty.” She replies.

Angela takes her hand and Fareeha heaves her up onto Silas’ back. The Priestess gets comfortable in front of her, shuffling herself backwards so they are pressed front to back. Fareeha hazards a peak under Angela’s cloak, surprised to see that her wings have vanished. The only evidence they had ever been there at all are two vertical tears in her tunic.

She takes hold of the reins, nodding to Lena as she mounts Meissa. Angela presses herself more firmly against her, turning her head to tuck it under her chin. Heart full and throbbing, she utters a soft word to Silas, urging him around and into a swift canter, riding out of Yas’iraj, leaving the slaughter behind.

Silas’ hooves clatter against the drawbridge, picking their way delicately over the bodies of men and women and faceless warriors. Fareeha keeps her eyes fixed on the horizon, ignoring the battle still raging on the tourney grounds, savouring instead Angela’s steady presence and keeping her mind firmly affixed on the thought of freedom; freedom from death and blood. She wants a bath. A cool bath and a soft bed.

Twisting the reins through the fingers of one hand, she rests the other on Angela’s hip to keep her balanced, trying valiantly to ignore the way their hips rock together. She focuses instead on the thick stench of blood covering her armour, the weight of Raptora on her hip and the way night is drawing its dark veil across the land.

The sea of grass swallows them all. Yas’iraj burns in the distance. The first stars of dusk watch them as they ride, guiding their path. She glances up at them in their multitudes, wondering if her mother is peering down at her, watching and judging. Silent and sure.

Chapter Text

“This is me.”

The crossroads are lonely. One path leads to the sea, the other winding its way up a hill and towards the shadows of mountains to the north west. Night has found them lingering at the point of separation, Lena sliding from Meissa’s back and taking several steps north, hitching the supplies they can spare her up her back. Her harness cuts a blue light through the dark; Fareeha urges Silas to her side, peering down at her.

“Thank you,” she murmurs in Westerling. “You saved my life, and Angela’s.”

Lena grins and shrugs. “Nah, I just helped out a bit. Cheers for the sleeping bag and stuff.” Then she inhales, and continues in Argan. “Just look after yourselves, okay?”

Surprised, and slightly nettled, Fareeha opens her mouth to respond but Angela laughs, interrupting her. “Be careful. Try not to get into too much trouble.”

“Trouble finds me, innit?”

With a final wave, Lena starts up the path, singing in a high, tuneful voice as she goes, looking back as she crests the hill. Angela raises a hand, and then Lena is gone in a brilliant whoosh of magic, her black eyes flaring with blue light. Fareeha shifts her grip on Silas’ reins. So, Lena is a mage after all. She had thought as much. She sighs, watching as Angela leans forward to grasp Meissa’s reins, securing the strips of leather to Silas’ saddle and tying the horses together.

They had been travelling through the night. Yas’iraj is a burning memory in their minds. The dawn is coming - Fareeha can smell it in the air, practically taste it. She is exhausted; her whole body aches, and her skin itches with the dried blood still caking their armour. Somehow escape felt more important than washing. But now, far from harm, Fareeha feels safe enough to probe her condition.

She wheels Silas around and nudges his flanks. He starts off the path towards the glimmer of a lake, the tall grass brushing against Fareeha and Angela’s knees as they go, blessing them with their harvest full stems. Meissa follows them, snorting softly. Fareeha glances back to eye the saddle bag which twitches, making sure Rastaban is still sleeping soundly. Relieved that he is, she turns her attention to Angela.

The Priestess is pressed back against her, pale with lack of sleep, deep purple rings hanging under her eyes. Her cloak is limp and cold, the torn fabric fluttering around her as they walk, the golden falcon rent in two. Her clothes are similarly despoiled; Fareeha wraps an arm around her waist for fear of her slipping off Silas’ back, misliking the way her skin has drawn tight over her face.

At her touch Angela stirs, peering up at her.

“Thank you.” Her voice is terrifyingly faint. It makes Fareeha’s heart lurch up her throat. She grits her teeth against a fresh wave of fear, sitting up in the saddle to take a note of how close the lake is.

“You’re sick.” Fareeha sets Silas into a faster walk, tightening her grip around Angela as she goes.

Angela utters a pale laugh, pressing her face into the crook of Fareeha’s neck. Fareeha feels her breath against her skin and tries not to panic about how weak it is, urging Silas into a slow trot, holding Angela against her securely as they jog around with the pace.

“I’m not sick,” Angela murmurs. “I just need the sun. I’ll be better in the sun.”

“But it’s night.” Fareeha hates how her voice cracks.

Angela takes the hand which is resting across her stomach, tangling their fingers together as though to reassure Fareeha. It does little to soothe her. Angela’s grip is so limp she barely feels her against the numb skin of her blackened fingers. Her head lolls against Fareeha’s shoulder, eyes fluttering closed as though to conserve the last iota of strength left to her. Panicking, Fareeha drives Silas into a gallop, sitting up in the saddle as the war horse races towards the lake. Meissa follows quickly behind, snorting roughly.

The water sprays around them as Silas plunges into the water. Not caring about her armour, Fareeha slides off his back with a splash, sinking into waist deep water, pulling Angela with her and dragging her out into the lake. Even at the sharp bite of cold, Angela does not stir, her lips turning blue under the red hue of splattered blood. Hands shaking, Fareeha carefully washes Angela’s face, cleaning her body as much as she can before hoisting her up into her arms, carrying her bodily to the bank.

She flattens the grass with a wet boot before laying the Priestess down, tugging off the ruined cloak and throwing it aside. Sopping wet, fear pounding in her head, Fareeha yanks off her mail gloves before methodically stripping Angela down, needing to get her out of her ruined clothes and into fresh, clean ones.

She barely notices Angela’s nudity, hurrying to Meissa’s saddle bags and wrenching out an assortment of clothes. In her rush several bundles fall onto the ground, but she pays them no mind, returning to Angela’s side and dressing her. She is light and thin. Fareeha has little difficulty lifting her hips to tug up the cloth breeches, and the shirt falls easily over her head, soft and white and - most importantly - warm.

“Angela?” She cradles a cold cheek, searching closed eyes for a flicker of consciousness. Angela does not stir, even as Fareeha says her name again, holding her face with both hands. Leaning down, Fareeha can hear her breathing, but when she checks her pulse she finds none.

She rocks back onto her heels, terror congealing her stomach. Light a fire. Keep her warm. She twists around, getting to her feet and fetching firewood from a saddlebag, thanking the God that the Marguey had kept them well supplied. A little wet from the lake, the fire takes a little time to come to life. Fareeha’s hands tremble so hard she drops her tinderbox at least twice, but eventually the fire catches, light blossoming around them, the highly combustible wood the Marguey provided sending a wave of heat over her.

She returns to Angela’s side, crouching beside her and ignoring how her armour drips water everywhere, forgetting her exhaustion in favour of lapping concern. When nothing happens, she draws Raptora, laying the blade at Angela’s side, trying not to notice how her blood still stains the hilt, and closing her eyes to pray.

She repeats the prayer over and over again, leaning down to press her forehead against the cool blade of her sword. She feels helpless. Useless. Unable to understand what is happening she pours her heart out to the God, confessing her love for Angela until she can barely stand the only sound being the crackling of the flames.

Her fingers curl into the grass, eyes burning. She clenches them closed, gritting her teeth, trying to drive away the sob even as it hunches her shoulders. I’ve already died once today. God, don’t let me die again.

“Why are you crying?”

She sits up at the voice. Angela is blinking blearily at her, expression puzzled. Fareeha shuffles closer to her, sniffing hugely and examining her carefully, touching her forehead. She feels warm again, cheeks filling with colour. The fire’s light brushes her face, casting her eyes to darkness; huge and blue and deep as an ocean.

“Angela?” Her voice wobbles pathetically. Angela takes her hand, her grip stronger than it was before, squeezing her fingers until the tingle turns into a burn.

“I’m not going to die, you know.” Angela looks amused. “I’m just tired. Bringing you back was difficult.”

Fareeha sighs shakily, swallowing and wiping the last of her tears away. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“Why?” Angela tries to sit up, her voice indignant. Fareeha eases her back down, schooling her features in an attempt to hide her dismay from the Priestess. As thankful as she is to live, her place in the stars had been chosen. She’d seen it. She’d known she’d died a warrior’s death and fulfilled her oath.

The words do not come, and she stares at the horizon for a moment, agonised with the thought of it, before she shakes her head. “Rest. You need it.”

She gets to her feet before Angela can protest, unbuckling her armour with practiced ease, sighing in relief when she is freed. She rolls her aching shoulders, inspecting them for injury, remembering dimly the crush of bone when Dustra’an’s hammer had smashed into her side. Pleased to find none, she pulls her shirt over her head, kicking off her boots and breeches and unwinding her breast bindings. Shy still, she covers herself as much as she can with her arms, feeling Angela’s gaze on her back as she wades into the water, washing her skin free of blood, watching as it runs red. The mud is soft beneath her toes, and she sets off into the middle of the lake, ducking her head under and swimming for a few yards, enjoying the weightlessness. When she is far enough out to be alone she takes to floating on her back, staring upwards, searching the infinite above.

She wonders if her mother would have approved of her. Possibly. She had died to fulfil her oath, which is the ultimate sacrifice for a Barren Knight such as herself. But I came back. Did this mean she was free of her oath? Perhaps I should avow myself once more, just to be safe. I know there are enchantments around oaths. Old magics.

Deciding that swearing herself to the Priestess is the way forward, she starts swimming back to shore, relieved to be free from sweat and gore. Angela is sitting at the fireside when she returns, watching the fire while chewing on some jerky. Fareeha shelters behind Silas to hide herself, pulling fresh clothes from her saddle and shoving herself into them, making sure Angela sees nothing of her body except her legs.

When she is finally dressed she checks on Rastaban, pleased to see he is still sound asleep, and unhooks their only remaining sleeping sack from the saddle and unfurls it near enough to the fire to still benefit from its warmth, looking meaningfully at Angela.

“My lady,” she murmurs. Angela looks up.

“You kissed me.” She replies.

Fareeha feels her cheeks grow hot. She looks away, shuffling her bare feet on the grass. Angela pushes herself to her feet, leaning over to open the sleeping bag up and patting its insides.

“We can talk tomorrow,” she says softly. Fareeha blinks stupidly at her for a moment until Angela drags her down to lie on the downy hide. Then, to Fareeha’s surprise, the Priestess settles beside her on her back. They stare upwards blindly - Fareeha tries to ignore how close their hands are between them, and the heat radiating from Angela’s prone body beside her. Sparks fly from the fire, drifting upwards, joining the pinpricks of stars before fading from sight.

She hesitates, then rolls onto her side, peering at Angela’s face, calming the rapid jackhammering of her heart as they look at each other. Angela reaches out tentatively, a thin finger hovering above Fareeha’s tattoo, looking for permission. After a moment’s deliberation, Fareeha gives it, a tingle fluttering up her spine as Angela traces the black marks.

“Ana had one just like this.” Angela’s voice is so soft Fareeha almost misses it under the crackle of the fire. “What does it mean?”

“Argans call it the eye of the falcon,” Fareeha feels compelled to reply. She feels lost. Enthralled. The fire plays shadows over Angela’s face. “I wear it in honour of my mother. And to show I am a protector.”

Angela’s expression softens. She leans forward slowly and, when Fareeha does not pull away, drops a delicate kiss over the tattoo, her breath dusting Fareeha’s forehead. Fareeha feels the breath shudder out of her, trying to ignore the way her stomach lurches like a new-born fawn. Her body somehow tightens more, tension making her stiff and unpliable. Angela hesitates, then presses another kiss further down her cheek, the cold tip of her nose pressing briefly into Fareeha’s skin. She draws a breath, curling her fingers into Angela’s shirt, willing herself to lie still when Angela brushes their noses together delicately.

“You said something, when we were in the middle of that battle,” Angela whispers, lips brushing her mouth as she speaks. Fareeha swallows. “What was it?”

Fareeha casts her mind back, muddying her way through the past day. All she can remember is fear, sharp and hard in her nostrils, and dancing around maces and axes and… and how Raptora felt, sliding between her ribs and through her heart, cold and precise. She shudders, closing her eyes against the memory, trembling despite the warmth of the fire and Angela’s body pressed against hers.

Angela seems to understand because she presses her hand against Fareeha’s chest, right over her heart. “You’re alive. You’re here.”

“It- it hurt so much,” Fareeha chokes out. Angela soothes her, placing light kisses to her forehead and rubbing her chest in tiny little circles.

“I healed you. You’re safe with me, now. I’ve got you.”

The wave of fear and pain engulfs her. Fareeha stiffens in her place, clenching her jaw as Angela shifts towards her, trying to coax her into an embrace. She resists, feeling her bottom lip trembling slightly until Angela mutters something soothingly in her strange tongue. She breaks, and buries her face into Angela’s shoulder, shaking and tucking herself as close as she can to the Priestess, leeching off her warmth and trying to find solace in the softness of her scent. Angela strokes her hair gently, running her fingers through it and humming quietly, placing little kisses to her temple every so often. Fareeha wraps her arms more firmly around Angela’s waist, pulling her as close as she can, her body jerking with sobs she tries desperately to hold in. Each one that escapes feels like a tear of her soul.

When she raises her head, tearstained, nose whistling when she breathes, Angela offers her a tiny smile. Embarrassed, Fareeha starts to duck her head, only to have Angela lift her chin.

“Don’t. Don’t be afraid to feel things, Fareeha. That is when we feel most human.”

“What if I am ashamed of my feelings?” Fareeha replies, thinking of the way her heart feels fit to burst at the thought of Angela, trying to hide her feelings of love away even though they are thrumming through her, rushing through her veins.

Angela cups her face, wiping away her tears with quick sweeps of her thumbs. “The Gods gave us emotions. Do not deny them. To deny your truth - your own truth - is to deny your God. They are what make us human.”

You are the only god I need, Fareeha thinks at once. Face flushing with it, she looks away, recalling Angela’s wings. They had been so bright. So piercingly bright and white, with gold dusting their edges like the sun shining around the moon in an eclipse.

“And are you human?” She asks.

Angela draws a breath, easing it out of her on a sigh. Then she nibbles her lip. “I was once. I was taken by the Pale as a little girl when my parents were killed. Trained in their arts and given their magic, I was sent to help rid the world of evil – instructed to aid Overwatch as an impartial observer.” Her gaze flickers away, tongue darting out to wet her lips. “But I… I was compromised, I was banished from the Pale and forbidden to use my powers ever again.”

Fareeha searches Angela’s gaze, seeing only truth there, trying to comprehend what she means. Forbidden to use her powers? Powers of resurrection? When she asks, Angela nods and smiles pitifully, turning her head to speak into the night.

“I’m compromised again, Fareeha. For a Priestess I was never good at not caring.” She swallows, looking away again as though to find shelter outside of the intensity of the space between them. Fareeha lets her, watching her carefully.

Eventually Angela turns to face her again, stroking Fareeha’s cheek with her thumb, more to soothe herself than anything else. Fareeha allows the touch, still clamouring with awkwardness, stuffing her slightly sweaty hands under her knees for lack of anything better to do with them, listening patiently. Leif had always told her that a silence could be infinitely more powerful than any words.

“Today, on the battlefield, you told me you loved me.” Angela murmurs. Fareeha says nothing, remembering in excruciating detail the very moment she had let the words slip out of her. Angela sucks in her bottom lip for a moment. “I cared too much once, and it cost me everything.”

Their gazes meet. Fareeha sees past the resolve. Sees past the bravery. She sees fear in Angela’s eyes. She tightens her grip on Angela, resting their foreheads together. The sky is brightening with the dawn, the first dustings of sunlight blessing the morning stars.

“Angela,” Fareeha whispers. The Priestess brushes her nose against hers. Fareeha watches the way her lips part. “Before the God of death and life, in this Season of Life, I, Pharah of Aquila, Fareeha Amari, the Unbroken, the Falcon, the Unbent, Daughter of Ana Amari, Falcon of the East, Forger and Wielder of Raptora, second of her name, do pledge my life to you and swear to follow you until my body is broken, or you see fit to release me from my oath.”

Fareeha waits. The gears turn slowly in Angela’s mind, her face flickering between confusion and amusement until realisation makes her eyes go wide.

Shyly, nervously, they inch towards each other, sharing a breath, exchanging wordless questions and permissions, reassurances that they both want this; that they are equal as the sun rises.

Fareeha brushes her lips tentatively against Angela’s, cupping the back of her head delicately, her eyes sliding closed. She tastes sweet and cool, her mouth opening briefly to suck in a breath as she shuffles closer. Fareeha can hear her heart pounding, enjoying the hard edge of arousal as Angela runs her fingers through her hair, drawing back her beaded braids to press herself closer. Fareeha fumbles slightly, feeling herself blush when she bumps her head against Angela’s. She mutters a sorry, mortified when Angela laughs.

“It’s all right. You’re fine. You’re fine.” Angela mutters, pushing her onto her back. She is grinning happily, her hair playfully ruffled in the dawn light as she swings a leg over Fareeha’s hips and settles on her stomach. Fareeha stares up at her, mouth dry, resting her hands lamely beside her own head until Angela guides them to her waist.

“I-I’ve never-” Fareeha splutters as Angela drops towards her, eyes lidded, her weight an unfamiliar comfort above her. Angela pauses, looking puzzled.

“Never?”

“I’ve never b-been with. With anyone.”

Blushing harder than ever, embarrassment scalding her insides, Fareeha looks away from the tender expression on Angela’s face, finding it too hard to see. Like looking into the sun, it makes her feel vulnerable. Delicately, like coaxing a bird from its nest, Angela turns Fareeha’s face towards her.

“We don’t have to do anything, Fareeha.” She smiles and kisses the tip of her nose. “I want to be with you. In all senses of the word. But only if you’re comfortable with it too.”

Fareeha nods, almost ashamed. I can’t even lay with her. How pathetic.

But Angela seems perfectly content to curl up against her side, wrapping her limbs firmly around Fareeha’s body, resting her head on her shoulder. The sun is rising fully now; Fareeha hears Rastaban claw his way out of his bag and land lightly beside them, purring loudly. He trots to them, curling up beside her head and licking her cheek as Angela’s breathing levels out.

Chapter Text

Rastaban purrs as he winds around her legs. She places the small wooden bowl of meat on the ground in front of him, trying not to laugh about how loudly he meows as he barges past her hand to get at the food. She gives him a gentle pat, then straightens, rolling her stiffening shoulders and muffling a yawn in the crease of her elbow.

The tiny tavern room is warm and welcoming. A fire crackles merrily in the hearth, the vast bed taking much of the available space. Fareeha eyes it appreciatively, looking forward to the warmth and solace a comfortable bed provides, but turns away to watch Angela fiddling with the curtains. The Priestess peers out of the window curiously, no doubt watching the port town’s people. They are busy with preparations for something; laughter and shouting echoes through the streets.

“We’re meeting the captain tomorrow, yes?” Angela says, glancing around at her.

Fareeha nods, idly fingering Raptora’s hilt. She ignores the way Angela’s eyes dart down to watch it, looking away when she nibbles her lip. “We are meeting him tomorrow. At noon.”

“Well, that does not mean we can’t enjoy the evening,” Angela smiles brightly and trots to her bags, fishing around in them as she pulls out fresh clothes. Fareeha stands awkwardly beside the bed, still fiddling with Raptora until Angela tugs her shirt up over her head. Fareeha feels herself blush, looking away quickly. Not quickly enough not to notice the two vertical scars over Angela’s shoulder blades, or the detailed black tattoo etched up her back; two snakes, entwined around a staff.

They had agreed to maintain a respectful distance. Confessions of love aside, they are still Knight and Priestess. The roles hold a certain expectation of decorum. Still, the fact that in the eyes of the law they are technically engaged does not escape Fareeha’s mind. Indeed, it’s all she can think about. She imagines wrapping her cloak around Angela’s shoulders in the eyes of the God, watched by her Chapter, back at the temple. It’s hard to shake the image away, but she manages, looking up when she is sure Angela is fully dressed.

She sweeps her white cloak around her shoulders, pinning it carefully, before pulling out a small dagger from her bag. She winds it into her belt, patting it and nodding.

“There. Just to be safe.” She turns to Fareeha, brushing her dark leather breeches free of wrinkles before resting her hands on her hips. “I’m asking you to join me for dinner.”

Fareeha raises an eyebrow. “We eat dinner together every night.”

Angela actually rolls her eyes, then advances towards her, fingers going to her sword belt. Fareeha nearly slaps her hands away, blushing so hard she thinks her head might explode as Angela unbuckles her belt, laying Raptora gently aside.

“Relax, Knight.” Angela glances up at her, smirking. “We’re safe. You don’t need your sword. Don’t you have clothes for a special occasion stuffed in your saddle bags?”

Half an hour later Fareeha finds herself dressed in her finest black leathers, her torn cloak flowing off her shoulders, the golden trim glinting in the dying sunlight. Raptora hangs from her hip, her hand wrapped idly around its hilt to reassure herself of its presence. Angela’s arm is linked with hers, clutching her forearm as they stride down the main street and onto the beach. Sand crunches under their boots, the rush of the sea greeting them and they draw to a halt, gazing out at the infinite horizon. The air is cool and fresh, the breeze ruffling Fareeha’s hair. She inhales, tasting the salt, eyes lingering over the shape of a fishing ship pulling in its lines.

“I’ve only seen the sea once before,” Fareeha blurts, slightly dumbstruck at the size of the ocean. Angela’s grip on her arm tightens as though to encourage her. “It was one of the only times my mother took me with her into the field.” She bends down, plucking up a smooth stone in her blackened, dead fingers, enjoying the gentle tingle as she tightens her grip on it and straightens. Ana seems to hang over her for a moment, her memory as crushing as she had been in life.

Angela hums softly. “Your mother would have wanted you to follow in her footsteps.”

“Did she?” Ironic laughter bubbles up her throat and she shoves it down, thinking of her mother’s cold, dark eyes. The same eyes she sees whenever she looks into a mirror. You must be stronger, Fareeha. You will never be anything unless you are strong. “She never mentioned that to me.”

“Well, if it makes a difference, I think you are a fine warrior, and an excellent Barren Knight.” Angela leans up towards her, placing a whisper of a kiss against her cheek. Surprised, Fareeha peers down at her, blinking and trying to contain her blush. Angela smiles kindly at her.

“It will never be enough,” Fareeha tries to stop the words, but they come out anyway. Hot and angry, washed red with old pain. Angela stays quiet, letting her speak. For that, she is grateful. “I was never good enough. When I managed to see my mother, she was telling me to train harder. Always picking at my skills, criticising me. To everyone else she was an inspiration; kind and loyal and dutiful, and honourable.” She inhales shakily, clenching her fist around the stone until it burns. “I never felt as though I measured up to anything.”

Her gaze hasn’t left Angela’s face. The Priestess’s eyes are wide and round, her lips parted in surprise. When she sees pity lingering in the corners around Angela’s eyes she looks away, throwing the stone into the sea as hard as she can. It sinks below the waves with a thick splash.

“Fareeha, listen to me.” Angela tugs on her arm until Fareeha meets her gaze. “You died for me. In that arena. You went above and beyond the line of duty for me. Your charge. I don’t care what your mother said. To me, you are twice the woman your mother was.”

“I did what was expected of me.” Fareeha replies stubbornly.

Angela shakes her head. “You fought for my hand in marriage to stop some strange lord from taking me. And won. You didn’t have to do that.”

When she opens her mouth to protest, Angela interrupts her angrily. “Don’t. Don’t pretend any of your Chapter wouldn’t have retreated and waited for aid.” Fareeha grinds her teeth, knowing Angela is right. She glowers at the sand as Angela continues. “You entered that tournament and fought by yourself against fifteen people, and you won. And now here we are. We’re...”

She hesitates, clearly searching for a word.

“Engaged.” Fareeha supplies dully.

Angela purses her lips. “Yes. We’re engaged by eastern law. You saved my life. You did more than that; you ensured my freedom and died for me. You are the sun and the stars; braver and more beautiful than anyone I’ve ever met.”

Stomach wobbling stupidly, Fareeha examines Angela’s painfully open expression, looking for mocking or pity. She finds none. Just a ferocity she has seen only once before: on the battlefield, right before her wings had burst out of her back and she had killed Dustra’an.

Angela’s eyebrow quirks. Flattered, Fareeha looks at the sand, shuffling her boots amongst the golden grains, before muttering her thanks, embarrassed and oddly pleased. A tiny bubble of pride blooms in her chest. She cradles it in her heart, allowing herself to feel it, standing as tall as any lord for the briefest of moments. As tall as her mother.

Angela’s hand tightens briefly on her arm before she takes Fareeha’s hand, leading her across the sand. They walk in silence; Fareeha watches the lapping waves, gazing out at the endless horizon and the first pinpricks of stars. Angela squeezes her for a moment before she lets go, hurrying down to the sea and ducking down to comb her hand through the surf. She straightens, her shoulders hunching, head dipping as she inspects whatever she has found.

“My father used to take me to the sea all the time,” she says, turning around. Fareeha joins her, raising an eyebrow at the small pink shell cradled in her delicate fingers. “He used to gather them up and make necklaces for my mother and I.”

Angela hesitates, before handing Fareeha the shell, smiling sadly. Fareeha’s stained black fingers trace over its surface, unable to feel its texture beyond the cool wet on its smooth curves. She clenches it in her palm, holding it to her heart, before taking Angela’s hand again and tucking the shell into her pocket. They stare out together, the sea lapping gently at the toes of their boots. The dusk has truly fallen now, night sweeping its veil across the sky, inky black and deep as the abyss. It wheels overhead, small clouds passing delicately in front of a half-hung moon.

A half-heard song comes to them on the breeze. The notes flicker in and out of her hearing, scatterings of words hovering about them. She tastes them, feeling Angela’s eyes on her as she struggles to recall the song itself, listening to the lapping waves and sighing sea at their feet.

Slowly, but surely, the words come to her. She sings softly in a trembling voice, trying to ignore the way Angela is staring up at her, trying to keep her tune steady. The music grows in strength, drawing them together - Fareeha turns to face Angela, taking her in a small embrace, the shell trapped between them as their boots scuff the sand. Angela rests her head against Fareeha’s chest; Fareeha feels her heart squeeze when she sees the woman’s eyes close.

They dance slowly. Fareeha tries not to stand on Angela’s toes, distracted with the way her lips curl into a tiny, private smile, even when Fareeha’s voice breaks on a note too high for her. Blushing hard, she continues to sing, tightening her grip on Angela’s waist, relishing her warmth as a cool wind curls her cloak about them. Angela tucks her head under Fareeha’s chin, sighing happily and winding her fingers into the cloth of her dark shirt. The tickle of her hair nearly makes Fareeha laugh, but she swallows the urge, relaxing against Angela as they sway together, finding peace in the infinite darkness behind her eyelids.

“Mm,” Angela murmurs when the last note spirits up above them, lost amongst the glittering stars. “That was lovely. Thank you.”

They peer into each other. Fareeha experiences another dizzying rush of affection and she leans down to press a gentle kiss against Angela’s forehead.

“Please…” Angela breathes softly, her hands sliding up to cup Fareeha’s shoulders, coiling into the folds of her cloak. She continues in her strange language, her throat bobbing as she swallows, her breath quick and hot against Fareeha’s mouth. Head spinning, heart racing, Fareeha takes pity on the Priestess, brushing her lips against Angela’s in the barest hint of a kiss.

The groan that echoes out of Angela’s chest takes Fareeha aback, but she barely has time to remark on it before Angela is dragging her further down by a fistful of her hair, her smooth, soft mouth moving hungrily against hers; devouring, worshiping, all consuming. Fareeha’s breath comes in hard, sharp bursts, their noses nudging each other as their teeth clack awkwardly together.

Fareeha tightens her grip on Angela’s waist, lifting her up onto her toes, enjoying the tiny gasp Angela makes as she is hoisted into the air.

“You’re so strong,” Angela says breathlessly, breaking the kiss as her arms clench tightly around Fareeha’s neck.

“Is… is that all right?” Fareeha replies, making as though to put Angela back down. The pair of legs which wrap around her waist stop her.

A bolt of surprise streaks down Fareeha’s spine as she feels teeth nip at her ear. Blushing hard and struggling not to dump Angela onto the sand, she hardly hears Angela’s whispered, “Of course.”

They hold each other tightly. Fareeha buries her face into the crook of Angela’s neck, taking comfort in the clean grace of her scent. Fresh and pure and good, like what she imagines snow might smell like. Angela cradles the back of Fareeha’s head, stroking the tender hairs at there.

Eventually, Fareeha lets her down, setting her on the sand lightly and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.

“Shall we get something to eat?” Fareeha asks, taking Angela’s hand again. The Priestess nods shyly and together they walk back up the beach.

The town is buzzing with life. Here and there people flit, hanging lamps and laughing. Priestess and Knight walk through them unnoticed, anonymous amongst the crowd, their boots scuffing the stone cobbles below, leaving nary a trace of their presence as they pass. The half-moon hides briefly behind a cloud. The orange glow of lights guide their path as they make their way past several giggling women hanging flowers, and a father hoisting his child onto his shoulders, letting them place a tiny wooden bird in a plant pot. Angela’s fingers wind themselves with Fareeha’s, squeezing her gently. They share a secret look.

Fareeha holds the tavern door open for Angela when they arrive and they find themselves a place to sit beside the window, tucked neatly into an alcove and out the way. Angela makes herself comfortable, unclipping her cloak and letting it fall about the chair’s back, leaning on her elbows on the table. The candle between them flickers in her eyes; Fareeha looks away before she can get lost in them.

“You sing beautifully.” Angela murmurs. Fareeha blushes.

“Thank you.” She replies stiffly. “I sing only when I must.”

Angela laughs softly. “Yes. I seem to recall you saying you only sing for your God.”

Fareeha raises her gaze to Angela’s face, keeping her expression neutral, folding her hands carefully on the worn wooden surface of the table. It takes Angela a moment before she understands. Her cheeks flush and she looks away, eyes widening as one of the barmaids arrives with two flagons of mead.

“Thank you,” Fareeha says, and quickly orders food for the pair of them.

“Anything else, brave warrior?” The barmaid purrs, a gentle hand resting idly on Fareeha’s shoulder and giving it a gentle squeeze. “You certainly look well dressed. Are you here for the festival?”

“Festival?” Fareeha takes a sip of her mead, enjoying the refreshingly fruity flavour.

The barmaid’s grip tightens on her shoulder. She leans forward slightly and Fareeha receives an impressive eyeful of her breasts, barely contained by her tight cream shirt. Blinking, a little nonplussed, she misses the first half of the woman’s sentence, half wondering if the maid knows she’s about to burst her buttons.

“... of the Moon, yes.” The maid finishes. She smirks and leans forward a little more. Fareeha doesn’t miss the hungry expression on her face. She knows what she’s doing.

“It’s a festival of fertility.” The barmaid straightens slightly, her hand still resting on Fareeha’s shoulder. “We dance naked in the sea, picking partners for the night and hoping the moon will bless us with good crops and healthy children. You should stay for a while. It lasts about a week - starts tomorrow, if you’re interested.”

“Apologies,” Fareeha replies. “We are leaving on the morrow.”

The barmaid runs her hand across Fareeha’s shoulder, plucking at her cloak until it lies straight, her plump lips pouting in disappointment. Fareeha feels herself stiffen slightly, shifting away from the barmaid and glancing out of the dark windows. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you to stay a little longer?”

Fareeha is about to reply when Angela cuts across her sharply. “No. I’m sure you can’t tempt us to stay longer.” Angela’s mouth has twisted in that way which indicates displeasure, her knuckles white as she grips the table top. “Besides, she already has a partner.”

The barmaid laughs softly, then shrugs. “Marriage contracts don’t matter during the festival.” She turns to Fareeha and winks. “When you get tired of this one, I’ll be waiting.”

The barmaid sweeps away, her dress doing nothing to hide the voluptuous swell of her hips. Fareeha watches her go, highly amused and a little befuddled, unsure what just transpired. Angela lets out a great huff of exasperated laughter, muttering irritably in her strange language, cheeks flushed.

“She's no Yeisa,” Fareeha hears herself say. Angela glances at her.

“Yeisa was-”

“More forward than that.” Fareeha brushes some invisible dust off the table. “She was quite vocal about wanting to lay with you. To me, at any rate.”

Angela’s lips purse at once. “Yeisa was harmless. I knew you wouldn't- I mean, not that it mattered. I- you-”

“You don't have to be jealous.” Fareeha cannot help but smirk, recalling the tent  in the forest and the evening before the battle.

“I am not jealous.” Angela swells like some sort of bird, puffing up its feathers indignantly before a challenge. Fareeha raises her eyebrow, offering Angela the barest hint of a smile as she leans over the table.

“I’m your Knight, Angela. I swore my oath to you. Not that barmaid.”

Angela looks as though she is about to say something when their food arrives. Two steaming bowls of fish soup accompanied by a large loaf of bread sets themselves down between them. The barmaid is back, and she is wearing a new scent; something flowery and coy which makes Fareeha look up into her broad smile.

“Is there anything else I can get you?” She asks, tucking a strand of mousey hair behind her ear. The tavern door opens and four men stagger in, singing drunkenly and throwing themselves into their seats. The barmaid glances around at them, and Fareeha doesn’t miss the momentary flash of fear that splashes across her face.

“That will be all, thank you.” Angela replies primly, picking up her spoon and straightening in her seat. The barmaid passes her an empty smile and excuses herself, squeezing her way between tables and chairs to attend to the newest arrivals.

Fareeha turns to her meal, plucking up her spoon and ignoring the determined rumble of her stomach as she digs in, finding a healthy chunk of white fish and eating it, humming in pleasure at the taste. It is rich and creamy, lank strips of green vegetables floating in amongst the hunks of meat, lost in the sea of pale soup. They eat in a silence afforded when engrossed by the delicious food - Fareeha offers Angela a morsel of crab meat, ignoring the pang in her belly when she watches Angela’s lips curl around the spoon, and receives some potato in return, trying not to laugh at the way Angela’s tongue pokes out when she tries not to spill anything.

The table of men gets rowdier and rowdier. Their laughter rings so loudly it shakes the window panes, the unearthly thunder of their mugs slamming against wood deafening in the cramped room. Fareeha glances their way just in time to see the barmaid being dragged onto a thick lap. Her laughter is too loud. The edge of it makes the hairs on the back of Fareeha’s neck rise; Angela notices too and she takes to watching the group. Five very drunk men. Sailors, by the strength in their arms and the weather worn lines of their hard, narrow faces.

Fareeha is about to go back to her food when she sees a pair of hands tear the barmaid’s dress open. She gives a cry of surprise and pain and Fareeha is on her feet at once, one hand resting on Raptora’s hilt, her chair clattering backwards. Angela follows her lead, untucking her dagger from her belt and holding it loosely - sheathed still - at her side.

“Let her go.” Angela’s voice is hard as they approach the table. The sailors twist in their chairs to look at them, sneering and leering. Their captain and leader, made obvious the way he clutches the barmaid tightly, gives Angela an obvious once over.

“Didn’ know y’ had friends, Meera,” he grunts, baring a grin of gravestone teeth. “They wanna join us an’ all?”

Meera struggles weakly on his lap, spluttering something which makes his gang roar with laughter. Fareeha tightens her grip on Raptora, preparing to draw it as Angela takes a step forward.

“I am Mercy of the Pale, and I command you to release her.”

The captain grunts a laugh, tightening his grip on Meera’s breast. “I’ll shove more than y’ command up y’ arse. I’ll have y’ squealin’ bloody mercy before th’ night’s done.”

Fareeha doesn’t hesitate.

She strikes like lightning. Raptora sings as it bursts out of its scabbard, the blade flashing as she snaps it outwards and tucks its tip right under the sailor’s chin, the thin edge pressing into his unshaven throat. His companions let out cries of panic, jerking away from her as she inches closer, holding Raptora steady.

“Let her go.” Fareeha says softly, staring into the captain’s dull grey eyes. “If you leave now I will let you keep your life.”

“E-easy,” he says, raising his hands. Meera scurries out of his grip, hitching her torn dress about her as she hurries away. “It were jus’ a bit’ve fun.”

Fareeha leans a little harder against Raptora. A thin trickle of blood dribbles languidly down the captain’s neck, pooling in the sweaty hollow of his throat. His Adam’s apple bobs, chin tilting up in an attempt to escape the scimitar’s razor edge.

“If I ever hear you treating another woman like that again,” she says in the same low, dangerous voice, “I will introduce Raptora to more than your throat. Is that clear?”

“Aye.” He gives the barest hint of a nod, the whites of his eyes stark and bright in the half light. Fareeha lowers Raptora only to wipe the captain’s blood off on his shoulder before sheathing it. The group of sailors leave quickly after that, closing the tavern door behind them and escaping into the night.

Angela pats her arm. “Thank you for defending my honour.”

Fareeha offers her a tiny smile before they return to their meals, wolfing down the last of the soup and bread. Fareeha barely tastes it, watching the door, waiting for the sailors to return with more men. Thankfully, they do not and eventually Meera creeps out of her hiding place, clothed in a different dress.

“Thank you,” she says, peering meekly down at them as she comes to stand beside their table.

“Does that happen a lot?” Angela asks gently. Meera shakes her head, inhaling shakily and running a hand through her mousey hair.

“That group has been troubling me for some time. This is the first time they’ve touched me though. I usually have my brother helping me but…” She gestures idly out of the window where the village is still alive with festival preparations.

Fareeha frowns out of the window, concern stealing over her heart. This is wrong. Where are the guard? The Marguey would never allow this to happen in Shala’Zor. She looks at Angela who is nibbling her lip, clearly debating something. The Priestess hesitates, then raises her dagger, pressing it into Meera’s hands.

“Next time that happens don’t hesitate to cut them.” Angela says seriously. Meera takes the dagger in shaking fingers, blinking, confused, her mouth opening to refuse. Angela doesn’t let her. “I do not usually condone violence, but in some cases, it is needed. Keep the blade. Wear it on you at all times.”

“I will do, m’lady, thank you.” Meera gives an awkward little curtsey. “Begging your pardons about before. I- It’s just-”

“It’s all right.” Angela smiles soothingly, patting Meera’s arm. “I couldn’t resist when I first met her either.”

Cheeks feeling suspiciously warm, Fareeha clears her throat and taps the table with her fingers. Angela and Meera laugh. Fareeha busies herself with clenching and unclenching her fists, willing feeling back into the dead black limbs. Only the burning remains.

Meera takes their bowls away, trotting neatly back into the kitchen and leaving them alone together.

“We sail tomorrow, then?” Fareeha places several coins on the table, stacking them neatly for Meera to collect.

Angela nods, “We’ll be in Axis soon enough, provided the weather’s not too bad.” She muffles a yawn into her fist before dragging her cloak around her shoulders.

“Bed?” She asks, half rising.

Fareeha stands, stretches, and nods, before following the Priestess to the back of the tavern and up the narrow flight of stairs.

Chapter Text

May the God preserve me.

Fareeha leans further out over the lapping waves, trying to keep control of her roiling stomach and ignoring the way Angela’s fingers curl into the scruff of her neck. She spits half-heartedly, muffling a groan of discomfort as the boat gives a horrible lurch over the crest of a wave.

“You’re doing so well,” Angela murmurs soothingly, rubbing her back in a fruitless attempt to quell the fresh surge of nausea which threatens to make Fareeha experience her breakfast for the second time.

I never want to set foot on a boat again. She spits again fruitlessly, closing her eyes and praying fervently that she will not vomit.

They had been sailing for two whole weeks aboard the cargo ship The Golden Bow. For most of those two weeks, Fareeha had been sea sick, finding solace only in the thought that the weather had been kind, and no late summer storms had troubled them. Their captain, a distinguished sailor whom Fareeha suspected might have actually been a pirate, had promised a swift journey from the seaside town in Senak right into Axis Mundi’s harbour.

Two weeks spent hanging over the side of the dhow is quite long enough for Fareeha. This sentiment is not echoed by either Rastaban or Angela. The cat quickly had run of the ship, catching rats and bouncing across the rigging like some four-legged monkey. The crew adore him, particularly the first mate. A strange beast from the Dusklands to the far west, the wolf-headed, four-armed creature had taken to crawling up after Rastaban and playing tag with him. Angela, on the other hand, spent most of her time at the prow of the ship, staring out across the ocean with an expression of longing Fareeha finds painful to look at.

The captain barks an order. Fareeha drags herself upright, wiping her mouth on the back of her hand and accepting the skin of water Angela presses into her fingers. Murmuring a thanks, she gulps down several mouthfuls of tepid liquid before tucking the skin into her belt. No doubt she would need it later.

Rastaban himself comes prowling towards her along a line of rigging, narrowly avoiding the harried crewmembers as they set about pulling down the sail, dragging oars from below deck. He is much bigger, now. Too big to ride on Fareeha’s shoulders, and a fine downy mane has begun to grow along his spine, ruffling in the wind as he falls into step beside her. Angela stoops down to pull him up into her arms, laughing when he licks her chin with a raspy tongue, his body stretching out before she cups his bottom and carries him to the prow of the ship. Fareeha follows her, doing her best to keep her balance as another wave pitches the boat.

“We’re so close.” Angela sets Rastaban down on the bowsprit, stroking his head delicately. Fareeha makes a noise of agreement in her throat, not trusting her wobbly stomach enough to speak, and casts her gaze out across the sea to the furrow of land.

Axis Mundi, and its capital of the same name, is a thousand leagues of desert; a sea Fareeha is much more comfortable in. The hot day sun thunders down on their heads, the salt sea air providing Fareeha a respite from nausea as they watch the orange blush of beach grow bigger and bigger. In the far distance Fareeha can just see a brilliant spear of light, piercing the bottomless blue sky, hailing all travellers of the Sundering Seas to rest and recuperate in the only city for ten thousand miles.

The city of Axis Mundi is a place of legend. Fareeha’s dead fingers curl around the wooden rail, willing herself to feel even the smallest taste of the smooth cedar as she casts her mind back to the stories Leif would tell her about the towering spires and deep caverns of Axis. The first amongst the free cities, and a haven for Magi, its history is steeped in blood as well as glory. The final battle of the Reckoning had stained the sands around Axis’ walls with so much blood it is said that on hot days the desert still wept tears of red. Fareeha didn’t believe that – she thought Leif had been trying to scare her out of her childhood dream of travelling to the ancient city.

On my mother’s orders, no doubt. The thought leaves a bitter taste in her mouth which has as nothing to do with seasickness. Look at me now, mother. Look at me now.

Angela tucks herself to Fareeha’s side, her arm wrapping around her waist as she leans her head against Fareeha’s shoulder. Fareeha allows the touch, cradling Angela close and holding onto the rail with her other hand, enjoying the warmth of the woman’s body against her side.

“I’m going to miss all the travelling,” Angela sighs softly. The wind dusts her blonde hair, teasing it out of its tail at the back of her head.

“How long are we staying in Axis?” Fareeha asks.

Angela shrugs delicately. “As long as it takes.” She nibbles her lip in thought. Rastaban saunters towards them, meowing loudly, his huge amber eyes peering imploringly up at Fareeha until she gives in and gives him chin scratches.

“Remember in Arga, when you asked me why I was out there?” Angela murmurs. Fareeha casts her mind back, recalling briefly that her question had been denied. She makes another sound in her throat, and Angela tightens her grip on her waist. “We’re safe, now we’re in Axis. I can tell you everything.”

Angela takes a deep breath, playing idly with Rastaban’s tail as he stretches himself perilously over the rail. Fareeha stares calmly at the shore, noting that they are drawing closer and closer to it, the gleaming spire growing ever larger.

“When we were in Shala’Zor, I wasn’t surprised to see demons.” Angela examines her boots as she says it, not meeting Fareeha’s eyes. “I’ve… known this was going to happen for quite some time now. That’s why I needed you – still need you,” she emphasises. “It’s the reason Overwatch wrote to me. I came to your temple to find a guard, a guide who could protect me from demons.” She exhales. “That’s why we’re going to Axis. That’s why we’re going onwards to the West. There are signs of another Reckoning.”

“That’s not possible.” Fareeha says stoutly, her mind reeling with confusion, though by this point she knows well to trust Angela’s words. “The Gates have been closed for three thousand years.”

“They’re opening again.” Angela shakes her head. “All across the West; like a plague of death. There are so many dead – so many dying and left in ruins. And now it’s happening here too. I cannot help but feel that Axis holds all the answers we need. My mission is simple: I must find out why the Gates are opening, and how they stopped it last time.”

“And you couldn’t trust me with this information before.” It’s childish, Fareeha knows, but to be left in the dark by the woman she would give her life for – has, in fact, given her life for… it reminds her of her place. A Knight. An accessory.

Angela bites her lip. “I couldn’t. We weren’t safe, and I didn’t know you then. You were the daughter of someone I knew once. But now you’re-” Angela hesitates, then, “I’m trusting you now. Please, believe me.”

“I do,” Fareeha answers automatically, loyal to a fault, and truthful. It makes sense, after all. She gazes out across the water, where the shining towers of Axis Mundi shimmer like a castle out of a children’s tale, just visible beyond the rising hill of the peninsula. It certainly looks the part, the beacon of hope they’ve been waiting for. She wants to believe they’ll find the answers there. A small, selfish part of her wonders just what will happen when Angela completes her mission and Fareeha’s work is done. Will she return to the temple? Will Angela disappear into the West, like her mother?

She glances to her side and sees Angela smiling at her softly, a quirk at the corner of her mouth. Fareeha relaxes. Come what may, Angela is beside her now, holding her hand, solid and sure as the God above. The future is too full of unknowns for her to worry about.

The Golden Bow rows its way around the sharp point of land, the deep blue of the ocean turning to the lighter green of the shallows beneath the arching keel. Fareeha rests a hand idly on Raptora’s hilt, missing the cool kiss of the falcon head against her skin. The captain’s hard voice calls for a faster stroke – the waves kiss the side of the boat, slapping against the wood as they pick up the pace. The wind rushes through Fareeha’s hair, driving away the last stirrings of nausea as the tiny boat edges past the last few rocks of land and into the bay.

Axis Mundi stands before them in all its glory. Breath catching, eyes widening, Fareeha stares up at the city of her dreams. Angela murmurs something in her unknown tongue, echoing Fareeha’s amazement in those few hissed syllables.

The city is a soaring mass of glass. A crown atop a crystal hill. Towers and steeples wheel dizzyingly upwards, crowding the myriad of shimmering streets, dancing and throbbing with life. Rivers of water flow and tumble down crystal chutes, plummeting sickening drops to wet the ground below with fine mists. Birds of a thousand colours arch between billowing trees, edged between the radiant walls, calling and gliding through waterfalls and rainbows. There are lights everywhere. Light seems to pour out of every angle of the city, giving it an unearthly glow so fierce Fareeha almost has to shield her eyes from the glare. But she can’t. An aching, thundering, howling emotion is welling up inside her, clutching her heart and driving all breath from her lungs. She sucks in a desperate gasp of air, tears springing to her eyes as she stares, trying to see everything at once. She clutches Raptora hard enough to make her fingers burn, a half-remembered prayer flying off her lips. Axis Mundi is more than a city, she thinks dazedly, it is a heaven.

She glances at Angela, eyes heavy with unshed tears, and notices Angela hadn’t been watching the city at all. Instead her face is full of some sort of private affection as she stares at Fareeha. Fareeha looks away quickly, wiping her eyes. Meeting Angela’s gaze feels like looking into the sun; painful and personal, and too much.

Their ship approaches the dock slowly. Fareeha inhales shakily, taking in the sweeping galleons, all made of sparkling glass, wispy golden sails fluttering in the breeze while men and women crawl up and down their decks, calling in some strange language Fareeha doesn’t know. She cranes her neck, staring upwards at the tallest tower – set in the centre of the rising city, it sends out a fierce beam of yellow light; a beacon for the lost and the damned.

Their captain moors them on the smallest jetty. Dragging herself out of her amazed torpor, Fareeha sets about helping the crew unload and saddle Silas and Meissa while Angela pays the captain, thanking them for giving up their cabin.

“It was nothing,” they say with a cocky grin, tucking their thumbs into their belt. “You just be safe, huh?”

Rastaban offers the first mate a loud goodbye. With a flick of his tail and a coiling caress around the Dusklander’s ankles, he bounds off the boat and up onto Silas’ haunches, reclining there as Fareeha swings herself into the saddle. Silas seems quite as relieved to be on dry land as she is. He gives a snort while she tries not to feel the way her legs wobble, as though some part of her had gotten used to the swaying deck of The Golden Bow.

Silas’ hooves clatter against the crystal dock below - Fareeha looks down to see a shoal of fish meandering around beneath the glass, unperturbed by the enormous black warhorse standing above them.

Angela appears beside her, mounted atop Meissa, her pale face flushed with the heat, blonde hair sticking to her sweaty forehead. The back of Fareeha’s shirt has already started sticking to her, sweat pooling at the small of her back - the sun’s warmth and light is reflected blindingly off the glass buildings. Squinting against the glare, Fareeha nudges Silas forward and leads them both down the jetty and onto the dock.

It is like passing through a waterfall. The moment they step off the water a wave of cool air ruffles Fareeha’s hair, the blinding bright of the city lessening as though dimmed, enabling Fareeha to see. Gasping in surprise, she turns to look at Angela questioningly, who is grinning wildly, her eyes wide with amazement.

“Magic,” Angela says, laughing softly. “This is a city made of magic. You can feel it in the air, no?”

The vague tingling at the back of Fareeha’s tongue might be what Angela is referring too. She says as much, to which Angela laughs and urges Meissa forward, leading the way through the crowds of people and towards the rise of the nearest hill.

Axis is thrumming with life. People are everywhere, of every colour and creed, a thousand languages passing their lips. Fareeha sees a group of Argan merchants, dressed in the traditional style of loose robes, scimitars hanging idly from their hips as they stride purposefully past a pair of wide-eyed, white skinned westerners, turned pink by the sun. Bark armoured Marguey slink past on their riding cats, bows and war horns slung over shoulders and around waists - Fareeha watches as they trot away down the street and take a sharp turning, wondering if they are here on Yeisa’s orders. Black skinned southerners inspect the wares of the market stalls stuffed on street corners, their elegant clothes shimmering with the stars of hundreds of gems, huge daggers stuffed into their belts.

Fareeha takes it all in with quiet amazement. Trees grow everywhere, providing their shade with huge flares of leaves. Water flows and patters and sprinkles from above and below, splitting the light, giving the buildings around them different colours from every angle. Leif’s stories did not do Axis Mundi justice. She imagines his face, hoping that she will one day have the chance to tell him she had walked the streets of the famous City of Light.

Angela leads the way up another hill, stuck in a similar state of silent wonder as the road takes them higher and higher, towards the central tower. Looking out across the city, Fareeha can see the distant walls, beating back the desert sands, battlements dotted with ant-sized patrols, mounted on the backs of glowing six-legged creatures Fareeha cannot name.

“There is nothing like this in the West,” Angela says finally. Meissa snorts tiredly, stretching out her neck as they reach the crest of the hill, coming to a halt before the gated entrance of a courtyard.

“Axis is one of a kind. The jewel of the East.” Fareeha replies, watching as a stout man dressed in violently bright red trots towards them, his nose upturned. He peers imperiously at them through the gate, his suspicious brown eyes lingering on Raptora and the sun emblazoned on Meissa’s saddle.

He says something in a language Fareeha doesn’t recognise. Neither does Angela, because she stays politely silent. The man inhales deeply, his eyes flickering upwards in what might be exasperation, before rattling off several words, until he says something Fareeha recognises, “Argan?”

“Yes,” Angela says. “I am Mercy of the Pale, and this is my Sworn Sword Pharah of Aquila. We request entrance and sanctuary in the library.”

He gives them another once over, mouth twisting, unimpressed. “The Library is not accepting anyone. Go away.”

Angela blinks, completely shocked as he makes to turn and walk away. Similarly surprised, Fareeha tightens her grip on her reins.

“Excuse me,” Angela urges Meissa forward. The man pauses, then turns to stare at them again. “I am a Pale Priestess. I would like entrance to your library for research and quarter. You are bound by oath to accept me and my companion.”

“I don’t give a fig where you’re from,” he replies haughtily. He returns to the gate, staring contemptuously up at Angela. “The Library is not accepting anyone, regardless from where they come from. You could be some Horse Lord for all I care. The gates are shut. Go away.”

Feeling a vague sense of panic, as though all the weeks of travelling had been a waste - months, if she was being honest with herself - Fareeha pushes Silas forward, speaking quickly.

“Kin’Torah sent us to speak with Symmetra.”

The gates man eyes her beadily. She stares right back, then draws the glass dagger from her belt, offering it for his inspection. His hand darts out, bird-like, and snatches it from her. He eyes it, brow furrowing, until he withdraws a pair of spectacles from his belt and perches them on his nose.

“Where did you get this?” He asks slowly, glancing up at her.

“Shala’Zor.” She replies promptly. When he quirks an eyebrow, waiting for more information, she lifts her chin proudly. “I cannot say more. Give us sanctuary. We must see Symmetra.”

He glowers at her. Smugly, feeling quite proud of herself, Fareeha rests her hands on the pommel of her saddle, waiting, watching, knowing he cannot refuse them. Angela sits beside her with baited breath, her whole body tense under her white cloak. He starts inhaling slowly, his eyes closing briefly before he lets out the air in an enormous sigh.

“Very well, very well.” He holds out the dagger, which Fareeha takes and tucks safely away, before he unlocks the gate and sweeps it open. “Welcome to the Library. We will stable your horses and show you to your rooms presently.”

He barks an order and two more people appear from apparent thin air. Their eyes are deepest black - magi, then - and they grasp Silas and Meissa’s reins, leading them into the yard. It is a huge space, paved by millions of multi-colour stones in a massive mosaic map, depicting the entire world. Fareeha spots the yellow expanse of Arga’s desert as she slips off Silas’ back, feeling a brief pang of longing. She doesn’t give herself time to think about home, promising herself that she would look at the map more closely later. Distracting herself, she takes to lugging her bags off Silas’ saddle. Rastaban winds around her legs, purring loudly. His back reaches her knee now, she notes fondly, watching as the gateman stares down his nose at the cat.

“No pets allowed.”

“Rastaban is not a pet,” Angela says. Staff in one hand and saddle bag in the other, she arches one pale brow in the face of the gateman’s disapproval. “He is our companion, and he will stay with us.”

He opens his mouth as though to protest, but Rastaban gets there first. He meows piteously up at the gateman before rubbing himself against his leg, arching his back. His bushy tail flicks this way and that while he purrs loudly, rubbing his cheek against the red leather of the man’s trousers. Fareeha sees the exact moment the gateman gives in. He sighs again, before leaning down and giving Rastaban’s ears a gentle scratching, much to the cat’s delight.

“You may keep the cat. But no other animals, is that clear?” He pushes his glasses back up his nose, arching an eyebrow. Angela smiles and nods.

The two magi lead Silas and Meissa towards the stables tucked in one corner of the courtyard. Fareeha spares them a glance, taking note of their condition. They are clean and orderly, and one of the magi rubs Meissa’s nose affectionately. Satisfied, Fareeha follows the gates man and Angela, treading carefully over the world map and starting up the crystal stairs to a huge, orate door, detailing some ancient battle.

“I am Zizzak,” the gateman is saying. “I will show you to your rooms-”

“Room,” Angela interrupts suddenly. Zizzak peers at her curiously and she has the grace to blush. Fareeha, feeling her own cheeks growing warm, looks away to examine the toe of her boot. She wonders when she scuffed it while Angela continues. “We only require one room.”

“I see.” Eyebrows raised, he places his hand against the door, murmuring several words. It shivers, and opens slowly. A rush of cold air ruffles Fareeha’s hair as she peers into the comparative gloom beyond. A long hall greets them, paved by white stone, shafts of light falling between two rows of columns. Here and there Fareeha can see people in robes of different colours tucked in the corners, talking or reading or writing. Zizzak leads them past the groups towards another door, opening it without a word and leading them into a tiny room, ringed by a golden rail set into the wall. Rastaban pads after them, nosing at the ground. Zizzak turns around sharply, barking an order as the doors fall shut.

“Hold onto something.” He says quickly. Fareeha drops her bag and grasps the rail just in time. The whole room gives a stomach dropping lurch, and they are suddenly moving. Repressing a wild yell, gritting her teeth, she watches as Angela’s face contorts with the same fear she feels, fingers clutching the rail so tightly her knuckles turn white. The God has abandoned me! She thinks wildly, her free hand going to Raptora’s hilt. Rastaban, however, seems unaffected. He casually takes to licking his paw and washing his face while Zizzak stands calmly, watching them with apparent amusement.

“This is a lift.” He supplies without prompting. Then he nods ahead. “Watch.”

Fareeha turns her head, and the ‘lift’ bursts out into glorious sunlight. Axis Mundi is sprawled out before them as they travel upwards into the sky. She forgets her terror, absorbing the view of the glimmering sea, cosied next to the red sands of the desert. Axis forms a huge half ring of glowing glass around them, as awe inspiring as when she first saw it, on the prow of a ship.

“It is so beautiful.” Angela takes several steps forwards, staring through the glass, her eyes pin pricked with tears. Zizzak smiles proudly, his eyes bright and happy.

“It is, yes.” He inhales as though savouring a particularly sweet scent. “I have lived here for my whole life and I still do not tire of the view.”

“I can’t imagine you would.” Angela murmurs. She half turns, reluctant to tear her eyes away from the window. Fareeha knows how she feels. “How is everything made of… crystal?”

Zizzak hums as the lift begins to slow to a halt. “There are many theories, the least of which are dragons. According to legend, dragons carved the city out of the very sand of the desert. The buildings are unbreakable. No one has managed to invade Axis Mundi for three thousand years.”

Fareeha feels her legs grow heavy and the lift comes to a halt. Zizzak opens the door slowly, beckoning them to follow him into a narrow corridor. Lugging their bags, they tread carefully after him. Fareeha half expects the entire corridor to start rushing upwards, and she tries very hard to ignore the shaking in her legs as Zizzak leads them to another door.

“Your room,” he says primly. “You will find water for a bath has been provided. Feel free to settle in. Your meals will be brought to you. Symmetra will visit you within the next day or two - she is a very busy woman.” He claps his hands. “Is there anything I can get for you in the meantime?”

Readjusting her grip on her bag, Angela peers seriously at Zizzak, her pale brows knit. “I need books on the Reckoning. Anything and everything you have.”

His eyebrows rise, but he does nothing except fall into a deep bow and bid them a good day, turning sharply on his smart black shoes and trotting away. Fareeha watches him go. She wonders if everyone in the Library is so dutiful.

Rastaban meows loudly, scratching at the door. Angela murmurs soothingly at him before elbowing her way into the room beyond, heaving her bag over the threshold. Fareeha slips in after her, taking a deep breath when the door slides closed behind her.

Their room is huge. Bigger than both Fareeha’s old room at the temple and their hut in Shala’Zor combined. A huge bed occupies one wall - which is quickly claimed by a purring Rastaban, who stretches out on the cream sheets. Two wooden panels have been thrown open to reveal a balcony overlooking the city, a cool breeze fluttering gossamer curtains. A huge dining table occupies the other side of the room, a bowl of fruit and a jug of water sitting innocently on its waxed surface. Beyond the table Fareeha spots another doorway standing ajar. A quick glance in reveals a marble bathroom, complete with a tub big enough for three people. Fareeha smirks, then retreats, setting her bag aside.

Angela places her own bag on the large dining table, sighing and unclipping her cloak from around her shoulders. Her face is still flushed with the heat, sweat making the loose hairs at the back of her neck stick as she fans herself with a hand.

“It’s so hot here.” She says.

“Is it truly?” Fareeha sets about drawing off her own cloak, barely feeling the warmth and savouring the wind sweeping around their quarters. Arga had been warmer than this in the middle of summer. She recalls briefly going through training exercises while sweat pours down her face. Hanging her cloak delicately over the back of a chair, Fareeha nearly misses the look Angela throws her way.

“Don’t tease me.” Angela playfully swats her arm. “I am a poor Westerner. I positively wilt in the warmth!”

Fareeha feels herself grin despite herself. Behind closed doors, with only Rastaban as witness, she feels herself relax. “I am truly sorry for your struggle, my lady. Would you have me draw a bath for you?”

Angela rolls her eyes. “Call me ‘my lady’ one more time and I’ll take to calling you ‘my lady’. No, thank you. Actually, I’ll draw a bath for both of us. I think we could use it.” She delicately sniffs herself and wrinkles her nose. Two weeks aboard a ship really didn’t improve personal hygiene.

“Are you sure?” Fareeha makes as though to walk towards the bathroom, but Angela stops her with two hands to her shoulders.

“No,” Angela says firmly, pushing Fareeha back until she is sitting on the edge of the bed, peering up into the priestess’s determined expression. “You just spent fourteen days being sick. Let me look after you.”

Fareeha rests her hands gently on Angela’s hips, surprised by her own boldness. Angela seems to notice too, because she nibbles her lip delicately. They take each other in; Fareeha takes note of the pale new freckles which dot the bridge of Angela’s nose, thanks to the sun, and the faint crease of worry which has formed between her brows. She reaches up, easing the lines away with a blackened thumb.

“We’re finally here.” Fareeha says softly. Angela offers her a tiny smile.

“We made it, sváss.” Angela dips down, pressing a tender kiss to Fareeha’s brow. “We’re here, safe and alive, thanks to you. Thank the Dawn.”

Fareeha lifts her head, forgetting to ask what ‘sváss’ means when Angela’s lips meet hers for a brief moment of solace amidst a strange city. She tightens her grip on Angela’s hips, drawing her closer until the priestess is standing between her knees. They remain like that for a few blissful minutes; Angela gently traces her fingers through Fareeha’s hair, cupping the back of her neck and massaging her shoulders, teeth nipping at her bottom lip delicately.

Fareeha is just opening her mouth, curious to know how Angela tastes, when Rastaban pushes his way between them, yowling for attention. They part quickly. Angela blinks owlishly, cheeks flushed, before she laughs at the dumbfounded expression on Fareeha’s face. Fareeha can’t help the chuckle which bursts out of her as Rastaban rubs himself against her chest, pushing his tail against her chin and demanding attention.

“I’ll prepare our baths.” Angela carefully extracts herself from Fareeha’s hands - Fareeha doesn’t feel the way Angela’s fingers tighten around hers - and disappears into the next room. Heart almost bursting with a sudden storm of affection, Fareeha falls back to lie on soft sheets, giving Rastaban the scratches he deserves, wishing she could feel his soft fur with her fingers. The sounds of the city drift up to her, the breeze kisses her skin as gently as Angela would, and she feels her eyes slipping shut.

She falls asleep, a vague prayer drifting through her mind, thanking the God for delivering them both safely to Axis.

Chapter Text

Morning dawns brightly.

The sun creeps carefully across the bedspread, hailing tangled limbs and fumbled hair. Fareeha stirs first, finding herself buried in the crook of Angela’s neck, half sprawled on top of her, legs tangled so closely with hers that Fareeha can’t tell whose leg is whose. Angela is snoring softly, face pressed into the mess atop Fareeha’s head, her arms wrapped tightly around her. Rastaban, meanwhile, has found the perfect place to sleep at the small of her back, pushing her more insistently against Angela, his back paws pressing into her spine as he twitches with dreams.

The breeze makes the curtains drift like smoke, tasting the air as Fareeha watches them drowsily. She cannot remember the last time she slept so well.

Angela stirs vaguely beneath her. She mutters a sleepy hello, pressing a vague kiss to the top of Fareeha’s head. Fareeha feels her face fill with warmth, secretly pleased at the attention, and tightens her grip on Angela’s waist.

“Morning.”

“Good morning, sváss.”

The quiet falls between them easily. Angela’s fingers find their way to the small of Fareeha’s back, massaging there lightly. Rastaban makes a noise in his throat, twisting into an impossible shape – Fareeha amuses herself for a few minutes by watching the way his paws have curled into themselves, sharp white claws just poking out of their sheaths. His belly rises and falls with his breathing, a tiny pink tongue sticking out of his mouth.

“He’s getting bigger,” Angela murmurs. “They grow so quickly.”

“I would like to ride him, I think.” Fareeha replies just as quietly, not wanting to disturb the morning. Angela presses another kiss to the top of her head.

Fareeha draws away slightly, looking into the face she has come to love so much. The sun breaches the balcony, flooding the room with light, dappling the bed. The vines curling around the doors flutter with the wind, casting shadows as Angela looks back, the slightest smile crinkling the corners of her eyes in question, her lips parting as though she is about to speak.

Gripped, feeling as though she is fit to burst, Fareeha kisses her before she can, closing her eyes as Angela’s breath catches in surprise. I want her. The thought surprises her. She has never wanted anyone before. Not like this. But she is curious, despite herself. She wonders what Angela would taste like; feel like, under her and against her. Fareeha pulls herself over the priestess, parting for a gasp of air and a glance at Angela’s flushed face, disturbing Rastaban as she presses herself back into the kiss.
Angela buries a hand into her hair, the other finding purchase on a hip. Fareeha tries to stop the noise building in her chest, squeezing her eyes shut as Angela nibbles her lip, like she had the evening before.

Tentatively, her heart thundering in her ears, face flushed, Fareeha opens her mouth, feeling how her brows tighten when Angela pulls her somehow closer.

Angela’s breath is hot and heavy, and the moan which echoes out of her travels like lightning down Fareeha’s spine, settling into the low ache in her stomach. Sweat breaks out across her forehead, and she lets out a surprised little gasp when she feels Angela’s tongue brush against hers.

She pulls away quickly, panting, embarrassed and aroused all at once.

“Sorry.” She says, looking away from the pair of half-lidded eyes, which so enrapture her. Angela’s laugh draws her back to admire the pink flush of her cheeks.

“You have nothing to apologise for.” Angela rests her arms lazily around Fareeha’s neck, smiling kindly. Fareeha tries to dismiss the wilting feeling in her stomach. She knows the mechanics of it. She’s heard people talking about it, and understands the act itself in a vague sort of way. And she’s thought about doing it with Angela. Making love to her. A lot - more than she cares to admit, even to herself.
Unaware of Fareeha’s internal screaming, Angela presses a sweet kiss to the tip of her nose before sighing.

“As much as I would love to spend the whole day with you in bed,” Angela tucks a stray lock of dark hair behind Fareeha’s ear, “we have to get up.”

A loud noise from Rastaban cements this. Fareeha heaves a sigh, then withdraws from Angela’s warmth, getting to her feet and stretching. Her shoulders crack loudly, a yawn tearing open her mouth while Rastaban coils around her feet.

They get washed and dressed quickly. Fareeha is just securing Raptora to her hip when a serving man enters with a large tray, carrying their breakfast. He leaves it on the table, not looking at either of them as he makes a hasty exit, closing the door behind him as Angela ventures out of the bathroom.

“Well, we shan't be going hungry.” She smiles. Fareeha hums, inspecting their bounty: a still warm loaf of bread; cheese carefully wrapped in cloth; a whole bowl of ripe figs and dates; two mugs and a tea kettle, and a large plate of raw meat for Rastaban. She coos at him as she sets it down, smiling when she watches his tongue rasp against her finger, before she sits down to eat.

She plucks up two figs, and several dates, setting them on her plate, watching out of the corner of her eye the way Angela inspects a fig with a certain twitch of confusion. Her fingers delicately turn it this way and that, before she sets it back amongst its fellows, settling for some dates.

Amused, Fareeha plucks up one of her own figs, feeling Angela’s gaze on her as she parts the soft flesh with her thumbs, revealing the pink insides. The sharp scent of it makes her mouth water and she savours it before eating one half in one go. Sweet and clean, she finishes her fig quickly before devouring another, finally meeting Angela’s eyes when she sees the priestess tilt her head to the side curiously.

“I’ve never seen one of those before.” Angela says when Fareeha has finished her mouthful. Fareeha quirks an eyebrow, gesturing to the figs, feeling vaguely surprised when Angela nods.

“You’ve never seen a fig?”

“We don’t grow those in the west. Too cold for that.” She wrinkles her nose. “We have apples and pears but… no, no figs.”

Grinning, aching with a sudden awe inspiring burst of joy, Fareeha leans over the small table, a fresh fig clutched in her hands.

“Let me show you how good they can be,” she says as she opens the fig, smiling when Angela’s eyes flicker down to the lush red insides. Angela hesitates, then dips her head, her lips parting as her teeth sink into the fruit. She makes a soft noise in her throat, brow furrowing while she chews, then swallows, pupils blown wide. Fareeha takes it all in with a vague feeling of satisfaction, unable to hide the smirk she can feel blooming across her face.

“That was incredible.” Angela says.

“That is because these are Argan figs.” Fareeha replies proudly. “These are the best you will taste in the world. I can assure you.”

Angela smiles, her eyes bright, plying apart another fig. “How can you tell?”

“The taste.” Fareeha pulls a chunk off the cooling loaf, sweeping some soft cheese onto her knife and spreading it over the bread. “Argan figs are sweeter and juicier than any other, and if Axis Mundi, Jewel of the East, has them, then they truly are the best in the world.”

Angela’s smile widens into a grin. She pours herself some tea, and then fills Fareeha’s mug as well, before delicately finishing her last fig.

“Arga really does seem to make the best of everything.” Angela says as Fareeha is taking a sip of tea. “Figs, warriors, women.”

Fareeha chokes, coughing, even as Angela’s sweet laughter rings around them both. When she finally gains control of herself Angela is watching her fondly, eyes crinkled at the corners, her chin resting in one hand, the other curled around her mug. Stuck suddenly shy, Fareeha takes to examining the intricate patterns lining the table, her cheeks feeling hot. Her stomach does several pathetic flip flops, squeezing uncomfortably as tingles chase each other - a glance at Angela’s widening grin sends them sparkling around again, much to her embarrassment.

She is just mastering herself when a knock sounds at the door. Rastaban makes a burring sound in his throat, romping towards the sound, bushy tail held high. For all his bravado he skitters away from the door as soon as a voice sounds from the other side, dashing haphazardly towards the bed, skidding over the tiled floor, his whole body crinkled up like an autumn leaf. He dives under the bed, then tears out again, doing a lap of the room.

“Lady Pale?” Zizzak’s voice is recognisable only because of its snobbishness. “Ser Knight?”

“Yes? Come in.” Angela replies. She takes on the haughty demeanour of Mercy of the Pale, all traces of the playful, teasing woman she had been before eradicated. Fareeha carefully schools her features into what she hopes is vaguely threatening passivity, sipping from her tea as Zizzak opens the door.

He staggers in, his face hidden behind a towering pile of books and parchments. Fareeha and Angela both get to their feet, hurrying to his side and relieving him of his burden, carrying the leather-bound tomes to the table. There has to be at least twenty books, big and small - Fareeha spreads them out, surprised to see that most of them have Argan titles.

“These are a carefully selected section of our collection on the Reckoning,” Zizzak says, mopping his sweating forehead with a handkerchief. “We have much more, but I thought you should start out with these.” He rests his hand on a particularly large book which looks thicker than the width of Fareeha’s entire hand. “This is an entire history of Axis Mundi and her allies, including the founding of Arga and a full record of the Val’ayre.” He then indicates another thick tome. “My personal favourite, this is a collection of tales and histories of the Pale. Within you will find contemporary records of the first Reckoning, three thousand years ago.”

Fareeha plucks the book up, peering at the embossed cover. The burning sun sigil is burnt into leather, framed by a pair of wings. She traces her fingers over it idly, remembering in vivid detail the burning bright of Angela’s wings, sweeping out from under her cloak, making the striking falcon symbol of Fareeha’s house a pale mockery. Perhaps I should change my sigil to the striking priestess.

“Thank you so much, Zizzak.” Angela says. “You didn’t have to go to all the trouble of bringing the books to our room.”

“No trouble,” he replies swiftly. “The Library is a large place. It would not do for you to get lost. Therefore, Symmetra requested you both be confined to your rooms until she has time to show you around.” He sniffs stiffly. “Speaking of, she mentioned coming to see you this afternoon. I trust you will be ready to receive her?”

“Certainly.” Angela smiles. “Thank you again, Zizzak. You go beyond the call of duty.”

He sweeps into a bow, his long nose nearly touching the ground. Then he excuses himself, closing the door behind him and leaving them to their business. Rastaban stalks bravely out from under the table, his fur frazzled, going back to his meal as Angela and Fareeha settle at the table again.

“These are perfect,” Angela rifles through the parchments, finding herself a sprawling map of the entire city. She spreads it out, setting her half full mug on one corner, inspecting it carefully. Fareeha is surprised to see that the city is organised like a series of concentric rings, all surrounding the Library, which forms its heart. Angela’s fingertips trace over the vellum, her brows twitching into a frown.

“I didn’t realise it before, but Axis is essentially a focusing iris for magic.” Angela murmurs, her finger coming to rest on the map’s centre. The Library itself is marked by the Argan symbol for magic - a horizontal line on top of three others. “All that power - it’s concentrated here, on this tower.”
Angela tucks into another fig, dragging one of the books towards her and opening it carefully. Then she settles in to read, chewing thoughtfully, leaning back in her chair as the breeze teases at the loose strands of her hair. Fareeha allows herself to admire her for several moments before opening her own book, sipping her tea and focusing on the scrawled histories of the Pale.

The book is scant on details of the Pale’s origin. It mentions briefly how the Pale built a stronghold in the North five thousand years ago, but is unclear on how and why they came to be there. Glancing at Angela, Fareeha wonders if she knows anything more. But the way she concentrating compels Fareeha to do the same.

They stay huddled in their chairs for most of the morning, getting up only to stretch their legs and play with Rastaban. Most of what Fareeha reads she knows about already - the Val’ayre Wars between the Magi and the Pale, which caused half the world to erupt into chaos, and the Reckoning, which threatened to bring about the extinction of all life on earth. But the book is vague on how the Reckoning began.

She sighs in frustration, flicking past a flowery description of trade agreements between two cities and finds herself staring at a detailed picture of a priestess. Her wings are outstretched as though in flight, a bow clutched in one hand, a circle of light crowning her head as she stares resolutely out of the page. Fareeha examines the priestess’ face.

“Angela?”

“Mmhmm?” Angela doesn’t look up from her book.

“Can you fly?”

Fareeha feels her heart leap up her throat at the expression Angela throws her way. Glad that looks cannot kill, cheeks flushing in embarrassed horror, she stammers through half of an apology before Angela stops her.

“It’s all right.” She closes her book slowly, nibbling her lip in that way which means she’s thinking hard about something. “I can’t fly, no. Actually, strictly speaking, I’m not allowed to show my wings either, but since you know about them, I might as well be honest with you.” She hesitates. Fareeha sets her own book down, heart thrumming with nervous energy. “Remember when I told you I was compromised? When I fought in the war with your mother?”

Fareeha nods.

Angela licks her lips, heaves a sigh, and meets her eyes. “I was sent by the Pale to help a group of people called Overwatch. Your mother was one of them - a founding member - and we were tasked to controlling and neutralizing the Magitorium uprising; magi and their metal constructs. We won, and Overwatch was maintained to spread peace and tranquillity across the whole world - from Arga to Ljosalfheim.” She fiddles with her sleeve for a moment in an uncharacteristic show of nerves before continuing. “I was meant to fall back - to return to the Pale. I refused. I cared too much about the people I fought beside. Your mother being one of them. So I was banished, marked, and my wings were ah…”

She hesitates for several seconds. Fareeha waits, letting the silence settle between them, offering no pressure for her to keep talking. Half of her dreads the answer. The other half cannot help but feel a perverse sort of curiosity.

“My wings were cut off me. My status revoked. I was declared Fallen, and banished from the North.” Angela shivers at what must be a memory. “I am still a priestess, but I will never fly again. The wings you saw in Senak are mere impressions, a fraction of the power the Pale entrusted in me. I broke that trust the day I stopped being impartial.”

Fareeha doesn’t hesitate. She reaches out across the table to take Angela’s hand, trying not to imagine her wings being severed from her body, and how painful that must have been. Her heart clenches, something like anger bubbling in the pit of her stomach at the faceless monsters who hurt Angela.

“Can you get your wings back?” She asks softly. Angela smiles gently at her, tangling their fingers together.

“I can, yes. But the cost is too high.”

Fareeha frowns slightly. “What is the cost?”

“Losing you.” Angela’s grip on her hand tightens. “It would mean leaving you behind. And forgetting about Overwatch. I can’t do either of those things.”

Humbled, unsure how to respond and silently cursing her inability to speak, Fareeha instead squeezes Angela’s hand. She has never been very good with words, but luckily Angela seems to understand, because she leans across the table to press a sweet kiss against her cheek.

“There isn’t anything for me with the Pale,” Angela says as she settles back in her chair. “With you, and with Overwatch, I can do something that actually matters.”

Fareeha nods, “I understand. It’s hard to sit back and do nothing while the world goes on.”

Morning fades to afternoon. Fareeha finds herself on the balcony, gazing down at the city and feeling the wind in her hair while Angela busies herself with laying the parchments out across the floor. Seagulls trill loudly, their wings catching the buffeting breeze and Fareeha watches them soar, entertaining herself with idle thoughts of what it would feel like to fly. The closest she has ever come, she thinks, is galloping full pelt on horseback. She wonders if Angela misses it.

“We need to find out where the demon Gate actually is,” Angela says. Fareeha turns to look at her, leaning against the balustrade. She has a quill tucked behind one ear, her mouth pressed into a thin line as she stands over her parchments, hands on hips. She has changed out of her official priestess clothes in favour of one of Fareeha’s thin cloth shirts. Her long legs poke out of the bottom, clad only in her loose undergarments, toes wriggling against the woven carpet.

“Why is that?”

Angela nibbles her lip. “If we can find the Gate, it might help us figure out what started the first Reckoning. These books all say that the Reckoning started and ended here, in Axis.” She hesitates, then, “Several texts mention some sort of animal.” She leans over a parchment, indicating something there with a finger. Fareeha shrugs off the balustrade and trots to Angela’s side, peering down at what looks like a collection of glyphs. Drawn there, amidst a series of strange runes, sits a hulking beast, its fingers spread thin, grappling with the very vellum itself.

“I don’t think it’s a literal animal,” Angela says. “I think it’s something else. A code of some sort. Or a fable, which conceals the real truth.”

Fareeha squints down at the beast, misliking the way its eyes glimmer, even though the ink has long dried. She gets the faintest impression that it is watching her. It looks familiar: it's sharp face; hard, wide-eyed stare, but before she can name it, another knock distracts her.

Angela offers her a frantic look, scandalously clad in almost nothing, before she scampers over the parchments to her white cloak, pulling it tight around her just as the door opens.

A woman, tall and elegant, noticeable for the shimmering blue arm attached to her left shoulder, steps into the room with the air of someone interrupting something unpleasant. At once her nostrils flare as her eyes flicker across the parchment strewn floor. But she seems to master herself, finding Angela huddled at Fareeha's side.

“You are Mercy of the Pale, are you not?” She asks, stepping further into the room and closing the door behind her. Her blue, open-legged drew flashes a face warming amount of leg every time she moves - Fareeha takes to examining the coal dark of her eyes. Another mage.

“I am, yes.” Angela replies, sounding unruffled as usual. Her bare feet poke out of the bottom of her cloak, which does not go unnoticed.

Smirking, the woman gives Fareeha an obvious once over. "This is your lover?"

Fareeha opens her mouth to voice the reflexive 'no' which builds up her throat, but Angela beats her to it.

“Yes.” She says fiercely, her hand wrapping tightly around Fareeha's arm. The woman's smirk grows slightly wider.

“At least you did not try to lie. I am Satya Vaswani. Kin'Torah named me Symmetra.” Satya crosses the room in several easy strides, which put Fareeha in mind of a ferocious hare, the tassels of her dress fluttering gracefully. She takes in the scatters parchments and books in quick, careful glances, otherwise eyeing Fareeha's scimitar and Angela's staff, propped out of the way. Then she turns her gaze on Fareeha herself.

“Amari, are you?” She asks brusquely.

“I am, yes.” Fareeha replies. “Of Aquila, daughter of-“

“Ana Amari. Yes. I know.” Satya finishes for her. Her brows pinch together for the briefest of moments before smoothing into polite interest. "She was here. Not long ago."

Fareeha experiences the mental equivalent of a bomb exploding. First, anger. It rises like a sea from the pit of her stomach to blaze in her heart. Then disbelief douses it, giving way to confusion.

“You're lying.” She says, sharper than she intended. Angela tightens her grip on her arm as though to hold her back. Rather than be insulted, Satya laughs.

“I can see why you would think that.” Her eyes glow brilliant blue and what can only be described as a window opens beside her. She reaches into it with her glowing arm and withdraws something Fareeha could recognise in her sleep.

Her mother's bow sits impossibly in Satya's hand. Knees going weak, she feels the horrible vertigo of memory, remembering in terrible detail how the leather grip felt against the palm of her hand, of how reading the words of her family carved into the hard maple had made her heart swell with pride.
We must fight for what we believe in, her mother had said, adjusting her grip and straightening her shoulders. With my bow, justice will rain from above.

The falcon feathers hanging from the bottom notch sway as Satya holds the bow out. Hand trembling, breath high and hard in her throat, Fareeha takes it. Her dead fingers do not feel the smooth wood, or the oryx horn which forms the bow’s belly, but the memory is enough.

“How…?” She croaks, blinking back tears.

“Two years ago Ana came to our Library with words of warning and the sigil of Overwatch.” Satya pauses, whether for dramatic effect or recollection, Fareeha cannot tell. She is still reeling at the news of her mother's survival. “She stayed here for six months before leaving her bow with me, instructing me to give it to 'someone who is worthy'. I can only imagine she meant you.”

That certainly sounded like her mother: never straight forward, always making her work for things. How her mother had known that she was coming to Axis, she has no idea. She has no choice but to be in awe of her mother’s intuition.

“But my mother died ten years ago.” She says. “Is that not so, Mercy?”

To her horror, Angela hesitates. Her fraction of a second silence tells her everything she needs to know and, by the glimmer of guilt in Angela’s eyes, that Angela understands that she knows.

“An arrow.” Angela says haltingly, but the damage has been done. “It was an arrow. It claimed her eye. And, I thought, her life.”

Satya turns an imperious stare on Angela. "Clearly, you were mistaken."

Bottling the upsurge of fury directed at Angela with some difficulty, Fareeha looks up at Satya, tightening her grip on her mother’s bow.

"What did she warn you about?"

“One of our political factions.” Satya replies breezily. “She was wrong of course. Talon has a long history of-”

“Talon?” Angela interrupts. Her hand gropes around Fareeha's belt for a moment before she withdraws the dagger. One of Satya's eyebrows, which had risen at Angela's interjection, rises higher still.

“Where did you get that?” She asks in a silky-smooth voice. Angela holds the dagger out for inspection.

“On a Talon operative in Shala’Zor, after a devastating demon invasion.”

Satya takes the dagger, holding it up to the light. Her lips press together for a moment, then, “This is my dagger.”

Head spinning with yet another revelation, Fareeha prepares to draw her sword, thinking wildly that Satya is Talon. But just as her fingers fold around Raptora's hilt, Satya is speaking again.

“Perhaps I should be clearer. It was my dagger, but I gifted it to Talon's leader, Jibril.” She hands the dagger back. “What happened in Shala’Zor?”

Angela recounts the demons and the battles perfectly, allowing Fareeha time to quietly marvel at her mother's bow. Passed from Amari to Amari for generations, Fareeha had lost hope of ever being able to wield the bow the moment her mother had vanished. Fareeha knows the bow’s legend better than her own life’s history. The great spirit Aquila had fallen from the stars to aid her ancestor Khawlah bint al-Amari. Together, they had freed Arga from its oppressive ruler, bringing justice and freedom to its people, and founding the Barren Knights to protect and serve all of Arga. When its work was done, Aquila granted Khawlah a bow, leaving behind three red falcon feathers. Her fingers find the feathers, turning them over and over. They look as beautiful and healthy as always, as though freshly plucked from a falcon's wing.

“I will have to investigate further.” Satya is saying. Her glowing blue fingers flex idly, before tightening into a fist. “I will not have Talon disturb the order of Axis. As High Mage, it is my duty to ensure my city is safe.”

She falls into a low bow, which both Angela and Fareeha copy. Upon straightening, she eyes them both over critically. “I suggest you both tidy yourselves up for tomorrow.”

“How so?” Angela replies.

“It's the Festival of Light. Leaders from across the East will be here to celebrate the coming of the Glowing Tides.” She smirks slightly. “I have no issue with what a Pale Priestess does with her Barren Knight, but others will not be so forgiving. I suggest an air of dignity is to be kept. You are both invited to my quarters tomorrow evening for dinner and music. Please be ready at sunset.”

With another prim bow, and a brisk farewell, Satya steps through her glowing window. Both her and her portal vanish, leaving behind an uncomfortable silence in her wake.

Fareeha turns away, walking robotically to the balcony, hands shaking, clutching her mother’s bow like a lifeline. So, Angela had known. She had known her mother was still alive. Is still alive. The injustice of it sends boiling fury bubbling from her gut, blazing to life like some uncontrollable inferno. She leans on the balustrade, breathing heavily, as though she has just run a race.

Angela's soft footfalls do nothing to quench her rage.

“It's a beautiful bow.” She says tentatively.

“Why didn't you tell me?” Fareeha replies. She doesn't want to tiptoe around the issue. She doesn't want to pretend she isn't furious and disappointed and hurt.

“It wasn't-” Angela begins with the tone of someone explaining why two plus two is four.

“Important!?” Fareeha interrupts, half shouting as she wheels around. She doesn't miss the way Angela flinches away from her like she's expecting a blow - the movement only serves to anger her more. “It wasn't important enough to tell me that my mother is alive!?”

“It is important. It just never came up.” Angela glances guiltily up at her. “And besides I didn't know for sure. I suspected she wasn't dead. But we assumed - we all assumed.”

“Who is ‘we’?” Fareeha growls, half knowing the answer.

“Overwatch.”

Fareeha starts pacing blindly up and down, struggling to control her temper. Rastaban streaks from his hiding place under the table to shelter under their bed. “I don't appreciate being treated like a child, Angela.”

“I wasn't treating you like a child!” Angela’s voice is shrill with what might be panic. Fareeha can feel the argument spiralling into something neither of them can control. “When was I supposed to tell you? On the battlefield in Shala’Zor? When we were riding for our lives away from that Horse Lord?”

“Maybe between your attempts to fuck me, Angela!” Fareeha explodes, the curse flying off her tongue with such savagery Angela physically jerks away from the word. “Maybe between you telling me you loved me, and me dying for you, even when you were keeping such information away from me! I'm a person, not just your toy for you to play fucking games with! What am I? Your pet Barren Knight you can trot out whenever you like? ‘Here’s my bodyguard who follows me blindly, watch her fumble about trying to protect me!’” Wild with rage, Fareeha keeps going, ignoring the tears welling in Angela’s eyes. “Did you cook up that tournament with that Horse Lord as well? As a test of how far I'd go for you?”

“Fareeha, no, I-”

Fareeha bulls over her, shouting so loudly she can hear her voice rebounding off the marble floors. “You took me away from my friends and my home and this is how you repay me!? You didn't even bother to tell me my mother - my mother - might still be alive!? Your name might be Mercy but you never fucking show any of it.”

“Fareeha stop. Just stop.” Angela sounds angry, now, for the first time. It hardens her accent, making the words bite out of her mouth. “I didn't keep this from you to hurt you. I kept it from you because it's easier for you to think your mother is dead. You wouldn't waste your time trying to find her! I kept it from you because I love you!”

Far from calming her, the admission makes her practically see red. “Oh! Of course! That solves everything! Mercy of the Pale loves a mortal! Just because you love me doesn't mean you respect me! You don't even respect me enough to tell me my mother might be alive because you didn't want me ‘wasting my time’? Wasting my time from what? Protecting you? Didn't want me distracted, did you?”

“You know that’s not what I mean!” Angela shouts back, her hands curling into fists at her sides.

Fareeha all but bellows in reply, “I'm not your fucking slave! You don't get to decide what's best for me! I'm a real, living person who fell in love with you because I thought you saw more than just some Knight! Clearly I was wrong!”

The sob catches her by surprise. Unable to take the way Angela’s shoulders are shaking, Fareeha strides past her, needing to be alone. Needing the space to mourn and grieve for a mother who abandoned her. Angela catches her arm, but she shakes her off roughly.

“Fareeha-”

“Don't fucking touch me.” She snarls, all but running to their bathroom. She slams the door so hard the handle nearly tears out of its hole. There, alone, clinging to her mother’s bow - her legacy - she leans against the wall and starts to cry.

Chapter Text

Fareeha spends the next day in almost total silence. They eat together, read together, but the most she says is ‘thank you’ whenever Angela hands her a drink or a book.

She is still furious.

After crying for almost a solid hour in the bathroom the day before, she had returned to Angela standing almost exactly where she left her, gazing blindly out over the city. Even the sight of her too perfect face (admittedly blotchy with tears) had made anger rear its ugly head.

Shaking with rage, Fareeha had sat herself down and started to read, burying herself in The Collected Histories Of Arga And Her People. Reading about her culture helped soothe some of the rage - going over fables and stories her friends and family back at the temple had told her gave her a sense of cool wellbeing, coupled with a healthy dose of nostalgia. But as soon as Angela tried to talk to her - to stammer her way through half of an apology - the toxic burn of resentment and hurt had come rushing back. She had grunted something in return and eventually, Angela had given up. They had sat in cold silence for the rest of the night.

They slept side-by-side in the massive bed. Fareeha had remembered with a brief pang how they had fallen asleep the previous night: wrapped up in each other, talking and laughing until sleep had taken them both. It's her own fault, Fareeha had thought bitterly, punching her pillow plump with several savage blows.

Neither of them sleep well.

Fareeha tightens her belt, ensuring Raptora is secure on her hip, staring gravely at her reflection in the mirror. They are getting ready for the festival - Angela is almost dressed, fiddling with something or other, her fingers trembling as she drops whatever it is for the fifth time. It makes a heavy sound when it hits the floor, and Fareeha resists the urge to look, sweeping her cloak around her shoulders. The fabric is still torn soundly in two, the striking falcon rippling in two halves, but it is her only cloak, and the memory of Angela wearing it makes a lump rise in her throat. If only Angela had been honest with her. She aches with it, fingers slipping on the clasp as she meets the gaze of her own wounded eyes.

The cloak flutters pathetically to the ground. Rastaban tears out from somewhere, diving into it and skidding across the floor.

She turns to go after him, almost walking right into Angela. The priestess jumps backwards, the expression on her face one of uneasy apprehension.

“Sorry,” Fareeha grunts, stepping around her. She bends down, grabbing Rastaban gently around the belly and lifting him up, ignoring the way he wriggles, his huge paws swiping the air as she plucks up her cloak with her free hand. A quick inspection reveals four fresh claw marks, and several holes where the cat has bitten into it.

She sighs. Placing Rastaban on the bed, she pulls her cloak back around herself, fastening it quickly and trying not to think about how shabby she must look. Some knight, she thinks.

“Ah, Fareeha?” Angela ventures from somewhere behind her.

“Yes?” She replies curtly. She turns on her heel, straightening to her fullest height as Angela approaches. Her thin fingers are curled tightly around something. Whatever she had been dropping, then.

“I- well.” Suddenly flustered, Angela looks away, her cheeks flushing. Fareeha waits patiently, resting her hand idly on Raptora’s pommel. “I had something made for you. When we first arrived. I thought we might be here in time for the festival so I thought you might appreciate wearing something to distinguish you. And me. It was something for us both, really.”

She opens her fingers, revealing a ceremonial pin. Made of what looks like gold, no doubt to match the gold trim on her cloak, the pin is wrought into the shape of a falcon clutching a burning sun in its talons. It takes Fareeha less than a second to recognise how both her and Angela’s sigils have been combined. She stares at it for a moment, then looks into Angela’s timid eyes. She looks worried that Fareeha might start shouting again.

“Do you know what this means?” Fareeha says instead, her voice clipped. Angela shakes her head, still holding the pin out.

“The position of the falcon, how it's holding your mark.” Fareeha indicates it with her little finger. Angela looks. “You’re saying I own you. That you’re my wife.”

Angela’s face flushes. She looks incredibly unsure of herself, nibbling her lip, until she draws a matching pin from her belt pouch. This one is silver and, like the gold one, the falcon’s eyes glimmer with rubies. Seeing them together, and the way the sigils combine so well, makes the lump in Fareeha’s throat grow bigger. Angela puts them together, and closes her hand, taking a step back.

“I'll send them back. It was a foolish idea. I should have done some research.”

“You should have.” Fareeha replies abruptly. Somehow, all the other ‘you should have’s hang between them for a moment, before Fareeha continues. “But do not send them back. It would be insulting to the blacksmith. And we are still engaged, in the eyes of the God.”

The way Angela looks at her - so full of a heart wrenching sort of hope - is almost painful to look at. Fareeha blinks several times, dropping her gaze to the floor and clearing her throat until a gentle hand perches on her elbow. Fareeha does not shove Angela off, and after a moment the touch becomes a light grip, squeezing her lightly.

“I just need time,” Fareeha mutters. She doesn't dare look directly at Angela, fearing what she will find there. Instead she directs her words to the floor. “I'm still angry. And I'm still hurt. I need time to… understand things.”

Perhaps sensing Fareeha has more to say, Angela stays quiet. Fareeha wrestles with her words for several long moments, ignoring the burning of her eyes, trying to control the way her chest aches and makes her voice wobble.

“I love you,” she says finally, “and this isn't going to make me stop loving you. But- but maybe a Knight shouldn't be with a Pale Priestess.”

It's cowardly. She knows it. Her face burns with the shame of it. But somehow hiding behind the flimsy excuse of duty is easier than dealing with how she feels, and how Angela’s deception made her feel. Angela’s fingers become feather light on her arm, and there is the slightest pressure of something pressing into her palm.

“If that is what you think is best, Fareeha, I won't stop you.” Angela’s voice is small. “But I'll be waiting for you if you change your mind. I will always wait for you.”

The gentle press of Angela’s lips against her cheek make her heart break so cleanly in two she has to restrain a sob. Instead she sucks in a breath, opening her hand to see the golden pin settled there as Angela retreats to the balcony, closing the doors delicately behind her and vanishing from sight.

Fareeha’s legs go weak under her and she collapses onto the bed, the air rushing out of her in one strangled sound of grief. Rastaban makes a muted sound in his throat, crawling into her lap, pawing her sleeve until she starts absently stroking his ears.

The late afternoon is quiet and warm - no doubt it would be stifling on the ground. But high in the tower, the sea wind breezes through the room, even though the doors are closed. Fareeha doesn’t move from her place, scratching Rastaban’s chin until he falls asleep. She thinks she can hear Angela’s muffled sobs from the other side of the balcony doors. The sound hardens her heart. Angela should have told her. How is it up to her to decide what’s best? She isn’t a child, and Angela isn’t her mother.

She shakes her head, and tucks the pin away. Angela controlling her fate reminds her too much of Ana.

Getting to her feet, she straightens the last few wrinkles of her outfit and waits patiently for sunset. As far as she knows, the Festival of Light celebrates the end of the Reckoning, and the triumph of light over dark. This, coupled with the famous ‘glowing tides’, makes for a week-long celebration of feasting, ceremonial fights, theatre shows and parades. Leif had told her many times of the legendary light shows which were said to illuminate the sky for thousands and thousands of miles.

Despite the strife between her and Angela, she finds herself looking forward to seeing the Festival of Light for herself. She briefly entertains abandoning Satya’s invitation to dinner in favour of walking the streets of Axis by herself, but the thought of Angela going by herself, alone in a room full of strangers - and no doubt Talon’s leaders - stays her hand. Whatever happens between them, she is still Angela’s protector, and no amount of anger and hurt can break the vow she made on the shores of the lake, so many weeks ago.

So, when Angela returns to the room, her eyes suspiciously red, Fareeha rattles off a formal salute. Angela seems to understand the gesture, because she takes hold of her staff, drawing her hood up over her head to hide her face.

They stand there awkwardly for a few moments, the dying sun burning them in a blaze of orange light, setting them in roles they thought they could forget, when one of Satya’s portals erupts between them.

“After you, my lady,” Fareeha says.

“Thank you, Knight,” Angela replies softly, before she disappears through the blue window. Fareeha makes sure Rastaban has food and water with a quick glance, and steps through herself.

The world vanishes, and then reforms like a half-remembered dream. Blinking stupidly, Fareeha tries to quash her rising nausea, staring around.

They are in a room that seems to be the very top of the Library. The huge and circular, it is buzzing with people, protected from the wind on all sides by sweeping arches and billowing doors, all held open so as not to hide the incredible surround view of the city, which is almost ablaze with multi-colour fires, spouting from every window and rooftop. Thunderstruck, Fareeha can do nothing except stare, open mouthed, at the sweeping sunset gracing the horizon, dipping lower and lower towards the sea, turning the sky and the glass towers of the city to a kaleidoscope of rainbows.

“Welcome,” Satya’s voice pulls her out of her trance. She turns to see the woman walking elegantly towards them, dressed in almost eye-popping finery, her blue sari secured across her right shoulder, set off by the gold hanging from her ears and around her neck. Fareeha feels extremely threadbare next to her, and makes an attempt to hide her torn cloak, wishing vaguely that she had at least polished Raptora.

“Lady Vaswani,” Angela replies, sweeping into a bow. Fareeha copies her, not missing the amused glint in Satya’s eyes. “It is an honour to be here.”

“The honour is mine, Mercy of the Pale, Pharah of Aquila.” Satya sweeps a gold braceleted hand towards an enormous table, groaning under dishes and dishes of delicious food and drink. “Please, feel free to enjoy everything that has been provided. There will be dancing in a few minutes. I suggest you keep your… rather more dulcet tones to a minimum here. Some of our guests do not appreciate the noise.”

Fareeha feels her cheeks scorch with embarrassment. The smirk coiling across Satya’s face tells her that it wasn’t only Angela who had been witness to her fury. The idea that Satya might have heard her, all the way in the top of the Library, sends her stomach shrivelling into a tiny, hard ball at the base of her gut.

Somehow, the release of such fury feels private, especially for her.

Angela’s cheeks are as red as Fareeha’s feel as she speaks. “We understand. Apologies for the disturbance.”

“Hardly a disturbance.” Satya waves them on. “Please, enjoy the first night of the Festival. May the Dawn burn brightly.”

“Stars guide,” Angela replies, before heading into the throng of people. Fareeha follows close behind her, peering around her, looking for faces she might recognise. She thinks she spots Yaser beside the wall, and her heart leaps up her throat, but when she blinks she sees that it is only some Argan dignitary, laughing hugely as he entertains a mass of women. If Yaser was here, that would be him. Ever the lady’s man.

Resigned to the fact that none of her Chapter are here, she finds herself at the table of food, watching Angela have a goblet of wine filled to the brim. Music jingles sweetly around them, sending couples bunching together and finding their way to the dance floor. Fareeha watches them, feeling slightly sick.

The only way I’m going to get through tonight is with a lot of wine.

She has her own goblet filled, barely noticing when Angela is whisked away to dance by some man dressed in all the royalties of a king. The wine is astonishingly sweet - almost too sweet - but she gulps it down anyway, finishing it in one go and gesturing for another. The serving boy looks at her uncertainly.

“If you don’t fill it, I will,” She growls. He nods, and does as he is asked.

She watches Angela dance, the hard knot in her stomach tightening when she sees her partner’s hand fall to her waist, slipping down to cup her hip. If Angela minds the intimate touch, she makes no sign of it, her face brightening with laughter when he mutters something in her ear.

She has no right to be jealous. The thought does nothing to stop the sour burn building in her chest, even as she sips her wine through tight lips and tries hard to push the feelings aside.

That’s because it’s all right to play at Knight and Priestess when it’s just the two of us. But when there’s other people there’s a chance she might be taken from me.

Fareeha finishes her wine, barely tasting it, and shrugs off the table, turning swiftly to find an exit, wanting air and nearly sends someone crashing to the floor. She grabs their arm, hoisting them upright, her stomach lurching with recognition.

“Lena?”

The Westerling grins. “You alright, love?”

“What are you doing here?” She asks, amazed. “I thought you were going west?”

“Oh, that old bird.” Lena laughs, brushing out the sleeve of her dark shirt. Her glowing harness sits soundly across her chest, the blue light radiating heat, which Fareeha can feel against her. “I was, yeah, but I caught scent of Talon and followed it here! Just in time for the party! Great, innit?”

Fareeha restrains the urge to question exactly what is so great about a room packed with people she doesn’t know, while the love of her life is dancing happily as though they hadn’t just had the biggest argument of their relationship, when their future together is literally hanging in the balance. Instead she manages a weak smile which feels more like a grimace, and agrees with Lena.

“So. Where’s Angela?” Lena chirps. Her dark eyes are narrow and keen, an eyebrow rising slightly. Feeling as though the woman has seen right through her poor show at normalcy, Fareeha points to where Angela is wheeling around the room with her partner.

“Blimey, he’s not a looker, is he?” Lena says, wrinkling her nose. “Did he just pinch her arse?”

The words make Fareeha’s head turn so quickly she cricks her neck, her hand going straight for Raptora as fresh indignation blazes in her heart. But Lena’s laughter draws her back, and she frowns down at the tiny woman, rubbing her shoulder. Lena claps a hand on her arm, giving it a very slight squeeze.

“I can feel why she likes you.”

“Pardon?”

“Nothing!” Lena’s grin stretches wide across her face. “C’mon, let’s go save Angela’s bacon again. She’s really not enjoying herself.”

Taking hold of the arm she had just groped, Lena starts dragging Fareeha out of the crowd and across the dance floor, ignoring the irritated words spat at them as they barge through several couples, nearly tripping up two tiger-headed Dusklanders. Lena casts a careless apology over her shoulder, but her grip on Fareeha’s arm slips, and she leaves her stranded in the midst of dozens of dancers.

The room sways slightly. Fareeha tries to edge her way between people, bumping into another couple. That wine was much stronger than I thought.

People press in on her from all sides. She is jostled this way and that, dark eyes narrowing at her in hard, harsh glances of annoyance. Remembering the melee with a horrible jolt and wild clarity, Fareeha feels her breath growing short in her throat, half expecting to see Dustra’an crash out of the horde of people. He had stabbed her, right through the heart. She can remember Raptora’s cool blade pushing through her body, and the way blood had blossomed hotly across her chest. Angela’s scream reverberates through her head; the shrill sound making her ears ache.

Her ribs tighten, making it difficult to draw breath - demons dance on the edges of her vision, their eyes burning brightly, mouths stretching open as they point and laugh at her ruined cloak, at her ruined relationship, at the way her sword is buried to the hilt through her chest.

Panic sends her heart to thundering. There are too many people, all whirling and laughing and shouting around her. She stumbles clumsily into someone - she twists around and their face is Dustra’an’s, his face bright red, eyes wide as they roll back into his head. She thinks she sees blood gush out of his mouth, just like it had when Angela had stabbed his stomach. She tears away, panting desperately, fear turning the world bright and sharp and intense.

I need to save Angela.

Raptora is heavy in the palm of her hand. She feels herself focusing on it, the muscles in her arm tensing as she starts to draw the blade, lost amongst a thousand foes.

“Not here.”

The calm voice sounds a little to her left, someone pushing Raptora back into its sheath with a strength which far overpowers her own. Then hands are guiding her away from the crowd, out of the melee, towards a corner. A mug of water is pressed into her hand, her back pushed against a wall while her legs shake and threaten to collapse under her.

“Breathe, Knight. Kin, find Angela and stick by her. They won’t be used to the wine yet,” says the voice, a firm hand locking around her shoulder. Fareeha does as instructed, gulping several deep breaths, the room still spinning sickeningly around her.

“Of course.”

A flare of blue drifts past her. She closes her eyes, swallowing down the urge to vomit, still tasting the cloying tang of blood at the back of her tongue.

“Drink, Knight. Or I’ll have to make you.”

She does as ordered, almost recognising the gruff voice. The water is blessedly cool, washing her mouth clean, and she drains the mug in one, feeling her heart calming in her chest. Absently, she gropes around, feeling no sword protruding out of her heart with a dizzying swell of relief.

“You really fucked up, Knight.”

Fareeha opens her eyes. Yeisa herself is standing before her, her remaining eye trained on her, softened only by concern. The hard jut of her mouth forms a jagged line across her face, brows folded into a frown.

“What are you-?”

“What part of ‘all the leaders of the East’ didn’t you understand?” Yeisa’s lips quirk into a half grin. “How are you feeling?”

Fareeha quickly takes stock of herself. The wild panic has faded, the demons gone from her vision. She still feels a little drunk, but every breath she takes makes the room stand a little stiller. Her legs stop shaking, the iron tight grip she has on Raptora going limp. She is safe, held at the top of the Library in Axis Mundi, celebrating the Festival of Light, and Yeisa of Shala’Zor is standing in front of her, dressed as she usually is, in fine leathers and her braid of demon teeth.

“Better,” she replies. Yeisa peers intently into her eyes, before nodding.

“Good,” Yeisa grunts. “Don’t drink anymore wine. It’ll make you hallucinate, knock you out, and then kill you, depending on how much you’ve had. Nasty stuff if you’re not in the right frame of mind.”

Fareeha stares at her dumbly for a moment, blinking when Yeisa laughs.

“I can’t believe you had two whole goblets!” She says, and she claps a mighty hand on Fareeha’s shoulder. “You’re supposed to have one and drink it slowly. No wonder that server boy looked like he was going to shit himself.”

“How did you know?” Fareeha replies. She still feels slow, her mind crawling back to awareness.

“We’ve been watching you since you arrived.” Yeisa chuckles, and nods through the crowd. Fareeha looks, relieved to see Kin standing beside a very flushed Angela, talking to her quietly while her eyes dart around the room. Lena is stood beside them, her arm wrapped tightly around Angela’s waist. “Kin thought something was wrong when you didn’t try to stab the man dancing with the Priestess.”

“She’s free to dance with whoever she likes,” Fareeha replies stiffly.

“Right. Okay. I’m sure you really believe that.” Yeisa snorts. “I know exactly how I’d feel if some stranger started dancing with Kin, and I know you feel exactly the same.”

Fareeha glances up at her, curious. “You and Kin?”

Yeisa smiles happily, her eye filling with affection. “It took fighting a war for us to realise.”

Fareeha makes herself return the expression. “I’m happy for you.”

Yeisa swells with apparent pride, patting her shoulder in thanks, before nodding and looking beyond her. “Now, look alive. We have company.”

Still feeling groggy, she turns around to meet Satya’s eyes. At her flanks stand three people Fareeha doesn't recognise - two of them are masked and cloaked. The third stranger grins kindly at her.

“Yeisa, I see you have met our Barren Knight,” Satya says.

“She is always pleasant company,” Yeisa replies stiffly. Her leathers look like rags next to the ostentatious clothes of what Fareeha imagines must be the three leaders of Axis Mundi; the High Council themselves.

“I heard about your recent troubles.” Satya’s expression is appropriately grave. “I trust the rebuilding is going well?”

If Yeisa is surprised that Satya knows about the demons she doesn't show it. Instead she draws herself to her fullest height, towering over them all, her shoulders bunching. She looks every inch the captain of the Marguey, right down to the leather patch concealing her acid burnt eye.

“We are making progress every day. We have four villages rebuilt and stable, now. I have no doubt that Shala’Zor will be as formidable and beautiful as she always has been.”

One of the masked strangers cuts in, their voice echoing and deep behind the owl which hides their face. “I should think you are keeping a close eye on your mage?” They tilt their head. Fareeha has the strangest feeling she has seen the mask before.

Yeisa bristles beside her as the owl-mask continues, “They are not to be trusted at the best of times.”

“Speak for yourself, Jibril,” the grinning stranger says, laughing. His dark skin practically glows in the golden light thrown off the setting sun. He shakes his head, and bows to Yeisa. “Ignore Gabriel. He has a flare for dramatics. I am Lúcio Correia dos Santos, of the Southern Shores, and Councillor of Axis.”

“Well met,” Yeisa replies, holding out her hand. They clasp arms, holding firmly for a moment, before letting go. “I am Yeisa Brighteye, Captain of the Marguey and one of the Triumvirate of Shala’Zor.” She rests a hand on Fareeha’s shoulder. “My companion is Pharah of Aquila, Barren Knight Captain and Sworn Sword to Mercy of the Pale.”

Lúcio’s brows rise slightly and he seems to examine Fareeha in a new light. His eyes dart to her tattoo, then meet her gaze, his mouth spreading into the widest, most genuine smile she has ever seen.

“Good to meet you! I hope you’re having a good time.” He offers his arm, which Fareeha takes. His grip is firm and warm, much like the rest of him. The room is still spinning slightly.

Lúcio gives her a friendly pat before turning to Jibril. Fareeha eyes the mask, the sweeping robes, her mind turning slowly. So, this is the leader of Talon? She thinks, taking note of the two large swords hanging idly from his hips. Those aren’t ceremonial swords. Although, nor is Raptora. Her blackened fingers tighten into fists. He turns his head slightly. She has the impression he is looking at her. But not just looking - he is seeing into her, baring her soul, prying her apart to seek her failings.

She looks away, barely repressing a shudder.

“I would like to introduce my associate.” Jibril says, his voice grating. Like sand over a whet stone. It puts her teeth on edge. He gestures to his companion. “This is Amélie, co-commander of Talon and my trusted adviser.”

Amélie's face is half hidden by her eight-eyed mask, but her plump lips curl into a slow, dangerous smile. Fareeha wonders if her skin is naturally blue or if she uses dye - she knows of some cultures in the west who paint their entire bodies different colours, as a show of status.

“Charmed.” Amélie sounds anything but. However, before she can say more, Yeisa is speaking, her voice hard, rude and abrupt.

“What is Talon, anyway?”

Jibril turns his head slowly to face her, so like the animal his mask represents. Fareeha feels Yeisa’s body tense and has to fight the impulse to take a hold of her, to restrain her. The image of Yeisa tossing her goblet aside and bull rushing Jibril pops into her head and she must quash the ridiculous urge to laugh. Jibril wouldn’t stand a chance against Yeisa.

“We are Axis Mundi’s first, and last, line of defence.” Jibril is saying silkily. “We protect the city state from threats at home and… abroad.”

Yeisa actually takes a step forward, face contorted with rage. As tipsy as Fareeha is, she doesn’t miss the hidden threat in the words, and feels the hairs on the back of her neck rise. Amélie slips smoothly in front of Jibril as Fareeha grabs Yeisa’s arm, pulling her back.

“You should show your face, ser.” Yeisa snarls. “People might think you have something to hide.”

Jibril rasps what might be a laugh. Then, saying something to Amélie in a tongue Fareeha doesn’t know, he strides away, trailing his spider-masked companion behind him.

Satya and Lúcio watch him depart - Lúcio’s face looks oddly troubled while Satya only seems amused by the excessively rude gesture of dismissal. Yeisa’s jaw is clenched, her eye blazing with anger as she glares after Jibril.

“You will have to excuse Jibril,” Satya says, barely containing a chuckle. “He thinks he is above and beyond diplomacy.” She reaches out to Yeisa with her glowing hand, touching her in a gesture clearly meant to placate. “Perhaps I can steal you briefly to discuss the Axis agreement? I would like your advice on utilizing the Marguey.”

Yeisa nods and excuses herself, following Satya and leaving Fareeha alone with Lúcio.

She adjusts her grip on her empty mug, wishing she had something to drink - something to do - rather than just standing mutely next to one of the High Council. Instead, her heart sinking into her stomach, she watches Angela dancing with Kin with a growing sense of misery. Her beautiful face is shining with joy, her brilliant white cloak flowing around her, seamless and graceful, just as she is.

“You should dance with her, you know.” Lúcio says suddenly. She jumps, and nearly drops her mug.

“Pardon?”

“Your Priestess,” he continues, nodding at Angela. She spins out, soft leather boots skimming the floor, and then returns to the safety of Kin’s arms. “It’s tradition, isn’t it?”

Fareeha feels her mouth tighten. “For married couples. We are not married.”

He makes a sound in his throat that might be understanding. He raises his glass, sipping the deep red wine from it, his green cloak fluttering as he moves to stand beside her, leaning casually against the wall. She catches the sigil of a golden frog, its legs coiled into its body.

“I did not know Axis had three councillors.” Fareeha says finally. Lúcio grins warmly.

“Technically we are considered one person. Satya takes care of the Library, and the magical energies which govern and protect the city. Gabriel keeps the city safe from crime and outside forces. I was elected to be the voice of the people, to make sure they are defended.” His grin fades slightly, dark eyes fixed on Angela. Fareeha gets the impression he is not really seeing her. “It’s strange, but even in this day and age, people are easily forgotten. You know?”

Fareeha thinks back to Shala’Zor, and Senak. All the blood. All the suffering. Just because those in power decided to cause it: Talon being one of those powers. She wraps a hand around Raptora’s hilt.

“You’re right,” she replies. “Justice should be for all. Innocents must be protected.”

Lúcio nods. “Your mother said the same thing.” He glances at her - even as her stomach turns glacial at mention of Ana. “You’re an Amari, right?”

She dips her head. His expression becomes much more serious, tautening like the string of a bow. He leans closer to her murmuring so quietly she almost misses his words under the rumbling drums.

“When Ana came here to warn us about Talon I believed her.” He rolls his goblet from hand to hand, his long, graceful fingers lingering momentarily on the twisting serpent emblem of Axis engraved into the silver. “Gabriel came here five years ago, rising up Talon’s ranks quickly. Too quickly. Before we knew it, he was a councillor.”

She nods, listening intently, unsure why Lúcio is telling her all this. Somehow, it feels important.

“He knew you were coming.” Lúcio says with an almost nervous glance up at her. “You and the Pale Priestess, I mean. He instructed us to be cautious of you - that you would bring ruin to Axis.” He shakes his head. “Gabriel wanted you both banned from the city. Satya almost agreed with him, until I disagreed. Bar entry to a Pale Priestess? It’s a crime.”

“Why are you telling me this?” she whispers back.

“Because something is coming.” He replies. “We all know it. We all sense it. People are leaving Axis in their hundreds and I don’t know why. News of demons in Shala’Zor is troubling, but not surprising.”

Lúcio shrugs slightly and drains his goblet. Then he looks up at her, brows knit. “Ana warned us about Talon. Let me repay the favour.” He straightens his cloak. “Don’t let the Priestess out of your sight. Gabriel and Talon are interested in her. I don’t know why, but anything he’s interested in tends to disappear.”

He turns to her, hand outstretched. Ears ringing with his words, she takes his hand, shaking it firmly.

“Thank you,” she says, meaning the words. He smiles at her.

“Enjoy the festival, Fareeha Amari. I wrote all the music myself.”

He inclines his head and walks away, disappearing into the crowd.

Chapter Text

Fareeha watches Lúcio go, fingers clenching around her mug. The music is still playing exuberantly, people twirling this way and that, laughing and drinking as the sun continues to set. Robes and skirts fly, goblets tilt back into open mouths, wine flowing freely between the guests. People from a thousand worlds move in harmony, guided only by the music which winds between them, tracking their steps.

Don’t let your Priestess out of your sight, Lúcio had warned. The words flutter through her mind, remembering the way his eyes had tightened at the corners. She straightens, rolling her weight onto her feet fully, becoming very aware she has done just that. She stands on the tips of her toes, searching the crowd for the tell-tale white cloak and golden hair. There are flashes of both, but she cannot see Angela. Panic seizes her heart - she cannot see Jibril either.

Feeling much less intoxicated than before, she starts, once again, into the throng. People let her pass - she strides with great purpose, her boots thudding against the crystal floor. Her ripped cloak flutters and snaps, biting the air behind her - she can feel people looking, knows they must know the tattoo under her eye and the falcon on her back. They distinguish her as her mother’s daughter. The thought gives her an extra boost of confidence. She is her mother’s daughter. She will not let Talon get away with its crimes.

She spots Yeisa and Satya slipping out onto a balcony. Kin is not with them. A quick glance reveals they are standing next to the food table, delicate fingers plucking up a small leg of chicken. She adjusts her course, pressing herself through a tangle of dancers, eyes fixed on the brilliant blue of Kin’s robes.

They barely jump when she comes to a halt beside them. They continue picking at the food, placing several small slices of bread onto their plate before sweeping back their sleeve, long fingers wrapping around a mug of water.

“Good evening, Fareeha,” They say. They don’t even look at her, instead looking down their nose at a whole lamb displayed on a silver platter. “Feeling better, I trust?”

“Yes, thank you,” She replies stiffly. They eye her critically for a moment before pushing the water into her hands, only looking away when she takes a sip.

“I see you met Lúcio. Quite the man. They say he started a revolution. Wise beyond his years - I would take any advice he has to heart.” They hesitate over a fig, then skip past it, gently drawing a stem of grapes onto their already loaded plate. “Otherwise, I would keep a sharp eye on Jibril. Or Gabriel, as he prefers to be called. I never trusted him, and I never will. There is more to him than meets the eye.”

Fareeha absorbs this in her typical silence, examining the way Kin’s mouth pinches at the corners. In memory or thought, she cannot tell. They level an easy stare on her, deep black eyes as bottomless as any ocean, the subtle flicker of their magic burning in their depths.

“She's above us.” They say blandly. But before she can leave their hand shoots out, fingers curling with surprising strength around her arm. “Gabriel is watching you. His spider has many eyes.”

Fareeha wrenches her arm away, jaw clenched. “He can watch all he likes. I have nothing to fear from him. I will deal with him the same way I deal with any snake which crosses my path.” Her blackened fingers flit across Raptora’s falcon head pommel. “I trust he will not get ahead of himself.” She inhales sharply, murmuring so softly that Kin has to lean closer to hear her. “I am not a politician. I do not play these ballroom games like you and the others do. I have a simpler approach: I will kill anyone who tries to harm her. I don't care if I have to kill every single person in this room to ensure her safety. I will let the ground flow red with blood before I allow even an inch of her to be hurt. Is that clear?”

By the expression on the mage’s face, Fareeha knows they understand. Their eyes fall to Raptora and they take half a step back before peering up into her face.

“You love her.”

It is not a question: a statement of fact. She nods once. She does love Angela. With every desperate beat of her heart, she loves her. Angela can be stubborn, and liberal with the truth, and Fareeha still feels furious about her mother’s survival, but that doesn't change how she feels about the priestess.

Kin dips their head. “You really are your mother’s daughter. Look for the hardlight stairs. Be well, Fareeha Amari. May the Guardian fly with you.”

They fall into a bow, balancing their plate with expert delicacy, before they wander away. Fareeha doesn't even wait until they are out of her sight - she starts through the crowd again, setting her water aside and heading for the fluttering curtains that guard a doorway onto the balcony.

The cool air hits her like a slap. She sucks it in, sparing the endless sea a glance. The sun is tasting the horizon, pooling like blood into distant waters. She gets the sense that she is running out of time.

She follows the balcony, sliding between talking and laughing people, searching for a way up. Kin had said Angela was above them. Craning her neck up, Fareeha spots another level, crowning the top of the Library, and a set of floating stairs winding around the tower.

“There ya are, love!”

Lena catches her arm. Fareeha restrains the urge to shove her away, rounding on the tiny Westerner, surprised to see Jibril’s spider-masked assistant standing beside her. Her amber eyes glow mockingly in the evening, her mask tipped back to rest on black hair.

“Blimey. I've been lookin’ all over for you!” Lena says. Her dark eyes are huge, cheeks slightly flushed - she is clearly drunk, her freckled cheeks bursting into an enormous grin. “Here, I want you to meet Amel.”

“Amélie.” The woman interrupts, plump lips pursing. “We have already met, cheri.”

“Oh! Well, then you know who this is, love! This is Pharah of Aquila. She's probably looking for Angela, like you were!”

Fareeha feels her heart seize, restraining the urge to frown as Amélie's jaw clenches. Lena throws Fareeha a look, shaking her head a tiny fraction towards the floating stairs. Go, she seems to say. I've got this one covered. Then she is turning back to the Talon agent.

“Honoured to meet you again,” Fareeha hears herself say, a hand resting on Raptora’s hilt. “Give my regards to your master for me. Although, I am sure I will run into him.”

Subtle games, that's all I have to do. Play subtle games. When Amélie's expression tightens Fareeha feels a burst of triumph. Yes, you eight eyed serpent. That was a threat.

“No doubt he will be intrigued to meet you again, Barren Knight,” Amélie replies, her voice silky.

“Of course.” Fareeha bites back. “Now, if you will excuse me.”

She turns her back abruptly on the woman and starts towards the stairs. She thinks she hears Lena’s bright voice behind her, but it is soon swallowed by the crowd, lost amongst the throng. I hope she knows what she's doing. Fareeha frets quietly, working her way around the tower until she finds the first step. She is surprised to find that she has a small soft spot for the Westerner.

The bottom step glows a brilliant blue. Kin said hardlight, didn't they? Hesitantly, she places her rough boot onto the stair, half expecting to plunge right through. However, the step takes her weight, glowing brighter.

Barely sparing the dizzying drop below a thought, she starts up the stairs, all but running up them. They spiral thrice around the tower, humming as she climbs, bobbing alarmingly behind her.

She emerges into a floating garden. Axis sprawls around her, stretching to the rolling, white-capped waves of the infinite ocean to the West. Plants, supported by more of Satya’s light magic, hover and sway vaguely in the muted wind, providing both shelter and privacy: she can hear others in the garden. Laughter and voices muffled by what can only be magic flutter around her, she can see no one else. If not for the noise, she might have been alone.

She turns her gaze over the balustrade. Axis glows below her like some animal, the lights of ten thousand fires burning, ebbing and flowing in waves, breathing with the concentric rings of the city. Echoing sounds reach her even at this height. A quick glance upwards reveals nothing less than the open sky. There, bright as any flame, soars the constellation of her house: Aquila.

Each star has a story. Her mother had told her, wrapping the words in the promise of telling her more when she was older. But here she stands, older, harder, palms resting flat on cool crystal. Ana had never bothered to tell her the stories, never bothered to give up her bow either. Was she truly that unworthy?

She shakes the thought away like a dog trying to rid its ears of water, turning away from the city. She has to find Angela.

The plants part for her as she moves, leading her down a path, swallowing her in murky darkness. The illusion is so complete she feels as though she is back in Shala’Zor, half expecting Yeisa to pop out of the leaves on either side. A glance behind her shows the way back is shut. She is truly alone; she can't even hear the festivities below.

She pauses for a fraction of a second, aware of the continuing blackness, unable to see even her feet. She tilts her head upwards, only to find that the stars have gone out. Her breath stills in her chest, catching in her throat, her numb fingers curling into fists at her sides.

“Hello?” She calls out, feeling stupid, fear slicing keenly through her belly.

The garden comes to life around her.

In a great rush, the world is illuminated. A tide of light sweeps under her feet, around the tunnel of gloom, soaring around her, chasing itself, bouncing from plant to plant. Waves upon waves of blue coalesce into the image of an arching falcon, beak thrust upwards, wings spread triumphantly. It hangs before her for a moment, gold sparks flaring off its feathers, before it lets out a piercing cry which she feels in the deepest part of her heart. She feels her knees collapse under her, forced to kneel before the ancient sigil of her house, tears blurring her vision as the gold flares form into the image of the burning sun, flickering like fire upon the falcon’s shoulders.

And beyond the light, a face appears out of the inky night.

“Angela?”

“Fareeha?”

They speak together, Fareeha’s knees pressing into the cool earth, Angela glowing, the falcon playing across her pale skin, highlighting her golden hair. Not for the first time, Fareeha wonders if she is in the company of a god.

The falcon fades, leaving its imprint on the lids of Fareeha’s eyes. She hurries to her feet, swallowing, brushing off her trousers and discretely wiping her cheeks free of tears. Angela stays where she is, hands curled to her chest, her eyes wide. The leaves above them part slowly, letting in the fading light of the setting sun.

“I was looking for you,” Angela says softly. Closer inspection reveals that her cheeks are flushed, eyes bright, her hood lain around her shoulders like a wreath. She appears unhurt, though, which eases some of Fareeha’s concern.

“As was I.” Fareeha replies stiffly.

Angela shifts towards her like some timid deer, her expression open and vulnerable. Fareeha stays where she is, allowing the priestess to approach. Tentatively, Angela rests a hand on Fareeha’s arm, her expression blossoming into what can only be relief.

“The wine is strong,” she murmurs, fingers curling into Fareeha’s shirt. She exhales shakily, peering into Fareeha’s face. “I kept seeing you.”

Recalling the hallucinations with vivid detail, Fareeha gently takes Angela’s hand, holding it softly. If I saw Dustra’an, I wonder if she saw-

Angela’s palm pressing against her heart confirm her thoughts. Angela steps up to her, standing close - close enough to share heat between them - before she speaks softly.

“When you breathed your last, I thought I was going to die.” Her tiny hand curls into a fist, then she rests her forehead against Fareeha’s chest. “Bringing you back… it hurt so much I thought my body was going to tear itself apart. But I would do it a thousand times over to keep you safe.”

“Angela-” Fareeha begins, but Angela interrupts her, staring up at her. Breath catching, Fareeha realises that Angela is crying.

“I made a mistake,” Angela says, her face crumpling into itself as big, fat tears leak out of her eyes. She gives an almighty sniff, shoulders shaking, hiccupping slightly as she continues. “I- I just wanted to keep you safe!”

Slightly alarmed, Fareeha can do nothing but sweep the wailing priestess into her arms, holding her close and tucking her chin over her head. Angela clings to her, shivering in her arms.

By the God, she's still drunk.

Deciding some fresh sea air will do her good, Fareeha leans down and loops an arm under Angela’s knees, picking her up bodily. The priestess gives a tiny cry of surprise, but doesn't struggle, allowing Fareeha to carry her out of the gloom and into the last vestiges of the dusk.

The city is brighter now, glowing over the rim of the balustrade. The sun has almost completely set, turning the crystal towers of Axis a brilliant blood red. Fareeha gazes out, feeling Angela’s arms wrapping around her neck, watching as the very last tinges of sunlight fade and finally die.

A great gong sounds across the city. The music from below finishes on a thunderous beat, and silence falls.

They watch, caught by the dusk, watching as the lights below flow in several waves. Once. Twice. Three times. Ripples flowing outwards from the Library, through the circles of Axis, and to the shore. The throbs come faster and faster - Fareeha imagines they are copying the pulse of a heart, sweeping across the world. Together, united by light and hope, one heart.

As though by the command of the God the sea suddenly bursts with light. Fareeha hears herself say something - a prayer perhaps, or an oath - shocked, amazed, terrified, as the sea starts to glow a bright blue, burning as awe inspiring as any sun.

The city explodes with noise. The roars of the crowd echo to them both like some great animal, the screams of ten thousand people heralding in the Festival of Light. The music starts below them, pounding drums, arching notes, singing - voices calling to each other. Bright and happy and alive.

Fareeha and Angela take it in with the quiet amazement of visitors. They stand still, struck dumb, even as the sea’s light starts to fade to a dull hue, the caps of the waves flickering with life.

Still pale with shock, Fareeha allows Angela to stand when she shifts her weight, setting the priestess down beside her gently.

“Quite the show,” Angela says softly, taking half a step away from Fareeha, allowing her space to breathe. Fareeha is pleased to note that Angela’s eyes are much clearer, although her face is still splotchy from crying.

“Axis Mundi does not do things in half measures,” Fareeha replies. “Quite illuminating, don't you think?”

They stare at each other for several moments, then break apart, laughing softly. Turned shy, Fareeha shuffles her boots, examining the soft grass below.

“Fareeha,” Angela begins gently. Her voice quivers slightly with what might be nerves. “I must apologise for how I've treated you.”

Fareeha looks up, finding Angela’s face is contorted with pain. The priestess’s throat bobs once, but she continues sincerely.

“I was wrong to not tell you about your mother. And I was wrong to try to control you or your life. I- I understand if you cannot forgive me, but I am so deeply sorry for hurting you, and disgracing you and the trust you have put in me.”

She brushes out her clothes, then unpins the white cloak from around her shoulders, holding it for a moment between her fingers, pursing her lips. Then, to Fareeha’s total and utter shock, Angela throws the cloak over the edge of the balcony. It catches in the wind, tumbling away into nothing - the light material carrying it into the growing night.

“I don't want to be Mercy of the Pale anymore.” Angela straightens her shoulders, her face set and determined - Fareeha sees the lioness in her features, tautening her body like the string of a bow. “I don't want to be anything except myself.” She takes a breath. “I don't want to be anything except yours. I have been, you see, from the moment I met you.”

Before Fareeha can speak, Angela falls onto one knee, staring up at her. There is no trace of Mercy, of the Priestess burdened by duty, shackled by oath to an order who turned its back on her - only the woman Fareeha has come to love.

Angela holds out her empty hands, palms up, as though bearing an invisible sword. When she speaks her voice throbs with what can only be the absolute certainty of faith.

“Before the God of death and life, before the Dawn of the Pale, in this Season of Decay, I, Angela Ziegler, Daughter of None, Avowed to None, titled only by her name, do pledge my life to you and swear to follow you until my body is broken, or you see fit to release me from my oath.”

Mind reeling, struck speechless by the enormity of Angela’s oath, Fareeha can do nothing except stare into Angela’s eyes. But it seems that she is not finished. Her strange tongue falls from her lips, full of the hard sounds and sharp edges of the North. Upon her outstretched palms the shimmering outline of her staff forms, flickering golden flames crawling up its smooth white shaft until Angela’s wrists flex with baring its weight.

Fareeha finally finds her voice, trying hard not to collapse to her knees.

“Angela, I- you- this is wrong.”

Angela frowns slightly, but Fareeha continues quickly.

“I made a vow to you - you cannot- it's not-”

“You made a vow to Mercy of the Pale, Fareeha.” Angela smiles sadly. “But I'm not Mercy of the Pale. I am Angela Ziegler. I have no ties, or home. Or family. I have no oaths, or order. I am a simple woman. And I'm offering myself to you. All of me. My heart, my body - my soul.” She gives a tiny laugh which sounds more sorry than mirthful. “You've always had all of me.”

Fareeha runs a hand through her hair, listening to the clink of her beads, unsure how to proceed. She knows not what she says. That the oath must be sealed with a kiss - to honour the words spoken. Surely, she does not understand this. Not the way I do.

But gazing into her eyes, Fareeha finds no lack of understanding. There is only shining confidence.

It is Angela’s gentle voice which makes Fareeha’s decision. “Please, Fareeha.”

Straightening her shoulders, Fareeha draws Raptora with the singing sound of steel on steel. Angela stares up at her, not even a shred of doubt in her face as Fareeha raises Raptora and rests the blade gently upon the crown of Angela’s head.

“By my blade, and the God who watches us all, I take you as my Sworn Sword. May I never task you with dishonour, or taint your blade with the blood of the innocent. Angela Ziegler, rise as my equal, my friend.” Fareeha inhales softly, then, “The keeper of my heart.”

Angela lurches to her feet, eyes welling with tears, anything but the graceful Priestess of the Pale. Her staff clatters to the side, forgotten as Fareeha sheathes Raptora easily, drawing Angela close and pressing a kiss to her forehead, feeling at last the peace of forgiveness.

“None of that, habibti,” she murmurs, using the Old Argan word for ‘beloved’. “None of that.”

Angela trembles in her arms, burying herself close to Fareeha’s chest, moulding every inch of her against Fareeha’s body, arms pulling her in as tight as she can.

“I love you,” Angela murmurs. “So very much.”

Fareeha feels herself smile, “And I love you.”

Angela peers up at her. Fareeha watches the way her lips part, feeling her heart trip into a faster beat. Slowly, carefully, Fareeha leans down towards her. Angela stays perfectly still, her eyes fluttering shut as her breath rushes out against Fareeha’s mouth.

Absorbing the last glimpse of Angela’s face, Fareeha hesitates for a fraction of a second. To do this is to seal the oath. There is no going back. She will be mine, as I am hers.

Somehow the idea doesn't seem to scare her as much as it should have.

Fareeha kisses Angela gently, cupping her face with the palm of one ruined hand. Angela shivers under her touch, muffling a moan and pushing herself closer, rising onto the tips of her toes. Fareeha’s eyes fall shut at the noise, her other hand cupping Angela’s waist.

They part. The soft sound of flesh leaving flesh is somehow louder than the music below - their breaths rattle between them, lost to each other, reborn by the oath, which hovers between them like some spectral bird.

Angela’s gaze flickers across Fareeha’s face, then she pulls her down for another kiss. This one is hard, messy, fingers digging into the hair at the back of Fareeha’s neck. The spark of lust simmering low in Fareeha’s belly roars to life, filling her, engulfing her. She utters what might be Angela’s name, pressing her up against the balustrade, not caring about the lights or the glowing waves, or the party happening right below them. All she can taste, all she can hear, is Angela. Angela panting as she pulls away to stare at her, lips half open, tongue flicking out briefly. Angela’s fingers pulling her close to kiss her again, her teeth finding Fareeha’s bottom lip.

The action makes her shiver.

“Please,” Angela murmurs, pressing kisses against her face, to the corners of her mouth. “I’ve… I’ve ached for you for so long…”

Fareeha feels her breath catch in the back of her throat. Angela pulls herself up, sitting on the edge of the balcony, leaning back over the dizzying drop on one hand. She is radiant as any sun, as pure as the dawn. But her eyes are darker than any ocean. Hooded, deep, Fareeha stumbles towards her, lips tingling as she presses them against Angela’s open mouth. Her legs part and wind around her hips, pulling her closer - the balustrade edge cuts into the tops of Fareeha’s thighs, but she doesn’t care. Instead she shoves her hands under Angela’s body, hoisting her up into her arms, liking the sound she makes when Fareeha’s teeth find their way onto the stretch of her neck.

“I love you,” Angela gasps, her fingers clutching at Fareeha’s shoulders, tangling into the ruins of her cloak. She repeats the words like a prayer, whispering them into the night.

Fareeha abandons Angela’s neck, instead murmuring into her ear, “As much as you are mine, I am yours, habibti.”

Angela muffles what might be a sob, pulling Fareeha close for another breathless kiss. Their teeth clash together, heat filling Fareeha’s face in a potent mixture of embarrassment and arousal. But Angela hardly seems to notice - the warm press of her tongue makes sparks shiver up Fareeha’s spine, drawing open her mouth on the heady sound of a groan.

Fareeha quivers at the first nervous taste of Angela’s mouth. The wet heat draws her mind to other things, and the rapid thunder of her heart only pulses harder when Angela sucks her tongue lightly.

Fareeha pulls herself away to gasp in air. Face flushed, sweat beading her forehead, Fareeha feels as flustered as Angela looks - her hair is askew, cheeks burning brightly, lips plump and wet.

“Would you like to...?” Fareeha manages to gasp out, unable to articulate herself further. Angela only nods, shimmying her way down Fareeha’s body until she is standing, apparently unable to help herself as she steals another kiss.

Feeling hazy and sluggish, almost drunk, Fareeha allows Angela to take her hand, following her as she leads the way through the garden. The plants part easily for them, offering them a path towards the stairs.

“Your staff-?” Fareeha begins but Angela throws her a smile.

“It will find me.”

Not wanting to know the particulars of Angela’s relationship with her staff, Fareeha takes this and accepts it quickly. She barely understands magic as it is.

They hurry downwards quickly, practically running down the hardlight stairs, winding their way around the tower. The balcony below is packed tight with people: Fareeha can see Lena and the talon woman standing together, shadowed by a curtain. Lena’s hand is resting softly on Amélie’s cheek, and the brief glance of Lena’s face shows Fareeha wounded vulnerability. Stung by the intimacy of the expression, and the way Amélie’s head tilts, forces Fareeha to avert her gaze.

Concern briefly worries at her stomach, but she dismisses it, instead focusing on the way Angela keeps throwing her smiles. Lena fought beside Ana, beside Angela. She can handle herself. Besides, it isn’t Fareeha’s duty to protect her.

They reach the base of the stairs. They are quickly absorbed by the crowd, tied together only by their hands - pale flesh coiled with black, bloodstained fingers. Fareeha slides through gaps, pushing past men and women and towering, animal headed Dusklanders. They take no notice of either of them, wrapped up in the ebbing sea and they finally slip into the ballroom. It is almost deserted; only several couples remain, dancing slowly to gentle music.

Fareeha is almost tempted to join them, but Angela is pulling her away, towards a closed door. She opens it quickly, leading them into the dim dark of another staircase, winding downwards. Blue lights flicker to life when Fareeha kicks the door closed, illuminating the way into the gloom - Angela gives her the briefest of moments to stare before she is pressing herself close, lips finding hers in the dark.

Narrow fingers curl around her shoulders even as they stumble blindly downwards. Fareeha almost slips, letting out a short cry of surprise against Angela’s mouth.

“Shh, sváss,” Angela laughs breathlessly, somehow still moving backwards, her hands tangling in the front of Fareeha’s shirt. “They’ll hear us.”

Face growing hot, Fareeha finds the banister with her hand, steadying herself. Angela pulls her downwards, murmuring softly in her strange language, drawing her further and further into the darkness. The lights on the walls flicker out behind them, leaving them in an endless tunnel of stairs - Fareeha’s feet move of their own accord, finding the way even as she loses herself in the lit of Angela’s voice, the sweet, clean scent of the hollow of her ear, the hard coil of her fingers into her cloak, the taste of her mouth as Fareeha finally pushes her against the wall.

Angela lets out half a moan; Fareeha feels a shiver work its way down her spine, tucking her hands under Angela’s thighs to hoist her up. Somehow she doesn’t feel shy or awkward. She barely has the space to consider it between the way Angela’s legs tighten around her waist and the heady sound of Angela’s sharp intake of breath as she sinks her teeth into a pale throat. When she draws away she can see she has left a mark. It sends a thrill of excitement into her stomach, surging out of her mouth in the form of Angela’s name. She barely recognises her own voice, rough and raspy with want.

“Fareeha,” Angela gasps. “Just a little further. There’s a door which will lead us to our corridor.”

“How do you know?” Fareeha replies, equally out of breath, enjoying Angela’s weight.

“Kin told me.”

Fareeha lets Angela regain her feet, following her as she continues down the stairs, appreciating fully and without guilt, the tight white leather trousers which hug her hips. When Angela catches her staring she doesn’t look away, despite the splash of embarrassment warming her face.

They reach another door. Angela shoves it open, pulling Fareeha after her into the corridor. After the darkness of the staircase, the fully illuminated hall is harsh on her eyes - she blinks several times but doesn’t try to stop. Instead she hurries after Angela, finally arriving at their room.

Despite the flurry of their exit, Angela hesitates, her hand hovering on the gold door handle. Fareeha tries to steady her breathing, seeking Angela’s gaze with some concern, surprised to see the same emotion mirrored back at her.

“Are you sure?” Angela nibbles her lip. “We don’t have to do this. We can just… go to bed and rest, if you want.”

Touched by Angela’s concern, Fareeha tenderly runs her thumb over Angela’s cheek, cupping her face and pressing a gentle kiss to her forehead.

“I want to share this with you, habibti.” She replies. Angela relaxes a fraction against her. “I want to be with you. I’m… ready. Finally.”

Fareeha rests her hand gently over Angela’s, turning the handle and opening the door with a gentle push of her arm. Angela staggers backwards, catching hold of Fareeha’s shoulder to steady herself, pulling her out of the corridor and into the pitch black of the room beyond.

The darkness is absolute when Fareeha closes the door behind her. Her sensitive ears just pick up the sound of Angela’s breathing and the scuff of her boots as she moves further into the apartment, the thin hand tangled with hers drawing her forwards.

Light flickers to life. More of Satya’s hardlight magic illuminates the room from the bedside tables, throwing Angela’s face into sharp relief. Fareeha steps close to her, winding her arms around Angela’s waist and pulling her into a tight embrace, burying her nose into the crook of Angela’s neck. Angela returns it, sighing softly as some of the fire leaves them both, leaving tender lucidity in its wake.

Awash with affection, Fareeha presses another kiss to Angela’s forehead, closing her eyes briefly when she feels Angela start to untangle her cloak from her shoulders. It drops to the ground, pooling about her feet with a soft sound. With its weight lifted, Fareeha allows herself to straighten to her fullest height, trailing her fingers down Angela’s spine, wishing she could feel the material, and the skin underneath.

“I love you,” Angela whispers. The words sound like an oath, spoken in the hushed reverence of absolute truth. Fareeha peers into Angela’s face, feeling her throat bob in a swallow when cool hands cup her face.

In the half dark, Angela leads her to bed. In the half dark, Angela kisses away her fear and nerves, fingers making quick work of her shirt and chest bindings as she draws her onto soft sheets. In the half dark Angela helps her undress them both, casting aside their clothes until they lie bare to each other, entangled together, breathing into each other until the world only exists between the press of flesh against flesh.

Fareeha finds herself hovering over Angela, straddling her waist, nerves fluttering in her stomach as Angela stares up at her, eyes hooded, blown wide and dark. Angela’s fingers stroke her hips idly in comfort, a tongue darting out to wet kiss-bruised lips.

“Do you trust me?” Angela asks softly. Her hand pauses on the faded ridge of a scar on Fareeha’s right flank, then trails upwards, brushing against the sensitive skin of her breast, skipping over the other hallmarks of her history, until Angela can trace her thumb over the tattoo under Fareeha’s eye.

“Always,” Fareeha replies huskily, still feeling slightly nervous. Angela smiles gently at her, then takes both of Fareeha’s hands in hers, pressing kisses to black knuckles Fareeha cannot feel before urging her forwards. Gut jumping in surprise, heart pounding, Fareeha allows the movement, shuffling up the bed until she is kneeling over Angela’s head.

The vulnerability of the position is not lost on Fareeha. She feels her shoulders tense, half panicking, trying to keep her breathing steady as she fights down a lifetime of instinct. Angela lays patiently below her, stroking her thighs and hips, staring up at her, keeping a respectful silence even when Fareeha shuts her eyes to escape the intensity of the moment.

I’m safe, Fareeha tells herself a little desperately. Angela would never hurt me. I am completely safe.

The tender caress of lips against her inner thigh make her jump. Angela brings her back to the moment with the subtle press, smiling up at her.

“Hold onto me if you need to,” she murmurs softly. “I’m right here. I’m not going anywhere.”

Fareeha hesitates before taking hold of Angela’s hand, tangling their fingers together. Angela returns the sentiment - Fareeha sees the flex of her hand as she squeezes in return.

 “Are you ready?” Angela asks.

Heart flying, stomach bumbling, mouth growing drier by the second, Fareeha takes a shuddering breath.

“Please, Angela.”

 


 

 

She comes undone drowning in the endless devotion of Angela’s gaze.

The night’s breeze kisses Fareeha’s sweat slick skin as she shudders her last, black fingers of one hand clutching the headboard so tightly it creaks. The curtains flutter about the open doors, carrying with them the distant noise of the ongoing festival; shouts and laughter and music infiltrate the little room on waves of sound. They do nothing to conceal Fareeha’s ragged panting, or the soft huff of Angela’s moan as she arches her back.

Fareeha tries to focus. Her grip on Angela’s hand is so tight her fingers are tingling, burning, almost aching while Angela slumps back onto the bed, lost amidst the aftermath of her own release. Sensitive, dizzy, tears lingering on her cheeks, Fareeha somehow manages to slip off Angela’s body, settling beside her and staring up at the ceiling.

Angela does not let go of her hand.

They lie quietly together, minds blown wide, breaths falling from harsh to soft, mingling together as the night rolls on.

Fareeha shifts onto her side, pressing herself against Angela, swallowing the lump in her throat as she buries her face into the crook of Angela’s neck.

All that Fareeha is, all that Fareeha ever wanted to be, is destroyed before the woman she loves. Pulling away to gaze, watery eyed, at her lover, Fareeha realises with a heart clenching clarity that she needs nothing more than Angela. Angela’s light - her strength - have become Fareeha’s.

She has not the words to articulate herself. She doesn’t know how to explain herself. Instead she leans close, pressing a light kiss against Angela’s mouth. Angela returns it slowly, making a soft sound in her throat.

“Thank you,” Fareeha says into the silence, pulling Angela close to curl up against her. Angela tangles herself around Fareeha, staring into her, eyes wet with her own unshed tears.

“You are who you are, Fareeha,” Angela replies. “You do not have to be anyone else with me.”

The lump in Fareeha’s throat grows. She closes her eyes briefly, and then, with an enormous sob, feels herself finally let go. The sobs come hard and harsh, bursting out of her in quick bursts. Angela cradles her, rubbing her back and kissing her forehead.

Exhausted, spent physically and emotionally, Fareeha sucks in desperate gasps of air, allowing herself to feel. The anger at her mother, the sting of her disappearance, even the fear of her own death, swell in her like a great wave, forcing themselves out of her on every ragged sob.

Angela says nothing, holding her tightly and stroking her hair until she calms down, present and real and alive, as brilliant and gentle as the dawn. When Fareeha has finally gathered herself enough to meet Angela’s gaze, she finds nothing except love there, and returns it with a watery smile.

“I love you, habibti.” Fareeha says.

“I love you too.” Angela replies.

Together, they settle amongst the tangled sheets, forehead to forehead, flesh against flesh. Safe, whole, Fareeha finds sleep, allowing it to fall over her like a shroud.

Chapter Text

She awakens to the gentle sound of someone breathing.

In.

Out.

Soft and warm against the crook of her neck. She stirs, groggy, half startled to feel the bare flesh of her sleeping companion’s body pressed closed to hers, pliant in slumber. The room is blessedly quiet, the faint chirp of birdsong reaching her through the veiled balcony doors. The cool kiss of the breeze makes her shift further under her covers, causing her to press her nose into sweet smelling hair. Somehow the thought doesn’t scare her as it might have done.

Keeping her eyes shut against the bright day, she delicately probes her feelings: content comes to mind, and the easy mood of the well-rested leaves her with an odd sense of peace. Gone is the anger with her mother. Gone is the anger with Angela.

Angela.

She opens her eyes.

Angela is settled beside her, naked and vulnerable, her pale brow slack. It comes back to Fareeha in a rush - the glowing garden; the illuminated falcon shouldering the sun; Angela’s tears; Angela’s apology; Angela’s oath.

“Please, Fareeha, give me a single morning before you panic about everything,” Angela mutters, no doubt disturbed by the way Fareeha’s body tenses in realisation.

“I’m not panicking,” Fareeha reassures, half to herself, as she sits up in bed, her nakedness bringing her a slight flush in the white light of day.

Angela turns over, golden hair messy, spilled onto her bare shoulders as she buries her face in the pillow. Her dark lashes brush pale cheeks, her lips pursing as she swallows thickly, brow furrowing in discomfort.

“I think I had rather too much to drink.”

“Me too,” Fareeha replies quickly, then a jolt of fear hits her. “But you… I don’t - I mean…”

Angela, as always, understands her more than she herself does.

“I don’t regret anything that happened, sváss. It was… wonderful.”

Fareeha nods. Of course, she had enough of her senses to know she didn’t do anything despicable, but… her own brazenness in that foggy memory brings her a strange mix of pride and shame. Gripped by a sudden need to be alone, she starts shifting onto her side, not wanting to look, not wanting to see Angela’s nakedness, particularly next to her own. Somehow, the gentle curve of Angela’s belly seems too soft next to her war-torn hardness.

A delicate hand reaches up from the bedsheets and finds her shoulder, caressing it.

“Stay. Please.”

The touch gives her pause. Her breath catches short in her throat and she feels an unfamiliar spike of uncertainty deep in her stomach. Nervously, dreading what she might find there, she forces herself to look into Angela’s face, guilty to find traces of worry and hurt in her expression. Despite the sleepy morning, it is apparent that Angela is now wide awake, the rumpled pillow marks in her cheek doing nothing to hide the very real concern tautening the skin around her eyes.

“I… I just need a drink.” Fareeha hears herself say, before she swings herself out of bed and all but bolts to the bathroom, shutting the door behind her with a snap and leaning against the cool wood.

Naked, slightly chilly as the breeze ghosts in through the open window, Fareeha leans against the door, rubbing her eyes with her fingers, almost gouging them out with the force as she tries not to feel the hard ball of anxiety in her stomach.

She finally did it. She finally slept with Angela. For good or ill, she had crossed that boundary in the heat of the night, consumed by love or lust or whatever had driven her. Breaths coming hard and fast, Fareeha strides to the sink, twisting the tap and splashing her face with shaking hands.

Why am I so nervous about this? She thinks to herself as she gulps cool water, suppressing a shiver as goose bumps mount her arms. Isn’t it what I always wanted?

She lifts her head, coming face to face with her own reflection in the mirror. Dark, amber eyes gaze back at her, huge with fear. Her tattoo stands starkly against her skin, the black ink as prominent and clear as the day she got it, etched under her eye. A symbol of the protector. A hallmark of her oath to watch over the weak and the vulnerable.

Just because I’m a Barren Knight doesn’t mean I can’t be vulnerable too.

The thought surprises her. She raises one blackened finger, tracing it over the lines of her tattoo. She is a Barren Knight. Pride of Arga, a warrior and a protector and a guardian. She is an Amari, the last of the legendary line of heroes who have protected and served her country for ten thousand years and more. She is Pharah of Aquila, daughter of Ana Amari, Falcon of the East.

And yet… And yet…

She is also a woman.

Her gaze shifts from her tattoo to peer into her own eyes. Beyond the mantel of her family’s legacy, underneath the armour - literally and figuratively - she is a woman. An Argan woman called Fareeha, who grew up in a temple, and knows of the world only what she was taught, and what she has read. She is an Argan woman far from the barren sands of her home, far from the solid stone walls of her temple, out of her depth, wrapped up in a quest far bigger than she could have ever imagined, entirely enamoured with a Priestess of the Pale.

No. I’m in love with Angela Ziegler. I am just a woman, who loves another woman.

The hard knot in her gut loosens and she gulps in a hard sob of air. She isn’t weak. It isn’t weakness. She repeats it to herself as she allows fresh tears to blur her vision. They spill over, streaking down her cheeks as she gasps in breath after breath until she ducks her head and washes her face. She has no reason to feel guilty, or uncomfortable with herself. She has no reason to feel nervous about what she and Angela did. And, though admitting it to herself is difficult, what she wants to do with Angela.

She has never felt desire like this before. The hot burn of want rekindles as she recalls the soft pressure of Angela’s mouth against her and she shivers slightly, feeling herself flush. Is it okay for her to love Angela, and to want her?

Yes, she decides, twisting the tap off and drying her face with a soft cloth hanging beside the sink. I’m a free woman. So is Angela. We chose this. Together.

Feeling light as a feather, even smiling, she exits the bathroom. Angela is still in bed, staring listlessly at the wall, half draped in white sheets, her whole body curled into itself as though to fight off a chill. Or pain, Fareeha realises, noting that even at her approach Angela does not stir.

Fareeha draws to a halt on her side of the bed, pausing only to draw back the covers. Angela’s eyes flicker over her, her expression carefully schooled into what Fareeha can only assume is neutrality.

“Are you feeling alright?” Angela asks softly as Fareeha settles in beside her.

“Yes, I just…” She hesitates for a fraction of a second, then decides that her revelations can be her own for now. Instead she smiles, reaching for the soft warmth of Angela’s body. Angela’s brow quirks in confusion, but she complies, allowing herself to be pulled into an embrace, making a soft noise in her throat when Fareeha presses a kiss to the top of her head.

“I’m glad this happened.” Fareeha finishes steadily. The intake of breath makes her draw away, catching the quickly hidden surprise writ across Angela’s face. Cupping Angela’s face in one hand, she allows herself to smile. “I’m sorry if I scared you. I really am glad this happened.”

Nuzzling palm of her hand, Angela rests long fingers over hers, interlacing them against her face and closing her eyes in relief.

“I am too.” She replies before she presses herself further into Fareeha’s embrace, wrapping her arms around her and burying her face into her chest. Fareeha sighs softly and returns Angela’s affections, cradling her as close as she can, allowing her eyes to flutter shut.

They spend the morning dozing. Rastaban joins them eventually, trumpeting in greeting as he finds his way into the nooks and crannies between their bodies, nuzzling their faces until they wake. Angela rewards him by cooing and kissing the top of his head, fluffing up the fur on his chest and neck until he has a satisfactory mane.

“So handsome!” Angela giggles, even as Rastaban complains loudly. He takes to patting her shoulder until she gives him head scratches, his tiny fangs glinting between his lips when he closes his eyes in apparent bliss. Fareeha watches on in amusement, eventually joining the petting, running her numb fingers down Rastaban’s spine to which she gets a playful chirp.

Eventually, he gets bored. With a final flick of his tail, he saunters away, finding his food dish and crunching into the remains of his dinner while Fareeha muffles a yawn into the back of her hand before stretching her arms above her head.

“You’re so beautiful.” Angela says suddenly, drawing Fareeha out of her haze. Angela is staring up at her, smiling innocently, her hair tangled around her shoulders, free from the usual confines of a hood or her leather tie. The sun dapples her skin, the ivy swaying idly in the wind, drawing patterns over the subtle curve of Angela’s body under the thin sheets.

Fareeha is about to deny the statement when Angela is rolling onto her side, a thin finger resting against Fareeha’s mouth.

“No, please,” Angela whispers, “I never got the chance to say it.”

Face feeling suspiciously warm, Fareeha dips her head only to find Angela is cupping her cheek, stroking her tattoo with her thumb. A glance at Angela’s expression of total and utter rapture has butterflies dancing around her stomach, the raw devotion in her gaze sending Fareeha’s heart to a rapid thunder against her ribs.

“When I first saw you without your helmet, when we were riding through Arga’s desert, I thought I was going to forget to breathe,” Angela says, still tenderly touching Fareeha’s face. Their eyes meet. Fareeha feels her lips part on a sigh as Angela continues. “You are so very beautiful, Fareeha. And handsome. And kind. And noble and brave. I am so very glad you chose to follow me, even after all this time.” Angela’s nimble fingers tuck some of Fareeha’s hair behind her ear. Face still feeling extremely warm, Fareeha murmurs a shy ‘thank you’, knowing that Angela’s words are true. Despite the oath, despite duty and honour, she could have left at any time.

“I have loved you from the moment I set eyes on you,” Angela says softly. She is blushing herself, now, but her gaze is steady, determined. “And I think I will love you for the rest of my life.”

Fareeha places her hand gently over Angela’s, pressing a tiny kiss to her palm and closing her eyes, savouring the cool flesh against her cheek. Angela makes a tiny sound in her throat - a soft, needy sound which spurs Fareeha forward, resting her forehead against Angela’s and breathing in a sigh.

“I love you, Angela,” Fareeha replies. “We are in this together.”

Later, when the sun has rolled across the sky and the late afternoon is painting the room a burnished orange, Fareeha finds herself pulling herself out of her post-love making slumber, tangled around Angela, pressing her nose into the crook of her shoulder, breathing in her scent. Lifting her head, she is pleased to see fresh food has been provided for both them and Rastaban while they were sleeping, and she relaxes back into the pillows, smiling to herself.

At last, at long last, she is at peace.

Thank the God, she thinks, kissing the back of Angela’s neck, aching with love. Thank the God for her.

Chapter Text

The jungle is hot and heavy around her. The evening, clothed in the pitch shroud of night, falls silently about her, throwing hard shadows between the fluttering leaves. Every breath is an effort. Sweat pours down her forehead, stinging her eyes, the spear creaking between her clenched fists as her gaze sweeps around the darkening glade.

Her boots shift against the forest floor. It is so hot: her leathers stick to the small of her back as the close, cloying air smothers her. Her heart thumps uncomfortably in her throat, the spun glass web of nerves fragile in her stomach. Anticipation thrums through her, the hairs on the nape of her neck prickling.

A twig snaps.

She whirls around, sending leaves rustling like a startled flock of birds, but her eyes can find no enemy in the shadowed brush behind her. Gritting her teeth, she realises she’s just given away her position, and parts her feet to stand low and defensive. The attack will come in any moment; Fareeha can feel it on the back of her neck.

Then—

Swift as the strike of lightning, the beast explodes out of the underbrush. She barely has time to yell before it is on her, eyes glowing fiercely in the half light, maw of a mouth guarded by sabre teeth spread wide in a snarl. The weight of the impact sends her firm stance staggering, her boots digging into the leafy floor below. The beast’s claws grip onto the thick leather of her shirt – a quick, dizzying glance downwards reveals their razor-sharp tips digging deep into boiled hide – and she can feel how easily it could be sliced to ribbons. Throwing up both her arms in front of her face to protect herself from its teeth, she grunts and winces as its massive jaws close around her olive-wood bracer, biting the guard protects the flesh below. But the animal’s weight overpowers her, its full standing height several heads taller than her own, and she is tossed onto the ground and pinned.

Breathing hard, Fareeha closes her eyes in defeat and turns her head away from its slavering, musky breath. Summoning the strength in her arms, she reaches up to its head, and gently pulls its furry ear.

“Enough.” The command comes harsh off her tongue, the ancient Argan word as stern as the crack of a whip.

Rastaban, fully grown and magnificent, starts to purr. Great, rasping, vibrating breaths rumble against her stomach as his bite turns to lapping lovingly at the wood guard, his long pink tongue protected by an arsenal of barbs.

The jungle environment shimmers and dies, revealing a plain dusty amphitheatre, and Angela and Lena both sat in the otherwise-empty seats, politely applauding. Rastaban slinks off her chest and swishes his bushy tail proudly, walking in a victorious circle. Wrinkling her nose against his stench – now quite overpowering – Fareeha rights herself, sitting up and dusting off her armour. Before long, he is rumbling loud inquisitive purrs, his real target located – lowering his head to nose around her belt loop. Fareeha scratches his broad nose, forfeiting the cuts of cured meat she has inside a pouch.

Laying down neatly on the sandy floor, holding the cutlet between his paws and rather delicately licking the salt off it as his tail twitches, Rastaban looks more his kittenish self. But the cat that used to curl himself around her neck is now the size of a pack-horse and lined with sleek muscle. His lamp-like eyes gleam fiercely out of a face framed by a large, shaggy mane, akin to a lion’s, his dappled yellow, black and orange fur fluffing with a light breeze. Two huge teeth, easily the size of small swords, hang from his upper jaw, sharp but surprisingly delicate. Fareeha smiles, sparing the sabres a glance to check the golden rings ornamenting them are still in place.

Advanced as Axis’s training grounds are, only battle will truly test if he can be a killer. To him now, it is all one long, exciting game.

She wishes she could feel the same. Somehow, the thought of him amidst the bloody wreckage of war sends a cold feeling zipping up and down her spine. Fear. Its taste is as familiar as the cool water she gulps from her belt waterskin.

Once she has drunk her fill, Angela stands up from the seating area, beaming and flush with pride. She approaches, lifting the yellow skirt of her summer dress, sandaled feet delicate on the smooth stone.

“He’s getting better,” Angela says happily, pausing to rest a hand atop his head. Rastaban chirrups at her, but does not let himself be distracted from his meal.

Fareeha smiles and nods, leaning on her spear and wiping her forehead. Angela approaches, taking hold of the arm Rastaban had bitten and inspecting the wood, her brow wrinkling in concern. Her quick fingers unbuckle the bracer, revealing several puncture wounds weeping blood through the cloth of Fareeha’s shirt.

“He has a strong bite.” Angela mutters, pushing up Fareeha’s sleeve. The demon-blood stained skin is numb to even the deep holes and Fareeha flexes her unfeeling fingers. Even without the presence of demons, the stain had not faded as Yeisa had promised, nor had she regained her sense of touch below her elbow. The only comfort is the knowledge that the numbness isn’t spreading to the rest of her body, affecting only her hands and forearms.

“I’ll need thicker wood on my arms,” Fareeha replies, letting Angela lead her to the stands where she fetches her staff. The healing light surrounds her arm and the wounds close, leaving only glistening blood to dry in their wake. “Perhaps I can ask Yeisa to provide some of her enchanted armour.”

“I doubt she would refuse you.” Angela leans up and presses a sweet kiss against Fareeha’s cheek before hiking her dress up about her hips, tying it around her waist and revealing the tight riding trousers concealed below. At once, Rastaban is on his feet, following as Angela strides away. Fareeha takes her seat gratefully, wiping the back of her neck free of sweat. Lena hops down to sit beside her, her permanently windswept hair bouncing as her black mage eyes follow Angela.

“I hope he doesn’t roll on her this time.” Lena mutters. They both watch with some amusement as Angela secures a small, traditional Zorrian saddle to Rastaban’s back, crouching under his belly to do up the buckles while his tail flicks. Sipping from her water, Fareeha reflects that she is quite glad that she isn’t doing riding training today. While Rastaban generally listens to the commands given him, he can sometimes be a little wilful.

“He thinks he is still a kitten,” Fareeha replies. A very big, heavy kitten with teeth the size of daggers and claws as sharp as Raptora.

Angela has finished checking the saddle’s chest straps and is in the process of trying to get Rastaban to lie down. First, he sits, purring loudly enough for even Fareeha to hear.

Down,” Angela says again in ancient Argan. Rastaban’s ear flicks. She repeats the command, her voice steady and firm and he finally follows it, settling in the sand on his stomach.

It has been six months since the Festival of Light. Their quest to find out what is causing the Gates to open has proven fruitless and gradually, as the weeks and weeks of pouring over books yielded nothing, they had decided to focus their efforts on other things: training Rastaban, learning what they can about Axis Mundi and trying out the fresh glory of their burgeoning relationship. Fareeha is far from used to the workless existence she now leads – her life in the temple had been filled with duty, from dawn until dusk. If there was no job or other, she would help clean, or cook, or train younger companions. But now, existing in the comparatively barren wasteland of time, she finds herself pondering how long she and Angela will remain in Axis. Half a year has passed so quickly she has barely had time to acknowledge it.

It has nearly been a whole year since she left Arga. She has found herself forgetting her desert home: the heat of the sun, the warmth of the wind. Even the pictures of her companion’s faces grow duller and duller in her mind with each passing day. Once, in the quiet of the night, she relayed her fears to Angela, pondering if she would one day forget her temple brothers and sisters entirely. Had Leif’s eyes been blue? Or had they been green? Had Tariq learnt to do up his cloak properly? Are they still alive?

Resolved to remembering them all, Fareeha trains every morning – running through the exercise drills her mother, and then Yaser, had taught her. She would say their names with every slash of her training sword, all seventeen of them: Leif, Yaser, Saleh, Nazir, Tariq, Hania, Akilah, Radah, Noorh, Iman, Honsi, Khadija, Mubarak, Musharraf, Omar, Sahmi and Zara. Each member of her Chapter had fought and bled beside her. Each member of her Chapter had become more of a family to her than her mother ever was. In quiet moments, she even wonders if Hassan and the other trainees have become full members of the Order yet. If they have taken their animal sigil and forged their swords, as she did so long ago.

“You know, I reckon Rastaban’s gonna be a fairly decent mount, once he starts listening to directions.” Lena says, leaning over her long legs and stretching out her shoulders. Fareeha watches with a trace of amusement as Rastaban ignores Angela entirely, deciding he wants to roll around while Angela tries with some difficulty to clamber into the saddle.

“Once we get him used to being ridden we can move onto climbing lessons.” Fareeha agrees.

Finally, Angela turns towards them both, expression one of exasperation. “Fareeha! Do something!” 

Ignoring Lena’s sniggering, Fareeha gets to her feet and strides towards them. The sand gives under her boots, crunching satisfactorily while Rastaban continues to wriggle about. He purrs loudly, opening his massive jaws to pant as Fareeha comes to a halt beside Angela.

“He seems to have an ounce of respect for you,” Angela sighs. At that moment, Rastaban’s enormous paw catches onto Fareeha’s ankle, tugging at her in an attempt to force her to her knees.

“I wouldn’t say ‘respect’.” Fareeha replies, leaning down and pushing Rastaban’s paw away. He chirrups at her, stretching out his enormous body. The sand pools about him, gathering in his fur, so she leans down to give him a hearty pat on the chest, at which he purrs impossibly louder.

“Come now, Rastaban, listen to Angela,” she says in a mock-serious tone. Rastaban ignores her completely, until she sinks both hands into his mane and jostles him about. At this he rumbles a growl, tail flicking this way and that until she stops and straightens.

Ra’s ath-thu’ban.” The words are quick on her tongue. Rastaban’s ears prick at once and he stills immediately. “Roll over.”

He does as he is told, staring up at her with his lamp-like eyes, unblinking and silent. Angela snorts and shakes her head, before she heaves herself into the saddle, securing her legs to his sides with several buckled straps. Finally mounted, Rastaban pulls himself to his feet, standing at his fullest height as Angela takes a hold of the saddle horn and nods down at Fareeha.

“Thank you, sváss.” Angela sighs with relief. “Would you like to join me?”

Rastaban nuzzles the side of Fareeha’s face, his hot breath washing over her like an unpleasant bath. Feeling a little nervous – having never ridden Rastaban with two riders before – Fareeha agrees, and with the nibble minded grace of an experienced rider, she swings herself up behind Angela. The Zorrian saddle, made for speed rather than comfort, is almost entirely flat. With only a small cantle to prevent sliding backwards, and strong leather straps to secure the rider during climbing, the saddle is not made for two riders. Nevertheless, Fareeha secures herself as close as she can to Angela’s back, and holds onto the saddle horn, being sure to press a sneaky kiss to the nape of Angela’s neck. Angela lets out a breathless laugh, before squeezing Rastaban’s sides.

Rastaban heaves an enormous sigh, before he walks forward steadily, padding around the training arena and bearing the pair of them with ease. He moves with the agile grace afforded him by his kind – every move is calculated, every paw placed with caution and care. Gradually, they work Rastaban into an easy lope, and then a full gallop, running rings around the arena. Laughing, Lena joins them, her harness bursting with blue light as she races alongside them, her black eyes burning brightly with the force of her magic. Using her legs, Angela directs Rastaban left and right, leading him using the rein-less practices Barren Knights use, holding onto the saddle horn. Fareeha decides to let Angela take the lead, not wanting to confuse the situation any more than she is already.

Up!” Angela orders. At once, Rastaban is clambering up the amphitheatre seats, leaping from one stone step to the other, purring loudly as he goes. Fareeha holds onto Angela tightly, watching with a sense of swelling pride as Rastaban climbs higher and higher, steady and strong as any other Zorrian cat. Lena keeps pace beside them, then darts ahead – becoming a stream of blue light flowing before them like water until she appears at the top of the steps, leaning idly against a column and grinning.

“I think he’s ready.” Lena says as they come to a halt beside them. Rastaban, panting hard, rumbles and presses his head against Lena’s stomach. She pats him, thumbing his ears and burying her fingers into his mane.

“I think you’re right,” Angela replies, a little out of breath herself. She straightens in the saddle and Fareeha feels her eyebrow rising in question.

“Ready for what?”

“His battle armour.” Angela clicks her tongue, and Rastaban turns, following her directions for once as he slopes back down into the arena, flowing easily downwards. Fareeha and Angela both lean back as counter balances, steadying each other in the descent. Feeling bemused, but excited, Fareeha stays upon Rastaban’s back as Angela directs him across the amphitheatre and towards the entrance. They pass under the mighty stone and into the cool dark of a long, straight tunnel. Fareeha has to duck her head slightly, blinking in the gloom until fires ignite themselves at their passing.

Axis, the city of magic, is full of small wonders such as this.

“Yeisa delivered it this morning,” Fareeha hums, referring to Rastaban’s armour.

“A full set of traditional bark, including those secret modifications you specified?” Angela replies, “I daren’t ask how much it cost.”

Fareeha smirks to herself, feeling suddenly smug. Secret modifications indeed, she thinks to herself, casually adjusting her shirt sleeve as they emerge into the dazzling daylight.

They stand before the entrance to the Library, in the enormous yard they had first seen six months ago. The complete map of the East is as clear and clean as ever – which is surprising, considering as they walk towards the stables, an enormous gaggle of magi students cluster in from the city, their bird mounts fluffing their feathers everywhere as they shout and talk in a language Fareeha doesn’t understand. One by one the students and their birds disappear with flares of their magic, leaving them to the quiet hush of solitude.

Fareeha draws Rastaban to a halt, sliding off his back before offering Angela a hand down. She takes it, thanking her as she lands lightly on her feet with a quick kiss. Fareeha pulls her back, smiling against Angela’s mouth, pleased to hear a quiet intake of breath as she deepens the kiss.

“Blimey. Break it up, loves! I wanna see this armour!”

They draw apart. Fareeha feels the scalding flush of embarrassment scorch her face and Angela laughs, turning to look at Lena leaning against the wall nearby, grinning cheekily. Clearing her throat, not quite able to meet Lena’s smirk, Fareeha mutters something she barely registers, and turns on her heel, marching into the stables.

Rastaban’s armour is exactly where she left it. Sleek, built for both speed and strength, the wood is heavily enchanted to keep Rastaban safe from nearly all forms of attack. Humming, pleased to see it is still in good condition, she starts to gather the pieces up. They are incredibly light: so light, she can carry the entire set with ease, recalling Yeisa telling her not to be fooled by its weight.

It is light so he can fly through the trees, Knight. Yeisa had said that morning. And remember, this armour is living armour. It will grow with him. You will only need one set for his entire life. It will repair itself when broken, heal him when he is wounded. Our steeds wear only the best. None of that hardlight nonsense Kin keeps going on about.

Smiling fondly, pleased that the Marguey Captain had stayed in Axis, Fareeha steps back out into the open, watching as Angela removes Rastaban’s saddle and sets it aside carefully.

“You’re not allowed to see this.” Fareeha says sternly when Angela turns around. “Go make yourself useful elsewhere. I’ll call you when I’m done.”

“Excuse me-” Angela begins, but Lena shoos her away.

“Off you trot,” Lena says. “Go keep Silas and Meissa company or something.”

Looking both amused and suspicious, Angela does as bid. Fareeha watches her leave, distracted for a moment by the way her riding leathers accentuate her legs. Even as she stares, Angela glances back at her, grinning slyly and offering her a tiny wave. Fareeha returns it, grinning back and nearly dropping the wooden plating in her arms.

“You two are like dogs in heat.” Lena says pointedly, poking Fareeha’s side with one narrow finger. “C’mon, let’s get cracking!”

Blinking, feeling a little dazed, Fareeha clears her throat and gets to work. Rastaban remains extremely still as they start the long process of putting on his armour. Gradually, piece by piece, the assembly comes together, attaching neatly and flowing smoothly over his body. As Fareeha carefully buckles the bark into place, she notices it shifting and changing under her hands, sizing itself to fit Rastaban’s body perfectly. Living armour? She thinks, sharing a look of surprised awe with Lena. Rastaban purrs loudly, especially when she finally places his helmet over his head.

“There you go.” She murmurs, doing up the last buckle. She runs her deadened hand over the wood, her fingers catching in the intricate patterns carved into the helm’s forehead. Rastaban dips down and nuzzles her stomach, his helmet plume shifting with his every move. She gives him a final scratch under the chin, before stepping back, giving Rastaban a last look over.

“You want me to get Angela?” Lena asks excitedly. Fareeha nods once, wiping her thumb over her bottom lip, examining Rastaban’s leg guards critically. Each piece is made individually, one over the other, allowing for both movement and protection – something that is usually missing from Zorrian armour, but Fareeha had insisted on leg guards. She didn’t want his legs being cut from under him on the battlefield.

Fareeha makes a gesture with her hand. Rastaban lifts his right paw obediently, and she feels satisfied to see the armour moving smoothly with him. She copies the movement with her other hand and Rastaban follows the order, raising his left leg high before dropping it back to the ground when asked. Pleased, and feeling more confident, she waits patiently for Angela to appear.     

“I blindfolded her,” Lena announces suddenly, making Fareeha jump. She turns around to see the pair of them walking towards her – Lena’s hands carefully covering Angela’s eyes.

“You didn’t have to.” Fareeha replies, brow furrowing. Lena really did make everything a spectacle. Even so, Angela’s face is shining with excitement, her hands clasped on her chest and her lips spread into an enormous grin. Despite herself, Fareeha feels herself smiling too, stomach squeezing in joy. She had worked very closely with Yeisa, designing and commissioning the armour herself, modelling it after traditional Argan barding. The outcome is something she is proud of – and rightly so, she thinks, grinning as Lena pushes Angela into position.

“Ready, love?” Lena asks.

“Ready.” Fareeha replies.

Lena removes her hands and Angela looks confused for a moment, blinking into the late afternoon sun, before her expression evens out into one of awe. Rastaban’s barding is traditional to a point: the thickest armour, plated smoothly to allow for easy movement, protects his neck, chest and back. His saddle rests comfortably amidst the armour, complete with securing straps for his rider and a small supporting hook for either staff or standard.

However, Fareeha notes with some glee, it isn’t the thickness of the armour or the practicality of the saddle Angela seems to be gawping at. Inlaid into each plate, engraved with care and attention to detail afforded to Fareeha from years of experience, is a complete history of her and Angela’s travels together. Here and there are moments of their travels: on his right shoulder stands proudly the Battle of New Tree, complete with bustling branches, which go on to form images of their ride through Senak. The tournament is displayed on Rastaban’s flank, including Fareeha’s death, which is represented by the unmistakeable image of Angela; her wings flaring out and her staff raised on high, calling down a brilliant flood of light.

“Did… did you do this?” Angela asks, amazed, taking a step forward to trace trembling fingers along the knots and twists of threads, which tie each mural together.

“I did, yes.” Fareeha shuffles her feet. “Lena helped me a lot.”

“That’s not true.” Lena snorts. “Fareeha did this all herself. I just sat on the sidelines and nattered on about rubbish. Oh. And bought water. And distracted you, Angela.”

Angela trots to Fareeha’s side, leaning up to place a sweet kiss against her cheek. “It’s beautiful. Just… beautiful.”

Smiling, feeling the heat hitting her face, Fareeha gathers Angela to her side with one arm, watching Rastaban carefully. Their sigils are emblazoned together on his helm, right on his forehead – proud and obvious, marking him theirs.

“That’s not all.” Fareeha says. And, with some trepidation, Fareeha addresses Rastaban. “Rastaban, speak!”

Rastaban shakes himself, before thrusting out his chest and letting out an ear-splitting roar. At once, the engravings in his armour burst to life, light of all different colours racing down each thread, illuminating each carving. Angela gives a little start of fight as the light intensifies, giving Rastaban an almost ethereal glow, making him look both larger and fiercer.

“It’s so we can find him easily on the battlefield,” Fareeha says quickly. She feels both proud, and a little foolish, hoping against hope that Angela likes it. “We don’t have to keep it, if you don’t want it.”

Angela looks up at her, eyes wide with amazement. “Fareeha Amari. You are truly a wonder of this earth. Of course we’re keeping it.”

This earns her a kiss, which she returns with some relief, pleased that her hard work didn’t go to waste. Rastaban takes to shifting his shoulders, showing off the brilliant glow of his armour until they break apart, much to Lena’s stifled giggles.

“I love you,” Angela says, cupping her face and pressing their noses together.

“I love you too.” Heart swelling, Fareeha closes her eyes and breathes in Angela’s scent, letting the tips of their noses rub together fondly. That is, until Lena makes what sounds suspiciously like a gagging sound somewhere beyond them.

They draw apart. Fareeha blinks stupidly for a moment before clearing her throat. Rastaban has taken to trotting neatly around the courtyard, moving easily under his barding while Lena follows him closely with her eyes.

“If you lot are finished being…” Lena waves carelessly at them both, “whatever you are, I’m gettin’ hungry so should we pack this up?”

Abashed, Fareeha and Angela both agree, and together all three of them help Rastaban out of his armour, laying the glowing plates carefully aside. Gradually, the light fades from them, until they become plain and rather unremarkable. Satisfied, purring, Rastaban gives them all parting kisses in the form of giant licks along the sides of their faces with a rough, rasping tongue, before he trots away towards the stables. Angela follows him, bearing his armour and leaving Lena and Fareeha to the falling dusk.

“Not bad, love.” Lena says, knocking Fareeha’s arm with her elbow. Fareeha nods and crosses her arms over her chest, heaving a sigh.

“Not bad at all.” She replies.

Lena giggles, then darts forward in a burst of blue light, appearing beside the Library doors.

“See ya later, love!” She calls, giving a two-fingered salute and a wink. “I’m off to dinner with a special mate of mine.”

Fareeha offers Lena a single hand in farewell. Then, the mage is gone.

“I wonder who she keeps seeing.” Angela’s voice makes Fareeha jump slightly and they smile at each other before walking hand in hand towards the Library doors. Their boots dust over Arga and then the blue tiles of the ocean before Angela leads her up the stairs, all courtly manner and flashing grin – her yellow dress is still tied roughly about her waist.

“Someone good for her, I hope.” Fareeha replies as her brow knits, concern stealing over her heart. “I wouldn’t want to see her hurt.”

Angela laughs gently, squeezing Fareeha’s hand and throwing her a tender look.

“What?” Fareeha quirks an eyebrow.

“Nothing. I just love you.”

Feeling slightly befuddled, Fareeha waits while Angela opens the door, leading the way into the cool hallway beyond. In the evening, it is not so busy with scribes, as it usually is, but even now Fareeha can see students of the Library huddled in corners, talking in low voices and shuffling parchments. As guests of the Library, she and Angela are not allowed to disturb the magi – and in return the magi do not bother them as they walk slowly through the alley of pillars.

Ahead of them stands the elevator – which she and Angela are both used to after much use of it – and beyond is the main bulk of the Library. Zizzak had warned them not to enter the Library without a guide and they had both heeded him. It is akin to a maze, he had said one day when they had asked if they could see the rest of the building. Indeed, they had tried to explore it and gotten hopelessly lost, until Satya had come across them and offered them a portal back to their rooms.

Fareeha knows from memory the yawning vastness of the Library. It is an infinite space, full of shelves upon shelves of books and parchments, scriptures and artefacts, soaring several floors upwards, providing the largest wealth of knowledge known to the world in both the West and the East. The collection, according to Satya, is beyond priceless, and even now the magi work to produce copy after copy of original works, and ancient ones, so that the knowledge contained there can never be lost.

It is a noble effort, Fareeha thinks as she and Angela enter the lift. But a daunting one. I should not like to spend my life copying books. Rather, perhaps writing them.

The lift rises as it usually does: with great speed, and they bask in the sight of Axis in the evening as they zip upwards. It sparkles and glows, birds flying to roost over the glimmering rooftops, calling to each other as they go to rest. Here and there fires are lit to light the streets, the tiny specks of people going about their nightly business growing fewer and fewer. In the distance, almost too small to see, are the docks. The soaring sails of boats flit and flicker in the breeze, until they are hidden as the lift comes to a halt.

In comfortable silence, they walk to their room, each preoccupied with the day. Fareeha is considering Rastaban’s armour, and wondering if there is some way she can make it better. If he struggles with it tomorrow when running, we can make adjustments. I will have to make sure it is silent enough for him.

Fareeha opens their door and sighs happily to be what can only be thought of as home. Angela hums to herself, opening the balcony doors while Fareeha fetches herself a drink. The water is cool against her tongue and, finally quenching her thirst, she joins Angela on the balcony. Taking her place at her back and wrapping her arms around Angela’s waist, she sighs happily. Angela hums softly, resting back against her as they gaze out over the city, which buzzes with the evening. The prayer calls ring across the city, calling the people to their temples, forming a cacophony of song. It reminds Fareeha fondly of her own temple home.

“Do you fancy taking a ride after dinner? Head down to the sea?” Angela asks, interlacing their fingers together.

“I think that would be lovely.” Fareeha replies, smiling before she leans down and presses a kiss to the top of Angela’s head, breathing in her familiar scent peaceably.

Boom.

The entire Library shudders. The city falls into eerie silence as though cut off and Fareeha feels something akin to fear spark low in her belly. Brow furrowing, she leans over Angela’s shoulder, staring down into the streets, seeing the tiny pinpricks of people wandering out onto the street.

Boom.

“Angela, get your staff.” Fareeha turns on her heel, marching into their room as the Library shakes again, grasping Raptora and belting it around her waist. Angela does as she’s asked, pulling her white cloak about her shoulders and fiddling with the clasp. Fareeha flexes her deadened fingers, surprised to feel a faint tingle at the tips – she takes a moment to examine them, wondering if she’s imagining the sensation.

Boom!

The sound is louder this time, and the Library quakes so hard she hears a pot shatter in the bathroom. Angela’s face is shining with fear, echoing the uneasy squeeze of her own stomach and she strides towards her, catching Angela’s hand in hers and giving it a comforting squeeze.

“We should go and see Satya.” Fareeha says. Angela nods, then she swallows and all traces of worry disappear from her face. Mastering herself, Fareeha turns to the door, opening it with a quick jerk of her arm. Angela leaves first, her cloak billowing out behind her as she steps out into the corridor beyond and Fareeha is about to follow before something gives her pause.

“Wait.”

She turns back into the room, catching sight of her mother’s bow displayed on the wall, protected by a hardlight case. She reaches through the light, grasping hold of it and slinging it about her shoulders. Even though she has no arrows, she does not want to lose the weapon – better to keep it on her, just to be safe.

Satisfied, she heads out after Angela and, together, they stride towards the coiling staircase at the end of the hall, taking the steps two at a time. They do not stop, even as the Library quakes again, sending them crashing into one wall. Rubbing her shoulder, Angela continues upwards hurriedly, ignoring the doors on one side and climbing ever higher to Satya’s quarters. Fareeha follows as quickly as she can, one hand coiled around Raptora’s hilt, the other skating across the stone wall beside her, silently cursing the number of stairs.

“It’s probably just the mages doing another experiment,” Angela pants as they finally reach the final step. “Like when they flooded the bottom floor.”

Fareeha hums an agreement, rapping on Satya’s door urgently, trying to catch her breath. There is no reply and the Library gives another violent shake, a deep, yawning rumble thundering up towards them from somewhere far below.

“Satya?!” Angela calls, unable to keep the edge of panic out of her voice. Fareeha fixes her eyes down the staircase, half expecting to see someone – or something – charging up towards them. She readies Raptora, her arm tensing in preparation to draw the scimitar, feeling the first beads of sweat break out over her brow.

I should have put on my armour. She thinks to herself, the wounding sensation of loss forming a pit in her chest.

The door opens suddenly behind them. Looking over her shoulder she sees a perfectly calm Satya standing there, her clothes as impeccable as always, hair pulled into a neat bun at the back of her head. But rather than dismissing them with a careless wave of her hand, she steps aside and ushers them in.

“I’m glad you’re both here.” She says as she shuts the door, gesturing them both up a small set of stairs into the main room. Like everything of Satya’s it is painfully tidy: plain, but clearly lived in, it takes Fareeha a moment to realise that she is standing in Satya’s bedroom. Nearby, a huge hardlight map of the East flickers and glows, the bright points marking every capital city from Arga’s Noorh to Axis Mundi.

“I’ve been keeping a close eye on the East ever since you arrived,” Satya says as she strides to the map. Fareeha follows after her, taking note of a tiny seven-pointed star set just on Arga’s border with Shala’Zor. “After you mentioned demons in Ashrah, I thought it prudent to revive the old warning systems, just in case.”

Satya gestures at the map lazily with one thin hand, the other tapping away at a hardlight panel with almost practiced intensity. Fareeha waits patiently, even as the Library gives another alarming rumble. Angela takes her place beside her, brushing her shoulder against hers for a moment, her staff making a solidly comforting sound against the marble floor. Fareeha tightens her grip around Raptora, her fingers starting to tingle in a vague sort of way.

“I found something interesting.” Satya continues as though she hadn’t fallen silent. “The system itself is thousands of years old – no doubt put in place by the magi who originally closed the Gates. Activating it again took quite a lot of effort, even for me.” Her magic flares to life with a careless flourish of her finger, and the map is illuminated with flickering lights. “What I found is that most – if not all – of the capital cities have been built on or near demon gates. With the exception of Noorh. It seems as though you Argans were more intelligent about the whole thing than everyone else.”

Feeling an odd sense of relief, and pride, Fareeha continues to eye the seven-pointed star, which is now highlighted by a flashing light. It, and several others in Arga’s landmass, flicker red for a moment, before returning to a bright blue.

“Each of these lights mark a demon gate.” Satya says finally. “As you can see, they are found almost everywhere in the East – some are bigger than others.” She inhales slowly, then sighs and bows her head. “They’re opening again.”

“What?” Fareeha yelps, tearing her eyes away from the star to ogle Satya.

Deep black eyes rise to meet hers, reflecting the glow of the hardlight map. “The Gates. They’re opening. All of them.”

The Library gives another violent shudder, harder than before, making Fareeha’s already sinking stomach plummet as she almost loses her balance. At once, the lights on the map burn an angry red, throbbing and thumping like ten thousand angry hearts. But her eyes aren’t on the enormous light sat in the middle of Axis Mundi. Her eyes aren’t even on the light sitting in Shala’Zor, where she and Angela closed the Gate. They are on the seven-pointed star – the seven-pointed star she now comes to understand represents her temple.

A horrible, unearthly sound grows in her throat, but it is lost under an ear-splitting crash and Satya whips around, her eyes fixed on the closed door to her rooms – the closed door which is thudding against its jam as though straining to stay shut.

“Fareeha!” Angela’s voice is shill with fear, but Fareeha barely has time to acknowledge the loss of her temple – her friends, her home, her family – before blinding pain suddenly bursts through her hands. Her knees collapse under her, and she stares at her blackened fingers, choking as they come to life, burning and feeling, the skin cracking open and blood oozing out to drip onto the floor.

The door explodes open so forcefully it rattles off its hinges and flies a good several feet away. An enormous demon squeezes its way through, all hulking shoulders and jagged teeth, a huge pair of antlers rising high above its head – Fareeha fights her way to her feet, fear and confusion swamping her mind until she drags in a ragged breath and draws Raptora.

Mind as keen as the edge of her blade, she steps forward. At her sides, Angela readies her staff and Satya’s blue magic flares to life, forming a row of razor sharp claws over her knuckles. The map squeals frantically behind them, the demon shrugging its massive body and glaring at them through a pair of angry, bloody eyes. Familiar eyes. The burning, soulless fires of hell that Fareeha knows so well.

Silence envelops them for a moment, stretching time and space until meaning is obsolete and Fareeha realises that death is all that awaits her.

For Arga!” She roars and she charges forward, trying not to think of Leif. Trying not to think of Hassan or Yaser or all the rest of her companions as she races to meet the demon head on.

It gives a bellow of triumph, and meets her half way, one enormous paw – bigger than her entire body – swiping at her. How it managed to get through the door, Fareeha has no idea, but she dodges at the last possible moment, twisting to slash at its forearm. Raptora draws black blood, splattering the foul ichor onto the ground. The demon screams and turns its body with surprising speed, aiming to catch her with its antlers – but Satya is there, her claws glowing brilliantly, carving a path through its face.

Fareeha darts backwards, then circles, breaths coming high and hard in her throat. Angela is beside her, and together they plunge into the fray. Angela twists and twirls her staff, murmuring in her strange language as Fareeha slashes at anything she can reach – together, all three of them back it into a corner, avoiding its antlers and paws with breathless difficulty.

“Stab its heart!” Satya calls, leaping gracefully over a paw, her face taut with concentration. Fareeha summons her courage, looking for an opening, bouncing this way and that as the demon continues to struggle.

The Library gives another earth-shattering shake and Fareeha turns her head for the briefest of moments, horror filling her head as another demon comes bursting through the door, more filling up the space behind it, snapping and clawing to get through. Her voice catches in her throat – a shout of warning, or of fear – but she can never voice it. The first demon catches Satya and tosses her easily against the wall, bellowing in triumph when she falls limp. Angela makes a hurried retreat, even as she shouts Satya’s name and the demon lurches forward, slobbering and snarling, eyes bursting with the fevered excitement of victory.

Fareeha tries to leap out of the way, but instead she receives an eyeful of an enormous paw, swiping at her from the left. Fear kicks at her heart, and she ducks just in time, the claw sailing over her head, making her hair ruffle in the downdraft.

“Hah!” She laughs. It’s a hard, desperate sound, cracking out of her throat, more an exhalation than anything else.

The demon’s other paw catches her by surprise. It knocks the wind out of her, sending her flying across the room. Her back hits the window and, with the sick crunch of shattering glass, it breaks beneath her.

Fareeha!” Angela’s scream echoes around her mind, and she realises with single-minded terror that she is falling.

Chapter Text

She is falling.

The stars, bright and brilliant as the dawn, are rushing towards her. Pinpricks in the black sea surrounding her, smothering her, drowning her until her chest feels too tight and she wants nothing more than to suck in a breath. Not stars, she realises in the hazed delirium of panic. Fires. A thousand fires – the ruins of Axis Mundi.

I’m going to die.

The thought comes easily to her and she accepts it calmly – she has only a few more seconds before she hits the ground, snuffed out, ended, as her Chapter and fellows in Arga. The best she can do is thank the God for all They have provided; Angela, Rastaban, Lena… the path she has walked. Her fate, one of danger and death, is sealed, and there is naught she can do to stop it.

Somehow, the thought of meeting Leif and the others in the Dark Beyond does not frighten her. It’ll be like coming home. She will ride the stars. At least she is to die with her sword.

Raptora is cold in her hands. The blade shines with black blood, her blackened fingers cracking and bleeding into the night, her mother’s bow tight around her chest, the string digging into her flesh through her shirt. The ground draws dizzyingly close, the wind screaming past her, tugging at her clothes and lashing at her hair and face – either in derision or desperation she cannot tell. The world tilts sickeningly, twisting so one moment she is gazing into the abyss of a smoke-choked sky, the next a demon infested city until all she can focus on are the words on her sword. The words of her family – a prayer, or a promise.

The words come to her lips, but not in the smooth lyricality of her mother tongue, but the rough, course husk of Ancient Argan.

“The stars our destination.”

At once, Raptora bursts into flame. She gives a cry of shock – a shrill scream which is stolen by the laughing wind – and tries to let go of the hilt. But her fingers refuse to move, locked in place with magic or fear she cannot tell. The sword begins to vibrate, thundering and burning brilliantly with orange and blue flames: they lick at her fingers and arm and she realises the flames are not hurting her. Indeed, they heal her wounds, sealing the cracks in her skin, snapping at her shirt and expanding, filling the air around her.

A voice not her own surges across the fabric of her mind: at once ancient and young, timeless but somehow innocent.

Amari.’

The flames take form.

Her stomach gives a terrible lurch as suddenly she is torn upwards, borne on the wind by the enormous flaming beast which carries her. Great wings span on either side of her, ethereal blue, catching gold at their tips, the fire under her carrying her with ease, a great beak opening in the fierce cry of her family’s emblem.

The falcon of flame rises high, high into the air, its wings hauling them both into the sky with powerful strokes. Fareeha gulps in air, her heart thrashing in shock and fear, shaking and swallowing sick as she clutches onto feathers made of naught but fire. She half wonders, wildly, if she is dead, and this spirit of her family’s past is bearing her to the Dark, or if perhaps she is dreaming. But the destruction below is too awful to be a figment of her imagination: horrors of half spun nightmares are playing out under her and her companion, demons of every creed swarming like a black flood over the crystal buildings, the Library a monolith to Axis’ destruction.

The voice murmurs in the space between her ears again, seeping into the very fabric of her being. It is deep and dark and familiar, but also crystalline and high, as though shining from the stars themselves: a thousand voices. The voices of my ancestors.

'Amari. Fight.’

Fight? She thinks wildly. Fight?! With what?

A trace of amusement, and then images press into her like a great wave of colour and meaning, sweeping her breath away. A woman sits astride a flaming bird, dark amber eyes hard in the dawn, her cheek marked by the eye of the Amari, a great bow pulling back, guarded by an arrow of gold, three red feathers hanging from the bow’s lower limb.

Fareeha knows that bow. It is coiled around her body, tight to her back. She draws it clumsily, flushing in embarrassment when it gets stuck over her head and she has to flail to get it loose. It rests idly in her hands, the wood warm and smooth against her fingers. Warm, she flexes her hands, a sickening swell of relief filling her at the realisation that she can feel again. Laughing, barely considering the possibility that she might be going mad, she tests the bow’s string, heartened to find it tight and ready.

“I have no–” But before she can finish her sentence the falcon’s back ripples, and arrows made of fire form all around her, their fletchings flickering in the breeze. Swelling with determination, her courage filling her like hot water, Fareeha feels an arrow, hardly surprised when it solidifies in her hand.

She looks below her, astonished to see she and the falcon have flown out over the docks and over the sighing sea. Turning her head, she sees what Axis has become clearly for the first time: a ruined mass, demons seething through the streets – a cataclysm of fear. Flashes of magic burst across the city, people fleeing the exodus of slaughter, the desert outside the crystal walls churned by the masses of horses, wagons, women and children and men. At the centre of it all, burning like some ungodly cenotaph, is the Library.

With a heart pounding rush of focus, Fareeha leans down over the falcon’s neck, one hand grasping gold singed feathers, her ankle digging into the inferno of its flank, glad when her feet meet solid muscle rather than fading through intangible flame. The falcon banks to the left, following her instruction, the horizon tilting as it arches beautifully into the sunset. The wind pauses its assault for the briefest of moments, allowing her a bare second of silence – only the calming tattoo of her heart and the sigh of breath accompany her as the falcon levels out, and then falls into a steady dive.

Her stomach soars, a roar building in her throat and out of her mouth as the wind returns with a vengeance, whipping her hair back off her face, tugging at her clothes like a many fingered child. This is different from falling, she thinks, narrowing her eyes against the cold air pushing against her so she can see the ruins below. This is freer than galloping. This is what Gods must feel like.

The falcon pulls out of the dive with a harsh unfurling of its wings, jerking her from her place for a singular terrifying moment. She regains her seat however, adjusting her legs to grip around the falcon’s body, hunching her shoulders and positioning her mother’s bow underneath her.

Together, she and the falcon rush over the demon hordes below. She catches snatches of battle: the screams and roars of beasts and people, the savage slaughter which floods out across the myriad of streets. The crystal buildings have grown dark, no longer lit from within, the stench of blood reaching her even at this height.

The city is lost, she realises as they pass over the burning wreck of the markets. She slides her gaze over a burning horse, not wanting to hear its screams. The smoke burns her eyes and throat, forcing her to squint until they have passed through the belching black stain in the sky.

Even so removed from the fight, Fareeha feels herself drawing one of the many arrows before her, spotting two women running down a narrow street, chased by a cacophony of demons – snapping jaws and biting claws skittering over each other like a tide of horror. As though sensing her thoughts, the falcon’s wings flare, slowing them to a near halt as she notches the first of her arrows and takes aim for the sky.

The familiar pinch of the string against her fingers brings a grin to her lips, heartened to truly feel the creak of the weapon in her hands.

The bow snaps, the arrow launching into the sky, her lips form the words before she can think about it as the arching flame flies away from them.

“Justice rains from above!”

The arrow shatters into a thousand pieces, bursting to life, filling the sky with a flock of flames which burn so brightly, Fareeha has to close her eyes. Even behind her eyelids she can see the sunspots as flaming arrows streak across the darkness of the demon horde, sizzling and searing their flesh. Fareeha opens her eyes again, blinking in astonishment as the hot wind from her volley buffets her falcon upwards like a thermal. The arrows fly as straight and sure as beams of light, but they seem to bend their path like the breeze, skimming past civilians to scorch through the demons instead. Fareeha gives a breathless laugh.

The women escape around a narrow corner, and she and the falcon fly on, passing the tangled mess of war.

The library looms before them. Fareeha watches, slightly sickened, as demons pour from the sagging doors – an indefatigable mass of writhing limbs, snarling and crowing and screaming as they gallop across the mosaic map she had admired so many times. Swallowing a curse, she thinks she spies a body, averting her eyes in an attempt to prevent herself from recognising the violently bright red of his robes. It’s too late, however. Zizzak’s headless cadaver is only a fraction of the horror below.

A brilliant flash of blue light draws her attention, and a hair-raising shout makes her look down. She squints down into the fray, catching sight of a set of familiar faces, all huddled on what remains of the stable roof. The rest has caved inwards, forming a huddled shack – an island of desperation amongst the rapids.

“Fareeha!” Lena calls again, waving her hand frantically. “Down here!”

With a rush of warm air the falcon drops, hovering for a moment before landing with a clatter, fending off several demons with a fierce hiss. The demons scurry away, joining the rest of the flood and leaving the stables relatively empty. Fareeha gazes upwards, scanning the faces, heart soaring when she sees Angela, supporting Satya, bloody but alive, leaning heavily on her staff. Her face shines with tears as she stares down, mouth parting in a soundless murmur of Fareeha’s name, relief and disbelief colouring her pale features. 

“We need to get out of here!” Fareeha shouts back over the din of battle. 

“What about Rastaban?” Angela replies, her voice thin with panic. “He’s trapped below us!”

Fareeha stares into the ruined gloom, gazing into the wide black eyes of Silas. The warhorse gives a scream, Meissa squashed in beside him, both unhurt, but terrified. From what she can see there are no other horses – escaped or dead before the stables half collapsed, she cannot tell, and she raises her head, glancing desperately around.

A half-spun plan forms in her mind.

“Come down off the roof. I have an idea.”

The others follow her orders at once, dropping down one at a time – Satya looks extremely shaken, but is otherwise unhurt but for the cut above one eye. Angela is limping slightly, her clothes soot and blood stained, her face forming a harrowed expression of fear, especially when she grabs for Fareeha’s arm, clutching it tightly for a moment. They share a look.

“I dunno how you got here, mate, but I think you should know you’re bloody brilliant.” Lena interrupts, landing beside them. Her freckled face is pale and drawn – more than Fareeha has ever seen it, her eyes pulsing with her magic, glowing blue in the half light of dusk.

“Thanks.” Fareeha replies shortly, still thinking hard.

“What’s with the bird?”

Fareeha shakes her head. “I’ll explain later.”

Lena seems content with this because she starts fiddling with her daggers, staring past the stable gate at the demon horde. Fareeha ignores her, eyeing the falcon and experiencing a familiar sinking feeling in her gut. The falcon is big. Big enough to bear several people and even possibly a horse. But two horses, a Marguey riding cat and four people?

Her tongue as heavy as lead, she starts to speak, “My idea is simple – I’m going to set you, Angela and Satya on my uh…” she glances up at the bird spirit, unsure how to name it. It fixes her with one fierce orange eye, feathers rippling, “companion. It’s big enough to carry both horses too – I’ll ride out with Rastaban and meet you by the nearest gate out of the city. There isn’t enough room for both me and Rastaban, so this will have to do.”

“Absolutely not.” Angela snaps. “I’ve been separated once from you. I refuse to be again.”

Frustrated, Fareeha struggles not to raise her voice. “We don’t have time to argue! We get you all out and I will follow!”

"I can fight still!” Angela retorts, brandishing her staff. “I’m coming with you, Fareeha, and there’s nothing you can say to stop me!”

“Alright! Alright.” Fareeha growls, grinding her teeth. She turns to her spirit, meeting its eye and thinking hard at it, trying to picture what she wants. In response, she gets what she hopes is a firm feeling of agreement, and the falcon reaches forward with its beak, prying open the stables with incredible ease, plucking great shafts of wood out into the open and casting them aside. Silas and Meissa burst out into the courtyard, narrowly avoiding knocking Fareeha to the ground as they panic, eyes wide and nostrils flaring.

Lena grabs both Meissa and Silas’ bridles with impressive skill, her magic bursting out of her, her lips forming wild, alien words until both horses calm down, staring dumbly ahead. Fareeha takes Lena’s place, coiling her fingers around rough leather.

“Alright. Lena, Satya, you climb onto my companion’s back. It’ll carry both horses in its talons and fly you to safety.”

Satya straightens to her fullest height, then winces and buckles over, clutching her chest, face curling in pain. Fareeha wonders how badly her ribs are broken.

“You need to get out of here quickly, Barren Knight.” She gasps, glancing up at Fareeha. “There is a final line of defence – magical. It’ll ensure no demon gets out of here alive.”

Fixing Satya with a hard stare, Fareeha waits patiently for an explanation while Lena clambers up the falcon’s side, seating herself upon its shoulders. Satya, however, offers none, instead taking Lena’s hand and securing herself behind the other mage. She looks exhausted and pained, staring up at the Library with an expression of both loathing and sorrow.

“What’s the ‘final line of defence’?” Fareeha asks. Satya swallows, tearing her gaze away from her home and meeting her gaze.

“Destruction.”

“It’s going to explode.” Angela blurts. “The Library. She’s going to make it explode.”

The sickening swelling of fear rises strongly within Fareeha’s belly. She clenches her jaw, struggling with herself for a moment, before she nods, not wanting to comprehend the information more than she has to, not when doom seems to be rising above her, crushing her with its indefatigable will.

“Right. We’d better get a move on, then.”

At once, the falcon takes flight, surging upwards with a rush of air. Its talons clasp around both horses with ease, lifting them off the ground. Neither horse stir – Lena’s magic seems powerful enough to keep them docile even in the face of flight. They hang limply as though sleeping, breathing steadily.

“Be careful!” Lena shouts down, even as the falcon rises into the air, staring down over a battering wing. “I’ll see you on the other side!”

“Stars guide.” Fareeha says back, mostly to herself, watching as the spirit heaves itself higher and higher, finally gaining the height to wheel around and fly away, leaving her and Angela behind.

Fareeha fiddles with the string of her bow, glancing at Angela for a moment, before staring resolutely into the dark of the stables, wherein no doubt Rastaban is lurking. A sincere prayer comes to mind, feeling the narrow pinch of Angela’s fingers on her arm as the disrupted night settles around them both. They are in trouble. She knows it. And when her gaze falls into Angela’s she knows that Angela has come to the same conclusion. They have two options: escape, or die in the attempt.

“We shouldn’t linger.” Fareeha says, already prepared to meet her fate. If the God is kind, her end would be swift. If not… she dares not think on it.

She takes a step forward, but Angela stops her, pulling her into a desperate kiss, full of unspoken promises and oaths only she can know. Fareeha holds her tight, kissing back, her heart pounding, savouring Angela’s scent, her taste, the way her body feels warm and safe in her arms. So I can show the God. She thinks. So They understand.

They break apart. Angela is crying and Fareeha’s eyes sting and blur with her own tears. They wipe each other’s pain away with the devoted touches of lovers, and Angela manages a watery smile when she speaks.

“That was for returning to me.” Angela’s voice is clear and confident. “You’ll get the rest when we get out of here.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” Fareeha replies, before she presses a final kiss to Angela’s forehead.

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

Armed with this knowledge, Fareeha strides forward, determination filling her like hot water. They would see the dawn. She should make sure of it. Even if she had to slay ten thousand demons to escape the city, she would do it. She would ensure her and Angela’s survival.

Beyond the ruined entrance to the stables there is only darkness and the rich tang of spilt blood. Her boot slides in a puddle of it and she swallows down her gorge.

“Rastaban?”

At once a pair of yellow eyes illuminate the grim void. For a heartbeat, she is gripped by wild fear, struck by the thought of a demon, but before she can speak the eyes ripple, and the brilliant light of Rastaban’s armour comes to life. It glows brightly, outlining the cat’s body and pulsing with what can only be the pounding of his heart. He shifts towards her, his saddle set upon his back, the Marguey war horn and quiver full of arrows Yeisa gifted them so long ago secured to his flank.

How he had dressed she can only guess. He had not been armoured when she had left him earlier, but at once she is at his side, dragging Angela with her. At their approach, Rastaban kneels, purring loudly, his face and hidden by his plumed helm.

Wordlessly, they mount – Angela in front, staff in hand, and they both strap themselves in securely, checking and rechecking the buckles. Satisfied, Fareeha readies her bow, checking the quiver. Thirteen arrows; a lucky number.

“How long until the Library…” she trails off, unsure how to voice the thought.

“Not long.” Angela replies. The yard ahead is clear but for a few straggling demons, lapping up the last of their prey – one is sniffing near the stable entrance, its grotesque little body quivering with excitement as it scents blood.

“We should go.” Fareeha shifts her weight, eyeing the demon with disgust. How I loathe them. They are every aspect of humanity I despise. After a split second hesitation she grasps the Marguey war horn, securing it around her body before drawing an arrow and notching it into her bow.

Angela’s body tenses in front of her, Rastaban’s ear flicking back as though he knows what is coming. Fareeha draws her bow, aiming for the demon ahead of them, feeling the power of the string and body, waiting, waiting.

"Rastaban,” she orders. “Ride.”

She lets lose her arrow. Rastaban bursts into action, a roar in his throat as he moves faster than Fareeha would have thought possible. The arrow finds its mark, killing the demon as they pelt past it. The other demons jerk in surprise, hateful gazes alive and hungry when Rastaban skids over the broken mosaic map. Then they are scurrying forwards like many snakes, surging and biting and clawing at each other, erupting out of the Library doors, emerging from the corpses of the dead, all focused impossibly upon Fareeha, Angela and Rastaban.

Rastaban hisses but turns tail, racing through the gates and out into the city.

Fareeha holds onto Angela for dear life, abandoning shooting arrows for favour of ensuring both of them stay seated. Rastaban gallops swiftly down street after street, silent and swift, passing burning buildings and ravaging demons. Fareeha tries to block out the horror. She closes her eyes, burying her face between Angela’s shoulder blades, trying not to think, trying not to remember. She has seen hell once before. She doesn’t need to see it again.

They escape the city without issue. They pass the broken, scalded gate and gallop out into the desert, guided – but hounded – by the light of the fire. Rastaban pounds his way up a dune, panting lightly, bringing them to a small gathering of the wounded and the dying, who have found solace in the warmth of Fareeha’s fire spirit. It chirps when it sets eyes upon her, before the wind brushes its form away, leaving Raptora stuck hilt-deep in the sand. Lena and Satya raise their hands in greeting, both bloody but alive. 

“Look!”

The shout distracts Fareeha before she can dismount. She looks back at Axis.

The city is unrecognisable. It is a burning furnace, the Library a throbbing, glowing fist piercing the belly of the smoke black sky at its centre. As she watches there is the sense that the world is holding its breath. The Library pulses faster and faster, like a building heartbeat, pumping wildly in panic or excitement until there is suddenly an enormous rush of air. The Library’s light becomes blinding, forcing Fareeha to look away, and let out a cry as a deep, thundering note resounds to the very heavens above.

When Fareeha can stand to look again, the Library is nothing more than a smoking crater amidst the ruins of the once proud city of Axis Mundi.

Chapter Text

“It didn’t work.”

“They could just be stragglers. The explosion can’t have killed every single demon.”

“My scouts say differently.”

Fareeha rubs her forehead, closing her stinging eyes as Yeisa towers impressively over the meeting table, her single eye flinty and hard in the dull light of the meeting tent. It has been three hard days since the destruction of the Library and the demon invasion. The survivors have gathered in a tiny outpost a scarce mile away from Axis, surviving by barely the skin of their teeth on limited supplies, fighting off raids of demons with what’re left of the Axis paladins, and the Marguey. The hastily composed council sits about a narrow table: Satya, Yeisa, Lena, Lúcio and herself had been chosen by those who remain to lead.

“What are you trying to say?” Fareeha breaks in. All eyes flick to her. Satya frowns, her mouth twisting unhappily.The mage has healed well from her cracked ribs and sits at the head of the table, a haughty expression on her face.

“The Gate is still open. We need to take a small force to close it once and for all, otherwise the entire region is lost.”

“And leave the entire camp undefended?” Yeisa snaps. The rest of the makeshift council murmur in agreement. “I don’t know how much experience you have with demons, but they won’t leave a cute little camp like this alone to snap up scraps in the ruins.”

Satya frowns so hard her eyebrows threaten to dislodge themselves off her face – Fareeha can see the tension in her brow before she speaks. “That’s why I said a ‘small force’. I’m not asking every member of the guard to–”

“But you are asking for the best of them! Don’t think I don’t know that, Mage! And besides, Talon is still out there! Jibril and that spider wench were nowhere to be seen amongst the survivors! What of them?”

“The people here can defend themselves. They’re of Axis. We have been here for ten thousand years, and we will be here for ten thousand more. As for Talon, hopefully they’re dead. If not, we can kill them later.” Satya replies, waving Yeisa’s protests away like an irksome fly.

Yeisa opens her mouth to argue, but Lena stands up swiftly, black eyes sparking with magic. “Stop fighting. We don’t have time to squabble amongst ourselves. What do you need to close the Gate? How many? Do you want volunteers? Because I’ll do it. Even if I have to do it myself.”

Fareeha lifts her head, frowning deeply. “You will not be doing it yourself.” She shifts her shoulders, her cloak fluttering as she straightens on her stool. “I will go into Axis with you.”

“And so will I.” Yeisa grunts. “It’s my idea. Kin can remain behind and look after the Marguey.”

Satya again starts to speak, but Lúcio rests a hand gently on her arm to quiet her. “We can’t all go. Satya, you and I should remain behind to defend the camp from other attacks. We can’t rely on Talon anymore.”

“Axis is my city!” Satya hisses, her own magic sparking to life.

“Axis was our city.” Lúcio replies. “And now our people are suffering. Who cares about a bunch of ruins? We have to remain to take care of what really matters. We should call upon our allies to the West. To the North. We aren’t alone.”

The pair of them glower daggers at each other and Fareeha sighs heavily. When she speaks, she hears how tired her voice sounds. “Even the Knights of the Barrens called for aid in times of trouble. The Gate isn’t going to be closed by a few tired warriors. Send riders to the North. To the West. I’m not going to sit here arguing when there’s something that can be done.”

Silence greets her suggestion like a knife at a wedding. Yeisa closes her remaining eye, bowing her head and fisting her hands on the table. Shoulders sagging, jaw clenching, she finally looks up, pinning Fareeha with a stare.

“The Knight is right.”  Yeisa says shortly. “The more time we spend fucking about discussing things, the more of us die. I suggest we send her and her Priestess North to rally the Pale. I have a contact with the Oban who can guide them.”

Lena grins suddenly, like a flash of sun through a summer storm. “That’s a much better idea than dyin’ for nothin’. Fareeha can go North, an’ I can go West. Gather Overwatch. Then we can see about closing this Gate for good.”

There is a pause. A moment of baited breath in which Fareeha looks to the others, reading the decisions in their faces. Satya’s expression is coolly controlled, Lúcio appears to be thinking quickly, Lena looks hopeful and Yeisa is gazing directly at her, singular eye hard and intense, dark with thought.

Finally, Satya speaks. “We have… a way to get you to the West quickly. Quicker than riding all the way there. I was saving it for a last desperate measure.” Her lips purse, then she sits up a little straighter, folding her fingers over each other on the tabletop. “There is very little magic to draw upon now. The Gate is sucking it all up, feeding off it to sustain itself. However, I have reserves left to craft something that can carry us all to safety.” She peers at them all individually. “I can get us all to Highgate. A night’s ride, at most, from Overwatch. It’ll be ready on the morrow. Is that acceptable to you all? I will need Lúcio’s help. And Lena’s. Any mage you can spare.”

There is a general murmur of agreement. Fareeha gets to her feet, feeling lighter than she has in days, armed with the thought of a plan. She nods her goodbyes and strides out into the late afternoon, blinking against the glare of the sun. The air is punishingly hot and seers her lungs at the first gasp. It is hotter even than Arga.

Don’t think about that. Quashing the upsurge of pain at the thought of her homeland, trying not to think or to feel, ignoring the nagging thought at the back of her mind that she might be the last of the Barren Knights, she walks slowly through the camp, heading towards her and Angela’s shared tent.

The camp is basic in the extreme. Children, haunted by the chaos, drift from place to place in packs, mothers and fathers having no choice but to take in those who were left bereft of parents. Between the roughly made tents Axis paladins and Marguey warriors patrol in silence, shoulder to shoulder, dealing with the loss of companions and captains and wives and children and husbands the only way they know how. Duty. Fareeha understands completely.

Her tent is empty when she enters it, although she is not wholly surprised. Angela barely has time to eat let alone lounge around in bed – she has been healing the wounded since they set up camp, spending day and night tending to the survivors and ensuring no one else dies under her watch. Of the tens of thousands of people who inhabited Axis Mundi, a mere three hundred remain. The losses are staggering. Fareeha cannot even begin to imagine how many have died, and how many more will be lost. There are whispers that this is the second Reckoning and there is some small part of her that agrees with them.

With an exhausted sigh, Fareeha collapses to sit on the sleeping bag, unbuckling her helm and blinking her tired eyes. She had taken the watch the night before and hadn’t had a chance to sleep, since the meeting had started early in the morning.

At least we decided on something. I don’t like running from a fight, but this looks like the only option we have . She starts to undo the catches of her armour and tugging it off to sit in a pile beside the sleeping sac. Her clothes are cool but slightly damp with sweat and she feels a slight tug in her gut. What she’d do for a bath.

A tap on the tent canvas distracts her.

“Enter.”

Lena pokes her head around the canvas flap, her expression grave. “You busy?”

Fareeha shakes her head, and pats the sleeping bag beside her. Lena takes her invitation, and the thick material pools around her as she takes her seat. They sit in silence, listening to the muted sounds of the camp – the scent of cookfires drift towards them, people gathering nearby to be fed and watered.

Eventually, Lena speaks. “Y’know this is it, right?”

Fareeha turns her head a fraction to the side to peer into the bottomless dark of Lena’s eyes. Lena is looking back, her face harrowed with what might be fear. The expression disquiets Fareeha more than it should. She’s seen panic, and worry, and even anger writ across Lena’s features, but never fear.

“Even if we close the Axis Gate, the rest of the East is gone. And things are already startin’ in the West. I… we aren’t going to make it out of this all in one piece.”

It strikes her suddenly that she has no idea how old Lena is. She is young. Young and scared and Fareeha’s heart clenches. She does not doubt that Lena is a capable warrior. The woman has seen battle and death. But this… this is bigger than either of them have ever seen. Fareeha straightens, staring into Lena’s face.

“The thing about Barren Knights, Lena,” Fareeha begins softly, “is that we do not let our companions go alone into the Dark.”

All at once Lena is hugging her, thin arms wrapping tightly around her neck as she pulls her into an embrace. Fareeha returns it fiercely, holding the other woman against her and blinking quickly to rid her eyes of tears. Lena is right. This is it. She cannot help but feel for an eerie second that every step she’s taken since she left her temple has led her to this moment, trapped at the end, or the beginning, of a war.

“Thank you,” Lena mutters thickly into Fareeha’s neck.

Before Fareeha can respond Lena is gone, the tent entrance flapping behind her. Fareeha stays sitting, staring blindly after the young mage long after she has left and the sun has begun to set. The sounds of the camp around her dim and fade – she feels as though she is far removed from her body, the vague tingling in her fingers a problem for another time, another Fareeha.

“Fareeha!”

Angela is suddenly beside her, a hand resting tightly on her shoulder.

“What is it?” Fareeha replies vaguely, the wide-open spaces in her mind narrowing until she is herself again. Angela is settled in front of her, staring up at her in open concern, narrow fingers pressing into Fareeha’s forehead. Fareeha blinks several times, swallowing, finding her throat is very dry.

“You don’t look well – I’ve been calling your name for the past five minutes.” Angela nibbles her lip, cupping Fareeha’s face gently and sweeping her thumb across her cheek.

“I’m fine.” Dusting sand off her trousers, Fareeha glances around the tent. The scent of the late afternoon is spritzed with cooking meat, a cookfire flickering restlessly outside, casting dancing shadows. How long had I been sitting there? Deciding not to think about it too hard, she graces Angela with a tiny kiss to her forehead before getting to her feet, leaning down to unbuckle her greaves and cast them aside to sit with the rest of her armour. Angela lies on her back on the sleeping sac, sighing and rubbing her exhausted face, her legs outstretched.

“Tough day?”

Angela nods. “I don’t want to think about it anymore.”

Fareeha settles next to her, sighing happily when Angela shifts over to cuddle into her side, golden head resting on her shoulder as one leg winds around hers. They lay there together in the gathering silence for a moment, listening to the crackle of the distant fire. For an instant they are themselves, without the drudgery of titles and responsibility.

Then, tongue feeling thick in her mouth, Fareeha starts to speak. “We’re retreating. Heading West. Satya and the others agreed we should call for aid from the West and the North. I think we’re going to have to request help from the Pale.” She glances at Angela. “I don’t know what to do. Or what to say. You said they’d declared you, what was it, Fallen?”

Angela says nothing for several long seconds. Then she sits up, her gaze measured and calm, like the sea in the Argan summer.

“Fallen, yes. It’s a fancy word for banished.”

Fareeha feels herself hesitate, aware of Angela looking at her, watching her, waiting for her to speak. Her instincts to protect her lover war within her, fear and guilt a difficult lump to swallow in her throat.

“Will they hurt you if you go to them?”

Angela wrinkles her nose, then shrugs. “They can try. I learnt a few tricks of my own while I was out wandering the world. Besides, they’re all pacifists anyway. They can’t hurt me directly.”

“What about indirectly?”

“Like I said, they can try.”

Fareeha opens her mouth to continue, but gets a cool hand over her own instead, Angela’s eyes wrinkling in a sad smile. Then, Angela dips down, kissing her gently. Sighing, Fareeha kisses back, trying to settle the roiling anxieties in her stomach. Angela knows her people, she thinks. She knows them well.

They draw apart with a soft sound. They examine each other quietly. Angela tucks some of Fareeha’s hair behind her ear, fingers tracing over the golden beads at the side of her head, smiling when Fareeha takes her hand and kisses it gently.

“For all this anxiety, you’re still the most charming Knight I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting.” Angela says, nuzzling Fareeha’s cheek and leaning into her, holding her loosely.


Fareeha rumbles a sigh, raising one blackened hand and scratching her temple a little bashfully. Despite everything, she’s still not used to Angela’s compliments, even though they’re offered so freely. “Well, I just happen to be your charming Knight. No one else’s.”

Angela hums, “And I am your… well, I’m not your priestess. I suppose I’m just yours.” She smiles. “How’s that?”

“That sounds perfect.” Fareeha says, leaning over to give Angela a well deserved kiss.


 They rise before dawn.

They dress in silence, fumbling in the half dark before slipping out into the cool night, boots crunching against the sand. Fareeha’s armour is a comforting weight around her, heavy on her shoulders, her helm set low over her face, the visor’s slit easy enough to see through as she and Angela gather their belongings and fold down their makeshift tent, stuffing their clothes into their saddlebags. Packed, Fareeha swings her mother’s bow across her chest, checking Raptora’s weight on her hip and counting her arrows. Thirteen. A lucky number.

The early burn of the sun is rising in the west. The air is chilly, marked by the film of moisture which covers nearly every surface, disturbed by their footfalls as they both pick up their bags and start through the stirring camp, marching past last night’s fires, embers white as bone.  Angela chews mechanically on some jerky, offering Fareeha a stick of it. She takes it, barely tasting it, teeth making short work of the meat, swallowing what she can before sucking back some water. Angela takes the waterskin wordlessly when offered, her blue eyes determined grey.

They find an armoured Rastaban with Silas and Meissa with the other mounts, atop one of the dunes and sheltered by a makeshift stable composed of spear poles and canvas. The cat is watching over the horses, lamp-like eyes glowing as sky blushes with the first hint of day. At their approach he chirrups, sliding easily to his feet, his armour shifting with his every movement. Angela feeds him several chunks of jerky, murmuring to him soothingly. He purrs, and nuzzles her stomach, before flopping down onto the sand again.

They load their bags onto their respective horses - Fareeha swings herself into Silas’ saddle, appreciating the way his body feels between her legs. Solid and distinctly horse. As good as it feels to ride Rastaban, she has missed the simplicity of horseback. The war horse snorts, reaching around to nibble her leg, nuzzling her with his soft nose; she murmurs soothingly to him, leaning down to rub his ears.

Below them the camp has started to pack itself away. Here and there children dash between collapsing tents, tugging tired looking adults around for food. Fareeha hums softly, clicking her tongue and squeezing Silas’ flanks. He snorts, and starts down the dune, his hooves kicking up red sand as the sun’s light reaches its fingers across the world. Rastaban and Angela walk beside her, Rastaban between them, his head level with Silas’ ears, throat rumbling with a purr as they make their way through the disintegrating camp.

A flash of blue light heralds a new arrival. Lena bounces before them, grinning widely. “Mornin’ loves! You ready for the voyage?”

“Voyage?” Fareeha asks, raising an eyebrow when Lena takes it upon herself to flash her way onto Rastaban’s back. The huge cat only purrs louder.

Face brightening with realisation, Lena chuckles. “Oh, blimey. You haven’t seen what Satya’s been working on, huh?” Lena grins at them both and urges Rastaban ahead. “C’mon, I’ll show you!”

Urging them all into a brisk trot, Lena leads the way through the remaining tents. People greet her cheerfully as she passes, and once or twice she tosses treats to the children who wander beside them. One, a young girl, is tumbling along beside Silas, her huge dark eyes fixed on Raptora.

“Careful, kiddo,” Lena says, sitting up in the saddle to grin at the girl over Fareeha’s head. “That sword is magical.”

“It is not.” Fareeha feels herself growing hot under the collar, the girl’s gaze almost too piercing to look at. She’d never been good with children. “It is merely the weapon of a Knight of the Barrens, crafted from iron from the sky. Not magical at all.”

Lena barks a laugh which shatters the growing day’s silence. “That’s a bloody lie. A dirty great flame bird popped in and out of it at Axis!” She throws Fareeha an accusatory look. “You still haven’t told me how that happened.”

Shrugging, Fareeha answers truthfully, ignoring the curious look Angela throws her way. “I don’t know how it happened. It just… did.”

“Luckily.” Angela intones, to which both Fareeha and Lena agree.

Eventually the little girl gets bored and peels off to play with the others. Lena leads them well out of the camp, chattering amiably as they go, climbing up a steep dune. Fareeha tilts her helm up, already feeling the vague hint of heat from the sun as the sky goes from wholesome orange to a light blue. Despite feeling secure in the idea that they are to be leaving, Fareeha cannot help but feel a twinge of nerves. Now, as they are busy packing, would be a perfect time to strike. It is fortunate demons aren’t as intelligent as we are, she thinks. And even more fortunate that they are not commanded by anyone, or anything.

“... and that’s when I realised what Satya’s plan was all along.” Lena’s voice draws Fareeha out of her thoughts as they finally mount the top of the dune.

“And… what was Satya’s plan? Travelling to the West using magic?” Angela says with a hint of exasperation.

“We’re not just travellin’ to the West.” Lena laughs. “We’re flyin’.”

Before them are the rolling shoulders of ten thousand dunes, spread out before them as far as the eye can see. In the far distance, Fareeha can see the ruins of Axis, still belching out smoke, the remains of its eternal walls a blackened, jagged mess akin to roc’s beaks, held open in shrieks.

A flash of light glints off something held in the cradle between two nearby dunes. Fareeha shades her eyes, only to nearly topple backwards off her horse in stunned alarm. There, floating several meters off the sand, stands an enormous hardlight ship. It hovers gracefully, translucent sails coiled tight to their beams, its body delicately crafted into the exact shape of the very same ships that Fareeha had seen at port at Axis Mundi’s docks. Extending from its bow is a narrow gangplank, around which several people are milling around.

Laughing at the expressions of shock on Angela and Fareeha’s faces, Lena tugs at Rastaban’s ears and continues leading them towards the boat.

“Satya did this in one night?” Angela says, astonishment hardening her accent. She looks about as shocked as Fareeha feels, her eyes wide with wonder.

Lena shrugs. “She’s the most powerful mage in Axis, innit? Even the world. All she needed from the other magi was some help gatherin’ the energy to form it. She crafted the entire vessel herself.” Grinning, Lena swings one long leg over the other, sitting idly in the narrow saddle as they approach the group of people. “Y’know, I don’t think even dragons are as powerful as Satya Vaswani.”

The crowd raise their hands in greeting. Amongst them is a tired looking Satya, surrounded by several mages and an even more exhausted Lúcio. Lena slides off Rastaban’s back, hurrying forward while Fareeha and Angela linger awkwardly behind.

“Everyone in the camp is packing up,” Lena is saying excitedly. “I think you guys should head on up. I’ll stay down here and make sure everyone’s gettin’ on okay.”

Satya’s mouth presses into a thin line, but she nods in agreement, speaking with a voice roughened with exertion, “I shall await the rest aboard the boat, get them settled into their cabins. If my calculations are correct, which they usually are, there should be enough room for everyone and their horses.” She casts an eagle-sharp look at Fareeha. “You should stay down here too. People like to see you. Boosts morale, I suppose.”

Sharing a look with Angela, Fareeha swings herself out of the saddle, passing off Silas’ reins to the priestess and taking her place beside Lena, who is bouncing on the balls of her feet excitedly. Angela and Rastaban head up the gangplank together, followed by Satya. Lúcio casts Fareeha a jagged grin and salutes her with a flourish before following the others, striding up to the ship, his frog cloak swirling impressively behind him.

“Bet ya didn’t expect to be leavin’ Axis on a flyin’ boat.” Lena says once they’re alone.

Shrugging, Fareeha squints up at the ship, impressed with the attention to detail Satya has managed to work into it. Even from here she can see the hardlight mimicking planks of wood to form the hull. The ship seems to breathe, glowing idly as the day grows ever brighter.

“There was a moment when I didn’t expect to leave Axis at all.” Fareeha murmurs, pushing her visor up with one quick movement. She catches Lena looking at her uncertainly, and offers her a slight smile in return. “But I’m here now. Thanks to… well…”

“A spirit.” Lena kicks up some sand with her boot, hands resting on the hilts of her daggers. “It came outta your sword. Sometimes, when sky metal comes inta contact with heartsblood it y’know. Awakens it. It musta been one powerful spirit that came outta your sword to have carried us so far from ya.” She shrugs noncommittally. “You’re gonna have to ask your mother about that.”

Fareeha sucks a sharp breath through her teeth, staring determinately out at the horizon, which shimmers and shifts in the heat of the day.

“Am I the only person who didn’t know my mother was alive?” She asks, bitterness coating her tongue.

“Nope.” Lena replies bluntly. “I just guessed. Ana Amari is bloody difficult to kill. I served with her. Fought beside her. It was one of the reasons why I trusted you at once.” She seems to sneak another look up at Fareeha. “You and her are pretty similar.”

Unsure whether or not to be flattered by this, Fareeha does nothing except nod blindly and rest a hand on Raptora’s hilt. But Lena does not leave her to her silence. Instead she grips her arm, and speaks in a voice so serious, Fareeha is surprised.

“I dunno what you’re expectin’ but Overwatch isn’t what it was. Our leaders are scattered, an’ so are we.” She nibbles her lip in a way so similar to Angela, Fareeha has to blink. “I need to borrow Rastaban once we get to Ljosalfheim. I’m headin’ out to get your Oban guide to take you North. Is that alright?”

“Of course,” Fareeha replies at once. “But what did you mean about Overwatch?”

Still looking unsure, Lena continues in a rush, her eyes fixing on a spot behind Fareeha. A quick glance back shows her that the refugees are approaching - a huddled mass of humanity, drawing horses and carts and tents and children. At their head is Yeisa, mounted upon her riding cat, surrounded by her Marguey.

“Our leader, Jack, he’s in the wind. He was a good warrior. Strong, and proud and honourable. Him and Ana and Gabe were good friends. And better leaders. But he’s gone now. They’re all gone. Disappeared. Overwatch is lost. Leaderless.” Lena tightens her grip on Fareeha’s arm, whispering now, as the horde is almost within earshot. “Jus’ promise me you’ll get as much help from the North as you can. Rally the Pale, and the Oban. We can’t fight this war alone.”

Unnerved by the desperate look in Lena’s pitch black eyes, Fareeha nods, forgetting to ask who ‘Gabe’ is. “I swear on my sword, Lena. I will not fail you in this.”

At once the crowd is on them in a mass of noise and song. Yeisa passes them with a small nod of deference before leading her people up the gangplank and onto the ship. People young and old pass them by, some grasping Fareeha’s hand in what seems like thanks, others staring blindly towards the ruins of Axis, putting one foot in front of the other. Children chatter mindlessly, gazing upon the magistry of Satya’s magic, running between horses and carts and legs, dashing here and there and up the plank, laughing excitedly. Mothers have lashed babies to their chests, fathers bear toddlers upon their shoulders, all leaving the ancient land of Axis. They sing their praises, or their grief, to the sky in a thousand voices, all three hundred remaining survivors of the demon assault.

Finally, the last refugee ascends the gangplank, leaving Fareeha and Lena in their dust. They offer each other one last smile before starting their own way onto the ship. As they climb Fareeha glances back at Axis Mundi, breathing in the hot air and taking in the smoking desolation of the once proud city. We’ll come back for you. I swear it. I swear it on my sword.

She finds Angela on the deck waiting for her. Satya and Lúcio are busy settling the last of the survivors, Yeisa and Lena are talking quietly to each other while Rastaban makes himself a nuisance by pawing at Yeisa’s riding cat’s tail.

“Walk with me?” Angela asks, offering her arm. Fareeha takes it and together they walk steadily to the prow of the ship. Below them the sands heave and dip like any ocean, shifting for miles upon miles of inhospitable desolation. Against the growing strength of the sun, Fareeha is glad to be leaving this place, even if she’s going even farther from home. She sighs, leaning on the hardlight rail, squinting East.

A hand rubs soothingly up her spine. “We’ll return for your people, Fareeha.” Angela murmurs, her voice steely with determination. “I promise, we’ll close every single Gate, and vanquish every single demon we can find until the East, and Arga, is safe once more.”

Fareeha straightens, and turns to face Angela, returning the intent gaze with one of her own. Smiling, she leans towards her, pressing a small kiss to her mouth, only to be caught in a much longer one.

With the gangplank raised, and every refugee safely aboard, the ship’s sails unfurl with the snap of canvas. They billow and swirl, growing taut when they catch the breeze; a shout goes up from the survivors, gleeful and bright, as the ship shudders and hums, moving slowly at first, rising up into the achingly blue sky, gathering speed until she is soaring high above Axis Mundi. Grinning, drawing away from Angela’s kiss, Fareeha takes Angela’s hand and tangles their fingers together tightly.


 It takes them only two short weeks to get to Highgate. The ship soars high over the great sea, steady and sure, unbothered by the autumnal squalls. The weather turns colder and wetter - Fareeha finds herself dressed in multiple layers more often than not, and even hears Yeisa complaining bitterly about her own lack of clothing. The sea turns from pale blue to an iron grey, the waves capped with the white manes of the water stallions, as Angela calls them. Fareeha stares upon them from above curiously, very glad they are not sailing directly on them. Somehow, two weeks of sea sickness are worse than the occasionally cold wind which steals about them.

Highgate greets them without surprise, in the growing darkness of night. The vaulting stone walls are strange to Fareeha - grey stone, hardened by wind and rain, guarded by grey teeth and prickling with archers and torches. But they let them pass, calling up to the boat to the delight of the refugees.

Gracefully, like some great hardlight swan, the ship sweeps about the castle, turning upon its starboard bow and cresting the grounds, soaring to its final resting place upon a field of lush green grass. It is dusting rain from a cloudy night sky, the autumn air cool enough for Fareeha to see her breath - she shivers a little under her armour, ready to ride at a moment’s notice.

There is a slight hubbub - the Lord of the castle greets Satya and Lúcio grimly, speaking the Westerling tongue in sharp, swift sentences, nodding every so often before departing, leading the first few survivors off the boat and down the gangplank.

“Have our horses saddled and ready,” Angela is saying. The anxious looking stable boy nods and hurries away, nearly tripping over Rastaban’s tail. Lena has already mounted up, and is peering down at them with some concern writ on her face.

“Are ya both sure you’re alrigh’ with me takin’ ya boy?” She says, leaning down to give Angela a one armed hug and offering Fareeha a look.

“Of course, Lena,” Angela replies, pressing a chaste kiss to Lena’s cheek. “Just be safe, please. We couldn’t bear to lose either of you.”

Fareeha receives her own tight hug and a brief kiss, speaking softly.“Come back in one piece, Lena. Ride fast.”

Rastaban offers them his own goodbye. A rasping lick up both their faces, purring hot breath and a body wracking slam with his flank, flicking his tail against them and coiling between them. Angela dabs several kisses to his helm, rubbing under his chin and cooing in her strange Northern tongue. He seems to understand the sentiment though, because he nuzzles her stomach affectionately before doing the same to Fareeha.

Fareeha gazes into his orange eyes, heart swelling when she recalls how little he used to be. “Stay safe, Rastaban. Run like the wind.” He blinks once. Twice. Then pushes his nose into her belly. “We’ll see you again soon, at Overwatch.”

“At Overwatch.” Lena confirms, straightening in the saddle. “See ya later, loves! Be safe! Try not to piss off Reinhardt!”

With that, the strange little Westerner is off, weaving Rastaban through the refugees and down the gangplank, out of sight.

Fareeha has no time to mourn the loss of their companions because Yeisa is suddenly on them. The Marguey captain captures her in a bone crushing hug, squeezing the breath from her lungs before releasing her, slapping her shoulder so hard her knees almost buckle. She offers Angela the same treatment, actually going so far as to lift her bodily off the ground. Then she draws away, smiling grimly at them, her remaining eye focused and dark.

“My contact with the Oban is a woman called Aleksandra Zaryanova. She goes by Zarya, though, so look out for her. Lena will bring her to you. Trust her words, and her instincts.” Yeisa’s smile twists into a lopsided grin. “Also, look after yourselves. It might be some time before we see each other.”

“Oh?” Angela takes Yeisa’s hand in hers, looking worried. “You aren’t coming to Overwatch with us?”

Shaking her head, Yeisa shrugs. “I’m headed South with our main man Lúcio to scout the Sundered Lands and see if we can get some help from their people. You never know, they might even have some troubles of their own we can help them with.”

“Then be safe, Yeisa Brighteye. And luck be with you.” Fareeha says, reaching out her arm. Yeisa takes it firmly, dipping her head. “I will look for you on the Northern wind. May the God give you safe passage.”

“You as well, Fareeha Amari, last Knight of the Barrens. May the Guardian fly with you.” Yesia draws away, dips into a low bow, and turns on her heel, disappearing into the crowd.

Their stable boy returns, with their horses, and Satya, in tow. The mage, looking magnificent in her usual blue dress, is holding what looks to be a standard, writ in white and gold, bearing the mark of the Pale upon its cloth.

“This is for you.” She says bluntly, offering it to Angela. She takes it, examining it closely. “Carry it to Overwatch, and to the North, so they know you mean to be taken seriously.”

She watches them as they mount up. Fareeha takes the standard, hooking it carefully into the saddle and steadying herself on Silas’ back. Satya dips her head gracefully.

“Thank you for all you have done, Knight. Priestess. Your bravery will be honoured upon your return.”

Fareeha offers Satya a small smile, which is returned. “No, thank you for offering us sanctuary, and protection, even in these trying times.”

With a salute, and a final flourish, Fareeha urges Silas off, hearing Meissa’s hooves behind as they make their way towards the gangplank. Angela moves up to ride beside her, her blue eyes steely grey as she gazes ahead, to the yawning portcullis of Highgate’s forecastle.

“Are you ready, sváss?” Angela asks, drawing her hood up over her head, looking more the priestess than she has in six long months.

“As ready as I’ll ever be,” Fareeha replies. Angela casts her a final sweet smile before digging her heels into Meissa’s flank, and setting off down the path.

The Pale Priestess is a blaze of white before her, the thunder of their horses echoing against the castle walls as they depart Highgate and ride blindly into the night. Her armour is heavy on her, her Raptora trusting weight on her left hip, their blinding sun banner snapping in the wind.

Chapter Text

The Argan woman stoops low in the dust, fingers trailing across the cracked visage she sees below her. Her companion stirs restlessly, his hand upon his sword, blue eyes and grey hair a telltale sign of the Westerling blood running through his veins. His normally pale skin is pink with the sun, however, and he glares irritably up at the sky, muttering something.

“Now, this is much better than a command on the beach.” She says, lifting her head to gaze about the ruins of the once proud city. “Don’t you agree?”

“No.” The warrior replies shortly. The woman laughs.

“Oh well. They went West two weeks ago. And still no sign of Jibril.” She sighs, sitting back on her haunches and adjusting the bow strapped about her chest. “It’s almost as though they know they’re being watched. Or they’ve left already.”

The warrior adjusts his grip on his sword, scowling deeply, the lines in his face more pronounced with the dust engraved there. He looks to her almost like a pink, grumpy statue, his voice more of a growl than anything else. “And no sign of his eight eyed friend either. You should watch yourself. She might take more than your eye from you this time.”

The woman laughs. “I am the better shot.”

The tattoo hanging under her only remaining eye is deepest black, as dark as it had been on the day she had it done. She trails a finger over it idly in thought before getting to her feet, surprisingly agile for a woman her age.

“Come, Jack. We have work to do.”

Together, they start off amongst the ruins of Axis Mundi, silence their only companion.