The Writing is on the Cave Wall

Story by Elliott Rose and edited by Sadie Blake

 

                                    *This story takes place before the events of the first arc of the What's Your Damage? entitled "Pursuit of the Moonfire Phoenix"

 

From her study on the second story of the main keep of her city, Xiao could see the six person procession of The Green Knight’s guards. Their fine forest green robes laced with silver trim. Hina had warned her of this last night. Based on Parton’s wild gesticulations she guessed the guards would soon be in Mulhound, regardless of invitation.

Xiao released the clasps on her shawl, multicolored with lines of azure, ruby, and saffron. A Suenan design. The colors and patterns of the shawl in stark contrast to the textile work of the Colored Nations in Gilea. .  

Taking her shawl she laid it down on her desk and put a book over it, one in the common tongue of the Kingdoms. Quickly she wrapped the book in the shawl and whispered, “Listen. Enunciate. Audience.”. The saffron lines in her shawl lit up, affirming that now, for the next two hours, each person in Mulhound would be able to understand and speak Common as if it were their native language.

Xiao refastened the shawl as she stood up and went to the room immediately to her right. The sleeping form lay there in the middle of the bed. Xiao smiled, tight, wanting to go and sit beside the girl and stroke her hair. However, she closed the door and  said, “Untraceable, unknowable, unseeable.” As she finished the incantation, the ruby in her shawl lit up and the door disappeared.

With the preparations done she headed downstairs. Gaius was away or else he would be the one saddled with the duty of greeting these guards. But, after visiting with Hina last night, and the disagreement between him and the female giant, Gaius was given a day to himself.  

 

“Miss, I’m sorry, I simply cannot allow you to come into our city, there is a certain . . . order to the things we--”

“I understand that there is an order to the way you do things. However, what I am saying is I supercede that order,” said  the woman at the front of the Knight’s Guard. She was tall, taller than most human women and she wore a hooded robe. Unlike the rest of her party, her robes were trimmed with gold and she had on her back what looked to be an enormous bow. Much larger than even finely trained soldiers should be able to hold and wield.

Xiao’s eyes went large. “Parton, please, allow me to take things from here,” Xiao took her guard’s shoulder and moved even with him. She now looked at the woman in the front of the Knight’s Guard and bowed deeply, pushing Parton’s shoulder down with her so he would follow.
“It is an absolute honor to have the Green Knight herself visiting us here in Mulhound.”  At that she could feel Parton jump a bit. And when both of them finished their bow he kept his eyes down.

The Green Knight’s eyes were steady on Xiao. “So you’ll allow me into your village?”

“Of course, my Knight,” Xiao said.

The Green Knight’s eyes briefly flitted on Xiao’s shawl.

“May I ask the purpose of the visit?” Xiao said.

The Green Knight stepped past the threshold and her five guards joined her.

“Warning and understanding,” the Green Knight said before taking a pause. “What’s your name? Your station?”

Xiao laughed, a brittle laugh. “I am Xiao, leader of Mulhound. Would you like to come to our town center? Perhaps some refreshments for you and your guard?”

The Green Knight stopped several yards before the center, licked her finger, and held it aloft. “It’s strange. . . before the Bladesinger War, before I became the leader of Kullen, I traveled every inch of this land. That’s how Grimm and I--”

“Grimm?” Xiao said.

The Green Knight shook her head. “The Red Knight. That’s how we found The Springs of Dolfiend.” With her finger still held high she pointed due south. “It’s four miles that way. I also know that if I go two miles northeast we’ll find the pair of pockmarked trees which demarcates where the Children of the Fey’s forest begins. The same place where Alanoir was murdered and Evangeline and Ras scattered to the winds.” The Green Knight then continued walking towards the center. “Yet, I have never once seen this village. I have never seen buildings like these, and most importantly, I’ve never seen a shawl like yours.”

Xiao sped up to catch up with the Green Knight. “The world is large, my dear Knight.”

The Green Knight looked down at Xiao. “Not for me.”

 

Xiao opened the doors to the city center and bowed, allowing the Green Knight and her retinue to enter.

“Through the right hallway you’ll find the meeting area. There should be enough seats for all of us,” Xiao said. As the final guard walked past her, Xiao held her shawl and whispered, “Meeting room, Green Knight, accomplishments, paintings.” The azure stripes in her shawl started to glow.

When Xiao arrived in the meeting room the Green Knight was seated at the head of the

table, although there was more than enough room for her guards to sit, all five were standing behind her at either side. The Green Knight had a vague smile on her face as she looked at the painting to her right. In the portrait the Green Knight had her bow aimed squarely at the downed head of Giftand, the ancient red dragon that appeared in Gilea after the Bladesinger War. The ancient red dragon that, when slain, erupted, unleashing a torrent of Silverthorn poison which showered desolation down on the northern part of the Red Nation, creating The Withered Lands. If Prismatic Queen were not there to protect the Knights they would’ve met the same fate.

This painting was new to Xiao, what usually usually hung in its place was one of  Xiao, Gaius and her countrymen, that now made up the population of Mulhound, fleeing Sueno, the apocalypse behind them.  

 

“You’re a fan of my work,” the Green Knight said.

“Of course.”

The Green Knight smiled at this. “Xiao?”

Xiao nodded.

“I need to warn you, Xiao. There’s reports going round that Evangeline and Ras are resurfacing.”

Xiao paused. She’d been told the same by Shalibin, the Purple Knight. Evangeline, the most feared of Bladesingers for her savage, mocking cruelty in battle had come to Xiao in a moment of lucidity after the war. Had given Namla to her with the express purpose of keeping the girl away from Evangeline. Both Xiao and Evangeline had known that the chain of events which would allow Evangeline reentry into Mulhound were so specific and unlikely they didn’t register as a concern for Xiao. Until she talked to Hina last night.

She would see Hina again tonight, look at the chalk drawing on the giant’s cave wall that Gaius was so against viewing.

 

“Who told you this? I thought they were dead?” Xiao said.

“Never mind who told me. And yes, we thought them dead but unfortunately the dead don’t stay dead it seems.” The Green Knight stood. “Apparently they’re given to some strange occult beliefs from the dead continent Sueno. They want to raise the--”

“Moonfire and Sunfire Phoenix?” Xiao said.

The Green Knight turned slowly towards Xiao. “You know the old myths?”

“I was . . .” Xiao paused, “I used to study those things when I was a younger woman.”

The Green Knight brushed back a bit of her black, curly hair and said. “You know the myth of the Moonfire and Sunfire Phoenix?”

Xiao nodded. “At the beginning, before time, before space, all that existed was the sun and the moon. Ever circling one another in a cosmic dance. One day the fire of the sun touched the moon and two phoenixes appeared. The Sunfire Phoenix raged and raked at  the nothingness, tearing into the fabric of emptiness, and created ash. The Moonfire Phoenix took the ashes and created the planes and worlds within them. She waited for the Sunfire Phoenix and its brilliant, violent wings to fly over these new creations and bring passion into those empty worlds. The Moonfire Phoenix took the passion and tempered it with empathy. After this, the first beings were made in Gilea and Sueno. Sisters, ever knowing of each other but never meeting.”

The Green Knight laughed. “Oh, it’s such a lovely little fairytale.”

“Some don’t believe it’s fiction, my dear Knight,” Xiao said, her lips pulled tightly.

“Of course it is, but people will go to extreme lengths in the name of story and belief. And I think Evangeline and Ras are willing to kill for it.”

“People will do what they most know in the face of uncertainty,” Xiao said.

“And with their threat, I’m going to do what I must, which is protect my land and my continent against them.”

Xiao stood. “I have full confidence that you will, my Knight,” she said, then bowed.

 

Orange light dappled into the conference room. The clouds they could see through the windows were purple and swollen.

“It’s getting late,” the Green Knight said. “You must tell me where you got that shawl, it’s entrancing.”

“My second, Gaius, is an excellent tailor. Perhaps he could make one for you?”

“I would like that,” the Green Knight said. She looked at her guard. “Let’s head back to Stendahl, Shalibin is arriving tonight.”

And with that, the Knight and her guard left Mulhound. Xiao wondered if Parton had taken a breath during their entire visit even though he was at the guard tower.

 

As soon as the Green Knight and her guard disappeared over the horizon Xiao took her shawl and recited, “In the cave, the augur and giant.” The entire shawl lit up as she placed it on the floor, crossed her arms, and fell straight back into it.

 

At the mouth of the cave deep within the trenches of the Dead River Canyons Hina Harap stood as tall as any one of the buildings in Mulhound. The giant auger. Her violet eyes steady. “I . . . expected you. The Knight . . . just left.”

“She did..”

“Now  . . . you seek . . . Gaius’s destiny.”

“Yes.”

The giant turned her back to Xiao and entered the cave, carrying a piece of silver chalk the same color as Gaius’ armor. It was ink black inside. A gold piece of chalk the size of Xiao’s thigh lay at the mouth of the cave. A great fire lit and the giant held a torch beside her face.

“You fear . . . loss.”

Xiao said nothing.

“You have lost . . . so  much. You will . . . lose more. Come . . . if  you wish to mourn . . . what . . . will be.”

Xiao took a breath and entered the cave.

 

It was well after dark when she returned to Mulhound. The first face to greet her was Gaius’. “Miss Xiao, where have you--” Gaius stopped. He leaned in and sniffed, smelling the smoke of the great torches and the earth of the cave floor. “The giant?”

Xiao nodded.

“The future is not ours to know, Miss Xiao.”

This man -- her oldest friend, the one who told her when she was not yet a woman, when her name was still Min, that she was to be the next Xiao and the Suenan whose duty it is to protect all her people - looked like a concerned mother dealing with a frequently delinquent daughter.

“Gaius, let’s not,” Xiao paused and looked at him. She placed her hand on his face, smiling gently.

Gaius slightly shook his head, his eyebrows knitting together. “Are you tired, Miss Xiao?”

“Did Finch like the suit you made?”

“It is late, Miss Xiao. I can tell you tomorrow after a good night’s rest.”

“Tell me about Finch and his husband, now, please,” she said, softly.   

Gaius smiled, a few missing teeth a reminder to their final desperate fight in their homeland. “He did. You know Finch and his shop and the clocks. All day tick tock, the green-gold dragon talk talks, it’s an afternoon of tock talk.”

“I know.” Xiao laughed. “You tell me each time you two see each other.”

“I tell you because you always laugh when I say it, Miss Xiao.”

“I laugh because it makes you happy to tell me.”

Gaius looked at her. “You should rest, Miss Xiao. The Purple Knight is coming tomorrow and you want to be at your best. Where is Namla’s door?”

“Oh!” Xiao shook her head and went to the stairs, “I hid her when the Green Knight came.”

“Shall I feed her?” Gaius said.

“No, let me.”

“Yes, Miss Xiao.”  Gaius said. He started to remove his enormous armor, beginning with the silver headpiece which had horns like the caradins in Sueno. She noted he only had one streak of color in his white hair. When he’d told her she was to be Xiao his hair was dark as night.

She smiled to herself as she got food from the kitchen and returned to the hidden door beside her study. “Reappear, be safe, my dear.” The ruby in her shawl returned to its normal color and she opened the door to see Namla asleep as she had been ever since she was brought to Mulhound that night. Xiao sat beside the girl and stroked her hair, feeling the Tiefling horns like ram’s horns, underneath. As she did, Xiao noted the wrinkles in her own hands, the blossoming liver spots at the fleshy part between her thumb and forefinger. Her fingers calloused from weapon training but now also, at times, unsteady.

She looked to the sleeping girl and placed her shawl over her as she propped her up and fed her soup.

She kept her shawl over Namla as she read from “The Clever Sisters: Trouble in Treble.” As she read she could see brief smiles on the girl’s thin face.

After finishing the same chapter in both common and Suenan she rubbed Namla’s chest where the shawl lay, whispering “love” in three different languages: Suenan, Common, and Infernal. As she did the ruby, azure, and saffron lines in her shawl started to glow. Xiao liked to think that the incantation would reach into the dreams of the eternally sleeping girl. A prayer of certainty to an unknown place.

Before returning to her study, Xiao went to Gaius’s room, taking care to be quiet in case he was asleep.

Instead of sleeping he was in his robes, in meditation, kneeling at an altar of the Moonfire Phoenix.

Xiao gasped.

In Hina’s cave she’d seen Gaius in this same position. Kneeling. Two of Evangeline’s blades run through him. Dying in their great hall.

Gaius opened his eyes and turned to her. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost, Miss Xiao.”

Xiao thought for a moment, careful to keep her face calm. “It’s just you, Gaius.”