- Combat Encounter
Electricity crackled through the roiling purple clouds far overhead, making Marinna hurry faster, clutching her basket close. Her quick footsteps echoed on the damp stone blocks, and she thought she saw something small and silent darting away as she approached, vanishing into a crack between the stones. But her goal was speed, not stealth. Only one thing could harm Marinna here—and she was racing right toward it.
A low rumble shook the ground, and Marinna stumbled slightly before regaining her balance. The storms had been unusually violent of late, so much so that even her father had taken note of it. “Three cannawatts of energy, I’d say,” he said, standing at the window of his study looking out at the dark, crackling clouds, white eyebrows twitching as they always did in a moment of surprise. “Most irregular, especially for the season. I’ll have to inform the Council about it during our next meeting.”
He frowned and turned to Marinna, waiting at the door. “But no matter. The shields will protect you as you travel. And if you hurry, you may be there and back before the storm arrives anyway.”
“Yes, Father,” Marinna replied, “but wouldn’t it be best to wait until afterward? It hasn’t been long since—”
“It’s been long enough,” her father cut in as his frown deepened. “This is not something to push, Marinna. A storm is a storm, powerful but manageable. Something like this is far worse. And we have only two days left before the final trial must be made. Now is not the time for carelessness.”
“No, Father,” Marinna said, her heart sinking. For Lord Carliss Cawallon, carelessness was the most unforgiveable thing—the only unforgiveable thing, really. To avoid falling prey to it, he would do—and risk—anything.
Another rumble brought Marinna’s mind back to the present, and she sighed as she looked down at her basket. Ten bright red marlocs, still producing their faintly musky scent, lay in two even rows of five fruits each. Highly resistant to the destructive effects of miasma, marlocs were delicious, filling, and outrageously expensive. Each marloc tree took a year to produce a lone fruit, and they only remained ripe while still on the branch. Upon removal, they began rotting within hours, and any bruise to their smooth red skin only hastened the process. Lord Cawallon had a hydroponic basin dedicated to producing the trees, and ten caretakers assigned just to their management. Marinna had always winced at how much money was used just to produce a few fruits…but for what they were intended to do, her father viewed them as a bargain.
The ground shook again, and Marinna turned her gaze forward. She had no time to meditate on fruits and expenses if she wished to reach the Sanctuary before the storm arrived. And as she looked up, she saw she was still some distance from her goal.
The Sanctuary loomed above her, the great stone building perched on the high peak of Mirrorfell. Though the land around it was dark and growing darker by the second as the ominous clouds closed in, the Sanctuary gleamed in the shafts of light coming from directly above it, where the sky was always bright and clear. Three great spires soared above its arched roof, reaching for the beauty of the open air, free of the miasma blanketing the rest of the planet. As a child, Marinna had longed to climb that spire, to feel the cool, fresh air on her face, to shield her eyes against the warm sunlight.
As a child, she reminded herself. Adults understand reality.
Suddenly Marinna heard a loud crack, and she barely managed to brace herself before the impact of the lightning bolt on the ground not far behind threw her forward. She stumbled and fell hard on one knee, her basket tilting alarmingly, and only just managed to catch it before the marlocs tumbled onto the stone blocks.
Gritting her teeth against the pain (“Nothing’s broken, is it? Then there’s no reason to stay lying on the ground,” her father would have said), she stood and glanced back at the blackened stone before starting forward again on her last desperate attempt to escape the storm’s overwhelming fury. No more time for fantasies now, she thought as she rushed down the stone path, running as fast as she dared without risking the marlocs, all the way to the stairs of the Sanctuary, then up to the great stone doors, ordained with spiraling sigils that looked like circuitry engraved upon their surface. They were open, of course, and unguarded. The Sanctuary needed no outside protection.
What awaited inside was protection enough.
As Marinna passed through the doors, another bolt struck the path she had taken, and she looked over her shoulder at the chaos outside. The storm was savagely powerful, its bolts rending the air, fusing ground, and shattering rock wherever they touched.
But as she turned back, watching the shafts of light shine down from the windows in the roof of the Sanctuary, she knew it could not touch her here. No clouds of miasma roiled above the building; the sky was clear blue, deep and pure. Inside the Sanctuary, great trees grew, green leaves adorning their branches. Two calm pools filled with gently rippling water, outlined by moss and longer grass, stood between her and the other end of the room. All was quiet peace.
And as Marinna lifted her gaze to the end of the room, she saw the source of the safety—and the most dangerous thing in her world.
There, standing on the stairs above the furthest pool, was the cage. Its curved metal bars had been designed by a hundred artisans, shaped, fired, and forged by science and magic the knowledge of which was long forgotten.
And within it, staring at Marinna with dark, unblinking eyes as it sat on its perch, was the Owl.
The Owl was enormous, larger than Marinna herself, and covered in white feathers with overlapping traces of green. “Probably a result of exposure to the miasma,” her father had mused when they had first captured the Owl, observing its great beak and talons sharp enough to rip stone from the side of a mountain as if it were mere dirt. “Most unusual.”
Around its neck was a large red ribbon—but no mere sign of ownership. The ribbon was made of thousands of microfilaments of arlin steel, as strong as it was flexible—but if the Owl chose, it could rip it in half with a casual flick of its beak. Yet the ribbon, vibrating with a thousand harmonic notes produced by the Resonator in Lord Cawallon’s study, kept the Owl pacified and docile.
Marinna, slowly walking across the track of stones which granted access to the Owl’s cage, knew this. She knew the beast was kept in check by the Resonator, held in place by the cage. She knew that if it could have escaped, it would already have done so. And she knew that its aura, which held back the miasma, which preserved the sky clear and bright above the Sanctuary, was the same thing keeping her safe from the deadly storm.
But she was only one person, carrying a basket of marlocs, and the Owl’s gaze pierced deep. The sooner she was done with this, the better.
Marinna passed over the last stone in the shallow lake and climbed the eight steps to the stone platform holding the cage, feeling her feet sink into the soft moss covering the stairs. As she stepped onto the platform, gaze averted from the Owl, she reached into the basket to get the first marloc.
The Owl hooted.
Despite her intention to stay resolute during the feeding, Marinna almost fell over in surprise. She dropped the marloc before catching herself and taking several large steps back from the cage. Cautiously she lifted her eyes and saw the Owl, looking at her steadily.
Mother’s breath, no! she thought. It—it can’t have just done that. It can’t make a noise when it’s wearing the ribbon. It doesn’t make sound. It never makes sound.
Again the Owl hooted, more quietly this time, but rich, deep, mournful, like an echo of memory. Its dark gaze was still upon her.
“I…” she began. “I—I don’t understand. I’m just here to feed you, I’ve done it before…” She trailed off as she saw the great bird tilt its head slightly, as if curious. “You—you can’t understand me. You’re just supposed to eat, and drink, and later on fly…but…” She stopped again, feeling her face flush. “I’m not supposed to talk,” she said in a mixture of confusion and anger. “I’m just supposed to feed you.”
She picked up the fallen marloc and tossed the fruit into the cage. The Owl turned its head slightly in the direction of the fruit, then looked back at Marinna, who quailed under its fathomless gaze. “M-m-maybe I’ll return later,” she stammered, silently cursing herself for having met the Owl’s gaze so close to its cage, “when you’re more…hungry.” She picked up the basket and turned to go.
Suddenly Marinna heard a faint scrape on the bars behind her, and in spite of her fear, turned to see the Owl pointing one of its talons toward one of the panels of metal which lined the inside of the cage. Not really knowing why, she took a hesitant step forward, trying to avoid seeing the great bird’s merciless expression, and looked at the metal panel.
At first she saw simply random scrapes and scratches on its surface—which, given the hardness of the metal, was testament to the strength of the Owl’s claws. But then something struck her as oddly familiar. In spite of the Owl’s looming presence, she leaned closer, her eyes widening.
The marks were not random scratches. They were letters—letters in the runic script of Marinna’s people—and they spelled words, which in turn spelled a sentence. Trembling, Marinna read:
Sunlight and sky.
Marinna’s mouth dropped open, and her basket fell on the ground as she staggered back. She looked around wildly, searching for anyone who might be watching from the shadows. Someone had done this; someone had written these words, as a test, a warning…
But there was no one else here. The Sanctuary stood silent and, except for Marinna and the Owl, empty. Besides, the idea was impossible: no one could have scratched anything onto the inside of the Owl’s cage, not without being torn to shreds by the Owl’s talons. And nothing besides the Owl’s talons was powerful enough to mark the metal anyway. The only answer was the Owl. The Owl had written the words itself.
Marinna gazed up at the Owl, still watching her, its head tilted slightly as if curious. “Sunlight,” she said after a long moment, feeling slightly sick, “and sky. You wrote those words.”
The Owl made no noise, but even as Marinna looked, she knew it was true. The most sacred words of her people—the words her father had learned from her grandfather, the words Marinna’s mother had whispered to her as a child before she passed away, caught in a sudden storm of miasma, and overcome before she could reach safety, leaving her family caught in the merciless grip of anguish and loss, driving her father to pervert nature itself to escape the relentless march of death and endings—had been written on the inside of its cage by the Owl. Somehow, impossibly, it knew.
“I don’t understand,” Marinna finally said, her voice husky with memory. “How do you know these words? What do you want?”
The Owl lifted its head, wings stretching out to the limits of its cage, and cast its gaze heavenward, to where the open sky beckoned far above the Sanctuary.
Marinna shook her head. “No…” she said, barely audible. “No, I—I can’t. I can’t do that.”
The Owl looked back at her, and she turned before its gaze could meet hers. “My father,” she said. “He entrusted me with this. He found you, discovered what you could do—what you were—long ago. And his plan is working. You’re almost ready.”
Deep within its throat, the Owl made a low noise—a small, mournful cry.
“No!” Marinna said, suddenly angry, and turned back to face it. “No. Even if my father allowed it. If I let you go…if I freed you, and you flew away—your power would go with you. The storms would return. Instead of finding a way free from the clouds, we would all be…trapped here. Maybe forever.”
The Owl’s gaze was steady, but not fierce, or threatening. Had it been possible, Marinna would have sworn it looked sad.
“No,” she said again, desperately. “I’m sorry we have to do this…I really am…but you’re the key to freeing us. You’re the only…the only…” Marinna trailed off and lowered her head. Because she knew that although what she was saying might be true, it was not enough. The Owl was indeed intelligent enough now to understand language; the marlocs had done exactly what her father had intended. What he could not have known was how well the strange fruits would work, for the Owl had also become intelligent enough to understand the sacrifice being asked of it: a terrible gamble, the chance that by destroying itself, the aura released upon its death might also destroy the clouds of miasma encircling Marinna’s world.
And it did not want to make that sacrifice. It wanted what all of them wanted: sunlight and sky,
Marinna blinked away tears. Lord Carliss Cawallon was many things, but sentimental was not one of them. Soon he would come to inspect the Owl, and then the Owl would be destroyed, and the planet freed…or not freed, and it would be the same.
Except the Owl, which would be dead.
And it knew it.
Suddenly a flood of images poured into Marinna’s head: her father’s fierce expression as he sent her into the storm, the ever-present purple clouds overhead…and moments from her childhood, before the storms came, as she ran through the gardens outside her home, her parents watching her from the open front door while she laughed in delight.
And the sky above—full of huge birds, soaring and circling overhead, wings beating in time with her heart.
All gone now. All except the Owl.
Marinna looked up, eyes red with reverie.
The Owl gazed back at her.
* * *
When the Sanctuary fell, with the worst storm anyone had ever seen raining bolts of crackling energy down upon it, shattering its stone walls and crumbling its foundations, the Cawallon servants grieved. It was not safe enough, they whispered in the kitchen and the gardens. It was too dangerous for the girl to have gone there.
Whether Lord Cawallon ever heard these whispers, he never said. Indeed, he said little more from that point forward, spending most of his time at the window in his study, back ramrod straight, arms folded, gaze directed towards the ruin of the Sanctuary in the distance, in the exact spot he had stood in when it first fell.
Only he had seen its collapse under the rage of the storm. And above it, a small white shape, soaring ever higher as he stared in shock, with—though surely this was a trick of the light, merely a bout of melancholic weakness—an even smaller dark shape upon its back.
Had any servant dared to sneak inside the study then, to see Lord Cawallon’s angular, weathered face fixed and unmoving, they might have heard a whisper escape his lips as he watched.
“Sunlight and sky.”
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by Gregory A. Wilson, speculative fiction writer, college professor, Twitch streamer / Dungeon Master, musician, and podcaster. Greg has published several novels and a graphic novel (with more longer work forthcoming), plus short stories in various places, most recently in the Mystery! Anthology published by Down and Out Books.
All non-Fallen Heroes, including a non-Fallen Hero with the Arlin Steel Ribbon in their inventory, must be adjacent to or occupying this Square to achieve the [Easy Mode] Victory Conditions.
Shallow Water covers most of the Sky Sanctuary. Move Actions that begin or enter a Square of Shallow Water are made at -2 Range. Combatants cannot shift into or out of Shallow Water.
Pockets of Deep Water exist where the rock basin has eroded. Combatants cannot enter or occupy Squares of Deep Water.
Burnt and withered Marloc trees provide Cover.
A single, lone Marloc tree still stands. A Hero occupying an adjacent Square to the Marloc Tree may expend 1 Fast Action to retrieve a Marloc Fruit. (This item will have no Effect now, but may play a role in a sequel later.)
A ribbon made of red arlin steel sits coiled at the bottom of the Broken Cage. Unlike the rest of the items and structures of the Sanctuary, the ribbon shows little to no wear. A Hero may expend 1 Fast Action to either retrieve the Arlin Steel Ribbon from the Square it occupies and add it to their Inventory, or retrieve it from a Square occupied by the Hero with the Arlin Steel Ribbon.
This Combat Encounter follows from the events of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. You have the option of playing three ways:
- [Easy Mode]: All non-Fallen Heroes are on or adjacent to the Gangplank Square and one of them has the Arlin Steel Ribbon in their Inventory.
- [Hard Mode]: All Foes become Fallen.
- All Heroes become Fallen.
Following the events of Gelspar’s crisis, it is evident to Kendrick that to wrestle control of Adriel from the Council, he will need to uncover their secrets. Elise has returned with news of a sanctuary in the sky, hidden away in a dense cloud of miasma. She reports that it used to be a facility of some sort, most likely under Council control. Whatever used to be there has long since been destroyed, but perhaps, you might find something useful there. But beware, all kinds of wild beasts have made the Sky Sanctuary their home…