death is kind, and labours not

The Naira laps along the gaping maw of the underworld, and begs to differ to all those who do not believe in it. On the road there, black blossoms bloom, not present in the mortal realm. One could compare them to lotus flowers, peacefully floating upon the surface, but more sinister, more shadowed in myth and legend.

All souls eventually walk this road, be them kings, slaves, or gods. Many will reach into the waters to pick a blossom or two, delighting in their fragile scent, and a parched few will drink the waters of Naira before their turn. Some will fall in and drown, breathing in its waters and falling below its surface. The Naira is not forgiving, and those who fall in do not return back to its banks.

There is a gondola a few miles on, made from the delicate stems of the blossoms. Its tips are gently curved, and those flowers still bloom along its hull. There is no particular smell to it, quite unordinary of the blossoms, and the darkness conceals its true colours. Nor has the Naira stained or filled its contents, and it calmly sleeps against its gentle gait.

There no gondolier, only an oar made from the same black stems, and simple provisions for the trip. A pouch contains favourite food, and there would be a bottle of drink, but it has since been stolen by the Goddess of Trickery, who has been banished from here. At this point, many would have refused to cross, desperate to live again. Their instincts tell them there is no returning from this journey, and they are powerful in many. Some may be willing, content in their deeds.

At its edge sits a lonely being, with auburn hair kept in a lady-like cap, from some Millenia prior. It has long since gone out of fashion, but it looks as new as it was when she first acquired it from the Goddess of Trickery. A cape of raven feathers graces her shoulders, and she sits peacefully, as if oblivious to her duty.

Out of all the omniscient beings in this world, many know of the future, and give prophecies and readings to those in want. But out of all of these, only few have managed to learn of the present, and only one can deduce the truth of the past. Sweet words are used: sometimes she says that someone is waiting beyond, sometimes she says that they need to row to exit the dream, sometimes she merely says nothing and nods.

Eventually, even the most stubborn are coaxed onto the boat, and once they start rowing, find they cannot return back to that mysterious lady, as the current sweeps them on forward. They watch as the banks retreat, and are plunged into the true darkness of the cavern. Tiring, they stop and eat some food, and would take a sip from the bottle if it had not been stolen. However, these pleasures are not bottomless, and even the waters of the Naira look appealing then. They stare at the ceiling of the cave, lit with light like that of a thousand fireflies. Where does it come from? Most wonder this, and move to the side to take a handful of the bottomless waters of the Naira.

Juya simply waits for the gondola to come back, riderless, and for the next soul to come along.

Feyi's narrow escape from the waters of the dead

A pity that the present only becomes thoughts, and the dreams of the future paint themselves more clearly in time. When I still had my eyes, and we fought General An Yi on those plains. I had made a name for myself as the finest duelist: swift as the breath of the forest, sharp as the biting frost. Whereas, General An Yi had made a name as a madman, blundering his way through the battlefield, sword drenched pitifully in a river of foul liquid.

We met on a nice patch of ground, with only a few corpses scattered here an there. I had my twin curved blades, and he had his greatsword in hand, a fine thing, had he cleaned it from time to time. The nature of battles is that all those watching will remember, but those fighting will not. At some point, he had used the flat of his sword to swing at me, perhaps I had blocked the edge in some way.

Time no longer mattered: even in my thoughts I cannot say whether the following events happened a moment later, for it feels like they never happened at all. Specks of light so similar to stars shined on the roof of the cave - and I could tell it was a cave, for water dripped from the top, unlike rain - and a long shore stretched before me. When I peered into the distance, I could not ascertain the moment where the ceiling collided with the water, and the stars dipped below its depths, and I felt the need to find what lay at its edge...

There was a lady on the shore, in black cap and garb. She was more poised than I have ever been in this life, and did not flinch when I drew my blades. Perhaps she was too engrossed in the flower she was holding, pitch black like the night, like General An Yi's heart, like my own sins. Ma'am, I called, I am the Captain of the Dawn's Raid, I-

Captain of the Dawn's Raid? My name was said with a sing-song quality, and with great contemplation. So used to your title, that you forget your own name... She produced a staff of thorns, and swung them at me, faster then the forest breath, the biting cold.

I came to with a giant bruise on my neck, one eye gone to my own sword, and the other sword a few finger's width into his neck. I cannot say what happened, but I do think I shall meet her again.

Joza, young orphan of winterhaven

The uneducated do call her a demon. Weaver of magic, mistress of herbs, queen of evil. Does the demon listen? No, for she is not known by that name, and there is only one name she knows.

Juya, Juya, save my child from evil. She is but one, and a fever grips her frail body.

In times of need she comes, solemn as a ghost. From the backwaters of Athelion to the Marble Palace of Nivalis, whenever someone calls her name, she arrives, a silent ghost presiding over these affairs. If she was mortal, then she would be a witch. But no, that name is not what to call her. The mother clasps her child close to her heart, too close for Juya to see the child, just a tiny bundle of fur and fat. If only she could stop her tears, and wipe away the pain with her hands. The fever is a snake, winding a red tail along the child's skin. Juya coos at the child, and it smilies and reaches chubby hands out to her, blissfully unaware.

Poor thing. But you are a Fel, and you can take some solace in your magic abilities.

She places her hands on the child, and thinks of the curse she wants to use.

For your magic, I will let you live out your days: without the power of Fels, but with the strength of humans.

The young mortal's magic rushes into her like a typhoon, and she feels the wisps of coldness that the Cynthian Fels bring with them. This is but a small exchange, a good price to pay for your immortal soul, when you come to the banks of the Naira again.

half formed thoughts in the bottom of the pit

It was very easy to escape death, she mused, if only one could run faster than time. Her limbs easily blended in with the branches of the willow tree, and while her breath was still ragged, she supposed anyone could attribute that to the wind. A few bloody drops fell from her forehead, and slithered down to the crossbow on her hand, further staining it with blood.

Forehead wounds always bleed more, and hopefully it doesn't scar, what a waste! Please stop bleeding, please stop bleeding, please stop bleeding.

Commander Jiuya, need a cloth?

Jiuya softly punched the speaker in the stomach, and brought her finger to her chapped lips. The crossbow was pointed towards the myriad leaves of the willow, but it wasn't like they could see anything outside. The leaves taunted them, sometimes swaying side to side, so that their position could be exposed at any moment. The smell of blood hung heavily in the air, and both lonely figures felt a strong urge to retch.

She slowly extended a hand, and brought her companion to the same branch. It heaved under their combined weight, and he was concerned that it would fall, but remembered not to say a word. Cupping both hands, Jiuya blew into them, and out came the song of a bird, trilling for its mate.

Commander, there is no backup-

Again, she punched him in the guts, and he almost fell down. That sharp metallic stink got to him, and he forced down the rising bile in his throat.

The birdsong came from here! In this autumn weather, what bird can make that noise? Search around, make sure that the Hualing scu.m doesn't live past the sunset!

Blood tracks! Blood tracks, over here!

Hey, there are tracks over here too! Where did they go, they can't have vanished into in air?

Both their hearts beat fearfully, and in tune with the rising and falling of voices. The willow tree mocked them, leaves swaying in the wind like a drunk man. Sometimes, they could see small specks of blue through the gaps above, other times specks of brown below. And when she saw the specks of tarnished silver...

WHAM! She had let off a crossbow arrow at one armoured spectre who had strayed too close. Her aim was not impeccable, having hit the helmet and veering off course, however it had stunned the victim, leaving him to collapse in pain. She heard a howl, and a few shouts.

Kaizun! You fools, check the trees again! I refused to believe that you bunch of idiots can't see where they are! Even the stench of blood is high, and the Hualing scu.m is heavily injured! Go outwards from where Kaizun us, they must be close by!

Sir, a pack of wolves!

Jiuya almost collapsed in relief, and hurriedly reloading the crossbow, shot another arrow towards those close to her previous victim. It hit a gentlemen in white robes, and gave him a red flower spreading out from his abdomen.

AARGH! It hurts, it hurts...

The wolves howled, joining the moaning victim. She gave the crossbow to her stunned companion, and moved to another branch.

Shoot, but only at the humans.

Her companion was more sk!lled at shooting, and instead of rendering his victims unconscious, they were sure shots towards the neck. The wolves also became incensed, and in due time, their numbers had dwindled. A few howls were still heard, but whether from pain or wolves, one could not tell from behind the branches of the willow.

credits

A massive thank you to Emmie for allowing me to adopt Juya!

Layout made by Sunlit.
Art on left drawn by Ibuki Satsuki.
Patterned backgrounds from Mariposa.
Semi-Opaque background from Lolwat.

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