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Glorious Wren: Microfiction

Dead End

FY 756, the temple tunnels of Gethamane

Terin Kakaral (known more frequently as Wren, Little Wren, or “that little troublemaker”) stumbled in shock as she finally broke through the ice. She'd been searching this tunnel for weeks now, certain that there was a hidden chamber nearby. With a single-mindedness seldom-found in one who has only recently seen her tenth winter, she had finally narrowed down the options to one of three dead ends, and had been about to give up on this one when her insistent digging finally paid off.

She picked herself up, fetched the small lantern, and entered the new cavern. This is the best part. When it's empty and secret and dark, before I have to go tell the priests about it. When it's still my little secret. She crept forward slowly, mindful of the sounds she made. As if Mom would let me forget. Shout a little too loudly once; like I was supposed to know the ceiling supports had melted…

The entryway was unusual - a wide, low-ceiling chamber, with tens, even hundreds of thin columns of crystal ice. The reflections of lantern-light made them glow bright and sharp, and she stood for a moment, hypnotized by the sight. This is new.

The open area beyond was too small and simple to be a proper temple, but she recognized the script on the wide flat circular wall. But what drew her attention was the simple alter in the center of the circular chamber - a low, flat rectangle, carved ice over a steel… box? A box large enough for a tall man. And atop it, two matching blades - short, but wide, with sharp cutting edges, of a bright burnished gold. This is no temple. Not even close.

If it's not a temple, I don't have to report it.

She picked up the blades. They were heavy - much heavier then they looked. But she wasn't planning to fight with them. She grinned, and tossed her head triumphantly, sending short strands of silver-white hair flying. Trophies. For my collection.

She retreated slowly, and marked the tunnel on the map. “Dead End”. My little secret. I'll puzzle you out one day, I promise.

Of course, she'd still have to explain her trophies to Mom. But she was used to that.


FY 770, the war camp of the Army of the Bull

“Warlord?” the aide inquires. He is smart enough to wait for the woman he addresses to complete her motion, bringing the pair of wide, flat blades to rest.

Having done so, she sheaths the twin daiklaives at her belt and turns her crimson gaze on the young lieutenant. He refrains from flinching, and continues, “The Bull requests your presence.”

She nods, and replies, “Very well. Lead on, I'll not keep him waiting.” She follows the youth to the large central tent, and enters without ceremony. “You summoned me, Lord Kaneko?”

The barbarian general, terror of the Realm, was almost as large as the tales painted him, and certainly as aggressive. Here, in his own camp, at least, he had laid his weapons aside and was bent over a map with some of his advisers. He looked up. “Wren,” he greeted her warmly, “we have some interesting times ahead. It appears that the Realm is taking us more seriously. We've had reports that they're draining their garrisons in the south dry to move more troops to the war.”

“Bah,” Wren spat dismissively, “more cannon fodder.” Not that I'm complaining too much. We'll tear through them like the last batch.

“Maybe not. They're sending the Roseblack.”

Now the young general looked interested. “Really? Do they think she can win? Or is it just a ploy to get her killed? You know how much the Deliberative appreciates successful generals.”

“I suspect they'll take what they can get. They have to know we've beaten the League down badly, and more flock to our banner each week.”

“I've heard much of this daughter of Tepet's skill in the field. A great general, perhaps better than me.” But if I catch her alone, her troops won't save her.

“Though doubtful she's so handy with a blade,” Kaneko said, unconsciously echoing her thoughts.

Wren shrugged. She held no false modesty: there were few who could match her in single combat.

Kaneko grinned widely. “However, that will be my battle. I have need of you elsewhere.”

“Oh.” Wren's reaction was not precisely disappointment, but it edged on it. Damn. I was looking forward to the match.

“My advisers have read some very interesting news in the stars. There's a circle in the South, a company of Solar Exalted. They've been making considerable strides, and I've decided it's in our best interests to see that the Realm is forced into war on as many fronts as possible.”

Wren's eyes narrowed. “I'm not sure I like where this is going.”

“No, perhaps not. But I need to send an emissary, and whoever I send needs to have authority to make decisions in isolation, and the skill to back them up. Of my warlords, you are the one I think is most suited to this command.”

Damn and wrack. A sea voyage, then diplomacy at the end of it. “May I take the 12th?”

Kaneko blinked slowly, then caught on. “Excellent decision. Yes, take the Blades, by all means. Would you like your full orders?”

May as well make it official. Wren stood to attention, and said “I am.”

The Bull echoed her posture. “Warlord Glorious Wren, in the name of the Bull and the Unconquered Sun, you are directed to take the 12th Spear south to the shore, to seize vessels from the Realm, and to take those vessels south through the Inland Sea. In the course of this journey, you may provision as necessary, and raid what Realm commerce you are able. You will take port at Thorns, there to begin inquiring as to the disposition of this Solar circle. You will make alliance with them if possible - you will be given all the authority you require, along with letters of introduction and provenance. You will aide them insofar as that aid serves our long-term goals: toppling the Realm and restoring individual rule.”

Wren saluted formally. “This I will do. I will set out at once.”

“See to it. Good hunting.”

“For the Unconquered Sun.”

Wren turned and departed.

Death from Above

FY 767, atop the Andarist Eisklippen

It was the dead of a moonless night, and the Realm forces below had chosen a secure place to camp. A small crevice in the Andarist range, backed up against the vast ice cliffs, they had an single point of entrance, a thin path they could defend forever if need be.

Of course, that means they can't get out, either. Poor bastards.

Glorious Wren continued creeping forward along the top of the cliffs and looked down. Fires glittered at the bottom, but most of the camp was asleep. She checked the harness again - modified from a recreational glider, the engineers of the 12th had assured her that it was as close to failsafe as they could make it.

And if anything goes wrong, I get to fight the whole camp on my own. This should be interesting.

She whistled the sharp cry of the stiltwalker, a common enough bird in these parts, and heard the quiet shuffling of troops taking up positions across the edge of the cliff. With quick, sure motions, they assembled the harnesses, spreading the wide stretches of fabric that would, hopefully, keep them alive. A few minutes to get everyone in place, and whistling again, she leapt out over the edge and began to glide downward. Faster than she would have liked, but she had to hit first.

She drew the ornate orichalcum halberd, and prepared to soften up the landing area with a few shockwaves.

There won't be a Realm soldier alive by morning, and those who come after will have no idea how or why. That should give them something to think about.

Blue Sea, Blue Sky

FY 771, on the open seas

“Surrender, idiot. You're far outnumbered, and besides, I could crush you all myself.” Wren shifted her stance, emphasizing the twin blades she carried. The bare gold of orichacum could scarcely fail to register on even these foolish dogs of the Realm.

Yet the captain seemed unphased. Truly so foolish? Or…

“Glorious Wren. Treacherous warlord who slew my brother at Frozen Ford. My family will be avenged.”

The words came from nowhere, but their import was unmistakeable. As was the javelin launched from the air. It struck the deck, piercing the shadow Wren had left in her wake as she dodged.

Despite the danger, she laughed. “Cathek? Your brother died well.” She fell into the stance of Sun and Sun's Mirror, and her foes abruptly faced two foes. “I will show you how.”

Unfolding Wrath

FY 786, the city of Dammerung-Ort

The cold autumn wind swept south, out of the forests, and caught the woman walking the palace heights unaware. She paused for a moment, savoring its chill.

I've been here for so long. I've forgotten what a proper winter feels like.

She looked down over the white ramparts to the city below. Her silver-white hair was grown out, and drifted lazily in the breeze; she was garbed in gold and white, a layered, flowing robe styled after the mantle of Solar office. She was reminded suddenly of a battle outside the walls of Kirighast.

The day I arrived… they thought I was a deathknight. Elegie fur Gefallen - to me, a reminder of those I lost. To others, a badge of unbearable hubris. Still, I grew fond of it, and the power it brought. It is well enough that I put it away to master other powers. I should never rely entirely on such a thing. It has a season, no doubt, and I will need it again someday.

She turned, lost in memory.

We fought like lions, in those days. Kutecheo, the dynasts at the Empress's sanctum, the undead hordes. And the battle at Black Shimmering Garden1).

Now I run an army, of a size and power not seen since the Usurpation. Solars, Dragon-Blooded, and gods all. And what do we do with it? Enforce this damned quarantine. Thirteen years, and we still don't have it under control. Black plague, spawned of the Neverborn.

The Glorious Wren of forty seasons was, perhaps, less flighty then the icewalker warlord who'd followed the Bull for a chance at glory and justice. But no less driven by the need for battle, and the years of standing sentinel had pushed her restlessness to new heights.

She looked out over the city. Her city, built from her army, and felt a sense of satisfaction war with her intemperance. I am building something new. But gods of Heaven, give me something to fight.

Her reverie was interrupted by a uniformed messenger. “General? Report from the 23rd - a barbarian force is massing to the east, outside the quarantine. They appear to be moving toward the line.”

Already? I shall have to draft a letter of commendation to someone. She turned, then paused.

What she thought was, To assault this with nothing but a shock force would be madness. I should send a blade, maybe two. If it were trivial, I never would have been notified. I should have a solid force at my back, with heavy calvary to ride them down and archers to pick off the stragglers. Swift, decisive, overwhelming. Safe.

What she said was, “Dispatch a summons to the Vorwartsflamme, and another to have my Manta readied. I'll attend to this personally.”

I'll rest when I'm dead. Battle calls.

Her robes trailing behind her, Glorious Wren gave herself to the call of war.

Lessons of the Spider

FY 804, a forest near the quarantine line

Wren picked herself up and dusted her robes, coming quickly back to a ready stance, hands out and fingers held like fangs.

“Idiot child! The spider is savage yet graceful. You move like an impatient hunting cat!” The old man2) berating her was her senior by, quite literally, millennia. Everyone was an idiot child to him. But Wren was losing patience.

She centered herself, and began to slide forward again, feet moving in a rapid skittering pattern. The sifu danced back, matching her speed.

“Your understanding of Essence is flawed. You rely too much on other styles, on Prismatic Arrangement Form. Forget that style, it is forbidden to you in this place! You will learn to fight like the pattern spiders here - leap, dance, poison, withdraw. Again!”

The white-haired Solar grimaced. He's right. I'm using the Arrangement like a crutch. In an instant, some of the overlapping auras of power fell from her, and a sheet of scrollwork floated to the ground. She moved around the Sidereal, waiting for the chance to strike, studying him and the interplay of his magic. He knows the style and its limits better than I do, but he's not used to using it against Solars. Without Soul Fire Shaper Form, he expects my abilities to be as limited as another Sidereal would be. Advantage: me.

Glorious Wren lept forward, faster than thought, moving through Fate three ways at once. She struck out with both hands, stabbing downward into his shoulders. Setting Sun Approach. He dodged, but she was ready: continuing the movement of her hands, she pounded them into the ground, her Essence flaring wildly as she struck his shadow. Deception Pierces Truth Strike. As he staggered, his defenses disarrayed, she went for the final strike. Glittering strands of Essence sprung from the ground, homing in like darts to strike home. Rain of Unseen Threads.

Abruptly, he was behind her. Duck Fate. Cheater. I need to get him to teach me that. But he was smiling.

“Not bad, little bird. You may be a worthwhile student yet. We will stop for now; meditate on the nearness of your victory.”

Wren composed herself, and made a formal bow. “I will do so, sifu.”

He nodded, the formality of the lesson gone. “I'm sure you will. You don't seem to care much for failure.”

“No. It costs too much.” They began walking back toward the parked Manta, though the Sidereal would not be joining her.

“Be careful, little bird,” he said, without turning his head. “It is one thing to be passionate, but you cannot afford obsession. If we are to make a better age, we must abjure the excesses of the old.”

“So you and yours are forever reminding me. But surely I am not your greatest concern.”


“What news on the Ascendant?”

They walked in silence for a little longer, as the elder refused to answer. Then he said, “We are keeping an eye on the situation. That incident with the Yozi last year worried many.”

He stopped, and turned toward Wren. “But your own activities have not gone unnoticed. It is well that you are seen as being under my instruction - the Pillars are being watched very carefully, and there are whispers about some of the matters you study.”

“By which you mean necromancy.”

“Yes. True,” he stated, holding up a hand to forestall her objection, “it can be wielded in Creation's defense, and was, in the First Age. But it is a prickly weapon, and its use is all too easily corrupted. I won't lecture you again, but it weighs against you.”

Wren's eyes shadowed, weary of the refrain. But she nodded understanding. “All the same,” she said, “we will not survive the Well of Udr without it. And if someone must wield it… well, I can think of worse choices.”

They reached the Manta, and the Sidereal began shaping the sorcery to call the Gate of Calibration as Wren boarded the entry ramp. They did not speak again.

Black Words

YD 53, the far Eastern woodlands

Glorious Wren rose just as the sun went down.

It bodes poorly that an Exalted of the Sun should have to work at night. But that is the nature of the art.

She walked across the soft earth and fetched the simple black robe hanging under a shelter of branches. She shrugged into it, tossing her long hair free.

Tonight. I finally have the name I need. Like a treestalker following a san-monkey, I've been leaping from ghost to ghost, following names and legends. Last week's specter had what I wanted. I'm almost to the end of the road.

A brief cough expelled the dust of sleep from her throat, and she took a small drink of water from the stream. There was no trepidation, no moment of hesitance in her movements. She took the knife of flaked obsidian from its resting place, and began to draw the summoning circle on the ground.

The preparation of the ritual took a bit less than an hour - movements she completed with long, tired practice, her Essence flaring a white-gold blizzard around her as she spent it like water. At last, she finished the diagrams, and drew the blade across the palm of her left hand, letting a few drops of blood hit the brown earth below.

“By the rites of the Iron Circle, I call out to the Underworld,” Wren recited, “and summon forth the shade of Black Winter Weeping. Come forth. You are summoned, and the power of the Unconquered Sun demands your presence. Come forth!” She delivered the last with a shout, and a black form began to take shape in the circle. Immediately she threw her will against it, and felt its power. An older ghost, I've never summoned, nor one more dangerous. It struggled, seeking to refuse binding.

Glorious Wren had not come unprepared. She'd spent a week researching what was necessary, and she brandished a thin blade of rust-stained steel. It was ancient, and would be utterly useless as a weapon in combat. But she was not wielding it against physical armor. “Black Winter Weeping, by the sword that slew you, I bind you.” She felt the ghost's will slip, and held up a silver pendant, tarnished black with age. “By the symbol of the love you lost, I bind you.” The bindings of her Essence slid into place around the specter, and the black shape coalesced into a human form.

The creature shrieked with rage and torment, but it was bound. Also, useless, in its current state.

Wren extended a hand, and a hulking humanoid of green jade stepped forward. It knew what was necessary, and began pouring its Essence into her, filling her once again with power. Enough to free this poor, broken soul.

After the hour of ritual and struggle, calling forth a second work of necromancy seemed easy by comparison. She threw the white-gold power of Golden Shadows Cast in Frieze at the specter. The spell worked as it had been crafted to, throwing off the whispers of Oblivion and leaving Black Winter Weeping cleansed of madness.

The old man that looked back at her stared, despair in his dead eyes. She felt pity for this soul, lost for ages in madness.

I will free him. But first I need to know what he knows.

“Why have you done this?” the ghost asked.

“You have lived in the Labyrinth for a thousand years. I need to know what you know.”

“So long?” Unshed tears began to pool in the eyes of Black Winter Weeping.

Wren hurried forward, before compassion overcame her completely. She hardened herself. “Tell me what I need,” she said, “and I will free you.”

The ghost looked suspicious. He doesn't believe me. She held out a hand, and her Essence flared again. “By my oath before the sun, I will free you to Lethe. Once you tell me what I need of the Labyrinth.” His eyes lowered, and he began to speak.

What he had to say wasn't much, but it was enough. It was the secret she was looking for, the unnameable truth at the heart of the Labyrinth.

True to her word, she cast a final spell, gathering up the attachments between the ghost and the artifacts that bound him to life. She cut them with a slashing gesture. “Go to your next life, old man. May it be better then your last.”

He wept openly as Lethe claimed him. Wren closed her eyes, but the sight of him would not leave her.

She sat, disquieted, and began to write.

the Underworld manse the GC came out of, unless it has another name
he's unnamed in this story, in case you want to do something with him