Hearts on a String [Story]

A careworn bard sets out to rescue his true love, and their rise to fame and fortune is marked with both death and dark magicks. Told by Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell, the fifth short story in the ‘Before the Moongate’ series.

[Audio Narration Coming Soon]

Previous stories: #1 “A Forgotten Secret in the Underworld
_______________ #2 “The Assassination of the High Precentor
_______________ #3 “The Voiceless Songstress
_______________ #4 “Echoes of the Last Laugh

Hearts on a String
by Holt Ironfell

Make no mistake, I saw my grandson die in that dark underground place, stabbed in the heart by the young woman he had loved — and more importantly, the young woman who had loved him to the point of obsession.

I recall standing at the moongate, before we went through. The three full moons rising in harmony as the sun set, the sky darkening. I knew not what dangers awaited in the New World, though I definitively knew the hive we had kicked in this one.

Ceridwen Ironfell, so different now than how I had known him even a year earlier, and Kialyra Greyroot — Lyra, I called her, so meek and innocent I had said: like a daughter to me. They clasped hands gently, and walked through the shimmering portal. Within hours, I would watch them die with my own eyes. For unlike Jobi Mockery and I, Holt Ironfell, the last true bard of Poets’ Circle… they were not cursed with an elixir of everlasting life.

Months before, Ceridwen had sent me a messenger: “Lyra is missing. No natural explanation. I have set out to find her. Please send help.”

Embroiled in my careful plots in the North, and Jobi’s work in the South absorbing him into the political landscape there, neither of us could do anything for the lovestruck boy.

Ceridwen had given up everything. Sold his instruments, his share of the Bard’s Barrel tavern and inn, his apartment. He had equipped himself for travel in the wastes, for after a thorough investigation of the Southern city-state, Kialyra was clearly not within its confines. The last place she was seen was entering the master suite of the Barrel, paying the innkeeper with the coin that stranger had given her to sing. Then there was nothing.

It was a difficult decision, for me, to divert Moonblade from his mission of finding the second moongate — its importance was paramount, and time was running out — but I did it, for love of my blood and to rescue two of the last remaining members of the Poets’ Circle. I needed them, and I had a duty to protect them.

There was nothing and nobody the Omari ranger could not find. He was known, amongst his people, for this. He could walk a straight line through a raging sandstorm. And so he met Ceridwen in the wastes.

Ceridwen was haggard, worn by the desert now, leaner and fitter. Focused and determined. He had given up the drink and had only a thirst for water now. No woman interested him other than the one he sought and missed so much.

“Why do you seek her, young Ironfell?” Moonblade asked of him soon after their first expedition into the salt flats, where the earth was bleached like the bones that sometimes lay scattered across it.

“I told her I would protect her…” Ceridwen gazed over the lifeless horizon. “But I never told her I loved her.”

“One does not love by words alone, young Ironfell.” The wise Omari said.

“I have changed my ways, Moonblade. And we must find her.”

“Neither does one find, by words alone. Let us set out.”

And so out they set, searching the desert for two weeks with the stars and winds to guide them. Moonblade’s ways were incomprehensible to Ceridwen, but so connected was the ranger to the listless lands that it seemed inevitable for some twist of fate to guide them to the lost songstress.

Ceridwen learned much of the world in those weeks. Learned much of the ash and silt, the dust, sand and salt. Moonblade had few words for it all, but music was in the other lad’s mind. A sad music, of ancient loss and ruin. The world was never going to heal, never get better. The best he could hope for was to find Kialyra — only she could cure this feeling for him. To lose her, he realized now, would be too much. He would care for nothing, save the sad music of unfulfilled love, and who would he care to share it with? Would his heart ever play upon strings again? What would be the point?

But then one day, as the high sun scorched and bleached the barren wastes, the pair of mounted travellers spotted a distant, diminutive and feminine figure. Ceridwen slapped the reins to rush out in that direction, but Moonblade shouted for him to stop and stayed the other man’s horse with his wooden walking staff.

“No, Ceridwen. Something is not right.” Moonblade narrowed his eyes.

“That’s her. I know Lyra, that’s her!!”

“If that is so, she can wait another few moments. First watch. Never rush towards someone in the wastes — there is nowhere to escape to if something goes wrong.”

He took out a pair of sun-slits to shade his eyes and see further into the bright salt flats, but Ceridwen quickly snatched it away and looked himself.

The woman was not approaching in a straight line. She half limped, walking the graceless path of someone near exhaustion and hopelessness. Her skin was pale and burnt by travel in the sun, chapped from dehydration. She wore a frayed salt-stained black cloak with a deep cowl. And finally, underneath, the crucial detail. Ceridwen saw her long tattered skirt and blouse, once so colourful and ornamented. It was an outfit he had bought for her himself. The outfit she was wearing the night she disappeared.

At once he leapt into a gallop, Moonblade kicking his steed to keep pace, dust flying up behind them. The woman stopped, swaying in place and gazed at the approaching riders. She seemed calm and ready, as if to meet some wicked end, and she raised a thin arm weakly and pointed a pair of fingers toward them.

However, when the riders were close enough that her blurry gaze could see details, she fell first to her knees, then collapsed in a heap in the salty sand.

“Lyra! Kialyra!” Ceridwen said desperately, leaping down from his horse and sliding to caress her and protect her in his arms.

She said nothing. Only stared back up in faint recognition, as if it had been years they’d been parted, not months. Moonblade brought water down and sated her thirst a little, pulling it back when it spilled. Kialyra coughed and sputtered weakly and gasped a ragged breath. And then she passed out in Ceridwen’s arms as tears of joy and relief escaped his eyes.

Returning to the city-state, he cradled her before him as the thirsty horse made its way back toward the setting sun, the dying light would turn the desert into a freezing waste that he was not certain Kialyra could survive. She was on the verge of death, surely.

When the black walls of the city loomed on the horizon, Moonblade slowed and stopped, dismounting.

“What are you doing?” Ceridwen asked, wheeling his horse around.

“I do not go into the city-state of the serpent-king with you. Take my horse, I need it not — I head north through terrain it would be ill suited to. You must sell it, anyway, to afford what you need to take care of the girl.”

“Thank you, Moonblade. For everything.”

“Be wary, blood of Holt. All is not right with her.”

“That much is obvious, is it not?” Ceridwen furrowed his brow.

“There is much that is not obvious, yet no less true. Watch carefully over her.” Moonblade warned.

But Ceridwen did not know the Omari’s wisdom and insight into things, nor trust it as well as I had learned to. My grandson had one thought, and that was to bring Kialyra back from the edge of death.

He sold both horses at a stables and rented an apartment close to the old Bard’s Barrel. He purchased a barrel of water and the medical ingredients the apothecary told him might be of best use.

He was no expert, but he knew enough to watch over her, as Moonblade had said. He doted on her every ill-expressed desire. She said nothing in that first week, save some strange and fragmented words which sometimes escaped her lips, as if she were half-crazed by whatever horrid things she had been through, and addled by the desert sun. This much Ceridwen could see, and he feared he might never hear her sweet voice again.

They played the waiting game for days: Ceridwen sat on one side of Kialyra’s bed, and Nothingness sat on the other, that truest of Death’s other names — just as patient, and more often than not, the winner.

It was late one night and Ceridwen, demoralized, left the apartment to get some chillweed to keep Kialyra’s fever down and picked up a couple bottles of cheap wine. He hadn’t drank in ages, but was on the verge of losing hope. The city streets were calmer than normal, and the stars reigned above in the void.

Upon returning to the apartment, the candles were all lit as he’d left them, but he instantly noticed something wrong: Kialyra was not in bed. He couldn’t see her anywhere.

“No! Not again!” He cried, dropping the bottles and chillweed to the floor in dismay. One of the bottles shattered, and dark red wine poured out like the blood of a broken heart. Shadowy candlelight flickered over the walls.

He looked everywhere, desperately, but when no corner was left to search, he slumped against the wall and sank to the floor, on the verge of tears. His Kialyra — disappeared — just like before. What terrible nightmare was this that haunted him, and what terrible thing could abduct her once again?

The door cracked open and Ceridwen hopped up. His rapier was on the other side of the room, but as he made strides toward it, he froze. In the doorway was that beautiful young woman he had tracked and cared for all these weeks. She looked radiant and healthy once again.

“Lyra!” He said, confused though elated.

“Hello Ceridwen,” she replied, closing the door behind her. Her other hand remained behind her back, obscured by her tattered black robe.

“I thought…”

“I know. I’m sorry. I was feeling better, and decided to — well, I have something for you.”

Whereupon she revealed a masterfully crafted violin, painted a deep crimson red. She came to him slowly, holding it gently in both hands.

Ceridwen’s eyes widened. Such an instrument was not common, certainly not one of such supreme quality. “Where in the barren sands did you get that?”

“Play it for me,” she said.

“But…”

“Play. Ceridwen. Play for me.” She uttered sweetly, pressing the violin to his chest as if it was their child. Such tenderness and love — he could not refuse her.

He lifted the violin to his shoulders, took up the bow and set it upon the strings. He hadn’t played in months, and hesitation harrowed his features. She merely smiled at him enchantingly, awaiting his music. And finally, taking a deep breath, he began to play one long, yawning note.

His fingers began to move faster, the bow struck more precisely and passionately. Up and down the scales he went. He had never played with such skill, had never even heard such skill with his ears. It was as if this music was from some other world entirely. Kialyra picked up the unbroken bottle of wine as she listened, uncorking it and pouring a pair of cups. Ceridwen became lost in the flow and intensity of the violin’s sound, enthralled. He didn’t care how this music was possible, not anymore. He was lost in amazement that it was coming from him.

At last, with a final trill he lowered the bow, then the violin to his side, and stared at Kialyra. Her gaze had not left his. She brought him a cup of wine.

“A new era is dawning, my love.” She said. She had never called him that, never dared. “You and I are going to take this city.”

“This city? There’s only a handful of people who even care about music here…”

“Yes, but you have that violin now. And I have my voice.”

“Where did you get it?” He asked, staring down at it as he accepted the wine, taking a hearty swig.

“I… had it made. Before I… it seems ages ago. Anyway, don’t ask. It doesn’t matter. It’s yours now. As am I.” She pressed herself close to him, looking up at him with her intense blue eyes. They were darker than he remembered them, deeper; riddled with some strange knowledge and experience. He could not help but wonder.

“What happened to you Lyra?”

She lifted herself on her toes to reach his ear with a whisper. “Nothing.”

He took an involuntary step back, and she kept on him, tossed her cup aside without a care and draped her arms around his shoulders seductively.

Ceridwen didn’t have much control over such situations, truth be told. He inhaled her smell, relaxed at her touch. His only protest was a whisper back. “But Poets’ Circle. The traditions…”

“There is no Poets’ Circle. Not anymore. Not like it was. Why do you think we were sent so far away? It’s just us now. Just you… and I. Ceridwen I want you to take the city… I want you… take me.”

And their lips met as if fate itself had conspired to bring one beautiful kiss into the world. Ceridwen succumbed to his destiny. There was no one else now. He’d known that when he gave up his old life of peddling songs for booze and women, when he began his search. It was Kialyra, it had always been Kialyra.

Taking the violin away and setting it down, she pushed him over onto the bed. He let go. Both cups lay forgotten on the floor, the wine splashed like spilled blood. A swirl of wind from outside extinguished the candles. Their departed light went unnoticed.

*

“The first thing we have to do is get the Bard’s Barrel back,” Kialyra said the following morning as Ceridwen lay in bed lazily.

“Well, I sold it to Velaxi so I could afford to find you. Turns out he’s a real prick, for a Bard… he’s always wanted it and I doubt he’d sell it back up for any price. He’s defeated me, at long last — And besides, we have no money.”

“Tsk. You underestimate our… capabilities. We don’t need money. Let’s go over and see what can be done. Bring the violin.” Kialyra said in an indifferent tone. Her confidence and initiative were foreign to Ceridwen. It was like she was a new woman. Confident. In charge. He shrugged, grabbed the violin and they left the apartment.

The Bard’s Barrel looked better than ever. Velaxi’s management of the place had every stool filled and performers on stage, at all times of day. He saw Kialyra and Ceridwen enter, eyes wide with surprise before they narrowed with suspicious rivalry. Ever the braggart and showman, he lifted a tankard from the bar and called out over the noise of the crowd.

“Well if isn’t Ceridwen Ironfell, the prodigal son returned! And he’s found his little tart! Bravo! Good show! Drinks on the house, for everyone!” To which there was laughter and a round of cheers and applause. Directed at Velaxi, rather than at the pair standing in the doorway.

“My dear Velaxi,” Kialyra called back, her voice laced with an enchanting tone. The crowd hushed, as if forced to listen. “We’ve come to take back the Bard’s Barrel.”

Silence. A little nervous laughter from the crowd. Velaxi looked around at the patrons, bewildered by their seriousness and interest in the young woman’s challenge.

“I’m afraid its a bit out of your price range.” He said dryly.

“How about a wager?” Kialyra said. Even a cunning smile from her could melt the hearts of onlookers. Once upon a time they would have cat called her, put her down with uncultured, sexist remarks. Not now. She was larger than life.

Velaxi laughed, and clapped his hands. “A wager, now that sounds interesting! My tavern for…. what? What could you possibly offer that I give a single shit about, mmm?”

“Show him the violin,” she said to Ceridwen, and he took it from its case and held it up by the neck; to the crowd it may as well have been a decapitated head of some great enemy, Ceridwen the hero who slew it. Velaxi’s jaw dropped, his greed and lust plain enough.

“Alright. And what else?”

Kialyra had always known what he truly wanted, but she had always been for Ceridwen: her maidenhood intact. “A night with me,” she said, and the crowd hooted and whistled. Ceridwen shot her a surprised, perhaps jealous gaze. Velaxi nodded his head slowly, his eyes tracing her form, and then looking back to the violin.

“So!” He turned to the crowd, raising his tankard of ale, “You great patrons of my fine establishment shall decide. Ceridwen and I will have a little duel, of sorts. On stage — and if he can outplay me, well… I’ll hand this entire place over. But if he can’t… and he won’t…” The crowd laughed, Velaxi’s charisma with an audience was very strong. “…Then I have a lovely new violin and a very, very lovely woman to bed. Sands, I won’t know what to do with myself!”

Ceridwen stepped up to the stage through the quiet, staring crowd, as did Velaxi. He had a fiddle of his own, though hardly as well crafted as Ceridwen’s — still, he’d always been formidable upon it, and resented that folk generally thought Ceridwen a better player. But he knew Ceridwen hadn’t played in some time, that his talent had been diminishing. The bait was set — now it came down to Ceridwen, Kialyra looking on intently. But not at her love… she was watching the violin.

Velaxi started into a tune he knew the audience would love, and they quickly got into it. There was no doubt that he had talked to each of them, treated them like gold, a businessman through and through. Waitresses poured tankards of ale freely among the crowd as he played, and as he finished his musical challenge to Ceridwen, the place roared with applause. Under any normal circumstances, Ceridwen would have been beat before he set foot on stage.

But then Ceridwen flipped the violin up into position and raised his bow. A long, gaping yawn came from it and suddenly the the room was filled with the most enchanting music anyone in the history of that degenerate city-state had ever heard. His fingers each hit their mark, as rapid and powerful as ever, the bow slicing back and forth meticulously. Eyes widened, mouths opened, and hearts were captured.

When at last he was finished, the crowd exploded into delight, screaming “Bravo!” “Encore!” again and again. And as the favour turned from Velaxi to Ceridwen, Velaxi’s fiddle dropped to the ground. He clutched his chest, and seemed to cry out silently. He froze a moment, breathless, and then slumped down lifelessly, dead.

There was a hush, most of the audience thought it might be an act. Ceridwen bent over to check the man’s pulse, and lift one of his limp arms, which fell back to the stage with a thud. He looked to Kialyra, who lifted her innocent gaze from the violin to his eyes. She cracked a slow, pleased smile.

The Bard’s Barrel was theirs. Everyone had witnessed the wager. The gossip would spread like wildfire. They were in business. A grim business, yes, but business it was.

*

Over the next few days crowds came from all over the city to hear Ceridwen’s masterful violin, and Kialyra sang alongside him with her beautifully bewitching voice. They couldn’t cram enough people into the tavern. People fought for a place to stand, fought outside the tavern in lineups that never ended. In all his life, Ceridwen had never seen a fraction of this much enthusiasm for music in the South, and he began to suspect that something very strange was going on. And yet, for all his intuition, he and Kialyra were pulling in a fortune and had exploded into undreamed of fame. He couldn’t say no to that. It wasn’t even an option in his mind.

They bought new clothes, rented a better apartment with a view of the city at night. Luxury flowed swiftly into their lives, and people talked and cheered as they walked the streets.

Every night, someone died. A stabbing, a fall, alcohol poisoning. And every night, the deaths could be explained in some unsettlingly rational way. But for every death, the violin’s music only became more beautiful, and more irresistible. There was not a superstitious caution to be found anywhere.

Soon enough the district around the Bard’s Barrel was at capacity, and the authorities had taken notice. So it was only to be expected that one night, two red robed Templars split the crowds with a dozen soldiers and took Kialyra, Ceridwen and the violin into custody.

“Come with us.” One of the Lord Templars said. Templars could kill you on the spot for breathing the same air. And these were elite: the Red-Robes.

Yet the crowd booed and put up a fuss, much to the surprise of the soldiers and disdain of the Templars. A couple of perfectly ‘lawful’ executions ensued on the spot, brutal and efficient. That’s when the riot started.

The Templars drew their swords and with songstress and bard in the middle of their defensive formation, fought their way out the back of the Bard’s Barrel and through the unexpected insanity. Ceridwen lost track of the deaths, shocked, while Kialyra remained unusually calm, sidestepping any of the carnage that broke the soldiers’ ranks. Not a drop of blood splashed upon her dress.

At last they made their way to the gates of an estate, much to the relief of Ceridwen, who thought they might have been headed to jail — a place from which one generally did not return. Inside, they were greeted by a grim, humourless lot of aides, guards and one particularly fat, scar ravaged Warlord with a silver half-mask over his face.

“As you requested, Lord Iakovitzes, here are the two… performers.” Said one of the Red Templars. He nodded once, and stared Ceridwen and Kialyra down as the Templars merely turned and left the estate.

“Come,” Rumbled the Warlord, “You are now under my protection, and guests of my glorious House.” The two performers exchanged glances, uncertain what this invitation meant. But in the presence of Reds, a Warlord, soldiers and highly trained guards, all of whom could kill the pair in a heartbeat, well, there wasn’t much else to do but accept the invitation graciously.

Reaching an inner sanctum within the Estate, the noise of the city was completely drowned. The opulence of a warlike noble house was a stark contrast to the poverty of the pitiful multitudes.

“M’Lord Iakovitzes,” Ceridwen said, bowing his head. “We are honoured… but what is happening? Are we not to perform?”

“Not to the mob, my good bard.” The Warlord smiled a cruel smile; the only type he could manage with his disfigured, wartorn face. “Not anymore. You’ve caused quite a bit of chaos. Unexpected chaos. The military can understand food riots, starvation. They can understand the helter-skelter of a proper arena festival. But this… for music? Hrm.”

“We don’t understand it either,” Kialyra said, feigning innocence. “It’s… Nothing we expected.”

He gave her a stoic studious look, uncertain whether or not to tolerate being addressed without first being spoken to. But his stern features softened, quite impossibly, at her words. Kialyra’s voice seemed to overcome even the most hardened hearts.

“Yes, yes, of course dear songstress.” Iakovitzes said, but his cunning remained despite his softened disposition. “Who could expect such a quick rise of fortune and fame? And who could expect what that rabble out there would do with it? Mass hysteria is dangerous thing for a city-state, however, regardless of its cause. Much death will come of this situation, and it is best to keep a treasure, such as you two, safely out of its way. For good. You will perform for me and my private guests now, and all your needs will be taken care of. Do not take for granted my generosity. I have rescued you from a very serious mess.”

And so it went for some time. The bodies piled up outside the water temple, and the riots were eventually calmed, but unrest remained, settled over the city-state like an unforgettable melody, stuck in the heads of every person who had witnessed the masterful sound of the violin. Ceridwen and Kialyra were prisoners in the most luxurious and spacious part of the Warrior House’s noble estate — but prisoners none the less.

Each morning, Warlord Iakovitzes would take Ceridwen into his offices and teach him of politics and warfare, and in the afternoon, drill him with his finest military unit in the yards. Perhaps a commoner like Ceridwen and a highborn like Iakovitzes could have grown to be friends — were it that Ceridwen had any choice in the matter.

A parade of noble visitors came and went, hearing the music of the famous violin, each plotting in some fashion to acquire the performers for themselves. But the Warlord was very powerful and not to be trifled with, so as days turned to nights, one by one, the procession went, until nearly every Lord and Lady of the South had had a taste of musical enchantment.

But Ceridwen felt like a bird in a cage, while Kialyra advised patience.

Then, one night, a familiar stranger came to see them, escorted by the Warlord, his aide, Riandra and two guards. His features were very pale — perhaps it was makeup — and there was a twisted slant to his smile, a morbid light in his eyes, one of which was blue, the other a mutated purple.

“Now what have we here!?” He exclaimed foppishly, delighted and clapping his hands with exaggerated glee. “A special treat. Magical, truly!”

The Warlord seemed particularly unamused, his brooding countenance quite ironic beside this eccentric nobleman. “Magical… indeed. Well, Ceridwen. Kialyra. Why don’t you give our esteemed guest a show?”

The odd guest took a seat and crossed his legs ostentatiously, perching his deft hands upon his knees. He winked at the nearby aide, Riandra. Kialyra glared a moment at the woman, and Ceridwen realized he’d had an affair with her, what seemed like a lifetime ago. Things were a little tense. But he lifted the violin to his shoulder and took a deep breath.

The morbid light grew in the strange nobleman’s dichromatic eyes as he listened on in fascination. As Ceridwen entered a gorgeous phrase, Kialyra’s voice rose in wordless song, an almost sorcerous incantation that anywhere else might have been recognized for precisely what it was.

And as the last note hit its high, long trill upon the violin, its crimson polish shimmering with darkness, the mighty Warlord Iakovitzes gasped, stumbled forward, choking, and crashed to the floor. Dead.

Riandra, wide-eyed stare aimed at the strangely familiar guest, barked at the guards, “Secure the estate! Fetch the Templarate, now!

Yet before they took another step toward the door, the eccentric guest hopped up and pointed a finger at the supple aide, Riandra. “Poison! Betrayal! Look there, in her pocket.” One guard caught her by the arm and fished out half a vial of disturbingly toxic looking liquid, then frowned and seized her.

“Aha!” the noble guest said. “Yes! Do call the Templarate. This woman has betrayed her master, our beloved hero and Warlord.”

So the guards took the aide from the room, the heavy body of Iakovitzes lay on the floor, unmoving. The morbid light of the stranger’s eyes fell upon Ceridwen and his twisted smile beamed at Kialyra. He pulled out a pair of charcoal-coloured cloaks from his ornate satchel and tossed one to each of them.

“Now, put those on, little ones. We need a change of scenery!”

“Who are you?” Ceridwen said.

The man bowed with mocking flourish of his hand. “Lord Jobianus of House Fartsalot. What’s it to you? Point is, we’re breaking you out of here.”

“Jobi Mockery,” Kialyra uttered, her gaze fixed.

“Quite astute. Your dramatic rise to popularity might have escaped the notice of those brainwashed bards up North, but it hasn’t gone unnoticed to the true Poets’ Circle — we are alive and well.”

“You… poisoned the Warlord..!” Ceridwen said, appalled.

“As a matter of fact, I didn’t. Kialyra killed him.” Jobi smirked. Ceridwen’s gaze shot to the songstress. “Though I cannot say I disapprove.”

“I had nothing to do with poisoning anyone.” Kialyra spoke.

“There was never any poison. But one of these eyes sees quite a bit more than the other does. As do both of yours, young lady. Now shush. We’re outta here!”

And so it went, Jobi, knowing the ins and outs of the estate, led the pair safely away from the scene of the crime.

Word spread, as it always does in the over-crowded southern city. When the announcement of a masquerade ball and feast hit the streets, a celebration exclusively for nobility, Templarate and senate, word too spread of Ceridwen and Kialyra performing a never before heard piece of music for those who attended. It was the last piece of music that anyone in attendance would ever hear.

*

I’d been a fool, of course. Grandmaster Bard Holt Ironfell, they called me, but for all that, I was an idiot. Even with all the magic and wickedness I’d seen, I ever seek a rational explanation. Food riots, indeed. No — these people wanted the music from that accursed violin, and the situation in the South had reached a breaking point. Jobi had noticed precisely what was at work, and taken advantage of it in perpetrating what he would infamously call ‘his masterpiece.’

By the time I rescued the lot of them from the South and taken Jobi up north to do our final business with Caitlin-Ji and the High Precentor, the majority of the nobility and senate in the city-state were a bunch of lavishly dressed corpses.

We travelled through the moongate, and found ourselves in that deep and lightless place, met the monstrous creature who guarded that entrance to whichever world we’d found ourselves upon… I continued to seek a rational explanation. Caitlin-Ji’s sword was just a sword. Ceridwen’s violin was merely a violin. I trusted what I could perceive.

I saw Ceridwen possessed. He was about to strike me. Jobi had warned me how the elixir of everlasting life functioned. Something would prevent him from finishing me off. That ‘something’ had been Kialyra — surprised at her own sudden violence. A dagger in my grandson’s heart.

Kialyra had slid off into the chasm, certainly to her death, as Caitlin-Ji and Moonblade turned to stand their ground against the gibbering psionic creature that had risen from the depths. Isn’t that precisely what I had witnessed? Was I to distrust my own eyes? I ran, just as they told me to.

I was so blind. In telling you the story of the ‘voiceless’ songstress’s rescue, of Ceridwen’s rise to fame, of Kialyra’s ‘gift’ to the man she loved to the point of obsession… well, perhaps you’ve figured it out by now, as well.

I emerged from the Underworld into a land completely unlike our home. Lost, memories stolen, carrying incomprehensible secrets. I wandered, hoping that Moonblade would find me as he always had. It was because of him that we had been able to escape the wicked world we had all been born to.

Yet, it wasn’t Moonblade who found me though, for all his miraculous skills. It wasn’t Caitlin-Ji, who might have stood just as likely a chance in tracking my location.

It was Kialyra. The young woman I had seen fall to certain death — alive and well. I stared at her as if she were a ghost, an apparition, a dream or delusion. She came from the misty shadows of the forest toward me.

“Hello, Holt.” She said, her tone dark and intent. She had in her hand Ceridwen’s violin.

“Lyra… but… how?” I said, slack-jawed.

“I’d have thought that for a man who can dodge death so easily, you might have already guessed.”

“You killed Ceridwen.” I took a step back.

“No,” she growled sharply, “you killed Ceridwen. You and your damned elixir. You don’t think I know? How it works? You are an old fool! I want him back. And you’re going to give him back to me.” She was becoming very agitated, bursting at the seems with pent up fury.

“The dead don’t come back, Kialyra,” I said, slow and sadly, “There’s nothing I can do…”

“There is. I need your blood, Holt. You must give it to me, willingly.” She held up the violin. “Ceridwen is in this violin… like all the others who died near it. I can bring him back. I will bring him back.”

“I can have no part in necromancy!” I protested. “Kialyra, whatever you’ve become… do not become a monster. Let it go. Let him die. You cannot bring back the man you loved.”

She stomped her foot like a roll of thunder and suddenly, a dark, alien smoke swirled around her and lashed out at me, lifting me from my feet and into the air struggling. “I will have him back! I will do whatever I want!”

It was then I realized so much. The nature of her abduction. My eyes were open, and my knowledge came back to me. I wish it hadn’t — for with it came a fear I had not known since younger days.

I gasped for air as the magic manipulated me. “I won’t do it, Lyra. I won’t. My grandson is dead, what you bring back will not be him.”

“Isn’t that why you brought us here, through your precious moongate? What makes you think you can bring the woman YOU loved back?”

“I won’t do it, Lyra.”

“No?” She shrieked at me. “Then you can live the rest of your days like THIS, OLD MAN!”

I was ripped from my body, a phantom of myself. My physical form floated helplessly in the air, and I fell to the ground and felt nothing, ethereal. In the haunted other-world of the void. Kialyra turned to me, she could see me, though I knew instinctively that no one else would have been able to.

“What have you done to me?” I gasped, my voice a shell of its former quality.

“If you won’t help me, you can watch your soulless body wander the world forever.” She snapped.

“If that is my fate, so be it. I’ll not suffer my bloodline’s fall into necromantic abomination!”

Kialyra laughed cruelly now and I knew that the young lass I’d known, the one who was as a daughter to me, was long gone. “Perhaps I have not made my powers clear enough to you. Let us be more… precise.”

With a flick of her fingers, I was separated again, a phantom of a phantom. The world was grey and listless, indifferent. My two other selves were nearby.

I felt the absolute worst feeling I believe I could have felt.

The artist, the poet, the heart and soul of my creative life as an individual… stood beside me, a separate phantom. I was nothing now. To remain like this forever… would be the greatest torment possible for me. Greater even than what had already been inflicted by such enemies as the Sisterhood. I would not be able to find what I had come to this new world to find. That which my mind and heart had been bent upon for over a hundred years.

She looked at me now and said nothing. Her silence was all encompassing, all powerful. At last I tried to speak, but couldn’t say the words. But she knew what I had tried to utter: “Stop. I will do it.”

I snapped back into my corporeal form, the cursed magic lifted. Kialyra smiled at me, the contented and approving smile of an innocent. She was young, too young, and now she had the power to throw quite the temper tantrum. But of course, love and death bring out the most powerful emotions within us. Could I blame her?

Unslinging the crimson violin from her pack, she took out the fated dagger, coated with the dry blood of my grandson. “Draw it across your hand and we will begin.”

I did as she commanded — little did I want to tempt her mood again, after her pointed demonstration. My blood mixed with what remained on the dagger. She tossed the violin almost haphazardly upon the grass. Whispers seemed to come from the wind, drawn to the instrument. But it wasn’t merely an instrument to my eye. I saw it now for what it was.

She took the dagger and shadows swirled about her, shrieking into unnatural silence as they were drawn into nothingness. She sliced her own hand across the blade. The three of us had bled now, upon its edge.

Uttering an incantation beneath her breath that was mirrored in the wind, she knelt and plunged the dagger straight into the masterful instrument. There was a gravitation as unknown energies flowed musically into its strings. A great harmony filled the forest.

Gradually, a form swirled into existence from nothingness, the violin violently breaking into pieces that further disintegrated into ash, growing upward into a whirlwind around what swiftly became humanoid. Features snapped into place, and joints jerked as power entered them.

In the end — it looked like Ceridwen. Save for his eyes, which were darker now. The hereditary blue had given away to a vibrant and unsettling purple, different from the dichromatic eyes of Jobi and myself which signified our cursed situation with regards to the elixir. He had no such balance. He was something else entirely.

“Ceridwen,” Kialyra breathed, taking a step closer, draping a travel worn cloak over his bare shoulders. Her blue eyes softened, relief filled her features

“Ceridwen?” The man before her said, quietly. “Hmm.”

“What is it, my love? What do you feel?” She said.

“I was once called that. I remember… but… there are other names. Names I also feel I should be called.”

Kialyra shook her head, growing anxious, placing a hand upon his chest. But no further magic was channelled. I knew she was trying. But this was beyond her knowledge now. “No, you are Ceridwen. You are my love, I have brought you back across the threshold of death, back from nothingness.”

“Velaxi. Iakovitzes. I am all of them now. I feel their minds, their hearts. I feel the lives of so many… All mine — the power. I have it all now. Oh, yes… I am so much more than Ceridwen, as you are so much more than Kialyra.”

She said nothing, just watched in horror and fascination, gazing up at him, her hand on his chest. If she was still trying to work further magic, it was failing. She had no more sway over him now than she did when they were penniless performers trying to make their way day to day in the South.

“Where is the violin?” He asked, looking to her.

“I had to use it to bring you back. It’s gone, Ceridwen.”

He smirked, then shrugged. “We will have to have another made then, shan’t we?”

“Ceridwen…” She said, plaintively, as if trying to draw him back fully into his form.

“I have a new name now, Lyra.” Her eyes didn’t leave his — those unfamiliar purple, manic eyes, intent on some unfortold agenda. He touched her face gently with a cool and in-control smile. “I am Lukashi.”

And I knew my Grandson was gone. Perhaps a bit of him was in there, mixed with the others. But just as the alchemist mixes ingredients to make something more — to produce an effect that is more than the sum of its parts, so too was Ceridwen no longer merely himself.

And when his eyes turned to me, I knew that Lukashi would be a fearsome man. A terrible man. That he would have every aspect of every soul that damned violin had captured. Genius, prodigy, strategist, noble… but to what end?

“Wax Poetica, Grandmaster.” He uttered to me, dipping his head. The secret motto of the true Poets’ Circle. I did not know what to say in return. I stared blankly and stupidly back at him.

“Come, Lyra. Holt. We have a New Poets’ Circle to build.”

Indeed we did. And I would have to make do with the materials at hand. My only fear was that the seeds of its destruction were once again present at its very formation, and that whatever lay in our destiny was fated to spiral out of control.

The things we do, for love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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