"There are six of them and two of us, in case you hadn't noticed. The odds aren't favourable, and you're taking risks like a fledge." Kleng whispered. One wouldn't suspect an almost nine-foot Arvian to be anything resembling stealthy, and yet, flat against the ground, the hazelnut pelted warrior clenched his talons around his spear, almost invisible but to the best-trained eyes.
Rainfall pattered softly around them, lending a haze to the air while tramping down any trace of their scent. Beside him, the forest floor moved
"There is one of them and five unchanged initiates. I agree. I wouldn't pick a fight with us either with those terrible odds yet here we find ourselves."
Across from Kleng, a black pelted male Arvian lay similarly prone, having tossed a handful of the damp leaf litter and floor coverings of the forest over himself to help be better concealed. The large white, red-rimmed diamond of his patterning that covered his back still stood out like a sore thumb, though they hadn't exactly prepared for, well… any of this, else he would have covered it with a tunic.
As it was, they had set out following some boar tracks, hoping they could return with it before the storm hit.
They found the boar alright. And more still. The Suntouched scouting party hadn't expected to encounter anyone this far out and the two veteran Arvian warriors were far quicker on the draw than their foes. Three had fallen before a cry of alarm could even be raised, but when close to a dozen more had come crashing through the brush and scrub in response, discretion had turned to the better part of valour.
The storm was still approaching though. Rainfall was pattering around them like a constant drumbeat against the trees, growing heavier by the minute. Soon, it would turn to a downpour, and the entire area would flood. They could take a chance laying low and waiting for the patrol to pass, but who knew how long they would snoop about. Right now, the element of surprise was theirs, as was the initiative. They could pick a fight on their terms rather than their opponents.
"It is foolish. Better to wait-" Kleng never got to finish his sentence. A loud peel of thunder cracked out from the clouds overhead. Before he could even act, Isiat had risen from his hiding spot, levelled and notched his bow, and fired, all before the loud rumbling had faded.
One of the scouts fell with a worldless gasp and toppled into the brush before any of his compatriots even noticed. Isiat was up and into them in a heartbeat, his spear blade singing death on the air as he swept it around, and Kleng, with a frustrated curse, joined in the fray.
The five unchanged Suntouched initiates were a mix of species and fell with cries of surprise among the rainfall. The two veteran warriors made short work of them and then double-checked the bodies with their knives to ensure they were truly sent to the spirits. It was a kinder fate than being left to bleed out in the storm, cold and alone. Let them go with their comrades.
Isiat took an extra moment to close each of their eyes in turn. His dream pal, Raru, had appeared from the air nearby, a shimmering, ethereal being in the form of a small fur drake, and had stopped to sniff around their bodies. Kleng seemed far more concerned about the fact they were still missing one.
“Where is the Suntouched Arvian who led this group? He's not among the bodies."
“Astute observation. The rain is getting heavier. Likely he fell back when the first one fell." Isiat was careful not to say fled. That would imply he had abandoned the fight. The hulking black Arvian knelt by the last of their foes and closed the vulpine unchanged initiate's eyes, mouthing a short funeral rite. Kelang chuffed, irritated.
“Why waste your breath? We need to move before more come looking for them."
“Because it is what I would expect for our fallen. Their fight is done now…" Slowly, he stood again, rising to his full height on his spear. “We should split up. Circle west, and I'll circle east. We'll regroup at the river crossing near the village."
Kleng didn't argue. His old mentor was a great warrior and well respected among their tribe, but had always thought Isiat's talents had been wasted as a lore keeper. Tradition though, was why they performed their rites as they did. Why their rituals were held in the reverence they were. Why their tribe was led as it was. Someone had to recall the stories and the rituals, as well as the lessons of their elders. Those who failed to learn from the past were doomed to repeat it.
The storm was in full swing when they finally split up. Isiat had taken what effects he had found upon the bodies of their foes and borrowed one of their leather bags to carry it all. He moved with one arm raised before him to shield his eyes from the torrential downpour, beating a quick march on his broad paws. There would be no moving much longer through this though.
He had to find shelter soon. Even an Arvian in their prime knew better than to pick a fight with nature itself. There were faster and cleaner ways for those seeking death and seldom more foolish ways to find it.
Thunder and lightning roared and shook overhead, and the wind had turned to a gale. Stray branches and debris from the trees got tossed around like harpoons. Visibility had shrunk to less than a child's bow shot. Cold had begun to set in, the rain struck his pelt with an icy sting, weighing his hackles against the nape of his neck. The folly was on him for not bothering with any sort of clothing to cover his shoulders. If he'd expected an overnight trip, he'd have better prepared.
But he knew this area well. He had hunted in it often enough, and Raru's encouraging chittering from ahead helped guide his feet through the sucking mud grasping tree limbs, the fuzzy, ethereal outline of his dream-pal bounding ahead.
Ahead, there was a faint glow of a fire through the rain. He didn't have the time to consider much else. Fire meant there was shelter enough to strike a blaze, and with his spear at the ready, he pushed onwards. Who had struck it was of little concern at that moment.
The natural rock overhang of a cliffside had created a break in the storm, perhaps enough for ten to shelter comfortably from the elements, but for now, there was only one.
The Suntouched Arvian seemed nearly as surprised to see Isiat, as Isiat was to see him. Though his golden eyes locked on Isiat's icy blue ones, he made no move to retrieve his spear from beside himself where it was laid in the dirt, and instead, merely offered a respectful nod. A large travelling shirt was gripped in his talons, and Isiat's appearance had interrupted him midway through wringing the water from it beside the small campfire. After a second, he spoke up, in a low, musical voice. There was a note of amused irony to his tone.
“It's an undignified way to go, but if this is what the spirits had in store for me, I'll not argue their humour." The Suntouched watched him carefully a moment longer, and when the spear didn't end him then and there, he returned his focus to the wool and cotton garment between his claws, the water hissing to steam as he wrung it out on the rocks by the fireside.
Slowly, Isiat let his spear fall to his side, before planting the silver tip in the ground. He sat across from the other Arvian and took a moment to shake his fur and hackles of the rain that clung heavily to them like a canine would, before he fluffed them up, tensing and relaxing the muscles. He still felt drenched, and it sapped away the last of whatever small part of his being still wanted to do battle.
“I wasn't in the mood to fight anyway. Not after trekking through that. We bested your unchanged. It's enough for a day." He muttered with a mirthless snort of mock amusement. He kept his spear close by his side anyway. The mutual distrust between their kin ran deep. Their truce was at best, a temporary thing of convenience.
Looking across the flames, it was hard for Isiat to see more than another Arvian seeking shelter from the storm. There was no call for blood to be shed here. The Suntouched, with his pelt of light amber that almost matched the fire between them, hesitated a moment, before he shifted slightly, and with one hand, reached into his pack.
Isiat tensed and resisted the urge to reach for his spear.
After a second of searching, he pulled out a wrapped loaf of bread and meat, and tore off a portion of both, offering them.
“Did they die well at least?" He asked.
Taking the bread, he thought for a moment, considering the question. “Caught blindsided. It was over as quickly as it began. I gave them their final rites before we moved on."
“Honorable of you. They deserved that much." The Suntouched nodded in thought and spoke no more of them as he quietly tore into his own food.
There was a certain disconnect to the way that he spoke about the unchanged with him, but it was a part of the transformation to Arvian in truth. There wasn't any grief or loss. Merely an acknowledgement. They had been, and now they were not.
It was hard to relate to those who were unchanged. Even among Isiat's tribe, Arvian stood out and apart from the others. And while the other species and those who had not or had chosen not to undergo the ritual were valued members of the tribe, and friendly enough, Isiat had seen enough unchanged tribe members come and go over his years. Eventually, they all either died, made the change, or moved on. It was simply a jaded fact of reality.
“The traditions are meaningless if none uphold them. At that point, they become personal ideals with no grounding in heritage." Isiat simply stated, relaxing enough to finally sit back, rather than on his haunches. His thick tail curled around his side, close to the flames. Small wisps of steam rose from the coarse, dark fur leading to its lighter tip as the damp slowly evaporated.
“Equally meaningless if none are left who remember them." The other commented dryly. “My apprentice was among their number."
“You are a Lore keeper of your tribe then?"
The Suntouched nodded, pausing between bites of his meal to tap two talons to his forehead in acknowledgement.
“Bravjen, Loresinger of the Flame undying, as it pleases." He made his introduction and turned back to his food.
“Isiat, of Cereth's sight. I too am a Lorekeeper." He twisted one hand upwards and returned the gesture.
“But not a singer?" Bravjen picked up on the distinction quickly enough. Isiat responded with a laugh.
“Travelling isn't my favourite thing, nor do I sing well. Things like this tend to happen when I try either." He said and gave a broad, sweeping motion of sarcasm towards the veritable wall of water falling just beyond the cover of their shelter.
“The rain, or the ambush?"
They shared a short laugh of mirthless understanding, the shared plight of plans gone awry, and with that, peace was settled between them. The ice had been broken.
“So then, Isiat, Lorekeeper. If we're not to kill each other tonight, how shall we pass the evening? I don't suppose you brought a game board in your pack?" Bravjen spoke now with a softer tenor, his words coming slower and smoother as their mutual peace settled.
Isiat reached back and pulled the leather bag from his shoulder, before tossing it with his talons down at the other's feet.
“Personal belongs of the fallen. They should go to their next of kin."
Bravjen nodded respectfully, and opened the bag, checking the contents for a moment before he pulled a small wooden box from within. Twisting the rectangular lid caused it to pop free, and from within, he drew a deck of cards. Each was hand-printed, the backs decorated with gold trim. Someone had spent a great deal of time and care making them.
“Lore cards, for my apprentice. Each represents a story of ours I asked him to remember. For each one he got correct, the card went into the deck. An old teaching aide my own mentor taught me. Here…" With an elegant flourish, he spread the cards in a broad fan between his talons, offering them out.
“Perhaps then, we can trade tales and compare our tribes. We share much history after all." Isiat nodded, before, his hand pausing for a moment of indecisiveness, plucked a single card from the deck, and turned it over.
Upon its face was an illumination of a pair of twin Arvians, one white with black stripes upon their pelt, tall and proud, the moons over their shoulder. The other was dark with stripes of gold that had been highlighted with the precious metal leaf. In the firelight, they shone like the blaze of the morning sun. This one was to the fore, with the Sun beaming upon them from the opposite corner of the tale card.
"Ahh yes, the First. Our original mentors, you and I. My namesake as well, in a sense, though my kin bears him little favour after our tribes split."
Isiat chuffed once and passed the card back to Bravjen, his beak splitting in a slight grin.
“I know this story, but sing it anyway. I'm interested to see if our tales corroborate with each other."
Bravjen cleared his throat, rolling his massive shoulders, and with a voice as clear as a mountain stream, began to recant the legend.
In the beginning, before the Moons and Star went their separate ways, a pair of twins were born, to parents of an unknown lineage. Theirs were the first known birth of pure blood Arvian children, and at once, their tribe took it as a blessing from the spirits.
As they grew, they learned the skills of their mentors and betters and learned the secret ways of their shamans, and the rituals to create new Arvians beneath the light of the twin moons when their connection to the spirits was strongest. When those unchanged who had fulfilled their obligations to the tribe and shown the requisite qualities to survive the transformation were selected, they were brought forth at the ordained time to the sacred places.
Both twins, now fully in their primes, successfully brought their newest members into their tribe, but it was at that moment that one of them saw that more could be achieved.
After all, with dream pals, one is always connected in a way to the spirits.
While their names may have been lost in the reckoning that occurred later, and the many retellings that came in the years after, it was in this moment that the First Suntouched drew inspiration. All power was energy, and the moons only reflected that energy…
They had been taught the rituals, that any interruption during the change was fatal. But what if then rather than trying to change the ritual itself drastically, or waiting for the moons to align perfectly, they drew from that source directly? Such learning was taboo, but in their curious youthfulness, they explored, seeking wisdom and answers to questions that none yet had asked.
And so it was that the darker twin brought with them their best friend from the unchanged, and took them to a secret place, high above in the mountains under the guise of fledging lessons. And it was here, closest to the sun that many of their kin shunned, that they began to try new theories, testing their ideas in secrecy, for they surely would have been outcasts if others had learned.
Without the tribe's blessing, it was forbidden to perform the ritual of change, to create a new Arvian, but their friend had been true and loyal to the tribe and shunned anyway by the moon worshippers. They were too frail. Not resilient enough in body or mind. They were not ready, despite having spent years pleading their case before the elders, seeking blessing for the change.
They were set in their ways, but even an unbending branch will snap before the winds of change given enough time. The First had learned much since they began, and with that knowledge, agreed to help their friend in their goal, as a good friend would.
And so it came to pass, that upon the summer solstice when the sun was brightest and the moons were hidden from sight, together, the First and their companion ventured to their new sacred place that they had their spirits and dream pals bless in the daylight. Thereupon on the mountainside, beneath the purifying sun, under whose light no secret can remain hidden in shadow, they performed the new ritual of their devising, the work of many moons of study and practice.
Their dream pals amplified the purifying flame of the Sun like holding a curved glass to the light, and in it, their companions' spirit energy was purified, and with their power, they poured into the First's friend, and seared their fur from them, before in its place grew a new pelt of gold, and hackles and beak, and the first of the new Arvians was born in the flames of the blazing sun, pure and untouched by the influence of the moons. Suntouched, they dubbed themselves, for what had occurred was no less than exactly that.
They returned to their tribe in triumph, eager to show their discovery! A new way to create Arvians! Their bodies were as strong and tall as their peers, but their rituals could be performed safely during the day. With this new method, their tribe's numbers could swell, and they would all prosper from it! No longer would hopefuls need to wait entire seasons for a chance at a better life. A brighter age was upon them if only the elders of the tribe would embrace their amazing discovery.
That was not how things went though, of course.
Upon returning, the First Suntouched and their friend were confronted by the First's light-pelted brother, who demanded to know what they had done. They, along with the rest of the tribe's elders decried the new Arvian as an abomination, when they saw how even their Dreampals had been changed, burned a fierce gold from the power of the unfiltered sun's energy.
Cursing and decrying what was akin to heresy, they were attacked by their former friends and driven off at spear point.
At this insult, the first and his friend left the tribe's camp behind them, taking with them the few other members of the tribe and several initiates who had been passed over, and returned swiftly to the mountainside, where they constructed what would become the first Sun keep, and it remains there even today.
“It's a good tale, but it's wrong." Isiat commented almost as dryly as the piece of bread he tore a chunk from. Bravjen's hackles raised at that, an involuntary hiss leaving his beak.
“You dare decry my lore singing as lies?" The amber-pelted male's voice was wrought with offence and insult.
“The first Suntouched slayed three of its clan mates in a rage before they were able to drive it off, with your 'Hero'…" The word dripped with disdain as it left his curved beak. “Injuring another and engaging with their brother for almost a sun mark so that the twisted thing he made could escape! Yes, I tell it as propaganda and lies. The tale we were taught differs vastly from your own."
Bravjen snarled and stood, fetching up his spear. Isiat remained sitting and rolled his eyes, tutting the other Arvian.
“Sit down fledge. You can posture all you want, but I'm not settling this by the blade. Do all Suntouched get their hackles up when scrutiny is levelled at their ways? Your temperament certainly matches your tribe's namesake." He batted the spear tip away from his face with the pack of his talons, and bid him sit once more.
“Cool yourself. Let me tell my tribe's version of events, and perhaps you will learn something. That is your role, no? We discover new stories and weave the narrative of our kind. Isn't that your duty as a lore singer? To learn such things from different sources? I offer you the opposing view, and you would strike me down before a word of it is said?" He arched an eyebrow as if to emphasize the contradiction between duty and loyalty to one's tribe.
Reluctantly, the amber Arvian sighed, and sat once more on the opposite side of the fire, though his hackles remained tense. He let out a chuff, irritated.
“Fine. But I'll not pretend to like it for your sake. Words are as a poison when spoken by a snake."
“I was a vulpine before my transformation, thank you, and I learned this tale even before that. Sit and listen, and learn why our tribes are at each other's throats. Perhaps you'll find a reason to speak rather than strike first."
Our tale begins the same. A pair of twins of uncertain origin. They were the first purebloods, Arvians of direct birth, and quickly, their influence and skill grew. Being born to their forms, they had an almost instinctive understanding of the way things worked, and their skills were as formidable as any veteran of our kin, but in a fraction of the time.
The lighter, The First Loresinger, as we know him, and the darker, the trickster. The Suncatcher, your first Suntouched.
As they grew, they each branched in their interests. The darker twin learned much in the ways of the ritual, and of the spirits and their connection, The Loresinger delved into his namesake, studying the old records, and learning from the elders the way of our kin. He learned the songs and stories and became something of a nightly ritual to the new initiates and fledglings, often singing stories by the tribe's fire pits until the stars began to fade at first light.
Together though, they were inseparable and would teach each other each night what they had learned the day before. It was said together, they could capture a crowd for hours on end.
And then one day, the darker began asking questions. Why was the ritual performed as it was? We're there any other methods to make the Arvian change permanent? Had anybody attempted it during the daylight?
Their search for knowledge became an almost frantic flurry of questions that drew the attention and ire of their elders, and he was cast out for a week as punishment after striking one who refused to answer, forgetting their place. Solemnly, they accepted their punishment and left the tribe, seeking atonement. There was hope that time to cool off would help them see their mistake more clearly.
One of their companions, a frail unchanged who had been passed over for the ritual, and who had an unfortunate infatuation, left with them, stating that they would keep watch on them. Nobody thought anything of it. It was not forbidden for tribe mates to voluntarily join another member for the duration of their punishment, and few of the elders could care for the whims of an unchanged.
But nobody could have foreseen what would come of this.
When they returned after a week, The first brought his friend forth, displaying him as a newly changed, albeit, ill-tempered and twisted Arvian. His eyes blazed with cruel, bestial cunning, and when the tribe rejected him and shunned them both and their twisted, sun-cursed dreampals, the newly transformed attacked.
It was only with the help of the First Loresinger and many of the elder warriors that they were able to fend them off but at a terrible cost. Three of the tribe laid dead, and it was for this careless and pride-driven murder that the Suntouched were banished, taking with them their cursed ways and the spiteful kin who had been passed over for advancement, promising to found a new tribe where their gifts would be shared with all.
After that day, the Loresinger spoke little, and disappeared in the night with their spear soon after, leaving their collected trove of knowledge behind for the tribe to learn and better themselves. Many suspected it was to hunt down their erstwhile sibling, and others, that the pain of the betrayal wounded them in unseen ways. Regardless of the reason, they were never seen again but in tales without grounding, and have been gone since that day.
“But personally, I think they had learned what they could with the tribe. Ours is to seek the tales after all, and keep them for the fledges… What happened in the past is important, but more so that we learn from it, rather than repeat its mistakes."
“You imply that the Suntouched were a mistake with your words." Bravjen spoke with an accusatory growl.
Isiat clacked his beak once and shook his head.
“I said no such thing. Perhaps in another time, cooler minds may have prevailed, and our kin wouldn't be as eager to be at odds with each other. Your kins' emergence was handled with the same zealotism and unwavering commitment to belief as your own Sun priests teach, and you see where it has led our kind. Animosity and blood are not the foundations of lasting peace."
The fire had grown low, and Isiat fed it a bundled talon of sticks to breathe life back into it.
“And what do you believe then, storyteller?"
There was a crack of lightning and a low, rumbling peel of thunder. As if drawn by outside forces, both of their gazes turned, looking out through the darkness that had enshrouded their small refuge from the storm. The rainfall itself had slowed to a mild trickle.
Through that darkness, they both saw him, white with black stripes, the hulking figure of an Arvian warrior with his spear held low. He was crouched in the fork of a long dead tree, golden eyes drifting between the sheltering pair as if judging them quietly. They both recognized the figure at once, though neither spoke for the longest time until Isiat opened his beak quietly to speak his mind.
“I think that perhaps we are all Arvians in the end. What we learn from our stories is not to repeat the folly of those who came before us, and that perhaps the fault in both our tribe's tales is that too much focus is put on the ritual being the mistake, rather than our reaction to it…"
Another rumble of thunder echoed, but more distantly. The storm was passing. The figure in the trees seemed to nod once, almost sagely, before he leapt from the branches, and disappeared into the darkness again.
Bravjen seemed to ponder the odd signals for a few moments as if trying to make sense of some kind of prophetic revelation. There was a flicker of doubt in the amber Arvian. His gaze went back to the dancing flames, one talon thoughtfully scratching the length of his beak.
“If nothing of your story is true… There is truth in those words at least, even by our telling of events."
The night and storm passed without further event, the sun and twin moons rising in unison one after the other as dawn crested the horizon. It was a good omen, Isiat mused. Perhaps the spirits and Loresinger had more at play this night than it first appeared.
“Where do you travel to, Lorekeeper?"
“The west and the sunset, back home, to my nest, my mate and my books, far from any storms, fighting, or intrusive fledges. And you, Bravjen?"
“East, to the dawn and the Sunspire of Flamehold. My kin will wish to know why I return alone. I shall tell them the fledges were lost to the storm on a hunt, and return their belongings. Here, this is for you." He pulled from the leather bag the small boxed deck of cards, before reaching up and plucking a single long feather from his hackles, brilliant amber and orange, browning at the tip. He offered the items over.
“So that your fledges might learn the tales, and their lessons as well as you have. And should you ever cross paths with the Suntouched again, show them that, and let them know you have my leave to pass freely, as long as you keep the peace."
Isiat made a likewise gesture and plucked one of his own midnight black feathers from his neck, the length of it moving sharply between black to red and a white tip.
“And the same to you with mine, though your reception may be cold. Plant that in the ground within our lands, and my Dreampal will know you seek an audience." With that out of the way, the pair gripped talons and shook, parting as equals, a greater understanding between them.
Isiat fetched his spear and departed into the misty woods, still damp with morning dew, a soft travelling song passing his lips as he put one foot in front of the other. Bravjen turned and left the other direction, following the curvature of the cliff side towards the rising sun.
From the woods, a pair of golden eyes watched with an approving nod.