[size=24]The sun was balanced[/size] upon the crisp ridge of a far-away peak when Nazareth took her first rest. It was huge and lovely, its fiery halo scorching the sky, burning all the clouds black and leaving them scattered like strips of charred cloth. The girl was not tired, her legs did not ache. Instead she took this reprieve to admire this region of land, one she had never seen before. Remeer was inside the barrier territory known as, The Rim, which was an ambiguous band that acted as the balancing point between The Bride Empire and The Greater Dominion. But there was nothing Great about it anymore; what few Dominion still resided there moved like blind, lost poltergeists with horrendous, oversized fears beating in their chests always, for all understood capture and indenturement awaited them should The Empire?s scouts happen upon them. Such it was in this age, the final age of The Dominion; no one wrote of it, no one sang of it; it simply was: their stain on great Gailey would be washed away completely, and very soon at that.
But whereas The Rim was a place of dunes and sand, this new area, this uncharted chain upon which Nazareth walked, was rocky; the ground was completely solid. It made her smile. Ahead of her there was no blinding storms, no ugly, rolling hills of malleable sand: no, there were mountains, sharp, jagged gullies and trenches, carvings in the very world itself that bewildered her. The sky was vibrant and true and pulsed with colors she?d never seen before. Her body was filled with excitement, for whatever lied in this new land was under none?s jurisdiction but her own; she was staking claims with each stroke of her eyes.
The farthest one there will be, ?Forez?s Peak?------The mountain range itself. . . Well, I?ll call it ?Reika Range.? That?ll do just fine.
Satisfied with her kingdom, the young Dominion, draped in red and barefoot, pushed herself up and continued onward. She walked along the shelf of a cliff that rose high above a snake-like ravine. The canyon?s depth and width was immense; Nazareth figured it nearly a kilometer deep, and if a bridge were to be suspended across from where she stood to reach the canyon?s parallel, it would stretch nearly a kilometer as well. Looking down, her shadow leaking down the rocky gully, she pondered on its purpose, for the way the canyon twisted, the smoothness of the stone, the variances in the color of the rock, layer-by-layer: something mighty once surged through it. For once in Nazareth?s life her curiosities demanded the expertise of Judace. ?Perhaps a good mood will grant me the patience to ask,? she thought.
For two more hours the girl walked. The only guidances granted were the passages spoken by her mother on two separate occasions: ?Follow the dunes north,? which she was told earlier this day, and, ?You will become captivated by the scent of the sulfur pits, where the master Reika smiths brought their fantastic minerals to be bathed in the land?s fire many ages ago.? This passage was from a conversation she had with her mother over a year ago, when her heart was first treated to the glorious first sisters of the order: Forez and Bith. Although a great many questions had been asked, when inquiring on Darkoukka?s location, she informed her mother a year ago, ?I do not know what sulfur smells like.? Her mother smiled and replied, ?And when you finally do, you will be jealous of the words you just uttered.?
She continued until the sun melted away. The sky darkened and darkened until the humming light of that liquidated sun diminished and furious stars dolled up in the blue night to replace it, as if it had been shattered into these million little pieces of light. Nazareth had moved away from the canyon, as it bent westward. The young girl?s mind was stirring. Images of Darkoukka were burned into her, overtaking the ruling senses, drowning her in a forgotten majesty of her own insensible design. Ahead of her a crooked peek curled over the nightime-blue rockfloor like a cane. Its strange shape jerked her out of introspection. Something hit her; she paused; a sense: a smell. The bold scents of the earthy rock and gravel were being cut by a sweetness, the smell of food, of something boiling over a cauldron. Nazareth squinted ahead, at that curling formation that hung jaggedly maybe two kilometers away, for she pinpointed the aroma?s origin there. The girl applied a fierce grip to her weapon, made herself low and bolted towards it, those powerful legs propelling her like a rocket across the stern, cracked earth.
Within a kilometer, Nazareth?s eyes widened. She shoved her feet into the ground and a mighty burst of smoke and gravel exploded from below them, as this braking maneuver required great force to impede her unnaturally swift movement. Below that strange twist in the mountain, she spied a light. The smell had grown; she could even hear the cracking of the heated water. It was repulsive, something she?d smelled before rising over the Dominion labor yards: Spinner Stew. Young Nazareth was a girl who feared not a man, not a country nor king; but spinners??with their hairy, bulbous thoraxes weighing as much as fifty kilograms (as a wealth of nasty fluids were housed within it), eight legs, half-meter long pincers and twelve marble-like eyes, all the size of adult fists??were heinous abominations from the void?s darkest pits. Cold blood coagulated in her veins.
If there?s a stew. . . this is an area spinners are indigenous to.
It was no time to fear the fauna, she knew. Spinner stew was a delicacy of roaming Dominion, had been for ages. The glands in the thorax were poisonous to the meek Brides: it would probably take a seasoned legion of them to slay one, and even then there would be casualties, figured Nazareth. No, this little hole in the mountain belonged to a nomad; no one to fear, but one that she was intrigued enough to investigate, for her interactions with members of her own race had been limited strictly to family. Curiosity had again reared itself within the girl, she whom was rarely curious about anything; this was a day of firsts.
To present herself as less threatening, the red-cloaked girl removed her hand from the hilt of her weapon, for she knew an old, feeble roaming man would be shaken to bits at the sight of a fine specimen such as she, and especially with her blade at-the-ready. She wanted to be an ambassador of sorts; a mediator between the fine, civilized world her mother had created for her and her siblings, and this rough, beastly old fool who was probably daft to the fact that their species was being systematically eradicated by a much inferior one. Nazareth had made herself angry at the thought, but quickly calmed. She took a step forward, then froze mid-stride. Something rushed over her, something like a static wind, quick and powerful and sleek. Strange pressures thumbed into her temples. Sweat collected on her body; she felt drenched. Her reaction was to draw her weapon, for whatever this phenomenon was, it did not seem natural. Little was detected visually, nothing besides a wisp of sand out of the corner of her right eye, a little smudge in the air that reminded her of a stray arrow. Nazareth wrapped her hand around the handle of her weapon and began to pull it out of its scabbard. A torrential knot of fire contorted in her belly when, looking down at her own hand, she saw another: another hand; another arm, long and darkly fleshed. It moved so much faster than her own, or rather hers seemed to be moving impossibly slow. This rogue hand affirmed itself upon the pommel of Nazareth?s weapon, grasped it then pushed and what little of the blade had been drawn was quickly shoved back into the sheath. Everything still moved slow, as if her senses, her mind, had been heightened to an unfathomable level, but her body remained in laborious normal-time. She was trying so desperately to swivel her head around, to see who this attacker was, but it would simply not move fast enough. At last the fear of second contact was confirmed when another arm laced around, this time from her left, and took-hold of Nazareth?s neck. She tried to shriek, but her windpipe was depressed. Whomever it was, they were absurdly strong. Suffocating, the young girl?s eyes squirmed around beastily and in utter terror. All the strangled movement, all the groans and erratic eye movement seemed an eternity to Nazareth, but it was several seconds only. And after the expiration of the fifth, a voice from behind, a tough, crackly voice, and that of a woman, of a woman who had a flat tongue of granite and a throat that housed a smoked-out voicebox, asked with cool, amused inquiry, ?And what have we here? A peti diano? A peti diano with a funny weapon.?
After the woman spoke, she released Nazareth, and the young Dominioness spun around at-once, her hand of course necking the hilt of blade, to get a good look at just who, or what, had materialized behind her:
No one is that fast. Not even mother.
Although the night was deep and the moon was but a shard, Nazareth?s eyes were great: she had no trouble detailing the woman who stood opposite. She was tall, about her mother?s height at just over 187 centimeters. Her hair was short and completely white, with sharp bangs that fell over her face like pearly knives. Just a single Dominion eye of red sparked in the darkness, for separating the flesh of her forehead from her hairline was an angled strip of white cloth that completely covered the woman?s left eye. She wore a high-collared coat of black, thickly lined and falling down well past the knees: something for long desert expeditions. Nazareth?s mind was moving very quick, but somewhere in the mess there was an admiring thought: she liked the dramatic flow of the longcoat. But most notable, and that which widened Nazareth?s eyes to levels of absurdity, was the rezormora (the authentic onyx pommel that glistened in the blue night the tell of all tells) sheathed at her side. With her jaw slowly slacking, the girl looked up and into that single crimson eye with an expression that asked, How?
The woman?s mouth stretched far to the corners of her face into a fiend?s grin, menacing and crazed. ?Something the matter, peti diano?? she asked. ?Thought this big world was dead and empty? Thought it all your own? Thought you could march on my mountain with that little twig between your pretty fingers, fearless and absolved? Well, child,? and she closed that eye and erased her smile, ?I don?t know what is taught in this age, or who or what does the teaching, but in my time there were rules; there was respect. You?re trespassing on lands I deem sacred. Leave, or I?ll remove you in pieces, peti diano.?
Teeth grit furiously, the flesh above her lips rippled and hoisted, Nazareth barked, ?Just who are you! This land is supposed to be aband??
?Mine,? interjected the tall woman. Like a fireball, that solitary eye flamed in her head. ?I asked once??A courtesy I rarely extend. You are Dominion, and a woman at that: a rarity in this age. I would regret ending you, but I?ve long-since abandoned my foolish loyalty to the greater blood; only that which coursed through my mother, and that which courses through me and my child matters now. The world you come from is alive, but raped and mutated. Mine is deceased, but pure. I know not why you came, but I do not care??I won?t allow the perversion of your present-day culture to infect this place.?
Nazareth was taken by the woman?s pledge. It would have been natural to feel insulted, but she could find no invalidity in her claim. It was for that reason she (hesitantly) announced her journey?s purpose: ?I?m simply on my way to Darkoukka. . . I wish to stand where Forez stood. That is all.?
Ravenous laughter was the woman?s reply. Shock was what Nazareth wore initially, but as the laughter dollied on, the girl?s mood spoiled. While Nazareth was readily forming a shout, the woman, still chortling, raised her palm to pause the girl?s coming words. She mockingly began, ?Darkoukka? Is that so, peti diano? You wish to ?stand where Forez stood?, yes? How delightfully absurd. With that knowledge, I have even less reason to allow you passage.? Severely: ?You are unworthy of stomping your pretty, pampered little feet atop the graves of Reika. Especially with that plaything strapped to your hip. Did you purchase it from some Bride antiquitor??
With great fury, Nazareth tore her weapon out of its sheath. The blade low at her side, her eyes shrunk and sizzling like coals, she challenged her mocker with a combative stance. She was not ignorant to the fact that her sword was not authentic, but with each taste of flesh, each stroke, each sample of blood, it was of her belief that she would one day make it truer than any that had been forged before. ?Do not mock me,? the young girl hissed. ?I was born in the wrong age??I cannot help that. But know this: I?ve slayed forty men with this blade, and I?ll slay many more times that before the void takes me. Their bedamned emperor will be skewered by it, this I promise you, woman.?
Save the tender rushing of thin wind over smooth rock, there was silence. The woman did not emote; Nazareth was unsure if she were respectfully contemplating the murderous accomplishments of which she had just spoken, or disregarding them. The sound that slayed the silence was the swift draw of woman?s sword; she ripped it out of the scabbard with such fluid speed that a thin tracer was cut into the rock, cut by nothing but the wind it rejected as its flawless edge soared over it. Such sharpness brought with it a ringing, like a bell, and so it did as the woman held the weapon straight-out at her side like a thin wing: it hummed mystically. Nazareth was fully engaged; were she not so impressed with the rezormora, she may have found time to be frightened of its bite.
Her lone eye again closed, her head dipped solemnly, the woman calmly spoke: ?If this meeting was an age past, I would be impressed child, because we were at war, then. You are young, and if what you say is truth, which I believe it is because you are spirited and mean, then I suppose you deserve the merits of your slaughter. But Brides are like water, and water does not sharpen the blade, it warps and foils it. Slay them until there are none left to slay if it satisfies you, but your prowess as a warrior will not improve this way. Even if you have killed all that there is to kill, you have not achieved victory; victory is combating and defeating one?s self, and you are many ages away from that. Although I have witnessed horrors that a child such as you was raised on as simple fact, I do not envy you. I do not because you lack opponents of quality. . . because of this you will never be what it is you wish to be: Reika. And I know this because even I, who was birthed in a fine age and locked swords with many women who were equal, and sometimes superior, to myself, I was unable to achieve their famous power. They say that Forez could move so quickly that she could slip between strikes of lightning; they say that Bith was so powerful, that her blade was infused with so much of her own essence that she could divide entire mountains with single, graceful swings. It is of my belief that they were able to achieve this because their age was one of contentedness: there was feuding and bloodshed, as there always was and always will be, but there was not war. . . Brides created war, they turned combat into sensibility and a game of numbers. They are smarter than us, and this is because they forsook the soul of combat, for it offered them no tangible gain. Perhaps they are not wrong, but I say now: they are most certainly not correct. And I mock you now because your exploits are private wars, are games of numbers, and are waged with silly goals in mind. You, peti diano, are as much a Bride as the cretins your blade has kissed.?
Nazareth lowered her head and a gleaming clump of whitegold hair spilled over her face. The hand that held her weapon rattled with inexorable anger. The little mess of molten blonde and chattering bones demanded in a cut-up whisper, ?Take that back. Take it back, or I?ll hurl you into the void. Damn you. Damn you, damn you.?
The arm of Nazareth?s attacker dropped limply at her side, as if suddenly liquidated of bone. Her face seemed dead. ?My observations are my own, girl. Agree with them or dismiss them, or choose to be furious like a beast if the emotion is glamorous to you. I cannot say if they?re right or wrong, I can say only that they are true to me. But I say this, and it is true to us both: you cannot best me; you could not hope to even injure me, not with your inexperience. Slaughtered forty Brides you say? I slayed ninety-five on the first day of their little war, so I know what it?s like fighting them: their eyes fire and they scream, stand like fleshy targets and let you strike them. I wager you?ve never combated a Dominion woman, child?? Her eye also asked this question. She then smiled. ?No, you have not. Well, this will be good for you, then. Or perhaps fatal. But regardless, I want this sortie to be true: tell me your name, girl.?
?An unusual name, but a fine one.? The woman drew her blade across her chest and bowed. When she opened up, a quick, charmed smile flittered across her sharp chin. ?Melia of Porta.?
This was a name Nazareth had heard before, but unlike Judace her mind was not an ordered temple of perfect index. It floated around between her ears, and on its wings the origin was blurred. Melia of Porta??Melia of Porta. Nazareth flicked her head back and the hair that had fallen over her face flew back, suspended in the air momentarily like a shattered plate of gold. She pointed her weapon at Melia. ?Don?t underestimate me,? was all she said. Melia nodded. Nazareth flipped the blade in her hand, held it reverse so that her thumb rested near the pommel and the curved, black steel edge stretched towards her flank. On bent knees, she began to circle Melia, both of her eyes slender and piercing, examining all she could about her opponent. But the tall, single-eyed woman offered no stance; there was no technique to decipher and understand. This annoyed Nazareth. So she struck. With a forceful thrust off the ground, the young girl soared over the rocky terrain towards Melia with her weapon drawn back. When she swung at her opponent, the thin silver tracer that shined on the sharpened end of her weapon flickered like the tail of a fallen star. Melia turned on her toes and slashed at Nazareth?s attack, and when steel-met-steel the severe impact was heralded by an explosion of orange sparks, a metallic ring and a kicking of dust. Stymied, Nazareth hung in the air a moment, her blade locked with Melia?s, like a desert ornament. The muscles in the girl?s arms screamed; she grimaced: this was a force never felt before.
Like a dancer, Melia revolved on the tips of her toes, and with the tenderest flick of her wrist, she repulsed the airborne Nazareth, threw girl?s blade and body away. Nazareth adjusted in air with a swift backflip, landed on her feet and growled. Melia was examining her blade at-length; the expression she offered was boredom. She said, ?I felt your body tense when our weapons met. It is unfortunate. . . . Unfortunate that I may have won with a counter so simple: your bruised muscles will make for slower and much-less powerful swings.? That beaming eye hooked around, found Nazareth and thinned. ?Are you done, peti diano??
Answering with a crouch, and that same reverse-bladed stance, Nazareth shook her head once. ?Shut up,? she croaked with a leviathan fury rumbling in the basin of her insulted tenor. She rushed towards Melia again, but with the understanding that leaving her feet was an ineffective tactic. She lanced to the left, then back to the right, lowered her body then jetted forward, using every bit of her leg-power to achieve the greatest speed possible. When in range she uppercutted the blade in an attempt to catch Melia?s neck. The terror felt when they?d first met, when Melia?s hyper-fluid movements rendered her own dumb and labored, shocked her body a second time. In horror the girl watched as her blade moved upwards in slow-motion. Melia, outside timelock, simply lifted her chin to avoid the strike, slipped to the left, snapped her hand and wrapped her wickedly long fingers around Nazareth?s weapon. An easy tug jarred the hilt from Nazareth?s hands. The girl stumbled, scrambled, cursed herself softly then collided with the ground.
Nazareth felt mocked by history, for the sight of Melia?s hand bleeding around her captured blade reminded the girl of the scene on the porch from earlier in the day, when it was her mother who had effortlessly stolen her weapon away. A deep, caustic hatred infected her.
?Your rezormora is a replica of Forez?s,? Melia said while admiring it. ?Did you know? There are of course several styles of rezormora; some of the designs were impractical absurdities, but the design of the two originals are those that continue to stand the test of time. You see,? continued Melia, discarding Nazareth?s weapon with a disrespectful toss to the side. It rattled across the rock after impact. ?Forez forged hers with that slight curve at the end, like yours??she did this because it gave the weapon a superior slicing angle, and allowed it to pass through the air with less resistance. She was a smart woman, Nazareth, you are wise to admire her. With that being said,? bringing her own weapon up, ?my mother preached to me the importance of power. This is a weapon from a disciple of Bith?s school: they nicknamed it, Noramora, because it resembled the straight, pike-like horns of the great Nora beasts that, unfortunately, have been extinct for eight ages. Do you see the difference? A noramora is straight; no curve. It rises,? guiding her eye up the wonderful, smokey steel, ?and at its peak, the slender edges fluidly slide and eventually intersect. Because it is straight and solid, it boasts incredible striking power. Like a rezormora it is sharpened on one-side only, which is strange for a straight-sword, but this styling allows for the application of advanced technique. Like when I countered your first blow: did you know I swung at you with the blunt side? Of course not, child, you fight in but a single dimension.?
Throughout the sermon, to which she was involuntarily present, Nazareth kept her eyes locked upon her discarded weapon. She was no fool: this fight could not be won. Yet she paid no mind to resignation, for intoxicated on the glory of death by an opponent of such skill, under the blade of this Melia, she felt no indignity, which was her greatest vice: she was being blessed with dignity in defeat. When she pushed herself up the muscles in her arms felt like lazy bundles of loose, stringy rope. Damages; a first, but she did not find the pain unsatisfactory; it was not a lesson, it was a trophy of sorts, one awarded when the battle was true. So she believed.
Once on her feet (but in a stricken hunch), Nazareth glanced over to Melia. ?I don?t care about the design of your weapon, woman,? said the girl, short-of-breath. ?I don?t care about what your mother taught you. Mine taught me that my blood was of the highest of caste, bloomed from the greatest seed. That one fate of mine was to restore the order of our race through discipline and power.?
Her piece was unfinished, but her opponent had begun to chortle girlishly. Nazareth?s body became hot.
?One fate of yours?? Melia asked in amusement. ?Have you more than one? My, my, you are indeed a special thing, peti diano.?
?None but Brides and fools lock themselves within a single fate!? Nazareth screamed, tears slickly shining on the fringes of her wide, red eyes. She pointed to Melia. ?If you?ve so-chosen to waste away here in this range of nothingness, then sobeit; clearly your mother instilled no sense of heritage within you.?
It was a wound to feel her own tears. Each blink moistened her pretty lashes, and filmed her view until the world was a glob of silver and a glob of brown flooded over a landscape of black. At once she streamed her eyes across the length of her arm to wipe the tears away. When the world was clear, it was very clear: Melia was gone. Nazareth's eyes burst; her jaw fell apart. She tore her head to the left, to the right, but found nothing. She flipped around 180 degrees, but before the turn was completed, she was lassoed at the neck and thrown to the ground. Her light body crashed with the weight of a boulder; her insides felt like an overturned drawer of knives and spoons: bent and scattered everywhere. But Nazareth?s vision, although slightly blurred, remained. Melia was above now, her blade cast down so that its point pricked at the pristine flesh of the young girl?s neck.
In an arid, whistled tone, like that of dry air cutting through the cracks of a broken ceramic pot, Melia asked the girl, ?Who is your mother, Nazareth? Your face is familiar, but my lone eye sees not with definition anymore, I sometimes believe I see what my mind commands.?
The girl on the ground, with her loose, broken-feeling arms outstretched, looked off to the side. Scars of brown powder that had bloomed from the rocky terrain upon impact ran across the girl?s cheek. A ribbon of blood flailed out of her right nostril. She did not want to answer, for Melia?s question was not asked out of courtesy, but rather out of necessity, and Nazareth felt not the desire to abide by her assailant's needs.
Melia?s wrist twitched and the tip of her weapon drew a little red line into Nazareth?s neck. ?Who, girl; tell me or I will do much worse than kill you.?
Eyes closed, Nazareth smiled a funny smile. The title she was given as conclusion to their introduction: Melia of Porta. Of Porta. Finally, she remembered why the name glimmered in the back of her mind.
?Now I get it,? whispered the broken little girl. ?You?re one of them. . . you were. . . you were a sister of The Gail. Mother must?ve known. . . No: I?m certain she did. Hah??I think she sent me here to die. I think she. . .?
Before her vision cut away, there was silence. Whether this darkening phenomenon was unconsciousness or death indeed was unknown to young Nazareth. But when her body became still, it did so with a smile imprinted upon its lips.