Understanding - A Tome of Chaos Story
Fiafia squinted against the setting sun. It colored the sky like fire and plunged the rugged hills she traversed into inky shadow. She sighed heavily and glanced back at her traveling companions. The dwarf warrior, Bera, and the elven spellcaster, River, both trudged up behind her.
“Damn,” Bera muttered, using her vantage point to survey the land. “We’re still not out of these hills.”
“We’ll need to make camp soon,” River agreed, his arms crossed tightly over his chest.
Fiafia had never felt so exhausted in her entire sixteen years of life. Ever since the three of them had escaped Queen Mycelia’s clutches in the deep underground of the Realm of Silence, they hadn’t stopped moving. They needed to reach a city and share all they’d learned. So far, however, they hadn’t come across a single settlement. Weeks had passed as they’d crossed the mountain range, walked a golden plain, and then entered the hilly area they currently traversed.
The wear of the journey clearly showed on them all. Their clothes were torn and dirty, their weapons were bloodstained, and dark circles shadowed their eyes. Fiafia’s feet and legs ached, and her stomach longed for a full meal again. They had only been able to eat what they could hunt.
“Let’s find shelter, we don’t want to risk another night ambush,” Bera stated.
She led the way down the slope, and Fiafia recalled with a shudder one night they had woken to an ambush by Chaos Legion scouts. They dispatched them quick enough, however, not without taking wounds of their own. So far on their journey all they’d encountered were smaller minions of the Chaos Legion; imps, minor elementals, and human soldiers. She knew there was worse out there, though. She had seen Doctor Blight in person, not to mention Queen Mycelia’s horrid spore-infested army.
As they made their way through the terrain, searching for a well-hidden camping spot, the sun dropped below the horizon altogether. Across the darkness of the land ahead of them, firelight blossomed into view. It was many, many miles away, but still easy to spot.
“What is that?” Fiafia asked as the three of them paused.
Bera pulled out a spyglass from her pack and held it to one blue eye. After a moment’s observation, she gasped. “It’s a town! We found a town!”
“Yes!” River exclaimed in joy. He hugged Fiafia excitedly.
“Hold on…” Bera’s tone grew grim. “There is a force outside of it. The Chaos Legion. I see war machines and barricades. The town looks to be under a blockade of some sort.”
“How large?” River asked.
“Not enough to storm a huge city like Anenon,” the dwarf stated, referencing her home city on Azmaré, “but enough to keep this town hostage.”
“We must help,” River insisted. “If we can sneak past the enemy lines, we can join with the townsfolk.”
Bera nodded, putting away her spyglass. “We should. Let us take a quick rest and then sneak inside. It won’t do any good for exhaustion to allow us to be captured once again. Let’s rest just a few hours and take turns on watch. Then we’ll go.”
As they set about making a small camp, Fiafia recalled when they were held in Queen Mycelia’s fungal dungeon, and the imposing figure of a woman named Obsidian, a high-ranking member of the Chaos Legion. Obsidian had planned to return to interrogate them, but they had escaped before that happened.
Fiafia glanced across her two companions. She had trusted them with her life during their travels, and it made what she had to do all the more painful.
This is the end of our friendship, she told herself with a sigh.
“I’ll take first watch,” River volunteered, settling down on the ground.
“I’d prefer to,” Fiafia quickly stated, not looking him in the eye.
“Very well,” the elf agreed, and he and Bera soon fell asleep.
Fiafia sat for a long time on the soft earth, staring at the distant horizon. Sailing with her father as a child, she loved the sight of the horizon. The promise of something more. After he had been imprisoned for piracy, however, that all changed for her. Now she struggled just to get by peacefully in any town, her pirate heritage a mark of distrust to others.
That is why she had come to her difficult decision.
Head bowed, Fiafia pulled three items out of her traveling pack. A single piece of parchment that had dried at rough angles from getting wet during their boat escape, a quill and some ink. Keeping her back turned to her companions in case they woke up, she wrote a simple note.
I am sorry, but I must leave. I will never be welcome in any town due to who I am. I know what you two feel you must do, and I wish you all the best in thwarting the Chaos Legion.
With a shaky hand, the adolescent set the letter down in the center of the campsite, picked up her sword, and walked away.
A cold wind sent the sleeves of her white shirt flapping as she trudged up a hill. It was a wind that would bring in rain clouds, and already she could smell a storm in the air. For now, moonlight lit her path in silver. She would have found it quite a pretty night, if not for the terrible ache in her chest. A deep guilt and regret at what she had done.
Focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, she barely paid attention to her surroundings until a glimmer of red caught her eye. She frowned, focusing on an item within the dirt. Fiafia knelt down and reached her fingers into the soft soil, pulling up a palm-sized stone. It was smooth and warm, and had a brilliant red-brown color to it that seemed to reflect the moonlight. Embers from a small flame floated inside of it
What is this? she thought, turning it over in her hand.
The sound of a rough female voice sent Fiafia’s heart leaping in her chest as someone behind her said, “Drop the kainestone and state your allegiance, or I’ll kill you on the spot.”
Fiafia slowed. A slight figure stood ten feet from her, almost invisible within the shadows. She saw dark hair pulled back from an angular and young face, garbed in blue. She held a bow in bandaged hands with an arrow pointed at her.
“Drop what?” Fiafia frowned, carefully remaining still.
“The stone in your hand. Drop it.”
A frown pulling at her lips, Fiafia complied, and the stone dropped heavily to the ground.
The archer tilted her head to the side. “You haven’t answered my second question.”
“I have no allegiance.”
The young woman barked out a laugh. “I’ve heard that one before. Very well.”
She released her hold on her bow and leaped forward, turning into a fast and sharp kick. Fiafia had no time to react, taking the blow directly in her torso. She was sent to her back, the wind knocked out of her. Her vision blurred.
She saw a flash of blue as the archer soared through the air, her bandaged fist raised to strike Fiafia’s head. The pirate’s daughter felt her adrenaline spike, and she rolled out of the way. She heard the archer land and only had a moment to get on the offensive. Allowing her instincts to take over, the years of training with her father on the rocking deck of a ship, she got to the balls of her feet and swung her leg out. It caught the back of the archer’s leg and sent her to the ground.
The young woman was fast, though, and immediately sprung back to her feet. She went into a series of punches, yellow eyes flashing with aggression. Fiafia held up her forearms before her, absorbing the blows of as many as she could as she backed up.
When the archer paused to change tactics, Fiafia took her chance. She yanked her curved sword free from her belt and thrust it at her opponent. The archer moved fast, twisting on the spot and letting the blade pass her by. She then grabbed onto the hilt, attempting to wrestle it from Fiafia’s grip. Fiafia held on tight, not giving up her weapon. She was strong and quick, but fought as if every move hurt her. Fiafia noticed bandages wrapped around her hands. She was injured.
“I don’t want to fight,” Fiafia spat out, leaning in with her shoulder in an attempt to force the archer away.
“That’s all you Chaos Legion bastards want to do,” the archer countered, not giving up her stance.
“I’m not part of the Chaos Legion!”
“Your lies won’t work on me a second time.”
“I am not!”
Fiafia released her grip on the sword and took a large step backward. She held up both hands. “My name is Fiafia Haoa. I recently escaped a Chaos Legion prison. I have been traveling with two leaders of a Praetoria town, Bera Dallin and River Hellondale.”
The archer’s stance relaxed only slightly, her eyes narrowed. “And where are you from, Fiafia?”
“The Northern Bay. I fled the town when Doctor Blight corrupted it.”
“Hmm. Alright, I suppose I won’t knock you out and drag you back to my order for interrogation. But why were you taking the kainestone? Did you come to warn Kainek?”
Fiafia waved her hands before her. “Wait, wait. I have no idea what you are referring to. How do I know that you aren’t Chaos Legion?”
The archer tossed the sword to the ground, drawing herself up straight. “My name is Delya. I serve the Xenith Scale. I am investigating the area.”
Realization dawned on the pirate’s daughter, and she let out her breath heavily, rubbing the bridge of her nose. “Of course. You’re here because of the Chaos Legion forces we saw.”
Delya’s eyes widened. “They’re here already?”
Fiafia pointed. “Head that way. You’ll find my companions, an elf and a dwarf, resting there. From that rise you can see the town. If you tell my companions I sent you, I’m sure they will appreciate your help. They are planning to sneak past the Chaos Legion forces and help the town.”
Delya raised one eyebrow. “You have other plans?”
Fiafia did not like the way Delya’s eyes narrowed, the archer summing her up with a calculating gaze.
“You’re afraid,” Delya stated in a tone that allowed for no argument.
“Not for the reasons you think,” the pirate’s daughter responded levelly. “It is best I not get involved.” She walked past the archer, keeping her eyes toward the horizon.
“So you’re not one to stand up to bullies, then,” Delya countered.
Fiafia stopped at that, turning to face the other young woman. “Don’t presume to understand me. You attacked as soon as you saw me without asking questions.”
“Of course I did. A Chaos Legion agent disguised as a road merchant attempted to interrogate and murder me just a day’s walk from here.”
Fiafia was taken aback by that. She glanced warily out at the hills, then back to the archer. “What are you doing out here alone, then? And what exactly is the Xenith Scale? I’ve never heard of it.”
“It is a temple that observes the activity of the Splinterlands and ensures balance is maintained. It was attacked by the Chaos Legion looking for information; information about the kainestone you held in your hand.”
“I didn’t realize how far the Chaos Legion’s reach was. I’ve just been in the wilderness.”
“They are everywhere,” Delya answered. “They have spread to all lands and across all waters. No one is safe. Villages burn. Innocents die. People are captured and never seen again. Most have given up this fight.”
Fiafia raised one eyebrow. “But not you?”
“I’ll take the Chaos Legion apart one agent at a time with my bare hands if I have to.”
A soft chuckle escaped Fiafia, the wind blowing her wavy hair from her face. She liked this archer. Delya reminded her of her father. Full of independence and spirit. Though, that combination hadn’t been enough to keep their family together.
“I hope you are able to succeed,” Fiafia said sincerely. “Though, I’ve found that no matter who the authority is, they still can’t be trusted. It doesn’t matter whose flag flies overhead, and you won’t notice if you just keep your head down.” She turned to continue walking.
“Coward!” Delya shouted. As Fiafia’s eyes flashed with anger, stopping in her tracks, Delya continued, “You put your own hurt feelings first! Go wallow in your self-pity, wandering the wilderness alone. There is nowhere you can go. The Chaos Legion won’t let a single person live their lives on their own terms and freedom. If you hate these societies so much, then do something about it rather than whine. Help stop the Chaos Legion and rebuild a better world.”
Fiafia glared across at her, the moonlight fading as clouds rolled in overhead. Her gaze slowly softened, and her voice was quiet as she asked, “What is important about the kainestone?”
“It’s a recent discovery in this region, the Red Hills. The people here have begun to mine it. It is rich in mana and makes the land fertile. The Xenith Scale, however, fears it can be used for a different purpose in the hands of the Chaos Legion. Perhaps as an agent to make their spellcasting more powerful.”
Fiafia considered this. She had to flee the town on the Northern Bay because of Chaos Legion infiltration. The roads weren’t safe, she was taken prisoner and nearly killed, and there was no safe place to go in all of the Splinterlands now.
What would my father think if he saw me like this? Running and hiding.
She met eyes with Delya, renewed vigor within her gaze. “Very well, I will help. But if the town, Kainek, finds out what I am, they won’t trust me.”
“And what are you?”
“The daughter of a pirate.”
Delya waved a dismissive hand. “Let them distrust. Let them talk. It shows their own pettiness. In the end, no one else is coming to help them.”
Fiafia took a step back at that, a smile tugging at one corner of her mouth. “You sound like you have experience with feeling like an outsider.”
“I’m always clashing with my mentors within the Xenith Scale,” she shrugged. “I’d rather deal with their disapproval than not be true to myself.”
Fiafia laughed. “You sound like my father. Come, you can meet Bera and River.”
Fiafia hoped that the two companions would still be asleep and hadn’t read her letter by the time she returned to the campsite. A lump formed in her throat when she found not only were they awake, but they currently had her letter in their hands and were arguing over it. When they saw her, relief washed over them.
“Fiafia!” Bera gasped. “I am so glad you’re safe! Who’s this?”
Delya stepped forward, chin held high. “My name is Delya, I have been sent by the Xenith Scale to investigate Chaos Legion activity here. I think we can help one another.”
Fiafia sat quietly as the group conversed, sharing information. It made her feel rather small as the other three talked about large-scale events and politics. They discussed Chaos Legion movements, Bera and River’s home city of Anemon, and what their enemies could use kainestone for. River took time to heal Delya’s wounds on her hands and her side that she received from her fight with the Chaos Legion posing as a merchant. Eventually, the conversation turned to Fiafia.
“How could you just leave?” Bera scolded. “After all the three of us have been through together, on the eve of battle, why leave now?”
Fiafia’s shoulders sagged. “I didn’t want you two to know, because I worried you would think of me. I was born on a ship and raised on the water.” She paused, gathering her courage. “My mother left when I was very young, I have no memory of her. My father raised me by himself. He was the best. I love him.” A flicker of a smile crossed her full lips before fading. “He was a pirate, though, and he was eventually taken from me by keepers of the law. I had to make my own way to Praetoria to try and start my life over. I was working and living in New Azad on the coast of the Northern Bay. The people there… didn’t trust me, to put it lightly. They knew who my father was, and they would always refer to me as the ‘pirate’s girl’ like it was some sort of disease or something to be ashamed of. The town had been victim to pirates before and never gave me a chance to prove myself trustworthy. I had never felt shame before until I saw their gazes and heard their whispers. It was hard to find a place to live, I’d get denied service in shops, and I was lucky to get the one job I had. Then it turned out my boss was working with the Chaos Legion. I tried to warn the town, but they wouldn’t listen to me. They couldn’t trust the ‘pirate girl.’” She sighed, pulling her knees close to her chest and wrapping her arms around them. “So eventually, I left. I would go solo. I wouldn’t try to fit in anymore.”
“Fiafia,” River said gently, “I understand how you’ve been hurt, and I am sorry you have been through such an experience. But we have trusted you with our lives this entire journey. Your parentage does not change our relationship.”
Fiafia blinked in surprise, taken aback by the kindness of the reply.
“We all have our own struggles we must deal with,” Bera inclined her head. “I have faced plenty of opposition on my journey to leadership. It almost broke me a few times, I am sorry to say. But I stayed strong, and here I am.”
“Bera has been my rock through my own struggles,” River added, leaning forward. I am a healer, but I am…less fond of crowds,” he chuckled, an awkward look passing over his face. “I get quite nervous around people, especially those I am not close to. Bera supported me, and it was because of her I have gotten more confident.”
Fiafia rocked back, a smile flickering across her face. “This . . . means a lot to hear, thank you. I have tremendous respect for you both. I didn’t want to disappoint you. I…thought it would be better to simply leave than to risk losing your approval.”
Bera’s blue eyes were gentle as she asked softly, “Did your father love you?”
“Then that is all that matters.”
A bright smile sprung across Fiafia’s face.
The dwarven woman hopped to her feet. “Alright, let’s go! We are all together, and Kainek needs our help.”
Delya immediately stood, shifting back and forth on the balls of her feet as she waited for the others to be ready. Then the group made their way down a steep incline and towards the town. The Red Hills rolled around them, windswept and bathed in darkness from the rain clouds overhead. As they drew closer and closer they grew more careful, moving as stealthy as possible. Eventually, they got to a ridge that gave them a good vantage of Kainek’s situation.
Farmlands stretched all around, with swaying wheat and rows of crops. Scarecrows hung limply on their stakes, heads bowed like macabre corpses. The town itself was ringed by a stone wall, protecting the various homes, shops, the mine entrance, and a single manor within. This time of night the town should have all been asleep, but it blazed with torches. They could see figures patrolling the walls and rooftops, metal weapons glinting in the firelight. Outside the town sat a few hundred Chaos Legion soldiers. Various tents were erected through their ranks. Clearly, they weren’t expecting to leave anytime soon.
Delya pointed forward. “There is an opening towards the back of the town. I only see five Chaos Legion soldiers guarding the area. We need to take them out quickly and silently.”
“How do we scale the town wall?” Fiafia asked.
“I’ve got more than just arrows in my quiver.” She pulled out two unique-looking arrows, both had a grappling hook where the point should be. “Once I get up you can follow me,” Delya replied.
The group tensed as they prepared to go. They would need to work efficiently or risk being caught outside the safety of the city walls. They crept closer to the Chaos Legion guards, sticking to the shadows. Just as they got within a few feet of their quarries, a woman’s booming voice echoed out from the front gates.
“Are we to have another night of bloodshed, or will you surrender your town to me?”
Crouching low, the group peered towards the sound of the voice. A woman stood on a platform before the gates of Kainek. A black robe billowed out in the wind, and she held a staff made of pure obsidian in her grasp. Dreadlocks were pushed back from her face by a circlet. She held herself with power and poise.
River gasped. “That’s Obsidian! A leader within the Chaos Legion. We saw her only weeks ago.”
Delya shot them a surprised look. “You did? Where?”
“Queen Mycelia’s lair,” Bera growled. “Obsidian was interrogating prisoners. We escaped before she could torture us, though.”
A man stood atop the protective wall of the city, a velvet blue cloak hung around his shoulders. Fiafia could not make out many details at this angle, but when he spoke his voice was smooth and calm.
“You will not take our home,” he replied to Obsidian. “And our kainestone mine will not be yours. Begone from our doorstep. We do not recognize the Chaos Legion’s authority.”
“Very well,” Obsidian stated, her voice steely cold. “I’m sure your corpse will make a fine example to anyone else who dares to cross me.” She turned to stride off the platform, and a young man that had been standing beside her followed.
Fiafia could only make out that he wore brown robes and was a slight figure, hunched and sallow.
“Who is that with her?” the pirate’s daughter asked.
“Vassar,” Delya responded. “He is Obsidian’s apprentice in earth mana manipulation. Records within the Xenith Scale indicate that Obsidian can greatly amplify mana abilities and that she does it through him to wreak destruction.”
“We must go in now, a battle is about to begin,” Bera urged.
The group moved as one and headed for the back of the town towards where the five guards patrolled. Delya fired two arrows back-to-back, dropping two of the guards with barely a sound. Water swirled out from River’s hand, encasing one guard’s head entirely as the elf dragged him down to the ground. Bera leaped up, slamming the pommel of her sword into the back of the fourth guard’s head and knocking him unconscious immediately. Fiafia took the last one, sliding up behind and slitting his throat in one quick and silent movement.
Not stopping, the four of them rushed across the open space between the hills and the town’s wall. Movement sounded from Obsidian’s forces. They were preparing to attack.
At the base of the wall, Delya fired a grappling hook arrow. It caught on the first try, and she scampered up the wall as if she weighed nothing. She crouched down, remaining out of sight from the town guards to avoid being mistaken for a foe.
“Go now,” Bera urged Fiafia.
The adolescent took hold of the rope, the feel of it rough against her palm. She looked up at the wall. Once she did this, she knew there was no going back. If she got involved in the battle with the Chaos Legion now, she could never untangle herself from it. She would have to reveal her true self and her past. She could never run away and hide.
I don’t want to run away anymore.
With a determined set to her jaw, she pulled herself up just as the rain began to fall.
Collect special Limited NFTs related to this story at https://www.splintertalk.io/nfts/
Story: Ashley Roepel & Scott Roepel
Editor: Sean Ryan
Narrative Lead: Joey Shimerdla
Character Art (cover): Candycal
Illustrations: Paolo Chaz R. Gomez
Graphic Design: Tamer “Defolt” Oukour
Voice Acting: David Dahdah
Music / Post-Production: Isaria
Ending Credit Music: Zain Lodhia
Creative Director: Nate Aguila