Mystic Heart Odyssey
Part 5: The Cult of the Crimson Isles
Woop, a super long one this time! Alas, it can’t be helped in this case. Fair warning for those that don’t deal well with cliffhangers- if chapter 10 isn’t also up by the time you’re reading this, you may want to wait until it is, and settle in for a longer reading session!
Kalei sat outside the meal house, staring off into the distance tiredly as he ate his dinner. If he hadn’t been so exhausted, he might’ve been more inclined to go visit the shrine again, but frankly he didn’t want to risk being cornered by someone else looking to put him to work. Which is all the more reason he let out a startled yelp when Lykou greeted him and sat down next to him.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to spook ya,” the konuul apologized. “We just felt like taking a break from the crowd.”
“We can leave if you want,” Kuna said, holding a bowl of fruit in one hand and a cup in the other. “We just figured you might like some company that isn’t trying to order you around for a change.”
The surprised raptuva glanced back and forth between them, then shrugged. “Eh. Sure,” he said, then picked up a piece of pink fruit from his plate and ate it as Kuna sat down as well. “I’m just glad Tane is distracted by food and hazenectar now.”
“Hazenectar? Is that what this stuff is?” Lykou asked curiously, sniffing the cup. “Huh. I’m guessing it’s the kind of thing you want to drink slowly?”
“Mhmm. Don’t worry, they probably won’t even let you overdo it.”
The konuul smirked. “Yeah I dunno, you don’t know what a lightweight Kuna can be.”
“At least he’s an adorable lush though.”
Kuna blushed and stuck his tongue out at him in response.
Lykou snickered. “Anyway, I don’t think we’ve had a chance to talk yet. You and me I mean. I… understand you and Ku did though.”
Immediately, Kalei tensed up a little. “Uhhh, y-yeah, he told you about that?”
“Yes, including how we talked things over last night,” Kuna pointed out, shooting his friend a look. “What’s got you in a ‘mess with people’ mood suddenly?”
The canid snickered again and shrugged. “Hey, he upset you yesterday, it’s only fair I get in a little bit of a jab,” he replied, then smiled at the raptuva. “But seriously, I’m glad you two worked things out. Thanks for talking to Ku last night.”
“Ehehe… no problem?”
“So I take it from your reaction earlier that this is your first time to the shrine, too?” Kuna asked after sipping some of his drink.
“Mm, yep. They don’t normally let recruits up here. You usually have to at least be Initiate rank to visit, and even then it’s rare and under strict supervision.”
“Well hey, maybe that means you’re about to get a promotion?” Lykou suggested encouragingly.
Kalei snorted. “Hah. Nice of you to suggest, but not likely. If it weren’t for the circumstances, it’s more likely they’d be thinking of kicking me out by now due to being such a screwup.”
“Hey, don’t be so rough on yourself.”
“It’s just the truth. Like I told Kuna, I’m an idiot and a clutz.”
“You’re overstating it, and at least you’re trying. Don’t be so hard on yourself. You’ve got more potential than you know. Sometimes it just takes a while to find your chance to shine,” Kuna replied, then smiled sympathetically. “Believe me though, I know it can be hard to break that habit- ask Lykou how often he has to get onto me for that kind of stuff.”
“Yeah, try and be more optimistic. The fact that they brought you along must mean something, right?”
“Heh, the only reason they let me up here is probably because I’m the one that rep...orted… you two. Er,” the raptuva blurted out before yet again tensing up and averting his gaze awkwardly when he realized what he was saying.
“Wait, reported…?” Lykou asked dubiously.
Kuna arched a brow. “Oh yeah, you mentioned something about ‘spying on us’ and stuff. That was real?”
“Errr, yeahhh… us newbies get charged with scouting down around the coastal villages to keep an eye out for magic users, or anything else that looks suspicious down there, especially late at night. Which… I mean, n-no offense, but t-two strange non r-raptuvan people showing up s-suddenly from far away, and one of you uses some of the s-same kind of magic as the S-Speaker-”
Lykou chuckled and lightly patted his shoulder. “Hey relax, I get it. I was basically a glorified scout for my own tribe. You saw something unusual so you reported back about us.”
“Yeahhh… probably for all the wrong reasons though,” Kalei said with a sheepish expression and rubbed his neck, then turned to Kuna again. “Sorry again for the paranoia.”
“Hey, it’s in the past,” the sereva assured him with a smile. “I can imagine what that must’ve looked like to you. I’m guessing you saw me setting up our shelter the night we got to the island?”
“Yeah. Neat use of that stuff, by the way. I guess you two have been doing that all along your journey? Must beat the heck out of having to carry tent materials around with you and dealing with setting it up and taking it down every night.”
“Well, since I got good enough with my magic to do it anyway,” Kuna replied.
“Yeah? How long did that take?”
“A little while. At first I could barely do much of anything. The newer you are, the more it takes out of you.”
“I guess that makes sense.”
The three of them sat and enjoyed their meal in silence for a minute before Lykou spoke up again, “So, do you know anything about this ceremony thing?”
“Honestly, no more than you two at this point. Like I said, I’ve never been allowed up here until now. Only times I ever saw the Speaker were on a few of the rare occasions he came down to tour the lower mountain villages. And even then kind of at a distance. He tends to stay near the top of the mountain most of the time these days, presumably communing with Tuimana.”
“What’s he like?” Lykou asked curiously.
Kalei thought for a moment as he sipped some of his drink. “...well, awesome I guess. Charismatic. He’s got lot of flare, you know? Heh,” he said, then smirked. “Pun not intended, being the Speaker for Tuimana and all. He likes to channel bits of Tuimana’s blessings to emphasize bits of his speeches, as well as for ritual blessings.”
“Oh yeah? Sounds interesting.”
“What’s all the ‘blood’ talk I keep hearing about anyway? What’s blood got to do with ma-, er, using his ‘blessings’?” Kuna asked curiously. “I have to admit it has me a little anxious.”
“Oh don’t worry, he rarely does anything with anyone else’s blood- unless they give it willingly for certain rituals, anyway. But he uses his own to channel life-giving energy from the spirit world through Tuimana’s connection to him. It lets him grow flowers and so on,” the raptuva explain, then arched a brow at Kuna. “Still not sure how you do it without that, you know. I know I’m not yet the spirit expert I want to be, but can you try and explain it to me?”
“Er. Well, channeling energy is the right way to put it. Except you don’t really have to have a connection to a particular spirit to do it. That stuff is flowing through you and other living things all the time already, so it’s just a matter of being able to feel for it and figure out how to grasp and manipulate it,” the sereva explained. “Which… admittedly not everyone can do, of course. Not consciously anyway,” he added, glancing at Lykou briefly. “The green growy kind is life magic, and supposedly it’s the most common and easiest to grasp for newbies, or so I thought. I gather maybe that’s not the case for raptuva though.”
Kalei shook his head. “None of that sounds like what I’ve always heard. Other than the Speaker, any other magic user we’ve had here in recent memory turned out to be working with some kind of demon or other in exchange for their powers.”
Lykou and Kuna exchanged a wary look. “...so how does the Order find that out about people anyway?”
The raptuva shrugged and swallowed another bite of his food. “Above my rank, unfortunately. Like anything else interesting,” he said, rolling his eyes a bit. “I gather they have tests or rituals or something. Or maybe Tuimana just tells the Speaker and he passes word down through the Order.”
“And you told me they don’t look different in any way from regular people?”
Kalei shook his head. “Not really, as far as I’ve seen and heard anyway. Again though, I haven’t really been part of any direct missions like that. I’m just a scout and errand runner right now, after all.”
Again, Kuna felt a growing unease, so he took a large sip of his drink to try and calm his nerves. Suddenly, while looking around, he spotted their avian eavesdropper as it flew from the nearby roof to one further away, seemingly settling down for a nap in a quieter spot. From that distance he didn’t recognize it as the same one they’d previously met. “Oh hey, look, it’s another one of those funny birds,” he pointed out to Lykou.
“Oh hey, yeah!” the konuul said, grinning. “I wonder if that one talks, too?”
Kalei initially didn’t bother looking up. “Yeah, some birds talk. Bunch of them out in the forest. They just mimic people though. They don’t know what they’re saying. Trust me, the novelty wears off when they’re trying to snatch food out of your hands or just generally being a nuisance.”
“Well this one we met earlier wasn’t too pushy,” Lykou replied, then chuckled. “It was actually pretty funny.”
“Yeah, cute too. Was almost sad it was gone the next morning,” Kuna added. “It was real pretty. We named it Sunshine because it had bright yellow feathers just like that one, unlike all the other ones that are all reds and blues an-… what?”
At the comment about the feathers, Kalei immediately perked up and looked up, searching around them. “Yellow feathers?? Where??”
“Er, up there?” Kuna said, pointing to the bird on the roof in the distance. “...why?”
Kalei stared at the bird thoughtfully for a minute, then slowly settled back down, hesitant to let his eyes off it. After a moment, he smirked and snickered a bit. “Sunshine huh? How… appropriate.”
Lykou and Kuna shared a look. “...what? Is there something special about those ones?”
“That’s no ordinary bird,” the raptuva explained, digging back into his food. “That’s a kikomanu. They’re… pretty rare these days.”
“Really?” Kuna said, his expression falling. “That’s a shame…”
“Yeah… why are they rare? What’s special about them, besides their color?”
Kalei looked around somewhat warily. Perhaps the alcohol and fatigue was clouding his judgment, but he decided it was probably safe to talk about, as long as he kept his voice down. He waved them in close. “This is kind of taboo to talk about much, but… Tuimana wasn’t always the only god around, you know.”
The boys’ eyes widened. “Really?”
“Mhmm. Some old stories talk about one named Whironui- a sky god, master of light and color. The kikomanu had some kind of close connection to him, though I don’t know the details. Apparently when the demon problem started getting out of hand before the Order was started, they killed off most of them, and he was so distraught that he ran off to the spirit world and refused to come back. The actual official record is that they were all killed, but, well… obviously not.”
“Oh damn,” Kuna said, staring at the distant bird sadly. “That’s awful…”
“No kidding… still, I’m glad to know some of them survived. Hey, I wonder if that’s actually Sunshine?”
“Could be. Either way, you guys are fortunate to have met one of them. When I was little I was always told it’s good luck to befriend one.”
“I hope they make a comeback,” Kuna commented.
“Maybe eventually. Demon problem isn’t as bad as it used to be. Order’s done a good job clearing them out, so I guess there’s hope,” Kalei said, then sipped some of his drink. “Anyway, tell me a bit about your journey,” he added with a smile. “If you don’t mind anyway. I kind of missed most of it, since… well, you know.”
Lykou chuckled. “Ku I hope you don’t mind taking it this time. Only an audience of one, at least.”
The sereva smirked and rolled his eyes. “Sure. I know you must be tired of repeating yourself at this point.”
“A little,” the konuul admitted with a smirk.
“Well, we basically both ended up sheltering in a cave together during a freak magic thunderstorm one night,” Kuna began, then launched into the rest of the story. Despite skipping the initial lead-up to the cave part of the story, he bashfully did mention, in broad strokes at least, the initial tension between him and Lykou, as well as a few of his more vulnerable moments, much to the konuul’s surprise.
Partway through talking about their time in Clovaria, the sereva was interrupted by the approach of Matai and Koa, with Tane and Hina following close behind. “The ceremony will be starting soon, friends. I trust your dinner was satisfactory?”
“Definitely. This, er, ‘hazenectar’ is pretty good stuff,” Lykou commented, smiling as he got up. “Thank you all so much for the hospitality.”
“You are most welcome. We should begin making our way to the Circle now, if you’re ready.”
“Er, ‘Circle’?” Kuna asked as he handed his bowl and cup to another raptuva that was coming around to collect such things in a basket.
“Ah yes, I suppose we didn’t mention it. The ceremony actually doesn’t take place here at the shrine itself, but at a sacred site out in the forest,” Matai explained as he began leading them around a building and towards a small trail lit by standing torches. It led into the one dense area of the forest at that elevation. “It is a holy site, with a special altar that marks the place where Speaker Kairangi first received Tuimana’s blessing and was given the divine impetus to create the Order, to cleanse and protect the isle from the corrupting influences of evil.”
“In a way, it is the original shrine, before this place was built,” Koa added, enthusiastically launching into the history of the order.
After Kalei turned in his own bowl and cup, he began following along. Much to his chagrin, but not entirely unexpectedly, an all-too-firm grip on his shoulder stopped him.
“And where do you think you’re going newbie?” Tane demanded. “You’re lucky enough just to be here in the first place. No ceremony for you.”
Kalei wilted with a heavy sigh. “R-right…”
For once, the higher ranking raptuva took some pity on him and patted his shoulder. “Look, kid, just go see if the Keeper needs help with anything, then have her set you up with a room and get some rest. I know you need it.”
The recruit perked up a bit. “Y-yes sir, thank you,” he replied, then hurried back towards the shrine.
“I’ll make sure he doesn’t get into too much trouble,” Hina said, casually following after him a few moments later.
“Don’t you want to see the ceremony? I know you haven’t been before either.”
“Not really. I’m kind of exhausted myself and figure I’ll turn in a bit early,” she said with a shrug. “I’ll have other chances, you know.”
“Careful that you don’t get caught being lazy, Hina,” Tane warned after her. “Being a Watcher isn’t all perks, you know. We have responsibilities. I hope you’re taking your new role seriously.”
Hina just looked back at him with a cheesy grin and two thumbs up, then continued on her way back to the shrine with an eyeroll.
Back at the shrine, Kalei finally managed to track down the Keeper. But when he asked her about both a room and any tasks he should handle before he turned in for the night, he was surprised to get a single answer that involved both questions.
“Yeah, go take those outsiders’ things to the storage room across the hall. You can use the room they left them in.”
The recruit gave her a somewhat confused look. “I- er, really? Isn’t that a bit rude t-”
“They won’t be needing them. Other arrangements have been made,” the Keeper said briskly, then waved him off. “Now stop asking questions and get to it. You’re lucky enough to be allowed to stay the night despite your rank, newbie.”
“R-right, sorry.” Kalei hurried off to collect the boys’ belongings, carefully setting them together in the clearest spot he could find in the storage room. He figured they’d likely come for them later, perhaps after being moved to a larger room somewhere. It still seemed odd, though. Part of him wanted to investigate the situation. But the rest of him was far too exhausted to care, and promptly shut that small part up with the promise of a good night’s rest. As soon as he finished moving things to the storage room, he collapsed into one of the beds and fell into a deep sleep.
The trail to the Circle had a very definite Feel to it. The torches lining the path weren’t ordinary ones- the small flames were set behind carved masks meant to resemble raptuvan faces, albeit painted in vibrant colors. Their expressions ranged from gleeful to frightened to angry, and other expressions besides. The forest itself grew thicker the further the group walked, despite still being at the higher elevation. The increased foliage meant that less light from the moon and stars reached them, so that the flickering firelight from the torches became the only light source after a while. It was almost like walking through a tunnel made of plant life. Koa explained that Kairangi himself grew much of the vegetation surrounding them over the years, using Tuimana’s blessings.
Lykou found it all fascinating, but Kuna was becoming increasingly anxious. Something felt off, but he couldn’t put his finger on it. It didn’t help that the initially small group was growing larger as other raptuva merged onto the trail, apparently from nearby villages as well as some stragglers from the shrine. Eventually, he also began to realize just how different a lot of the flora was- rather than the bright colorful flowers and exotic ferns and palms they’d seen everywhere else, the forest around them was increasingly covered in dark, twisted vines covered in sharp thorns. They seemed to nearly choke everything else out.
But before he could comment on it, they finally arrived at a large, circular opening. In the middle, there was a huge, roughly cubic chunk of obsidian. Fortunately, the circle left a gap in the canopy that also allowed some moonlight to shine down on them once more as well.
As the crowd trickled in, Lykou and Kuna ended up roughly in the middle of one of several large clusters of people that were herded onto tiered sets of wooden stands that had been arranged around the edge of the circle, so that those in the back could still see over those in front of them. There was plenty of chatter, as well as a faint, rhythmic thumping coming from some Order members playing a set of large drums in perfect sync with one another somewhere behind them.
Once the stands were filled up, four particularly important looking individuals filed in and took up positions on the far side of the circle, facing the crowd. Up to that point, most of the Order members had fairly similar looking red cloaks, with only small variations in the symbols stitched into them indicating their ranks- and Lykou and Kuna still weren’t clear on what most of the ranks were. But the four that now stood across from the audience were wearing somewhat more ornate cloaks, featuring a much darker material, lined with yellow highlights. Lykou and Kuna shared a somewhat wary look, then wrapped an arm around one another and waited.
After the crowd settled in and the murmuring began to fade, one of the important-looking figures stepped forward. “Silence and attention, gathered faithful! The Speaker will arrive shortly. Tonight’s ceremony will be a special occasion. For those that have not heard, we have honored guests in our midst.” He gestured towards Lykou and Kuna, though it wasn’t exactly necessary, seeing as how many of the gathered raptuva had already taken note of them and had been eyeing them curiously, if not a bit warily. Luckily, the ones immediately around them seemed polite enough, at least. “Lykou and Kuna, visitors from a far away land, braved the evils of the treacherous outside world and traversed a great distance to join us tonight in paying respects to our lord Tuimana.”
Lykou and Kuna both smiled a bit uneasily, especially the latter. The konuul gave a brief wave to everyone, while the sereva just shrank a bit closer to him.
“Welcome, outsiders. I and the other Overseers, on behalf of the Order of the Enlightened, welcome you to this holy site and thank you for making this pilgrimage,” the more decorated individual continued, crossing an arm in front of himself and giving a slight bow before continuing. He then turned back to the crowd at large. “Speaker Kairangi is communing with Tuimana as we speak, and will arrive shortly. In the meantime, you may pray or speak among yourselves while you wait. If anyone of Watcher rank or higher has an important matter they wish for the Speaker to include in the concluding prayer, they may bring it to myself or the other Overseers at this time.”
Without another word, he stepped back into position. The crowd began subdued conversation again, but nobody approached the overseers. A few individuals, including Koa and Matai, appeared to be praying, but most of the raptuva present were chattering away with one another. And it was obvious that a lot of the conversation concerned their new guests, from the way they kept shooting glances at them. Lykou took note of Kuna’s anxiety and gave him a gentle squeeze. “Hey, you alright?”
“Mm. As alright as I can be, I guess,” the sereva replied quietly, his eyes darting around as he took everything in. “Something feels… off, though.”
Kuna eyed the altar for a minute, then took a deep breath as he turned back to the konuul. “… I don’t know. Can’t really put it into words. I guess I’m probably just overly tired.”
“Yeah, it has been a long day, heh,” Lykou said, then smiled and rubbed the sereva’s shoulder gently. “Hey, once this is over and we’re back in our room, we’ve got a nice comfy bed waiting for us.” He winked. “And all the cuddles you want.”
The sereva grinned back at him faintly. “Sounds good.”
Suddenly a lower-ranking member of the Order ran over to one of the Overseers and spoke to them for a moment. When they left, the Overseer held up her hands. “Faithful followers of Lord Tuimana… the speaker is here!”
Immediately, Lykou and Kuna were startled as the torches, two at a time, erupted in large, brief bursts of flame that shot high up into the air, leading to the far side of the circle. The drumming resumed, more intensely, and the crowd suddenly began cheering. The boys shared a dubious look. “Hardly what I’d expect from a spiritual gathering,” Kuna remarked.
Lykou shrugged. “Yeah, seems more like something I’d expect from Spark Night, but I guess it’s just how they do things.”
Suddenly a figure burst forth from the shadows at the back of the circle and leaped onto the top of the altar. He looked somewhat gnarled and on the older side, at least from what they could guess compared to the other raptuva. Yet it clearly didn’t diminish his energy or flexibility any. And, notably, he breathed, or at least appeared to breath a gout of fire in a large arc in front of himself in a very showy manner. Kuna gawked, but Lykou crossed his arms and arched a brow in amusement. When the sereva noted his friend’s lack of surprise, he glanced between him and the newcomer in confusion. “Did… did he just-”
“No,” Lykou said, albeit only after leaning in to whisper to him. “That’s a trick I’ve seen people do back in Lakefire. Remember the fire-spitting tricks I told you about?”
“...oh,” the sereva said, giving the Speaker a dubious look as he hopped down and paced back and forth in front of the crowd.
“Yeah, that’s no magic,” the konuul continued with a smirk, but then applauded anyway. “Still impressive trick to master, though. And a pretty good job of it, too.”
“True,” Kuna said, joining him.
“Friends, faithful friends, welcome birthplace of our Order!” the Speaker called out. “I FEEL Tuimana’s presence with us tonight! His blessings course through my veins, and I’ve never felt more ALIVE!” He suddenly whipped his arm around and, somehow, sent a huge shower of sparks flying over the audience’s heads, which only served to rile them up more.
Lykou’s eyes widened. “Okay… that one I’m not sure about,” he quietly admitted.
“There was something in his hand right before,” Kuna pointed out. “I saw it briefly. Wonder what it was?”
“The forces of evil grow more restless every day, but do you know why?!” the speaker loudly demanded. The crowd erupted in more raucous excitement. “That’s right, they know they’re powerless against us! The Order has successfully driven out every demon and captured every collaborator that’s set foot on these isles!” The Speaker had an almost wild look in his eyes, and his grin was borderline manic. For a moment, Lykou thought he heard some movement behind them, but before he could look and see what it was, the torches around the periphery erupted into more bursts of fire and sparks. “And who do we owe it all to?!”
“TUIMANA!” the crowd shouted, more or less in unison.
“Who granted us the power to protect our homes?!”
“That’s right!” Kairangi suddenly back-flipped over the altar and made another dramatic flourish, coating the top in a solid fire, though Lykou caught a brief glimpse of something in his palm as he did so. He also thought he could see something dripping off one corner. Still, even if the konuul had some idea how the trick was done, it was impressive how good he was at it, and he still wasn’t sure how he’d ignited it.
“Heh… this is definitely more of a show than I was expecting,” Lykou leaned over and said to Kuna, smirking. “Not that I’m complaining.”
Kuna just watched with a mixed, uncertain expression for a moment before responding. “Yeah… definitely, um. Different.”
“Tonight is a special ceremony, my friends. Because we have guests that have traveled far to be with us,” the Speaker continued, shooting a brief glance up towards Lykou and Kuna. “I believe a retelling of our history is in order.”
One of the Overseers stepped forward, joining the Speaker momentarily with a bundle of some kind in hand. Kairangi took the wrapped bundle and quickly unraveled it over the flaming altar, causing fragrant and slightly colorful smoke to begin billowing up within moments, blocking out the moonlight. Kuna was curious to know what was in the packet, but figured he’d have to ask about it later.
The Speaker inhaled some of the fumes, then held up his hands. His face was obscured by the lingering smoke still puffing up from the remnants of whatever combination of herbs was still burning slightly on the altar. Immediately, both the drumming and the crowd’s cheering came to an abrupt halt. “Countless generations ago, our ancestors first arrived on these islands, and found nothing short of a paradise. The fruit was sweet, the fish were plentiful, the sun was warm and the breezes were a soothing balm.”
As he spoke, he began to walk around the altar slowly. “Our forebears saw many beautiful islands in their travels, but they nearly always carried elements of danger. Monsters and beasts, and fell people that had given into demonic temptation harried them constantly. This is why they were always on the move, forever searching for a place to truly call home. But not here. Here in the domain of a god they did not yet know, they found peace. And they prospered.” As he came around to the other side of the altar, he gestured to one of the Overseers, who stepped forward with a pair of cups, which the Speaker took. “Unfortunately… that did not last.” In a quick flourish, he doused the lingering flames with whatever was in the cups. At the same moment, members of the Order snuffed all the other torches around the circle. While there was a tiny bit of moonlight still getting through, it wasn’t enough to really see by, especially with the lingering smoke still clouding the gap in the canopy.
A few moments later, a new flame was cast onto the altar, with the Speaker once again standing behind it, his face barely illuminated. Again, Lykou wondered how it’d been ignited so quickly. “Where there are imperfect people, demons will eventually find their way in, to prey upon our souls. And when our ancestors became complacent, they began arriving- slowly at first, then more and more aggressively.” A series of new torches, with especially frightening looking masks, were lit in the darkness near the altar, being waved around by mostly unseen Order members wearing dark outfits with hoods. “I remember it all too well. Villages began to fight one another, families tore themselves apart, and corruption spread like a wild plague.”
When the fire on the altar began to die off, he again waved his hand, causing it to return again even brighter than before. At the same time, small explosive bursts emitted from the new torches, causing the mask portions to be consumed in the flame as well.
“But then a glorious moment occurred. One day while seeking reprieve from the horrors that had consumed my home and taken my own family, I climbed this mountain, to the very place where I now stand. And I found this large, dark altar you see before you. I could feel a powerful spiritual presence. In my desperation and woe, I knelt before it and prayed to any spirit that was listening to save us from the onslaught of evil that assaulted these islands.” Kairangi paused and took a deep breath as the fearsome torches around him rapidly burned up until their flames started to dim. The torch-bearers then snuffed out the lingering embers, casting their surroundings in darkness again, with the only light being the low flames still lingering on whatever substance coated the altar. “For a while, I wondered if there were any left un-corrupted. But then… my prayers were answered.”
He made another barely-seen flourish, which caused the fire on the altar to explode with a burst of sparks before returning to normal. “A voice spoke to me, from all directions. Lord Tuimana introduced himself to me and expressed his sorrow at the corruption that tainted his paradise. I asked if he had the power to cleanse it and bring back those happy bygone days.” Again, the Speaker began circling the altar slowly. “He said of course he could. He was a god. The most powerful spirit in these islands, master over all the others there. But he was beginning to wonder if we were worth saving. We’d brought those evils, after all, why not let them be our undoing?”
“I plead with him. I wanted him to know that even for our faults, we could prove ourselves worthy of survival. That we would do whatever necessary, make whatever sacrifices, to restore order and prosperity to his dominion, if he would but give us a chance. Initially, he was not swayed. So,” Kairangi suddenly pulled out a knife as he stepped back behind the altar and held he other hand over it. “I sought to prove it. I spilled my blood on his altar, this altar… like so.”
The speaker suddenly sliced his palm open, without even flinching. He then turned his hand over and let the blood drip onto the flames. Dark spots opened among the flames temporarily where the drops landed. “And I swore to him on my blood and soul that I would commit myself to him, to purge evil from these lands. Satisfied by my own small symbolic sacrifice, we made our deal that day. He gave me a blessing to go forth and bring about order in his name. That he would allow me to channel his purifying flames to cleanse the demonic pestilence that pervaded these islands,” he explained, then slashed his hand again. He then lifted his hand off to the side. Several torches were lit around him. For a moment, nothing happened. But then, suddenly, in an explosive burst of growth, a tall, twisted cluster of vines burst out of the ground next to him and climbed up to join the canopy above him. At no point did any green glow appear on his hands. Soft gasps were heard from the crowd. “And bring back the beauty that’d been stolen from them.”
“To test these newfound powers and inspire others to join me in my crusade in Tuimana’s name, I knew I would need to find a villain to make an example of. In my own village, one of our peoples’ navigators, who had once used the gifts of lesser spirits to guide our ancestors across the ocean, had fallen to an insatiable lust for power. That led him right into the arms of a demon. He’d long since taken the title of chieftain for himself, and abused the power for his own benefit. Everyone was subjected to his whims. Until I challenged him that night.” Kairangi again dripped blood on the ground around him, causing more twisted vines to burst forth- only this time, after a quick flurry of movement, in which Lykou just barely noticed a cloaked individual step forth and splash them with something, fire danced along the vines as they writhed and swept around the circle dramatically. The burning tendrils of plant matter whipped frighteningly close to the crowd a few times.
“I declared my new allegiance to the true master of the islands, and demanded he sever his ties to his demonic ally. He was outraged, of course, and sought to strike me down. But that is when Tuimana’s power was first put on display. I struck him down swiftly with our god’s swift judgment. With his execution, the demonic taint of my village was lifted, and hope- so long forgotten- returned. Others sought to join me in my crusade, and that is how the Order came to be. And while they were not blessed with the direct link to Tuimana that I have, countless brave souls have fought and died alongside me in our quest to rid these islands of evil!”
A brief cheer went up around the crowd, but then faded as he patiently waited. “Tuimana’s power has blessed me with long life. Others were not so fortunate, but their sacrifices were not in vain. Today, the islands are much like our people first found them- a beautiful paradise. Only weeks ago we captured the last known demon collaborator from one of the coastal villages and brought him to justice. So it seems the heavens have aligned to bring us these outsiders, from lands far away that are no doubt plagued with corruption and dangers that most of you have been fortunate not to witness. Indeed,” he said, raising a hand towards Kuna and Lykou. Several more torches were lit to shine up towards them, though the circle was still by and large shrouded in darkness, outside the altar. “As some of our brethren have informed me, they have told stories of some quite harrowing encounters! And yet here they stand on our god’s domain, alive and well.”
The crowd applauded, and a number of shadowed figures around them turned to offer quiet congratulations and praise to the boys. Lykou smiled and side-hugged Kuna again. The sereva, for his part, just smiled awkwardly and was grateful to at least be largely obscured in the dim lighting.
“This is no accident, friends. No, this is a test, or perhaps a sign,” Kairangi continued after the crowd again fell silent. “That we should begin expanding our divine quest to lands unknown. To seek out threats from beyond these shores and drive them from the mortal world, so that others, too, may know the peace and prosperity we’ve forged in His name.”
There was some faint murmuring in the crowd until the Speaker held his hand up, bringing it to an abrupt halt. Again, he stared up at Lykou and Kuna with a faint grin, barely lit up by the flames on the altar in front of him. “Lykou, Kuna. Come forth. Join me at this sacred altar, so that you may bask in Tuimana’s grace properly,” he said, opening his arms widely.
Kuna exchanged a nervous look with Lykou. But the canid just shrugged and gently nudged him. “C’mon. Would be rude to just stand here,” he quietly pointed out, then took his hand and began leading him down towards the Speaker.
The sereva folded his ears down, feeling his unease growing as he approached the burning altar. The eyes of the mostly hidden crowd didn’t help matters, but again there was something else bothering him. The same strange, uncomfortable sensation he’d felt before, only it was getting much stronger now. Too strong to keep dismissing as simply being a combination of crowd anxiety and fatigue. At first, for a moment, he thought it might be coming from the altar itself, so he kept a wary eye on it when he first approached. But when Kairangi stepped around to join them, he immediately felt a pang of something indescribable send a cold shiver through his body.
Lykou, of course, was a bit oblivious, being somewhat caught up in the moment.
The Speaker smiled at them as he slowly reached forward and placed a hand on each of their shoulders. Only when he got closer did the canid start to feel something was a bit off as well, albeit nowhere near the same level as Kuna. But the Speaker’s smile looked a little too… manic once his face was more clearly visible. There was a strange glint in his eyes. Still, as much as his instincts told him to be wary, he didn’t want to give into what might just be a bit of paranoia due to the dark and dramatic atmosphere.
“Welcome, my friends. I’ve heard reports of the stories you’ve told some of our people. Your bravery in the face of such evils must be commended,” he said, then turned to Kuna and squinted slightly as he stepped a little closer- too close for comfort, really. Kuna instinctively backed up, but the wily old raptuva grabbed his hand and kept him from getting too far. “No need to be shy, Kuna. I’ve been told of your… own gifts.”
He raised the sereva’s hand up, turning to address the crowd again briefly. “We are in the presence of another greatness tonight, my friends. Let it be known that, for the first time in countless years, I share this circle with another who is blessed with powers from the spirit world!”
The crowd let out a brief cheer. Kuna’s skin crawled and he tried, as politely as possible, to tug his hand away without letting on how incredibly uncomfortable he felt. His smile couldn’t have been more wooden. Luckily, the Speaker released his hand as he turned his attention back to him. “Not to put you on the spot, friend, but I must insist on seeing these blessings of yours,” he said with a sweeping gesture as he took a step back.
The sereva shared a frightened look with Lykou. But even as the konuul was starting to really feel uneasy as well, he just gave a small nod and his best encouraging smile, hoping to get this increasingly strange ceremony over with as quickly as possible.
Seeing no way out of it, Kuna closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying his best to ignore his surroundings. He found it a bit harder than usual to grasp for, but he finally managed to get a grip on the mystical energy flowing through his body. A hushed gasp went up around the crowd, followed by some murmuring as his hands glowed green, casting a new, dim light on the scene. He peeked his eyes open and searched around, then found a patch of withered-looking grass to pump new life into. After a moment, the blades grew and transformed, before blooming into a set of colorful flowers. With that done, he immediately dismissed his magic and rubbed his arm, shooting a nervous glance out at the darkened crowd, who was again muttering among themselves.
A slow clap broke the tension. Kairangi was applauding him. “Spectacular. You are truly blessed, my friend. Not even a drop of blood shed for such miracles,” he said, then began walking around him. “Tell me, who has blessed you with such power? It is good to know Tuimana has kindred out there to help in the fight against evil.”
Kuna looked at Lykou again, clearly shaking on the spot. “I-I, umm,” he stammered. “I-it’s com.. complicated, er-”
Lykou stepped forward and wrapped his arm around him. “Sorry, he’s pretty shy. What he’s trying to say is that-”
“Oh, hello, this is interesting,” Kairangi interrupted, stepping back around in front of them with his head tilted, staring intensely at Kuna’s side. “What have we here?”
Kuna shrank back with a bewildered expression. “...huh?”
“You’ve… been bitten, haven’t you?”
“Right… there,” the Speaker said, reaching out and lightly touching a seemingly unharmed spot on Kuna’s side.
Lykou looked confused, but suddenly Kuna’s eyes shot wide open as he felt a strange stab of pain surge through a part of him he didn’t even know he could feel. The sereva jerked away from the touch, clinging to Lykou, as certain traumatizing visions of the past briefly flooded through his mind.
“Alright, what the hell is going on-” Lykou began to demand, quickly losing patience and willingness to continue the ‘polite guest’ routine.
“Hell is right,” the Speaker said, taking several steps back. His face took on a deeply concerned expression, but Kuna saw the manic glee in his eye that never left. “A demon bit you… and left a piece of itself behind, didn’t it, son?”
If Kuna’s eyes weren’t already as wide as they could be, they would have widened further. Lykou’s expression, however, matched his. “...how the fuck…”
“Tuimana blesses me with sight as well as power, friend. And your companion… is tainted by demonic corruption.”
The crowd immediately grew restless and began chattering among themselves again. Several guards stepped forward from around the dark periphery.
“But perhaps it is not too late! If you have not surrendered to corruption’s enticing seduction, you may yet be cleansed!”
The guards slowly closed in and Lykou frowned as he looked around among them. Suddenly, he activated his bracers and grit his teeth. “Yeah no. He’s not going anywhere with you, creep.”
Seeing his friend’s change in demeanor brought back some degree of stability to Kuna’s mood. He was still terrified, but at least now he knew where he stood. He quickly activated his own bracers and again reached out for his magic.
The guards leapt at them as Kairangi continued slowly stepping backwards into the shadows around the edge of the circle. Lykou wasted no time leaping right into the fray, using his hardened body to weave among their spears and knives, and land solid blows on their faces and skulls. He found ways to redirect their attacks onto their own allies, and eventually ended up with a pair of knives in his own hands, stolen from a pair of unfortunate guards that were retreating with broken arms. His bark-covered limbs were covered in scratches and thin, red cracks in no time, but he paid them no mind.
Behind him, Kuna conjured up a wall of writhing vines that lashed out at any guard that got too close. Two tried to dive around the sides, but immediately found themselves pinned down as a thick pair tripped them and burrowed back into the ground. They were immediately reinforced with some roots that burst out of the ground and pinned the fallen assailants to the ground. Several other guards dropped their spears and began slicing at the vines with their knives, but Kuna did his best to keep his plant-wall regrowing faster than they could be cut. Combined with the bracers, though, he was quickly wearing down. Realizing this, he surged forward, binding up the row of guards on the other side in a tangled mess of raptuvan limbs and thick vines.
Behind him, a pile of groaning raptuvans was laying, bruised and bloody, on the ground with an angry konuul darting between those still standing. Within a few minutes, Lykou finished those off, and it seemed that what should have been an insurmountable battle was already easily over- too easily. He knew very well they should have stood no chance against the much larger number of enemies. Yet there they were, standing victorious in a circle of incapacitated, presumably well-trained warriors. He searched the dark perimeter of the circle and though he could barely make out the vague mass of the eerily silent crowd, no more attackers were coming at them. He looked back over his shoulder and found Kuna panting, having disabled his bracers already.
But before he said anything, the Speaker slowly stepped back into the firelight, applauding slowly. “Impressive. I can see why you two survived the hostile world outside these shores.”
“Back off!” Lykou said, picking up one of the discarded spears to aim at him. “Kuna is not ‘tainted’, dammit!”
Kairangi chuckled. “I suppose not technically,” he said, then grinned at the exhausted and frightened looking sereva. “But that’s a nasty little bite someone left on your soul, boy. How long has that tooth been there?”
“Like I said, I can see things normally hidden from mortal eyes.”
“If you know he’s not tainted, why the fuck did you sick your guards on us?!” Lykou demanded, stepping in front of Kuna protectively.
“Partly just to see what you’re capable of. And anyway, sacrifices must be made,” the Speaker explained, gesturing around him to the bodies on the ground with a deranged smile. “You shed all this blood on Tuimana’s home. He will be… pleased.”
The konuul and sereva both stared at him, bewildered. “...huh??”
“These poor souls… giving their lives to defend us from the demonic outsiders. So noble! Ah, but least there will always be more to take their places.” Kairangi slowly began stepping forward again, undeterred by the konuul brandishing the spear at him threateningly. A few shuddering, startled gasps came from the fallen guards, but then they fell still and silent. “There is power in blood, you know. He hasn’t fed this well in a while. But of course… mundane blood only goes so far. He has… special cravings. Soaking his soil is but an appetizer...”
“Hey, stay the fuck BACK!” Lykou threatened, thrusting his spear dangerously close to the raptuva’s neck.
“Or what, going to stab me? Add more blood to the circle?” Kairangi taunted, continuing to step forward. “By all means!”
Lykou grit his teeth and stabbed him in the shoulder- yet the raptuva kept advancing without showing any sign of pain. The konuul shoved the spear forward, trying to knock him back.
The Speaker stumbled back slightly, then laughed. “Alright. Here, let me help you.” With a quick flourish, he whipped out a twin pair of daggers made of a certain black and red stone, their blades glowing eerily in the shadows. He brought them up and crossed his arms in front of himself, with the blades pointed inward. Then he did something truly unexpected- he quickly drew them back down, cutting large gashes in himself, that immediately began to bleed profusely. Some of the spray from the slashes landed on the ground around him. He shuddered with an almost ecstatic expression on his face. “...let’s have some fun, then.”
Lykou glanced back at Kuna briefly and they both took a few steps back. “This guy’s insane…”
“No sh-shit,” the sereva agreed.
“What, I thought you wanted to dance? You seemed the type to enjoy such things, Lykou,” the Speaker said as he sheathed his knives again. He then narrowed his eyes and raised his hands, dripping still more blood on the ground. “Very well. I’ll take the lead.”
Suddenly, clusters of dark, sickly looking vines burst both from some bloody patches on the ground, and even from his own wounds. The ones near the boys began lashing out at them, covered in both thorns and blade-like barbs, both of which were coated in some sort of steaming, sizzling fluid. All of the vines began lashing out at them as the frightening, warped raptuva stalked towards them.
Lykou dropped the spear and began slicing at them with the nearest knife he could grab off the motionless guards. Several of the vines cut his bark-coated flesh and he winced as the fluid on their barbs hissed and stung even through the magical armor. A few cracks appeared where they managed to get through the wood, and unlike normal cuts, they refused to heal properly, even with the bracers’ magic. Still, for the sheer number of them, he couldn’t help but feel he was being toyed with- no more than one or two lashed out at him at any given moment.
Kuna struck out with his magic again, countering the assaulting vines with more of his own. But he could feel an immense power there. He tried manipulating the very vines attacking them, hoping to counter Kairangi’s own magic, but when he reached for them, they felt… wrong. Very, very wrong. There was life energy there, but it was different- twisted, sick. Seeing an opening, he summoned up a thick cluster of roots beneath the Speaker, which quickly coiled up around his body and ensnared him. Immediately, the twisted roots attacking them dropped to the ground, twitching. And the ones sprouting from their attacker’s body withered away and disintegrated.
Lykou panted and winced at the stinging cuts on his body. Kuna, fortunately, had managed to stay back and avoid the direct assault for the most part. But now that he was holding Kairangi in roots with his magic, that unsettling feeling was stronger than ever. He realized his mistake too late, and the Speaker simply grinned at him as he closed his bloody hands down around the roots holding him in place.
Kuna let out a ragged gasp as he dizzily stumbled backwards, immediately releasing his magic. Lykou quickly looked over. “Ku, what’s wrong?!”
“It’s… it’s backwards… it’s...” the sereva responded somewhat deliriously. He then sank to his hands and knees, and retched onto the ground in front of him.
Lykou turned to glare at Kairangi again. “What did you do?!” he demanded, slowly approaching him with a pair of knives.
“Kou, don’t-!” Kuna tried to warn him, only to be cut off by another wave of nausea.
The konuul didn’t see his foot land on a patch of the Speaker’s blood that’d been left unaltered. The moment he did, though, his world spun. His bracers immediately deactivated as he felt like the energy was sucked straight out of him. He, too, sank to his knees as a wave of nausea and dizziness washed over him. “W-what the...”
At the same time, the roots around around Kairangi withered away. As they did, the wounds on his body rapidly began to seal up. He stepped forward again, grinning wickedly. “What’s wrong, feeling a little tired? I suppose you both have had a long day, haven’t you?”
Lykou immediately sprang up and hurried over to join Kuna, all while keeping an eye on the slowly-approaching Speaker. “Ku, can you stand?”
“Y-yeah,” the sereva replied, shakily getting back to his feet.
“Planning on leaving so soon? Why not stay and enjoy my hospitality??”
“Fuck your hospitality!” Lykou helped Kuna up and glanced around at the darkness at the edges of the circle. He found it strange that the crowd had been so silent, and in any case he was trying to remember where might be the safest past to escape, with the fewest raptuva standing around. He couldn’t see them, in all the darkness, but he knew roughly half the circle had been pretty packed with raptuva by the time the ceremony started. On the other hand, he didn’t want to risk running too close past the insane user of twisted magic. And he knew somewhere behind him, those ‘Overseers’ must still be standing in the smoky shadows- though, why they hadn’t moved or made a sound was quite a mystery.
“What’s wrong, getting skittish of the dark?” Kairangi taunted him. “Allow me.” With a flick of his hand, the torches around the edge of the circle all lit up again, illuminating the bloody, messy scene all the better. The guards that had attacked the boys laid lifeless on the ground- which was doubly disturbing, seeing as how Lykou had mostly gone for disabling, rather than killing anyone. And Kuna specifically only ensnared them- yet it was now clear that the vines he’d conjured had become twisted and transformed into the darker, more vile looking ones that Kairangi had been using, and their occupants were just as lifeless as the others.
Meanwhile, the Overseers were nowhere to be found. And the members of the crowd were slumped over, alive but unconscious.
“What the fuck,” Lykou said, slowly backing towards one side of the circle with a weakened Kuna leaning against him for support.
“I told you, there’s power in blood. I’ve been around these people for years, you fools,” the Speaker said, slowly stalking towards them. “Do you have any idea how often I’ve granted them blessings, been close to them, annointed them in blood rituals? And they’ve been tasting drops of blood in their sacramental hazenectar for years.” He laughed. “Speaking of which… tell me, did you enjoy your meal tonight?”
Lykou froze and stared wide-eyed at him. Kuna also stared, and started to shake. “W-what…”
“I made sure to specially prepare them for you myself. I like to… take a personal interest in welcoming my guests.”
Suddenly, Lykou and Kuna both felt an icy cold chill run through them, and they both sank back down to the ground. It felt harder to breath, and they could feel the energy flowing out of their bodies. The combination of nausea and dizziness was too strong to fight, and before they knew it, they were laying on the ground, struggling to grasp what was going on. They looked at each other and held one another’s hand as tightly as they could, before eventually losing consciousness. The last thing they heard was the footsteps of a slowly-approaching lunatic, who was chuckling idly to himself. “Sleep tight, boys.”
Warning, this chapter does get fairly intense towards the end, and ends on a dramatic cliffhanger! Also, it's a bit on the longer side again, heh. :s