As the glider reached the steam-girdled town, far fewer heads turned to follow it in its descent. It wasn’t just how different this rickety engine was from Verna’s sleek flying machine. The town itself did have bigger matters to attend now than a visit from Venexia.
Valeriana, trying to hold steady as the metal shack started to dive down past the white clouds, bit her lips in apprehension at the state of Belacqua. She always considered one of their safest outposts. Two days of march from the Old Country, and yet it had only been overrun once; now, with the most powerful Vestal in the entire Order at its helm, she figured out it would stand strong, safer than most outer places out there who could only afford the equivalent of snake oil as protection and pray the Wicked Fae would turn Her gaze somewhere else.
The town moving beneath her was a war zone.
A huge gash in the walls had been hastily-repaired, and smaller barricades rose about it like thin mushrooms growing on the side of a fallen tree. Men and women of all ages stood and sat there, their weapons pointed at the forest, looking over a sea of corpses, too thick now to remove, fastened with spokes and iron barbs to at least slow down the incoming Tide.
And the rest of the town had been fitted with further defenses, steel beams pointing to the outside, strings holding sacred bones, braziers burning tall and spreading tall slivers of black smoke intermingling with the white fog.
The din and tin of worn-out people, moving back and fro, looking at each other, the wriggle of their threads rising to tease the edge of her vision, knowing most of them were as frail as the first cover of snow, almost made her swoon and lose her grip on the metal wall.
This was far from the hopeful bastion she had always imagined the town to be.
And rising above the clouds like an island, there it stood: the Temple. Unguarded.
Beneath her mask, Valeriana’s frown turned into a scowl.
The High Seer missing. The town with her most valuable pupil under attack. The Wicked Fae reaching out past the veils of their protection to encroach on their mind-scapes.
Truly, this Winter was foul.
The glider turned and she had to lean back as it pranced like a pony, reaching its final rest in the main square, on the exact same space Verna’s flight had finished all those weeks before. As she came out, holding onto her winter clothes and trying to present herself as smoothly as she could, Valeriana felt the echoes of her presence still lingering between the houses.
“How long?” The pilot asked, giving her a glance.
“It likely won’t be long,” she replied, looking up as if the answer was written in the sky. It usually wasn’t, but that kind of posture helped to redistribute blood flows and it usually led to better visions. They were still murky and hazy. She couldn’t See properly. Too close to the Old Country. “I think half a day? Can you do that?”
It was the pilot’s turn to look up at the clouds, the endless white blanket hiding the rest of the sky.
“If a storm doesn’t come. How do you feel about that?”
“It’s hard to find any answer so close to the realm of the wicked ones. But I think we’ll be fine, as far as weather is concerned.” It was just a hunch. But it would often be enough.
She turned to take off her hood, displaying her black locks and dark skin, that singled her out easily against her stark-white clothing and the snowy town. A few people looked at her, but nobody interacted, even if they must have recognized her rank by her colors and the metal mask she carried.
Valeriana clicked her lips, walking about on her own. The Temple seemed to loom over her. She took a deep breath and frowned again. The vapor was thin. It held a semblance of power, like a half-erased footstep, but it wasn’t the quality she expected from Elissa. Maybe she was out of town? Maybe she was with Verna, and that was the reason why nobody seemed to be able to reach out to her?
Still, when she thought about reaching for the Temple at once, a strong feeling of dread gripped her heart in a vice. She was not supposed to be there. Not a vision, per se… but far more than a hunch about weather.
Shivering, and not just due to the cold, she walked in the opposite direction, towards the district where a lot of makeshift furnaces bellowed their smoke out. She covered her mouth as she had to take detour after detour, moving between the barricades and defense shields, people going about with a dead look in their eyes, and the occasional bursting pipe that had her choose a different route.
In the end, she reached the furnace district, and she realized it was a different world from the rest of the town: these people did not string together hollowed bones nor did they carry holy water on their necks. They must belong to one of the smith-clans who often built isolated outposts, but finding them here in Belacqua… Valeriana’s disdain for these faithless people fought with the evident tragedy that must have brought them in the town. On their end, the smiths looked at her with weary eyes, like she was bringing all that soot and iron dust into the Temple and soiling its sacred marble walls.
Still, there was a reason why her steps had brought her here. Her heart did not try to hope for a meeting with Cloria (Spirits knew where she was now), but maybe… maybe these people would know where Verna was? After all, their High Seer was always so fascinated with everything that came out of a forge…
Then she froze. Sitting at a nearby table was an old woman who was giving her the evil eye, but it wasn’t her who drew her attention: it was the other two. A tall and broad man, his right eye red with some kind of illness, covered in bandages and scuffs and bruises and so many scars on his torso his skin looked like tree bark. And next to him, a slender girl, her white hair descending in waves past her shoulders, a pair of wolf ears sitting atop her head and a fluffy tail sticking out of her clothes.
She took a step towards them.
“Can I help you?” The man interjected, subtly stepping in front of the wolf-girl, who frowned at the gesture and tried to move him, but with little success. “It’s not any day we find a high-ranking Vestal in town.” His eyes roamed over her mask. “Dorsoduro, isn’t it?”
“Why, yes,” Valeriana replied, hope rekindled in her heart. “I am Valeriana, and that district is under my care. I come on behalf of the entire Order, for we have perceived the hand of the Wicked Fae is heavier this winter.”
The man frowned.
“I suppose one can see that from their window,” he mocked.
“Never mind that. I need to know: do you have any news about our High Seer? I came here to look for Mastra Verna.”
Pic by Original