Singing herself across the mountaintops, Erisem Sanishaar knew the joy of being named star runner. Her slim leather boots kicked at the rock, providing an untamed beat to her song. She danced effortlessly from pinnacle to point, though the bounding steps were more fluid than any normal performer. That was the influence of her spellsong, for even one as tall and graceful as she could not make such powerful leaps without it. Behind, her grey cloak billowed as words flowed from her smiling lips, stolen immediately by the blustering wind. That didn’t matter though, none but the ether needed to hear.
Dusk was falling, the seven major stars above ebbing away to sleep, dimming after the day’s long illumination. Their many hues would still light the continent of Krayt at night as they had throughout the day, though much dimmer. Now, they listened intently to what Erisem had to say.
Her song was complex, layering beauty over utility. Only a couple of the spellrings worn upon her fingers supplied the specific abilities to keep her in motion, but Erisem had all seven lit, each yielding a different power. The glowing rings of married crystal and metal were her visual reminder of how much she put into the art she loved.
Erisem always lit them all when possible, and would add another soon if the heavens delivered as she hoped. The appeal of beauty, the feel of the world twisting to follow the rhythm of her voice made that desire feel right. There were more important concerns too – lives at stake even, but revelling in the light of her dance, the art of it almost felt like reason enough.
Entertaining the heavens enough that they wrought her wishes into reality was exhilarating, but also a distraction. The red star would deliver its bounty soon. When that spellsteel meteor fell, she needed to be there.
Her spellrings cast a flickering spectrum as Erisem spun in the air, her aria’s last haunting note fading as she alighted upon a rocky outcropping. On her fingers, the pinpoints of light faded as their seacrystal cores stopped reverberating with the absent song. A heartbeat later, the tiny metallic containment bands around the crystals slowed their spin and halted.
A brief respite was valuable – her throat was dry and scratchy from hours of singing. It had been a hard run, but necessary – the heavens wouldn’t wait. She took in a breath of chilly air and regarded the way she had come, where the whole of Krayt was laid out in the gloom.
The Rimland Mountains she had ascended surrounded the continent, their heights cutting off the bowl-like interior from the Infinite Sea. From the city-towers of Pinnacle in the sand blasted deserts of Pact, to the crystal cultivations in the secretive jungles of Rarth, from the forge fields of the Firefall to her veiled Shadeland home, so many souls down there were unaware of what the future might bring. Beyond the mountains, in the depths of the Infinite Sea, coloured light was beginning to spill from below the waves. The luminescence of a leviathan.
“Beautiful.” Erisem found the word had weight, despite its obvious truth.
Within the continental crater she could discern the great Silver Sea, waters glittering under the dimming starlight as it flowed from the relatively nearby Breach. Her own shadowed homeland had long since faded in the twilight. Much of the rest was cloaked in shadow and cloud, though occasional spots of torch light littered the distant landscape like firebugs nesting and of course the glow of the Firefall was there, a world away. Yet, none of that was her destination. Erisem turned, thinking to plan her route of descent.
Her night black hair, typical of the Shadelander people, cascaded down her back in long strands. Tiny crystals in many hues weighed it down, though the gusts of wind up here were still easily powerful enough to lift it. The thirty-eight multi-coloured jewels, each representing a year of her life, contrasted with her pale complexion and gave another sign of her origins in the shadowy crags of the Shadelands. At least, they would be signs if anyone saw her – that was unlikely for a star runner. Usually.
Erisem had intended to take a few breaths to recover her equilibrium but, as she let her gaze play across this little plateau, it became clear that it was not to be. It had taken her more time to notice than it should have, but with shock, Erisem saw that she was not alone on this desolate peak.
The man was mad, or at least half-so. It was in his eyes, his twitching fingers, and his jerky motion. He was young, well-built and his breath came softly. Taut muscle was visible beneath his open tunic. Considering the cold up here, that might have been odd, but this was no ordinary man. That much was obvious from the Runic markings etched into those muscles. The inked runes glowed faintly in the twilight, evidence of their spellsteel nature.
“Shadelander.” The tattooed man hissed, mostly to himself.
“I’m not in your way. I’m no threat.” Erisem spoke softly in her native Runic. It was more like calming an animal than reasoning with a person.
The inker regarded her with a wild, spinning gaze while echoing her. He was a cornered predator, ready to spring. Erisem hadn’t expected resistance, just a clear trip across the Rimland Mountains into the nation of Inclin. Though unfamiliar to her, the route should have been safe. Apparently should was not enough.
“Not to you. I’m just passing by,” she said.
If anything that intensified the man’s demented twitching, and powerful muscle grew taut with strength that Erisem knew could break her in two. The price paid for that gift was the agony of heated spellsteel, applied to flesh by a master inksmith. Of course eventually all of that paled in comparison to the ink-madness. The inker was coiled to pounce, and Erisem stayed as still as possible, silently praying not to set him off. She wasn’t ready for this.
It would be useless to question him, but questions raced through her mind anyway. Had he got lost up here, misplacing his original goal? Worse, could he be here for the same reason as she was? The inksmith’s instruction was probably all that was left of the man who had once been. In his current state the inker was more weapon than man. With that thought, Erisem realised that there was no chance he would let her go. One of them wouldn’t be leaving this bleak mountain – at least not under their own power. The other might be going down far too rapidly when this ended. It was a dizzying thought that sent her stomach fluttering.
Erisem tried to prepare for the inevitable, to summon the right aria for battle from memory as she watched the inker, wary for signs of attack. The song didn’t come. The standard war hymns, learnt two decades ago were far too buried behind the years. Star runners were meant to stay hidden, not fight.
Panicking, Erisem desperately searched her mind for lyrics that would serve her while her breaths quickened. She needed the power to match the inker, but it was hard to find the right words for battle – unlike an inker’s magic, spellsinging couldn’t affect the vocalist’s own body.
The inker struck suddenly, instantly moving from crazed staring to violence. He moved almost as fluidly as she could at her best, but he was more aggressive, the splendour of the wild to her usual cultured refinement. Not that she even had that without a single lit spellring. Erisem’s heart pulsed with fear and, just barely, she dodged away from a stabbing fist that could have easily broken bones.
Her body shaking, Erisem’s boot scraped backwards, slipping upon the uneven stone. Losing her footing would be fatal, either by way of the mountain, or by the man. Without lit spellrings, she was just an average woman in her late thirties – fit and healthy, but no warrior. Without a spellsong, she was dead.
Her voice wouldn’t come. Every memorised song seemed veiled by thick mental fog. The inker, blindingly fast, almost blurred while moving into another strike, a kick that cracked the rock where she had been standing. It was enough to shake Erisem out of her hesitation.
She produced a quavering sound, barely a note, let alone a song, but it was enough to light a spellring. The light was a sputtering dimness rather than true radiance and at another time, she would have been embarrassed to have produced it. However, on a tiny plateau amidst danger, that little violet light bought heartbeats of life with a few sparks of power.
Changing her body was impossible, but she could move it. She was no stronger or faster, but could hit harder and move with lithe speed. Even so, the inker far outclassed her physically. Erisem had to fight with finesse. Her talent came to the rescue, her note becoming a simple chant, the cadence coming to her defence.
Erisem felt her arm wrench aside, avoiding the inker’s clawing hands as the chant moved it. The inker had his tattoos, but his true medium was violence, demonstrated in his continued furious assault. She wouldn’t die to that craft, not with others counting on her to succeed. So, with tenuous determination, she spun her refrain.
She composed in the moment, a gift known to few even among star runners. Erisem let her voice keep her safe, describing how effortless it was to avoid the inker’s punches and kicks. The stars of the heavens didn’t offer their power for ugly demands, only for beautiful ones. Not right, or just, but artistic. He missed again, facing off with her on equal footing upon the precarious plateau. Then, with her face once more moving out of the way of a punch, came a beat that nearly ended her song.
From the back of the inker’s fist, a sharp ivory blade unsheathed. It sliced a thin line across her cheek, redness staining her pale skin. For a moment, the image of her mother’s horror upon hearing the story of Erisem’s death flashed through her mind. Then, worse, the image of her sister – the reason she was out here in the first place. What would she do without Erisem? The thoughts came and went in an instant, but they shook her in their passing. Realising she was still alive, Erisem danced away a few steps, feeling the blood drip from her cheek.
The inksmith had given their creation a boneblade, a modification made by masters. Lighting all her spellrings was a luxury she didn’t have time for, but she was going to need more than a simple chant. Sidestepping another swipe of the boneblade, she let the muse take her, fuelled by thoughts of family and mission. Rhyme and rhythm burst from her, louder now, as if that could force more power from the spellsong. Erisem spared a single glance down at her spellrings, willing the hasty composition to be enough.
They were all extinguished. After an agonising heartbeat though, three lit, shining out green, violet and indigo for the three stars she called upon. Life, force and vapour, at her command. She had changed her song, blending with awkwardness into the new refrain. That momentary lack of elegance was almost enough to finish her.
Sinuous motion evaporated, just for a heartbeat, but that was enough for the inker to force Erisem to frantically throw herself aside, avoiding a smashing fist. Her weakness barely faded in time to use one hand to deflect herself back onto her feet before hitting the ground, scraping her palm bloody on the uneven rock.
Without pause, Erisem sang on, her voice spelling out power. She sung of her dance with death, of avoiding the kiss of oblivion by the width of the smallest shard. She sung of the winds coming to her aid, of their gentle embrace of her flowing body and fierce, biting hatred for the inker. She sung of the joy of life and how it would not leave her this day in lyrics spun both from desperation and inspiration that burned in her soul. A spellsinger had to trust their music, to believe that they could convince the heavens to respond, to do as requested.
With that, she matched the inker, gliding around his deadly blade and vicious blows. It had taken years of practise to hone her talent. This wild man, built in a day, would not defeat her. With the mountain range providing the greatest of stages, Erisem had found her flow. Her confidence swelled and the creation came to her, like it had been there all along, hiding, waiting for the right moment.
Even while dodging slashes of bone, she found that she could forget that this was about survival, that the consequences were life and death. It wasn’t only because of the words that thrummed within her, filling every thought. It was also because, for the first time, she was able to believe she would win.
Her body was pushed and pulled by unseen forces as she danced with the wind. As a dance partner, it was without peer, distracting her opponent, driving into his eyes and whipping at his footing. For all his strength, the inker couldn’t touch her, for she was but droplets of dew on the breeze.
Erisem sang a piece like she never had before, fuelled by the burning thrill of the fight. It would have been easy to ignite more spellrings with this fire inside her, but this sonata was coming to a natural close. The combat had moved to the edge of the windswept plateau, the perfect place for a crescendo. It would have been a shame to waste it, so she let the last long, wordless note out.
She closed her eyes with the note, holding out a hand towards the inker. Her every focus was on the song, not her surroundings, for the performance was the important thing, not the audience. Erisem felt the world bend, the wind spilling in great gusts from below, sending her hair floating up in a sea of black strands and shining crystals. It swooped up her body in a great rush, rustling her dark clothes and cloak then surged from her outstretched arm with gale force, her spellrings shining as bright as they ever had. Letting the last note peter out, she opened her eyes to see the results of her trust.
The unnamed inker tumbled away from the mountain, crying out an inhuman scream. It was a rage filled shout of frustration that his orders would remain unfulfilled. She didn’t see the inker hit the rock beneath, but even with his durability, there wouldn’t be much left of him after that fall. Even a master inksmith could only do so much.
“Sleep with the stars if the heavens save you.”
Erisem whispered the litany, trying hard to mean it. Only then did she allow herself several long, steadying breaths. The last act had been near her limit – even the greatest song couldn’t move mountains.
This encounter had increased the urgency of her quest. Maybe it had been a chance meeting, most likely not, but she couldn’t risk more wasted time. The heavens would not wait for her, however fatigued she might be. That left her in need of a new song.
Travelling the mountains without the protection of secrecy was one thing, but she would not risk the descent into civilisation without properly shielding herself from them – and them from her, for a Shadelander’s presence could be a catalyst for chaos. Erisem pulled her cloak’s hood up, partially masking her distinctive features, her dark violet eyes slipping into shadow.
She spent a single heartbeat to gather her thoughts – just the one – and cleared her aching throat, ready to begin the chant of shrouds. It was one of the most common tools in a star runner’s repertoire and it would help her vanish from prying eyes. She used her own derivation of the piece – to her the composition was almost as important as the performance. Erisem remembered singing her first attempt at a creation to her sister, Anidem. The smile she had been given in response had been enough for Erisem to continue composing for the rest of her life.
The new song was slow to begin, a melody of near mournful simplicity. Her index finger glowed to life as the spellring lit, the violet light of the once-star Krayska emanating from the core. Krayska might be long gone from the heavens above, but its power remained. She continued the song, adding complexity with ease. Shesenska’s amber light spilled from a ring on her other hand next, the same shade as the major star glowing brightest overhead.
One by one, she lit each of the spellrings with her voice, their containment bands beginning their rapid, random spin. Along with Krayska, each of the seven major stars was represented, save Fisska’s red glare. Erisem intended to earn that privilege soon, with a spellring newly forged from its metal.
That was her mission, to find the first spellsteel meteorite fallen from Fisska in living memory, and her sister’s life depended on it. Most star runners would never come close to a find half so rare, but Erisem’s own astroprediction calculations had given her the time and place. The inker’s presence suggested others might have discovered that same knowledge.
When that meteor fell, it could change many lives. With the greatest of luck, Anidem’s might be one of them. If the meteor was the first of many, it could change the future of the continent. If it was a harbinger of her worst suspicions… well, she chose not to think too long on that last if. Erisem preferred hope to fear, and let her song spell that out to anyone who could listen.
Erisem was requesting nothing less than an audience of the heavens. For a song such as this, they gave it most willingly. Soon, with their full attention, she began to sing her wishes.