Table of Contents
- Rakan, the Charmer
- Story – Nothing Rhymes with Tubebow
- Xayah, the Rebel
- The Puboe Prison Break
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Rakan, the Charmer
“As mercurial as he is charming, Rakan is an infamous vastayan troublemaker and the greatest battle-dancer in Lhotlan tribal history. To the humans of the Ionian highlands, his name has long been synonymous with wild festivals, uncontrollable parties, and anarchic music. Few would suspect this energetic, traveling showman is also partner to the rebel Xayah, and is dedicated to her cause.
On the ancient, mystical borders of Ionia’s deep forests live the last of the Lhotlan vastaya. It is a place where magic is breathed like air and time has little meaning. To these chimeric creatures, the mortal realms have become like an unforgiving desert, virtually devoid of magic. Few willingly travel far from their shrinking lands, but Rakan has long walked a riskier path. He journeys along the edges of the world’s magical streams, as an explorer, emissary, and song catcher for his tribe.
An entertaining rogue, a welcome performer for any tavern or village carnival, Rakan was content with the simple adventures of this life on the road… until he had a chance encounter with Xayah at the harvest festival in Vlonqo.
Seeing her in the crowd, Rakan performed one of his old songs, entrancing the entire town with his gleaming plumage. Though countless human and vastayan women had fallen for him in the past, this violet raven seemed immune to his charms, though not uninterested. How could she see him and yet choose not to follow him? It was a puzzle with no easy answer.
Intrigued, the battle-dancer decided he would accompany Xayah on her travels. He became fascinated by how she interacted with the world. She seemed always prepared, aloof, and focused where he was uninformed, affable, and frivolous—but in any dangerous situation, they fought together with uncanny harmony. Soon enough, the pair became inseparable.
After months of courtship, Rakan began to see the world through Xayah’s eyes. Inspired by his partner’s singular drive, he joined her crusade to reclaim the power of the vastaya, and take back all that their people had lost.
Through Xayah, he had found purpose, and Rakan had fallen in love.”
I follow her eyes and see a pair of golden stairways that stretch down from the mountain temple to the farmhouses below. Each wood-woven home probably has a whole family inside it. There, mortals are born, die, and—most importantly—create new songs.
Probably with harps and drums. Maybe flutes? I should make a reed flute later. First, I need to fluff my cloak. Did I remember to clean my feathers? The town below must have an inn. A bottle of wine would be great right now.
“Rakan…” Xayah says.
Crap. She was telling me the plan. I focus back on her face, on her crooked smile. The sunset’s last rays reflect in her eyes. I love her eyelashes. I want to—
“Repeat it back to me.”
Something in the monastery. She was… Uh…
“I rendezvous with you at…” I say, but I’ve already lost the thread. I pull at one of the feathers on my head, hoping to pluck the idea from it.
A tiny shimmer of light glistens from her scrumptious bottom lip. Are her lips purple today? They were violet yesterday.
“They will kill me if they catch me,” she says.
The shock of the thought takes my breath. I feel my face twist into a snarl. “Who?!” I demand.
“The guards,” she replies. ”It’s always guards.”
“Then I’ll distract them! When?”
She points to the sky. “Look for a green flash before the sun sets. Then draw the guards away from the western walls while I run along the ramparts to the cells.”
“I put on a show the moment the sun sets,” I say. “Where do we meet?”
“At the gate. I’ll throw a golden blade into the sky. But you have to be there in ten breaths,” Xayah says, plucking a feather from my cloak.
“I will be at that gate the moment you throw the blade,” I say. Nothing in my life is more certain than that.
She nods, and begins telling me the safest path to take. She plans things, which is why I know she will be okay. Wow, the sky is gorgeous right now. That cloud is shaped like an eggplant. I saw a dog once…
I do not like these steps. I do not like them. The gold leaf covering the stone is almost the same color as my feathers. It’s infuriating. I consider changing their hue, but it would take some magic. Damn, I can’t be tired when she needs me. Xayah probably sent me this way knowing my plumage would blend in here. A red cape would look better against these steps. Maybe indigo? What’s around this corner?
More steps. Only humans would cut stone into flat shapes to make a mountain boring! I should climb the cliff. Xayah said to take the steps… I’m pretty sure.
I pick up some pebbles and begin to juggle them. I hear the magic writhing north of me, within the twisting roots of the Lhradi Forest.
The forest’s song finds its way into my head, and I begin to sing it.
“What was that?” a voice echoes from above.
An entry way! A human guard appears. His clothing is dark as shadow.
“Who are you?” he demands.
“I am Rakan!” I reply. How can anyone not know that?
I don’t like him. I hate him more than steps.
“I am Rakan! The battle-dancer of the Lhotlan tribe. I am the song of the morning. I am the dance of the midnight moon. I am the charm that—”
“It’s that vastayan entertainer,” another guard interrupts. He too wears boring clothing—clothes I haven’t seen in this area before.
The first guard wears a shiny golden amulet on his chest. I snatch it from him.
“What’s this?” I ask. He doesn’t deserve this. Whatever this is.
He grasps for it, but I flip it around my hand while still juggling the pebbles in the other.
“Give me that!”
I flick each stone into his face.
“No,” I say. Then, as innocently as I can, I ask, “Is it important?”
He draws a pair of hook-swords. I take one away from him before he can raise them.
“Open the gate, I’ll give you back this… uh… shiny thing,” I offer as I twirl his amulet in my palm, and then send it spinning up my arm.
Instead, the rude fool swings at me! I flip over his attack, and land behind him. He turns to slash again. I dive under his blade, using my rear to knock him off balance. He falls down the steps with a scream.
The other guard watches his friend tumbling away, then looks back to me. I shake my head at him.
“Honestly, how could anyone not know who I am?”
This one stabs at me with his spear. I twist past him, allowing my feathered cloak to envelop him for a moment. Blinded, he stumbles and trips over himself. He falls onto his shield and shoots down the stairway with a clack-clack-clacking sound. Well, until he crashes into his friend on the first landing.
The impact sends them both sprawling. I laugh. Now I get steps.
“You are terrible dancers,” I say as I check my cloak for dirt.
The two people stumble to their feet, glaring up at me.
“You okay?” I ask, thankful for the amusement.
They roar as they rush up the steps. Ungrateful bastards.
I leap away from them and ask, “Wanna know the difference between a party and a fight?”
They slash at me with their weapons again and again.
“One is an entertaining day,” I say as I send them back down the stairs. “The other is… shorter.”
A deafening gong sounds behind me. I smile. The fun part begins.
“You gotta do better than that!” I yell, taunting my pursuers as I run. I do need to get out of here, though. There are twenty guards now. Okay, maybe thirty? More than lots.
Running through their sleeping chambers was a bad idea. However, it did give me a chance to freshen up.
Some of the men have those strange crossbows. They use fire from a tube. They had a name. I’m gonna call ’em tubebows. Their shots explode around me, eating holes into the wall as I dive out of the room.
I slide into the courtyard, performing a full twist to give it some flair. The gate is open. I could run for it, but Xayah needs me.
Hidden in an alcove, a guard swings at me with a large tubebow. Or is bowtube better? He pulls at the trigger. I leap toward him, diving over his shot.
“What’s a good rhyme for tubebow?” I ask out loud.
I kick the guard up in the air. As he falls, I spin and introduce my hand to his cheek. The sound is louder than his weapon.
“Oh, slap!” I say, mimicking its intensity. The human rolls to his feet, pulling a short sword. “How are you not getting the message?!”
I wonder if I can find a kitchen. That’s where the chocolate would be.
The light in the sky is changing. I leap back into the air to check the sun’s location again. It disappears behind the hills, and an orb of green light flashes above it.
“Party time!” I scream. Now, the entire castle is chasing me.
“Surrender yourself!” a guard in a metal hat yells.
“No! I am distracting you!” I reply. He looks at me confused. I’m gonna slap him next.
A hail of arrows launches from the opposite wall. I swerve through them, enjoying the whistle they make as their fletching passes me.
Would I look good in that metal hat?
The golden blade hangs in the air for a second before falling. Xayah is ready to go.
I take my first breath. She said I had ten, but four breaths is much too long. I need to know she’s safe.
“Wanna see some sweet moves?” I ask the nearest human.
He doesn’t seem enthused. I roll through the group and appear behind him. He turns just in time to meet my cloak halfway. My feathers spin him up into the air like a top. Twelve spins is my record, but that was on a hill.
Second breath. The human slams into the ground after nine rotations. Damn. I don’t have time to try again.
Third breath. I have to make it back to where she needs me, back to Xayah.
I leap up the rampart, then bound off its roof toward the gate.
I take the fourth breath in midair.
Xayah runs toward the gate with some fancy juloahs—they are hairy where we have colored feathers. They must be from the Sodjoko tribe. Too formal looking, but I do like the thick ridge of hair that flows along the back of their forearms. I should make my feathers do that. The eldest one’s sarong seems like a terrible idea.
“We’ll never make it,” he cries. “They have rifles!”
“You mean the tubebows?” I ask.
Akunir stares at me blankly.
“Those are out of ammo,” I explain. “The Xini longbows too.”
“I am Rakan,” I explain. I expect this from humans, but my own kind?
“All of you, run for the tree line,” Xayah says.
A dozen men, covered in flour and chocolate, run out from the guardhouse. Mixed with eggs, they would make a thing called ‘cake.’ Pies are better though…
“Run!” Xayah yells. When the old juloah fails to move, I pull him along.
Coll kneels beside her guard’s body. She and Xayah pray that his spirit finds our lands.
One of his horns is broken, blood pools in the leaves around him. Coll removes the last arrow from his corpse. He carried her all the way here, even after the humans wounded him.
This juloah should not have died. Someone loved him. They will sing his songs. But only silence will answer.
My eyes well with tears. Softly, I sing for his loss, and his family’s.
Xayah stands with her fist clenched. She won’t grieve now. Instead, the pain will find her tonight when she thinks I’m asleep. That is her way. I will kiss away her sorrow then.
The consul is named Akunir. He might have been a battle-dancer when he was young. He and Xayah begin arguing about politics.
Coll kisses the forehead of her guard. Her jaw is tight. She holds an anger stronger than Xayah’s. She glares at her husband Akunir. She has been waiting for him to listen for far too long.
“I will go back north, Akunir,” Coll says as she rises. “I will tell them what was done to us.” Her arms are as tight as branches, rigid against her sides.
“Coll, no,” Akunir protests.
“I will bear word of Jurelv’s fate to his kin, and mourn with them,” she says. That must have been the guard’s name. Perhaps he was kind. I like the smile lines on the side of his face. “Then, I will muster arms and prepare the tribe to fight.”
“You cannot do that!” the consul yells.
“I forsake my claim to you. I forsake your claim to me,” she speaks coldly.
Akunir looks as if he’s been stabbed. He did not see this running down the hillside? Or in the forest? Or beside the dead guard? It was decided long ago. Moons ago.
“No,” she states simply. He moves to grab her. I block him.
“I will speak with my mate,” he says.
I can feel his breath on my chin. He ate guloo fruit recently. My nose nearly touches his forehead. He glares up at me.
I simply shake my head and shrug. I don’t need words. For this, silence is better.
His remaining two guards tense. They don’t want to dance with me. I am Rakan. They know my name. They glance nervously to Xayah holding her blades. They know her name too.
“Thank you, Xayah,” Coll says before limping away.
Akunir and his guards watch her go. Wordlessly, they set off to the south, leaving us alone.
I move close to Xayah. I feel her sadness for Jurelv, Coll, and for Akunir. I’ll drink wine tonight. Then I’ll sing rude songs.
“Promise me nothing will come between us like that, mieli,” she says.
“We’re not like them, miella. We’ll never be like them,” I reply. I can feel her worry.
She’s smarter than me about so many things, but foolish about love sometimes.
“Where to now, Xayah?”
“Let’s just stay here a moment longer.”
I wrap my cloak and arms around her. I will tickle her later. We will laugh and drink. She will plan and I will sing. I feel her cheek on my chest. I’m glad that Xayah needs me now.
“Repeat it back to me,” she says.
“We are not like them,” I say again. “We are not like them.””
Xayah, the Rebel
“Deadly and precise, Xayah is a vastayan revolutionary waging a personal war to save her people. She uses her speed, guile, and razor-sharp feather blades to cut down anyone who stands in her way. Xayah fights alongside her partner and lover, Rakan, to protect their dwindling tribe, and restore their race to her vision of its former glory.
As a child, Xayah loved listening to her father sing the ancient folk-hymns about vastayan heroes. The haunting melodies transported her to a long-forgotten time, when the spirit realm danced freely throughout the physical world. But, with every new generation, humans encroached further into the Lhotlan tribelands, disrupting the raw, chaotic essence of Ionia for their own purposes. Unwilling to stand by and watch her kind fade, Xayah ignored the decrees of her people and set out to reason with the humans.
She ventured into villages beyond her secluded tribal home, and learned how little she knew of the outside world. A group of poverty-stricken villagers mobbed her, some of them trying to steal her feathers as priceless trophies. Others were fearful of her strange appearance and summoned the authorities, forcing her to defend herself. Xayah’s attackers were soon taught the dangers of getting in her way, as she skewered them with her lethal quills.
Dismayed, she returned to her home, only to discover that her tribe, including her father, was missing without a trace. An ancient vastayan temple had been tainted by unnatural shadow magic, disrupting its connection to the spirit realm. Xayah destroyed the temple in order to dispel the corruption. Almost instantly, magic flowed back into the surrounding lands. It was a beautiful sight, but her tribe was still nowhere to be found.
After years spent flitting in and out of the most fortified strongholds and leaving a trail of bodies in her wake, she became known as “The Violet Raven.” She lived alone, focused only on the next mission, and the next step toward freedom for her kind.
But then she met another vastayan who would change her life forever. As she entered the remote mountain town of Vlonqo in search of a stolen vastayan artifact, she was struck by the strange sight of a braying crowd of excitable humans. Onstage before them stood a preening, flamboyant performer, a veritable golden peacock, who sang old vastayan songs for his captivated audience. As he finished his show with a dazzling array of cheap tricks—as Xayah saw them—the crowd erupted and chanted his name: “Rakan.” He took a theatrical bow. She dismissed him as a buffoon.
Xayah willed herself to ignore the entertainer, and completed her mission. She made her escape, which she had to admit had become far easier thanks to the buffoon’s distraction of Vlonqo’s inhabitants.
Despite vowing never to see this “Rakan” again, she couldn’t seem to get him off her mind. It was a strange and complicated feeling; there was a lightness to his spirit that she found aggravatingly alluring.
As she left town, Xayah was preoccupied by these strange thoughts, leaving her momentarily distracted to an ambush from a group of mercenaries. She had been expecting a fight, so she was glad to get her feathers bloody. A good brawl seemed the perfect antidote for useless diversions and unwanted feelings.
That was when Rakan made his grand entrance.
Xayah insisted she didn’t need the swaggering vastayan’s help. Rakan insisted he didn’t care—he just didn’t want to miss the party. Through the course of the fight, Rakan proved an unorthodox, but surprisingly dauntless and effective, ally. He leapt and pirouetted through the attackers who couldn’t take their eyes off him, providing Xayah ample time to strike them down with devastating accuracy.
In spite of her protestations, Rakan continued to follow Xayah. Over time, she grew to welcome his company and—though she was initially loath to admit it—the world didn’t feel so broken and lonely. They became inseparable, with her passion for the vastayan cause infecting the showboating battle-dancer. She has adapted to his free-spirited ways, utilizing the chaos Rakan creates as perfectly timed distractions. Together, they fight to release Ionia’s abundant flow of magic so that the vastaya might thrive once again.”
He’s not listening. He’s fixated on his own golden feathers—as if they’d changed from when he cleaned them this morning. I’m going to have to repeat the plan. Although, thinking it over again, it probably was too complicated for a rescue mission. Simple is better.
“They will kill me if they catch me,” I tell him.
“Who?!” He looks ready to kill at the thought of anyone harming me.
“The guards,” I say. “It’s always guards.”
“Then I’ll distract them!” He puffs his chest out. “When?”
“Look for a green flash before the sun sets. Then draw the guards away from the western walls while I run along the ramparts to the cells.”
“I put on a show the moment the sun sets,” he says like it was his idea. “Where do we meet?”
“At the gate. I’ll throw a golden blade into the sky. But you have to be there in ten breaths.” I pull one of his feathers from his cloak. It’s warm on my fingers. A memory floods back of me lying in his arms by the Aphae Waterfall. The sun filtering through the leaves, catching the edges of our feathers as they lay atop each other. That was a lovely day.
“I will be at the gate the moment you throw the blade,” he swears.
I take his hand in mine and lean close. “I know.”
That smug, confident grin cracks his face. I want to slap him. Or kiss him. Or both.
“Now, darling—if I were you, I would stay behind the cover of the tree line, so you’re not spotted.”
Our embrace is so warm I wish it would last all night. But the sun is dangerously close to the horizon, and our esteemed consul isn’t going to escape a dungeon guarded by a horde of shadow acolytes on his own.
Rakan tells me to be careful as he wanders away, looking at the sky. Every time he leaves, my heart sinks. I’m sure it won’t be the last time I see him. Although, one day, it might.
“Remember, my heartfire,” I whisper after him. “Sunset.”
I dart in between the fortress’ parapets unseen. Years of avoiding the stares of humans taught me their many blind spots.
Six acolytes guard the gate leading to the dungeons. They carry double-firing crossbows, swords tucked in their belts, and who-knows-what-else in the pouches fastened around their waists. I slink along the inner wall behind them to get within striking distance. I pluck five of my feathers and stack them neatly in my palm, holding them in place between my index finger and thumb, ready to send them flying.
There’s a noise from outside the walls. The crash of a gong. Shouts. Confused men. It has to be Rakan.
The prison guards hear it, too. Worry chokes my heart. I hope my love is okay. I know he’s going to be okay. He’d better be okay, or I will force a necromancer to resurrect him so I can murder him myself. He knows I’ll do that, too. I’ll figure it out.
The guards are distracted from their posts. He’s early, but it’s perfect timing. I can get in without needing to fell a single one of them.
I almost reach the dungeon door, when I see another guard climb the parapet and take deadly aim with his rifle. Nobody aims anything at my Rakan. I’ll have the still-beating heart of anyone who dares to harm as much as one of his feathers. It’ll make a cute beating-heart necklace.
I stop. The prisoners won’t be going anywhere. I’ve got time to turn this guard into a sieve.
I leap back toward the parapet. The first feather I throw slices off the barrel of the gun. It clatters loudly to the floor. The rest slice through his chest. He drops like a bag of turnips.
“Intruder!” one of the guards at the gate shouts.
I duck and roll as crossbow bolts ping off the stone wall behind me, or stab into the wooden posts. Staying low, I race straight toward the acolytes who are fanning out to get better angles. I leap. They shoot where they think gravity will take me, instead of where I am: hovering in the air.
I throw another handful of feathers, shaping them into blades mid-flight.
Five of the guards drop, my quills sticking out of their chests. The remaining acolyte narrows his eyes and squares his shoulders, ready to fight. His sword is out before my feet touch the ground.
“Your soul will serve me forever,” he grunts. I can feel the shadow magic bound up in his blade, the essence of every life it has taken.
I laugh. “I killed more people in the last twenty paces than you have in your entire life.”
The acolyte hesitates before slashing wildly in my direction. His little sword leaves wavering trails of darkness. I don’t have time for this, the sun is setting. I turn my back.
With a snap of my fingers, my quills tear free of the corpses behind the acolyte, and fly back toward me.
I hear the sword clang to the floor a moment before the dull thud of his body. I’m sure the Order of the Shadow will find some way to harness these men’s souls into a slingshot or something. I don’t really know how these guys work, but good on them for being so economical. One shouldn’t waste life essence.
I take Rakan’s feather and launch it high into the air. It hangs in the sky, a golden message that should turn some heads. But there’s only one who knows what it means.
Meanwhile, I have a date in the dungeons with the consul.
He looks terrible sitting in a cage. Emaciated. Weak. Beaten. He doesn’t look up, figuring me for one of the guards. He and his mate are Sodjoko, but his entourage are vastaya from other tribes. Their harrowed eyes thank me more than their tongues. They know as well as I that this is no time for gratitude. We’re not out of the fortress yet.
As I lead the prisoners toward the eastern gate, I’m perplexed by the appalling lack of guards. Nearly every post is deserted. Isn’t this supposed to be a fortress? Who makes their schedules?
We round past the armory and the barracks. There’s the gate. Looks like Rakan found the guards. Dozens of them. They’re surrounding him. My feathers bristle. Heartbeat necklace, here I come!
Rakan reaches us. His smile turns from confident to bemused as he speaks with the consul. Akunir is one of my father’s oldest friends, and the most important of our ambassadors. I have much to discuss with him once we’re out of this.
“All of you, run for the tree line,” I command.
They’re panicked, but thankfully Rakan took out the riflemen. More of us will survive crossing the field. “Run!” I yell.
Akunir’s too slow. Rakan begins to lead him toward the forest.
The consul grabs at Rakan. “No. Please, protect Coll.” Rakan turns back toward her.
I shake my head. Rakan understands. He drags the consul behind him.
I nod to the strongest-looking juloah. He lifts Coll in his arms. She calls him Jurelv, and he pledges on his horns to keep her safe.
He makes it ten paces before the first arrow strikes him, but he doesn’t stop. He carries Coll into the forest. The shadow acolytes surge forward after them.
“Xayah!” Rakan yells. “Bowtube or tubebow?!”
I wish I had time to play, but I don’t.
Instead, I join the fight.
And it’s not pretty.
For the acolytes.
We were safe under the forest canopy by the time Jurelv’s body could ignore its wounds no longer.
Coll kneels next to his corpse. His blood is on the leaves. We have already prayed that his spirit finds our ancestors in joy and peace. His family will mourn for moons.
I’m used to death. It doesn’t move me as it once did. Rakan takes it hard; I have to be strong for him.
At least the consul is safe. After taking his hand off his wife’s shoulder, he turns to me.
“I have friends in the south,” he says. “The Kinkou must be informed.”
“Humans broke the pact.” I feel my blood rising. “How can you not see this as a grievous trespass? To them, magic is power. To us, it is life. They will never respect our boundaries.”
“Humans are a splintered race, Xayah. Only Zed and his shadows broke the pact. They do not speak for all men.”
“You are naïve. Your friends in the south will betray you. Then, they will turn on us all.”
“The Kinkou are honorable. They will believe me. I trust them.”
“So you’re not naïve, you’re an idiot.” Akunir is shocked that I dare speak to him like this. I reject the notion of being diplomatic. Diplomacy will not restore life to the dead.
Coll stands up. Her face is a mask of grief and anger. “I will go back north, Akunir. I will tell them what was done to us.”
I honestly didn’t think she had it in her.
The glow fades from Akunir’s eyes. “Coll, no.”
“I will bear word of Jurelv’s fate to his kin, and mourn with them. Then, I will muster arms and prepare the tribe to fight.”
“You cannot do that!” the consul proclaims.
Coll ignores him. “I forsake my claim to you. I forsake your claim to me.”
“Coll… please.” His voice falters.
“No,” she says.
The consul takes a step toward her, but Rakan stops him.
“I will speak with my mate,” Akunir says to Rakan. To his guards.
But Coll is already turned away. She looks at me, and I no longer see a diplomat’s wife. I see a warrior. She gathers those loyal to her—all but two of the consul’s entourage.
“Thank you, Xayah,” Coll says before she turns north and walks farther into the forest.
Akunir and his guards watch her leave, then wordlessly set off to the south.
Rakan moves in close to me. I feel his heart beating in time with my own.
“Promise me nothing will come between us like that, mieli,” I say.
“We’re not like them, miella.” Rakan assures me. “We’ll never be like them.”
I watch Coll as she disappears among the trees.
“Where to now, Xayah?”
“Let’s just stay here a moment longer,” I murmur.
I bury my face in his chest. He drapes his cloak and arms around me. My head rises and falls with his breath. I could stay here forever.
“Repeat it back to me,” I tell him.
“We are not like them,” he says. “We are not like them.”
He smiles and kisses my forehead. The vows we took at the Aphae Waterfall spring to mind. His heart beats for me, and mine for him. Home is within his arms, his breath, his smile.
There is no one better than Rakan.”