Of Saarn and Jade Tongues

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Prologue: In Principio Erat Verbum | In Memoria, Adytum

Of Saarn and Jade Tongues

The spray of seawater lashed and whipped at the solitary cowled figure standing atop the cliffs of Naxos, impassively gazing out on the broken vessels that now burned amidst the harbour of the walled city. Their face was hidden, both by a grey cowl of heavy wool and by the tongues of green flame that licked across the armada. Great gouts of jade jumped from ship to ship like a mad beast running its own tongue along its teeth after a grisly meal.

Without turning, the figure spoke. "How many ships did they lose?"

Their attendant turned to face the cowled figure, his armour clattering loudly as he did. He was dressed in roughly hewn scales of hammered bronze, decorated in a thin filigree of inlaid copper. "Some thirty and one. Transports all, my lady. See how they perish from the hubris of their own foul weaponry."

"Weaponry that we turned against them," thought Klavigar Saarn, her green eyes burning bright as the Mekhanite fleet.


Sometime earlier…

The sun was vicious during the daylight, and so Saarn had adopted the customs of the local populace wearing robes of silk and shifts of linen, depending upon the particular demands of the occasion. She had even adopted their faces and skin tone, twisting her own flesh into that of a Greek. At present, she found herself wearing a rather fetching robe woven from red silk and golden samite. An iron brooch fashioned into the shape of a nesting viper, pinned the fabrics together. Beneath all that clothing, a pair of blades were concealed against the shadow of her body.

The city of Naxos was impressively foreboding. It had two entrances: the Gate of Naxos and the Sea Gate. The first of these, the Gate, was constructed from colossal portcullises of crossed iron, and was reputedly impenetrable. Though apparently, reputation alone had not been sufficient to ward off attempts to breach it by wayward nations and jealous rivals. All attempts thus far had been repulsed by the infamous Legions of Naxos. These Legions consisted of free-born men and women taken from their families at birth as tribute to the city itself. They were raised to know no fear, to submit to no tyrant, and held no loyalty other than to the city and her people. It was little wonder then that they were affectionately named the Children of Naxos by the citizens.

At the southern side of the city, opposite the Gate of Naxos, as one ran through the market stalls that lined the central rive of the city, laid the Sea Gate. Unlike its sibling, it was protected by far thinner walls and enshrouded several locks. Laying at the mouth of the Aegean Sea, the Sea Gate protected the harbour, which was currently occupied by a grand Mekhanite armada. Naxos had joined the numerous political entities, including the Mekhanites, who opposed the Kalmaktama Empire. Her Ozi̮rmok's Empire.

Like an arrow in darkness, Saarn slipped through the streets of Naxos and beneath an eavesdrop marking the meeting point between herself and the contact within the city. Saarn smiled to herself as she slipped her hands into the deep pockets of her robe, gently patting the bone handles of her knives; one haft still wet with warm blood. It appeared that the Gates of Naxos had never considered that someone might simply slide through the iron portcutilis, twisting their very body into tendrils of rope-like flesh, and reforming theirself on the other side. And neither, it seemed, had the guard watching on with utter horror.

"You are late," came a quiet and effeminate voice lurking around the bend of the wall. "Sister, we are like passing ships in the night."

"And silence is close at hand, Sister." Saarn replied in a whisper.

"What would you know?" The voice asked.

Saarn recognised that voice, hollow and devoid of any emotion, though she could not entirely place the accent. An echoed, dying remnant of one of the myriad cults that had fallen before Adytum, perhaps?

"I would know your face before you vanish into the nest of vipers. I could use allies tonight."

"Very well," the voice responded as a pale woman rounded the corner. She wore a heavy grey linen dress with a black cape flowing out behind it. The entire ensemble was lined with golden thread, which adorned the hems of the dress. Her face was concealed beneath a black hood, though Saarn could make out a red welt across the left of the woman's jaw.

"Attiring yourself like a follower of the Old Black King would be a fatal mistake if one discovered the truth of your mission." Saarn replied after taking careful notice of the slender blade strapped to the woman’s hip.

"Luckily, none have." She smiled, stepping out from under the eavesdrop and into the light as the golden thread of her dress glistened under the sun. "I know their words and symbols well."

Saarn followed the cloaked figure out into the streets of Naxos, feeling the worn, sun-baked cobbles through the soles of her sandles. The followers of the Old Black King belonged to an ancient cult that had been prolific throughout the frozen wastelands of Siberia, until they were condemned as heretics by the Kalmaktama, and the Daevites before them. Their followers were executed in droves; summarily, if they confessed their heresies, and flayed alive if they refused to repent.

"The armada moves tonight. This is our final chance to remove that dreaded fire from their hands. We’ll stop the Mekhanites here at Naxos; a wondrous victory for the Halkost. Nobody has to die tonight."

"I'm aware of that. Have you located their stockpile of sea fire?" Saarn asked as they crossed the street and made for the Temple of the Old Black King. It was a lonely building of blackened stone sticking out like a sore thumb amongst the sandstone buildings which cramped the streets of Naxos.

"I have. It is beneath the Temple of Mekhane." The woman answered, tapping at the etchings of bronze concealed within the cast iron handle of the door. Alchemical etchings, Saarn guessed, from their shape. Those elemental currents hung heavy about the Temple of the Old Black King, swirling and dancing about the air, and the door swung open.

The cloaked lady entered first, gently closing the door behind Saarn. The temple was entirely empty, Unsurprisingly, considering that the entirety of the Old Black King's surreptitious worshipers were now dead, or worse. Saarn drew up a chair and sat herself down. Despite being windowless, the room remained illuminated by a dull haze of coalescent light.

"My name, my real name - is Yuliya." She drew in a breath and let the elements settle once more, bathing the room in bright light. "I do not expect you to share your real name, but I'd feel more comfortable addressing you as something other than Sister. It becomes awfully tiring."

Saarn nodded. "You may call me Julista."

“Very well, Julista, the stockade of sea fire is concealed beneath the Temple of Mekhane, guarded closely by legates-faithful and legates-primus-”

"No doubt it'll prove difficult to move such dangerous weaponry between just the two of us." Saarn interjected as she gently ran her fingers along the hilt of her knives. Once slick with wet blood, the blade had slaked its thirst and was now dry as its bone haft.

"Nonsense. I've already made it much easier for us both." Yuliya stood and stamped her foot against the floor of the Temple. A loud mechanical clink rang out, and a trapdoor opened behind Yuliya. "See?"

Saarn moved from her seat and looked down into the cavernous space beneath the Temple.

"Tunnels?" She asked.

"Dug with the terronous aethers. They stretch across Naxos, and one of these tunnels so happens to emerge directly beneath a basement concealed within the Temple of Mekhane."

"When?" Saarn asked, her green eyes piercing into the gloom.

"As soon as you like, Julista."


Saarn dropped into the pit enclosed within the Temple of the Old Black King, watching as Yuliya closed the trapdoor behind the pair. Saarn had changed to better suit her environment: a pair of moleskin riding boots and a crisp leather hauberk. She shunned gloves at all times, preferring to feel the bone handles pressing against her palms. The leather tinning about the smooth bone provided grip, even when they were coated with warm and wet blood. Her knives lusted for blood, drinking it deep, and channeling her flesh-crafting through it.

Yuliya hadn't changed a thing about her attire. Saarn suspected that the dress might have been treated with alchemical properties, or maybe enhanced with arcane wards. She couldn't be sure as the pair padded silently within the crumbling tunnels. The scent of death was all about her - not fresh death: no metallic scents of blood or the pleasant scent of flesh - only the stench of rot and bone.

"Are we beneath a graveyard, Yuliya?" Saarn asked as she shifted her paired knives from her belt, sliding the shorter parrying dagger into the scabbard on her legs.

"We're inside the graveyard. These are the catacombs of old that the ancestors of Naxos would inter their dead within. That custom has become lost to them, hence their obsession with burning the dead, Julista."

"I see." Saarn muttered as she kicked the rotting bones of a rat down the channels that ran along either side of the path. The musty and damp smell of mud choking at her lungs, she hurried her way through the compact tunnels of earth. Their obsession with burning the dead. She grinned at that. She would give them a funeral pyre they wouldn't soon forget - something to remember their treachery by.

Here, Julista." Yuliya stopped and gestured towards the ceiling. "They’re above our heads."

Nodding, Saarn pulled her longknife free from its scabbard of rough-hewn leather and hammered brass, feeling it tug gently against the inner lining. She raised the knife to her mouth and carefully slid the blade between her teeth, biting down hard to trap it still.

Yuliya stood to one side with her feet planted slightly apart, grasping the slender blade free of its scabbard. Only now did Saarn come to realise that it was her crosius; the tool of the alchemist. Hers was shaped like a double-edged sword with a slender blade constructed from silvered steel, and finished with a pommel of varnished ebony.

She raised it aloft, channeling the filaments of the earth into her left hand, sending them rushing into the ceiling as she mixed streaks of darkness into the stream. The streaks of void tore through the stone floor of the basement, devouring the mortar in a deep black roaring with silent echoes.

Saarn tossed a rope up into the hole and slowly ascended into the darkness above. In a single fluid motion, she freed her longknife back into her right hand and carefully navigated the darkness, illuminated by an eerie and sickly green glow. All around her were caches of sea fire, the devastating weapon of the Mekhanites. It would stick to clothing, armour, water; even flesh. Clinging desperately, it immolated the victim and burnt them to naught but ashes in minutes, filling the air with the acrid scent of cauterised flesh. A perfect weapon to purge the world of those that worshiped the flesh.

"How shall we move these barrels out of this storehouse?" Saarn called out to the darkness.

"Carefully, I suspect," Yuliyah replied. A faint glow illuminated Saarn's side, revealing Yuliyah in a mixture of pallid green and bright white light, "I can channel the aeronous aethers to move them into the tunnel, but it will take some time."

Saarn nodded, hoping Yuliyah had seen her silent reply in the dimly lit room, Stealthily padding over to stand by the storeroom door, she reversed the grip on her longknife as she slid the parrying dagger free from her boot. In close quarters, she could open a throat with the dagger quicker than she might stick a pig with the knife. She could hear two voices out on the corridor, both Greek and heavily laden with tongues of wine:

I heard the armada sets sail tonight
And I heard that some cunt ain't paid me back for the vases of wine I bought him and his wife out of my own pay
―Alright, alright, Alexios, what do I owe
Two whores and a new spearhead would be a st
Two! You don't have two cocks, Alexios
Aye, but I do have two hands and a cock
Begger off, one and a new spear
Deal

The voices trailed off as one of the guards stumbled off, his armoured scales clanking against one another as he heaved loudly.

"Julista! Julista!"

Yuliyah was yelling in a hoarse whisper, a cache of Greek fire dangling precipitously off the cavernous hole in the basement floor. Sprinting at pace, Saarn helped steady the copper drum while Yuliyah channeled the aeronous aethers once more and balanced the drum back to centre.

With a violent clang, the door to the basement was swung open by the helmeted guard who slowly made his way into the room, lowering his spear and waving it about in front of him. His speartip, bronze armour, and youthful face illuminated in the sickly glow of jade. Yuliyah and Saarn split to opposite sides of the rooms. Gesturing with her knife, Saarn sidled forwards against the wall as Yuliyah jumped into the hole; the sound of her fall buffered by a cushion of air.

Slipping behind the guard, Saarn attempted to slide the longknife between his neckguard and helmet. It ripped against the chainmail beneath and rings of metal erupted along her blade; flesh and blood tore free from the gaping wound that she created in his neck. The guard spun, catching Saarn in the thigh and slashing ribbons from her hauberk. The spearpoint had torn away at the flesh beneath, but she quickly crafted the flesh before her wound began to bleed. She caught the force of his blow with her parrying dagger and turned it down, reversing the spearpoint into the ground, and driving her knee into his stomach.

Winded, the guard clutched as his chest and dropped his spear, making for the sword strapped at his side. The mistake of youth, Saarn thought, as she slashed the longknife into the gap at his neck once more, feeling the chain of glistening rubies slide free from his throat. The young man collapsed to the floor, his free hand clutching at his throat as his dominant hand tightened about the hilt of his sword.

Saarn placed both knives into their sheaths at her hip. Stepping carefully over the body, she shut the door to the basement and descended the rope, catching one final glimpse at the young Mekhanite guard drowning in his own blood.

—-

Yuliyah and Saarn stood alone in the Temple of the Old Black King. Saarn was idly cleaning her longknife with an oiled cloth as Yuliyah examined the fifteen caches of Greek fire that now stood as menhirs in the Black King's Hall. The Hall was a simple place, barren and devoid of any connection to emotion. Hanging above the dais was a simple painting, displaying two masked women impaling snakes with swords. They were accompanied by a figure shrouded in darkness, with a golden crown perching on his brow. Beneath the three large figures were a group of humans, offering cupped hands towards the Old Black King and his two attendants. The Old Black King had been a harsh figure; his reign swiftly ended by the Daeva.

"Do we have allies within the city? People we can deliver these weapons to?" Yuliyah asked, etching yet more alchemical symbols into the surface of the caches. Bonding seals to prevent the volatile sea fire from detonating. She thinks we're just neutralising these weapons, Saarn thought.

"Outside of the city. I plan to smuggle them out now in a wagon driven by one of our men. Will you come with us?"

"I don't plan to spend another night in this wretched city." Yuliyah turned in her seat. Saarn noticed that she still concealed her face within the hood of her cloak. "What do you plan to do with these?"

"Only Kleraali Alka knows. I haven't been informed of his plans, have you?" Saarn asked, cautiously probing Yuliyah's information.

"No, I hope he won't use them. We'd be no better than-"

A loud knock at the door interrupted their conversation. Yuliyah opened the door as a burly, armoured man barged into the room, kneeling down before Saarn.

"My lady, the wagon is ready."

With a nod, Saarn rose to her feet and made her way over to the wagon, leaving Yuliyah and her attendant, Kleraali Alka to fill the wagon themselves.


Leaving the city had been easy, a simple ride down the central avenue that marked the market street of Naxos, and then presenting their forged documents to the legionnaire that manned the gates. Inspections were completely avoided by Yuliyah's use of alchemy and Saarn's glamour upon the caches of sea fire, which had disguised them as simple vases of olive oil.

Alka had taken the caches of sea fire and given them over to the faithful, those deemed true adherents of nälkä. Even now, she could see the robed servants, disguised as Mekhanites through use of carnomancy, boarding the myriad vessels of the armada.

Drawing her cowl tight about her face, Saarn watched as Alka strode towards her, his decorated armour glinting beneath the pale moonlight. He walked right up to her and kneeled before her, the horsehair of his great-helm writhing in the wind.
"It is done, my lady."

Saarn said nothing as she glanced to her left. Yuliyah had not moved since the faithful had begun to board the Mekhanite armada. Her fist was clenched tight around the hilt of her crosius, and her hood disguised the emotion twisting across her face.

"Yuliyah-"

"There is nothing more to say between us, Julista." Yuliyah said softly, her heavy cape flowing behind her in the cool and crisp breeze of night.

Saarn's shoulders tightened, her muscles drawing taut as she watched the amassed armada with gritted teeth. The Mekhanite fleet was impressive: hulking transports, each one crewed by hundreds of legates, war galleys and dromons with battering rams of brass and hammered bronze, and the behemoth gigantes which bore the Colossi, the armoured war machines of the Mekhanite civilisation. And then, from out of the gloom, came a sailing merchant ship, carrying itself into the harbour of Naxos upon rotted wood.

The ship meandered its way along the harbour, and all around it, the Mekhanite armada began to split away, veering off their courses to avoid the stray ship. In a flash of jade light, that little merchant ship and the entire Mekhanite fleet disappeared behind the glow. Seconds later, Saarn felt warm air rush over her skin and tasted burning flesh on her tongue. Writhing tongues of emerald flames whipped and wreathed across the harbour, splintered fragments of burnt wood were cast through the air and rained back down into the sea. The entire Mekhanite fleet had been consumed in that conflagration. No man could have survived.

Saarn grimaced. Yuliyah's hood had been knocked from her face, and for the first time, Saarn could see her cold, grey eyes burning with fury, reflections of serpentine flames writhing within those eyes.

"I watched my people be burnt alive by the Daeva. They'd flay them first, peeling the skin away, inch by inch, to expose the naked flesh beneath. Then they'd stake them through the feet, covering the whole body in pitch, and let the flames lick at the exposed flesh. The Daeva considered that a mercy, they called the victims of their torture, the lucky ones."

"When I was a young girl, a Daeva matriarch came for my family. We worshipped the Old Black King, the very same King they'd flayed and burnt, for the crime of rejecting the Daeva. I watched my mother and father die in agony. Before they could do the same to me, a robed man saved my life. I never asked his name, he simply told me that we were free. When I returned to the village, they told me that Ion had delivered them from evil. They repeated the robed man's words: We are free."

Yuliyah's fist was trembling as her fingers tightened around her crosius, the veins in her wrist throbbing.

"I was there at Adí-üm. I listened to Ion preach his heart out to the Halkost - that crowded and braying herd of sheep. I believed that Ion was better than the Daeva. He knew what it was like to suffer. His sermons were filled with grief. He was a wretch, just the same as me. That innocent little girl looked upon him with doe eyes and doted upon him." She turned toward Saarn, the burned flesh of her lower jaw twisting her face into a snarl of agony. "You have killed that girl today, Saarn."

Saarn felt her heart twist as Yuliyah walked into the shadow of Naxos, her golden hemmed cloak casting long shadows amidst tongues of jade.

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