Sunlight, Ocean, and Sea Serpents

From the coruscating stone arches atop raven pillars inscribed with Finnardian glyphs, an unending flow of people in stainless white spilt into Westblue Cathedral. Having never tread upon the moss-grown tiles of this holy site, a buoyant Anfer skipped down the staircases and waved for Claire to hurry. The more reserved Acolyte could not help but smile at her excitable friend.

"Come on!" Anfer shouted. "I want to swim three laps around the Holyman's Toe before lunch."

Claire giggled and broke into a jog. Born on the Shamanic Beads, an archipelago three days sailing from Zohrenburg, she relished the thought of diving into the icy waters after spending a year confined to dry land. Perhaps that was what the Grand Guardian had intended when she sent her aides on vacation. Regardless, it was good to be home, to smell the salt in the air, hear the waves pounding relentlessly against the shores, and feel the warm touch of the sun she so missed in Vangard.

Donning a sun hat, Claire peered up at the four colossal sculptures of Finnardi's apostles, finding assurance in both their scale and familiarity. Spotting Anfer knelt at the feet of the Duecalon monument, she promptly joined her friend. Prior to meeting Isabelle, Claire had always found this stone juggernaut the least impressive. The closed eyes, lowered head, and the sheathed sword hardly inspired confidence. Having since spent more time with the Grand Guardian than many of her superiors, Claire now saw empathy, humility, and restrained strength.

"Now that I think about it," Anfer remarked shortly after the prayer, as if reading her mind. "I don't think I've ever seen Belle draw her sword."

"Neither have I," Claire replied. "Her hands are deadly enough."

"I know the Duecalon heirloom is a divine weapon, but aren't you curious?"

Instead of answering, Claire lifted her head towards the scarlet sky. Five centuries after the clash of gods, the world continues to bleed. She glanced backwards at the Duecalon statue and wondered whether the first Finnardian apostle ever felt such doubts. When she posed Isabelle this question, the Grand Guardian sternly reminded her that maudlin philosophers made poor soldiers.

Thankfully, Anfer saw the pained expression her offhanded statements elicited and began querying Claire on the wellbeing of her extended family. They continued the sprightly banter as they headed for the neighbouring compound, a granite courtyard with three rows of gates. Next to each of the arching masonry were obelisks engraved with the intended destination.

"I can't remember the last time I had to go through a portal with a predetermined destination," said Anfer. "Belle really spoiled us."

"I like not having scores of priestesses bowing to us at every turn gate," said Claire. "It's…awkward."

"Really?" Anfer laughed aloud. "I feel quite vindicated. All my folks back home told me I should've worn the habit instead of the blazer. Showed them."

Claire could not picture Anfer suffering the hours of meditation and prayer inside a sequestered monastery. She too, suffered an identical lecture from her overprotective parents. Had her brother not intervened, she would be singing hymns with other girls in an isolated cloister of the Westblue Cathedral and never left the islands.

"Wrong gate," she broke her train of thought to stop her friend from hopping through a portal. "The red ones go to the outer islands. Are you looking to serve on the frontline?"

"I don't know these things," her friend threw up her hands. "My village had only one gate in the square."

"Then stick to me. We're civilians now. All islands are on high alert since the Aurael summit and the last thing we need is for them to mistake us for Zunarkian spies."

"Yes mother."

Rolling her eyes, Claire opted to preserve her energy and not respond to the quip. With a skip in her step, she bounced through the homeward crescent. Receiving her on the other end was the rustling weed poking through the decrepit tiles to tickle her stockings, a few trees that have shed most of their foliage, a murky red ocean, and the blindingly radiant towers looming over the watery expanse. The prosaic backdrop she once longed to leave behind was now endearing.

"This is a few times more picturesque than the squalor I call home," Anfer squinted her eyes at the beach. "Are those the Sol Towers?"

"The Najind warped in many years ago and then suddenly those eyesores rose out of the ground," Claire shrugged. "Now, nobody can enjoy the sunrise or sunset anymore."

"Ah, I think the Zunarkians are still mad about it today. That's something."

Claire pursed her lips. Having met the western archdemons in person, incurring their wrath seemed unwise. It was not the ghastly Rieva but his fanatical deputy from the Garshaluk clan who shredded the Blue Sea Accords and delivered a chilling ultimatum that yet haunts her dreams.

"The Ascendant my witness, my blessed tides shall purge the holy land of Finnardian filth."

As if to escape the troubling recollections, Claire leapt over the picket fence that demarcated her mother's garden and made for the porch. Taken aback at first, Anfer imitated her friend with a gleeful grin. Pushing aside a squeaky door, Claire lifted a hand to her mouth.

"Mum, I'm home!"

Following her announcement was a stampede. A boy and a girl, both who looked no more than ten years of age, dove at Claire with such ferocity they almost knocked the Acolyte down. A lanky woman emerged shortly after, seized the children by the scruff and dragged them off Claire.

"Grace of Mercy," Anfer folded her hands over her breasts. "It's good to meet you at last, Mrs Kirston."

"Nadim," the mother reciprocated the greeting. "You must be Anfer. I saw you in a portrait on the Finnardian Chronicles alongside our Claire. Poor girl was scared stiff. May, take this nice lady's suitcases to Claire's room. And Gab, don't you dare touch it."

As if porting a tray of glass trinkets, May bounded up the rickety stairs. Gabriel snorted and Nadim made him rue the rebellious display with a slap to his cranium. Claire, laughing, drew her brother into a hug and massaged his head.

"When you're done spoiling him, show Anfer to the dining room." Nadim ordered. "No guest leaves my house hungry."

Anfer sank into a chair and found a cushion patched so many times it was impossible to discern its original colour. The dining table, too, appeared to owe its structure to at least three different trees. A quick gander at the ceiling revealed that it had several beams replaced. The visitor continued to study the room until Claire returned with her two siblings bearing a platter.

"Nice house," Anfer complimented. "I feel the love."

"It's just an old armoury of the Divine Blade," said Claire. "Dad and Heff do what they can when they're not patrolling the shores."

"That's only half the story," Gabriel joined in as he laid out the cutlery. "Their fighting broke most things around the house anyway."

"Daddy broke that once," May pointed to a table leg. "Mummy was livid. It was really scary."

"I'm sure it was," laughing, Anfer picked May up and propped the girl onto her lap.

The cloche gave way to a bizarre creature with a swollen head, stubby tentacles, and beady, lifeless eyes that seemed to be staring squarely at Anfer, daring her to lift a knife. If not for the thick foliage of spices and a red sauce oozing from its orifice, Anfer would have wagered that the thing was alive.

"That's an octus," said Claire. "I heard before Zunark blanketed the world in his dust, there were similar creatures to these, only they didn't have scales."

"The eyes taste the best," explained May, pointing to the head.

Gingerly, Anfer drove a knife into the head and found no bones to resist her advance. Instead, juices surged from the opening and brought with it an irresistible aroma. Having slept through breakfast, Anfer cleaned the plate just as Nadim brought a water pitcher. Lips swollen and drenched in sweat, the Acolyte gurgled the liquid gratefully.

"You actually finished," the mother nodded in approval. "Mercy, I think you'd eat most men under the table."

"I'm charming like that," Claire rolled her eye at the joke. "But truly, this dish deserves to be served this in the Winter Palace."

"What a delightful guest Claire brought us," Nadim took a seat. "I think we will get along famously. Tell me, how is Claire doing in the Divine Blade?"

"Half the boy wanted to eat at her table, and the other half were too shy to ask," Anfer grinned mischievously at Claire's dismay. "What I meant was, you can't get much better than being handpicked by High Guardian Isondre to attend the Grand Guardian."

"Right you are. My husband went on about that for a good week," Nadim laughed. "Every Blade at the shores heard the story at least thrice. I almost forgot how fiercely he opposed her enlisting."

"And you didn't?" Claire was caustic.

"I still do," Nadim said cooly. "But you were never going to listen, so fatally enamoured with the Duecalon girl. Would you like some tea, Anfer?"

"Maybe later," Anfer stood up. "We'll be going for a swim."

"Then I have bad news," said Nadim. "They've closed off the beaches owing to sea serpent sightings. Our fishermen have not ventured beyond the Holyman's Toe since the Aurael summit."

Though Claire had never seen the creatures before, the vivid tales from her mother were enough to make her shudder. The nightmare incarnates have not menaced their shores since Lunbart Duecalon fought them to a standstill that birthed the Blue Sea Accords decades ago.

"You're still going see you father, right?" Anfer patted Claire on the shoulder. "Mind if I tag along?"

Claire nodded. She wanted to prove, if only to herself that she was worthy of the blue collar. How she envied Anfer, whistling her discordant hymn all while sporting a bucket of bait and a fishing rod, blissfully unbothered by the brooding turmoil as they journeyed by foot towards the beach.

"Is it usually this quiet?" asked Anfer as she surveyed the streets.

"Must be talks of the sea serpents. Most of my parent's generation lived through that war."

"Belle said her father and uncles perished to break that siege."

Claire lifted her brow. Anfer, who could scarcely go three days without losing a pair of socks, was the last person she expected to recall historical minutiae. She cannot but wonder how different Isabelle would have been had her father's fleet not sortied in a foolhardy pursuit of the Garshaluk armada.

"I almost wish those towers weren't there," Anfer continued. "I'd like to feed my blade some snake meat."

"If dad ever hears that he'll insist you be his daughter-in-law," Claire pointed to an outpost. "He should be back from the morning patrol. Mercy willing, we may catch him yet."

Although the looming portal, rows of stone barracks, and an open yard lined with steel posts were exactly as Claire remembered, the intangible changes were palpable. Short-tempered Guardians, barking formations and rituals, met each delay and failure with savage beatings. Fearful Apprentices and sweating Acolytes received the whistling staves in silence, daring not even to flinch, for any perceived weakness only invited greater agony. It was not until the silver collars began praying that Claire exhaled in relief.

"Claire," a grizzled veteran greeted the girls, his narrowed eyes wandering towards Anfer. "And who is your friend?"

"Tom," Claire greeted the old warrior with a toothy grin. "This is Anfer, the other adjutant to the Grand Guardian."

"No wonder you seemed familiar," Tom chuckled. "Come. The commander should be in the war room."

"What's going on?" asked Claire. "My father does not abuse his men."

"Tactical incompetence," Tom bristled at the mere recollection. "Lunbart Duecalon is stirring in his grave!"

Following Claire into the encampment, Anfer tried her best to not snigger at the unflattering whispers that had hounded her even more fiercely since her promotion. These men, who once wagered silver to see her quit within the first month, now cannot even hope to compete with her. Smiling, she gave them a wave and disappeared into a barrack.

The war room was both an armoury and a stronghold. Glistening steel lined the walls, from humble short swords to hulking monstrosities that comfortably rivalled the famed Zunarkian sabres. Backpacks and pouches, filled with ration, charms, scrolls, and small arms, laid in piles for quick access. Herein resided warriors ready to deploy at all times.

Tapestries and parchments covered the walls and ceilings. To the untrained eyes, the interior design seemed more a product of insanity than a cruel necessity forged in war. Raven obelisks guarded each corner, their elaborate engraving glowing periodically. It was the first time Anfer had come so close to the Aquaveil, the Finnardian shield that resisted the ebb and flow of the ocean. She could not fathom what horrors drove the locals to erect such a costly fortification so far removed from the shoreline.

Surveying the assembly, she needed no help identifying the commander amongst his men. One did not easily forget Wilkim Kirston, the swarthy Guardian who once exploded into Grand Guardian's office unannounced to appeal his rebuked proposal to reform the Finnardian fleet. One Guardian was currently poring over the very same map he unfurled before Isabelle that day, shuffling white and black tokens while another read an account of events.

"Raise the alert level," said Wilkim. "Double the fleet size for the midday sortie. Dismissed."

The garrison officers filed out, leaving but two men to greet their guests. Judging by his delicate features and brilliant blond hair, Anfer inferred that this must be Hefflin, the brother Claire would mention from time to time. She noted with mild amusement that not one of the Kirston children took after their father.

"Grace of Mercy, Guardian Kirston," Anfer greeted the commander. "I have heard many tales of your valour –"

"Yet I've heard nothing of you," Wilkim gave her a cool stare that cut Anfer short. "Certainly nothing that would justify your station or a seat at the Aurael summit."

"I'm sorry Anfer," Claire breathed frost. "We're leaving."

"Is that what the Duecalon wench taught you?" Wilkim continued. "To turn tails at the first sign of adversity?"

Fists clenched so tightly that her hands shook, Anfer laid down her fishing gear, brushed past her friend and made for Wilkim. Her eyes held a flare that made Claire abandon all hopes of a peaceful resolution. These occasions left Claire pondering why Mercy made Anfer a girl.

"I am prepared to answer your doubts with combat if you will kindly grant me the permission to exercise some insubordination."

Anfer laid down her challenge with a thundering stomp, something she had practised alongside Isabelle every morning. Juvenile her skills may be when measured against her mentor, she stood well above most men of her rank. The tremor her foot triggered had Hefflin nodding in approval. Wilkim, with folded arms, remained unmoved.

"Spirit and power," Hefflin spoke first, clapping in approval. "Well done."

"Even the peerless Duecalon cannot teach bloodlust," Wilkim was brusque. "Alas, I don't expect Acolytes to fight as Guardians."

Claire scowled. Though she could guess what her father had intended, the insults left her fuming. This anger subsided somewhat when she had a better look at him. During her year of absence, time had carved deeper lines into his forehead and snuck more ashes into his curly locks. Since they last met, he had collected even more scars, no doubt the results of Zunarkian sorcery, afflictions that not even the fabled Lufeir poultice and potions could remedy.

"What is this about?" Claire asked at last. "Or are you venting your jealousy because you didn't have a seat at the summit?"

"We needed somebody on the inside," Wilkim raised his voice. "Instead, all we got were articles in the Finnardian Chronicle and intelligence reports from Vangard one week after the meeting. We didn't know the whereabouts of the Garshaluks until their pets popped up under our –"

Claire jumped as Wilkim slammed a fist into a table unfortunate enough to be within his reach. She stole a look at Anfer and found her friend visibly embarrassed by her earlier provocation. Quietly, Claire thanked the Divine Finnardi that her father did not respond violently.

"Hefflin, you sortied this morning, didn't you?"

"Yes, commander," the young man straightened and folded his hands over his chest. "We joined the second fleet in the southwest inlets."

"I won't have tired sailors commanding my ships," said Wilkim. "Go relieve your crew members and get out of my base."

Having dismissed his son, the commander drained the water pitcher and buckled his sword. Seeing the Guardian fully equipped gave Anfer a better appreciation of his martial pedigree. Unlike the many silver collars shuffling papers from their ebony towers in Vangard, here stood a man who could make stones grow legs just to flee his wrath.

"Please accept my apologies," Wilkim patted Anfer on the shoulder. "The Divine Finnardi may yet reward your fiery soul with silver. Your time will come, whether you desire it or not."

For his daughter, Wilkim had a tight hug. The contact made them realise that Claire was now taller than her father.

"Pursue all endeavours with piety and ardour," said Wilkim. "Isabelle Duecalon is the brightest of her holy house in recent memory. She has much to teach you."

Claire nodded. She watched, somewhat unsatisfied, as her father exited the barrack and summoned Tom to his side. All her childhood episodes including Wilkim ended with him handing her off to the nearest pair of hands and disappearing for many days. The displeasure she felt made Claire acutely aware that she was never going to acclimate to this neglect.

"You know dad," Hefflin wrapped an arm around her. "If he's not fighting, he's preparing for the next fight."

"I don't know why I expected things to be any different," replied Claire.

Chuckling without mirth, Hefflin fastened his sword and shouldered a backpack. His fingers skirted around a pin clipped to the argent collar as he smoothed his jacket. Fully rigged for combat, he hardly resembled a soldier relieved from his station.

"Come on," he tried his best sound cheerful as he pointed to the fishing gear. "Let's go catch lunch."