The Uprising was a 20-year conflict between the Templars and the supernatural Djinn. But a war that massive has far-reaching effects on more than just those participating. Explore a new perspective in the final Short Fiction of the Burning Sky Uprising series.
Before we get started, just a quick directory of the previous two Short Fictions in this little mini-series, as well as the preamble.
And now for our feature presentation.
In the North Sea of Gaea lies the sprawling continent of Feroth, divided into four regions among two of the 10 Creeds that so control the world. Residing in the North and East are Eurale and Kirstland – domains of the Creed of Eleos, whose virtue of Kindness has long made their role as peacemakers of the world. To the West is Reinarch – a territory held by the Creed of Nemesis, whose virtue of Justice has long made them a global overseer. Their influence spans much of the world, making them the most powerful of the Creeds. And nowhere is this more evident than Etrium. Encompassing the rest of Feroth stands the proud homeland of the Creed. The region most absorbed in the war between the Templars and the supernatural beings known to the world as the Djinn. But even as intense a war as this, there are places that it never touches in the vast land of Etrium.
Oston. A small town to the Etrium south, far enough away from everything that its streets only ever know peace. A quiet spot in the woods where people carry on about their business without concern for the hardships that so ravage the outside world. A simple place. The streets are alive with children at play and men and women at work. Vendors line the edges of the market. With one, in particular, packing up his cart for the day as the sun begins to set over the horizon. He’s a scruffy one. A middle-aged man, clad in comfortable adventurer’s clothes, good for travel. He kicks the door to a compartment on his cart shut with his sturdy boots and quickly fastens a lock on it before it can spring back open. Then he stands upright, stretching his back and scratching at his stubbled chin. With a grunt, he heaves out a satisfied “A’right,” clapping the dust from his gloved hands. “That’ll do it.”
A bouncy “Oi, Caius,” rings out from a singsong voice across the market. “Ya gettin’ ready to head on out again.” Another man trots over, wiping his hands with a damp rag as he leaves behind his own stand, full of the sugary treats and sticky confectioneries he’d no doubt been working with, all day. The sweet aroma fills the entire square, after all.
Caius holds his hands to his hips and looks over his cart with an affirmative nod. “Yessir, Mister Sawyer. First thing tomorrow, in fact. Can’t make a living, sittin’ in one place for too long. No matter how nice it is.” He shakes his head of long, brown hair. “Though it’s becoming just as hard to make a living on the road.”
Sawyer scratches as his full, red beard and leans against the cart. “Ye don’t say. That cos ‘o the war, I take it?”
“Aye. Figure it’s gotta end at some point. Bloody 20-year pissin’ contest, it is. The plateheads go and drag us into their little squabble with the ramheads. Blockin’ off trade routes, settin’ up all those damnable checkpoints.”
A firm “Of couse,” catches both men’s ears nearby as an older woman with greying hair stops at the side of the cart, a woven basket of produce held at her waist. “The Templars have always been shameless about dragging us working folk into their squabbles. And then those blasted imps, starting all this. They’re not warriors. They’re terrorists, is all they are. They make a mess and we get the higher taxes to pay for it. Hardly seems fair. The people running things in the capital’ve always been eager to make us pay for their slip-ups. You boys’re probably a mite too young to remember that little tussle with the Creed of Valora, a while back. When they went and hiked up the taxes preemptively for a war that never even came. As if those savages could’ve won. It’s that whole song and dance, all over again. Just with the Djinn, this time around.”
Sawyer nods along before looking around at all the people filling out the square. Human. All of them. Not a trace of horns, nor chains. “Ol’ Hilda’s right. You ever seen what they can do? Heard tell of a small group, burning down a whole forest, a few territories over, not long ago. Makes me glad we don’t have any o’ them ramheads around. Slaves or no, they’re too much trouble. Wouldn’t wanna see one o’ them, backed into a corner.”
“Really, you’re payin’ for ‘em, war or no war,” Caius adds, folding his arms. “Where d’you think they get the funds to pay for all the fancy equipment and facilities to keep the slaves, to begin with?” Both Sawyer and Hilda suddenly fall quiet, leaving Caius to reach down, grabbing a roughsack by his feet and hoisting it over his shoulder. “Right. Best to be clenchin’ up those coinpurses, eh? I’m off then. See if I can make some money with this blasted conflict still going on. Wish me luck, yeah?”
And so Caius departs for the nearby inn. Once inside, he trots over to the bar where the innkeeper stands, pouring drinks for patrons. The man levels an expecting look the merchant’s way and Caius nods towards the open door of an empty room to the side of the main hall, sliding a few coins to the rough-looking man behind the counter. “I’ll have a room for the evenin’. And a glass, if you would.”
The innkeeper sets down the pitcher of ale and wipes his hands on his apron, sliding a newly filled glass to the merchant. “Sure thing. It’s all yours. Just gi’me a minute and I’ll have it all cleaned up for ya.”
Caius sits at the bar as the innkeeper steps away to arrange his request. People in Etrium are a varied, loud bunch. They love their gossip and their stories. In a full tavern and inn, like this, there’s not a moment of quiet. As Caius sits there, all manner of stories and rumors grace his ear. Most all of it pertaining to the war. Over the last year, people seem absorbed with some unbelievable story of a knight fighting off some 300 of those Akuma monsters, by himself. But there’s also talk of the Djinn being on the back foot. It only figures after 20 years of fighting the strongest military in Gaea.
Other rumors float around as well. One, in particular, catches his ear. Something about Templar soldiers, headed towards the town. Soldiers? Not guards? Caius glances back, scanning the room to find the conversation centered around a table behind him. There sit two young women and a young man, all fully engaged in their drinking with faces red as roses, some of them too giggly to speak straight. One of them whines to the others as they laugh at her. “Oi, I mean it, you know. I heard they’re sendin’ plateheads out to the middle o’ nowhere. Ya heard them stories lately? What with things just goin’ missing and people hearin’ noises comin’ from that old, run-down chapel at the edge of town? They’re sayin’ the Templars chased a bunch of Djinn this way and someone reported all that. They’re checkin’ t’see if the ramheads are holed up in there.”
“Oh, I wish they’d shove off and let the imps alone,” the other of the girls adds, raising her mug off the table and pointing with an indignant… and rather intoxicated frown on her face. “What’re the plateheads try’na prove, anyhow?”
The young man of the group rests his head on the table with a dopey grin about him. “You ever hear that story about that mountain in the east? Somethin’ like five years ago a big crater just appeared in it. They say that was a Djinn, but I hear the Akuma get pretty big over there. Might’ve been one of them. You ask me, they’re just scared.”
With that, the outspoken young lady brings her half-full mug to her mouth, knocking back the rest of her ale in one go, eventually bringing the glass down to the table with a satisfied “Pahhh!” and wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her outfit. “I’ll bet’cha it’s just an excuse for cheap labor.”
Caius turns back to the bar, quietly sipping down more of his drink as the innkeeper returns to let him know the room is ready. Seems everyone, these days, has an opinion on the war. Which sides are right or wrong. Bah. It’s all too much trouble to be bothered about. Caius finishes his ale, shaking off the buzz and pushing away from the bar to get some rest.
The very next morning, the merchant makes his way outside to the market, only to find an unusual gathering of people, huddled in one spot. Shoving his way through the lot, he comes to a dead stop as his eyes settle on the sorry sight before him. Strewn around the street lie the contents of his cart, the lock having been somehow forced open. He can’t bring himself to do anything but sigh as he steps up to start cleaning this mess.
In such a tight-knit community, who’d have done anything like this? Going over it in his head, only one thing comes to mind. And at that thought, his head turns to the chapel at the far end of the town. No, Caius. That’s nonsense. Those kids were right plastered. What would the ramheads be doin’ out here in the arse end of… The thought leaves him entirely the instant he picks up the broken lock. Warm to the touch. Hot, even.
He catches himself staring at it, only coming to his senses when a concerned “Caius,” meets his ear. Sawyer stands just behind him. “You all right, mate?”
“Ah… yes. It’s fine. Doesn’t look like anything important’s missing. The lockbox was untouched, at least. Strange thing, that. All this trouble and leaving the money untouched. Could be someone was just trying to send me a message. I’ll get her all cleaned up and be on my way in no time at all.”
But even as he dismisses the concerns of those around him and disperses the crowd, something creeps around in the back of his mind, nagging at him. Something he’d heard recently. “You ever seen what they can do?” Then the thought of a Djinn blasting a village-sized hole into the side of a mountain. If it’s true that there are Djinn here… Gazing upon the lock in his hand, he clenches his fist and dusts himself off. On his way down the street, he pats Sawyer on the shoulder. “Think I’ll go ahead and report this before I go, mate. Take care.”
He’s on the far end of town before he even notices. As if that pocket of time had simply erased itself from his mind. Or perhaps he’d been that caught up in the thought of where this all might lead. Regardless, here he stands. In the shadow of the decrepit old chapel, its windows boarded, its brick walls overgrown. What’re ya doing, Caius? Despite how quickly he’d gotten there, he stands in that spot for what seems an eternity, asking himself that question, over and over. The Templars were on the way, right? Best to let them handle it. He nearly turns himself around and leaves. But he stops himself. Who’s to say they’d get here anytime soon? By then… An unsettling image crops up in his head. A crater. A smoking pit where the town now stands.
This image compels him to turn himself back, reaching into his pocket and removing something from it that he definitely shouldn’t have. A little vial of blue liquid, occasionally crackling with sparks of light. A Luminite Potion. Even with a dosage like this, a normally frail man could bowl over an elephant. Civilians shouldn’t have these. Not without proper clearance. And yet, here Caius stands. He returns it to his pocket… for now. If worse came to worse, he could use it to get away, warn people.
Opening the door, he quietly makes his way inside, walking softly. The place is as ruined inside as it is outside. There are cracks in the wooden floor, letting in weeds in several places. The pews are overgrown and cobwebs fill nearly every crevice. Caius nearly jumps at the tiny sound of scuttling feet and the squeaking of mice. But when the rodents pass him by, he lets out a relieved sigh and continues. Every step kicks up dust that makes the beams of light from the cracks in the ceiling that much easier to make out. Then, another sound. Movement from the back room. Heavier than any mouse. The nearer he gets to the back, the further dug into his pocket his hand gets. Until he’s at the door, slowly pushing it open to the eerie creaking of the rusted hinges.
It’s an old storeroom. Incredibly cluttered. The dust pours out through the opening created by the door. But through his coughing and waving it out of his face, he senses it. This room… is warm. In his pocket, he pops the cork to the vial and proceeds further in, eventually bumping into a shelf with a broken leg. He catches it as it tips over, but a cloud of dust rises throughout the room, forcing him to cough uncontrollably. But he stops immediately upon noticing something. It isn’t just his own voice he hears.
He looks over his shoulder and his heartrate explodes as the dust settles around him, the other voice dying down with it. There, amidst the darkness of the room, he finds a pair of beady, yellow eyes looking back at him, reflecting light like a cat’s. Trying to brace the bookshelf with one arm, he frantically pulls the vial from his pocket. But then… he stops. Something gives him pause as the dust clears away, revealing more of the figure in the darkness. The Creed teaches that the Djinn are devils given flesh. Demons who corrupt and manipulate men. But then, what is this creature before him? A small thing. A child. Her horns barely stubs atop her head. With big, frightened eyes and shaky breath. She’s shivering, gawking up at him like a helpless fawn.
Caius stands there in silence for several seconds, staring at the girl. And she stares back. Neither of them moves an inch. Upon closer inspection, she’s holding something. Clinging to it like her life depends on it. It’s a… doll. Thinking about it Caius remembers that doll sitting among his wares. So that’s it, then? Eventually, he sets the shelf back up, bracing it against the wall and turns to the little thing, who shuffles back away from him, still hugging the doll tight. He heaves a great sigh and closes the vial back before kneeling down to the girl. “So you’re the one that went through my cart, huh?” When the girl shuffles back again, Caius raises his hands to show them to her. “Hold on, now. You’ve got nothin’ to fear from me.”
This is supposed to be a monster as bad as the Akuma. This tiny, afraid, malnourished thing. And those eyes. That look she gives him, crossed between confusion and abject terror. As if he was supposed to be the monster, here. It makes his stomach turn. So this is what that’s like, huh? Letting that feeling ruminate for a bit, Caius eventually stands upright, looking down at the girl. “You must be hungry, right?” The girl raises her head when he turns around. “Stay there.” And, like that, he leaves her there to stare as he disappears through the door, blinking with a confused look about her.
Closing the door behind him upon exiting the building, he takes a breath. You shouldn’t be getting involved in this… Yet there’s that nagging feeling in the back of his mind that he should. And it pushes him forward.
It’s not long before Caius arrives back in the town square. But he’s greeted with yet another fairly alarming sight. All around the area are men and women in full plate armor, their breastplates adorned with the crest of the Templars. Bugger all. If it’s not one thing… He grumbles, keeping his head down, and makes his way over to Sawyer’s stand, leaving a few silver coins on the counter. “Do me a favor, mate. A roll of sweet bread, would ya?”
“Ya never struck me for a sweets man, Caius,” Sawyer says, wrapping a bun in paper and slipping it into a brown bag. “You get everything all sorted out?”
“You went to report what happened, right?”
“Ah. Right… yeah, it’s all sorted, so…”
The instant Caius turns himself around, he bumps directly into a rather solid figure behind him, covered in steel from head to toe. A man with a friendly, unassuming face not exactly matching the… rest of his image. And true to that face, he follows with an amicable “Ah, many pardons, sir.”
“It’s fine. Ya need something?”
The Templar nods. “You see, my company is on the hunt for some dangerous fugitives. Djinn from the war. We’ve been pursuing them for some time, then heard tell of some strange goings-on in this town, near where we lost track of them. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, would you?”
Caius eyes the Templar without a word, for a time, glancing to his cart and praising all ten divines that he thought to clean it up, first. “I’m just a traveling merchant, sir. I’m afraid I don’t know enough to be helpful. Was actually on my way out of town, just now, in fact.”
Thus the merchant returns to his cart, hoisting it up and trotting out of the square. On his way out, he takes note of every Templar in the streets. They’ve really come out in force, eh? Knights stand at nearly every corner, stopping people, asking questions. Still, all that matters is that none of them have gone near the chapel yet. All the way there, Caius’s heart thumps in his chest like a drum. At one point he realizes he’s been holding his breath for the past several steps, letting it out to an exasperated sigh and a grumble of “Unbelievable,” from his lips. “All this stress for a tyke whose name I don’t even know…” Complain though he may, he marches on.
The chapel is clear. This far to the edge of town, the Templars must not have had the time to make it here yet. Good. Once inside, Caius makes his way to the back room. But his heart nearly stops when he doesn’t find the girl there. That is until a barrel to his left… moves. When he taps on the lid, it taps back. Sure enough, there she is, beaming up at him from inside when he pulls the lid away. “All right, listen here, ya little tinker. You’re not gonna go and give me a heart attack, ya hear?”
She doesn’t hear. She’s too busy sniffing the air. Knocking the barrel over, she crawls out, sniffing until her nose brings her to the wrapped pastry in his hand. But upon noticing where it is, she backs up, retreating behind the storeroom barrels again but eyeing the baked treat, glancing up at Caius only occasionally. The merchant runs his hand through his long, messy, brown hair and grunts, unwrapping the sweetbread and extending it to the girl. An evasive “Here,” on his breath as he looks away from her. Gradually, the girl steps out, around the barrels, sniffing the sweet bread like a stray. Then a nibble. Then, an enraptured spark in her eyes, she lurches forward and chomps down with a massive bite.
Caius stares at her. “Oi… you can take it, you know.” No response. The girl just continues nomming away on the bun, crumbs and sugar crystals around her mouth. Close-up, like this… he catches onto all manner of details he hadn’t before. Around her wrists, ankles, and neck are bruises. As if from the chafing of tight restraints. Her black hair is as messy as his. Messier, in fact. And her brown skin is covered in dirt and scratches. This girl couldn’t be any older than six. This is how they treat the children?
She continues eating and Caius reaches out. “Here, let me-” But before he can take the toy, the girl squeezes it tight and turns her body away from him. It’s enough to dim his gaze and he drops his hand. “You really like that doll, don’tcha? All right, fine. You can have it, then. But…” Then he stands, holding the rest of the sweetbread in the air over his head, letting the girl hop in place in a vain attempt to reach it. “You only get the rest of this if you come with me.” At that utterance, the girl stops. “You understand me, right?” When she shrinks away from him, he extends his free hand. “Hey, come on. I’m not going to hurt you. But there are some people out there looking for you. And I don’t think you want them to find where you are. I’m going to help you get out of here. Take you someplace safe. Okay?”
Slowly, hesitantly, the little one steps forward, reaching out one hand and placing it in his. The next thing either of them knows, they’re outside, Caius sneaking the girl out through a back exit after bringing his cart around behind the building. She sits inside, amidst his well-secured wares and such.
Bumpy though the ride is, there’s one hurdle left to clear on the way out of town. Caius sneers once he sees it. Standing by the gate is a pair of Templars. Another damnable checkpoint. He pulls up and, once again, his heart is off to the races. A friendly “Ah!” greets him from one of the two. The very same knight from the square. Friendly face and all. “You’re just leaving? I thought you’d already gone.”
“There was some trouble and my cart’s lock got broken, yesterday. Went to see if there was a smith in town could get me a new one.”
“I see, I see. Oh, but wouldn’t that mean it hasn’t been properly secured since you broke it?” That observation drops the merchant’s stomach like a brick. Not at all the intended effect. He’d hoped it’d get the platehead to back off. But now that hope seems well and truly dashed. “It’s a decently sized cart. If any of the fugitives did happen to come this way, they might’ve tried hiding away in here. I’ll just ask that you let me have a look-see. You understand.”
It’s not really a question, of course. The knight’s already got his hand on the cart’s door as he extends the courtesy of asking permission. Caius glowers at this, glancing at the gruff-looking knight accompanying this one. All the while, his hand slides down into his pocket. Indeed, he may wind up having to use this, after all. “Of course.”
The cart’s lid opens and the merchant simply… waits for it. Sure enough, when the smiling Templar opens the hatch, he finds a pair of big, yellow eyes staring back at him, clearly terrified as they grow wider and wider still, with every passing second of looking at him. In the background, Caius clenches the vial in his pocket. A rough “Well? Anything in there, recruit?” rumbles out from the rough voice of the second Templar, standing guard.
The recruit glances back at Caius, who simply stares at him. Then he smiles and closes the cart’s lid, much to the merchant’s surprise, and shakes his head with a jovial “No sir. Nothing here.” As Caius sits there and gawks like a spooked deer, the recruit then pats him on the back. Rather firmly, at that. “You’re free to be on your way. Good luck on your travels.”
“Y-yes. Right, then. Thank you, kindly,” Caius stammers, pulling off with his cart. But on his way, he looks back to that knight over his shoulder. Indeed, everyone really does have their own ideas about this war. About the Djinn. And everyone has their own way of doing things. In this particular moment, Caius finds himself thankful for that. And overwhelmingly relieved.
Some hours later, when the sun is at its highest point in the sky, the merchant stops in the woods, opening the cart to find the little one quietly sitting inside. Sleeping rather soundly. He reaches in to pull her out but the instant he makes contact with her, something strange happens. A red spark passes between the pair and he instantly retracts his hand. What the devil? The girl doesn’t flinch. So he tries again. And this time the experience is… entirely different.
Caius finds himself suddenly transported. To a different forest. One that’s on fire. Trees topple and animals scurry in a panic, desperately trying to escape. The wind is knocked from his lungs immediately. His mouth goes dry, his breathing falls shallow, and he breaks out into a sweat. Frantically, he looks around, finding the girl at his feet, lying there near a fallen tree. But that isn’t all. There, under the trunk, is another body. A child like her. One with horns. Completely unresponsive.
The girl picks herself up at last, only for this sight to stun her. When she comes to her senses, tears start to flow in an instant and she tries in vain to move the heavy log. Despite Caius calling out and telling her to stop. Of course, the flames don’t bother her in the slightest. The benefit of being a Djinn, perhaps. Not that she’d heard him, anyway. She didn’t even seem to notice he was there. But she’s nowhere near strong enough to budge this heavy log. Several more Djinn rush by, but all of them pass her, forcing her to get down, lest she be completely trampled.
Unable to watch this any longer, Caius flings himself into the fray to try moving the log. But then it hits him. Or, more accurately, it doesn’t. Caius passes straight through not only the log, but the girl. At that point, there is one sound that the roar of the flames can’t drown out. The clatter of armored footsteps, joined with the shouting of men of war. Templars. The little one pulls herself to her feet, trying to wake up her friend. Nudging them. Shaking them. Nothing. And as the men in their shining suits of armor draw nearer, the poor girl is forced to flee.
Just like that… it ends. Caius finds himself back in the calm forest he’d escaped to with the girl. What was that? A dream? And illusion? But it felt so… real. Then… a memory, perhaps? But how is that possible? That… was that one of those Blaze things the Djinn have? It’s common knowledge that the Djinn have supernatural abilities. But something like this? And that’s when he notices. All around him. Lights. Strange little floating, wisp-like beings, drifting through the forest. “What in Gaea’s name?”
They fade quickly and Caius turns to the girl in the cart, only to find her staring back at him. “All right, out with you,” he says. She responds immediately, climbing out and beaming up at the man with those big, innocent eyes. “You should… get going.” Nothing. “I’m sure you’ll want to go and find more of your kin. Go on.” But she doesn’t budge. She just stands there. Staring. “What?”
Taken aback by that, exclamation, Caius doesn’t quite have a proper response, at first. So she can talk. He kneels down to the girl. “Now, listen here, ya little tyke. I’m not your-”
But without missing a beat, the little one says it again. “Pa!”
How did this happen? Why is this how things have turned out? Caius runs his hand down his face and stands up, stepping away a bit, his back to the girl. When he turns back around, he nearly trips over her as he finds she’d followed directly behind him. This is really happening, then. Everything. Every cell in his body and fiber of his being tells him this is a terrible idea. But then, with what he’d just seen… those Djinn leaving her to die. Her losing perhaps the only friend she had. Such a sad existence, these creatures lead. He’s not doing this. He shouldn’t be doing this. And yet, he doesn’t even try to stop himself as he kneels to eye level with her. “D’you have a name, girl?” Silence. If memory serves… Ah. Of course. It’s clear as day, tattooed on her neck. A number. The plateheads didn’t bother about names. “38417, huh? Well, I can’t say that rolls off the tongue. So what should I call ya…?”
“Eh? B? You… want a name that starts with a B?” Nodding. Nothing but vigorous nodding. “In that case…” Then Caius brings his hand up and places it atop the girl’s head, between her horns. “Braelin. How’s that?” Her eyes glimmer and, for the first time since meeting her, she smiles. This is going to be challenging. Certainly. In a world like this, things were bound to be tough for such a pair. But as he looks upon that smiling face that looks like it’s knowing peace for the first time, something in the back of his head just tells him… it’s worth it.