Serpent & Spirit Prologue
I figure it's been long enough since I've given y'all something, so here it is.
The characteristic scent of stirring draemoths found Pralla already settled at her vanity, and though she appreciated the effort, she had been awake for hours. Now if only there were similar beings to assist with this damn plait! Impatiently, she unravelled yet another attempt and set to work pulling the strands into place once more. Her feymites would take care of excess dirt and oil, but nothing was going to make her hair more manageable.
This attempt would have to be the last. There was simply too much that needed done, and it didn’t need to be perfect. She could manage stray hairs.
Leaning close to see what damage her ablutions hadn’t addressed, Pralla was glad for the lighting. No gastrolith could compare to what a simple spell might produce, and she needed to be clear-eyed for this next part. One by one, she addressed the blemishes steady illumination revealed, and one by one they faded into the slate of her skin. Stray hairs came next, banished from view and leaving only neatly lain hair behind.
Briefly she considered doing more, but it wouldn’t do to be obvious. The entire point of illusion was to avoid attention and, unless she was performing, Pralla took care to do so. Nothing could bring attention to a flaw like an obvious attempt to hide it. It wouldn’t do, either, to be seen as vain. Three generations in The Boundless had been enough to cement views on the supposed vainglory of Light seedborn and, though Pralla made efforts to disprove them, others would tacitly ascribe anything more than simple self care to moral failure.
Plus, she wasn’t about to give Lette the satisfaction of making an issue of her efforts. Not today, of all days. Just because a person could see through an illusion didn’t necessitate pointing each and every one out, but someone should tell him that! Why Lette couldn’t just ignore her attempts at improving things was beyond her, and consequently there was no love lost between them. The overwhelming banality of a conflict between Light and Dark seedborn didn’t seem to bother the orc.
Nor would it bother Pralla this morning, she decided, and dismissed thoughts of Lette even as she waved away the lights and the mirror. No point expending the mana to maintain them if she wasn’t in the room. Better to get used to the dark anyway. There would be no more easy lights, no more discreet mirrors for friends, for a while. The family would have to become accustomed to using ensconced gastroliths to light the house again. It was time for that anyway; Pralla wasn’t going to be around forever. Especially after the ceremony today, her path would lead her away from home.
“I thought you might have trouble sleeping,” her father remarked as she emerged from the stairway. His face was warmly lit by the little stove at the center of the table, which doubled as a lamp for when Pralla was out of the room. “I made us some tea.”
“My thanks, Papa,” Pralla murmured and sank into the seat across from him, straightening her initiate robes as she did.
“It’s going to be fine!” he assured her. “From what I’ve heard, She hasn’t eaten anyone in years.” His eyes twinkled at the joke only a father would make—what need would a god have for food?
“It’s just the cost,” Pralla responded, sighing. “It’s going to be miserable.”
“Now, now. The rest of us all do just fine with what little mana we have.” Though her father smiled to take the sting out of the rebuke, Pralla knew full well the old pain that lingered there.
“I didn’t mean it like that, Papa. It’s just going to be like starting all over. Even with Her help, it’s going to take a lot of work to reestablish my reserves. I’ll have to let other contracts lapse… It’s embarrassing.”
“We’ll be proud of you, Pralla, and the rest of the village will understand. Other seedborn have contracted with Her, and before you know it you’ll be among them, searching for a community of your own to serve.”
“Lette won’t understand,” Pralla muttered grumpily.
“Lette will be in the same position, and, knowing orc boys, it will be far worse for him,” he assured her. “Now, drink your tea. Mama will be down in a moment, and it will be time to go.” And indeed it was, sooner than she would have liked.
The goblin family wasn’t alone in the twilit street and, given the long white robes, Pralla was sure she wasn’t the only initiate to be grateful it was now cobbled. Elder seedborn truly could do some marvelous things.
The stream of villagers grew thicker as they neared the shrine. It seemed the entire village had turned out to bear witness. Only the four initiates would be climbing the hill, but no one would miss attending a visit from the primal goddess, even from afar. Pralla herself had been present at no fewer than three, though memory of the first was dim. As she set her foot to the stones leading away from her family and toward her future, she recited the specifics of the contract under her breath. She had been coached to speak quickly and clearly, as She was an impatient deity and did not suffer fools.
Lette was on the path ahead of her, his long orcish legs eating the distance in a way her goblin limbs could not. Pralla steamed at the thought of him arriving first—at the thought of him watching smugly as she knelt—but she refused to breech decorum in sight of the villagers by running. Her long robes weren’t made for it anyway.
The initiates crested the sacred hill just as dawn was beginning to race across the valley and, once settled, they wasted no time reciting the convocation. They had practiced the words as a group for weeks now, each phrase voiced separately and out of order to avoid disturbing the goddess prematurely.
“She of Plenty and Mother of Increase! We beseech you: enter our world that we might sue for favor!”
A paucity of sound descended on the hilltop, washing down the slope to encompass the onlooking villagers. All existence waited with the initiates. Pralla shivered in anticipation.
Then, into the preternatural silence, an enormous presence lit, breaking on the summit just as the first rays of morning light did. It was vast in a way Pralla had no way of comprehending. Daemon level contracts were meant to gird her for the experience, but as the spiritual pressure swelled and Pralla’s very perception of the hilltop shrine began to warp, she realized there was no preparing for this. She could only trust in Unity, in She, and in her training, as the ethereal plane brushed against the physical.
Make it quick.
The voice was scarcely more than a whisper, but it tore at Pralla like a flood, awful in its inexorability. She strained to bring her will to bear, to do so much as open her mouth.
But even as she did so, as she gathered herself to speak those fateful words, a force external to the contract gathered, a grain of sand beside the ocean that was the goddess. The grain struck against the ocean, and the larger presence batted at the nuisance, a mountainous wave to sweep sand away in its swell. The mote endured, however, and itself began to swell as it gathered the ocean to it. Recognizing the threat too late, the goddess writhed, unable to break free despite her bulk.
Pralla shrieked as the first indiscriminate blows fell, as she was torn away from her physical form, assaulted again and again by the frantic struggle of the ambushed goddess. Merciless fury flooded her mind, bursting in torrents from the embattled deity before giving way to a terror made all the worse by its genesis. If a goddess could be made to fear…
Instinctively, Pralla reached out, her reflex being, by training and by birth, to provide aid to the suffering. The goddess responded blindly, gripping the young goblin in Her panic and crushing both body and spirit. Through the agony, Pralla realized that she would not—could not—survive this, but the goddess was still inside her, overwhelming Pralla’s own will to survive with one far greater. Still in the goddess’s grip, Pralla struggled back to her body. Even as she did so, the goddess’s grip began to slacken.
What had once been a grain now supplanted the goddess, having consumed the bulk of Her presence.
New pain came to Pralla as ethereal form rediscovered corporeal. Her body had been crushed and flung away by the death throes of the immortal being, ejected from the ritual site and tumbling down the hill. It was then that the goddess’s final words came to Pralla, borne on such a surge of despair that Pralla cried them out through the ruin of her lungs.