The Desert Shadow

Tales from the Atreblan Valley

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Michelle Montoya
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Location: Al-Ibra, South Cadentia

The Desert Shadow

Post by Michelle Montoya » Tue Feb 18, 2020 2:44 am

**Trigger Warning: Self-Harm**

January 28, 2020

Michelle sat on the old queen-sized bed, pictures in dusty frames and journals with worn pages scattered haphazardly on the homemade quilt. In her lap lay a small open case, with a used and well cared for flintlock pistol resting on the red velvet. She traced the gold engraving.

Truth. Skill. Honour.

Derrick spent six months teaching her how to shoot, then he presented the pistol as a birthday gift. He was part of the Ilendel Crown Guard, but he spent time with her every evening. They had started with old barrels, then practiced at the shooting range, and he’d surprised her with a brand new, elegant, engraved pistol.

“You wondered how I g-got permission to let you use the range.” Derrick reached out and lifted the pistol from its velvet bed. He pretended to sight down the barrel with his right eye.

“How did you?”

“The groundskeeper owed m-me a favour. And it was your b-birthday.” He lifted a hand to turn her face, kissing her softly on the forehead.

“What do you want to do for our anniversary,” Michelle asked, placing the pistol back in the box.


Michelle laughed, then looked up and gasped. Derrick’s face was now a porcelain mask. He offered her an obsidian knife.

“T-take it. S-save me.”

“No. No. Not again,” Michelle backed away, the box pistol clattering to the ground. The room shifted, she was underground in a large, well-lit cavern. Cephalopods hung by ropes, twisted and demented as black ichor dropped to the ground. The obsidian dagger was now in her right, blackened hand. At her feet was Derrick’s body, the porcelain masked partially dislodged and cracked through the middle.

Michelle bolted upright in the queen bed, sweat soaking her sheets, her heart racing. A pained sob heaved in her chest. She threw off the covers and walked to the window, lifting it open so the cold gale could fill the room. With her mother down the hall and Gloria in the guest room, Michelle struggled to keep her keening quiet. She reached for her bedside drawers and pulled out a small, but sharp, ceremonial knife. With each stroke, her pain temporized. As the nightmare passed and the numbness filled the void, Michelle carefully applied the bandages and cleaned the blade. It was a well-practiced, methodical routine.
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Michelle Montoya
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Posts: 404
Joined: Fri Apr 02, 2004 10:50 pm
Location: Al-Ibra, South Cadentia

The Crab and The Bull

Post by Michelle Montoya » Mon Mar 09, 2020 2:45 pm

Streets of RhyDin
February 11, 2020

Michelle was walking from the Red Dragon Inn towards Little Elfhame. Her hood was up again, and she was trying her best to stay inconspicuous. The letters Mellie had received were disturbing, but she didn’t want to give them much thought. A chime sounded behind her right ear, just before three figures stepped out in front of her from a sliver of space. She slowed down, cautious, and shifted to cross the street. Two of them were lithe, with sharp ears, and they cut her retreat. The third was a stocky, androgynous person of mixed-race. The robes were all too familiar.

“The dreamers find you guilty of betrayal.” The chorus echoed in her mind.

“And they are right.” She tried to push past, but outstretched arms blocked her once more and the three closed in. “Please, I don’t want to hurt anyone.” The faces staring under cowls were grim, but all she saw were victims. Victims of a darkness that still whispered to her. She reached into the folds of her clothing, pressing a single button on her phone before the lithe figure on her left grabbed her arm, making the device clatter to the street. A slurry of words, ancient and disturbed, whispered in her mind from the chorus.

“Let go. Now.” Her voice hardened.

The androgynous person pulled out an obsidian knife, it glinted in the street lights before it moved swiftly towards Michelle’s heart. These were not the kind of enemies to wait. Michelle yanked down quickly on the person holding her arm, the dagger slipping its target by inches. “Submit.” the voices called in her head, as black tentacles wrapped around her feet, pulling her to her knees. It was a bad night to be unarmed.

Down the street was the subtle sound of rustling feathers, as seven pairs of blood-red eyes stared at them from the ravens perched on the eaves of the buildings overlooking the confrontation. The second sound was a shrill whinny, the steady clopping of hooves, and the hissing of steel as it dragged against the stonework.

The two lithe figures turned their backs to Michelle and their companion. Their own daggers lifted, ready to defend. “Quickly,” one hissed.

“I may be nothing now,” Michelle warned. “But you have no idea what’s coming for you.” Her phone’s light glimmered faintly in the darkness.

The third sound was the baying of hounds, building into a triple howl from a hulking beast standing silhouetted in the lamplight of an adjoining street. The coppery, too-sweet stench of the witch’s blood hit the air as her horned shadow emerged from behind the snarling hellhound. “Get away from her, now,” she stated coldly as she began marching towards them.

Even as she spoke, more tentacles reached up to Michelle’s arms. They pulled her wrists behind her back, binding them. But the trio was getting nervous, she could see it in the way they tensed. A voice, deep and ancient, came from one assailant, “Move away witch. This is not your business.”

Aiming to finish their job, one ex-cultist arced the dagger towards Michelle’s heart one. Mallory pointed at the figure and hissed a single Infernal syllable as the blood flowed over her outstretched finger in three distinct rivulets. There was a faint pop in the air, and the figure with the dagger staggered back, bleeding from their eyes and nose. They were dead before they fell to the ground, but the witch did not pause, did not alter her speed at all as she continued her approach. Three sets of hooves were converging now, from different directions, and the long, terrible shadows of wraith-like riders stretched out towards the group...

With twisted expressions of disappointment, the two remaining figures disappeared in a swirl of tentacles and blackness. A small chime fell at Michelle’s knees while her bindings fell back into the shadows.

“Thanks,” she murmured to Mallory, adjusting the brown gloves that extended up to her elbows.

Mallory met eyes with Michelle, just a momentary acknowledgment before she called out harsh Infernal syllables to the nightmarish crimson wraith atop a shadowy steed that emerged from one of the alleyways. The rider simply stretched his fleshy face until it split into a sharp-toothed grin and spoke to her: “Thy bidding is mine own.”

He scooped the cultist’s body onto his steed as Mallory stepped forward to offer her friend a hand up. “Always.”

Michelle reached out with a hand to pick up the chime, which crumbled to ash as she touched it. With a sigh, she reached up for Mallory’s hand instead and stood. “I should probably take those letters seriously...” she murmured.

At this point, Kirby’s fearsome countenance had faded, and he padded his way over to sniff at Mallory and Michelle’s hands and pockets for treats.

“What letters?” The witch frowned as she scritched several of Kirby’s ears distractedly.

Michelle dutifully pulled out treats for Kirby from the folds of her cloak, then went to pick up the old flip phone. “Just...” she hesitated. This was Mallory. She owed her the truth. “Threats. Left at the bakery, the library —though I’ve intercepted those before Gloria saw them, and other places where I’d find them.” Kirby ate noisily.

“Against you?” She had turned away from Michelle to tense her left hand and gesture slowly, carefully over it, commanding and dismissing her gathered conjurelings, crows dissipating into red mist, two of the three riders melting away. At the same time, the third rode off with his cargo...

Michelle gave Kirby scritches, finding comfort in the large hell-beast. “Yes. Both here and in Atrebla, though the ones in Atrebla are more subtle.” She joined her friend, and gestured for them to keep walking towards Little Elfhame. “It’s partly why I’ve avoided leaving the manor.”

Her summons dismissed (except for the three-headed monster leaning his quarter-ton weight comfortably against Michelle), Mallory breathed a sigh, flexing and curling her fingers until the deep cuts in her palm disappeared. “It isn’t fair...” she said as she fell in with Michelle.

“Neither is what happened to their loved ones, or what happened to the lake. If it wasn’t for Gloria, the whole valley could’ve been lost. And if it wasn’t for you and so many others, who knows what would’ve happened here.” Something about the witch brought out Michelle’s practical side. “I can’t stay in Atrebla, and I can’t bring my kids here —no matter how much J insists I’m welcome. We can’t hide in Little Elfhame forever.” She tugged absently on the gloves. Was that guilt? Probably. “And I won’t fight. And I can’t keep asking my friends to save me when —not if— I get attacked or ambushed.”

“No... you can’t,” Mallory agreed. Her hands, now miraculously unbloodied (except metaphorically, of course), were jammed into her coat pockets as they walked. She looked up at the stars. “Survival is a process... and sometimes it’s not enough reason on its own to fight. What’s your birth sign?” As if that were relevant.

“The Terran one? Cancer, I think.”

“Midsummer child.” The witch gave this a thoughtful frown. “What are you doing this weekend?”

I have two more lawsuits to settle. And I’m going to try and arrange Gloria’s retirement party before she moves to Atrebla and...” takes my place? “takes over as Warden.” She pursed her lips, thinking about the way her children suffered at school, the bullying from both parents and children —sometimes teachers. Allen was angry, Nadella was just hurt. “I’m teaching Allen and Nadella basic self-defence. Again.” Michelle kept walking, her voice grim. “The only thing rooting me here is my children, Mallory. If it weren’t for them, I’d have asked Cane for a favour...” her voice hung. “If I can’t keep them safe and healthy, I’m useless...I can spare an afternoon though. Why?”

“Tch.” The witch made a dismissive sound at the prospect of her uselessness, and put the back of her hand out to Michelle’s shoulder to stop her, looking down at her. “When I see you in the ring, stance low, arms low, steel in each hand as you look for the next move to counter... do you know what I see?”

Michelle tried to put on a sassy smile. It looked a bit pathetic. “A five-seven woman with a teeth-clenching problem?”

She raised her eyebrows, cracking a smile that revealed a sliver of teeth. “A crab,” and she pinched her hands in the air, miming a clack-clack. She could have tried to explain, but she didn’t. Instead, she had one more confusing question for Michelle as she pressed on ahead, letting her hurry to keep up with her on the last stretch to Little Elfhame.

“How are you with camels?”

“I get the feeling I’m going to find out...” she side-eyed her best-witchy-friend.
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Michelle Montoya
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Joined: Fri Apr 02, 2004 10:50 pm
Location: Al-Ibra, South Cadentia

Fāris Al-Ibra

Post by Michelle Montoya » Mon Mar 09, 2020 2:48 pm

Cadentia: Al-Ibra
February 15, 2020

Michelle rocked gently with the uneven gait of her camel as the cool winter air blew down from the snow-capped mountains. The high valley pass wound upwards like a long, thin, snake towards the fortress of pisé and palm wood. Smaller buildings speckled the base, spreading from the stronghold like a haphazard ring along the ridges where the heavy spring rains would run away from clay foundations. Lush greenery covered most of the kasbah, obscuring the entrance and guardhouse. This circuitous pass guarded the only passage through the High Cadentia Mountains.

"You've been busy. How did you pull this off?"

Bert answered Michelle first, twisting his neck to bray at her until Mallory shook the reins, turning him back to their destination. "The Bazaar Council," she supplied to Michelle, "has hired mercenaries thirty times in the last five years, spending hundreds of thousands evicting the same group of bandits from the same kasbah, over and over. They raid the Great Southern Road... roll rocks across it... seize whatever they want from people using the pass... and try to collapse it every time they're driven out."

She tipped her horned head to squint at her friend. "I've been good for business down here -- and I leveraged that to convince them it's cheaper, long-term, to install a lady-at-arms and her family at the kasbah, garrison it, and pay her to train the guards."

Gray-green eyes slid away from the semi-arid landscape to the blood-witch. "I see. I don't know if I want that title again."

"Warden. Protector. Great Crab," Mallory tossed out that last alternative with a pincer gesture. "I don't think they care what your title is, as long as you defend the pass."

Michelle turned her view to the fortress, scanning with a new lens: a place to call home. The surrounding village looked empty, but she could see and hear the signs of life. A well-fed camel braying on a ridge, the sound of a child's giggle from a group of low-slung buildings, and fresh laundry hanging loose in the soft wind. The kasbah itself sat on a wide ledge overlooking both pass and village. Small outcroppings provided ridges to lay down cover fire —or ambush unsuspecting caravans. The rear end of the kasbah backed up against a stiff cliff that would be dangerous, if not deadly, to descend. "Alright," she hedged, "tell me more."

"The village is called Al-Ibra, the Needle, and there are two other major settlements in these mountains that have stopped sending trade through this pass -- Bazaar Council's hoping they'll start up again once they feel safe. Santa Emilia's a day's ride to the north, a village near the summit that's run by three family matriarchs. Then there's Progress. Tiny prospector town three days' ride to the east, in the foothills, with a, um... interesting mayor," the witch added with a frown. She pressed Bert up another turn in the winding path, past the first of Al-Ibra's humble adobe houses. The windows were dark, and the curtains were drawn, but chimney smoke rose from the rooftops, and there were sounds of activity in the kitchens, and goats and chickens around back.

"I suspect my contract is going to include some diplomatic outreach then," Michelle mused. She dismounted Margo when they arrived at the kasbah and began a self-directed tour with Mallory. It looked like a larger and taller version of the common houses with towers at the external corners. The height of the walls implied that most of the stronghold reached five or six stories tall. She ran her hand along the clay and dipped down to inspect the foundation at various points. The bandits may have tried to collapse the pass, but they kept the kasbah itself in relatively good repair. "Tell me about this mayor."

"Mayor Torvil was at the Bazaar Council meeting," Mallory replied through a scowl as she followed after Michelle, bracing her hand against the wall on one side as she found her footing on an uneven stretch of ground. "While the Council and Doña Medina and I got to know each other, Mayor Torvil tried getting acquainted with my ass... and I dissuaded him... and may have broken his nose," she continued, avoiding eye contact after the revelation that Mr. Torvil was likely in a sour disposition, pressing the creaking old doors open into the courtyard. "It's spacious," she observed.

Michelle's mouth twitched at the story, picturing the interaction vividly. She followed Mallory into the courtyard, "it looks like enough space to train." She was impressed with the architectural response to the weather conditions. By constructing several buildings close to each other with thick, shared perimeter walls, the design limited heat exposure. At the same time, the inner courtyards provided lighting and ventilation. In fact, the kasbah was less of one building than multiple buildings pressed tightly together, each with its own patio. She surmised that in this way, each building could have a distinct purpose. One for her and the family, another for guests or staff, and one for the garrison. Already she was mapping out a plan.

The witch was still and silent while Michelle assessed the space, until it became obvious that she was watching. Seeing how she took in the space, how she was already thinking about it. Her boots scuffed in the soft sand as she set her stance, loosening the straps that held the enchanted weapon Frostglaive on her back. She stared at the rapier on Michelle's hip, then back up at its owner, and pointed the glaive at her as she stated, "En garde."

There wasn't a moment of hesitation as the former-Overlord withdrew her weapon and settled into an assertive posture. "Truth. Skill. Honour!" Soft-soled boots danced gracefully across the red sand, pressing an attack.

There was a surprised bark of a laugh from Mallory as she narrowly danced to one side, catching the tip of Michelle's rapier on the haft of her glaive. She pushed off of it with a grunt, then thumped the end into the sand and grinned at her. "Look at where you are, and what you hold. I'd say you represent all three... Fāris Al-Ibra. Knight of the Needle."
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