The Sacred Spawning Pools of the Payon Caves was the very heart of sohee society. Found within the very depths of the massive underground complex where the sohees resided, it was from these pools that sohee young emerged into the world of Rune-Midgard, to be taken care of by one of the various tribes until its corporeal body was fully matured.
No human, or any other living thing for that matter, had ever seen the sacred pools. The sohee guarded their homes fiercely and, as invading expeditions found out, as intruders went farther into the caves, the greater the resistance became. The cavern's entrance was narrow, making it easily defended. Accessible only through a single passageway found at the center of the sohee settlements, even finding the pools proved a difficult task.
Within the cavern was a sight unlike any other within the Payon Caves. The massive chamber's ceiling was at least a mile high and embedded on the stones above the pools were strange glowing crystals that bathed the place with a soft, white light. The ground was not the hard stone found elsewhere in the caves but a soft loam covered with various green plants seemingly able to draw sustenance from the light that filled the cave.
The pools themselves were parts of a single body of water. A great torrent welled up from the center of the gigantic cavern which then divided into three great streams. Each stream ran a different direction from the others, running for miles before disappearing into underground passages. From these great streams flowed smaller streams which collected into various pools found all over the cavern. Sohee young emerged from these pools to be carried gently into the shore where their cries would draw the vigilant adults who patrolled the streams.
Each stream belonged to one of the three tribes of sohees who lived within the Payon Caves. Members of each tribe patrolled their own stream jealously as sohees born from their stream became the newest members of their tribes.
Upon closer inspection, however, an observer would notice that something was wrong with the pools. An inky crimson substance polluted each pool's surface. It exuded an ancient foulness and a strong feeling of being unnatural. Some pools, like many of those from the MistStream , were merely tainted while others, like many of RedLily's, resembled ponds of blood. This foulness seeped into the sohees at their very birth. It twisted their thoughts before they could even begin so that those who dwelled outside the caves knew them as demons.
Tonight, it was neither sohees from rival tribes nor intruding humans, heisvill, as sohees called them and all other lesser races, that worried the chieftain of the MistStream tribe. Helmina watched the ever hazy banks of her tribe's stream uneasily. It had been two months and not a single child had emerged from her tribe's stream. The MistStream's pools were constantly banked with vapor; the reason for the tribe's name.
"Still watching and waiting, Helmina?" A haughty voice spoke from behind. "Can't accept that your stream has exhausted itself trying to keep up with your tribesohees dying so often so that no more infants will come from it? This is the end of MistStream, accept it!"
The taunting words of the StillBreath chieftain, Gehinsa, did not move Helmina to fury. She was too concerned for her tribe and she feared that her voice would reveal that she harbored thoughts that Gehinsa could be right. Instead, she stared at the StillBreath chieftain, mindful of the presence of a young sohee next to Gehinsa. Young Aiselha smirked at Helmina, already well indoctrinated with ideas of StillBreath superiority. She clung to Gehinsa's sleeve for security, knowing that, without her chieftain, she would be cut down for showing such insolence. There was no doubt that Aiselha would be next in StillBreath's line of chieftains. Gehinsa never left the child unguarded.
"And who would protect your coddled sohees when that happens, Gehinsa?" Helmina asked. "Who will guard the border tunnels if not we MistStream? Will you beg the MoonWander to take our place, hmm?" Two patrolling guards, their white and blue hair tassels making them out as MistStream, caught sight of her and Gehinsa and immediately floated over to stand beside their chieftain. "Should the MistStream fade, StillBreath and Red Lily will be poised to follow." Helmina allowed some arrogance into her tone as she said the words, more to anger Gehinsa than because of actual pride. She relished nothing about the thought of her tribe being no more.
Gehinsa spat in response, the spittle landing quite close to the MistStream, Helmina and her guards drew their life-stilletos in response. "Pah! You think you and your tribesohees actually matter?" She hissed. "MistStream will fade, Helmina, and you will not even cause a ripple when you go!" Two more sohees floated towards them. This time their hair tassels bore StillBreath red and gold. The very air around them tensed. It didn't take much for a gathering of rival sohees to escalate into a bloody knife fight. Gehinsa and her StillBreaths didn't seem to mind adding fresh blood to the stained pools of MistStream.
Helmina kept her life-stilleto up as she spoke. "You know that it is our law that sohees may not fight within the sacred spawning pools, Gehinsa."
The StillBreath chieftain sneered and began to float away along with her guards. "I don't see any other sohees here but me and my guards." She answered. "But I will spare you, Helmina. I want you to be the last of MistStream."
Helmina bit back another angry retort. There was no point in baiting Gehinsa anyway. MistStream had no members to waste on useless skirmishes. She turned around to dismiss her guards and go back to her brooding.
"Chieftain Helmina! Look!" One of her guards suddenly yelled. Helmina's gaze followed the pointing finger but, before she could even see what the guard was pointing at, she heard the cry. A child's cry coming from the MistStream. Helmina felt her heart jump at the sound. Finally! It had felt so long and the silence had started to grind her hope into nothing but, finally, the MistStream answered her doubts.
"Draw her in quickly!" She ordered her guards. They didn't need any orders. They were halfway to the floating child before she had said the words. One of them lifted the child gently, wrapping it in a blanket of soft white cloth. Helmina floated over to look at the child. The young sohee already had a full head of jet black hair. Dark red eyes looked around and fixated on Helmina. Tiny hands held a tiny stiletto tightly. 'The MistStream has not faded yet. Even if you are the last, you are a child of hope.' Helmina thought.
The silent words seemed to carry over to the child as the guard placed it in her arms. Helmina looked at the child's eyes, there was unusual clarity in them, as if the child saw things that no sohee could. Not only that, the child seemed to turn about, responding to sounds no one else could hear.
"Chieftain Helmina." One of the guards ventured. "What should be her name?"
Helmina held the child fondly. Perhaps she had found her new replacement. The last one, Ferinsa, had been killed by humans after recklessly attacking them. She looked at the two guards and spoke with conviction. "Her name will be Khaesilya." She told them.
As if in response, the pool where Khaesilya was found suddenly churned violently. Alarmed, the MistStream sohees took a closer look. The constant mist seemed to part for a while and, to their surprise, the water was clear.
When they blinked and took a closer look. The mist was back and, through the haze, the crimson taint stared back mockingly.
"This is our kill, filthy MistStream scum! Leave or we will season him with your guts!" Aiselha spoke the words proudly. Her life-stilleto, still dripping with blood, spattered the sticky liquid onto the robes of the MistStream sohees floating in front of her when she waved it for emphasis. She floated above the corpse of a payonese hunter who had ventured to deep into the caves. Her killing blow, a stab to the side of the neck, was still bleeding as she spoke.
"All you did was knife a half-dead hunter, Aiselha!" One of the MistStream sohees answered. "This kill belongs to MistStream and you know it!"
Aiselha floated slowly towards the sohee who had dared to answer her. She was head and shoulders taller than any of the sohees present and her tassels proudly displayed her tribe's colors. She was the next chieftain of StillBreath. "This kill belongs to me, filth." She hissed. She had already taken on Gehinsa's imperious tone. "His bones will flavor my tribe's stew and his meat will fill StillBreath bellies."
The three MistStream sohees, part of the patrol guarding the outskirts of their village, grudgingly floated back. They were tired and injured. They had fought this hunter as he made his way deeper into the caves. They blocked his escape route and harried him with their life-stilletos until he had to retreat blindly into the caves. There, he stumbled unto Aiselha and her group, who promptly finished and claimed him. Two of them had arrows sticking out of their legs. Even without injuries they doubted their chances against Aiselha and her sohees.
"Are you doing it again, Aiselha?" Another sohee shouted from afar. The MistStream sohees smiled and sighed with relief before floating back to stay at the side of the newcomer. Aiselha and the other StillBreath sohees tensed. They knew who was coming.
"Khaesilya." Aiselha whispered through grit teeth.
Khaesilya floated towards the StillBreath sohees fearlessly. She was shorter than Aiselha but she matched the taller sohee's stature with confidence. "Shut that stinking orifice under your nose, Aiselha!" She spat. Before anyone could react, she grabbed Aiselha by the folds of her robe and shoved the taller sohee to the ground.
'We are saved! The MistStream will eat well tonight!'
'I hope I am not the one to deliver Khaesilya's share. It is already a stretch of our fortunes that she distinguishes between MistStream and StillBreath!'
The other MistStream smiled gleefully at the sight of Aiselha being humiliated by a shorter sohee. Khaesilya was their champion; the strongest sohee ever born to the MistStream. She was faster and stronger than any sohee and she had the strange ability to hear the thoughts of those around her. Not even Aiselha and her StillBreath guardians could stand against Khaesilya.
The other StillBreath sohees wailed in a rage upon seeing the leader hurled to the ground. Khaesilya pulled out her life-stilleto and whipped it about quickly, catching one of them by the forearm. The StillBreath sohee cried out in pain and floated back, her arm bleeding copiously; staining her robe as she tried to staunch the wound.
Aiselha recovered from her fall and floated back, her face contorted in anger. "Attacking StillBreath tribesohees and stealing our food!" She hissed. "You have gone too far, Khaesilya!"
Khaesilya floated before the StillBreath sohees, her life-stilleto raised in a challenge. Behind her, the other MistStream sohees started drag the dead hunter away. None of the StillBreath sohees seemed willing to answer the challenge. Even Aiselha looked cowed.
"If you think that I've gone too far-"Khaesilya spat "-say it with your life-stilletos! Then I'd stab your eyes and cut out your tongues, you disgusting StillBreath scum!"
No one attacked and Khaesilya turned away in contempt. She did not follow the other MistStream sohees, who were likely already dismembering the dead hunter and stuffing it into the nearest cook pot. Aiselha floated away in a rage, looking fiercely at her companions; challenging them if they were going to say something.
No one did. Outside the sacred spawning pools, sohees of different tribes didn't mind killing each other over petty disputes. It was no shame to back down before Khaesilya when twelve of their kin had been killed for challenging her. None of those who were killed had so much as scratched Khaesilya's robes and none of them had attacked alone. Aiselha and her tribesohees could only glare in helpless rage as Khaesilya floated away from them once more.
Khaesilya tossed the still half-full bowl of meat away, wrinkling her nose in contempt as the contents spilled to the rocky ground. Her tribesohees had taken the finest cuts from the hunter she had secured for them and then stewed it with the freshest mushrooms and herbs they could gather. It was customary for the first bowl of such a fine meal to be offered to the tribe's greatest fighter and next chieftain. Khaesilya thought it tasted like well-threshed mud. She was sick of mushrooms, herbs and, most of all, she was sick of human flesh.
"What a waste." The familiar voice nearly made Khaesilya look up. It nearly took her mind off her dark mood. Chieftain Helmina used to be able to take Khaesilya's thoughts off how she hated almost everything in the caves. That was the only reason she allowed the older sohee to even approach this part of the Payon Caves.
The last time Khaesilya allowed herself to be consoled, though, was a long time ago. Now, she barely tolerated Helmina's presence in her part of the caves. Khaesilya didn't stay in her tribe's portion of the Payon Caves. Instead she chose a small chamber far from the other sohees. It was dangerously close to the upper levels, and Helmina had been the first to point that out. Humans, the worst of the surface heisvill, were likely to discover and try to enslave her. Khaesilya chose this spot because few sohees were willing to risk going here and that was how she preferred it. She hated having other sohees around. They fidgeted and fawned around her, thinking monotonous thoughts that dripped with fear of her. A few wanted to use her while most wanted her dead. It didn't take long before Khaesilya wanted to kill them on the spot. StillBreath and RedLily sohees met that sort of fate. She had no tolerance for them whatsoever. StillBreaths like Aiselha mentally reminded her of how superior they were right up to the moment when she twisted her life-stilleto in their guts. The couple of sohees from the RedLily tribe she encountered were outright insane and had to be killed to stop the pointless garble that was their thoughts. Khaesilya didn't kill MistStream sohees like Helmina outright but she despised their presence just the same.
"Our tribesohees give you the finest meals, Khaesilya, and you treat them like-"
"Like garbage." Khaesilya snapped. She didn't even look at Helmina when she finished the MistStream chieftain's sentence. "Well that's all human flesh tastes like. Don't preach to me that the MistStream does this for anything else other than their need to make me keep my strength and their fear of what I'll do to them if they gave me anything less!"
Helmina sighed. She had had this conversation with Khaesilya before. It was impossible to gain any sort of edge when talking with the younger sohee when Khaesilya was somehow able to hear the thoughts of anyone nearby. "I've tried that too many times already. I'm here about your latest scuffle with the StillBreath tribe."
Khaesilya picked her teeth of the last strip of human flesh and spat it out. "What about it?" She sneered. "No one died. Aiselha crossed me and came out of it with just an empty belly and a bruised backside!"
"Aiselha is the next chieftain of StillBreath, Khaesilya! You know this! If you kill her, the StillBreath will rise as one."
"I'll kill her then I'll kill Gehinsa!" Khaesilya shouted, her voice ringing inside the small chamber. "If the StillBreath have a problem with that then I'll kill them all as well!" With that, Khaesilya suddenly lowered her voice. "That's why you keep me around, isn't it?"
"That is enough, Khaesilya." Helmina spoke in an equally low voice.
"What's the matter?" Khaesilya retorted. "I haven't said anything new. You think those words often enough!"
"Don't degrade yourself into a mere killer!" Helmina answered. "You are the next chieftain of MistStream and the champion of our tribe! True, I don't doubt that you can slay enough to crush the StillBreath but if infighting erupts in within the caves, the Heisvill will overrun us!"
"Then I'll kill all the Heisvill as well. I'll splatter these stone walls with their blood until they become too scared to enter!"
"Your arrogance is as bottomless as the stream-source, Khaesilya!"
"It is your arrogance, not mine!" Khaesilya shouted. Her tone almost sounded like the fierce wail that all sohees cried when they joined a battle.
Helmina bit her lower lip, not wanting to add more fuel to Khaesilya's growing rage with another retort. She couldn't understand it. Khaesilya had been calm enough as a child. She understood that she was the hope of her tribe; a sohee born under strange circumstances. She knew she was different than the other sohee and didn't mind it when she was obligated to fight her tribe's enemies and the trespassing heisvill.
But as Khaesilya grew up, she became more detached from the rest of tribe. She hated the tributes her tribesohees offered her and often lapsed into brooding rages. She had become an unapproachable and unwilling guardian of her tribe. The rest of MistStream were often too afraid of her to call her for help. She killed StillBreaths and RedLilies with ease and everyone dreaded that, soon, she would turn on any sohee.
"Chieftain Helmina!" Two MistStream sohees came running into the chamber. They cringed at the sight of Khaesilya, who glared at them for approaching her private chamber. Still, something kept them from fleeing the place. Helmina noticed the urgency in their approach and nodded to bid them to continue. "Several of the heisvill are approaching our territory!" One of them reported. "We felt the unnatural presence of one of their foul enslaving devices so we came back here!"
'Khaesilya will kill them all for sure.'
'This must be why Khaesilya prefers these upper levels. Let her turn her unappeasable anger on these heisvill instead!'
"Cowards!" Khaesilya spat. She floated ahead of the other sohees, her life-stilleto already in her hand. "You can all hide back in our village. I will kill these heisvill."
"You must not underestimate them, Khaesilya!" Helmina implored. "These are slavers! If you are captured-!"
Khaesilya stopped and slowly floated around. There was no expression on her face while she stared at Helmina. The other sohees cringed and floated away; happy to let Khaesilya deal with such dangerous enemies and to let their chieftain deal with Khaesilya.
"What am I to you, Chieftain Helmina?" Khaesilya asked. "Why do you need to warn me about these things?"
"You are the hope of our people!" Helmina answered. "The hope of MistStream! You were the Stream-source's answer during a dire time for the tribe!"
'You are the greatest among us and we sohees cannot afford to lose you.'
"I know all that." Khaesilya answered. "You say it and you think it. You, Chieftain Helmina, and all the other sohees believe it. I am your champion and your hope. If all of that is true; if I am the greatest among us and all other races are heisvill but us sohees, then I will easily cut through these slavers. How can the greatest of the greatest be defeated by mere heisvill?" Khaesilya's voice hardened as she turned away. "But if I am just Khaesilya and we sohees are but one more race in this world, then all of you must be punished for your lies and I must be punished for believing them!"
Leaving the silent Helmina behind, Khaesilya floated even closer to the upper levels. It wasn't long until she began to hear the thoughts of those she was about to fight.
'I am sure that we will encounter that sohee we heard rumors about. The one that had killed a hunter and a knight before.'
'Mistress Trynis is a picky one. It can't just be any sohee slave bought from a trader, it has to be a special sohee.'
'Makaelthos deserves nothing less.'
Then she saw them; a pair of dark-garbed heisvill flanking a smaller one with long, white hair. Wordlessly, she floated towards them, ready to kill them all and wishing that she would not be able to.
Khaesilya's eyes fluttered open as the last vestiges of a dream left her. She had had that dream before. Vague images of other sohees within a dark space. She couldn't make any sense out of them and had long stopped trying. She was not in a cramped dark space now. She was in a desert at night, on her way to Prontera along with her master.
"Are you alright?" Makaelthos Solcry asked as he sat at the opposite side of a small fire. He looked tired, there were lines around his green eyes and his boyish, unshaven look nearly gave way to his fatigue. Khaesilya berated herself for letting him stay on watch longer than she wanted to. She wished that he had something more than his swordsman garb and a thin blanket to protect him from the cold desert night as well.
"I am fine, Master Makaelthos." She answered. "It has been my time to watch for a while now. Please get some rest."
"Don't blame yourself. I found a comfortable spot and found the strength to watch a little longer. Did you dream that dream again?"
Khaesilya nodded. "Remnants of my time before the Silver Knife." She answered. The sohee stared at the direction of Morroc, the city they had just left. Makaelthos had destroyed the knife that had bound her into servitude before he left it. "Master Makaelthos, may I ask you something?"
The swordsman looked at her curiously. "Of course. What is it?"
"What am I to you now?"
Makaelthos was quiet for a while. It didn't surprise Khaesilya. Her master always took some time before answering anything if he could help it. If he didn't like a question, he would say so immediately. "You are my dear friend, Khaesilya." He answered softly. "One who has shared the most trying times of my life with me."
Wrapping her blanket around her, Khaesilya watched as Makaelthos settled down and closed his eyes. "Thank you." She whispered.