"The great questions of the day will not be settled by means of speeches and majority decisions but by iron and blood."
- Otto von Bismarck
She dreams that she is falling. Plummeting. Below, far below, a river of blood courses through vast, untrammelled valleys. Above, on a precipice, the unmistakable visage of a dragon looks down on her.
She did not use to dream often, and when she did the dreams were always elusive and unclear. But this dream repeats itself on a loop, and the vision is vivid indeed. It begins with a fall until, with a mighty splash, she is swallowed by crimson waves. She flails madly with her arms and legs, but instead of surfacing, she sinks into sanguine depths. She sinks until her lungs burn.
But she does not wake. The waters that swallow her bring other visions; a vision within a vision. She is standing on the summit of a tall mountain, or perhaps she is standing atop the very heavens. Perhaps she is not standing at all, but, rather, soaring like an eagle or falcon. Below, far below, an island comes into view. There are forests, deserts, rivers and lakes, and, if one looks carefully enough, glittering like jewels, there are domes and spires of bustling settlements. It is all beautiful, and it is familiar. Even so, she considers exploring the world at large, abandoning the island beneath her in favour of a thousand others, but the moment this thought crosses her mind she is yanked down, as if by some invisible cord. She descends, diving through clouds with mighty force, and she screams without sound. The island conspires to keep her at bay as if she is beholden to it. An unfamiliar voice reminds her of promises made, promises that cannot be broken. Then that one voice becomes a choir, "You cannot leave, knight. You can never leave. The island is in your blood." As she descends toward the ground, men in red uniforms and with red eyes form in a circle below her, waiting for her fall with outstretched arms.
Though their image is clear, they seem but a shade of living men. They are dead in her vision, just as they are in life. The phantoms of the dead men gesture her toward the blackness of a crypt with a single sarcophagus as though it should be inviting, but her feet do not respond when she urges them onward. The path is smooth and obvious. It seems meant for her, pulls at her very soul, but something about it does not feel right. Then that which pulls her toward the crypt becomes a push, and, once more, she is yanked onward as if pulled by an invisible chain. She stumbles into the blackness of the crypt, arms fumbling in the dark until they brush against the cold stone of the sarcophagus. Her eyes are blind in the darkness so she cannot see, but she knows the sarcophagus is open, and she knows that a woman is lying in it. She also knows that the phantoms in red uniforms and with red eyes have followed her inside the crypt. The dead woman and the phantoms speak with one voice: "We drank of the Blood with impunity, letting it empower us. We drank to fulfil our promise, but we drank too much. Learn from our mistakes."
She wakes up drenched in sweat. Her sheets are thick with moist, and her room is thick with damp. Somewhere outside, an early rooster crows to wake the inhabitants of Webster's Landing to deed. Even after the tenth crow, she cannot quite shake the dream off of her.
Not of blood on her sword or the blood on her hands, but an ichor that runs like a torrent under the island; a flood that pours across vast underground plateaus; a sanguine ocean that floats her to the island's edge, or perhaps the world's edge, then cascades off into a bottomless depth. She dreams of the Blood of the World.
This river of blood and fire seems a frightening thing to her: a massive torrent that sweeps away all resistance. It seems to cover the entire underworld in its red-black embrace, and it cannot be stopped. And always, throbbing in her ears is a sound so insistent that not even the roar of the molten river can outcry it. It is the sound of a beating heart. Were she to view it from on high, she would see that the river, like an artery, is pumped out from this beating heart.
Alas, she does not have such a lofty perch. From within the deluge, she can see the river does not move as one, but is filled with currents, eddies, and undertows that branch out in infinite smaller rivers. Pockets of calm afford her breathing space, whilst violent whirlpools threaten to rend her limb from limb. Ultimately, the Blood of the World seems wild and undirected. In that instant, she understands her purpose.
She understands her Destiny.
The Blood of the World is an omnipotent force, but it lacks a driving will, a quality she has in abundance. She may be caught within, but sufficient resolve can shape the river's passage in the desired direction. As the tide presses forward, she begins to steer as she wishes, suddenly atop a barge summoned by determination and operated by audacity. With a pointing hand, she conjures a sudden and deliberate wave that carries her along and puts an end to her blind meandering.
In the Blood, she has purpose and power. And in her, the Blood has found a vessel.
She blinks, but rather than waking her eyes swim with visions of Thain. She sees misty shores and the tiny harbour in Webster's Landing. As she steps on the planks of the dock, there is a flash of memory, but the memory does not belong to her. Beside her manifests a vague shape of a woman. The woman, eerily familiar, is accoutred in the same vestments as the skeleton in the sarcophagus she had found in the dark crypt. As she watches the woman, she understands that they are somehow connected, that they share a bond. Destiny. As she understands this, she begins to feel what the woman felt when she set foot on Thain for the first time many decades ago: proud, dignified and determined. The woman sets off, then, and she has to run to keep up with the woman's vigorous stride. The woman's journey takes her to distant corners of the island, and she is assailed by evil from all sides. The woman fights brazenly and with impressive skill, but in the end, it does not suffice. The odds are stacked against her. As she watches the now battered woman collapse to the ground, she is distracted by vague patterns in a surrounding mist.
When the mist lifts, the woman is kneeling by the bank of a river of blood and fire. The Blood of the World. The woman cups her hands and drinks until her throat burns. Then the woman undresses and plunges herself into the river's fiery torrents. The woman does not surface, and instinctively she understands that she must follow.
"Follow in my footsteps!" An unspoken voice urges her on, toward the roar of the molten river. "Follow in my footsteps, and learn from my mistakes."
In a small room tucked at the end of the hallway on the second floor of a quaint tavern in Webster's Landing, Cassia regards her reflection in a bronze-framed mirror. She has been doing this for the better part of the night, oblivious to the transpirings of the rest of the world, which, perhaps, is well enough given her neighbour's penchant toward excessive snoring. Had someone then knocked on her door, or been brazen enough to let themselves inside without polite invitation, they would have seen a woman staring at a mirror, and nothing else. Yet in Cassia's mind, the visage of the woman on the other side of the glass belongs to someone else. She has the same contour and features as does Cassia - the same turquoise-coloured eyes and the same aquiline, aristocrat's nose - but the reflection speaks to Cassia when Cassia is silent, and it moves when Cassia does not, pacing the floor when Cassia stands still. Ergo it is not Cassia in the mirror. It cannot be, because another's words are spoken through her mouth.
"Mine is a story of folly, a story of greed and sin. I sought to cleanse the island of evil, to deliver it from tyranny and corruption. Instead, I found it in myself. I found it in abundance. I heard the beating of the heart, the call of the Blood. Beneath miles of earth and stone, I descended, fire in my eyes and in my heart. And then I found it. Not unyielding stone, but something more."
The reflection in the mirror screams as flames erupt all around her. In the mirror, the small room catches fire; the squeaky old bed, the three-legged table, the termite-bitten chairs, the dusty bookshelf, and the rusted window sill are all licked by ravenous heat.
"The Blood gave me her bounty freely at first. It bled for me willingly. I believed myself its chosen vessel. I believed that only I could stop the island's corruption. I was arrogant and I was bold, and I drank too much. I squandered the gift, my lips thirsting for more, always more. I fed so I could fight on, and I fed to quench a thirst that knew no end. Yet the more I fed, the more the corruption spread."
The fire in the mirror roars and blazes. It spits, crackles and churns. The bronze frame begins to melt, blistering from the heat. There are screams in the mirror, but the screams hide words.
"I drank too much, disgracing myself and my plight. I failed, yet my duty still holds. Let mine be the story that prepares you for what is to come. Let mine be the folly that teaches you. Follow in my footsteps, but do not walk down my path. Follow in my duty, but do not drink from the cup twice."
Her reflection in the mirror screams, and this time, so does Cassia. Had someone then knocked on her door, or been brazen enough to let themselves inside without polite invitation, they would have seen a woman staring at a mirror, and nothing else. But in Cassia's mind, her skin is sweltering from the heat, and she is drowning in an inferno that sweeps across Webster's Landing, then Thain, like a burning curtain.
The Red Woman paced the cramped floor of her tiny room. She wished she had been pacing on an open field. Not because her feet needed the space, but because her thoughts, wild and disarrayed, ran rampant in all directions, reverberating off the walls of her room like unbidden echoes. Had she been on an open field, at least she could have imagined her thoughts drifting off into the aether, but not here, not in this rented attic where the distance between the walls was so small they seemed to encroach on her. For the hundredth time, the Red Woman clenched and unclenched her gauntleted hand to still her mind, or at least distract it. The sound of metal grating on metal pierced the silence like breaking glass, but she hardly registered. In her mind there were other sounds, sounds so loud and persistent that they deafened her to the outside world. Screaming. Laughing. Roaring. Cheering. Sobbing. These sounds, and a cacophony of banging and clashing as if a battle was fought somewhere very near, accompanied her every waking thought, and it took every ounce of her will to muster enough discipline to not scream. To not go mad. She knew that she could quell these sounds, but doing so required certain effort: when her sword was unsheathed and pointed at someone dark of heart and dark of deed, the voices abated. All sounds and all thoughts abated, then, until there was only an absolute clarity and an unwavering resolve. It is was a dangerously addictive sensation, so much so that the Red Woman had begun to carry her steel on her back rather than at her hip so it was not within too easy reach. She had felt this heady sensation no longer time ago than this morning when a Hellknight had boldly walked up to the Crossroads. A thousand voices inside her head had roared for justice, for vengeance, and for redress. Her world had become blood-red - literally so, as if someone had pulled a thin, sanguine curtain over her eyes. She had felt a force tugging at her hand, willing it to reach for her sword. She had walked away. She had had to!
And that is when she had met the man with the pelt of a bear slung around his shoulders. Ursus. The Bear. She had met this man many times before. She had fought and bled beside him in the Kinswar, and she had fought against him when she had lost her mind to the cursed sword, Sin. For what seemed like hours, the Red Woman and the Bear had stared at each other the way strangers do, for, indeed, both had greatly changed over the years since their last encounter. All the while, roaring in her mind like surging waves, were shouts and voices of indecipherable words, but the impulse was clear: recognition. In her heart had suddenly burned a fire that she had been certain would devour her whole - metal, flesh and bone - and that is when the Red Woman knew that she was staring at neither friend or stranger, but something else altogether: a brother. A Brother of the Blood.
The Red Woman paced the cramped floor of her tiny room, her thoughts many and unfocused, but one thought was clear: she was not alone.
Somewhere at the foot of Mount Drakamyre, a woman prises one sore eye open, then the other. A slit of stabbing, blinding brightness. She groans, coughing out a sliver of saliva and croaking the one word she can think of.
The pain is excruciating. She heaves one hand up to grip her head that is throbbing so hard she feels like if she doesn't hold her skull together, it'll burst open like a ripe melon. Shapes and weird lights still fizz on the inside of her lids, like the glowing splotches of yellow and white when you've looked at the sun too long. She groans again, trying to recall the dream. People falling from a mountain, some wearing red, others black. She winces at the thought of them hitting the ground. Other people, swaying in the wind, nooses around their necks. Her gut cramps at the memory of swinging bodies, dangling feet. Then the fire. An all-consuming inferno that downs a valley in a molten flood. She can almost smell the smoke still. She presses her hand to her forehead. Feels hot. Burning hot. She rolls onto her knees and her stomach keeps on rolling until it gets stuck in her throat with sick. By the Blood, she feels sore, hammered and squeezed out. She sits up with her back leaned against the moist fabric of her canvas tent, eyes squinting as the sun flashes through dripping branches, her tattered cloak hugged around her shoulders and the raw wind whipping at her face. She inhales ragged breaths and chases the itches that dance all over her with broken fingernails, trying to still her nerves and shake off the memories of the mountain, the hanged men and the red flood. It doesn't help. The memories persist like wild dogs chasing a rabbit. Such is always the way of prescient dreams, they keep haranguing you until you do what they bid you do. And she knows what she has to do.
Get back up. Rally your brothers and sister. Seek the Banites. Fight them. Hang them. Burn them.
She remembered someone used to say that a man was not only moulded by the fires of battle, but that in battle, he also discovered who he truly was. The dragonkin were already turning to run as her warhorse crashed into them with a thrilled whine. She impaled a Vindicator through the back with her lance, a glimpse of a scaled face, blood spraying in wild streaks. She bared her teeth in a feral grin and rode on. A sword for monsters! Somewhere someone's lance shattered, shards flying into Cassia's shield with a whistling as she gripped the reins and wrenched away. The world had been condensed into a narrow slit of twisted faces, bloodied steel and broken bodies, seen through the slot in her visor, the vision framed by fire. Screams of men and monsters and mounts and metal blended into one overwhelming din. A horse careened in front of her. Riderless, its eyes swollen with terror. A sword stabbed at her, wrenching her shield from her grasp, rocking her in her saddle. The tip bit into her armoured thigh, but she felt no pain. Or, if she did, she was heedless of it. She gripped the reins in her off-hand as her mount pranced, white foam around the mouth. Her face locked in an aching grimace, she flailed wildly with her hammer on one side, then grabbed her morningstar with the other hand, and flailed wildly on the other side too. She beat at a shield with a five-headed dragon painted on it, kicked at a dragonkin and sent him staggering back. She pointed at Bloodwinged's standard with both her weapons, howling, roaring, throat hoarse. No one could hear her with her helmet on. No one could've heard her without a helmet. It didn't matter. She hardly knew what she was yelling anyway. She flailed furiously at the sea of bodies instead. Someone clutched at her reins. A woman. No, half-woman. Scales-for-face. Looked terrified. Everyone did. Didn't seem to have a weapon. Maybe surrendering. Didn't matter. She smashed the dragon-woman on the head with her morningstar, skull split open like a ripe melon, then gave her horse the spurs and trampled the monster into the mud. Back to the mud with all of them! This was no place for mercy or forgiveness. These creatures were beyond both. A sword for monsters! Somewhere in the distance, on the walls of Dragon's Watch, she saw a witch, her retinue of mercenaries, and a creature whose wings leaked blood. She snarled. She was coming for them!
When she woke up, Cassia ached all over: thighs from gripping a horse she did not keep, shoulders from swinging a hammer she did not wield, hands from gripping unseen reins. The very soles of her feet throbbed from an effort she had not made. Yet. Her chest heaved, breath booming, damp and hot, and tasting of salt and blood and vengeance. A red sun was rising outside. When it sets, it would be blood-red too. And it would set on Dragon's Watch.