Cie, The City in Exile

Chapter 1: Cie, the City in Exile

“Are you still working on your ratty old journal?” piped up a voice from behind Cardinal’s shoulders. He didn’t bother looking up, knowing the one asking was looking directly over his shoulder anyways. The voice, grating and haughty, making it pleasant most times, belonged to a young woman with long black hair tied back, roughly the age of twenty. She just bursted with confidence. This person, the beginning of our story, was named Prairie.

“You’d think the keeper of the old words for your house would consider their apprentice more carefully.” Cardinal teased, forcing Prairie to roll her eyes and step around his back towards the table.

“Yes, and I should probably treat a scribe much better than I do but you’ve been fussing over it my entire visit. What’s this?” she asked, snatching up the book in one of her hands and reading over it quickly. Cardinal, defeated for the moment, placed his elbow on the desk and rested his face against his hand, staring at the girl. It was a marked pity, he thought. She had brains of another sort from his. He knew her heart was in the right place as well. Prairie was by no means unattractive, the trouble came from the fact that she bore the same curse as everyone else in this place, not to mention a very stark reminder of her own situation. The eye on the left side of her face had been blown away by a bullet. The hole, painted blacker than coal, crossed from the front of her face all the way back into her hair leaving no clear place the damage ended. He’d seen many poor girls face damaged like these, in no less cruel a world than hers. But she never let anyone know its origin. Merely wore a festive patch over it. And the clothes that covered her curse marks.

Prairie glanced up from the book only a moment and caught Cardinal staring during his contemplation. Going back to the book she smiled, making her one good, blue eye light up a bit. “You’re about fifty years too young for me Cardinal.” she commented lightly, turning the page then. Cardinal just chuckled. Prairie, with her mutual love of reading and books in general had become a fast friend for the old man. During his wanderings in the city, as well as currently in his own home, the girl often ran into him. He was starting to get a few nicknames through town. Well meaning ones, that is.

“Not everyone is blessed with the profound amount of apathy to this place as you were Prairie.” Cardinal commented, getting himself up with a slight grunt. “Coffee?” he asked pleasantly, not bothering with an answer and moving for the nearby kitchen in his small flat. “I thought it would be a good idea, you know. The book. It’s wholly too common these days to be left without any answers or guidance especially with the houses gearing up to attend the banquet soon. Even if the city’s population never increases or decreases too dramatically, there are still people let loose into several unknowns. Make matters worse, the stone imbues them with our powers and you know how some people act with that. If they don’t start destroying things or watching others do the same. Any rational person would be too confused.”

“We know how well it worked for me though.” Prairie piped in again, moving and falling into a chair, letting her legs hang over one of the arms. Cardinal, still busy with making coffee, just laughed in a much more sarcastic manner.

“Oh yes. If I recall the first time anyone had even really known you existed was when you razed the commerce square of the red quarter.” The mention of it made both of them laugh. “But I’m just saying, from the perspective of a regular person like myself, building a city filled with emotionally compromised, free-to-act legions with superpowers is a recipe for disaster. I wish we were undead in fact. Would make thinking so much easier. That book aims to do that instead.”

“Braaaaaaaains...” Prairie replied. Snapping the book shut and falling limp into the chair she turned her head to watch the old man bring a tray of various things into the room and set it on the table in front of her. “It’s not that I hadn’t figured out where my own strength came from, I’m just more used to things of a magic nature than you are. I guess if I were in your position when I came to this place... What were you again? The flying whatsits guys?” she asked, waving a finger at him.

“I was a pilot. Those flying whatsits are called airplanes.” Cardinal replied, serving himself some coffee and putting sugar cubes into it. He grimaced at the drink, but reminded himself his personal distaste for the coffee here came with the fact there was no Columbia to get it from. He’d even settle for instant one of these days if he could find it on the shelves around town. Coffee was coffee though. No sense in complaining. Even if there was none left where he came from.

“Right, planes.” she said, waving her finger again. “You came from a place where humans couldn’t use innate powers or anything. So if I came to this city and saw all the sorts of things floating around and people hurling fire from their hands I’d probably have cracked.” she said, waving her finger more, but this time the movements were much smoother. A cup, the pot, milk and sugar all came together in Cardinal’s hands and was placed in front of her, all the while still grinning a bit at the old man as she watched him do exactly that.

“Well I can’t say I have grown used to it but it’s certainly more comfortable day by day. The same way I’ve grown accustomed to your strange behaviors. I suppose I’m a coffee robot for you to-- control?” The old man conceded. “But both our worlds are so different from one another it never carries boring conversation. I think you’d be equally surprised by the things people created in my world. What was it? What was that quote?” Cardinal paused a moment to recall it. “It mentioned how magic and technology were only separated by proper research.” he finished, then taking a sip.

“Technology?” Prairie asked. Terminology sometimes didn’t cross over. “So planes and the like of it huh? No one ever figured out magic flight. I mean, you can make objects or people or heavy things float, but actual flight...” Scratching her nose a bit, she couldn’t recall it ever having happened. Then again her own knowledge on the matter wouldn’t be good enough anyways.

“Made wonders for trade and travel. Being whole countries away in a matter of hours, half way across the world. You could reach any conceivable point inside of tens of thousands of miles in a day.” Cardinal couldn’t help but smirk, but Prairie was smiling back. A contest of sorts between the two had bred. Seeing as their worlds were nearly opposite in their composition, it always became a fun matter to see who could mention the most amazing thing.

“We have gateways in my country that lead to others around the world. Forget hours of travel, you step in one end and you come out the other. There aren’t a lot of them, but the more you make the better.” she mentioned, sipping at her coffee. “The trouble is you can’t match them up without a port key and then catching the right moment when one of the pillars come by.”

Looking at Cardinal she smiled into her cup as she drank, then clarified. “Port keys are simple to get. Just a magic item with the right enchantments over it, a pair of them that are identical is made. They take one of them to one end of the gate, and keep the first where it is. The pillars are places where magic bleeds up from the ground the strongest, and they always have an exact matching point on the opposite end of the world. Leave stones where you predict them, and see if they react in time to capture it.”

Cardinal listened intently, then smiled. “Oh I get it. So if I took a long and straight rod and placed it through a globe, that’s where they match up. Judging by the fact you mentioned timing, they line up. That’s when you-- Link them up?” Prairie nodded and corrected how she sat, settling in the chair properly as she served herself some tea.

“If they lined up every gate in the world together then they could match them to others as well. The trouble is we can’t readily predict when it’s going to happen or entirely where. The only ones we can guess are surrounding the cities.” Placing her cup down she lifted her hands and intertwined the fingers. “But if we managed to, we could connect the entire world together, like a giant web. So we slowly expand further out of cities until we find more. Unless someone finds them that is.” she said, smiling.

Cardinal laughed. “A high ideal. That would be interesting to study for a while. But no one on my world can match being one place to another in the blink of an eye.” he said, watching Prairie smirk after being declared the winner. Luckily enough though when the conversation came to it, Cardinal had a “web” of his own to wow the girl with. That is, if it ever got to the point he could explain it simply. “We’re more used to being in two places at once.”

The pair enjoyed their talk well until midday, comparing this and that to their worlds, discussing new topics, or the political climate of the city. Cardinals attention rarely strayed from the girl only to glance out the window at the always fine weather. Part of his mind got stuck there on occasion, brought back by Prairies chiding. She really did make a wonderful guest.

“As much as I like our talks the day is dragging on and if I recall you’ve daily meetings with your house discussing upcoming events as well. I shouldn’t waste away in my home all day if I want to get more materials for my writing either. Now scoot. Don’t let Jessie catch you being late or I’ll never hear the end of it.”

“You could always come with me and walk me to the house.” Prairie added, but knowing her pace would outrun the old man in no time, she whipped her long coat on and grabbed the door. They said their farewells, and from the shade inside the man’s home, Prairie stepped into the shining and muggy sun enveloping the city. Taking a deep breath, she enjoyed the moment and turned down the street. A moment of quiet and happiness that would very quickly and most assuredly be spoiled within hours. Cardinal heightened her usual mood, and with all of his talks even kept her from falling into another funk so long as they kept one another in company.

“Now where was I?” Cardinal asked himself after Prairie had departed. Pulling his papers together, and with it his own mind, he sighed and huffed until he caught on where his thoughts were headed.

        We are all linked here in ways we cannot determine, but all linked by commonality in death. Each resident of Cie remembers where they departed from their worlds. How it happened. Either they do not remember what events led up to the moment, as most of the city commonly do, or they forgot a detail amidst such troublesome times. This, we know, is what anchors us to this place. For the one thing that all people realize is this great secret about themselves. Free of their burden, they then vanish into thin air with a most beautiful light. I have watched many friends disappear into this light. As the oldest remaining resident of Cie and the one with the most time under his belt here, I can say this is not a sad thing. People come and go in this city every day. Opportunities to make friends, allies, enemies come across your eyes and are far out of sight in a matter of years by my mark. But the city itself is filled with too much life and alien cultures for you to fuss over the matters of mortals, especially when you are already dead. Funny how it sounds when you say it out loud.

The city looks like it was built by a culture from an age long past. It’s stones are worn and rounded, but symmetrical down to the smallest carved details on every wall you pass, while the same can’t be said for the odd plants and trees that grow in its many gardens. The city is split into three primary areas we’re aware of surrounding the tower. In my world something would be constructed of steel and concrete, so imagine the look on my face when the first day I entered the city to find great islands floating around a truly massive tower. Imagine my surprise when the first time I witnessed the banquet!

At its base is the farmland. This section had more dirt piled on it than the flying sections of the city did, so it was left rural. Often times I find myself down there for my walks and to see how the farmers are faring. Nothing tastes better than the things they manage to plant and grow, especially in the hands of someone in the city who knows how to use it. It doesn’t matter if most foods and supplies in the city are freely traded. If they don’t taste as good as the real thing it keeps these men and women in work, and the thought makes me smile for them. They all need the distraction.

The second island, floating hundreds of feet above the ground are the colored districts, most notably the green district, where I make my home. Three perfectly equal sections that divide the more animated people in our society. These districts, and the houses, fight on a daily basis for control of one of the central thrones. They keep to themselves for the most part, though their conflicts often find their ways into different sections of the city. All we know is that those who harbor peace in their minds, versus those who would fight for their peace and freedom, were separated from the beginning of the city back to the earliest we can find written in the Old Word. Whoever was here first knew what they were doing. But then, we can’t be certain the city didn’t force them to do it either. It’s one of the funny things about living here.

But the top section of the city is by far my favorite. Another three sections even further above the manors floats a garden larger than anything I’ve seen in my entire life. You always picture these places being the things of royalty or vast wealth. Great trees and bushes of unfamiliar sort grow there, along with an assortment of flowers I could woo any woman with back home. In my early days, when I discovered this place here in Cie I could feel my old bones sinking into the ground already. Had I the chance I’d probably be buried in a place like that garden. And it was built by all of the residents that had existed here before me.

But I’m getting off track. In the center of all of these great stone constructs is the one that boggles the mind the most. The tower that holds this city together only has one real chamber at the center of the colored districts where the kings meet during important matters. If there are more chambers other than the winding halls surrounding it, or the rooms that store the cities excess supplies, we can’t reach them. Notably the part that got me impressed the most was the fact I’ve never been able to spot the top of it. But like a lighthouse, that beacon never goes out, simply shining into the sky. We’d probably give anything to able to fly that high again or more fairly break free of this place altogether. I think I would. I just think I’m also too curious to leave. Take heart dear traveller. This place welcomes you. And we welcome the help in solving these mysteries most assuredly.

Now left to her own devices, Prairie moved down the road, letting her boots clip loudly against the paving stones. Cie was built into five different districts, the central tower, and a ring built around the tower that housed a bazaar floating in the sky above. One could easily get paranoid of falling. Currently she was in the green district, named appropriately as it was the district that the house of the green god rested in, a great boar, ancient and wise, covered head to toe in the various growths and life of the forests, that is if there were any forests to represent on the planet. They mostly believed he was responsible for their health and provisions. The denizens of the district were generally peaceful, laboring folks. Some of the best clothing and scavenged materials came into this district, and since they enjoyed the trade they didn’t look down on people who were from the other districts, they had a habit of avoiding brawls. They also helped other districts face medical emergencies, and generally made it their business to be pleasant.

Cardinal took his home here because people generally didn’t bother him about his work. To each their own really. Cardinal wanted a quiet life now, and it was surprising sometimes which denizens of the city couldn’t read at all. He was one of the few who knew how to. Still, as a servant of the gray house Prairie had reasons to be nervous in any district that wasn’t her own. For example, the matter of the red district. Lorded over by a great hunting bird, the red district was the source of various practical goods that found their way into the city. Ironically the hostile district was also home to the largest food sources, a fact their leader didn’t take for granted.

Prairie shook thoughts of the red district from her mind for the moment. With the current conflict being muttered about she didn’t need to risk her time being anywhere agents of the red house could find her. While she may not be in danger, thanks to the rules, it was still a giant pain in her neck to go through. They usually spat obscenities at her and got into another non-entertaining fight. Rather than heading for the gate that led directly between districts, a great bridge spanning the gap, she instead decided to cut through the bazaar market near the center of the city. Aside from being safer there in the crowds, she wanted to peruse the oddities on display and could always sneak a few books away before other scholars managed to. She also had to see one of her favorite people, and he kept the majority of the paper. It was a bright and vibrant place, alive with barter and the sound of voices. It almost drowned the city’s austere existence from the minds of its visitors. Here people could just relax and discuss matters of the city. Despite the warring factions in the primary manors, most people appeared in Cie completely unable, or even unwilling to accept some things. If you spent all of your day fighting, nothing in the city would be comfortable. The bazaar saved the city, and its more peacefully inclined denizens, from having to be involved themselves. All people who didn’t exhibit powers here were left well enough alone.

“You can’t be serious and standing in front of me looking like that.” came a gravelly voice of a relatively young man by the name of Agni. Although he regularly mentioned how old he was. Agni was the only person who reliably had any writing materials on hand for the various mages scattered throughout the city. He also rarely looked directly at people. Reaching up and taking a cigarette from his mouth, Agni then rested his chin against his palm, and sniffed loudly at the passing trail of smoke. “You look like you came out of some ancient ruin. Rags and beads and a peculiar smell.” His observation went relatively unnoticed as he put his cigarette out on the ground with his heel. It vanished into thin air. Prairie was busying herself looking through and picking out handfuls of paper and various other items from Agni’s stall.

“Can’t help it sometimes. Besides, one of the other house members offered it to me. My regular clothes would point me out half way across the world, much less the neighborhood. Besides, it was a cute little green who let me borrow them.” she said, turning in place, letting the various beads and dangling pieces clack around as the weird poncho lazily waved in the wind. “Can’t expect the Reds to help me.” Agni gave her a few clapping noises at her presentation, but then replied. “Sure. Guess you were visiting Cardinal again. And yet you always find a way to come to my little corner. And I just keep happening to give you breaks.” Agni yawned widely into his hand then blinked a few times as he stared at the ground. They both knew how astonishingly lazy Agni was when he wasn’t motivated. He didn’t think he could outfight her. Unlike most of the people sworn to the red house, he really just didn’t like to bother.

Agni had astonishing orange eyes. Nearly reptilian in fact. Agni self described himself as a boring writer where he came from. And where he was from, that would probably be accurate despite the fact he was really a detective who never got work. Here, he spun some pretty good penny dreadfuls, when he put in the effort anyway. His people came from a long line of beings that had regularly conceived children with dragon kind, so his memory was superb. Agni was about three generations down the line. He never looked at people because dragons usually communicated emotions or deeper thoughts with their eyes, and while among their own kind they held no thought back along with their eye contact, to outsiders, even friends, it was a difficult thing to avoid to keep some secrets to themselves. People had a weird way of reading his stare. Humans were sharp like that, but dragons were on a different level. He stared right through her whenever he saw her. Of course with Agni’s personality it gave him the opportunity day to day to act like he played the whole thing cool, and as he put it, didn’t raise a lot of heads. Just as relaxed as he enjoyed it. Of course it also lead to his horrible sense of humor.

“You’re my favorite red.” Prairie replied, slightly condescending, but more sarcastic. “At least the one that isn’t regularly chucking broadswords at my head.” Piling up her pilfered goodies and setting them in front of the man, his eyes scanned them over without touching them or even bothering to count. “Splurging today. Well let’s see what you have for me this ti...”

He was interrupted by Prairies offer being tucked right under his nose, causing him to startle and lean back. When he took hold of it and looked it over, even he was rather astonished. “A dragon scale? Where the sod did you find this? Red and orange, good condition. Hard and smooth like obsidian...” he muttered to himself, turning the item over in his hands. “A magma dragon?” he chuckled at that. “Just like grandma. It’ll make for good ink, and lots. Maybe even good magic. I think this will cover your expenses and it even managed to make me feel better. Just like dear old great gran...” But when Agni looked up, Prairie was already half way down the street with her bartered goods. Agni sighed, and dropping the scale into one of his waiting bags, lit another cigarette and watched her go before returning again to his lethargy. “You really need to stop doing that.” But then Agni paused a for a bit and considered how he spoke. She was doing that all the time anyway. Returning to his book and the spot he was glued to, he decided he couldn’t complain.

Prairie liked the way things in Cie worked a lot better than they did in her old world. Money twisted up the lives and people involved with it. Here it was simple. People had or could make things, but they also needed the things Prairie was good at finding. Being a good fighter had its benefits, especially when you could get to things quicker than others could. Since Cie had no established money, it relied on barter, politics, and favors amongst the residents. And it wasn’t like people didn’t enjoy getting along. Some simply had higher ambitions, or too much energy, or the tried and true, they just weren’t very nice people to begin with. From the red king pitching his swords around the place, to the current green king trying to stop everyone from doing it, and finally the gray king, whom traditionally had no particular opinions, Cie was driven by the ambitions of the people trapped inside of it.

And yet the houses were necessary. From maintaining the link between the land and the Gods, as well as organizing half of the entire political landscape of the city. Then there were the two thrones that sat in the center tower. Everyone in Cie knew how important those two simple chairs were. Directly under the light of the tower, the pearl thrones, the black and white, were the central seats of the city. To be sat there, one needed to either be very strong, or very friendly.

As Prairie organized the pile in her hands, she looked up at that very same tower the bazaar surrounded. The Banquet was less than a month away. Then the Gathering a few months after that. Her face instantly turned sour and she let out a very disappointed sigh at the thought of what was going to be happening soon. Then again, since the Banquet rolled around every six months or so, the look on Prairies face was as common as the one she made being woken up every day. But turning down the street towards the Gray district she sighed again and simply smiled. Being home had that certain feeling to it that never made her feel bad. Rare, for Prairie.

The guards at the gate chuckled at her appearance, making her stick her tongue out at them. Once into the commerce square in the center of the gray district, she took a deep breath through her nose, letting every scent of this place, the place she called home, wash over her senses. The people shouting as they sold or marketed, the smell of fresh baked goods from Maggie’s shop, the various machine noises being made by Popper’s. The children running this way and that in little groups, stealing dolls and apples from some of the stalls in front of the market. It wouldn’t matter if it came back. And every bit of it filled Prairie with a sense of accomplishment. The Gray house made sure these people lived happily. Even in a world that made people so unhappy and confused, seeing a regular day like this was a grand reward.

“The Gray hero traipses in from the wilds of the city, treasures in hand.” came a rather lyrical voice, teasing her before she even turned around. Prairie smirked and let her carry on. There was no harm in it, and as she closed her eyes and just chuckled along, she even found she enjoyed it at regular intervals. Long, regular intervals, mind you. It was some custom of the woman’s.

“Ruckus of the Red, chivalrous knight to those without color, the strongest in all of Cieca, the world we know! Ah what I would give to be so grand as you. I haven’t inflated your ego enough yet have I?” asked Riley, a rather strangely dressed young lady who always kept pen and paper on hand. Everyone knew it when her bouncing blonde curls were, well, traipsing down the street. “There’s a toll for this road today, Prairie.” she said cheerfully, holding up one of her hands with a bright smile. She knew she had to be paid a ransom today.

“Yes, what I owe you no less.” Prairie replied, trying to sound dry, but unable to hide her smile. Taking a handful of the paper she’d traded from Agni, she handed it to the woman with a well of ink. Riley looked cheered by the offer, but was stopped similar to Agni as something was put under nose before she could take the paper, a fine pen. Riley squealed and snatched the whole bundle, hugging it to herself. “Oh you break hearts every day!” Riley exclaimed, kissing her before turning and running down the street a ways before she stopped, turned on her heel and ran back. She waited for Prairie to start speaking. A weird cultural habit where Riley came from said, to not be rude, after you’ve already called off a discussion you invited someone else to, it was only proper to allow them to begin the new topic of discussion first. A living piece of literature. The oddities never ceased.

Prairie sighed and rolled her eyes. It was like doing tricks for no reward. But in the end it didn’t cost her much. “I get the distinct feeling you believe I’m desirable.” Riley shot back “Only a distinct feeling?” Prairie tossed her hair a bit, like she was about to head butt something. “Let’s just stick to atypical intuition.”  Prairie replied. Riley snickered. “Big words for shy,” Riley began, holding up her hand to stay Prairie’s interruption, “But I don’t let my work get anywhere near my private life around here, at least timing wise. Jessie’s got to keep you or you’d be everywhere else discovering tombs or something.”

Prairie huffed under her breath, looking at the ground, her head and eyes switching left and and right, searching for options or arguments. “Not like there are any around here. I don’t see the point in doing things that waste ti...!” Her words were cut off by a newspaper, rolled up nice and neat, was brought down at the top of her head. When her head came up ready to yell with her next line it was met with Riley’s typical, genuine smile. Prairie reminded herself this was the one person she should not kill if she wanted to remain sane. She reminded herself, but that wasn’t enough to turn her face down.

“Also Jessie was looking for you. I’ve already done my work, but it didn’t stop him from yelling at me anyways.” Riley said, her tone sounding like a snubbed child. It changed instantly back to unmerciful glee however, and Riley continued down the road running once again, bouncing past everyone she knew. Intuition told Prairie running down Riley without causing a scene over a newspaper was going to be a lot harder than it looked. Too early in her day for that to happen. Aside from that, the next thing she needed to do and the only choice left to her after being scolded like that in public was to go along for the ride. People were already starting to snicker. Glancing down the main road and past the crowds, she could see a well dressed man with his arms crossed standing in front of the gates to the Gray manor. Riley had merely reminded her of her fate. Yes, indeed, Jessie was on the lookout for her in his usual dour mood. This ride was going to be one direction, no stops, and promised to have a good deal of paper changing hands in the room. Which meant reading, which would be alright assuming it regarded something flashy to look at. Reports were the one way you could turn any amazing thing you’re thinking about into numbers and odds and sometimes a decent backstory. It turned reading into math. How many more lines do I go through? How long will that take? How long will that take in Jessie’s timing. At least that’s the way it lined up in Prairie’s head after all the chaos. Math hadn’t ever been a strong suit of hers, but time was precious and wasting.

“I hope you realize that your schedule is far more important than any extracurricular activities you might get yourself into.” he said, staring down at Prairie without moving his head from its place, watching the town. Her journey to this point had been a slouching, wavering, slow paced and somewhat distracted trek the last thirty yards, adding stairs. But once she was in range for his comment her pace pepped up a great deal as she accepted her fate. She’d handled despair in less gentle manners before, and she sure as anything would face any hand she was given without flinching. Prairie cut by him without hesitation and waved her paper in his face, smearing them across his lip. To his credit, he didn’t even flinch when it happened, but he turned to follow her into the building, sighing. “You’re supposed to be educating the younglings today. Notably the one’s from the house in the green district. You’re going to be late at this rate.” he continued to drone as they entered the main hall. Prairie spun around on Jessie and smiled a bit more. “You mean the new ones around? The fresh ones?” She turned and pursed her lips, realizing the bad news in that. “Oooh. Also means... Oh well!” She paced onwards towards the inside of the building. So much for not flinching today.

The main hall of the Gray house was a large cylindrical structure with three doors leading away from it. In the center of the room stood a large statue of a wide headed snake, the patron god of the house. Through the doors one would find tunnels to the living areas, the main chamber, and the vaults that were stored in the upper halls and basement of the building. Prairie turned for the living vault. It was the place that housed the power of their section of the city, unlike the upper vault which simply held relics. “Gather them up in the throne room and I’ll be along shortly for them.” She then descended the stairs.

The vault of the Gray house stored several helpful items and supplies, naturally, but in the very back of it was the library, one of the key and needed features to any of the houses in the city. These were the real vaults. These libraries held common knowledge, naturally, but also housed the shelves kept by the keeper of the old word. This person, in every house, was charged and thus imbued with the power to collect and store knowledge important in Cie. Volumes would appear without warning or consent. With no method of leaving behind things for others, and the sudden nature of people’s disappearances, this was an important task. Down here, Prairie kept her living quarters as the keeper of House Gray.

This used to be Ariadne’s place. It was always the thought she had when she came here. Still, ghostly images of the furniture that had once decorated this place still lingered. Large bookcases and shelves filled with bottles and jars. The only reason they didn’t appear real was because she couldn’t remember what had been on them. She had spent so much time in this place with her, and yet they merely lingered like her feelings did. The dark walls and floors merely reminded her that she had painted this place in her own image.

She put away her supplies, and got busy getting herself dressed, and thought carefully about what she would teach the children today. The visitors of the green manor today could only receive their teachings from this house on account of the fact they had lost their keeper, which also meant their vault was sealed shut. Prairie had no objections to teaching children from any house, though the Reds were rare to call for her services, as their keeper was still alive and well even if they couldn’t get in. But then, sometimes even the Gray house sent children to them, as no house had complete teachings on every subject. It could very well be a lie that the keeper was still stalking the halls of the red manor. It only made her question what they were being taught.

When Prairie emerged from her lair, as she felt grander than just a person in this place, she chuckled at the thought she might be some kind of dragon herself, hoarding books as her treasure trove. She was dressed the part, at least. Strong boots with short heels, leather leggings and a strong belt. Above the waist was different story, as she had frills covering her chest and wrists under a dapper gray coat, and less dapper black leather vest covered in silver chains, making her look strangely regal. The last touches were letting her curly hair bounce on her shoulders and her “fancy” eye patch, festooned in black flowers and white lace. Not her every day eye patch, but it felt fancier, and that’s exactly what Prairie liked to aim for. Adventurers had to look their best. Once she’d come up from the cellars and moved to open the throne room doors, she paused, if only for a moment again, to reconsider what she would teach the children today. Lacking in ideas, she smiled a bit and decided why not just improvise. Her head was in the clouds and the children’s heads were empty, so it would be hard to miss her mark.

Opening the door she was met by the turning heads of ten or so children, some she recognized and were excited to see her, others new, nervous, and one particular disinterested, with his head buried in a book, giving Prairie only a passing glance. Children made up roughly fifteen percent of the population of Cie. Though few in number compared, the matter in which they appeared here was the same as the adults. No child was ever born in Cie. No child ever aged in Cie.

Making her way across the room, Prairie settled into the throne of the Gray king, and after a moment or two, light began to peek through the ceiling in the darkly lit room, filling it comfortably with enough to see and act. Prairie smiled at the children, and some of them smiled back, before she clapped her hands together.

“So! I’m happy to see all of your grinning faces today. I don’t want to disappoint you but I don’t think I’ve got anything particular to tell you today.” she said, rubbing the side of her head a bit and chuckling as the children did. “But I suppose that just means I’m at your mercy. But one thing before we start.” she said, getting up out of her throne. “For those of you who don’t know me,” she began, looking at the children who seemed nervous. “My name is Prairie, I am the current king of the house of the Gray God. I am also the keeper of the old word. I understand. Some of you have likely woken up recently and find yourselves here only because you’ve no better idea of what can be done.” she met eyes with one particular little boy, about to hit thirteen or so, and smiled. He smiled back, only a little, before looking away. Prairie’s expression changed a bit more grim.

“So I’ll be forward and let you know ahead of time. This is real. And what you remember before coming here is also real. For some reason the owners of this realm see fit to leaving it in our minds. So what do we do? How do we cope? The answer is we can’t.” moving into the crowd a bit she settled onto one knee and placed her hands on the shoulder of one particular girl who hadn’t looked up from the ground. “How did it happen, dear?” Prairie asked, being as gentle as she could as she asked.

The girl was immediately uncomfortable, but shifting where she sat on the floor she considered whether she would speak or not. When she looked up with her muddy green eyes, closed off and depressed, lost, she looked directly into Prairie’s eye. “A man. With a knife. Right before I was going to go to bed.” she shifted again and asked more fervently, “But why? Why would papa not save me?” she asked, getting more agitated. It was clear from the rest of the children, save a few, that the same thoughts had crossed their minds as well.

Prairie’s face looked sad as the girl asked, but she put on her best impression of a comforting smile, and rubbed the girl’s shoulder. “All things in time. Cie by its very nature is an unpleasant place because of how we arrive. How we get here, what keeps us here, how we escape. But that doesn’t mean it has to be unpleasant. All things in time. You’ll grow to understand both what you can do here, and what it meant when you were trapped here.” Prairie stood and moved back to her throne, settling in with a huff and sigh. After a moment or two, she sat forwards and clasped her hands together, looking into the crowd.

“I won’t lie to you. And the only solution to your present problems and worries, some of them at least, is to just answer you directly.” she took a moment to consider how she would say it, and then, looking at the little boys and girls gathered in the room, some barely five years old, some on the cusp of becoming adults, she said something she knew she had to. No matter the tears shed in that moment. “You have died. And the city in exile has claimed your soul and trapped it in this city.”

Next Chapter: The School of the Unwilling