From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
Part One: Light In The Dark
The Pillar of Ice And Flame
Though the Citadel of Defiance slept, the air was uneasy. Chirping computers and the hypnotic glow of electronic equipment meant that the base was never completely dormant, and the comings and goings of heroes at all hours meant that one was never truly alone. For Alarcity it was close enough. The lights were dim in her wing of the Citadel, illuminated mostly by the aurum glow emanating from within a device known as the 'Pillar of Ice and Flame'.
Alarcity watched as the fire danced within the confines of its transparent prison, her hands folded behind her back. An earlier conversation with BlackStarbeam about the futility of what-ifs played in her mind over and over again, broken up only by a voice of common sense that warned her of the cardinal rule of time travel:
Do not interfere with your own past.
The blaster felt her lips compress into a bloodless line as she resolved to turn away from the crystal and abandon the plan rolling in her head like boiling magma. Then, she watched as her hand reached out and touched the crystal.
The world went white.
Strength Borne of Anger
The cell was like a giant, hollowed out emerald with some kind of energy barrier sealing the doorway and trapping its occupants, five Portal Corporation scientists inside. Through the swirling, mystical barrier one of the scientists, ElizabethByrne could see other emeralds, each with their own captives- some familiar, some not.
"Stop it, Elizabeth. You're just going to piss them off!"
Elizabeth had heard the protest the first five times. It was increasing in pitch and the ability to annoy her. She continued hammering away the rune-inscribed stones that circled the mystical barrier- she didn't know anything about magic beyond fantasy novels, but it didn't seem like a bad idea for escape.
"Don't you hear me!?"
Elizabeth felt a surge of strength borne of anger that lifted her to her feet and spun her towards her fellow scientist, a tall man with a hawkish nose and squinting red eyes. They'd been in the flirting stages of a relationship before the research station had been overrun.
"Piss them off, Al!? Are you crazy? We've been here god knows how long!" she yelled in his face.
"We don't know their intentions, Liz. Portal Corp. will pay the ransom and we'll be out of here soon enough."
Elizabeth took a step across the cell, the fear in the chamber was so thick and palpable it was like walking through water.
"Their eyes glow green. They're going to -eat- us."
The Taste of Dried Blood
Even this far beneath ground, it was impossible to forget one was in the tropics. The air in the caverns was frigid and musty, but still bore the humidity of the trade winds which sailed right through the Nerva Archipelago. Elizabeth doubted these tunnels, and the subterranean necropolis had been open long, despite what Al had said about an ancient civilisation.
Though Al had annoyed her, Elizabeth had to admit on some level should would have given almost anything to hear him chatter again. None of the scientist were talking, none could. They merely whimpered through the oily rags that had been shoved down their throats prior to being strapped down to altars. Some cried, but only intermittently. They had to stop in order to breathe. Elizabeth coughed into her own makeshift gag, unable to escape the evil taste of dried blood. Off to her right, she heard a despaired wail.
A procession of their captors had started down stone steps located across the square. Men and women in green robes, with baleful glowing eyes the colour of overripe limes proceeded into twos. Behind them came red robed figures and finally those in orange robes with tall hates like that of a twisted, pagan anti-pope. Sadly, Elizabeth sensed none of the captives struggling. They were beaten, had given up and only cried like dumb animals waiting to die.
Chanting began in a language Elizabeth could only define as ancient and gutteral. Inside her chest, she felt her heart freeze and turn to stone, then soften into useless sludge. Cold water seemed to flush through her veins and she resisted the urge to vomit. A voice, Al's, rose up from the other end of the square. Somehow he had gotten his gag loose and was screaming in stattacco bursts of anxious noise broken up when his lungs would give up, or desperation interfered with his cries. Elizabeth caught the glint of a blade in the air, practically felt the half-crunch, half-squealch- like the killing of a giant cockroach that came from Al's direction- presumably as the blade went in.
Like some kind of unholy cacaphony, the other captives began screeching as best they could through their gags. It didn't matter though, one by one, the cultists attended to the each of them.
And in turn, they eyes of each sacrifice illuminated with a demonic green fire.
Elizabeth tried to remain still, perhaps play dead- she didn't know, but her body betrayed her. She felt her limbs squirming against bonds like serpents in thick mud, but made no progress. She did manage to remain quiet for the longest time though, her teeth clench hard on the rag until images of her family rushed into her mind. What would they think? Her mother's baby girl, cut to shreds?
She couldn't help it, she finally began to cry. The tears flooded her eyes until the world was an indistinguishable patchwork of mottled colours. She didn't even see the blade as it was hoisted into the air over her chest and came crashing back down into her sternum, sending sickening shock waves rippling through her flesh. and her mind reeling into blackness.
Though she would never know for certain, Elizabeth Byrne assumed that was the moment that the stranger had chosen to strike.
The Original Sin
His God Is Not My God
My name is Sobria and it is Charlotte.
I am the hybrid two souls: one ancient and Oranbegan, the other a modern, American woman who fell victim to the seductive lies of handsome young man with a black secret. Together we are a Thorn Wielder, the elite guardsmen of The Circle of Thorns, for whom we have killed and abducted in order to resurrect our fallen civilisation and bring our ancient brethren back to true life.
I have sinned in this manner for the full year since our transformation. All that time I have lived within the confines the rotting tomb they once called Mu, deep beneath your Thorn Isle, amid the roots of the gargantuan Thorn Tree, from which we draw our power. I possess no love for this place, even when swept up in vague dreams of prehistoric times when I, like all people, walked Oranbegan streets or reveled in its great and terrible, blood-stained glory.
Yet, I find myself pressed unwillingly into a service to this cult. For months, doubts have plagued me, gnawing at my faith in the words of Baron Zoria until all I could hear of his grand commandments was bitter and corrupt lip service to the dream of Oranbega, perverted by his intimate relationship with the very demons that made us extinct. Where once he was a figure of inspiration, guiding us in the name of Eermeth, I now only see a psychotic tyrant, drunk on blood and false power. It is in the name of this false prophet that I stand at one of the gates to the largest sacrificial chamber on this side of the island. Though the room, practically an arena, is cloaked in darkness, I can make out the entourage of priests descending down the stairs. In the gloom their green-yellow eyes glow, illuminating their sunken sockets and leathery skin.
Below, strapped to the altars that litter the room floor is the latest harvest- the men and women abducted by The Circle to serve as hosts for antediluvian, Oranbegan souls. These bodies writhe futile and with little strength. Though I cannot see their eyes beneath the blindfolds, I imagine they stare dumbly, like animals, unable to comprehend that they are already dying. I feel sympathy, but it is a blunt knife, since the transformation, I only feel the emotion as a memory attached to my pasts. What I do feel welling up inside of me, as I watch the sorcerers approach the first of the altars is vitriol, loathing, disgust. I cannot recall the Oranbega or its traditions vividly, but I know instinctively from watching the detached murder of modern people that what we do is perversion. I know that these mages are not worthy of the priestly titles they claim.
The first of the lambs is slaughtered. Screams begin to fill the air, first solitary, and then a cacophony that spreads through the bound people like wildfire. Those bodies find the strength to thrash in their bonds, like snakes in swampwater but it is useless. The sorcerers wander among them, murdering without remorse and sowing the still-warm bodies with thorns from The Tree. I recognise one of the bodies, struggling harder than all the rest. A blonde woman, not unlike myself. I had heard her arguing with the captives about escape. The others had either resigned themselves to their fate, or deluded themselves into hope that they had not the strength to fulfill. She had been different.
I watched her, dispassionately as I turned thoughts over in my head. The sorcerers moved through the herd towards her, like crocodiles drifting languidly towards a unwitting victim. The doubts that had plagued me for months were resurfacing, pushing me unrelentingly toward a decision I had thought banished entirely. I did not know Oranbega any longer, but the words I heard confirmed my doubts, coagulating them into a kind of cold conviction.
Zoria's god is not my god. The Circle's Oranbega is not my Oranbega.
Like sympathy, fear was almost stranger to me. Yet, I knew it was not merely the impossible odds that froze my body rigid. When I gripped the handle of my Thorn Blade tighter and contemplated action, the crushing weight of hope- that my ghost of a home might be resurrected, that life could return to the way I pictured it in my fleeting visions- that kept me from motion.
I felt a chill down my spine when I made my decision, the kind all people get when they know nothing would ever be the same again.
My name is Sobria, and it is Charlotte. We are Oranbegan, but we are Circle of Thorns no more.
The priests should have noticed something was amiss when I left my station, but The Circle of Thorns is no army. The souls they culled were civilians in one era, and now they inhabited the bodies of scientists, maintenance staff, any citizen the Circle could get their hands on. I moved swiftly to the altar where the spirited human was bound, just as the sorcerers, three of them, converged upon her like vultures. Blinded by their blood lust, it wasn't until I was within feet that two sets of poisonous, glowing green eyes raised towards me. The third wielded his Thorn Dagger above his head for the fatal blow. Though I was one of them, I saw their bodies tense beneath their flowing robes, unsure what to make of me.
I drew both swords, demon-forged Thorn Blades from beneath my robes in one smooth motion and the questions I saw in the eyes of my brothers were all at once answered. The first sprung upon me, but I sidestepped easily and deflected the attack with a cut that ablated neck from shoulders. Where the outcome of the first strike had been almost complete random chance, my second was powered by fuel and hatred. The vengeful strike impaled my second foe and sent him sinking to his knees with gargle of foul-smelling blood.
I heard the sickening crunch and squelch of a blade puncturing bone and my attention was snapped suddenly from my downed foe to the woman on the altar. Blood had erupted from her sternum like a bubbling fountain, clinging to the handle of the ceremonial dagger protruding from her middle. The blood-stained priest who had inflicted the wound backed up and raised two, red-soaked hands in surrender.
"So'bria! What act of treachery is this!?"
The sound of my Oranbegan name struck my like a thunderbolt. The Circle always used it, but very few remembered me from those ancient days. Most just played at having a spiritual connection to the home of our ancient spirits, in what had become a mad dash for arcane power.
"You took my life from me. Twice," I growled before I could register the words. On some level, this was true. I wasn't rebelling against the distortion of a myth the elder of my spirits held dear. This was pure revenge.
"We must do this, to end the pact! So'bria, have mercy!"
Painkiller, A Poison Really
I had dosed the human with a painkiller; a poison, really, to keep her awake and moving. A bound the wound and stopped the worst of the bleeding, but I knew, and I could tell that she did that she was in a steady state of decline.
Ten minutes after we escaped the chamber, the guards had been mobilised. Circle scurried through the halls like rats, accompanied by their demon puppet masters. The two of us found refuge in a small chamber, where I could watch the avenues until the patrols died down.
I spared the human a glance. She was sheet white from fear and blood loss, with red in her eyes and the tip of her nose. Even dying, she exhausted strength trying not to cry. I had to keep her awake.
"What's your name?" I asked.
She looked at me, dumbfounded, confronting my glowing eyes- a gesture I knew wasn't easy. I hadn't been able to do it when the Circle had taken me captive.
"Elizabeth," she stammered. I could sense the dryness of her mouth and throat by the rasp in her voice. "Elizabeth Byrne."
I looked back to the hall. There was stomping echoing in the hall.
"Who are you?" she asked.
That was a loaded question, one I hated even in life. Was a name an appropriate answer?
"Why did you save me, Charlotte?"
I scowled, unconsciously and opted for the most believable answer I could conjure.
"I'm not swimming off this island. Your people will get me away."
I couldn't imagine any modern organisation willingly take a Thorn onboard. Elizabeth couldn't either. A lie for a lie.
"Where are you from?" I asked her, averting from the threat of uncomfortable silence.
She smiled a touch. Surprisingly, it came as a relief.
"I'm from Topeka, Kansas."
What Have You Done?
It had taken twenty minutes for the patrols to leave my area. Elizabeth and I had been fortunate in that an attack had taken place on the far side of the island. Heroes or villains, I couldn't tell and didn't care to know.
Elizabeth Jane Byrne, it turned out, was a year older than I had been when I had fallen into the Thorn's clutches, and worked as a Research Assistant for Portal Corporation. It struck me as a shitty job for someone of her intelligence, but she assured me it would lead to better things. It wasn't like I was one who could talk.
Together, we crept through the winding passage that lead up to the surface. In order to avoid patrols, we had to make use of dangerous side alleys and the going was slow. On several occasions we had to stop and wait for guards to leave the area before proceeding. Elizabeth fought on, but her strength was rapidly waning. By the time we reached the surface I was carrying her as best I could on my back. In the distance was the sound of battle.
Elizabeth pointed me in the direction of the Portal Corporation dock, and I hauled us that way. By the time we had circumnavigated the deep canyons that divided the island, night had fallen upon us. It was cold, gusts of ocean-cooled wind buffeting us from all directions, and the smell of brine on the air. Torches in the distance between us and Elizabeth's dock. I had left her, nestled between two large boulders before going out for recon and discovered no route by which we could reach the dock without at least one last battle with Circle before we could make the beach. Elizabeth wasn't surprised when I told her.
"A blaze of glory?" she whispered. Her voice was soft, but it still sounded morbid.
"I always knew I would go out that way," I remarked. It was true. Thorn Wielders didn't have a long (second) life expectancy.
I left Elizabeth as close as I could to the battle, underneath my ceremonial robes, while I made my final approach to the smallest knot of guards- three in total, all human, with a sword in each hand. The guards were whispering to themselves as I picked my position and leaped into the fray.
The first I put into the earth with a lunge from the shadows that pierced him through the neck. He staggered away, clutching at his neck, blood drawing a spiraled trail across the knee-length grass. Without the element of surprise, I engaged the other two, the air filling with the sound of metal on metal as my Thorn Blades clashed against their weapons.
I maneuvered as best I could to keep from engaging both simultaneously but on uneven ground, I kept losing my footing and opening my flank to a lunged attack from my second assailant that forced me to fling myself out of the position I created to strike a killing blow. I struggled against the two guards for minutes until I swung low and brought the first assailant to his feet and then drove the blade down, nailing him to the dirt through his sternum.
I switched my second blade over to my good hand and we squared off. From beneath his cowl, I noticed his balefire eyes narrow and spared a glance over my shoulder. The combat had drawn more Circle from the surrounding area. Seven at least, I counted with growing despair.
I felt a crash at my hands and reverberation running up my arms. The closest attacker had flung the blade from my hands. I grit my teeth and drew upon mystical power to hurl a brilliant, white explosion into his stomach. He hurtled back, not dead, but startled.
"Elizabeth!" I called down the hillside. "We have to go!"
Scrambling from the rocks made me aware Byrne had heard me. Her shadow figure clambered up the slope towards me, pawing at the ground. I threw my gaze to the rapidly approaching squad. Elizabeth was too weak, moving too slowly. I judged the trajectories. The guard would be upon us before we could escape. I knew in the back of my rational mind that the smart move would be to leave Elizabeth to them and try hide somewhere for a few days until I could find another way to escape. I looked back to the woman, just as she looked up and caught a glimpse of dishpan eyes filled with fear. They cut me, sharper than knives and dug straight to my core. The fear I saw in her didn't remind me of an animal about to be slaughtered, but somebody's little daughter, sister fighting to remain in the world. I felt guilt, keenly and bitterly. The first true emotion I could recall feeling since my transformation and I didn't like it.
I kicked up a sword and snatched it in my off-hand. I steadied myself on the slope and extended a hand to the human beneath me.
Her hand slapped into mine, and though it was cold from lack of blood, I felt life in those muscles. I dragged Elizabeth as high as I could up the slope. A shrill whistle pierced through the air and I ducked, feeling the rippling after-current of a crossbow bolt slicing past my ear. I threw Elizabeth an apologetic look and she nodded, slumping against the ground as I turned to face the opponent.
The alpha strike was hard, six figures swarming around me like angry bees, cutting and slicing wherever I couldn't deflect the blows. When I sensed their charge meet resistance, I countered with my own, driving into the core of the group with one thousand cuts. I accounted for myself well, but even if they hadn't had weapons, the weight of the group was too much for me to fight and soon my momentum was gone.
Their second attacks came like a swarm of bees, knifes and clubs splitting skin and tearing at muscle, clubs that made the bones shake in my limbs. I tried to hold my legs straight to keep from falling, but soon they bent at the knee and I began to sink. My eyes turned upwards.
The night sky, previously clear, had gone grey with thick clouds. The moon and stars were obscured by the gunmetal barrier that slowly materialised above us. One of the Thorns saw it too, neglecting even to swing as he looked up into the gathering darkness. Suddenly, a tongue of blue energy crashed down from the sky, striking him in the chest and catapulting him back feet.
The other Thorns looked up, bewildered. Lightning, as hard and rapid as raindrops fell down from the cloud, picking them off like there was a sniper in heaven. Some ran for the water, others for the rocks. In the end it didn't matter, all were vanquished. I was awestruck, overwhelmed by confusion and a sense of joy I approached with caution. I didn't revel in the victory though, and threw scurried as best I could to where Elizabeth was laying.
"Did you do-?"
She nodded. "I want to help people. I planned to register when I returned to Paragon."
I took her hand, but couldn't lift her from my current position. Oranbegan magic sealed my wounds and I lifted myself as best I could to my feet. For the first time I could see the Portal Corporation security team, arriving on well-lit boat to the dock.
"Thought I might name myself Alarcity," she said through a proud grin.
"It's nice." I said thoughtlessly.
Movement attracted my eye to the hilltop. Glowing green eyes peered back at me. The Thorn who had disarmed me, I recognised. There was a click, and the whistle of an arrow in the air. I hit the dirt and pulled on Elizabeth's arm, dragging her body over the top of me. A human shield.
A saw her eyes, barely an inch from mine, fly open as the bolt thumped into her back. I felt the impact through her body as if it were my own.
"Charlotte?" she whispered. Her pupils dilated smaller as if she were focusing on mine, but I saw them lose it again. There was no life in her.
I had no words.
"What have you done?" she asked in a small voice, like a child afraid to ask her parent's permission.
I wanted to drown myself in the ocean. My veins felt hard and immobile, like the blood had turned to lead. I was so afraid.
"I'm sorry, Elizabeth," I whispered.
Her lips turned downward into a slow-forming frown. Her eyes closed and a sob racked her body.
"I miss my mom," she whispered between choked gasps for air. Tears fell and landed on my cheek. They burned, like acid, but it was only fitting I should wear them. "I can't ever tell her."
My body tensed until it was hard as marble. For the first time since the transformation, I felt tears well up on the surface of my eyes. I heard spluttering, and saw my green deadlights lose their intensity.
Elizabeth's eyes opened again. She shook her head slowly as if in disbelief at the cruel hand the world, that I had dealt her.
"But I saved you."
Her head sank into my shoulder and I felt her body spasm twice more before the life left her entirely. I wrapped my hand around the back of her head and touched her hair.
"You have," I said softly. I hoped she could hear it.
Elizabeth And Alarcity
By dawn, Portal Corp had secured a beachhead on the dock. It had taken that long for my eyes to lose their glare, and to trade clothes with Elizabeth. I emerged from over the crest of the hilltop and staggered across the beach, holding her ID card aloft. The security team, in their blue and black uniforms, leveled guns on me but let me approach. Torn up and bloodied as I was, I could hardly be seen as a threat. They searched me quickly and allowed me onto the dock.
From the boat, a man in a white coat emerged and regarded me through large, transparent reading glasses.
"Who are you?" he called out, his voice gruff.
My name is now Elizabeth, and it is Alarcity.