Over the sun-parched plains and badlands of Melenas, the nations of Faiqas and Ars-Sara have stood at the brink of war for generations over resources and land. The brewing tensions have finally come to a head in recent months, and many able-bodied men from both sides of the conflict have been consigned to their doom over the squabbles of the upper class who have little personal stake. Between these two nations stands the Hallowed Order: a coalition of knights who alone control mystical forces, limiting the use of magic to their own number, and punishing those who do not belong among them.
Liya al-Amundi looked at the sky, frowning. The clouds spoke of an oncoming storm, and food was already hard to come by in quantity due to most of the season's crops being passed to the frontline. It had already been three months since the king's officers had ridden through, grabbing any able-bodied man to fight under the banner of Faiqas with the threat of conscription. Some went gladly, proud to serve. Others, reluctant to leave their families, attempted to argue their position but to no avail. Liya's husband, Sadi el-Tunar was one of the latter; unwilling to leave his wife and, at the time, unborn son unless forced. For the first month of his enlistment, Sadi and Liya exchanged letters via courier; Sadi explaining the terrible conditions of camp and the absurdities of military life, while Liya passed on the news of the birth of Anwar el-Sadi, their son, and whatever she could think of to lighten his mood. The letters had not arrived since then, nor had hers been received as best she could tell, so she worried.
For now though, Liya jostled the small basket of vegetables she had gathered and traded to a more comfortable position, and made her way to the home of Anwar's keepers, an elderly couple who sympathised with her position and had made great effort to assist her. She gave way and made a curtsy to the Knight of the Hallowed Order as he passed on patrol, but he paid her no mind. The Knights had travelled to both kingdoms to act as peacekeepers in the stead of the war, but many found their protection more trouble than it was worth. They expected much, gave little, and were quick and harsh in their justice.
Having greeted the couple and given a squash that she knew they were fond of, Liya returned home, Anwar nestled in her arms, to prepare the evening meal. The broth was boiling nicely when the door burst open. Liya turned with a start; a man stood there, a stranger to her, his eyes gleaming maliciously from behind the veil obscuring the rest of his face. The clothes were light but well-worn, in a distinctive style that, combined with the relatively pale features visible, led to only one conclusion: a deserter from the Ars-Sara side of the war. Liya made a movement to stand in front of Anwar's cradle but the man was faster, pulling a dagger from within the clothes and pointing at her before she could move.
"Ah ah ah, not so fast lovely." The man's eyes turned to take in Anwar's presence. "Wouldn't want the wee one to get hurt over your mistake, now would we?"
"Don't hurt him., Liya pleaded, in no more than a whisper as tears began to well. "I'll do anything, just don't hurt him." The man laughed coarsely.
"Anything, is it? Let's just see. Normally I wouldn't bother with rats like you, but I've recently... come into my own, as it were. So here's what I need for a start: You're going to get me a change of clothes, and I could use a good meal. As flattering as this garment is, it's a little conspicuous around these parts."
"And then you'll leave?"
"Nah, that's just the start, lovely. I'll leave when I'm good and ready." The man jabbed the air in Liya's direction, and she flinched. "Hurry up then!"
Liya scrambled around her home, not wanting to look at the intruder, but not daring to look away as she collected an outfit that belonged to Sadi. She handed it over, reaching out as far as she could to keep as much distance as possible. A strange pressure was building inside her, as if around her heart, but Liya disregarded it for more pressing concerns. The man snatched the clothes from her hand, and Liya yelped.
"Quiet down! You don't want to draw that Knight on us, or you'll wish you hadn't, rat!" The man shrugged out of his clothes, and worked on putting on Sadi's.
"Now how about that meal? I'm sure I can stomach whatever you rats eat, so I'll just take that."
Liya could barely hear what the man was saying, the blood was pumping through her ears due to the adrenaline, and something snapped. She grabbed the broth pot from the fire, and, as soon as the man's head poked through the shirt, she flung its contents at his face, aiming for the eyes. The man screamed in pain. Liya had missed blinding him, but there was damage done, and she started screaming to alert everyone, anyone who could hear. From the window, Liya could just hear above the pained yells, came the sound of armour striking against itself: the Knight was rushing to her aid.
"Oh, you'll pay for that, bitch!" The man swore through a clenched jaw, before he froze for a second and started to grin cruelly. "Want to see a trick?" he asked, before spinning the blade around, and stabbing himself in the shoulder. He screamed again in pain, as the Knight broke down the door.
"What goes?!" The Knight demanded, spearpoint darting between the two.
Before Liya had time to respond, the man shouted through a pained expression, "This demon used magic on me! She made my skin boil and made a knife fly though the air!" A peal of thunder rang out and the downpour began. The Knight shifted the spear to point solely in Liya's direction.
"For the crime of possessing unlawful magic, you are under arrest by the authority of the Hallowed Order."
"B-but I didn't...! I can't..."
"Cease your protestations! This man has been injured, and he certainly didn't do it to himself. Now come with me." The Knight grabbed Liya by the arm and started pulling her out of the house.
"No! My baby!" Liya screamed, kicking and trying to pull away. Despite the rain, a small crowd had gathered around to see what the commotion was about. The Knight pointed to one of the bystanders with his spear.
"You! You know this woman?"
The woman he had pointed out flinched, and said "Y-yes Ser Knight. And I want to say..."
"SILENCE! Do not dare to question authority, or you'll be joining her. I charge you to take this infant into your care." The woman ran in and swept up Anwar into her arms, who at this point had awoken and started crying.
The Knight spoke up to the crowd. "Let it not be said the Hallowed Order is not without mercy or justice. Disperse, or face that justice!" He poked Liya in the back painfully, with the spear tip. "Move, or be moved."
The rain was making the paths a burden to travel, but for all the trouble Liya had in keeping her footing or pulling her way through mud, the Knight showed no sign of being affected. Faces of people she knew peered out of houses, in shock at the sight of one of their own being treated in such a fashion. Shortly outside of town, a cart pulled by a sturdy-looking horse and containing three more Knights waited on the road. One held up a gauntleted hand, face obscured by a full helmet, like his fellows.
"Hail Ser Kirna. We received your missive, and await the prisoner."
The Knight escorting Liya raised his hand in response. "Then the charges have been prepared and no time should be squandered." One of the Knights in the cart stepped down to bind Liya's hands. She tried to fight, but a sharp knock to the back of her head left her dizzy, and before she could recover, her hands and legs were tied, and she was gagged, blindfolded, her head covered with a sack, and tossed without care into the back of the cart.
The travel to the fortress of the Hallowed Order was far from pleasant. Not once over the course of two weeks was Liya unbound or unblindfolded. While the Knights made camp and prepared food, Liya was confined to the cart and given barely anything. Occasionally she was given a drink of water, barely quenching her thirst, and twice in the journey she was forcefully fed over-salted meat. The hunger pangs were maddening, and Liya drifted in and out of consciousness. Eventually, they arrived at the Order's fortress. Liya was half-dragged to a central chamber and finally unblindfolded. As her eyes adjusted, the chamber was dark; torches lining the outside had been snuffed out moments earlier, judging by the smoke curling from some of them. Seated around the chamber were five Knights in more ornate varieties of the armour the others wore.
"For the record, your name." One of the Knights, a woman by the sound of her voice, stated from her chair. At first, Liya said nothing, until she felt a sharp jab in her back from a spear.
"Your full name."
One of the other seated Knights spoke up. "Liya al-Amundi, you stand accused of unlawful use of the arcane. Your punishment is to be death."
"But I'm innocent!" Liya yelled, frantically. The pressure around her heart had grown, almost unbearably.
"That is not up to the question. Our ruling is final."
"Then let me join you! I wouldn't be unlawfully possessing magic if I was a Knight!"
"Our Order has adequate strength presently, and your state says you would be a poor fit. Judgment stands."
The first Knight spoke again. "You shall be hanged by the neck until dead one week hence. You shall be shunned from any light until your dying day, and your soul shall be forfeit."
Liya screamed and started to fight against against the grip of the Knight standing beside her, before a blunt impact struck her in the head and she fell unconscious once more.
True to their word, the Knights held Liya in a stone chamber without any light for what would seem to be the last week of her life. She screamed until hoarse, and cried throughout, unable to resist in her weakened state when the Knights delivered a meagre meal. Her rest was minimal due to the hard stone floor, so the final day came without fanfare.
Unable to tell what time it was in her confinement, Liya was roughly shaken awake by a Knight, taken from her chamber, and marched at spearpoint up several flights of carved stairs. The one advantage of imprisonment, that she could tell, was that she was able to see in the total darkness engineered for her through the use of blankets over windows and blocking of corridors. Eventually she was led to a small room with doors on either side. A Knight stood by the far door, a bundle in their hands.
"Change." The bundle thrust into Liya's arms was revealed to be a surprisingly elegant white silk dress. In any other circumstance, it would have been breathtakingly beautiful.
"I don't understand," Liya said, her voice still rough from screaming in vain.
"It is tradition. Worry not, you won't need it long."
Liya paused for a moment, waiting to see if the Knight would give her some privacy or a modicum of decency, but there was none to be found. The dress was perhaps a little snug in the chest and a little loose on the hip, but Liya hadn't expected it to be tailored. The fact that it fit as well as it did was surprising enough. Once she had finished, the Knight spoke again, as if following a script.
"You go now to your end, adorned in righteousness. See now what your sins have denied you forever more." With that, the Knight opened the door, and Liya was blinded. After a few stumbling forced steps, her eyes finally started to clear. For the first time in weeks, she could see the sun shining down, and the intensity of it caused her eyes to water. From around the edges of the fortress ramparts, she could see out over the valleys. It was beautiful. In the center of the courtyard stood the gallows, a grim spectre marring what would have been worthy of a work of art. Step by step, Liya was pushed towards it, every inch of her being begging her to run or to do something, but she couldn't. All she could do was walk.
The pressure in her chest had built up so much it was painful. Liya wondered distantly if that would kill her before the hanging did, as a small mercy. Standing by the noose was yet another Knight, but instead of the silver and white of the others, this Knight was clad in armour of pitch black. They were rough in tightening the noose around her neck, and Liya was turned away to face the sun.
Anwar, Sadi, she thought, I love you. She closed her eyes. It took only a moment, but it felt like an age was passing. The creak of the lever, the feel of sudden weightlessness, a sharp pain in the neck, the release of pressure from within, a pulling feeling, and the cessation of sound.
Liya kept her eyes tightly shut for a moment, gradually opening them in confusion. Thick jungle covered the land below her, and volcanic ash floated through the air from distant peaks. She looked down, and, to her shock, found she wasn't standing on anything, but floating, in midair. The bigger concern was that she could see through her body. Her arms, her legs, the dress, they all appeared transparent, with a light-blue tinge. Like looking through stained glass. In shock, she raised her hands to her face. She could still feel herself. Same with touching her left arm and hand with the right.
"What's happening?" she asked aloud. Her voice had a faint echo to it that was new, but sounded the same to her otherwise. The pressure that had been building inside was still there, but it had changed. Before, it felt like a ball of water around her heart, gradually hardening; now it felt like smoke, filling every part of her. Liya tried to walk, but couldn't find any ground to push off. She frowned and focused, willing herself to move forward. It wasn't fast or far, but she drifted forward. She tried the other directions, and the movements came easier each time. Suddenly, there was a screech from above. Liya turned, to see small green creatures riding a much larger one. A dragon! Liya thought. Were they attacking her? An answering screech from below revealed another, although this one had no riders. They were going to collide, with her in the middle! She felt a pulling from within again, and the world vanished around her. Liya looked around. She was being pulled backwards away from a shining, familiarly light blue, star through a storm of purple clouds. All around her were stars, though these were white, stars without number. Then the clouds vanished. She was back at the fortress of the Hallowed Order. The small crowd that had gathered to watch her execution had dispersed, leaving two Knights and under the gallows, in a heap, her body. If Liya could move, she would have collapsed to the ground. Instead, all she could do was stare in shock. One of the Knights made a disapproving noise.
"Scum," she said, and kicked Liya's body.
"No!" Liya cried out and lunged for the Knight, bracing for impact. The sharp intake of breath was a surprise, as Liya realised that until that moment, she hadn't been breathing. She looked down to see plate gauntlets covering her hands, and realised she was seeing from the Knight's eyes. She had control. Seeing her own body lying dead on the ground, she felt anger well within her. The pressure, or smoke, or whatever it was, was still inside her, but now it felt different again, like how a fruit can taste different the riper it gets. It reminded Liya of winter somehow.
"Hadeel? What are you doing? Just grab the body, and let us go already."
"What?" Liya said in a voice that was not her own.
"Just... just give it here." The other Knight sighed as they walked over and grabbed the body's arm.
"Don't you touch me! I mean... her. Don't touch her!"
The other Knight dropped the arm. "Hadeel? Are you alright?"
"I said no!" Liya yelled and felt a push from within. Mist coalesced around the gauntlet as she held out her hand, and an icicle burst from the air, striking the Knight in the shoulder and even penetrating the armour.
"AH! Have you lost your mind!?"
"Shut up, shut up!" Liya clenched her fist and the mist spread from her hand and started collecting on the armour of the Knight, turning to a layer of ice that covered them from head to toe as they stopped moving. With ragged breath, Liya looked at her hands in astonishment. She could use magic now! She looked over at her now dead body, and nearly started to cry.
No time for that now, need to get out of here.
Focusing, she tried to make that lunging feeling again towards her body, but only succeeded in floating through it, leaving the Knight.
“...What…?” Liya heard the Knight begin to ask before jumping back in and resuming control. There was little for it, and she needed to be anywhere but here. She picked up her body awkwardly and carried it to the door nearby.
Was I always this heavy? Though this woman, Hadeel I suppose, is stronger than I am. Liya thought.
...Or was, anyway, she added sadly, after a thought.
Having not really seen the interior of the fortress, Liya only got turned around twice before finding the stable entrance. She slung her body over a horse and was about to open the gate before a voice called out.
"Excuse me, you can't do that."
Liya looked over to see a young boy, probably no older than 15, wearing plain clothes but designed with an element reminiscent of the Knights armour. A stablehand, most likely.
"I, uh… I'm taking this woman's body to her home for a decent burial. Orders from... you know." Liya said trying to sound believable, pointing a finger vaguely upwards.
"The First Vanguard?"
"Yes, them. So I'll just be..."
"I never heard nothing like that., the boy said suspiciously.
"It's news to me, too. Look, if you want to waste their time and mine by asking a pointless question, go right ahead. Otherwise, I'm leaving now."
The boy thought for a moment. "Just watch for his back right. He's been a bit stroppy when you brush there."
Liya nodded, and body in tow, rode towards home.
Liya slumped over the shovel, exhausted. She had just finished moving the last piece of dirt for her own grave. Thanks to her borrowed magic, she was able to keep decomposition from setting in until she made it home. To her grim delight, the townsfolk, upon hearing of Liya's fate, had ambushed the Ars-Sara intruder and essentially torn him to shreds.The elderly couple who looked after him before had been given custody of Anwar. She couldn't leave, but she could never truly go back.
Using Hadeel as a disguise, Liya assumed the role of a patrolling Knight, but always staying local to her hometown. She cried on seeing Anwar's first steps, and hearing his first words. She lent a shoulder when first one, then both of the elderly couple passed away. Her heart soared when Anwar started seeing a girl within the village, and was practically inconsolable when they had their first child together, a little girl they named Liya, in remembrance. One day, Liya awoke and got out of bed to resume her duties, but Hadeel did not. Liya stayed around the town until the day that Anwar took his final rest. He went peacefully, surrounded by family and friends. If she didn't know better, Liya would have sworn that he saw her, right at the end.
Liya had gotten stronger too. While Hadeel was asleep, Liya had practiced. She discovered that while out of a body, she could fly and move through objects. She could also conjure a phantom glass that served no purpose while spectral, but once in a body, would act as a mirror that others could not see. On the matter of possession, she could only control people who had magic within them: any of the Knights or very rarely someone outside the Order. Each had their own type of magic, and discovering how to use it was always a challenge.
Lastly, she developed her ability to travel to those stars she had seen within the clouds. Focusing, she could fade from one place and see the stars laid out before her. She could then move towards, and into, any of her choosing. However, other worlds needed an anchor; she was only free while here on her homeworld. If she didn't find a host within minutes, she would be pulled back here, to her grave, and left to try again or drift here forever.
Liya looked at the familiar night sky, the one she had known all her life, and portions of her afterlife, and, with a sad smile, focused on the stars and drifted away.