Download full image

Ash still drifted down on the Spires of Arak. It would for days to come. Weeks, perhaps.

Reshad was fine with that, he decided. Smoke and ash he could bear—genocide he could not.

Charred forest, filled with broken trees and the blackened corpses of his fellow Outcast arakkoa, surrounded him. Above it all rose the craggy spires of Skyreach, home of the high arakkoa who had sought to eradicate Reshad's kind. The natural stone towers clawed at the belly of the sky like talons. Atop the highest rested a giant gold crystal, the high arakkoan weapon that had rained down death and destruction on the Outcasts and their forest home.

If Reshad closed his eyes, he could experience it all again: the beam of white-hot fire harnessing the power of the sun, lancing down from the crystal and setting his world aflame. He could hear the shrieks of wood splintering, the cries of the Outcasts burning alive.

But all of that was over now, he reminded himself.

The order that had ruled the high arakkoa with unyielding fanaticism—the Adherents of Rukhmar—was in shambles. Their weapon was destroyed. From the ashes they left behind, something new was emerging. Slowly but surely, it was emerging.

Reshad saw it right before his eyes. The Order of the Awakened, a new society of arakkoa, striving to abandon the hatred and rivalries that had ruled their people for generations. In the burned-out forest, former enemies walked as friends. On one side, the wingless Outcasts, twisted by the Curse of Sethe. On the other side, their cousins, the elegant and powerful winged high arakkoa, who had once viewed all things that dwelled below their spires as inferior.

About time, Reshad thought. These old bones grow tired...

A familiar squawk drew Reshad's attention. A blur of red feathers circled overhead. His kaliri, Percy, swooped low, clutching a satchel overflowing with scrolls between his black talons.

"Ah, you found them!" Reshad clapped his gnarled hands. He had sent Percy out to check on one of his caches of scrolls. The crafty scholar had hidden many throughout the forests over the years. "Bring them here—"

Percy flung the satchel beside Reshad, sending the scrolls tumbling across the sooty ground. "Raaak!" the elder Outcast screeched. "Careful, Percival! You know these are fragile!"

The kaliri landed on the jagged stump of a tree and shrieked a retort.

"Yes, yes…" Reshad sighed, digging into a cloth pouch on his gold-trimmed violet robes. His hand emerged, trailing a mix of seeds and nuts. "I haven't forgotten your reward..."

He scattered it at his feet and wiped his palms on his robes. Percy hopped from the tree trunk and tore through the seeds in a frenzy of beak and talon.

"Show some dignity. There are strangers about," Reshad chided as he began looking through the fallen scrolls. He picked through them lovingly, as one would handle kaliri eggs. They were old histories depicting arakkoan society before it had been divided between those with wings and the Outcasts. Apocrypha, lore suppressed by the Adherents of Rukhmar in an attempt to manipulate and brainwash their kind.

Reshad carefully placed the scrolls in the satchel, examining each of them for signs of damage from the fires. He stopped at one about Terokk, the ancient king who had ruled over the arakkoa, titled Before the Fall. Reshad weighed it in his hand.

Such a small thing, he thought. Just ink and parchment. Yet so powerful it could rival even that false sun the high arakkoa had wielded.

"Reshad!" An Outcast hobbled forward, his ash-streaked feathers the color of a stormy sky. A high arakkoa, wearing a dark blue leather tunic over teal plumage, marched by his side.

"We have not been able to find Iskar," the Outcast continued. "Scouts have gone in search of him, but it will be some time before they return."

"So be it," Reshad said, a coldness pressing down on him. Shadow-Sage Iskar was the leader of the Outcasts. His absence was disconcerting. He had seemed aloof and angry in recent weeks, and Reshad wondered about his intentions. Iskar had always been somewhat obsessed with power, a byproduct of his personal history.

But what is he after? Is this new society of arakkoa not enough for him?

"Should we be concerned?" the high arakkoa asked.

"That remains to be seen," Reshad replied. "Sit. Both of you. Rest."

The high arakkoa nodded as he perched atop a fallen tree. The Outcast took a seat on a small tree stump nearby, wiping soot from his face.

Reshad unrolled the scroll in his hand. The dry parchment was much like him, weathered and frail but full of secrets. He had made it his life's work to collect this knowledge, to teach it to a new generation of his kind. Arakkoa who would follow wisdom rather than the prejudice and mindless zealotry of the past.

Now, he figured, was as good a time as any to start.

"What do you know of Iskar?" he asked, turning to the high arakkoa.

"Only that he leads the Outcasts."

"And what do you know of the ruler of the Adherents, High Sage Viryx?" Reshad asked the Outcast.

The dead high sage, thankfully, he thought. It was by her will that the high arakkoa had unleashed their weapon, hoping to exterminate the Outcasts.

"She did all of this... Hrrrrk!" The Outcast eyed the shattered woods, voice raw and sharp.

"Yes," Reshad continued. "On the surface, they seem very different, as some might say the two of you do. But there was a time when they were the same…"

***

Adherent Viryx tilted the wood scepter over the nest of ravager larvae. The gold crystal atop the trinket pulsed with warmth and energy, glowing like a sun in miniature. Once again, Viryx was mesmerized by the power contained in such a tiny thing.

She had crafted the device herself, using artifacts from a lost and highly advanced culture of arakkoa: the Apexis. Signs of its presence littered the land around the spires of Skyreach. Most of Viryx's kind considered Apexis artifacts to be nothing more than novelties. She was one of the few who believed there was something to be gained from studying the Apexis.

One day, she thought, they will see things my way.

The crystal grew brighter until a beam of gold fire exploded from the stone, lancing over the larvae. The tiny grubs squirmed, their skin melting and bubbling under the heat.

"Put them out of their misery already," Adherent Iskar called out.

The purple-feathered arakkoa paced nearby, adorned in the gold bangles and dark blue hood and raiment that marked him as a sun-sage. He was a strange arakkoa in many ways. Hunched and small for his age. Not the brightest or the most promising of the sages, but despite all of that, he was Viryx's friend. Her clutch brother. She found Iskar's peculiar look and quirks endearing.

"You're not getting sentimental, are you?" Viryx asked.

"Of course not, but we will be late," Iskar hissed. "The elders commanded us to return by nightfall."

"They also told us to clear out the pests. Thoroughly."

"But we will be late. That's how we got into this mess in the first place."

Viryx bristled in annoyance but also felt a pang of regret. It wasn't Iskar's fault they were out here, she reminded herself. She had been late to the dawn ritual yesterday. The punishment for her transgression did not end with her. Years ago, the elders had paired Viryx and Iskar together, as they did with all young Adherents. Doing so meant the fledgling members of the order could watch over each other and ensure that everyone followed the decrees of their sun god, Rukhmar. If one accomplished a great feat, both would be showered with praise.

Likewise, if one transgressed, both would be punished.

And so here they were, in the dirt beneath Skyreach, exterminating troublesome ravagers. The mindless insects often encroached on arakkoan territory, building their stinking nests among the rocks of the spires.

Purging ravagers was a menial task, especially for sun-sages like Viryx and Iskar. They had trained their whole lives to wield Rukhmar's fiery power as their own, to call down her light as a weapon against their enemies.

Still, some part of Viryx enjoyed the task. She was out of Skyreach, out from under the watchful eyes of the elders. She was free. And she wanted to savor that feeling for as long as possible.

"They will understand," Viryx said. She looked out across the grassy hills that rose and fell like waves around the rock spires. Charred ravager corpses lay on their backs, long, spindly legs reaching toward the sky. "We did good work. They won't punish us for that."

"They won't punish you..." Iskar said.

Viryx opened her beak to offer a retort when something agile scrambled from a tangle of thornbushes nearby. Another ravager. The large, mottled gray insect skittered across the ground, disappearing into a dense forest just ahead.

"Leave it..." Iskar pleaded.

But Viryx was already in pursuit. "We have our orders, clutch brother. Thoroughly."

***

We will get the whip for this, Iskar thought as he stumbled after Viryx. Correction: I will.

That was how it always was. The elders always punished him more than his clutch sister, no matter who was at fault. He knew the reasons. Viryx was brilliant. Everything—from their studies in wielding Rukhmar's powers to understanding the sciences—came so easy to her. Even her looks, her pale red eyes and pink feathers, were considered beautiful among their society. She was a model Adherent on her way to great and glorious things.

But Viryx did have her faults. She was disobedient, spontaneous, and restless. She reveled in breaking the rules whenever possible, probably because there was never a real cost. Because of her gifts, Iskar believed, the elders lessened the severity of her punishments.

Try as Iskar did to please his elders, he often made some foolish mistake. He wasn't perfect like Viryx. He should have envied and hated her for being born gifted, but he didn't. When others scorned him, she always stood by his side. She always protected him. Iskar wished only that one day she would understand the consequences of her little adventures and acts of rebellion.

It wouldn't happen today.

Iskar shivered from the cold that closed in around him. The thick forest canopy blotted out the last light of the setting sun. He stepped carefully over massive roots, his talons digging into wet mud.

Strange wood-and-stone talismans swayed from ropes attached to the branches overhead. They were crude effigies of arakkoa. Sticks of incense burned in the closed talons of the figures, sending ribbons of smoke through the forest. The bitter odor made Iskar's eyes water.

They had gone too far. This was the land of the others: those arakkoa who had fallen from Rukhmar's grace. The cursed, wingless creatures who dwelled in the dirt beneath the spires.

The Outcasts.

Iskar said a silent prayer to Rukhmar. He pulled his dreamcatcher from beneath his thick raiment. He clutched the circular wooden talisman, leather cords crisscrossing at its center, tightly in both hands.

Iskar held the dreamcatcher in front of him, just as the elders had taught him. It would act as a net to capture the curse that afflicted the Outcasts and protect him from its withering effects.

In his head, Iskar was already planning how he would hang the dreamcatcher outside his roost when he returned to Skyreach. By midday tomorrow, Rukhmar's light would cleanse the befouled trinket of whatever vestiges of the curse it contained.

"We are forbidden to come here without the guidance of the elders," Iskar said as he caught up to Viryx. "Please just give up."

"Quiet. Look." Viryx pointed forward.

Iskar gazed across the forest. All he saw were trees and shadows. "I do not see the ravager."

"Forget the ravager. I have found something more interesting. Ahead."

Then Iskar saw it. A form. An arakkoa.

It was skulking among the gnarled trees. Brilliant red feathers peeked out from beneath the figure's ratty cloak. Iskar judged that it was a male from its gait and size. The mysterious arakkoa also walked upright, meaning he was not an Outcast. He was one of Iskar's kind.

"He should not be out here alone with the ceremony starting soon," Viryx said.

"Yes… the one we are supposed to attend," Iskar replied.

Today marked the start of Rukhmar's Grace, a time of year when the sun was at its highest and the days were long and bright. All Adherents were required to attend the ceremony and perform rites, a fact that Viryx seemed to shrug off so easily, despite Iskar's warnings.

"Aren't you the least bit curious what he is doing?" Viryx said.

"Not particularly. The longer we linger here, the worse our punishment will be."

Viryx said nothing. She darted forward and then took wing, flying up into the tree canopy.

Stubborn, Iskar thought as he followed. Foolish.

They tracked the strange arakkoa deeper into the woods, alighting on the branches of one tree after another. This was a land that Iskar knew the Outcasts called Veil Akraz. Crude huts, draped in rune-etched violet cloth, dotted the dim forest. The only illumination—if one could even call it that—glowed from purple orbs spaced haphazardly throughout the forest.

"Please..." Iskar gripped Viryx's shoulder as he landed beside her on another thick branch.

"He seems to be stopping."

The mysterious arakkoa disappeared into a large cluster of Outcast huts. A village of sorts. Cold dread pressed in around Iskar, stoking his fear. He took short, sharp breaths, hoping he would not inhale the curse that filled the air of this place.

"Think about what you're doing." He kept his voice low. "The curse…"

"We are not here to perform shadowy deeds. Rukhmar will protect us. Just... wait here for me."

Apocrypha