THE STORYTELLER PLUCKED THE FRAGILE strings of a lute nestled in his lap, creating abstract tunes that fell mutely on the ears of those passing by. His absent eyes watched as the dance of colors, patterns, and textures whisked past him without acknowledgment - the civilians and patrons lost in the mundane chores that busied their lives and swept away thoughts of leisure. He was nothing but a small splash of detail in the frenzied town, and his listless music added to the encapsulating din that stole the melodies and flung it where no one could hear.

     There were mothers and children arguing with each other over shop wares, bakers shouting about their fresh goods, blacksmiths pounding metal with a rhythmic clack, cobblers hammering leather onto shoes, a lost child crying, a young female cathyrl screeching as her tail was yanked on by a couple of rowdy boys, dogs barking, the creaking of windows opening to let in the day, and the clip-clop of horse hooves on the stones below as soldiers quietly patrolled.

     The central square in which he sat was circular in shape with a myriad of long roads that reached like spindly arms from the city known as The Citadel. Histories say that it had once been named Sanctuary, but when the builders came and began piling ivory chalcedony high atop each other to create the great circular structures, travelers swore that from a distance it looked like an enchanting citadel emblazoned with mystical light. The entire city claimed a gigantic hill – giving it the impression of a single, massive tower – and was barnacled with decrepit slums and impoverished farmers at its base while slowly gaining splendor as it spiraled towards the top. The Patrician – another name for the nobility houses – resided imposingly above the poor and middle class residencies and silently gloated with privilege with its clandestine walls and thick, covert trees.

     At the crest of the hill, just past the Patrician, was the Meridian – the large circular town center with the many roads – and the busiest sector of commerce in the realm. The roads were defined by towering arches that yawned like open mouths in every direction, and in those mouths, stones glowed a brilliant white upon catching the sun, winking greetings and farewells to those who passed underneath. The Citadel was the largest free city in the country of Irrylon and was home to many diverse races and societal classes.

     The city was located in the very heart of the realm, and its cephalopodic roads reached far in all directions to the surrounding territories. Decorticated signposts of carved aspens stood at every entrance and glowered down at travelers with etched eyes of engraved warnings. These warnings screamed at them to pay heed to the dangers that lay beyond, as landing oneself in a coven territory of a rivaled race would end poorly for the foreigner. Some provinces housed races that were naturally kind and welcoming, but more often you would find that the purebloods – notably the Darklings, Lycans, and Ancients – would sooner capture, torture, or even kill before asking questions. While crime was regulated in The Citadel and other major cities, there wasn’t much to be done if you were alone and wandering in a turf that was not your own.

     For this reason, it was useful and expected for tradesmen to meet in The Citadel. Not only did it ensure safety, but the Meridian was also renowned to have markets full of intriguing materials, enchanting trinkets, and hard-to-find wares. Politics, too, would often be conducted in the sanctuary of the large walls that protected and encircled the city.

     The Meridian, with its large, flat expanse and protective assurances, attracted attention and crowds like ants to sweets. The number of markets, stalls, taverns, inns, and businesses that lined the streets were indefinite – coming and going, open and closed, seasonal, small, large, independent, and some with questionable legitimacy. Nearly everyone knew or had to learn the common tongue as it was almost mandatory to survive amidst so much diversity, but it was also not uncommon to hear several languages shouting over one another with chaotic dissonance.

     The Storyteller’s calloused hand withdrew from the instrument upon his lap and moved to idle his fingers along the lip of a chipped stone fountain on which he sat. The gentle trickle of water behind him splashed and sloshed up against the interior of its stone hollow, refreshing his skin where and when it could. The midday was hot, yet not sweltering, and children nearby were gaming with small buckets of water thrown at their opponents. A smile cracked the thin line of his lips as he observed, for here was where his chances lay in stealing attention.

     He propped a leg up along the fountain's edge and gave a strong, decisive strum of the lute. His eyes pointed towards the younger crowd as they screamed and yipped with joy, still unaware of his presence. Leaning forward, he flicked his fingers in an improvised tune and spoke loud and deep; a sound they were sure to hear:

     "A tale of adventure, of sorrow, of courage and loss! I’ve a story to tell, a story that you’ll not wish to miss.”

     The young cathyrl from earlier pulled away from the two boys chasing her and spun on a heel, flicking her long white ears towards The Storyteller. Curious, the boys followed her lead and slowed to a stop before him.

     Another strum of the lute vibrated into canorous sounds. “Pause your games, your shopping, your chores! Come sit for a while and listen to a tale of a young woman not unlike your sisters or daughters, and the once Great Houses that lined these streets.”

     A pair of women with baskets of unlaundered garments turned to each other and broke a smile on their tired faces. They paused in their activities and nested the weight of their housework against a hip.

     “This is a tale of mischief and burdens! Of loneliness, of love, of war and battles; of life, death, and the in-between! To all of you, come close, and listen to this story. I will begin to tell you all that I know.”

     By now, the commotion had disrupted the usual flow of the already chaotic city and several curious ears opened at this newcomer and all of his promised wonders. The Storyteller leaned forward to capture intrigue and lowered his voice to a rolling note just above a whisper. Patrons leaned in close and became ensnared in the weaving intricacy of his narrative prowess.

     “The village lay in fire and smoke, choking the air into smothering fog…”

(Story continued in "Seraph")