Tower, Last City. Earth.
A crisp breeze blew from the east, fluttering the golden-red leaves and bringing forth the full aroma of spices and grass. Andrew leaned stopped on the railing, closed his eyes, and allowed his keen senses to absorb all of the wonderful smells and sounds that emanated from the City on this magical night. As the cool winds brought forth the scent of fried goods, spices and sugar it also carried the roar of the much larger celebrations the distant city-proper and it just added to the eerie feeling surrounding the Tower. With a long sigh, he opened his eyes again and continued to mindlessly float about the activities, his eyes scanning the other guardians and observing how they danced in the electrified air.
It was the Festival of the Lost, a tradition held to remember those who have fallen and never risen once more, both Guardians and citizens alike. Rather than being a sorrowful time, the people of the City, instead, celebrate and find joy in their own lives, living in the moments protect for them by their long lost friends and saviors. Every individual, from Guardians doing the zombie dance to the well-known individuals wearing paper masks. The only exception was Eris, who simply found the tradition as He laughed to himself, noticing how his surroundings seemed to put him in a blissful mood even though so many troubling thoughts plagued his mind.
Andrew tried to focus on his sense of the surroundings and not remember what brought him here last time. He had been at the Tower several times throughout the horrors of the Taken War, but rarely had he ever stopped to take it all in. The war had ended for now and he was now in-between jobs. Oryx was dead, or rumored to be. If everything he had read from Tolland's journal, the Dreadnought should be a dissolving husk - regardless of what the Skyburners did in it. But it was still floating there. A stationary, tumorous island in the center of a perfect circle.
What could keep the ship there? This was, if the mad Tolland could been believed, Oryx's Ascendant Realm, meaning everything and everyone in it were merely unwelcomed parasites... or food. Could that be what was keeping the ship there? Could the blood of Cabal, Hive, Taken and Guardians by the primer keeping the mammoth mausoleum in their existence? And if it was, could it be stopped?
Suddenly the cool wind made him shiver.
So many questions left unanswered debated his higher mind. Every time he tried to solve for an answer, none would come. It would hang tantalizingly close, just within his reach, and then it would fade to smoke and disappear into his subconsciousness.
This evening was meant for to be a time for merriment and reflection, though his mind was still focused in the unsure certainty of the future, he was still wrapped in a feeling of melancholy. He was numb. The joy around him turned into a constant roaring in his ears, and the sights began to merge into mesh of color. He did not feel an arm wrap around his.
"Where are you?" A voice said softly.
Andrew blinked. His just realized how dry his eyes were, and they required several blinks to allow any comfort to come back. He looked to the side and saw someone that might have been Layla, if her outfit didn't make take a second look. Her face was covered in make-up the same color of sugar, which gold and red surrounding her hazel eyes and black lines going down her mouth and over her blood-red lips.
Layla was absolutely radiant in the outfit that was loose, yet would flutter in a way that it would outline her strong, yet shapely form. Her dress was a silken dark purple that came up to her shoulders and a belt of golden medallions circling her shapely hips. The large, broad-rimmed hat was decorated small skulls, pink-plumed, curly, swirly feathers, and palm leaves. Feathers of every kind made up the long boa that draped her shoulders. The Heart of Europa rested right in the center, tempting all to look. Andrew inhaled the aroma of her favorite flower, the rare blush roses, that seeped from Layla's hair and felt completely, blissfully at peace.
It was a moment that seemed to defy everything that the Warlock knew of time and space, unable to pry his eyes away from her glowing, hazel orbs and the golden braids that hung over one shoulder.
"Have you come back?" Layla asked, a slight smile building.
"I'm not quite sure, yet," Andrew said, surprised by his own voice. "I think my brain just did a hard reset."
She chuckled, and Andrew cursed at himself for such a dull quip. "Well hopefully it comes back on soon. I would hate for you to be spending the festival all alone."
"I wouldn't be alone if I have you."
"Well unless someone else rubs my elbow the right way."
Andrew gave a sarcastic laugh, Layla just gave her a playful slap.
"You do look rather handsome," she said.
Just as Layla based herself off an icon from Earth's past, so did Andrew. He wore a black suit with a white undershirt, gold embroidery on the sides, and golden belt. His broad-rimmed hat was smaller and less decorative than Layla's. Crow feathers and small, fake, skulls dangled from it. His face was painted too look more like a skull, making his already gaunt face look downright terrifying.
Layla clasped his arm. "Now come on, the night is young and so are we."
A main tradition to the Festival of the Lost was known a time to remember. This included lighting a candle for each lost comrade that has been lost over the years. The though was that the smoke would find them and lead them back to the light of the Traveler.
It was a solemn but necessary tradition.
Andrew lit seven candles, while Layla lit five.
"I remember Bosk, Gilfrahad, Lynella-2, Kageros-5... and Kevin." That last name she had to force out of her.
"I remember Vaclav, Belnel, Doria, Djareh-4, Justin Celis, Khanzhar, and Master Zahl."
The look was quick, but prominent since Andrew did hide his emotions rather well when he needed to. It was a look of melancholy and sadness, and Layla thought her lover might slip into one of his dark moods again.
"Mistress Robinson! Mistress Robinson!" a little cacophony of voices called from around their legs, breaking Andrew out of his mood.
They looked down to see five young, human and Awoken children running up to them; all of them wearing paper masks of their heroes from the crucible or enemies that they would have the fortune to never fight. The group consisted one Lord Shaxx, a Crota, and one that looked like Layla's helmet.
"Guess you have an audience," Andrew said. "Any tale in particular?"
"I think I have a few."
Sitting on the couches that New Monarchy happily 'donated', she begun her tale of how she was a part of the Cleansing of Seoul. That would be an epic tale for the youngsters. The Cleansing of Seoul was the largest and most ambitious military endeavor ever undertaken by the forces of the City prior to the slaying of Crota. A Wizard by the name of Avut the Conjurer had built up a large infestation in the ruins of Seoul and had spread like a ravenous cancer throughout the Korean peninsula.
"And there I was, surrounded by thralls," Layla said in a soft, mysterious tone as she eyed the nine little faces staring up at her with looks of wonder. "I was frozen, having swam from a frozen river, low on ammo and surrounded by the beasts. Suddenly they part and one of the largest Ogres I have ever seen came forward. As big as a mountain."
She leaned forward on the couch and stretched her arms out to exaggerate the ogre's size. The children gasped in shock and awe.
"Were you scared?" An awoken girl asked.
"I would be lying if I said I felt no fear," Layla continued. "yet I kept myself together, as I saw my companion Andrew coming around the ledge."
Andrew did not know what to make of that. Not only was he not there to help Layla, he wasn't even in Seoul or on Earth. He was scouring the old ruins of the Ishtar Academy when all of this happened. A pang of guilt resonated through him at the though of Layla fighting unfavorable odds all alone.
The children gave soft cheers, and their looks of fear soon turned to admiration to the Warlock.
"I looked at the giant beast and said, 'I am Titan Layla Robinson. Slayer of Crota. Slayer of Atheon. Now come get some you darkspawn!"
The small children let out various gasps.
"What did you do next?" a little boy asked.
"Well lets just say there is a reason why Seoul has some new holes in it."
The children applauded with chiming laughs as Layla rose and gave a bow.
"Who wants to go get candy?" One blurted out, all wrapped attention suddenly gone. Layla looked over at Andrew and noticed that he had a hand covering his mouth.
"You truly have a way with words," Andrew said.
"And you have a way with voices."
"One of my many, useless, talents," he sighed. "Still, it was nice to finally know what happened to you in Seoul. But really? A giant ogre and one-hundred thralls?"
"Three knights, and only one slightly above average ogre." Layla said, unabashed.
"Yeah, your version is better." The Warlock should have stopped there, but his kind were naturally curious. "I don't recall being there though."
Layla shrugged, "I took some liberties. Plus they didn't seem to mind. Some of them actually were looking up to you. Quite literally."
Andrew chocked a chuckle and took Layla in his arms. He reached around to touch her only to have his hand slapped and pushed away. "Hey!"
"The night is still young, my love," she lectured, waving a finger at him. "Besides, there is a party at the St. Pierre estate, and I secured two tickets."
The St. Pierre estate was considered by most to be the unofficial seventh fort. As Andrew and Layla were admitted into the place, they decided they didn't know half of it.
The estate was situated in the affluent Terrace District , the northernmost of the territory owned by the City. The district consisted of layers of terraces cut into gental slopes rising from the plains. Many of the lower terraces were given over to stacks of overpriced apartments and packs of town houses that looked like they were built by a group of angry giants. Towards the top of the slope, however, looking out across the domain, the sprawled walled estates began to make their presence felt. Among the largest of these urban compounds was the one that belonged to the St. Pierre Merchant Family. They had acquired the estate sometime around the Early City Age either through blackmail or influence, depending on the story. All the stories agreed, however, that the estate represented the last of the Old Earth Nobility.
The St. Pierre's are known to have influence in everything from the forges to the three factions. There were even rumors that without their endorsement, the Everess Trading Company would not exist or function.
The new matriarch, Mistress Claudine St. Pierre, clearly had an eye for both business and protection. Despite the outward appearance, nowhere was safe for any would-be invader. If they could make it pass the squads of reprogrammed Exos standing guard, then they would have a one-hundred meter dash to get to the luxurious manor. Among the marigolds and lilies, there was not tree or bush where they could find cover, making it a beautiful killing ground.
Tonight, though, the grounds were covered with decorative items for the festival. Glow lamps led the couple through the flower gardens, giving the killing ground an almost mystical feel, if neither one of them noticed a shade watching over them from the manor.
"The Hawk is hunting," Andrew murmured, slightly nodding to where he saw his friend duck from one shadow to another.
"Can't say Claudine isn't a woman who plans ahead," Layla said, noting the partially exposed pitfall in one of the ornate flower beds.
"I just hope drunk couples don't accidentally wander around where they shouldn't." Andrew whispered back.
The trail lead them around the manor to the back. The doors that opened into Claudine's mansion were solid bronze. A small ornate window allowed a sentry inside the house to observer the situation outside the doors before opening them. Today, however, the Merchant Princess did not need such precautions. Andrew and Layla were expected, and even if the guards in the watchtowers had failed to inform them about the guests' arrival, then Cornelia had.
Inside, Claudine's mansion was lavishly appointed. Rich carpets graced marble hallways, rare paintings stared from walls paneled in exotic wood, crystal chandeliers with alchemical illuminators hung between the open skylights in the ceiling. Other guests dressed in lavish and absurd costumes dealt with immaculately servants who were trying their best to keep from anyone sneaking away or breaking something expensive.
The hallway ended in a sprawling ballroom, nearly one-thousand square meters, and occupied the full width of the mansion so that there were superb views on either side. The large arched windows provide enough light to relieve the vast quantity of gilded stucco decorating the walls, and the entire ceiling is covered by a monumental fresco entitled The Triumph of Russia.
The guests were all wearing decorative masks, but minor glimpses gave then away. Some were politicians while others were merchants and even guardians, all here because they were trying to garden favors with the young Merchant Princess. Much to her credit, Claudine was holding her own against the legal scum of the City while also playing as being a good host. The moment she saw the couple, however, Claudine quickly shook off her business deals and possible suitors as she made a line for them.
Some, like a very clingy Awoken woman wearing a silver mask, did not seem to get the message and had to be stopped by another Awoken female who was still in her Hunter armor.
"Andrew! Layla!" Claudine squealed as she rushed up to them. She kissed each on the cheek and Andrew found it very hard not to look down. The young woman wore tight fitting corset that pushed up her already ample chest, which evolved into a flowing feather gowns which pooled around her feet. Her mask was so weighted with gold and gems that it was surprising that it was not weight her down.
"Il a été trop longtemps! How have you been?" She exclaimed. Layla was happy to see her friend smile again, but Andrew was uneasy with how much she was hanging on his arm.
"Lovely shinding you have here. I have never seen your manor so decorated." Layla said.
"Not true. With all the preparations and security expenses, and with this whole mess with these Taken, there was only so much I could do with such little time."
Despite what people thought of her, Claudine wasn't stupid. She was nice, personal, welcoming and gracious, but every action she preformed would bring a new ally into her fold. This party was just one tactic to bring in many at once.
The music began to change, making a beat where a person could dance to but only in the most formal of occasions. Claudine had a look of pure evil flash across her face.
"This song is one of my favorites," She said, pulling Andrew along. "Venez, young Warlock! Dance with me!"
Andrew was not one for dancing. Personally he found the whole thing as silly and a waste of time, so being dragged out into a giant group of people with another woman was not his idea of fun. He looked back at his lover and mouthed the words 'HELP ME', but Layla found the whole thing rather comical.
Layla stood back and watched as the madness commenced. She wasn't surprised that Cornelia just appeared next to her, but it did explain why Claudine's suitors should little interest in her.
"If I were the jealous type, I would guarantee that your Warlock would never leave these grounds." The tone in Cornelia's voice told Layla that she was only half joking.
"Fortunately you are not, if memory serves me correctly."
"I'm not entirely sure what you are suggesting."
"I'm entirely sure, you're entirely sure you know what I'm suggesting." Layla said coyly, making the Awoken blush. "Still, even with his two left feet, I do love my Warlock."
"And I love my princess, even if she is a floozy with her heart on her sleeve one second, and cut-throat business woman the next."
"Won't do either one of us any good if we just stick to the wall." Layla sighed.
"Nope." Cornelia turned and gave a gracious bow to the Titan. "My I have this dance young lady?"
Layla chuckled and said, "I would be delighted, sassy awoken."
The dance itself was not a particular hard one to learn. There was a lot of locking arms and spinning required, but that was the easy part. When it came to the footwork and when to spin, Andrew found himself bumping into or stepping on other dancers. All by accident, of course, even if some fat merchants didn't want to hear it.
Thankfully the dancing stopped for a moment and Andrew thought it was over, but it was merely a chance for couples to change their partners. He had lost Claudine in the mayhem of dancers trading their current partners for new ones, but soon found himself with Layla again.
Layla had a big, dumb smile on her face. "I can see that you have been practicing the dance moves I showed you."
"I had to delete a few things," Andrew said abashed.
"Then just follow my lead." The music began to pick up again. This time it was softer with violins, violas, cellos and nearly every horn. "First, put your hand on my hip."
Layla took the lead, as usual, but Andrew did not care. He was lost in the melancholic, solemn and emotional music, and Layla's lovely eyes. Just like the moment he first saw her this night, he was in a moment that seemed to defy all rules of time, space and reality, as he was merely floating state of happiness as he danced in nearly-perfect harmony with his radiant partner, unable to pry his eyes away. Before he knew what was happening, the music gently slowed and came to a moving cresendo. From a scholarly point of view, these songs gave him a glimpse of the rich culture that had been lost.
All dancers stopped in place and gave bow to their respective partner. Andrew bowed, feeling his senses returning to this plane of existence as he gave out a genuine laugh savoring the moment where everything seemed so perfect.
"So you have been practicing," Layla said, out of breath. Apparently they had danced through four ballets without either of them knowing it.
"What can I say? I have a good teacher."
Layla smiled warmly and nuzzled against his thin chest. Andrew looked around and noticed that they were some of the last dancers left. Everyone else had either left for other merriment or were gossiping among the gardens. Hopefully Nel would not have to pull any drunkards out of the pitfalls come the morning. Neither one of them really wanted to leave either, because the City was probably still in full swing of celebrations, and they were just too tired for anything else. Andrew came up with a wonderful, all be it awful, idea.
"You know," Andrew said, slightly bashful as the request. "This manor does have a lot of rooms. Most of which are empty. Maybe we could find one and you could give me a few more pointers..." He had to block a furry of playful punches, but it was not a full out no.
"Is that really all you think about?"
"As you said. The night is young, and so are we."
He hit Layla with a great hug, pressing up against her more, kissing her and crushing her, lifting her right from the ground. And he kept walking, carrying her along. Layla halfheartedly protesting all the way, if her smile did not give it away.
This is what the Festival of the Lost meant. To show the dead that the living were still alive, and still managed to find happiness in troubled times.