Hidden 10 mos ago 10 mos ago Post by Rhaevnn Xeno
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Rhaevnn Xeno Caster of Shadows

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'How does he know?' Morgan's gait slowed at the beginning of Forthey and then stop all together at the mention of helping him -- or was it his party. The mask looked over a half turned shoulder, the dead eyes giving the apprentice a long hard look. The vampire could hear the boy's increasing heartbeat as Morgan fully turned back to his accuser, responding dully, "You think you know so much, assuming that I have someone to meet or that you could be useful in the event I was meeting someone.. The cloaked man moved forward slowly, his leather-bound hand clenched around the knobbed weapon that was parallel to the horizontal ground below it. "I have no interest helping you, your master, or the law, but you would know this--"

In a blur of motion, Morgan sprinted forward. If Forthey could not dodge the unnatural action, Morgan would plant the butt of his weapon against the center of the boy's chest, attempting to knock him down and with full intention to knock the wind from the apprentice's lungs. Morgan finished his sentence, "--If you really knew anything."

However, if Forthey had truly been trained well, Morgan would be absolutely surprised at the boy's speed. 'I see now why his master is called "The Viper."' The vampire would mentally comment, using the momentum of the attack to rebound into an acrobatic flip. Catching himself against the stonework after a twisted front flip, Morgan was already preparing for the boy's retaliation.
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Jordan Forthey


The stranger halted, first turning his head to look at him, and then facing him fully.
"You think you know so much, assuming that I have someone to meet or that you could be useful in the event I was meeting someone..." The mysterious figure's movement had changed again. It was now ... stalking. Yes, stalking was an apt descriptor. Like a cat closing in on a sparrow. So, he was appraising him? Preparing to attack, and just stalling with his words until he can find the best angle?
Jordan's eyes moved from the figure, to the horizontally poised studded staff, to the narrow passage between the two residential houses the stranger had trying to flee into - he was pretty much still out in the wider street himself, and back to the figure who was now approaching, rather than distancing himself from him. Half-instinctively, half because his training told him he probably should, he took a step back at this point, and carried his weight over to that back foot. He had not let go of his sword's grip after the stranger had grabbed him and insisted he did not know anything, and still he kept it there.
"I have no interest helping you, your master, or the law, but you would know this--" the stranger rushed him; as a response, Jordan did the only thing he had the time and mind to attempt, and abruptly twisted his torso to the right while lifting his right foot for another step back, and this time to the left, so his feet formed a line one behind the other.
He had reacted as soon as he saw the stranger begin to move, from what had seemed to be quite far away, yet he couldn't quite finish even this comparatively quick maneuver. Though, he wasn't hit in the chest, and the staff instead made contact with his triceps. It seemed like enough force that, had it hit his upper arm full-on, rather than glancingly, it might have cracked bone, and even now it probably left a nasty bruise, even through the sleeve. Pain radiated both up and down his arm. (He had been hit in the upper arm ... his shoulder he could understand, but why did his wrist hurt?)
Even before his right foot had made contact with the ground again, the stranger had gone into a strange flip ... with his staff still in hand ... and landed to what was now his right side, back on the street they had first started out on.
Without wasting any more time, he finally drew his sword, baring all of its ninety-three centimeter blade to the sunlight, which reflected off the refurbished, but meticulously sharpened and cleaned weapon. His right hand felt slightly numb now. His left hand joined the right on the sword's grip as he quickly diagonally retreated three more steps, watching the stranger. His heart was beating hard.
The stone wall of the closest off-white building was now right behind his back, the closest corner of the building at an arm's length to his left. Well, there would be no flipping past him, unless the stranger wanted to faceplant the wall... The stranger who now undoubtedly was not a normal person. Too fast. Wardens could make themselves unusually fast, right? Fast and resilient. If the stranger had been any closer, or telegraphed his moves any less, Jordan knew he'd have gone down, no questions. Had the stranger wanted to whack him over the head when he had grabbed him ... well, he'd have been done. If the stranger actually gets close to him ... or uses some kind of trickery, he is done, no questions about it. He had picked someone who was too much superior to him indeed.
"--If you really knew anything." Well, he thought he had discovered quite a lot by now, at least...
"Shoot the messenger, will you?" he half-shouted, half-said. Maybe if he keeps speaking, the stranger might stall a bit? What now ... prepare to dodge? He must not be let close. Jordan carried his weight over to his right foot and bent his knees slightly, keeping his sword in middle guard. Predict. Yeah. Predict.
Provided the stranger didn't launch at him again immediately, he continued. "I'm the least of your problems." Well, attacking people in the middle of the day simply because they wanted to find out what the heck was going on was certainly a problem. "Interest doesn't matter, sometimes. It's just not how things are."

Sir Yanin Glade


There were many almost, but quite not like the anchor. Similar enough for the anchor's image to act as amplifier ... to almost, but not quite register as the same thing binding to anchor had attuned one to. What was permeated, could be sensed, and those feelings did not belong. So withdrawal into the anchor and the stable upper earth it was; the anchor was familiar, and the upper earth did not feel or shift quite as violently.

Not much. The first things he had learned were not much, and so he was told to come back once there has been a little more time for research. He did get a new nickname for his new friend, though. "Void beast" was perhaps more apt than "demon".
Meanwhile, he should probably find his squire and let him know about the change in plans. And have lunch. Evidently, the boy had lingered by the gates for a while, and then headed towards the city center, accompanying one of the refugees. He had managed to locate the man, and from him gotten the general direction the squire had headed. Before he moved on, he had handed the man the package he had been carrying under his arm. The man had stared at the package, dumbfounded, and then shuffled in to awkwardly untangle it with a single hand.
Sir Yanin himself continued down the designated path, heavy hiking boots hitting the cobbles, mail west upon his gambeson and his signature sword on his side. Today, he was not concealing his person, so he went without his cloak.
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It all happened so fast, but Morgan was surprised - the boy was fast, at least by human standards. Managing to pull away just enough to avoid being pummeled to the ground, the young man even managed to get into a defensive position, back to the wall, his small blade flashing in the sunlight as both hands curled around its worn handle.

"Shoot the messenger, will you?"

The voice of his opponent reflected the frantic beating in his chest - or so said Morgan's ears as the vampire paced counterclockwise, three steps to Jordan's left. Morgan looked quickly over his shoulder; had anyone heard the loud voice of the boy? The sniffer's attention snapped back to Forthey.

"I'm the least of your problems. Interest doesn't matter, sometimes. It's just not how things are."

'Can't give in. Focus.' In times of stress, it was harder and harder for Morgan to keep his other self at bay. Already, the distressed breathing and the rapid beating of the boy's lungs and heart were causing the beast to strain at its mental chains, desperately clawing for the blood that coursed through the apprentice's veins. But this boy was not like other, more easily obtained breakfasts - he was trained. Morgan was no truly trained fighter, but even he could recognize the position that Forthey had taken. It was easily dependable with a stance placed between himself and Morgan. But it was then, under his metal mask, Morgan's lips pulled into a thin frown. 'Deja'vu.'

An image flashed into his head - a guard, a full witness to the murders of three bloody meals, fearfully backed against a wall, sword centered at Morgan's bloodlusted face. The beast did not hesistate - charging forward, it fully took the spear to the chest, but kept moving forward through the blade to seize the screaming protector and begin draining the life from the bewildered guard.

Such a solution would be too messy - people would search for this young man and there would be an ugly trail that would be difficult to cover. 'But if I am assuming too little--' Morgan's body hurled forward, weapon raised vertically, right hand over left. To those who could see the swift action, the top of the weapon came hurdling downward...only to reverse its action. Somewhere in between Morgan's form sliding low to the dusty ground and raising his left arm to swiftly spin his weapon's downward momentum into an upward arc, the right hand released from his weapon to deliver an uppercut the space between Jordan's spread legs, apply a blunt force none too gently to the nether-region. The tactic? To redirect attention, hopefully bump the hard stance upward while simultaneously disabling the boy. A risky maneuver, with obvious consequences, but Jordan was correct - if the vampire managed to get close enough, the struggle would be over.

If all went well and according to plan (but when does this ever happen?), Morgan would feel his booted foot tap against the stone wall behind Jordan as the pain stricken boy collapsed on top of his legs.

'--I could be in the military's hands in hours.'
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Jordan Forthey

The stranger checked the street behind him - so he was afraid of being discovered, at the very least. He could perhaps use it to his advantage, to momentarily distract his foe? Maybe. But he'd rather there really was someone just about right now, and distractions would matter little if he were to be sliced to ribbons before any aid arrived. Were there any people in these buildings, at home and awake, who could hear him? Damned.
The stranger had his attention on him again. This time, he did not reply, and just rushed him again. He, at least, was done talking.
Yet again, Jordan did the only thing he could - attempted to evade by continuing in the direction his last shift in weight distribution directed him to, which was to the right. It was not quite as graceful as his last dodge, however. On a snap, it had felt like the mysterious figure could use his staff to hit him whichever way he sidestepped - the reach of the studded polearm was too great, and he was not trying to use it as a sort of lance now - and, well, as a response Jordan thus dove away from where he had been standing.
As a result of his dive, the stranger did not quite hit what he intended on either account - Jordan could feel the side of his left calf hit the stranger's arm, and the quarterstaff contact his sword - sharply, but as he did not brace against the other's weapon, it more swept his own blade aside than impacted his wrist.
The cobbled street, as he quickly found out, was a lot less kind. His right shoulder took the worst of the hit as it smacked against the smooth stones below, followed by his hip that had his dagger's sheathe with the smaller blade dig into it, and he could feel the side of his head contact with the pavement, too. Luckily not hard; his shoulder had taken that hit for his head. His hands stayed to desperately clutch the grip of his sword, knuckles white. He did not feel much pain for the time being; too much caught up in the rush of blood.
Away, was his most sensible thought as he distinguished the legs of the stranger past his feet through slightly blurred vision.
"STOP!!!" he barked, but yet also opted to have his sword do an almost half-circle as he did the first thing he instinctively got into his head and chopped at the other's legs. Not the most powerful hit - there was no way to put his body behind the hack here - but at least the edge was aligned correctly, and the blade had gathered a fair amount of momentum during its arc. There were only two options, really - either the stranger got further away, or he was cut. (Luckily for him, the very bottom end of the street was in shadow from the opposite building, so neither sun nor the reflections could hurt him here.)
Vaguely, some detached part of the squire recalled something about different grip types. Something about round grips being not preferable when it mattered which side of your weapon hit something. Suppose it was good his sword had an oval grip, then. Another part noted he probably had not outright snapped his arm off his shoulder or something, as it still moved.

Sir Yanin Glade

Trouble. The boy had found trouble, the knight noted to himself as his ears caught a familiar voice, and he exited the cross street - right after the "trouble" had glanced over his shoulder to check behind his back. From what he had gathered over the past five years, Jordan was not the sort who specifically went out of his way to make trouble for trouble's own sake. It was logical to assume, then, that his opponent was the instigator.
The boy could be inquisitive and persistent, that much was true, but normal people hardly went for a full-blown assault just over that. The Falcon had noted that Jordan was perhaps also more daring than most people. Personally, Sir Yanin quite liked that his squire was quite straightforward with his questions; some others would indefinitely dance around what they actually were going after, and you try to figure out what in the planes they wanted of you. More often than not, he did not even bother. If they wanted to get something, they could say it, too.
Just eighty yards separating him and the two combatants at that point. Sir Yanin did not quite run. He strode forward, fast. For a man his side, he could be very quiet in motion, if he so desired. Quiet for any human, in fact. Quiet, but for the time being, not necessarily hiding his presence.
A bit further away, he could see Jordan dive to the side and land hard on his side as the trouble rushed him. Just don't snap your spine or crack your head open, the knight mentally noted at his apprentice. Or have your heart torn out like those poor sods in Nemhim. Most other things were fixable. If you were going to get gravely injured, it was doubtlessly preferable to do so in a large city with its own resident high priests of Reina.
Well-coordinated. Very fast. Very strong for his size. But reckless, untrained and straightforward. Uses a quarterstaff. Possible smaller blades. Jordan shouted, and attempted to hack at the trouble's legs or feet. Sir Yanin Glade drew his own sword, its blade half the length of the thus far unidentified individual's polearm, its hilt another foot.
Sixty-four yards to go.
Hidden 10 mos ago 10 mos ago Post by yoshua171
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I'onriyi Stonehand


At Nimbus' further explanation of the young arcanist's issue, I'on frowned, though he nodded his expression becoming more pensive as he did so. Sipping his tea from time to time, he took in the information laid out before him even as his gaze remained on the surface of the table between them.

She couldn't return to the spirit realm to replenish her reserves and stabilize her soul, because the act of attempting to do so could kill or trap her. It was a truly troubling dilemma. Though, perhaps there was some way he could help her. Either accessing energy from the spirit realm for the girl or maybe finding a way that his own soul could guide her there and back? It was possible, he supposed, but was it plausible—he wasn't sure. However, he was pulled from his thoughts as Nimbus relayed Male'dai's thoughts on alchemy and enchantment. Glancing up at her and raising a brow, seeming faintly displeased, he replied, "A mere pastime is it?" There was a faint edge in his voice, revealing that he had not taken kindly to the comment.

Rising from his seat, I'on set his cup down and left the room. "Come," he said, not waiting for her to follow.

Passing the foyer and entering a hallway, I'onriyi eventually came to a door, which he placed a hand on. He whispered a few words—too quiet to pick up—which were accompanied by a brief influx of energy. He then pushed the door open. When Nimbus passed the door she might notice that there was no handle. Entering the room that served as his workshop would reveal several long tables arranged along the walls, accompanied by a number of shelves, chests, and drawers. There was an archway that led to another, smaller, room that contained what appeared to be a forged—though it was inert. I'on looked the room over fondly a moment, knowing he would have to give it up for a time. After a moment he located his staff, which he retrieved where it sat on a wall-mounted rack.

He looked the item over, checking for any fractures in the crystal or faults in the metal before—with a nod—he turned to his guest and held it out.

"Would you call this something made purely as a pastime?"

If she didn't take it immediately, he would push it out again to emphasize his intention. Part of him knew that someone with such an attitude wasn't likely to understand the value—nor the quality—of his staff, but his pride and want to correct her misconception were stronger than that voice.

Of course, he realized that he was also being rather unfair given that Male'dai and Nimbus would likely want to stay in his good graces. This in mind—once she had taken the item to inspect—he would clarify, "Speak honestly, mind you. I may have my pride, but I happen to value the truth more than my feelings." Ironically, I'on had quite a few secrets that he would prefer never saw the light of day, despite their being the truth. Then again weren't there some things that people were just better off not knowing?

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Zerul City, I’onriyi’s estate

Nimbus had to catch herself to avoid physically recoiling in surprise at the displeasure he managed to convey, apparently over the simple use of the word “pastime”. She stared at him with wide-eyed confusion, nervously drumming her fingers on the sides of the cup in her hands. What had she said? From what she knew of the penin, both through her own knowledge and that of Male’dai, they should not be adverse to do things just for their own amusement. Was he somehow judgmental towards alchemy or enchanting? She could not see what she could possibly have done to anger Ion’riyi...
I have no idea, Male’dai contributed her own insight, or lack of the same. For once I’m just as stumped as you are.
Her puzzlement was in no way diminished when the little man made to leave and asked – no, ordered – her to follow. Fearing that she may have unwittingly crossed some kind of line and was now being thrown out of his house or otherwise punished, Nimbus quickly crammed as much bread into her mouth as she could fit, desperate to sate her hunger as much as possible before returning to the street. She chewed as she went, bringing her tea with her, and hurriedly followed the master of the estate as cautiously as she could without falling behind.

But rather than head for the exit, Ion’riyi lead her to another room that appeared to serve as a workshop of sorts, presumably for some kind of metalwork if the presence of a forge was any indication. It was clearly a place precious to the penin, though; not only did he take a moment to glance at the contents of the room in appreciation, but the fact that he had used magic to open the door had not escaped her attention, though whether he did so out of convenience – as he had with cooling his tea – or necessity was uncertain. Probably a necessity, given the lack of a handle on the door. A fairly secure room, then, at least to anyone not versed in the arcane.
Apparently the room itself was not his destination, however, as Ion’riyi quickly went to retrieve some kind of artifact mounted on a wall, which he examined before handing it to her, asking whether it was “something made purely as a pastime”, and subsequently urging her to be honest in her appraisal of the item in question.
She accepted the artifact after depositing her beverage on a table, frowning uncertainly as she looked from it to its likely creator, still unsure why he had reacted the way he had and what exactly he was trying to do. Soon enough her attention focused on the item, though, and she let her hands – all three of them, though the penin would only perceive the visible two – roam over it just as her gaze scanned it in search of any comprehension she could possibly gain through it.
The first thing that caught her attention about the artifact was the sensation of magical energy within it, which immediately drew her eyes to the crystals adorning it. Some of the – staff? Scepter? – was composed of magically conductive crystal, but some of those crystals had been further altered into crystal prisons, two of which had been filled. Male’dai silently voiced her wonder at whether he had grown the magical crystals himself or had managed to find them in the right shapes somewhere, and she remarked that making crystal grow so smoothly was rare and extraordinarily difficult. Even more puzzlingly, they noticed that there was a metal core through some of the crystals when Male’dai wondered how durable it was... which probably meant that the crystal would have had to be grown around the core, since magical crystal typically lost its conductive properties when it was severely damaged.
Nimbus obviously also noticed the arcane runes on the object, which momentarily caused her frown to deepen. “United winds, bind the symbol”? The sentence carved there did not make any sense to her before Male’dai pointed out that they were probably made to be used independently of each other rather than as a sequence, as simple rune magic. So “unity”, “wind”, “restrain” and “seal”... The three first were fairly self-explanatory and had well-known magical properties on their own, but “seal”? Neither of the two beings inhabiting the true deigan’s body knew of any magical effects stemming from that arcane word. Maybe it was supposed to be used in conjunction with the others? That would make sense.

“It’s certainly an unusual piece of craftsmanship,” Nimbus commented after a minute or so, inwardly wondering whether the magical energy trapped in the crystal prisons was loosely enough bound for her to siphon it into her second soul. “It must have taken a lot of work and planning to get this to come together. The crystals alone must have taken a very long time and many attempts to get just right.”
She offered the staff back to its owner, looking at him uncertainly. “It isn’t lacking in quality, but... honestly, I’m not sure what you expect me to say. Was it made as a pastime? Did you have a reason for making it or did you make it for your own enjoyment?” She shook her head hopelessly. “How would I be able to tell? All I can say is that if it is the product of a pastime, you seem to dedicate a lot of time and resources to those.”
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It was not long before things were packed and preparations were complete, and the time came for the new companions to undertake the next stretch of their journey. Unfortunately the number of animals available to them meant that each of the horses had to carry two riders, and Jaelnec in particular ended up spending some time obsessing over what this meant. Part of the arrangement come naturally, with Iridiel and Domhnall sharing one horse, which left only Angora and the two nightwalkers to share one horse and the donkey. Were it up to the squire either himself or Angora would ride the donkey so that Olan would be sharing the horse with whoever was left over, but as it turned out the donkey was rather adamant about not letting anyone but the explorer extraordinaire mount it. Jaelnec even contemplated going on foot just to avoid being bundled up with the scantily covered murderess, but ultimately found that he could not justify doing so; not only would it slow them down even more if he did that, but he was not entirely confident that his legs would carry him all the way to Zerul City without aggravating the strain he knew persisted – though less noticeably now – from when he had used the slayer-stance.
So it was that they rode northward, Domhnall and Iridiel on Usha’s white beast with their tame wolf in tow, Olan on the donkey and Angora and Jaelnec on Aemoten’s horse. They moved alongside the foreigners’ acquaintance, Claw, for a while, though the creature split from their group along the way. The rain, though heavy, proved true to Domhnall’s expectations and stilled not long after they had set out, leaving them wet and cold, but at least having served to wash away the mud.

Not much happened worth noting on the way aside from passing another several farmsteads which, remarkably, all seemed to still be populated and functional. This close to one of the great cities of Rodoria it seemed that not even the Withering could keep places vacant from the sheer number of people eager to ply their trade or find property to call their own. They passed a handful of farmhands at one point, apparently tending to a field of rye that seemed nearly ready for harvest, but those people seemed to scurry away and hide when they noticed the companions. Apparently the resilience to hardship evident in the farms themselves was not present in the people, who had grown wary of strangers, especially the armed kind. Indeed, had their group been of a malevolent sort, these people could probably have done little to stop even the five of them from looting every place they came across. But even if they did, would these places even have anything of value left?

It was not until they arrived at their destination that something noteworthy happened next, though their arrival in itself was a quite remarkable experience. To see first the spires of Castle Zerul appear in the distance, rising high above the grounded city, and then witness as the wall surrounding the city came into sight, spanning miles and miles to the east and west, encircling a city whose citizens numbered hundreds of thousand. The closer they came to the city, the more tightly spaced were the lesser settlements they came across, to the point where some groupings may even have qualified as villages... though it also became more and more evident that something bad had happened. Even before reaching the city proper groups of refugees could be seen at the more prosperous farmsteads, either taken in by the charitable or squatting in vacant shacks and hovels. It was the worst by the gate, where – though most had filtered into the city by now – crowds were still gathered, waiting their turn for admittance into the city or simply camping at its outskirts.
At the gate, however, someone finally interfered with their journey. A young man – almost a boy, really, likely in his middle-teens – with short hazel hair and a huge runesword on his back seemed to lock his eyes on them as they approached, seeming confused at first, but then more and more excited. Soon he was jogging toward them, his attention apparently primarily being on Jaelnec... specifically, the nightwalker realized once he got closer, on his chest. On the ghiril cuirass.

“Excuse me,” he called out, sounding cautiously hopeful as he moved up to the companions, “but you’re Jaelnec, right? Ghiril is too rare for you not to be... especially with that hat, and those eyes!”
“I am,” the squire confirmed hesitantly, uncertain what exactly was going on. “Do I know you?”
“No, but I’ve been waiting for you all day,” the boy laughed, seeming boundlessly relieved. Then he seemed to catch himself and let his gaze sweep over the rest of the group. “Well, you and your companions, though this doesn’t seem to be the people William said were coming or who the memory sphere said you were with.”
Ah, so this was part of something William had arranged. “A lot has happened since then.”
The other nodded, then quickly turned to face the entire group and offered them as courteous a bow as he could manage with the cumbersome weapon strapped to his back. “My name is Thomas Remdal, and I’m supposed to receive you. Welcome to Zerul City.”
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and
The ride was uncomfortable in the extreme. Angora's adrenaline had by now worn off in its entirety, and by the gods her body ached. Her head was fuzzy still from Iridiel's heavy blow, and her muscles were sore and tired from overexertion. Added to her misery was the seemingly-constant, incessant rain. She was sodden to the skin, and what made it worse was the squire she was riding with, sitting in front. Part of her wanted to cling onto him to make sure she didn't fall off, and part of her realised if she did so... he might jump off. Again. Such a difficult one to anticipate...
Well. She had just stripped off in the middle of the camp. Perhaps she needed to apologise for that. And for her actions. It was probably the best first step in trying to soothe flared tempers in the group. And yet she felt as though her speaking might aggravate things. The squire was not an easy one to judge, although he had most certainly judged her already. But judges can and should change their minds, given new evidence.
It had over ten minutes, with nothing but the clopping of hooves on earth.
"Hey... Jaelnec, right?" Her voice was quiet, though it retained its ethereal quality and tone. "I uh... just want to say sorry. For first off... attacking you guys. Might seem pointless to say sorry for something you couldn't really control, but I want to apologise. And I'm not just saying that because it's the right thing to do. I mean it."

Jaelnec, meanwhile, was probably just as uncomfortable with the situation as Angora. Having a girl he had pretty much just seen naked sitting within touching distance, so close that all it really took for him to feel her against his back was a small dent in the road, was having a rather observable effect on the nightwalker. Or it would have observable, had he not arranged himself the way he had specifically to hide said effects. He kept himself as rigid as humanly possible, trying to keep as much distance as he could between himself and his passenger, and his gaze fixed on the path ahead.
It was horrible. Not only did he really not want to think of the murderess as a girl after what she had told them back at the camp, but now that he was, all manner of different chivalrous concerns came to mind. How he thought he should really offer to wrap her in his cloak, how it would be safer and more comfortable if she was hold on to him as they rode. Only, one of those things would remove one of the last physical barriers between him and her, and the other would make it extremely difficult for him to take his mind off what he had seen recently.
When she spoke his first reaction was to be grateful to have something to be angry about, immediately distracting himself from her femaleness by fixating on the fact that she did not seem confident in remembering his name. She continued before he could vent his not-entirely-justified anger, however, and he found himself somewhat unwillingly placated by her words.
“It wasn’t you,” he told her, reiterating what she had already been told. “And nobody got seriously hurt. Not... really. So it’s okay.” He wanted to say more, commenting grimly on how unusual it must be for her to feel responsible for her actions – particularly when those actions were not even hers – and that she had been hurt worse than any of them, but he decided against it. Besides, she had said “first off”.

Angora listened intently to Jaelnec's speech. The cold and the rain made her shiver, and she fought hard to keep her teeth from chattering - how she wished that the spirit's warmth still protected her! She readied herself for the condemnation - only for Jaelnec to take the exact opposite stance. He seemed to understand, seemed to acknowledge that it wasn't truly her, but something else entirely, using her body. "That's... good to hear. I know it wasn't truly me that did this, but... it still feels wrong to simply accept that. It was my body, my form. But... Thank you, Jaelnec." The squire's words comforted her. Though he no doubt was still very angry at her, his declaration that he at least gave the image of forgiveness and understanding was a great burden off her shoulders. The first step on the road to reconciliation. Now to take the long jump into the unknown.
"I also want to apologise for my actions at the campfire." She let her words sink in slightly, and cleared her throat, trying to shift slightly on the horse as she did so, also trying to keep away from the squire - to respect his own personal space. She noted that he was as stiff and rigid as a wall - why? Was he injured? Was this how he rode a horse? If it was, it was a most intriguing style. Or was he hiding something? Oh... he might well be. And so, her thoughts moved to him. A striking figure for sure, with those deep black eyes... veritable pools of inky darkness. Like the darkness she used during her work, as black as the night sky. She snapped herself back to reality. "I, erm... didn't know you'd have such a reaction. I guess in hindsight it should have been obvious right?" She gave a nervous giggle, unsure what reaction that sentence would garner, but she pressed on regardless. "Sorry. If I'd known that would happen I would have changed over at the river. I guess I was, uh, only thinking about the practical matters at the time. Kind of a holdover from the spirit, I suppose."

He did not realize what she meant by her “actions at the campfire” until she mentioned his reaction to them, which to him removed all need for clarification. Had he not been wearing a cloak and armor she might have noticed the muscles in his back going taut at the thought of those events. She might have noticed his biceps and neck-muscles growing tense regardless; all he knew was that her mention of those events, the thought of what he had seen and the fact that he felt her shuffling about behind him made him very keen not to move from the spot.
Even so he found himself a little indignant over her words. “Why would it have been obvious?” he asked, so distracted by what that assumption implied that he forgot to address her apology.

He tensed even more - in anger? Angora panicked, stammering out a sentence before she was able to compose herself. "No, no no, I meant... I, uh..." Angora sighed, wiping away the rain from her face to hide her embarrassment. Pull yourself together, girl. "Damn it... I meant that I should have known not to do that, to be mindful of other people, right? I haven't had to deal with actual people in... however long it's been. I forgot that you can't just do things like that. People in the city don't go about in naught but their skin, right? I mean, unless things have really changed over the last few months, hehe..." Another nervous giggle. "I didn't mean anything negative by it. Just that in hindsight I guess I should have known better."
Shame. It was a new feeling to her. She had acted worse than a back-alley slut, a whore, and now she was feeling the consequences of it. She had been so blunt, so overt with herself, she felt... dirty. Women of the dockyards were better than that, by the gods...

Jaelnec slumped a little – just the tiniest bit – at that, and if she was paying attention she might notice the flush of crawling up his neck. Of course that was what she had meant, it was, itself, obvious. He had to stop himself from groaning in regret and shame for having immediately jumped to the conclusion that she had meant it as belittlement of him; that he was a prude, innocent, naive or some combination thereof... that he was a child. Suddenly he wished that he had taken the chance when he had it to escape this life and found the worm-people.
“Oh,” he mumbled awkwardly, too embarrassed with himself to be very eloquent. “Uh, right. Well, I guess that’s... fine. No harm done.” No physical harm, anyway.

For Angora, noticing even the smallest things around her was vital when she was in the city, and even more so when she was alone in the wilds of Rodoria. Suffice to say, it therefore should not come as a surprise to know that she noticed Jaelnec's abrupt change in attitude, as well as his change of posture. He seemed... deflated, almost defeated? Had she said something to upset him unknowingly once more? "A-are you sure? I mean, not to intrude... If you say so." Mutual awkwardness was abound in great quantities, the air so thick with it that Angora felt as if she was drowning, unable to breathe properly. Her chest tightened, her breathing quickening to an uncomfortable pace. She, too, began to freeze in place on the saddle, though her grip on the saddle itself tightened to such an extent that her knuckles were screaming in outrage. Yet she held on, hoping to find something to calm herself down with. Or at least, to ground herself in reality, to prevent anything untoward happening. Meanwhile, the Black Sword had begun to glow seemingly white-hot in her makeshift scabbard at her belt - the raindrops almost instantly vaporised into minuscule clouds of steam as they impacted on the flawless obsidite blade, rising into the air. The warmth was welcoming to Angora, who until that time was convinced she was at least suffering the beginnings of frostbite - how ironic, she thought, to get frostbite in the rain.

“Yeah...” the squire exhaled, unsure what more to say. “I mean...” Yes? What did he mean? He was not even sure that he knew where his own thoughts were going.
He shook his head, chuckling quietly to himself. “I’ve been raised to be a knight for half my life, and though my master was a shameless womanizer, I always resolved to be better. That even if I couldn’t fight as well as him or be as smart as him, at least I’d be... I don’t know, a better person? And I try to be good, but...” He sighed. “I don’t know where I’m going with this. Forget I said anything. It doesn’t matter to you anyway.”

"I... I see." Angora nodded slightly, perhaps understanding more about this man than he truly wanted to let on. That's why he had judged her so... harshly? That he wanted to hold people to account to keep people from falling into the depths of depravity, as his own 'master' had done. And that he did so because he held himself to such high standards, and couldn't afford to have those standards compromised in any way? Perhaps - it made sense to her. Knights to her were tyrants, men who ruthlessly exploited their power to benefit themselves, just like all the other lords and ladies, a hierarchy that she, as a burgher, was shielded from. The cities kept to themselves, paid their taxes and made sure the monarch didn't infringe on their old rights... right?
"...You try to be good in a world where good is almost overrun." She ignored his last sentences. It did matter, by the gods, they were going to be working together, of course it mattered! Angora relaxed, slouching slightly in her saddle seat, though still careful not to make contact and reinforce the squire's sense of unease. He was but a couple of inches taller than her, though he was more well-built as of course men tended to be. He had quite the attractive frame, actually... Stop it.
"I sort of know what you mean. Of course, I didn't have, like, knightly training or anything, but I grew up in a family, as you know, built on crime. Mama the chatelaine, Papa the goldsmith, bought and sold with blood money. You know... I didn't choose to be a Cleaner. I know it probably sounds, like, really outlandish and like I'm covering up for myself, but... I didn't."
Angora sighed and shook her head. "I... I shouldn't be saying this. But I will, because if you and I have to work together, you need to know things about me. My father is Erik Kelenwyn, captain-junior of the Dramburgh crime family. The Dramburghs specialise in Cleaners - which meant that I was practically trained to be one from when I could first hold a sword and bat my eyelashes. I do what I do because I'm told to do it. The money... yeah, sure, whatever, it's nice and all, but you have no idea what happens if I say no, Jaelnec." Angora shuddered, memories of the one and only time she said 'no' coming dangerously close to the fore. "They break you, Jaelnec. They break you in ways you never thought possible. I can't say no. I said it once. I say it again, I die." She lowered her head, her sodden hair falling about her face. "They said they'd hand me over to the government. A good execution to prove that the city's government were tackling the problems. Or just a good way of getting the people's minds off things."

At first Jaelnec had no idea what Angora was talking about, but it did not take long to realize that she had taken his words even more heavily than he had meant them. He had thought simply to justify why he had reacted the way he had to seeing her in the nude, his conviction that it was his duty not to look, which he had failed at... and she thought he had spoken of so much more. Furthermore it seemed that she took the time to open up some more about herself, which Jaelnec instinctively dreaded, given what she had revealed about herself previously.
But then that one sentence – “I didn’t choose to be a Cleaner” – made him listen to her explanation with a new frame of mind. From the moment she uttered those words, though she likely could not see it from behind him, he frowned deeply, and when he felt her shudder at the thought of her past that frown turned to a scowl. By the time she finished her tale he was holding on to the reins so tightly that it hurt, biting down on his rage and just trying to stop himself from urging the horse into a gallop to get to Zerul City as soon as possible, to find the people responsible.
“They can try,” he told her, a dark edge to his voice that rendered it akin to a low growl. “People like that... the world is better off without them. I’ll die before I turn a blind eye to something like that!”
Then he sighed deeply, and this time he seemed to deflate all the way rather than just a little, falling into a more natural pose as he relaxed more than he had since seeing her naked. He let his fury drain into that sigh, and it, in turn, had made him forget about his reservations about her closeness. He felt tired, suddenly... but he knew the anger was still there, just under the surface. Only now it was not directed at Angora.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I thought...” He shook his head. “It’s their fault. They’re worse than... they’re the worst. They need to be stopped.”

"It's okay. I wouldn't have expected you to know, I should have made it clearer earlier. I don't enjoy what I do, even though it might have seemed that way earlier. I know of people who tried to leave the Firm, Jaelnec. One of them... well... pieces of them showed up much later. I dread to think what they did to him - probably tortured him within an inch of his life and then hacked him apart. They sent pieces of his body to all the Cleaners - at least that's what they said. Part of me thinks it was a Cleaner that did it. It was meant as a warning to us all... nobody leaves the Firm." Angora drew her new cloak about her body, shrinking into herself in an almost-defensive posture. "This... this is why I do what I do. Not really for money. To survive."
Slowly, tentatively, she reached out and took hold of his back. "Y-you don't mind, do you? Not feeling stable..."

“I don’t mind,” he assured her, his voice much firmer than it had been since before the two of them met. He was too preoccupied with the Firm now to even think about what he had seen, or about Angora’s femaleness at all, beyond feeling grimly responsible for her now that he knew she was a victim. For some reason he felt stronger and more confident than he had for a long time, filled with certainty that he would hunt down those who used people the way she had been used.

"Th-thanks..." Angora took hold of Jaelnec's back with the fullness of her hands, steadying herself on the saddle as she did so. Instinctively, she shuffled closer, so her legs touched his. She felt safer, more secure... and more reassured. No longer was she the object of everyone's scrutiny, no longer was she the villain. And no longer did she have to hide the crimes of the Firm. True, she was complicit in many of them. But they had taken control of her, they had enslaved her, chained her to the Cleaners, robbed her of her freedom. Jaelnec had made this all so... clear to her. She thought it was better than it was. They had locked her in a dungeon, tortured her, abused her. Memories she thought lost were re-surfacing, and she began to seethe. Now she remembered why she had taken the mission to claim the Black Sword. She had meant to use it to carve her bloody way through the Firm - such naivete was not unlike her - and cut her way to freedom. And now, she had found the most unlikely allies. The squire had gone from the judge to the enforcer, the defender... the protector.
Her knight in a shining cuirass of metal she had never seen before and a muddied face. How noble.

“Things like this...” Jaelnec mused quietly after a while of contemplative silence. “This is one of the things I never understood about my master. Freagon was powerful, the best fighter I’ve ever seen, and he was a Knight of the Will. Yet he knew things like this happened – this and so much more – but never did anything about it. He could have, I have no doubt, but he chose not to. I can’t forgive something like that. Who is going to stop evil if good people are content doing nothing?”
He looked skyward, letting the rain cool his face. “I’ll do something. Everything I can, alone and with my bare hands if I have to.” He looked over his shoulder. “I swear it.”

Angora nodded in agreement with Jaelnec. It was odd, truly. Barely an hour ago, they had been at each throats, and now, here they were, finding more common ground than either of them had perhaps even thought possible. She remembered something she heard from her education. "A philosopher once said... All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. And it is easier to stand by and do nothing, than to intervene and place oneself in harm's way. I guess your knightly master thought the same... and realised that he wanted to take the easy way out." Angora shook her head. "And if everyone does that, then evil will simply walk over them. I guess my own actions helped that to happen... I have much to atone for."
She looked up, and met his gaze. "I think we have some cleaning of our own to do when we get to Zerul, huh?"

Jaelnec nodded grimly, then realized the hastiness of his fervor. “After the Withering,” he conceded reluctantly, knowing that his quest was not one that allowed time-consuming distractions. Every day more people died to it, their souls swallowed by the plague. People like the Firm were horrible, but not even they could compare to the Withering. “Once that quest is at its end, we’ll make sure no one suffers at their hands again.”

"...We might not get that luxury, should some in the Firm want to kill me." Angora swallowed nervously, still looking at Jaelnec. "My family still has many enemies, in and out of the Firm. But, on a more positive note!" She said with another nervous laugh. "Do you have, uh... accommodation in Zerul and the like? I guessed you might have some pre-arrangements in place and such, but it never hurts to check, right?"

Even though he wanted to assure her that no one from the Firm would be allowed anywhere near her, he decided to respect her wish to change the subject. “I’m not sure, actually. One of our companions who apparently has some influence in Zerul went ahead of us and said he’d arrange for our arrival, but Aemoten and I are pretty much all that is left of the group he knew when he left. Maybe, maybe not... though if there aren’t, that’ll complicate matters a bit. Then we’ll have to find our next clue ourselves.”

"Hmm... mhm. Okay." Angora nodded and frowned in contemplation. She thought about matters for a moment - true, the Firm most likely would treat her with suspicion and subterfuge, but she could at least count on a few allies - and her family. An idea struck her. Her family! Of course. Erik might not be the most trustworthy, despite being her father (something that vexed Angora something terrible), but her dear mama, her brothers... they could be trusted! And they could be used to build a base of operations, at least one that could operate with the outward protection of the Firm. She could use her father's position as a shield. For now.
"You could always stay at my family's villa. We have plenty of room, stables for horses, a smithy if you need repairs or want to forge weapons and armour, et cetera..."

Jaelnec arched an eyebrow at that, puzzled by just how Angora thought staying with her family would be a good idea. “Didn’t you say your family were the ones who decided you’d be a Cleaner?” he asked, wondering whether he had misunderstood something yet again. The way he remembered it, though, it had sounded very much like her family were part of the Firm. “Aren’t they allied with the Firm? Do you really...” want to be around people who corrupted you like that? “...trust them?”

"I don't trust my father, it was he who... predetermined my future, he who is the member of the Firm. But I do trust my brothers - Reikard is a sergeant-at-arms, whilst Yvann serves with the City Guard... I can trust them. As for my father... I will simply hope to the gods that his love for me transcends his desire to grow in stature in the Firm. If he doesn't, then... it'll be five on one." Angora's grip tightened involuntarily. "Mama I can trust utterly."

The squire frowned at Angora’s explanation. “It only takes one person to report to the rest of the organization, and odds could quickly end up much worse than one against five. I want to deal with the Firm, but I don’t want to take the risk of your father summoning assassins to kill my companions in their sleep unless I absolutely have to.”

"I swear that I will do all in my power to stop that from happening. Just as you swore to do something. An oath for an oath, right?" Angora gave a warm smile, despite the rain. "I'm still a member of the Firm... and no member of the Firm can harm another without inviting some serious consequences, right? You're allies of mine. Any strike against you is a strike against me... even if it's from father. Word gets out, his standing plummets quicker than a lead weight, right?"

He was not entirely sure how much he believed that being around Angora’s father was advisable, regardless of the girl’s assurances. After all, she had just told him that they might have no choice but to face off against the Firm in the near future due to the likelihood of someone from the organization wanting to kill her. Just how was Angora’s membership in the Firm going to protect them if the Firm itself wanted her dead?
Besides, one oath was not worth the same as the other, just as not every man’s word had was equally valuable. The oath of someone who made their living and name on honor, like a knight, was generally considered much more trustworthy than that of a thieving murderess. He wanted to trust her, but... there were limits to how far he was willing to go on blind faith in the goodness of another alone. He had believed that the good in Annabelle would triumph over the evil haunting her, and his belief had nearly gotten all of them killed. His faith in the good in people was exactly the reason he had stepped down as leader back then and asked Aemoten to take his place.
“I think it’d be for the best if we stayed away from anyone affiliated with the Firm,” he told her after pondering the matter for a moment. “From what you’ve told me it just sounds much too dangerous, especially considering that you’re carrying an artifact that we know the Firm wants. If they come for you I’ll stop them, but I think it would be better not to taunt them until we’re fully ready to face them.”
Pausing, he finally shook his head. “Of course, Aemoten might think otherwise. We’ll see what he says when he rejoins the group.”

"If he rejoins." was all Angora could mumble in response. "I don't know if your other comrades will be as willing to hear me out as you have been. Well... I mean... you probably weren't willing. You know what, forget I said anything, let's just get to Zerul, yeah?"
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Hidden 9 mos ago 5 mos ago Post by Rhaevnn Xeno
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Rhaevnn Xeno Caster of Shadows

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Morgan's violent action created a jumble of flesh and steel - in the long run, it had resulted in the way it would, but far more advantageous for the vampire's quarry than for the vampire. Morgan's covered eyes did not stop watching the boy, even in the deseperate call for a halt hit Morgan's ears, "STOP!!!" In the midst of his next action, Morgan wondered, 'How many times have I heard this last plea?' Too many times, probably. It always seemed to be the last words of a victim or some other individual who managed to get in the way of the vampire. Like many before the squire, curiosity was going to kill the cat again.

The boy's blind swing of his blade proved to be true - the training of the young man had kicked in and would have forced any mortal to move away from the arcing weapon, in fear of recieving a terrible injury, or worse, losing a limb. However, Morgan was no mere man.

The blade would sink past the cloth that covered the vampire's legs, and into the pale flesh, metal scraping against bone, as blood already began staining the dark left pantleg. The boy would no doubt feel a surge of adreniline now, a flash of victory before his young eyes - after all, hitting your enemy would give anyone this feeling. But how would he feel when Morgan's swift limbs already reached for the boy's arm and blade, terrible strength attempting to break the limb that held onto the blade that had struck the vampire's now injured leg? How would he react to the sharp intake of air, a beastal hiss of pain raking the air around the boy's ears?

Morgan's strong grip would latch onto his foe's wrist and blade. The thick gloves would help against the cutting of the vampire's flesh, as the left hand swiftly, viciously twisting the young man's wrist without remorse, Morgan's right hand attempting to rip the blade from the boy's grasp. The vampire could feel his lips peeling back, revealing fangs from under the dark cloth that covered his throat and mouth. Blackened eyes widened, the crimson irises vivid under the mask that hid any true expression from the Viper's boy.

'Control - Stay in control...'

But with the blood spilling, and already so much effort already being expended -- how much longer could Morgan hold back the beast?
Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Shienvien
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Shienvien Creator and Destroyer

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Jordan Forthey


Much to his surprise, the stranger did not even try to withdraw his exposed legs, and Jordan's chopping blow landed true, carving through flesh and dragging severed strands of cloth into the wound until the blade met something that was almost, but not entirely unyielding.
Living bone was ever so slightly soft, and rather flexible, quite unlike old, brittle ones that had been exposed to the elements for a while. Sir Yanin had once pointed out that you could bend the bones in your lower arm between the fingers of your opposite hand... (Somewhat perturbingly, it seemed to an accurate statement; he had tried.)
Cut to the bone ... but not much deeper; the circumstances were not optimal. Nevertheless, it felt like it should be a tide-turning blow, had to be. He didn't think he could keep fighting this one for too long.
Another thing that his master was stressed, however, that fights to death were a lot more desperate than practice or even honorable duels. You did not stop until your opponent was not moving because your opponent had everything to lose. And people who were high on rushing blood did not react to injury as they would at rest; there were tales of knights being run through with swords, and not even noticing it until much later. Wardens - or whatever this guy was - could probably just decide to just not even feel pain or bleed or something.
The stranger hissed like an angry cat and launched his torso at him. Jordan jerked himself back. That was most people's first instinct - something threw itself at you, you attempted to pull away. Not quickly enough, and not far enough, however - the stranger's hands closed around his blade and right wrist. To be fair to Jordan, it was quite difficult to retreat quickly when you were effectively lying on your back.
The stranger twisted his wrist, and Jordan let out a surprised yelp, reflexively releasing his right hand ... he could almost swear he heard his wrist crack ... but not his left. He had to keep a hold of his sword, somehow, or the stranger would have it, or he'd be practically unarmed, or... His left hand's hold on his sword was what was sometimes called a death grip.
What... Fingers. Fingers were important to fighter, and this one had just placed half of his on his blade. In his yielding to the stranger's grasp on his hand, he had raised his torso from the ground, but also drawn his legs closer to himself. So now he put most of his upper body strength and weight into abruptly twisting his left shoulder and arm back and pulling with his left hand; with any luck, it would slice through the stranger's glove and some finger tendons, too, if not amputating some of his digits entirely. (The leg he had cut earlier had tendons, too, right? So the stranger wouldn't be able to walk as easily?)
At the same time, he reangled his right, drawn-back leg, and aimed a strong kick at the stranger's abdomen or torso in an attempt to further remove the guy from himself and his blade. He was too focused on the fight to pay much attention to what was going on in the world around him; even the pain in his own body was, for now, only a distant concept.

Sir Yanin Glade

Sixty-four yards to go. His squire had evidently managed to embed his sword in his opponent's leg, though that one proceeded to immediately retaliate.
You dropped your weapon, Sir Yanin mentally noted at the "trouble". And you're trying to grab a blade that was sharp enough to cut hair with the last time I checked, and is still held by someone who is quite desperate on not letting you have it. You could half-sword without any significant fear of damage to yourself, and even grab opponents' blades almost safely at times ... but you had to be careful with the latter, and press your fingers to the flat of the blade while leaving a bit of a gap between the edge and the inside of your fingers. The "trouble" did not seem to be paying enough attention to do so so, never mind that leather gloves had, in general, poorer grip on (not impossibly slightly oily) smooth metal than bare skin.
This close part of the fight was quick and dangerous, though the boy at least seemed to do okay in keeping the "trouble" away from his neck and face.
Fifty yards to go.
Hidden 9 mos ago Post by yoshua171
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I'onriyi Stonehand


Nodding slightly as his guest commented on Brega Menrirl—which in the hands of a non-penin truly did appear to be a scepter rather than a staff proper—the enchanter found himself smiling slightly as he noticed her puzzlement over the object. Her confusion at his insistence she inspect it—and at the purpose of the exercise in general—brought to him a strange feeling of pride, something like amusement and appreciation rolled into one.

Taking the item back from her as she offered it, I'on considered demonstrating its capabilities. Of course, that might devalue the experience, as the staff was primarily an amplifier for his spellwork as well as a weapon he could wield on its own. After all, the staff's crystal was far more durable than any purely natural crystal ought to be and though he had not dared to test it to the point of breaking, the penin knew that its durability was similar—though not as extreme—as the metal that ran through its core and in some places constrained it.

Looking upon the piece fondly for a moment he spoke,

"This was my first major undertaking many years ago," he began, "...the first item I ever properly enchanted." His eyes rose to meet theirs and he held that gaze for a moment before setting the staff on a nearby table.

“I've been enchanting for many years, it's part of why I've some...mmm, fame, here.” He grimaced for the briefest moment before his expression softened once more. “That item, Brega Menrirl, is not a pass-time, and neither is enchantment itself, for though it does take time, I sincerely doubt that any mage who uses it does not do so merely to pass it. The process, regardless of the method used, is difficult, time-consuming, and if done improperly it is not even rewarding. It's not the sort of thing that you do just to pass the hours.” He glanced at his staff once more and something struck him.

He hadn't made anything for himself since he'd fashioned his gauntlets so many years ago. Nothing major at least...and now that he would be departing from the city soon he would hardly have the materials to do so, not until he reached another city that was. At the thought he cast a sidelong glance at the archangel's vessel, a small grin taking over a corner of his lips.

“Perhaps, before I leave the city you and I can make something. After all, it's been far too long since I've given myself a gift,” he chuckled and then made his way from the workshop, beckoning that she follow. He had not failed to notice the crumbs on her clothes—clearly she'd thought that she might not be able to finish the meal he'd offered her. Poor lass.

“There's more bread if you're still hungry. Feel free to eat some, just not all of it. I've a few preparations to make before I head out. Don't leave and don't pocket anything—though I doubt you would.” He smiled at her, waving her towards the kitchen before he headed away before turning a corner and passing out of sight.

He would be gone for only a few minutes as he got together proper clothes to be seen in the public eye, as well as some coin, a waterskin, and a few other items. Before he joined her back in the kitchen he retrieved his staff, strapping it to his back. He'd only taken maybe ten minutes, but when he reappeared—taking another slice of bread to munch on, he appeared far more alert and ready for his day. His golden eyes falling on his gauntlets, the penin gathered them up and then fastened them on either hip, where they hung, fingers pointing down along his thighs.

Finishing his slice, I'on took up his tea—which was still somewhat warm—and finished it before turning to Male'dai/Nimbus. In a good mood, he found himself smiling at the woman. “I hope you've eaten your fill,” he said with vigor before he walked passed her. “Time to go. I want to see what sort of explanation these men could possibly have for the situation I found them in just yesterday.” He hoped it was better than he thought it would be. Perhaps he'd have his new companion come near enough to hear, but not draw attention. Perhaps in the room next to theirs at the inn.

He wanted believe that the interaction would go smoothly, but it was hard to say with those two. Especially the veiled one...he'd caused them plenty of undue stress, that was certain.

Perhaps it would be easier this time.
Hidden 9 mos ago Post by Dark Jack
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Dark Jack The Jack of Darkness

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Zerul City, I’onriyi’s estate

So, Nimbus figured as she listened to I’onriyi’s explanation of his scepter – “united winds”, apparently, though the archangel had no idea why he spoke the name in the arcane language – his outrage had been about Male’dai treating enchanting as a pass-time. There was perhaps some merit to taking offense from that, considering how important the discipline was to him, but surely he could not expect everyone who dappled in a field of knowledge to hold it in as high regard as he did. There were mages who barely even cared to study magic, painters who could go months without putting brush to canvas, hobbyist archers who only picked up a bow when they felt like it. This did not mean that magic, painting or archery were not things that required time and effort to build proficiency in, but merely that not everyone partook in them for the sake of achieving mastery. To say that something was universally incapable of being a pass-time, no matter how difficult or time-consuming doing anything worthwhile would be through it, could never be true.
Perhaps their perspectives differed as well? It was undeniably a possibility that I’onriyi – a penin – would disapprove more of pursuits that served little purpose outside passing time enjoyably than they did. His kind did have a finite lifespan, after all, whereas deigan were known to never age... not to mention that Nimbus was even a true immortal, incapable of dying permanently and literally with all of eternity before her. It would be logical for him to simply place greater value in time than them, even if penin did live for centuries.
“I’m not sure if I’d be capable of enchanting in the first place,” Nimbus pointed out when their host suggested that they could make something before setting out on whatever journey he had in mind. “From what I can tell from Male’dai’s knowledge it is a discipline that builds on manipulation of matter through magic, and I am unsure whether immortal energy is suitable for it and if it is, whether Male’dai’s skills would even apply to how it behaves. In Heaven all I had to do was call the fabric of reality and it would shape itself to my will... I have never created anything in Reniam.”
She shrugged. “But I suppose I could assist nevertheless, if you wish. I imagine that my divine hand could be helpful, at least.” She would also like a proper weapon so that she was not reduced to defending herself with a dagger when danger arose, but she dared not ask any more of this man. She would make do with the dagger if the situation demanded it.

And then she was back in the kitchen, seating herself back and the table, sipping her tea and idly stuffing little torn-up pieces of bread in her mouth as she stared off into space, frowning to herself. Meeting I’onriyi had gone well... in fact it had gone much better than either of them had expected it to. Or more smoothly, at least, which was what concerned Nimbus now that the tension of trying to make a positive impression on her chosen companion had lifted. Being accepted by the penin had been much too easy.
They had expected him to be much more cautious and curious about them, particularly about their pasts and motivations, but apparently the little man had been satisfied with nothing more than a superficial summary of Male’dai’s background and current state. Specifically, Nimbus was surprised and worried that I’onriyi had showed practically no interest in her beside the fact that she was an archangel and which abilities she could contribute. He had not at all looked into her motivations, her past, her situation... the majority of his interest had been in Male’dai. How could he not question why she was willing to spend her time and effort keeping Male’dai alive in the first place? Why they were trying so hard to do good? Or why an archangel, of all things, would even be allowed to abandon her duties to pursue a fanciful adventure such as this?
Did he imagine that she was trustworthy and harmless just because she was an angel? The very thought seemed obscene to her, but they were the “good immortals”, after all, so perhaps some mortals did expect them all to be perfectly benevolent, though such expectations would imply that he had no knowledge of angels or fear or penance, to be sure... or even archangels of Rilon, Frenis or Deliph, for that matter. Since her ascension – her earliest memory – she had learned that angels were not all the same, and some were indeed as terrifying and dangerous as any demon. Even benevolent angels were ultimately soldiers, created specifically to fight in the eternal war that was bound to resume sooner or later. War was the very purpose of their existence, including hers.
If he accepted her so easily, what manner of secrets could these other companions be hiding? If she, whom he knew next to nothing of, was indeed so preferable to their company... just how bad were they?

I’onriyi was not gone for long, as it turned out, but seemed revitalized when she rejoined her, now clad in more modest and socially acceptable attire. He also seemed eager to leave and find the companions he had spoken of earlier, to “see what sort of explanation these men could possibly have for the situation he found them in just yesterday,” which made Nimbus curious and concerned as to just what kind of situation that had been. When they had met it had been a situation much like that of a beggar approaching a merchant for scraps – at least the initial impression could easily have been as such – and she struggled to imagine what situation could be more unflattering than that.
He probably found them doing something illegal, Male’dai suggested, sounding somewhat concerned herself. Or something violent, but which for some reason didn’t warrant stopping them... or bar them from being potential allies. There must have been extenuating circumstances of some kind.
She quickly threw the last crumbs from her plate in her mouth and followed up with a mouthful of tea – which was still too hot for her to comfortably drain the remainder of the cup – before she stood once more, brushing her dress nervously with her hands. She nodded solemnly and followed.

Soon after they arrived at an establishment going by the name “the Drunken Dove” – a name that was quite perplexing to angel and deigan alike – which looked to be quite empty for the time being and look like a battlefield on the inside. Something had clearly happened here, and Nimbus had a grim suspicion that she could guess at least part of it. The inn only looked empty, after all; they could hear faint, agitated voices from somewhere else in the building, sufficiently muffled to be unintelligible, though at least one of them did sound recognizably feminine. Nimbus also immediately registered a demonic taint lingering in the air that made her feathers bristle.
“Demonspawn,” she warned I’onriyi as she glared past what appeared to be a magically erected stone pillar in the far side of the room, behind which a hallway lead to the rest of the building. Her hand was on her dagger instantly. A thought suddenly occurred to her. “I hope those are not the companions you spoke of?”
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Domhnall and Iridiel


The rain felt much like opting to stride through a waterfall of fresh glacier melt. The shirt and vest were quite adequate when he was expecting a fight or sitting by fireside, but they were far from ideal protection from icy torrents. He was a patient enough of a man, Domhnall figured - it was a good trait for a hunter to have, and he had done a fair share of stalking and waiting for a chance for ambush amid downpour -, but the blasted cold was not his thing. The trees in his homelands never froze their damn leaves off...
This time, he was not going to go out of his way to douse the fire. He would just pick up the bolts, grab the bags and spear, don the coat (not that it helped too much against being already wet, but at the very least it kept some of the warmth in), and go.
Speaking of which, he had not ridden horses all that often, and this one was about as tall at the shoulder as he in his entirety. Getting up there and taking the reins in his hands was easy enough - he wasn't a forestfolk for nothing -, controlling the beast, though... Well, he hoped the white horse did not have too much of a mind of its own. Even if they liked you, they were still easily spooked... I promise that no branch by the roadside is going to bite you, and you promise to not throw us off, alright? Ain't any snakes out this season, that's for sure...
Luckily, the beast seemed content waiting as Iridiel took position behind him, and then following its slightly smaller brethen as he lightly nudged the creature's sides with his boots. He was not entirely sure whether the horse did so out of its own volition or due to his careful encouragement, but as long as it was headed in the right direction, it was good enough.
The Highlanders were hardy people, well-used to cold weather and driving rains, too often the dominant weather of the Contaetha back home. Yet this seemed to chill Iridiel to the bone - it probably didn't help that Angora now had her cloak. Murchad whined behind the striding horse they were riding on, his once-majestic white fur now bedraggled and muddied, his breath steaming in the cold autumn air. Iridiel herself pressed her body into Domhnall's back, clinging to him and what warmth seeped through his clothing and emanated from his skin.
Ahead, Angora and Jaelnec were holding a very... awkward conversation. It was difficult for Iridiel to catch any of what they were saying, so rapid and unfamiliar was the speech pattern of Rodorian to her ears.
"It looks like someone found a new friend after all," Domhnall idly commented. He wasn't listening too closely what the two ahead were saying, even though their horse was not far behind (not that he would risk trying to convince the beast to take upon a different pace without a pressing reason), and he could have probably deciphered most of what was going on. It seemed a bit too personal, somehow.
"You think so?" Iridiel snickered, though truthfully she was relieved - it would not do to have two members of the group going forward to be at each other's throats, not at all. She noticed that Domhnall was suffering from the cold - of course he would, a forester like him tended to live in the warmer and wetter climes of the counties, in areas like Sruighlea, in Lodainn; the forests and seasides of the southern counties truly were a far cry from the hills and grasslands of Loch Garman.
It was strange - she had traveled with Domhnall for years, but yet knew relatively little about him, his background and indeed, why he had decided to accompany her on her long sojourn into the great unknown. The elders at home had no doubt hoped she would die alone in the wilderness between the Contaetha and the western Marcher Lords, but she hadn't, partly thanks to him. And thanks to the Mother, to Sulis, who had spared and protected Iridiel consistently. But now, they were in their greatest danger yet; in this far-away land, in Rodoria, beset by a plague that killed indiscriminately, and that had no known cure or relief from what little Iridiel had been able to pick up.
Iridiel was no stranger to plagues. Her eldest brother, Neill, had died of the flux, whilst epidemics ran riot every so often in the streets of Atha Cliath, filthy and crammed as they were. Every so often, a plague would surface in the capital, and traders would carry it from town to town, and so the Contaetha would suffer once more from some disease or so. The druids could only do so much, and the elders of the towns and cities never seemed to care overly. Iridiel herself had escaped disease so far in her life - all praise to Sulis indeed - but now she was once again plunged into a world of death. Not even the Gods could save them all, as some said.
Domhnall's old hometown, in turn, had been left untouched by plague for the time he had lived there. There was disease, but it was more sporadic, and mostly took the old, the young, and the weak. This one here, though ... this one did not discriminate. Old, young, rich, poor, healthy, sickly, clean, dirty, it appeared to strike everyone equally, and not even care whether you went shoulder-by-shoulder with the afflicted or lived as a hermit. Some even insisted it was not just here, but rather all of Reniam. So potentially the Counties, too?
No known cure. Felt like an especially nasty way to go - no hope, no way to fight it, just the growing pain and the knowledge that after a week, you're done and that's it, game over. Didn't even have the decency to be sudden or subtle enough to not leave time to contemplate one's own impending demise.
Was it already a decade since he had left? Not quite. His departure from his home town had been somewhat more amicable than Iridiel's - at the end of the day, he had not killed any persons (though one of his traps had almost cost a person a limb during an unrelated incident - what was he even doing there, and was he blind?), and his exile was more an agreement than a sentence. He had probably not quite expected to end up this far back in the day.
Iridiel he had encountered not too far from home ... but definitely far enough to wonder what a lone highlander was doing there. In the beginning, he had come along with her mostly because the direction had fit and it could get a bit boring without the company of someone who at least understood what you were saying. Originally he had not even cared that much why the other was on her pilgrimage; that, he had asked later, when it had started to become evident she might become a long-time companion.
Over time, they had gotten used to and comfortable with one another's presence, he supposed ... never mind getting through a fair number of tight spots together. If you had seen someone both at their best and worst, yet still decided sticking around was a good idea , and you were certain said someone was as willing to risk their skin for you than you theirs, it could only been concluded you had found company worth keeping.
"U-huh... The boy's not tried to backflip off the horse yet and, well, it almost feels like I should be embarrassed to overhear what they're talking about." And Domhnall was not the kind of person to be easily embarrassed. "The girl has not had a nice past even before he met the thing ... nor much choice in her life."
"What exactly are they talking about? I can't catch head nor tail of it, Domhnall... Gods, I'm going to struggle in that city of theirs, I can't understand anything they say sometimes..." Iridiel sighed and relaxed on the horse's back, the cold now less biting, less pervasive to her body. It was not warm, but Iridiel found herself warmer than before - perhaps Domhnall's own heat was finally worming its way through. Her hair was plastered to her face, rain still cascading, almost cannoning down, rivulets of rainwater working their way through her clothing, soaking her skin beneath even her furs. She longed for nothing more than a nice warm roaring fire, the smell of wood smoke and a fresh tankard of big beer, and a warm bed to lie down on after the exertions of the day.
She thought back to the long months she and Domhnall spent in Thessaleia. The Thessaleians were most interesting folk, mortal enemies of the Eireannach... and as far as Iridiel could see, there was absolutely no reason why. The Thessaleians were civilised, genteel folk, their cities bright, paved and a far cry for the thatched crowded masses in the muddied streets of Atha Cliath. The Thessaleians were obsessed with them, most intrigued - these barbaroi from the West now come to their cities! Iridiel hadn't wanted to leave Kyrileis, but it was necessary... the hordes of the Contaetha had been marauding close by, and the risk of them sacking the city was ever-present, and so, with a heavy heart, she and Domhnall had left... she realized that she had never actually discussed that matter with him.
She sighed and reached forward, running her hand through Domhnall's hair. Murchad, for what it was worth, was still unhappily plodding along next to them.
Domhnall pondered for a couple of moments before answering Iridiel's inquiry, setting aside his own unwillingness to listen in in favor of responding to Iridiel. "The gal was apologizing for the, uh, little incident by the campfire, I think... And the boy was saying something about being a better person than his master, at least. Not using people. And she is now telling more about the ..." There was slight hesitation as he tried to figure what the best approximation for the Firm would be in their native. "... mob, I suppose, she was part of. Apparently, her father is both a smith and some important fellow in that mob. And she was forced into this life - refuse, and they break you, that kind of deal. It would appear they chopped someone to pieces for saying no. And then sent the pieces for the other families as a warning. Sounds like a lovely bunch..."
"Fu-cking mother of mercy... that must be terrible for her. I had no idea she was in that state, gods above! I've heard of what the Brotherhood does in Atha Cliath, and other mobs, but, fuck me sideways, that's not a pleasant thought... being cut up and sent about places as a message to those who don't play by their crap rules. Reminds me of the clergy, aye... play by our rules or forever leave society. But at least they don't fuckin' kill you." Iridiel seethed. Angora, this woman who was originally nothing but a criminal murderer, was forced into her life, pressed into service as a murderer and assassin. Her blasé attitude earlier must have been a shield, an attempt to convince herself that her former life was perhaps not that bad. Or maybe she wasn't thinking straight. Who knew? But she could hear bits and pieces... and Angora said once that they 'broke' her.
"Sounds like those twats need dealing with."
Domhnall remained silent for the while Iridiel seethed. It appeared to be characteristic of him - as long as he was still in comparatively high spirits (or at most annoyed in the typical, mundane sense), he swore freely and casually, company permitting, but once he was truly angry, mournful or condemning, he grew quiet.
"You're not alone in that sentiment," the forestfolk finally commented, quite matter-of-factly. Whether he was referring to the young squire's apparent reaction to the further revelations or his own thoughts on the matter was left to anyone's interpretation. Perhaps both. Carefully, the hunter untangled one of his hands from the reins and reached back to catch the hand that had moments ago been running through his hair, squeezing it.
Just what were they getting into? It would probably not be easy to figure out who was the victim and who was the perpetrator here... 'If your daughter doesn't work for us, then we'll sell her off to the highest bidder, and there's no-thing you can do about it. If your husband complains, we'll cut off his balls and feed those to him. Oh, and you, if you rat us out, we'll rape your wife and sell your infant son to Melenian pirates. You know how Melenians view males, right?' It was ... disturbingly easy to imagine a system from which you simply couldn't get out without losing everything you cared about, and then some. So people kept picking what felt like the lesser evils, and that was all they knew to expect...
Instinctively, he wanted to draw his shoulders closer to himself. "What hell of a life that must have been... And, I reckon, it might take some figuring before we untangle who has been threatened with what here." It was almost too pragmatic way to look at the situation. Pragmatism made it feel more ... real.
"You mean to say she might be exaggerating? Oh come on, Domhnall, that's not something you can just lie about. I mean, it is, I suppose, but you'd have to be a really good liar, and I don't think she's that good." Iridiel shook her head, scarcely able to believe that Angora, despite her illegal acts, was truly in the wrong here. She had been forced, threatened and coerced into whatever it was that she'd done. And yet... an inkling of doubt grew in Iridiel's mind, as she thought back to the conversation around the campfire before. Angora had been brushing this off as though it was nothing prior to this, and now she had turned a complete 180 degrees, and telling of this... horrific story of coercion, deceit and violence.
It seemed odd to Iridiel, now, looking on it with a 'dispassionate perspective' as they might say in Thessaleia - remove all emotion from your thought pattern (not easy for a Kavanagh) and think rationally and clearly. Perhaps Domhnall was more correct than she gave him credit for. Why would Angora be so blasé about her past life initially, only to reverse course when she encountered an overwhelmingly negative response? Was it all a lie? No, surely not. She scrutinized Angora closely, from her body language to her tone of voice - even if she couldn't understand much of what they were saying due to the rapidity of their speech, she could still tell much from their body language. The squire seemed taken in by the story - and why wouldn't he, a man of honor such as he - and yet Angora... she did not have the body language of a liar. She was speaking about something, and it was not the language of a liar, there was no stumbling, no stammering... She spoke clearly, quietly. As though she were truly ashamed of her actions.
Perhaps there was hope for the youngster yet. Leastways, the mob would be a danger to them in Zerul City, if Angora's past associations caught up with her- Hold a fucking moment. Angora had been found by the group, insane, half-naked and blood-soaked, seemingly driven mad by the spirit inside the Black Sword. She said that the mob - the Firm, Iridiel remembered her calling them - had sent her out on a mission to obtain the Black Sword for someone, likely the ever-present 'mysterious man with connections' no doubt. Did someone know of the risks? Had someone sent her out on this mission specifically with the objective of killing her, or at least sending her out to die, alone, in the wilderness, at the blades of some band of misfits like the Crusader's Guild? What would those people think if they saw Angora return, clean and accompanied by several heavily-armed strangers? Would they be in danger too? Would Angora be at risk of death by an assassin's blade when she returned to Zerul?
"She is telling what she knows ... I think," the forestfolk surmised. "Or, at the very least, what she thinks she knows. She is just someone who does the dirty work, aye? The less she knows, the better? And wouldn't they want to ensure there were no outsiders - including, perhaps especially, family members, like unaffiliated children? Something along the lines of 'they won't talk if their hands are bloody, too', and 'once a part of the mob, always part of the mob'..." Domhnall winced. "Or perhaps I just have too hard a time picturing a person who would force their own child into a life like this if they believed there was another way..."
He had not meant she had been lying - rather that she might not know the whole truth, either. Though, there was this one bit she had told earlier - about how she had imagined stealing the sword would bring her family fame and fortune. That didn't quite fit the narrative of using it to get away she was laying out now... For some reason, those two clashing snippets rose to the forefront of his mind and refused to go away now that Iridiel had outright asked him about lying. Which one was it?
Iridiel sighed and shook her head. "We'll have to see. But parents... can sometimes betray their children for their own benefit. You should know that family can often be those who will sell you to the devils. Look at me. Mine refused to defend my right to freedom."
"I guess," the forestfolk agreed, voice unenthusiastic or perhaps mournful; to not fight back - to yield to others' demands - was one thing, but to do something like that if you didn't have to? If there was no one pointing a sword at you and going 'or else'? He remained silent for a moment as he listened, letting go of Iridiel's hand to wipe over his face. The rain had ceased almost as suddenly as it had arrived. Small blessings, as they said... "She seems to be offering for us to stay with her family ... the boy seems to think the mob would be too dangerous, and might be after her, or even come after us all. Especially with the sword on her person. She seems to trust others of her family but her father."
"No doubt her dear beloved dad dragged her kicking and screaming into the mob life... probably was complicit in that whole 'breaking' thing she was talking about earlier. But she raises a good point - she said her brother was with the City Guard - if we can get her brothers on our side we can use their influence to keep Angora and ourselves safe. Actually... Belenus would say that if we can corner the father, we can coerce him into helping us, or at least, you know, stopping him from obstructing us. I could probably... uh... assist in that, if we need to. Thing about the squire is that he'll want to do things by the book. But people like the Brotherhood in Atha Cliath and probably the Firm here are used to fighting people who do things by the book. Need to do things their way... catch them off guard."
Iridiel's demeanor was dark, her voice dripping with subterfuge and venom towards those who had seemingly done Angora harm. She barely knew the girl, and yet she chafed at her restrictions on her freedom to choose her own life - seethed with hatred at those who confined her.
"How will we know that the guard - or at least some of the officials - haven't been bought by the mob?" Her siblings, mother - they had to have known, no? So, it stood to reason that they were either too afraid, or accomplices themselves. Neither would be much help - neither the prey that froze in place as its kin were torn to shreds, nor the predators themselves.
"... We just have to trust in the Mother. I know you're not a religious man, but you've seen the Mother in action first-hand. You know what I am capable of, as her sworn servant." Iridiel grimaced as she wiped her own hair out of the way of her face - the rain, blessed be, had ceased. Perhaps now they could work up some warmth for the doubtless-long journey ahead.
He was doing injustice to predators, comparing them to these people in his mind. Predators did not use terror and torture to make you live the kind of lives they wanted you to lead. They just wanted to catch a prey with the least amount of energy and danger they could, and eat their fill. A land without predators soon ended up broken.
"It always seemed growing up that gods were the kind of beings better simply not angered as long as they didn't choose you themselves. I do not doubt their power - never really did, let alone now that I've been traveling with you for years - yet it also seems like they prefer to interact with a select few rather than the average guy." Domhnall shrugged. "I can't help but imagine it must get tiring, even for a deity, to listen to millions, each of whom only wants something of you."
Hidden 5 mos ago Post by Rhaevnn Xeno
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Pain coursed through Morgan's being - his leg gushed red as the vampire could feel himself winning. The boy had proven to be more comptent than his previous quarry, but Morgan's face split into a feral grin. Panic was in his prey's eyes, a sure sign that--Morgan's scream ripped through the alley as he could feel the quick twist of the arrested blade, its sharpened edge digging beyond his gloves and into his pale flesh. Instinctively, Morgan loosened his grip, realizing too late his mistake as he felt a heavy boot punch itself into his chest. The vampire rose to a crouching position, pushed by the ferocity of the blow. It is here that Morgan's bloodlust took control.

Almost.

The world began to become red as long fangs beared themselves with a bloodchilling hiss. 'This is how it en--' A sprinting figure caught the vampire's eye at the last possible second. Looking, Morgan realized that the sprinting figure was coming to aid his fallen prey, blade drawn, face as hard as the city's streets he ran upon. Every fiber wanted to feast, to rip out the throat of his boy. But Morgan's time was up - he had been noticed, and experience had taught him the boy was not worth the trouble. Without a word, Morgan's bloodied, dark form ran down the alley, escaping the now unfavorable fight with a vampire's unnatural speed.
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Aemoten and Etakar


Faces, weary, pained and fearful alike, turned towards him, the widening eyes in them flicking from him to the little humanoids he was carrying, and to those he had already left behind. Threat-assessments were being made; he wasn't the absolute largest beast on those roads, but he was an unknown, and an apparent predator. The presence of his companions seemed to assure his fellow road-users he was not going to try and eat them, but they did not seem willing to test their luck by by getting in his way, either. Shortly, the people who spotted him were already hurrying to scurry off his projected path, sometimes tugging their less attentive companions along. Some people started at first; he was moving quietly, after all. Horses were sparse, but reacted to his presence with more vigour, trying to pull away with the whites of their eyes flashing. In the absence of the reasoning that Aemoten, Thaler and Beatrice made him mostly safe to be around, the equines relied on instinct, and he was four times the mass of a large horse, had the gaze of a hunter, and smelled of blood.
Etakar seemed to pay the lot little more mind than was required to not ram into them. He had a destination in mind, so he went. Dekkun were in this odd spot where they were both ambush predators and endurance hunters ... but hardly ever truly ran. In jungles, they lied in waiting, and went for it, in plains - and Etakar was a plains' dekkun, larger and duller in color than his thicket-dwelling brethen -, where there were few places to hide, they hunted by outlasting their prey. The targets were scared into a running gait once, perhaps even urged into sprint by the dekkun's prehistoric, metallic, hawklike hunting cry, but the dekkun just maintained pace. Long strides, rolling, stalking; something that amounted in a brisk walk for their kind. The prey settled, panting, but the dekkun just kept coming, and so they had to run again, sent by the same distinct cry. Hyee-hyee-hah! The dekkun just followed. Seemingly without hurry, but nevertheless quickly enough to give little respite. To not give a chance to fully cool down. Still exhausted, the prey had to run again. No time to lie down, to rest, to drink. Until finally, at least one of them was too tired, too hot, too thirsty to run, and just dropped. By that point, the dekkun did not even have to stab them to paralyze them. They were too tired to fight, too. Too tired to do anything but resign to their fates.
Humans were, much like dekkuns, both ambushers and endurance hunters. But they were smaller, bodily weaker, and relied more on tools than dekkun. Their numbers and cunning were what permitted to be among the ranks of apex predators. Yet, these humans here were not acting like it. They were the prey, and something was hunting them. He did not understand the vocalizations of the local variety, yet Etakar was certain of it. He had thought Aemoten and his companions were acting too much like prey, being worn down, yet hiding pain and weakness, yet these here were something entirely. Prey could be dangerous. Prey could stand gorund and point their horns, teeth, claws or hooves in your face. These people were prey that had chosen fleeing over fighting.
With them being humans, that meant more trouble.

There was a congregation of these folks by what could only be the city gates. There were also guards ... and guards could be a nuisance. The prey-humans repectfully made way, even as the guards seemed to gain alertness and focus on him.
Etakar rumbled in low annoyance, and for once, slowed down, one forelimb insistently prodding Aemoten's boot. The guard would see him in his full, seven-and-half-feet-when-quadruped glory, left forelimb slightly streaked in blood, a singed raven perched on his neck with her talons curling into his mane, and rider in long black coat seated on his bare back, just behind his shoulder places, with one hand wrapped in his mount's mane and the other clutching something against his chest, his head lowered.
...Nay, it was two riders, as became evident when the beast's insistence bore fruit. The thing he had been holding against his chest was a much smaller, white-haired person, seemingly wrapped in the hems of the same coat the man himself was wearing. The man was long-haired, tanned-looking, but not quite dark-skinned, with narrow face and high cheekbones. Foreigner, chances were. He seemed to observe the people around him, face weary, but also stern, hard. For a moment he seemed to hesitate,, but then spoke, in flawless Rodorian, though peculiarly worded and with an implacable yet distinct, hard accent. His voice was slightly raspy from some recent endeavor.
"We seek passage into the City. However, it would seem we're not alone in misfortune. From here do all those people hail?"

The duty of the Ducal Guard was rarely as hard to determine as in situations like this, and none were more lost in terms of what they were supposed to do as the people at the bottom of the chain of command. They were left to their own devices most of the times, only intermittently receiving orders from the officers of the Guard and otherwise were just expected to know the “right thing to do”. It made sense – too much happened with this many people requiring attention for officers to handle every single incident – but it was hard for the guardsmen nevertheless. What was their priorities? Should they be willing to leave their posts to retrieve supplies to aid the refugees, or should they simply stand guard to ward off those who would prey upon the unfortunate and vulnerable, and stop the ones not easily dissuaded from such?
And that was just the refugees and citizens; they simply did not have the numbers to keep the peace in and around the city in times of emergency and check every single traveler looking to enter Zerul City. They needed the Ducal Army to help, but those guys were too preoccupied with the civil war and threats in the other duchies to realize how precarious things were getting in their own home.
And then came a foreigner – for he doubtlessly was one such, with a look quite different from that of the northern lands – with a beast the likes of which the guards had never seen before. The size of the creature was not as intimidating to the guards of the city proper as it would be many other places, since the much larger vulgors were a relatively common sight by the city gates, but people still recognized it as something alien and decidedly predatory in appearance. It was accompanied by a human and seemed docile, though, so the guards paid it little mind beyond curiosity as to its origins and a slight wariness towards the unknown.
The man turned out to be quite fluent in Rodorian, at least, and the trio of guards turned to him at his address, secretly relieved to have an excuse to be removed from the ethical puzzle of how to best serve their city for a few minutes.
“Suppose you haven’t heard, then?” the oldest of them, a gray-haired fellow said as he leaned on his halberd. “They’re refugees from Nemhim. Their city’s been sacked, and the people’s been evacuating by the thousands.”
“It’s a monster,” a gruff, skinny guard added with somewhat feigned reluctance. “A heart-eating beast. Still alive, too, as far as we know.”
“Monsters don’t change shape,” the elder guard pointed out, and the third – a burly, badly scarred man – nodded in agreement. “It’s a demon, trust me, and the sooner it’s cast back into Hell where it belongs, the better."

"We have been underway for over a week now," Aemoten noted, "Hardly made contact with anyone besides a few who accompanied us, and the guards at the borderhouse we spent the last night."
He sighed.
"If I dare phrase myself thusly, I'd have hoped these people to be Anaximites. By the amount of smoke rising south-east, the entire living forest has been razed by fire or worse ... so Nemhim, too?"
He clenched his jaw, closed his eyes and tilted his head back. Most of him wanted nothing more than to be done with the day, to nothing more than to find a healer for Thaler, and then an inn for them both. Tea. And a bath. And beds. Luckily, Thaler was asleep, so at least she did not have to deal with this. But there was also the sense of duty.
"A being that changes shape and eats hearts, you say? If so, I might have an inkling about who, or what he ... it is. Before it was ... it, it was a human man. Either of them ... there has been one imprisoned in Rodoria for a while, but another one has been created here recently. I think we saw it when it first turned... I heard about them about a decade ago, when I was still traveling towards Rodoria. My brother told me about them."
Karakon Menepth had indeed told him about them when they were traveling along with Ardjan Elantair-Amalegäs. As a part of a conversation pertaining the worst possible fates that could befall him, no less. And then the blasted devilgod had made Immanuel into one, too. For what purpose? Solely to terrorize Thaler further? It had been the same church, repurposed to service the blood devilgod, where they had first found her, after all...
"You have the blood devilgod, Rilon, to thank for the youngest one. Or perhaps the older one in Rodoria escaped. I doubt it was the one I was told to be in Soutern Wegam Fermos. I'm surprised if those people made it over here by foot so quickly if it was the youngest one. They are soulless soul-eaters. They are devoid of emotion, but in their automaton state nevertheless realize a part of them is different, that something has gone missing, something they can sense in others ... so they seek out others, and eat their souls in an attempt to restore the missing parts of themselves. But the souls they consume will be digested, so the restoration would be fleeting, and they would only gain more strength for their instinctive quest to make themselves whole again. They don't really change shape ... but whatever souls they digest, they can secrete as a manner of reddish-brown substance that may seemingly solidify to any form they will.
My brother did not know of any active adult of those which had been killed ... just about imprisonment. And it takes a lot to imprison them. The ... companion we were traveling with at the time suggested it might be possible to give such a creature another soul without it eating it, and my brother could not call it impossible. I do not know how, even less how to make it cooperate. But it's the best idea I have, unless you wish to try to bleed it dry, in case it stops it from healing, as might be done to a vampire... The soulless did already clear an entire city; it hardly seems a feasible course of action."

The three guards found themselves looking at each other confusedly, not sure whether to be more dumbfounded by how much this stranger claimed to know of the being terrorizing Nemhim, or of the fact that he was divulging that information – freely and without encouragement – to complete strangers. They listened to his lecture on what he thought the creature was, where it came from and how it was apparently borderline invincible, alternating between feeling dismissive towards the information presented to them and doubtful of the stranger’s sanity, and feeling a gnawing sense of dread and doom at the thought of what it would mean if it was true.
None of them were deo’iel, nor had they dealt with anything monster-related more severe than small packs of goblins and minor yth infestations, and that much was only attempted with overwhelming numerical advantage and equipment suited for safe extermination. They did not know much even about common monsters, let alone something as obscure as what was brought up here.
And most importantly of all, none of them had any intention of going anywhere near a creature like that!
“Most of them came by horse or cart,” the skinny guard clarified, looking markedly paler than he had a few minutes ago. “People have been coming on foot recently, too, but from the look of them I doubt they’ve even stopped to rest getting here. More keep coming.”
We aren’t going to do anything to that thing!” the elder guard remarked once the stranger was done, sounding quite a bit more panicked than he had meant to. “We’ve plenty to deal with here without chasing down soul-eating freaks! ‘sides, they say it’s really fast and heading towards Wenal, so we wouldn’t be able to catch it even if we tried.”
“They’ll be fine, though,” the other shrugged, sounding much more confident than he looked. “Nemhim was soft target, especially since Seclyr hit them recently, but Wenal? They have walls, soldiers, knights, mages… No way it’ll win against them.”
“It’s a job for the deo’iel,” the third, scarred guard pointed out, seeming rather calm compared to his colleagues. “They will do something about it soon. But if you’re not just making stuff up,” he added, nodding at the stranger, “someone could probably use that information. We’ll tell our commander. What happens after that is out of our hands.”

Aemoten's reasoning in deciding that "duty", here, meant spreading the word was simple - it was just about the most common enemy of mortals there feasibly could be and the quicker it got taken care of by any means possible. He had no desire, nor the ideal setup - be it funds or powers - to specifically be the one stopping it. Vanity was not the Sekalynic warrior's way. There is no honor in killing nor glory in war, from no bloodshed fame shall arise. They just did what was needed.
At this time and with his degraded state, it meant gritting his teeth and suffering through having a fairly normal conversation. Past some line, even nothing much started to require an unnatural amout of willpower.
So there would probably be an steady flow of refugees for the next few days. And Wenal would be next. He did not share the guard's hope that those in that city would be able to deal with it. Deo'iel? Yeah. Probably the best chance, all things considered. If they can get the funds.
"Deo'iel dealt with the one in Southern Wegam Fermos," he stated. "I doubt most of their members would have much awareness of the beings, given their scarcity, but the higher few circles will know who I'm referring to." He sighed, switching to addressing the third, scarred guard directly. "My brother would be best suited for giving the information, but in his absence, I'll relay what I know. The sooner someone takes care of that one, the better.
If possible, I'd however like to find a healer and a place to stay first."

“They may already know about it,” the scarred guard, looking at Aemoten only in-between letting his eyes shift around to keep an eye on the refugees surrounding them. “A lone couple of deo’iel arrived earlier today. Didn’t get a close look at their badges, but since there’s only two of them I’m guessing fifth or sixth circle. Probably still in the city, looking for… someone.” He looked at his colleagues, both of which just shrugged to demonstrate their ignorance. “Don’t know where, but they stood out, so they’re probably easy to find. Demonspawn.”

He had no obvious means to track most demonspawn aside of trades ... but demonspawn could also be quite distinct, to say the least.
"I shall keep my eyes and ears open," he noted in reply. "If your commander wishes to speak to me, then I'll preferably check by in the morning, and otherwise be staying in an inn. The very least, he -" he released the dekkun's mane for long enough to refer to Etakar "- would be easy enough to locate." Pause. "I do not suppose the citizens would take too kindly to him being on the streets by his own? He is not violent and has quite humanlike intelligence, but I fear he's an uncommon sight, and hasn't been venturing those lands long enough to comprehend Rodorian. The best he could do to get his point across here would be to draw arcane symbols on the ground, I'd figure."

“Zerulics are used to big critters,” the older guard huffed, subconsciously taking a step backwards to put extra distance between himself and the beast. “It’ll be fine.”
But the scarred man crossed his arms, turning his head to look at the gate, seeming to consider the matter for a moment before replying. “It should be fine as long as you stick to the main roads and docks, yeah… and he behaves.” He nodded at the creature to indicate what he was referring to. “As long as he doesn’t threaten anyone or eat or break someone’s property, it should be fine. If you want a place for him to stay, there’s stables at the docks with room for vulgors; should have plenty of room for him.”

The guards seemed to have missed - or perhaps, in the northern barbarian way - did not want to acknowledge or believe his mention of Etakar being of humanlike intelligence, or his associated literacy.
The outlander raised an eyebrow. "Can't figure he'd much more pleased over it than the average Zerulic mage would be over staying in a sheep pen. If you'd reckon he's better out of sight and out of mind and the innkeeper is not overly pleased with the idea of renting him a room, I can escort him back out the city gates and leave him to his own devices outside of it." Etakar was wont to not be overly fond of that, either, but it was indefinitely more agreeable than trying to tell him he was supposed to be locked up for for foreseeable future. It was an arrangement that had worked last night, and in cities past. "He doesn't eat cattle." Not unless given explicit permission, anyway. "Or people. Furthermore, I believe he already ate today." And sustained a leg injury by who-knows-what monstrosity the devilgod had conjured up, so he was much more likely to just take a rest.
The black-coated foreigner uttered a couple of brief sentences in a very distincly articulated foreign language, seemingly at the maned seven-and-a-half-foot-tall beast. The beast produced a brief deep rumble from his chest, and as if to demonstrate the outlander's words a few sentences back, lifted his (formerly injured, now just a bit painful and swollen with a couple of visible crack-marks and some dried blood) left forelimb and unfurled his equivalent of an index finger, its long, mildly curved claw meticulously tracking swiping symbols on the cobbles, one symbol per stone, seemingly resetting what could be after each word. Or sentence, depending on the makeup of whatever clearly foreign script he was using. Three words, the middle one quite long. Or three sentences. The foreigner responded something, and the beast folded and set his appendage back to ground. This time, the vocalized response was a longer, slightly higher-pitched rumble that verged on a growl, followed by a sound that was bizarrely reminiscent of someone sharpening a scythe, emitting from the creature's throat rather than chest.
"Very well;" the stranger switched back to Rodorian, "Should you not have any more questions for me, I shall proceed. Thank you for the information."

As the guards responded by glancing at their colleagues and shrugging, a nod and a hand gesture motioning the party onward, and a slightly half-hearted return of the sentiment (mostly so because the speaker was also trying to keep a track of the refugees passing by on the side) respectively, Etakar slunk through the gates, momentarily parting even the less timid entry-seekers into two watchful lines of spectators.
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Jordan Forthey


The stranger screamed as Jordan's blade dug into his fingers. It was a primal, visceral sound that commanded the squire's muscles to halt, applying to some deep instinct that insisted it was one of his own kind facing slaughter, and he himself should remain quiet and unnoticed, lest the same fate befalls him. He mustn't. Can't. He had known - had thought he knew - that people fighting for their lives were usually too shocked or distracted to scream; the people who had the peace to lament their injuries, the mourning, and the fearful sounding alarm were noisy, but those in combat and the ones dying had too little energy to spare.
But had succeeded. He had gotten the stranger, fast and powerful though he might be, off himself, and now the masked fellow was unarmed, down a hand and with a cut to the bone in his shin, bleeding. He still had his sword in a death grip; his wrist was maybe sprained, maybe broken, and he had a few bruises, but he was not bleeding. Get away. Get up. It was not over. This one was not going to give up so easily, and bleeding out took time.
Even now, still recoiling from a kick to the chest, the stranger was already scampering to his feet, assuming a crouch, hissing like a feral cat. Not fleeing. Preparing, even as Jordan aligned the tip of his blade with the stranger's chest and attempted to assume a semblance of a guard while drawing in his legs and figuring how to best get up without losing his ability to defend himself, even momentarily.
If there was something to be thankful for, it was the stranger's flair for theatrics, as even now, he briefly halted himself for a statement, 'This is how it en--' ... and ceased. The change, just as the stranger once more had the squire in his full view, was almost imperceptible. A hair-thin jolt as muscles froze in tension with the silencing of the figure's voice. Perhaps there was contemplation, maybe a blink of an eye's worth; something had changed.
The stranger bolted in a display of unnatural speed, abandoning the fight and his weapon.

Some part of Jordan almost failed to register the abrupt change. It was ... over? But why? He, too, froze in a lack of understanding ... the stranger had initially wanted to leave, and if Jordan didn't intervene, probably would have, but he doubted the masked figure would, just like that, go back to his original plan. His confusion felt longer in the combat-fueled haze, but in reality, he had just about enough time to blink thrice as he watched the stranger go, before -
"You found trouble," an all too familiar voice stated from somewhere to the right and what registered as "up".
Oh.

The rush of blood from the confrontation was slowly being replaced by an entirely different kind of nervous feeling, the cold, anxious sensation of - in its most polite iteration - "Am I in trouble now? I'm probably in trouble now.". It was no longer survival and instincts. Now, it was about consequences. Thankful as he was for finding himself no longer in mortal danger, he nevertheless involuntarily seized up and very much wanted to be ... somewhere absolutely not where he was now.
It was cold outside, now that he had the presence of mind to notice those things. He was also covered in cooling sweat, which did not help matters. The cobbles did not make the most comfortable resting site. He was still holding onto his sword, for no other reason than that sheathing it would have been a too elaborate action, and he was unsure what else to do with it.
Then again, he probably could not pretend that Sir Yanin was not standing behind him indefinitely, either. Slowly, warily, he turned sideways inching up till he was sitting sideways with his back against the wall, his legs half-bent from the knees. He had made sure his sword did not scrape against the street, though still he rested it on its scabbard rather than sheathed it. His head hurt some, as did his wrist. Other bruises weren't as noticeable, though that may change come next morning. He stared dully at his knees.
"Did you sustain any injuries?" Sir Yanin's voice was ... dispassionate. Not that it was all that atypical of him. Felt like the knight was going through some kind of a checklist. Might be better than angry. Probably. But given that something had been bothering him before... Who knew. There were plenty of people who yelled when they were pissed, but turned cold and calculating when they were really angry.
That was a simple question, at least. Glancing up, his master appeared to be observing the street in the direction his opponent had taken off to, rather than - thankfully - staring down at him. The knight's sword was still brandished, too. Back to staring at his knees.
"My right wrist is sprained, I think... The rest is just bruises, I think." His voice seemed dull.
The knight sighed. "Get up and sheathe your sword, " he said, demonstrating the latter half of his own words. He did not expect Jordan's ... what was the stranger to him? Attacker? He had technically attacked first, at least. Whatever the case, Sir Yanin did not seem to be expecting the stranger to be back.
But ... yeah. Get up. He guessed he could do that.
"Preferably before someone comes along and figures you're either a drunkard or that I beat you up."
Oh.
Jordan (probably wisely) chose not to ask whether the latter was not something his master pretty much habitually did every day, anyway. Minus the sprained or broken wrist, that is. Sir Yanin had never really broken anything. So he just managed to carefully slid up the wall, awkwardly sheathing his sword using only his left hand. Certainly less convenient than doing it with his right hand, which was opposite the scabbard on his left. The cobblestone in front of his right boot seemed very interesting just about now.
"How come I found you fighting a vampire?" For Sir Yanin, the tone was almost conversational, yet Jordan wanted to flinch like a much younger boy expecting to be hit.
A vampire? He had noticed the speed and strength, but ... a vampire? In a large city like this? How come he had not been caught with all the magic and guards and eyes and who-knows-what-else ... in spite of supposedly leaving corpses in his wake? It's not like he could kill the citizens and just pretend a bear ate them like he could in a more rural place. Jordan had figured he was a rogue warden or something...
Usually, he'd have asked his master how he had managed to identify the stranger as a vampire, not as a warden, or a demonspawn, or any other potential mostly humanlike fiend. Not today.
"I was asking people about the refugees. He looked like he knew something. About, well, something. He did not like questions, I guess."
"Hmrh."
"Sorry." It could not probably hurt to just apologize pre-emptively. Whatever it was he was exactly supposed to apologize for in this instance.
"We can discuss if further at the inn, in the evening. I figure I'll be running the errands I intended to give you myself. You go get your wrist checked, and I'm certain the guards here would be interested in knowing there's a homicidal vampire running around on the streets. And try to avoid finding more trouble today; stick with streets that have people on them, for example."
"Okay." So he will be facing the potential repercussions ... later. Great.
"For someone who picked a superhuman for his first fight entirely alone, you did not do a too bad job not getting your throat immediately ripped out. You've learned some."
At that Jordan actually looked up at Sir Yanin, who, evidently, considered the conversation done, seeing how he opted for seeing himself out. Was that supposed to be a weird acknowledgement, or just an insult? It was true he'd have been dead by the time of his master's convenient arrival a year ago, but ... still.
Even after years, he wasn't entirely sure what to make of Sir Yanin's way of interacting with people.
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Domhnall and Iridiel

Iridiel had grown thoughtful after his final thoughts on the matter, though eventually fell back to slumber, perhaps too tired to ponder long.
It felt true, though, what he had said: gods had their marked and their favored, and the common man had better odds talking to those select few rather than the deities themselves. Gods' power was indubitable, yet they did not listen to everyone. Did they not want to, or could they not? He did not know. He supposed, though, that even knowing every plea and prayer directed in their direction must become tiring, even to gods themselves. People wanted this, wanted that, very rarely giving something back to the gods they requested favors from. And what could a man or a woman give to a god that they could actually use, anyway? Did gods ever do something with the meager offerings people gave them? With their prayers? Their praise? Or was it all just gimmicks and noise?
As they neared the city, however, he could spot people on the roads, haggard and weary, many of them injured, some rather gravely. They did not look like soldiers; nay, they appeared to be common citizens, and a lot of them too. Something bad had happened, something that was neither the Withering nor civil war, unless soldiers were going after merchants and butchers, tailors and housewives, pampered children and common street urchins alike now, entirely without discrimination.
As much as a part of him wanted to just let Iridiel sleep until they had figured out, Domhnall figured Iridiel needed to see this sooner rather than later. The healer in her would not be happy if she discovered they'd just been riding past people who needed their help, and done nothing. Some of them looked like they might fall flat on their faces at any moment. Besides, they were most likely nearing the gates already.
"Hey," he insisted in a low tone, reaching back to tap Iridiel on the shoulder (an action which was somewhat awkward with her resting on his back and his fingers being half-numb from holding onto the reins in the cold for so long). "I think we're nearly there, and something has happened. There are a lot of people on the road ... looks like they've been attacked, and are fleeing to Zerul City."
"Domhnall... too tired to... do anything..." the highlander mumbled against his shoulder, hardly stirring. Grabbing the reins in his other hand and rubbing the one which had held them till now against the side of his thigh before sticking it under his vest for warmth, he attempted to peer over his shoulder in an attempt to take a glance at his companion's face. Yep. Definitely right back to sound asleep. Probably no means of waking her for good unless he were to resort to violence. And then the unfamiliar albeit thus far surprisingly cooperative beast beneath him would probably throw a fit.
"Don't ask me why I didn't wake you later..." the forestfolk muttered as he set the sights forward again, as much to himself as the highlander. He supposed they might as well talk in the inn if she didn't wake before then. If she intended to continue her slumber even then, then getting off the horse and into their respective beds could prove rather awkward indeed.
He had expected to be permitted passage through the gates with ease - without Etakar and Claw there, they looked hardly remarkable, his own complexion aside - yet a young lad seemed rather fixated on the younger black-eyes. Or, at the very least, his armor. It was a rather fancy article besides its trouty glimmer, by the sound of it. Ah, and he was someone who was been told to wait for them, though he seemed woefully unaware of what had happened to the rest of their little party. Which was concerning.
"There s'posed tae be more of us lo'," he informed the lad in his harsh, guttural accent with rolling r's, removing his spare hand from his vest and rubbing the side of his neck. "Tall foreign-looking warrior fellow with a narrow face, a wee whi'e-haired lass an' a beas' a bi' like a lion big as four horses, with a dragon's limbs, tail and head. Ough' tae be ra'her hard tae miss if they came through here..." Well, and Claw, but to his knowledge, he didn't exactly intend to march through the city gates...

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From his hiding place (which consisted of a trivial spot of forestry founded upon an elevated plot of land situated approximately 6 miles away from Zerul City) Claw bore witness to a most interesting sight. A gargantuan flock of people—appearing to Claw as a swelling, multi-tiered assemblage of diminutive black specks that seemed to be in a perpetual state of motion from such an immense distance—was making its way bit by bit towards Zerul City. A hazy cloud of dirt and grit (likely generated by the powerful strides of an impressively large integer of horses and burly draft animals slaved to an equally sizable amount of wagons and carts) floated lazily about them as they painstakingly strode onward.

Claw pondered the identity of these people. Perhaps the specks were traders? Or some great host from an enemy region coming to assail Zerul City? Claw yearned to know more.

But previous events had understandably made the del’korm moderately wary of this alien land’s inhabitants despite having been aided by a pair of them a few hours prior. He considered moving out beyond the outer edges of the forest and further inland a ways to get a better gander at the newcomers, but a last-minute epiphany rooted him firmly in place before he had committed even a single muscle towards motion.

Claw did not need to see these people directly in order to garner a comprehensive apprehension of their woeful situation at all. He was an Echoer. Not the most adept one perhaps, but competent enough to the point where his sense of sight utterly paled in comparison to his sense of hearing.

He only needed to hear them.

Ordinarily, eavesdropping on a far-flung individual or tiny group was but mere child’s play for those favored with the Voice of La’Kan. It was an ability universally known by the lion’s share of their lot. Claw had done it countless times when he was still in Malkor’Kurz. It had saved his life on more than one occasion.

But doing it to thousands of tiny groups from such a vast distance all the while differentiating between such a dense cacophony of sounds? That was beyond him. Ashamed as Claw was to admit it, he’d need a touch of help.

Swallowing his pride, Claw gently shut his eyes in focus and marshaled his spirit to action, forcibly compelling the magical power that resided within his mortal soul to tap into, amplify, and then subsequently refine his own personal connection with the Gelid Union. Not even a second passed before the Echoer abruptly perceived the blazing fire of La’Kan’s divine soul seamlessly blending with his own, its dynamic pangs of nigh-limitless power momentarily enhancing Claw’s sense of hearing to a degree where he could even audibly detect the smallest of insects scuttling and scurrying about on the forest floor with unmatched clarity.

Sufficiently empowered and muting in totality all other noises around him, Claw fixed his gaze upon the lilliputian, bleary shapes that shuffled about within the dusty floating cloud in the distance and listened.

Our home is gone, murmured one of the specks to another. Their low and quivering voice was laden with equal parts gloom and dread, as if their whole world had been violently ripped clear from their clutches without much effort some time before. The speaker measured young vocally. A child likely. One who was perhaps six years off from womanhood.

Why is she so sad? Claw silently mused to himself. What had happened to her dwelling?

A loud crack disrupted Claw’s deep fixation on the young one’s dispirited mutterings. The splitting of hard timber. An “axle” maybe? Yes, that was it—and an obliterated wheel as an extra causality, too. The sound of an elderly mule, bucking and braying in terror at the sudden report from the wagon’s untimely mechanical failure, met Claw’s ears. And another vocalization—this time male, human, and the likely possessor of both wagon and beast—responded with a furious shout at his bad luck in an exotic tongue that the del’korm scarcely understood.

The Echoer continued to listen in on the moving masses as they gradually made their way towards the main gates of Zerul City, cycling from speck group to speck group with due rapidity. From what words that they exchanged lowly amongst themselves, Claw quickly learned of where they hailed from—a place he had never been to before called Nemhim that apparently was situated somewhere west—and how a mysterious entity of herculean might and unbridled vehemence had unleashed its direful fury upon the hapless people of that faraway city.

Claw concentrated towards Zerul City’s main gates. An explosive deluge of male and female voices belonging to the old, the young, the sick, and the injured of a multifarious collection of races and ethnic groups assaulted his ears, all of them seemingly speaking in unison to an overwhelmed contingent of men—all of whom spoke with a peculiar amount of authority—that clustered at the city’s entrance.

The men also made a number of distinctive yet entirely unnatural “clinking” sounds every so often. Steel on steel? Probably loose weapons striking armor. More than likely they were soldiers charged with presiding over this crisis in an orderly fashion.

There’s only three of us! One male voice cried out. By the Gods, we’ve no food and my son is hurt! He won’t---

---aunt resides here, Came another. ‘Sent for us the moment she caught wind of the attack. Name’s Te---

---thing was something out of a nightmare it was! Exclaimed one more. Ran roughshod through my entire farmstead like it was nothing! We barely made it out al---

Claw winced in agitation. Too much information. He bent and contorted the sounds until most of the refugees save for an infinitesimal section of them—perhaps five or so hustled up a fair walk away from the main body of newcomers—were all he heard.

There s'posed tae be more of us lo', came a new voice. Tall foreign-looking warrior fellow with a narrow face, a wee whi'e-haired lass an' a beas' a bi' like a lion big as four hor---

A feeling of familiarity suddenly washed over Claw as the sound of Domhnall’s characteristic accent greeted him.

Claw’s understanding of the local dialect was still in its infancy, but he did know a few rudimentary words and phrases to at least communicate a simple message to another. He homed in on who he hoped was Domhnall and spoke to him directly via a tightly constrained “beam” of acoustic energy that was aimed right at the forest dweller.

“Domhnall, this is Claw. Stay there, yes? I am coming.”

His message sent, Claw terminated his link with the Gelid Union, La'Kan's quasi-immortal spirit separating itself from his and the audible presence of the far-off lot of displaced Nimhem people vanishing almost instantaneously.

After checking to make sure all of his effects were in order, Claw dropped to all fours and sprang out from his protective woodland occupancy with a bestial grunt, landing with a heavy thud and ripping free great portions of packed dirt from the earth with his claws, and surged across the open land towards Zerul City with a tempo that even a prized racing stallion would have struggled to match.
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