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Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara – Bor Manor, Borstown

Turning at hearing someone calling his name, Jaelnec paused in following his master to see what Jordan wanted, only for the young human to slide one of his iron truncheons toward the nightwalker. He followed the weapon with his eyes as it made its way across the floor, filling the air with a relatively subdued sound of metal rubbing on stone, before raising his gaze to meet Jordan's.
“Thanks!” he called back with a smile, only to then look down at his hands – the right one occupied by his sword, the left by the iron truncheon he had retrieved from the armory when instructed to do so by Freagon – and felt quite conflicted. On one hand he had far more training in swordsmanship than he did with any other kind of weapon, his sword had longer reach than the bludgeon and would generally allow for a broader variety of uses in combat. On the other the truncheon was relatively pure iron whereas his sword was mid-grade steel, which made the truncheon much more effective at countering spiritual opponents and disrupting magical effects.
In the end he decided to err on the side of caution – and on the side of not spurning Jordan's offer – by sheathing his sword and picking up the second truncheon to wield in his right hand. He figured that even if it turned out that Irah had been right in her suspicion earlier and they were dealing with a fully summoned divine, meaning that it was now physical rather than just spiritual and that disrupting its energy was no longer a viable way to stop it, another piece of iron would still be useful. Unlike frentits thalks were magic-users, after all, and having an extra thing to block offensive magic with or even just to throw at the enemy might be useful. If he needed his sword it would not take long to simply discard one or both truncheons and drawing the blade.

Pausing to retrieve the truncheon also meant that Jaelnec was facing toward the entrance of the manor hall when Madara entered, and he found himself momentarily distracted by her approach. He was not sure why she had even come given that she had essentially been a spectator so far and simply stayed back to let others fight... though the same could be said about him, of course. In fact the argument could be made that he had been even worse than useless, having been practically incapacitated by a bright light almost immediately and been reduced from the one guarding the non-combatants to a helpless burden. Irah had even said a prayer to heal his eyes, thus inflicting him and herself with divine taint just to make him vaguely useful again. A small, almost negligible amount of taint, granted, but even small amounts added up with how long it took divine taint to fade. He had been a drain on their limited resources while providing no benefit to their situation.
But what really gave Jaelnec pause was the way Madara moved. He had not really paid much attention to her previously aside from identifying her as a woman – she was a bit old for him, after all, and there was just something a bit... off about her due to her palanter-blood – but the way she walked somehow managed to push through his mental filters. There was no denying that she was an attractive woman, and though her charm was of a quite different nature than the agelessly ever-young and innocent-seeming Irah, looking at her now, Jaelnec could not help but to feel something stirring in his youthful, hormonal blood.
He wondered who she was, why she was here, where she had come from and all manner of other things. At the moment he did not even know her name, and the lack of familiarity was yet another reason that he was much more interested in Irah at the moment. He knew her name and he knew at least some of her abilities as an elementalist and a Favored One (or so he thought) and suspected that she was a necromancer... and on top of that he had already shared a moment of brief and platonic intimacy with her.
Of course none of this ranked very high on his list of priorities and were categorized in his head more as fanciful daydreaming than actual concerns he had. It was far from the first time he had felt attraction, after all, but he and Freagon always moved on and left everyone else behind. A disillusioned part of Jaelnec already expected Irah, Madara and Nabi – and everyone else, for that matter – to be left behind this time, too, once Freagon had gotten what he was here after, whatever that might be. Nothing but a fantasy. A hopeless dream. The legacy of the last Knight of the Will did not have time for romance.

Upstairs Freagon did as had been requested and accompanied Lhirin, occasionally and habitually turning Roct in his hand to switch which edge was lower and hopefully minimize the amount of blood dripping from its still-wet blade. It was because he had been told to accompany the deigan man and was specifically paying attention to him that Freagon noticed him holding up a hand and showing first five, then two fingers, which made the knight cock his head curiously and narrow his eye behind the visor of his helmet. He followed Lhirin's gaze and direction he had been showing his fingers, and found that Irah was the only one in the area that seemed poised and attentive to read this gesture. That made sense, the two seemed to know each other.
But then just a little later, when they had started congregating on the hallway leading toward the room with the divine, he noticed Lhirin making another, much subtler series of hand-gestures. It was quite covert, his hand remaining at his side rather than raising; Freagon would not have noticed had he not seen the gesture before and been asked to attend Lhirin specifically. He had no idea what the purpose of the gestures were – whether they were the visual component of casting a spell, an attempt to communicate with someone, or just a nervous tic – but they did not seem random. And since he suspected Irah to be the one Lhirin had communicated with silently before, he also caught her making deliberate eye-contact with her companion a while later and shaking her head; a gesture that could easily be interpreted as natural and insignificant on its own, but which added another instance of wordless communication between them to Freagon's list.
Freagon was not pleased. Worse, he was getting impatient with these two. He had no idea what it was that they felt the need to communicate about in secret like this – whether it had something to do with Irah's unusual ability to detect and analyze divines from afar or something else – and he did not care. If there was something important enough to need to talk about now, it was important enough to convey to everyone involved, not just each other. And if they truly had information that was sensitive enough for it to be dangerous to them if the rest of the group knew... well, that was bad, too. A hazard and a burden.
His mood was getting worse, and his opinion of the deigan pair was deteriorating fast. If secrecy was truly this paramount to them even in the midst of a situation with lives potentially at stake, Freagon had to seriously reconsider whether he could use them.

He listened to Lhirin's input and nodded his head, indifferent to the obvious conclusions he was sharing but appreciative of his brevity. Then he listened to Irah and nodded his head again, likewise satisfied with her conclusions but annoyed with her wordiness, particularly since most of what she said were things he already knew, and he had to remind himself that not everyone were as experienced with the extraordinary as him. Even so he remained painfully aware of time passing with each uttered word, knowing that every second they spent talking about this thalk would give it more divine energy to work with and make it even more dangerous. With creatures like this, time was the absolute worst thing they could give it.
Yanin's words were briefer and more practical, which Freagon appreciated. He also referenced Freagon with the appropriate honorific, which he also appreciated.
“The boy can fight,” Freagon replied when Jaelnec's viability as a combatant was called into question, “but I'd prefer to avoid it.” Which was why Jaelnec had instructions to watch from a safe distance. The page had never participated in a real fight before, but he had sparred with Freagon and studied the knight fighting countless times.

The rest were more-or-less just musings on their options and what to expect, which Freagon listened to attentively more as a way to learn about the people speaking than what they were speaking about. It was interesting. But as much as he loathed spending more precious time talking, he figured he had better add his own observations and opinions to the mix.
“The Melenian is the last person here as far as we know,” he reminded everyone, not to convey new information but simply to establish the basis for the conclusions that followed. “The sobbing does not sound Melenian. And if it is fully summoned, that only leaves one person to be sacrificed for that to happen.”
Though not a practitioner of magic himself, Freagon was quite familiar with most of the basic mechanics of pretty much all schools of magic either from experience or from what he had learned to be able to know what to expect and how to deal with it. The only price exacted for summoning divine spirits into wraiths and ghouls was magical energy, meaning it could be done as long as that energy was available. A full summoning, however, required a sacrifice proportional to the divine summoned; specifically, such a summoning always required life. Someone had to die and their bodies serve as the material for the divine to construct its vessel from. With a lesser divine such as a thalk a single sapient life should suffice, but whoever served as sacrifice would not only be killed in the process, but even their remains would be consumed in the process.
Add to that the clumps of bloody fur on the landing and the bloody pawprints leading to the door, and he figured the conclusion to draw was obvious.
“The Melenian is dead. This is a trap.” To him those matters were not debatable, they were certainties. “It's not going to move. I'll kill it.”
Irah, West Staircase, Hall, Bor Manor, Borstown

Extending her senses toward the upper west wing of the manor, Irah would be able to feel for herself much more clearly than before what Kinder had reported since they got here. In the first room on the left down that hallway she would feel a large, dense quantity of divine energy that seemed to fill an area back there. Unlike sensing a normal soul, there were no discernible currents, vibrations or other movements in this energy, either because it was somehow entirely dormant or because the entity it belonged to was trying to mask its presence.
Magically locating anything inside that mass of divinity would be nigh-impossible unless she extended her senses inside it and sifted through the area like one might physically sift sand through one's fingers. Doing so would expose her naked soul to dense divine energy, however, and would cause her to accumulate divine taint extremely fast. As it was there was no way for Irah to determine if there were any mundanes, let alone who they were or their specific mental states, in the room with the divine without seriously compromising her own health.

“I am sorry, Deo'irah, but I cannot sense anything but the divine,” Kinder reported sadly. “They may be in there hidden by its presence, but I have greater difficulty sensing living mundanes than spirits. Maybe I could sense them fully summoned, but currently I cannot tell.”
Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara, Bor Manor, Borstown

The Knight of the Will turned expectantly to face Lhirin as he spoke his name, to find him not even looking in his direction. Though he did not react to it, he also noticed the lack of an honorific in the address and made a mental note to pay attention as to how the deigan addressed Yanin. Freagon did not particularly care whether people called him “sir” or not or if they looked at him when speaking to him, but those were both useful indicators to gauge people's disposition from, particularly when there were other knights around.
If Lhirin also addressed Yanin without honorific it meant that he just did not fuss about formalities like that... at least with people as relatively low in the noble hierarchy as knights. He did recall him being quite formal and polite – grandiose, almost – when addressing the penin outside they had all assumed was the baroness, but she was also the local Lady and technically their employer, since she had offered a reward. If he did address Yanin with honorific, on the other hand, it meant that the omission for one in addressing Freagon had been a deliberate slight against him... in which case the nightwalker figured that he should probably try to mend whatever he had done to annoy the mage.

Only a moment later did Lhirin half-turn and look in Freagon's direction, and spoke the words: “Accompany me?”
Behind the visor of his helmet Freagon frowned confusedly as well as his scarred features allowed him. The inflection on the words suggested that the words were meant as a request rather than an order, which was good; Freagon did not deem the current situation urgent enough to justify others giving him orders. But the ascended deigan also did not appear to be actually going anywhere, which suggested that he was only going to start moving once Freagon was near him and had agreed to accompany him.
Freagon was not sure why he needed to accompany Lhirin specifically, but he also was not in the mood to argue. He finally stepped off the corpse of the ghoul he had slain and started ascending the eastern stairs toward where Lhirin awaited him.
“Boy,” he called and raised his left hand and make a vague gesture over his shoulder without looking.
Out in the armory Jaelnec jolted upright and his eyes went wide at the sound of his master's voice, only for him to hurriedly move to follow Freagon.
Yanin, West Staircase, Hall, Bor Manor, Borstown

Climbing the staircase while looking around and taking in the layout of the second floor of the hall, Yanin got a better perspective past the lip of the landing that encircled the entire space. The first things he would get a better look at as he climbed would be the windows, two on the northern wall and one on the southern one, which would be right above the armory. All the windows were more-or-less the exact same type as he had seen when viewing the manor from outside: square cross-windows about two by two meters in size, allowing bountiful daylight to flow into the space from outside. All the windows seemed mostly intact, though he would notice that the northwestern window – the one directly adjacent to the top of the stair he was currently on – had a thin, wide, curved spray of red painted across its lower half.
Other than the windows, the only openings to the landing were two doorways; one to the west and one to the east. The eastern door was closed, preventing him from seeing what lay past it, but the western door was wide open, swung into the hall and toward Yanin, and offered a partial view of a second-floor hallway past it. From his vantage point Yanin would be able to see another two doors on the south side of the hallway, both of which were closed.
Ascending further to get a full view of the area, Yanin would not notice any other openings nor any significant details about them than he did before. The floor of the landing, however, seemed to have its own story to tell. Just past the top of the stair he was on he would see two small glass vials laying about three meters apart, one of which appeared to have been crushed but neither of which had spilled any liquid, suggesting that they would have been discarded once empty. He would also notice a broken wooden chair to the right of the top of the stair and another several red splatters going this way and that, though none of them resembled the wide arc across the window.
In front of the sprayed window – the stain on which he would be familiar with, as it seemed the type that would often occur when wounding someone deeply with a wide sword-slash – was quite a bit of blood that seemed to have dripped this way and that, along with several sizable chunks of what appeared to be thick red hair. The blood-drips then left a trail, accompanied by what appeared to be bloody paw-prints of a large feline, heading into the west wing of the manor, disappearing into the first door on the left.

If he listened carefully, as he was wont to do, he would also be able to just faintly pick up the sound of a woman sobbing again from there. The sound seemed to come from the western wing as well.
Jaelnec, Irah and Madara, Armory, Bor Manor, Borstown

Still half-blind and aching, Jaelnec's expression was only a bit tense until a frown came over it at Irah's description of the last remaining divine in Bor Manor. She had guessed it might be a thalk earlier, and now she said that she sensed bloodthirst, hate and rage from it, which gave more than a little food for thought. Though he had never fought angels himself, he had witnessed Freagon fight them at several different occasions, so he had first-hand experience with thalks and frentits alike.
It made sense that the frentits would just be “having fun,” as Irah put it; that was the mindset most free-willed divines had when they were unleashed in Reniam, eager as they were to seize the opportunity for new experiences. The violence, destruction and trauma they tended to cause mundanes was often the result of indifference rather than malevolence, since they – as immortals that never knew true death and would heal from any injury – did not always comprehend how much more serious such things were for mortals. Strong negative emotions as the ones she described now were unusual in all but the most hostile and dangerous divines, or those who had been somehow wronged and motivated to feel that way.
So what could have instilled such dark emotions in this thalk? The most likely explanation was that the summoner had enslaved it, of course, but if she was strong enough to control something as wily as a thalk, why had she just let the frentits loose like this? It did not feel like it added up.
Another realization Jaelnec had at Irah's mention of the wraiths and ghouls being possessed by frentits was that it was fortunate that they had been so intent on playing around in their new bodies. Frentits were naturally rather bestial angels that primarily fought with tooth and claw, so it was only natural for them to be hopelessly inept with tools like weapons. There was actually a fair chance that the ghouls would have been more dangerous if they had not been trying to fight as humans.

The other-other thing that made Jaelnec frown at Irah's words was the fact that she could not only sense their presence and relative strength, not only decipher their state of mind, but could apparently do so from far away and without even line of sight. He had never encountered someone with such keen magical senses before, except maybe some of the best Sniffers. Jaelnec only had the faintest hint of magical sensitivity himself and no experience with any kind of magic, but he had been around enough mages – both of the commonly acceptable variety that lived normal lives across Rodoria and practitioners of forbidden arts – to know that there was virtually no chance that Irah was all that she seemed. His best guess would be that she was a necromancer, since it was common knowledge that they had sharper magical senses than others, but even for a necromancer...
Not that he was going to act on his suspicions, of course. Not only did the idea of potentially having to treat the cute deigan as an enemy fill his heart with regret and disgust, but he also knew that if he had deduced that something odd was going on with her, then Freagon would absolutely have noticed as well. Jaelnec would happily ignore his own evaluation and trust his master's judgment instead. Since Freagon did not react to her statement beyond turning away from her and looking off toward the western landing where their final opponent supposedly awaited them.
Jaelnec had no idea just what Freagon might be thinking on the matter, or if he had any opinion on it at all. The old knight had never cared too much about the law, nor did he often adhere to the common definitions of “right” and “wrong” or “monster”, for that matter. They had fought (by which he meant that Freagon had fought and Jaelnec spectated) alongside necromancers, summoners and witches as often as they had fought against them depending on the situation, though admittedly most practitioners of the forbidden arts Jaelnec had met had been deo'iel. It was probably unlikely for Freagon to treat Irah with hostility solely based on using outlawed magic, so as long as nobody else made a fuss about it, chances were – happily so – that they might work with the pretty sorceress for a little while.

Then, much to Jaelnec's surprise, Irah addressed him personally and, gently caressing his face from his cheek to his eyes, spoke a prayer to Reina as a soft white, magical glow emerged where their skin touched.
It was entirely too much for Jaelnec's mind to keep up with.
One part of his brain went: Huh, she's a Favored One, too? So she's an elementalist, probably a necromancer and a Favored One. Quite the multi-talent.
Another part of him wondered: This feels... odd? None of the other times I've been healed by a Favored One of Reina felt like this. This feels warmer, but also more... itchy, almost? Like it almost hurts?
A more critical thought wondered: She'd waste her limited healing magic on my eyes when I would probably recover on my own in a little while, even though I've just been standing over here doing nothing?
And a final, more honest voice noted: Her fingertips are rough, but her palms are so soft... and she smells like goldberries.
But regardless of the musings that raced through the young page's mind, the healing light wiped away the red outlines and clarified his vision so that he was treated to a view with fully functional eyes of Irah as she pulled her hand away. He saw her standing on tiptoes to reach his face, saw her looking straight into his face, saw her turning away bashfully as she apologized for the lightning and asked if he was all right now.

Jaelnec straightened his back, puffed his chest out and tried as hard as he could to not start blushing profusely and giggling happily. He was mostly successful, but not entirely; there was a bit of a blush on his neck and cheeks, and he could not suppress his blissful smile entirely.
“I am fine now,” he told her, unintentionally making his voice sound a bit deeper than normal. “Thank you, miss, but it's my own fault. I could tell he was casting a spell, I should've looked away.”
Even just acknowledging his mistake to himself made Jaelnec deflate a little again as his eyes – imperceptibly due to their uniform blackness – darted to Freagon across the hall. He was certain that he was going to be reprimanded for that mistake later.

Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara, Bor Manor, Borstown

Beyond the armory, in the hall where the fighting had now come to an end, Lhirin and Nabi might notice that the aura that had been disrupting their magic and magical senses seemed to dissipate.
Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara, Bor Manor, Borstown

Freagon cocked his head curiously when Yanin, while looking at the older knight, indicated the ghoul Lhirin was fighting as if to direct him to intervene and defeat the creature himself. Aside from this small somatic cue, however, Freagon did not react to the human knight's unspoken instruction in the slightest; he remained exactly where he was, one foot on the presumably defeated ghoul he was standing on, his sword lowered passively as he simply watched.
His lack of obvious action did not mean that he did not appreciate Yanin's intent, though, nor the insight that intent suggested. Freagon agreed on the other knight's assessment: it would make far more practical sense for him to simply run up there and cut down the ghoul with Roct rather than standing by passively and let the mages expend their limited stores of magical energy to take four times longer to destroy the thing. Though he was no mage himself, he still had enough experience with magic to realize that Lhirin, Irah and Nabi had all spent a considerable amount of magical energy already; energy that might have been useful for handling the greater threat that supposedly still loomed ahead of them.
But unlike Yanin, Freagon was not particularly invested in defeating their enemies as quickly, safely and efficiently as possible. He had not come to Borstown for better equipment, in the hopes of riches or even out of curiosity; he had come here, fully expecting to be turned away by Baroness Bor, in the hopes of meeting other adventurers. He wanted – no, he needed to gather a competent party to travel with... and here they were. Not a party yet, but a collection of adventurers with potential for certain. Had his intent been simply to aid the penin outside clear the manor, the safest, fastest and most efficient method would likely have been for him to simply rush in and wipe out all opposition on his own, at most with Yanin along as support; everyone else just slowed him down. He had waited for them on purpose, had stood back and remained mostly passive and defensive for most of the fight not because it was the best way to win, but to create opportunities for him to observe and evaluate these people. To witness their skills, powers, strengths and weaknesses.
There was potential. How useful they might be in practice would be another matter entirely.

As Sir Yanin vanquished the final, literally disarmed ghoul with extreme prejudice, things finally seemed to slow down in the hall again; words were shared, weapons cleaned, burning blankets moved aside as swift preparations seemed to be undertaken for dealing with the assumed final threat. Freagon did not bother cleaning his weapon just yet; blood – and practically anything else – would not degrade the sartal blade, and the fighting was not over yet. He would spare a few seconds to wipe the blood off before sheathing the sword, if for no other reason then simply to avoid leaving gunk that would start to smell in the scabbard. For now he kept the sword in hand and turned his attention back to the hall.
“Deo'irah, was it?” he called, and though his voice remained eternally hoarse he did not sound winded in the least. His tone was flat and matter-of-factly, as neutral as his posture. “Can you confirm that there's only one divine left? It'd be best to avoid more... surprises.” He gestured at the middle of the floor where the sundered carpet that had captured Lhirin earlier now lay inert and soaked in water.

Over in the armory, Kinder addressed Irah to confirm what the deigan might learn with her own magical senses: “I do not sense any more. It seems that no more are being summoned, at least for now. The more powerful one should be the last divine nearby... except me, of course.”
Beside her and Madara, Jaelnec finally recovered enough to stand up straight again, though he was far from back to full capacity just yet. His cheeks were wet with tears and he kept blinking rapidly as the world remained a blur to him, with a bright red outline of Lhirin's lightning still burned into his retinas. It would probably take a while for his vision to recover completely – assuming the light had not been severe enough to do permanent damage – but at least the pain had receded to the point of being manageable, and he was no longer completely blind.
Still, this had not been his proudest moment. Any hope he had had to possibly show off his skills and maybe impress Irah, Nabi or Madara had been squashed the instant a bolt of lightning – even a small one as was the case here – had manifested within his field of vision. Instead he now appeared weak and amateurish on top of being actually mostly defenseless. The pain, though severe, was nowhere near as crippling as the shame and disappointment.
Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara, Bor Manor, Borstown

Just as Nabi started moving to assault her one-armed opponent, the ghoul started moving as well. Unarmed as it was, the ghoul's natural mode of attack was to simply rush straight at the Erashyir, meeting her during her own approach, and move to tackle her.
But even as it rushed forward, raising its left arm to grasp for her face, Nabi's saber slashed with speed and intent, cleaving into the ghoul's shoulder, cutting flesh, tendon and bone alike, severing the offending arm. The blade even continued its arc through the arm and into the rib cage, embedding itself into the torso, though this also served to lock the saber in place until it could be properly dislodged.
Following up the chop instantly with a stab, the ghoul's own momentum added to the force of her dagger. She would feel the blade find its mark, easily sinking into and through the eyeball, resulting in a splash of something wet and still warm on her hand, before piercing hilt-deep into the creature's brain. It was a grievous wound that was doubtlessly almost instantly lethal... had the creature not been a spirit that was not actually using its vessel's brain.
Ignoring the slight inconvenience of the steel embedded in its head, the rushing ghoul – now armless – finally collided with Nabi bodily. It pressed against her, its feet skidding impotently against the floor as it merely endeavored to get as close to her as possible. It opened its own mouth and started snapping its teeth, trying to lean into and bite at her with its teeth, the only weapon it had left.

Over by the eastern staircase Irah's flying bit of water darted forward, though she would notice instantly that upon getting about five meters into the hall that the magically animated fluid would start to bleed, drip and slow down as her magic was once more impeded, necessitating her pouring additional magical energy and concentrating harder to do what she had wanted. Though Irah was outside the influence of whatever disrupting aura was in effect back in the armory, the same was evidently not true for most of the hall.
Even so the water would still make its way to Lhirin and his spear-wielding adversary. The ghoul there would swat at the water with its spear as soon as it got in range – a vain effort, since the weapon merely passed right through the liquid with minimal resistance – before the tendril connected the ghoul with Lhirin's blade, creating a pathway of minimal resistance for the still-active lightning-enchantment to traverse. The electricity would obviously disrupt Irah's magic as much as the ghoul's, instantly causing her to lose control of the conducting water and making it drop and splash onto the stair, but by then it would already have served its purpose.
The ghoul jolted backward, a spasm going through its muscles as electricity coursed through it, after which it fell back onto the stairs with a clatter of armor on stone, the spear slipping from its grasp.

Irah's attempt at directing her magical senses toward the west end of the manor would have her instantly detect a large quantity of divine energy – many times greater than any of the frentits had had – on the second floor, though notably it seemed oddly still, calm and passive. She could not feel any of the expected currents of energy that would normally indicate a functioning soul experiencing thoughts and emotions. It also felt very large in terms of the area it was distributed over; larger, even, than any kind of angel she would be familiar with.
“It is still there, Deo'irah. The last angel has not moved, and it is still alone,” Kinder told her, a note of worry in her voice. “But it is harder to sense than before, and I don't feel any emotion from it anymore. I think it may have sensed me, too, and is trying to mask its presence. Be careful; though I do not sense it now, I could tell from earlier that it is not having fun like the others. All I felt from it was hate, anger and bloodthirst.”
“There might be at least two. The thing to the west. Or, at the very least, it has two different kinds of units; we were ordered to fall back in either case. They stressed the importance of not letting anyone take hostages. It reads minds. Before – my first four years out of twelve – there were cyborgs. Half-human, half-machine. They fought hard, but they were already few by that point. As far as I know, they're all gone. That land is now divided between Trenians and Anderekians to the north.”
“That confirms our own intel,” Gramps declared, proving that he was still paying attention even if he was outwardly occupying himself with preparing water for tea. “Truth be told I'm relieved to hear that there haven't been any more sightings of cyborgs. Ever since what happened to Kay-Gee...”
Though Gramps trailed off on that, Kay thought she noticed a faint shiver of his elderly, if muscular, frame even with his back turned, and was taken aback by just how unusual a sight that was. Gramps was one of the most stable, reliable and most fearless people she had ever met, and seeing him shaken by something – even as subtly as he was now – spoke volumes of how fearsome that thing must have been.
It did bring up some interesting, if rather disturbing, questions regarding Gramps' thoughts on Kay herself if he found cyborgs that unnerving. There had never been any doubt that Gramps had had no part in integrating the Interface in Kay's head and that he had been furious when he had discovered what had happened, but she had never really contemplated why he had been so angry.
“Read minds...” Kay repeated Enn's words quietly, biting her lip and running her fingers along the side of the device on her skull. Part of her would have liked to meet a cyborg – someone who was, in a sense, like her – and was disappointed to hear that they were not around anymore. Another part was relieved. A third part wondered what would happen if she actually met a machine mind.

“Kay-Gee told me some things about life is here usually. At best I could have managed on my own until I ran out of bullets and a direstalker figured it out. I would be fine living as a civilian or soldier in a different faction. I wouldn't know how to begin asking questions. Besides one, anyway. I'm here - now what?
“Now what, indeed.” Gramps turned back towards Enn and Kay and leaned against his back against the counter, arms crossed over his chest. He looked from one to the other, and Kay could have sworn it looked as if he was aging before her very eyes as the tension started fading from his posture and expression, only to be replaced with fatigue and worry. “I don't know the machines well enough to predict what they might do. They might leave us alone, or they might wipe us out as soon as they deem it to be practical. Similarly, if we tried to flee through their lands they might let us pass, or they might destroy us, based on logic we have no chance to ever understand or predict.” He shook his head ruefully. “It's too risky.”
“We can't slip past the Anderekians and Trenians, and they absolutely wouldn't let us pass when they found us,” he continued after a moment, uncrossing his arms to raise a hand and rub his his eyes. “At best we would be captured, interrogated and maybe absorbed by them. At worst they would just get rid of us.”
He sighed. “We need to go south. It's our only chance.”
Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara, Bor Manor, Borstown

The ceramic wraith's glowing orbs seemed to shift to Jordan just an instant before the creature reached him, his truncheons ready to catch it mid-leap, and for just a fraction of a second its posture seemed to change. What would be the equivalent of its shoulders seemed to just slightly sag, its hands lowered almost imperceptibly, and the light of its eyes dimmed to mere faint embers. It did not even seem to attempt to dodge the squire's attack – though all attempts at this point would have been in vain regardless – but rather almost as though it resigned itself to its fate.
Then iron met dinner plate, pottery and possibly a mug or two in the mix, and with a loud crash of shattering ceramics the once-cohesive mass that was the wraith seemed to instantly lose the magical influence holding it together. Carried onward by the inertia of the now-absent divine's leap, the shards – at least the ones not pulverized by Jordan's bludgeons – and one errant carving-fork continued onward into the hall, clattering noisily but mostly harmlessly to the floor.

The headless ghoul – clumsy for a trained warrior, but quite adept considering the handicap of its head missing – attempted to make a wide, telegraphed slash with its silver-sword, only for a real trained warrior to completely invalidate it as an opponent. With one swing of his sword Yanin both severed the ghoul's left arm and block the other's blade, and then moved in to once more introduce the spirit within the corpse to iron directly by plunging the truncheon into the open neck, straight through the green visage imitating a head. Even before reaching the ghoul's body itself, the reaction to the truncheon would be immediately obvious as the misty faux-head seemed almost as though it detonated on contact, the ethereal oval seeming to unravel and scatter and the eyes extinguishing, fundamentally incapable of maintaining structure in the same space as the metal.
A wet noise could be head as the weapon impacted, and the body – letting the silver-sword slip from its nerveless fingers – collapsed on the spot like a puppet having its strings cut.

While the western side of the hall now seemed to be all clear with the exception of the one-armed, weaponless ghoul currently engaged with Nabi, Lhirin stepped past the now-motionless body of the ghoul that had been stabbed by Freagon and went to finish off the last opponent on the eastern side of the hall. The deigan half-breed climbed the stairs to the ghoul up there – who had been clawing at its chest halfway up the staircase – while activating the Lightning-rune on his rune sword, feeding the magic only a little magical energy. He correctly assessed that an electric attack with magic would require significantly less energy if he were to touch his opponent with the source of the lightning.
Despite this being true, Lhirin also incorrectly assessed that the ghoul – which had indeed been distracted by the needle in its spine enough to let the other move ahead alone while it stayed in the relative safety up the stairs – was sufficiently distracted or disabled to continue to ignore him even as he climbed toward it. The moment Lhirin started up the steps toward it the ghoul ceased clawing pointlessly at the front of its armor and, with a hissing exhalation through gritted teeth, instead gripped its spear with both hand and jabbed it at him, not moving forward enough to actually stab the deigan, but at the very least preventing him from advancing up the stairs. With the reach-disparity between the ghoul's spear and Lhirin's rune sword, there was no way he would be able to touch it directly and deliver his magical payload.

Below the eastern staircase Freagon moved back around to the foot of the steps, behind Lhirin, at what seemed like an almost leisurely pace that stood in stark contrast to the blinding speed at which he had moved just a couple of seconds ago. He planted one boot heavily on the back of the one-legged ghoul he had dismembered and impaled and, switching to holding his sword low in his right hand, seemed to just watch what everyone else was doing.
Jaelnec, Freagon, Irah, Lhirin, Nabi, Yanin, Jordan and Madara, Bor Manor, Borstown

Rather than worrying about the clumsy, stumbling swipe of the headless ghoul, Yanin smashed his truncheon into the divine-possessed corpse's back and knocked it even more off-balance than it had already been. It also rewarded him with the sound of yielding flesh, snapping bone and a loud, gurgling exhalation from the severed and exposed windpipe of the creature, though it did also ensure that what would have been a couple of seconds worth of recovery turned into several as it was sent scrambling on its hands and knees.
Where its head had previously been, the greenish mist that flowed from the brutalized flesh of its open neck assumed a vaguely oval, ephemeral and shifting shape as two orange-yellow motes alighted within the smoky material, instantly aligning to stare at Yanin behind it. Ignoring the damage it had taken – even its presumably broken spine – the ghoul would quickly get back to its feet and turn back to its opponent, silver-sword still in hand. It moved with a limp only until the moment when Lhirin recalled his needles, which also removed the offending iron splinter from this ghoul and restored the full use of its leg.

While that ghoul struggled to cope with the consequences of its actions, the one that had been descending the stairs chopped down with its sword, only to find its blade blocked by Yanin's truncheon and its right arm severed by Yanin's sword. Even as Yanin retreated – placing himself now between the literally disarmed ghoul and the headless but still armed one behind him – the ghoul on the stair incredulously followed its arm and sword made through the air. The silver blade clattered noisily on the stone floor as it landed only several steps from where Lhirin was standing, prompting a groan of frustration and disappointment from the creature. Looking much less enthused than before – in fact its expression almost seemed downright sullen – the ghoul halfheartedly started moving to the bottom of the stairs.

Right behind the ghoul on the stairs the blanket wraith came to a halt as Yanin entered its range, raising up like a cobra preparing to strike, revealing another pair of orange-yellow lights on the underside of its central bit of cloth. To its right, the wraith raised a separate blanket that had been pulled into and included in the construct of its vessel. But whereas most of its vessel was made up of loose and flowing pieces of fabric, this arm-blanket was rolled up tightly, turning soft cloth into a hard, long and hefty improvised club.

But just as the blanket wraith and the one-armed ghoul finished their descent to the floor of the hall, Nabi finished her incantation. A relatively narrow cone of flame spilled from the palm of her hand, shooting forth rapidly across the short distance that remained between her and them. The ghoul seemed to spot her tracing patterns, muttering words of spellcasting and thrusting her hand toward them in the last second and, with the table she had targeted last time still crackling as flames rose off it in plain view, dodged to his left.
Even so Nabi's flame still managed to catch a little bit of the ghoul's already diminished right side. Though part of his clothes were moist with blood from his arm having just been cut off, he still came away singed and with some small flames clinging to his right shoulder, left fist raised in a rather pathetic combat-ready stance.
The blanket wraith was not as fortunate and received a direct hit from the fiery blast, causing the entire thing to recoil and sprawl onto the steps. Several towels and blankets quickly detached as the cohesion of the vessel almost instantly seemed to fail, seemingly greatly weakened by Nabi's magic, until the remains of the wraith went still. All that was left was several scattered bits of blankets, sheets and towels on and around the western staircase, as well as a blackened wooden banister that had been caught in the jet of flame.

Behind her, the ceramic wraith finished migrating shards to reform its right arm – though now cleaverless – and seemed to only hesitate for a moment, uncertain how to respond to its improvised ranged attack being so effortlessly foiled, until it spotted Nabi turning her attention away from it. Its eye-lights flared brighter as it abruptly sent into something like a feral leap through the air, ignoring Jordan and moving instead to deliver a flying thrust of its carving-fork-adorned left arm.
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