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The young fellow seemed confused at his remark, which did not bode well. Unless whatever planning they'd had had been hopelessly overturned by whatever mess the lot had gotten into and their greeter here had arrived after the rest of the party, there was no change someone would miss a freaking half-lion, half-dragon four times the bulk of a horse...
...And what if he'd pulled his cloak a bit closer to himself? the foresfolk mused to himself. He was wearing a shirt, a vest, no cold metal, and a coat, and an Iridiel, and he was still bloody freezing his fingers off, quite unlike the young black-eyes who seemed to mistake the bleary damp autumn misery for a lovely summer afternoon. Wait, the leader!?
He glanced at the boy.
"The man riding the beast Domhnall described is the leader now,” Jaeldric or what was he corrected the greeter grimly. “The woman – a daywalker – and him went ahead of us earlier; they should have come through already.”
So there had been some infighting in the group? It took the robed fellow, seemingly not much older than the younger black-eyes, a disturbingly long time to reply. But he did seem to make things click in the end, and explanations ensued. The forestfolk could not divert his full attention to the conversation, though, as a distinct voice cut over the bustle.
Domhnall's body jerked slightly, his expression slacking and brow furrowing as he turned his head, eyes scanning the surroundings. Claw? He had thought their new acquaintance did not quite sound fond of their imminent destination, yet he was announcing his intention of ... joining them? In any case, he was coming and a rather distinct, and perhaps alarming to the uninitated, fellow oneself.
The robed lad had moved on to explaining something about a man who had been cured of the withering, which, although no doubt important, could tolerate being asked questions over a few moments later after they had sorted out any potential confusion over yet another new arrival.
"Pardon?" he cut in after the lad's declaration of miracles, loud enough to jolt the weary refugees and make a couple of heads turn. "There's ano'er of us arrivin' soon. Twice as tall as I am, and three times as broad, black fur, wears braids? Figured I ough' tae warn the guards aheed o' time, at leas'."

Day ??? of year 121 Post-Downfall
Sunstorm imminent

The Lone Survivor

“I’m… sorry about that,” the woman told him with an odd grimace. “That sounds horrible. I’ll help you get on their good side… or, well, at least try to convince them that you can be trusted. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
Notrau hesitated for a second, then raised his shoulders in a stiff shrug. "It is what it is. Can't miss what you never really had. At the end of the day, we're all just trying to survive ... each in our own way. You by hiding... Anderekians by military, military by officers, officers by soldiers, soldiers by guns. And, well, hiding only works as long as no one finds you. Once they do, you have to run, or fight. ...Or negotiate, I suppose, but who knows if they'd even listen, and if they do, they will want something in turn. And they're in all the positions to assume you'll comply with anything other than being wiped out during the next lunch break."
He had reiterated the last point a time too many now, had he not? He guessed that was what happened if the entire meaning of your life was suddenly focused on one, seemingly impossible task: you could not stop thinking about it. Was this really his best option other than learning to hunt and make campfires in the first order and hoping he doesn't get eaten by a wandering beast or run out of bullets? But he assumed that regardless of how uncomfortable staying under the looming shadow of a giant "HIT THIS TO WIN" weakspot made him, it would at the very least be too quick a death for him to really do anything about it if any hostile faction chose that path. He was not sure whether to be disturbed by it - aside of what he supposed was now his own faction providing that outcome -, but he supposed it was not that different from being run over by an artillery or a .50 cal bullet tearing through his brain. The end result, from his personal viewpoint (or lack of it, as the case would be in this particular hypothetical scenario), would be roughly the same. And in any other doomsday scenario ... he supposed he would at the very least stick around until it was beyond hopeless. Unless Kay was wrong and Eighfour would turn against him. Unless that.
Kay-Gee seemed to switch moods in an instant - it seemed whatever darkness hung over them - over her faction first and foremost - was quickly forgotten in favor of her, what he assumed was her usual mirth. It was not like he What was with this woman? Careless? Unable to grasp the situation? Not wanting to accept the gravity of it? Or just figuring there is no point in worrying over what she could not change?
Currently, she was waving at the trees ... or rather, the invisible birds supposedly still perched somewhere in the branches. He was almost certain one of the trees growled in response. Or crooned? Produced some kind of low, guttural sound. Seemed like a warning more than an expression of fondness. Watch it. Better than the oddly human cries from before, at least...
He fell in line with her easily enough. He was a solder. Used to keeping a pace, even with half of his body weight worth of equipment on his back. Not much in the way of that on him, now. Just his armor and gun. Kay wasted no time chattering away.
"Not the sort to keep quiet for long, huh?" Notrau ... Enn idly commented. It was preferable to being left with his own thoughts, he supposed. Should probably clarify that. "It can be a good thing, yeah? Takes the edge off the quiet before the storm thing, at the very least ... and not the literal impending sunstorm. That's just an, ah, convenient inconvenience for the scourers and scouts. At least as long as there are no gamma bursts or supercells," or fog, "in which case I hope there is a bunker to hunker down in waiting for us. No reason why we can't ... have a cup of tea in a bunker." You do have one of those, correct?
The less enthusiastic one of the two, he listened to her descriptions. Forest. He had seen one of the artillery units ramming down a tree just yesterday. Sure, these ones here were bigger, but given time and an actual harvester... Simple walls. Good enough for the fast anti-personnel, at least. Some guns, most shoddy, wielded by civilians. AA, not automatic, not exactly light but probably not too fast or accurate. It would probably be easier if he weren't usually on the assaulting side, although it helped with what to expect. Somewhat. He was no officer. Had not been. Was he one now, de facto?
Kay rambled on, now going at the intricacies of Eighfour...ian? food production. Enn, Notrau closed his eyes (not for long enough to march straight into a tree), and swallowed. Food. Yeah. Not doomsayery things.
"To be fair, I'm not entirely sure where our food came from, or whether it had ever been plant, animal or any other lifeform ... just that there was always enough of it. Never saw any fields or cattle of ours. Just harvesters, mines, command centers, living quarters, defenses, factories, the like... If I'm going to venture a guess, whatever our food happened to be on any particular day could be blamed on the techs. Some was decent or at least reasonably edible. Some was good. Some was either experimental, or they discovered that our planned diet did not match up with the current plans and added stuff to what they had already prepared ... or both, I suppose. Never did find out whether the officers had their own supply of food or we were all subject to equal opportunity to complain over the lunch."
He went quiet yet again when Kay started talking about her family. Perhaps he shouldn't have mentioned not missing something you did not have in the first place? He stared at the ground in front of his feet as he strode on, quickly, efficiently. If there had been any pebbles on the ground, he'd have kicked one. There were none. Only dead conifer-needles.
"This is where I say I'm sorry, yeah?" It was unclear whether it was a joke, a confirmation of whether or not he understood the laws of her society correctly, or a clumsy expression of his own feelings. Perhaps all three. Soldiers did not get officially remembered. They were gone and that was that; unless you saw it, you never knew why. The ground remained devoid of pebbles. Luckily, Kay changed track, as if unwilling to dwell. He supposed they all had a reson to hate the fog, at least. She was a scourer and a tech. Something of the sort.
He did not express any words of compassion when the woman talked about how she had come to be ... changed. Half-macine, part-inhuman. If it had "restored enough of her celebral functions" as she had, roughly, put it ... then she was, indeed, not truly human anymore, was she? Who knew what this thing was really capable of? Turning her into an automaton? Kill-swithc? Some of her fellows to decide...
He can't allow them to touch him. To catch him unaware. It's just him and his gun. These people were not trustworthy. Not even Kay herself did not seem to be overly trusting, or happy with the decision.
Notrau didn't skip a step and his helmet covered everything but his lack of comments. Leave? Stick with the current plan? Ask Kay to up and leave in spite of being part mechanoid? She was probably the most familiar entity that was not liable to shoot him without ... something happening. Company could be useful, either way. But he wanted to be somewhere else. Anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. Anderekian or Trenian company would probably not be most desirable either. Nevetheless, it felt like he was walking into a trap, to a suicide mission or to become a guinea pig, just as he'd been warned. Just like what they knew they were fighting against. Almost as if it was more than just propaganda. It was all right. They were right. A ... chilling thought. He hoped Kay knew what she was doing, even when there was no obvious reason for her to trust those people besides them being the ones she had grown up with. Perhaps they were all the same, in different ways. Soldiers by guns.
There were signs of human activity around now.
“We’re nearly there,” Kay confirmed is suspicions. “Just a bit further ahead and we’ll be in view of the gate. Just… put away your rifle as well as you can and walk next to me, all right? It’d be a shame if they thought you’d taken me hostage and was forcing me to take you here; depending on who’s watching the gate they might hurt you, or worse. Some of the guys are a bit overenthusiastic about getting to test their guns on ‘real’ targets.”
"That doesn't sound encouraging," mumbled Enn morosely. If anything, her assertions added to his newly reacquired doubts. "I really do hope you know what you're doing, and I'm not being lead to a trap." Nevertheless, his gun stayed slung behind his back. He reasoned that there was a high chance the fellows up there would have either guns too shoddy to punch through armor or aim too poor to properly hit him. Follow orders. Do as Kay says. He can do it. For now.
Little did they know, something had already paid a visit hours ago. A small craft, shaped much like an arrohead, nimble enough to navigate through the forest, darting out from between the trees, halting for a second or two, skirting sideways before suddenly raising above the limits of the wall, and launching onward in a cloud of green flames and a crack of supersonic thunder enough to rattle, but not shatter glass.

59:72:29 LNT

The Aftermath

An armored palm was placed on a panel, slightly warm and somewhere between metal and plastic in feel. Black eyes behind a helmet's visor fixed on the rest of the locking mechanism. There was a dull, mechanic clank, and the door yielded, obediently sliding aside. Barely enough to halt his step, yet the lock is allegedly the work of some of their brigtest techs, at least one of whom was probably a psychopath. A very bored one with a very particular task to solve, and who had no small amout of medical knowledge.
Probably for pizza, as he doubted they would stay interested for long enough otherwise, wandering off to find something more novel, if the one he knew was any indicator. Brilliant guy, excellent problem-solver, absolutely unperturbable, if anything less interested in morbid matters than the usual person, problem-oriented, but listless and always seemingly varying between not bothering and doing things against the protocol just because he was bored and did see no objective harm from doing so. Thankfully, most of the time he did things because he saw a thing that needed doing that he could, and not because he found something that could be interesting that he didn't figure had enough downsides to not do it.
In any case, there was no easy way for anyone to trick the lock, even if you dragged a living person with authority over and got them to go through the motions. There were physiological differences between varying types of duress, and the system was sophisticated enough to distinguish between them. Frankly, it would be easier to cut through a wall. And then there would be no info an intruder could glean, and no controls they could take over with any more ease. At the very least not without equipment flexible enough to cause far more havoc than just hijacking the local information flow. The command center's defenses were to protect the people within more than the equipment.
He couldn't feel the damp air through his helmet. That provided nothing more than clean, filtered air. Not powered for the time being, though. Taking a breath took slight, but notable extra effort. If you were not used to it, the vague impression of suffocation could be rather panic-inducing. Claustrophobic, perhaps. But it was better than risking coughing up your lungs in the middle of the battlefield. If need be, and systems remained intact, there was a powered version available, for about forty-eight hours. The next step up was what was sometimes referred to as 'the gills', which were connected to your bloodstream and could replace breathing, and thus lungs entirely. Contrary to what the nickname implied, they only worked in the air, and could not provide for you underwater. (He assumed the name referred to the inside consisting of many overlapping but not connecting semi-transculent planes, tinted faintly orangeish from the blood when in operation, like some kind of odd machine cooler, or indeed a primitive set of gills. He had disassembled a broken unit, once, as a teenager.) Something about oxygen not dissolving easily enough under water, which necessitated taking containers along if you wanted to go diving. The gills were typically reserved for injured people. He was surprised Marax had not been provided a set. He had not checked, but he assumed they had simply ran out.
The dull white of the skies remained appropriately morose, even though their equipment promised a change for a much unhealthier hue soon. Where they had not been flattened or trampled over by the battle and its aftermath, there were ... flowers. Little bushy things. Hundreds of tiny pink blossoms on each branch, with little scale-like leaves. They had not been as apparent during the night, but they were everywhere. Heather of some sort, perhaps. If it were not a battlefield, it would probably be quite pretty.
He wanted to be away from people. For a bit. The living ones, at least. Once more, too many had died, and too many more were wont to die all too soon. Going over the names Igna had listed, the ones he had read to confirm what he already knew, he knelt down to remove a number of branches from the pink-flowered plants. It was awkward, trying to cut the flexible stems using only is non-dominant hand, but it felt like a thing he had to do.
Uwe or Marax would never understand. Igna might. Eris ... would have. He did not remember where Aidren was from. No family from what he knew of ... not his own, anyway. He had mentioned a father and a brother, but it was unclear whether they were military or civilian by background. And now he had come some unit of angular momentum less from being completely bisected, much like he himself had almost lost an arm. There was more chance you went prematurely as a soldier. Igna would have pointed out that between accidents and attacks, civilian life was no more certain. Still. Civilians only took a hit when military failed. Could they have prevented Angan Tirez? Can they prevent future attacks of similar kind? Someone had to. And their sacrifices will not be in vain, cliched as that statement might be.
With a collection of branches awkwardly held against his chest, he stood, heading towards the eastern edge of their camp, and past that, where two rows of people - what had been left of them, rather - were laid out. The sight was not pretty - they could patch up most things, so often enough, only the unfortunate people who had been completely torn to shreds, cooked, flattened or disrupted died. Many of them were not recognizable, and could only be identified by personal markers. Armor and equipment had been removed. Only remains of the bottom layer, simple synthetic fabric remained on the bodies of the first row. Standard-issue. Chosen for comfort and practicality, not fashion. Absorbent, smooth, not likely to leave threads in or melt into wounds.
Gore had ceased to bother him. Or perhaps it had never really bothered him. The deaths of his friends and subordinates did. People he lost. People he failed.
Starting from one end of the row, he progressed, one step after the other. Meticulous. Stopping only to pick a branch and drop it onto a body or vague collection of remains with a familiar marker. There were other flowering branches already there, on some more than others. He was not the first one to take a break from duties and come here. Those who did were usually of civilian background. Those who had grown up in a military environment were typically too ... pragmatic, perhaps. Dropping flowers on graves or dead bodies made no sense. It was just a tradition without function. Something living people did in order to cope with the loss, to be respectful, whatever it meant. What did respect matter to people who no longer existed.
The beasts will probably drag the remains off once they're reasonably certain the combat won't resume. The survivors who had known them would occasionally recall them during their downtime, reminiscing with a sense of melancholy for as long as they remained living. Past that, the fallen would probably exist as records in some database for as long as they, Trenians managed to protect it from fog, foes and data decay.
And then they would be no more.
The row of once-Trenians ended, and he sauntered back to one specific form, sitting next to it. Well, with his back to it, rather. He had already taken a good look. He found it fair, facing the consequences. But for now, the consequences could kindly step aside and leae him alone with... Well, with some concept of closeness with what had once been his fellow officer. To be fair, visiting graves and places people died made none too much sense the same. He had heard megaraptors did something similar, so it was not even just a human trait.
"Igna was right, don't you think?" he finally asked. There was no reply, just a vague conflict between the recollection of the person he had known and the knowledge of the leftovers behind him. And an absence. "It is pointless." The void remained stubornly silent. You could not avoid the natural proceedings of things. Past was past. Game over. No point in dwelling over the past. Life went on. The survivors mattered more than the dead. Time passed. Figures moved about in the makeshift base. One of them detached, heading his way, nay, past him, with but a slight nod, stopping at a couple people, much as he had. One of the artillery drivers, according to the markers. Much like him, she was fully armored.
With a sigh, he stood. Consciously, he knew it was far too late to say goodbyes. Absently, he moved on to the second row. It was longer. Much like the first row, the once-people here had been stripped of arms and armor. The remaining undergarments, however, were different. No markers that he could detect, only faction sigils.
There were other differences, though, if you looked carefully. Fewer of these bodies seemed as destroyed as most fallen on their side. No one, and perhaps more importantly nothing, had tried to save those people; Ardeks quite literally died more easily. And even if they did find someone of the enemy ranks alive after the battle, those unfortunate fellows were usually just ended. Excecuted, almost. Cruel, but nigh inevitable. They could not spare the resources to save them, and even if they did, what then? Let them go home to kill his people the next day? Let them stay and hope these newly instanced renegades would be more loyal to them?
He did not hate them, he figured. Not cognitively, anyway. Most of them were probably just following orders, and would have been decent people if they were on his side. Emotionally, he did not really know. Sometimes he felt sorry for them. Sometimes the gnawing pain in his arm and the deaths and injuries of his friends and acquaintances won and he felt ... rage, anger, something of the sort.
He also noted these men - and they appeared to be almost exclusively men - were, on average, much younger than the Trenian forces. Between sixteen and mid-twenties, perhaps. More on the younger side. None as old as he was, let alone some of the more seasoned veterans like Igna. Only a couple of theirs were under twenty, but many of the Ardeks were practically boys. Whatever the differences in the two factions' paradigms, he could not help but think that Anderekian frontline soldiers got the shorter end of the stick. And that the two could ne
Someone had went and dropped flowers on the Anderekians' remains, too. Maybe respect. Perhaps an apology by someone who did not think it entirely justified to end people's lives, enemy or not. It did not change anything, but it could make people feel better. Funerals were for the living.
The living needed to do things. Both for the sake of their own peace of mind and getting things done. He was simply not sure what those things were. He was no medical personnel and the drones had not picked up anything noteworthy. The sky was already changing color. It would not be long until all surveillance would fall back to programmed flight, recording feed to be analysed upon contact. Everyone who could was already in position. There were scant few things he could move with one good arm, and he figured everything that needed to be shuffled about had been taken care for while he was in for surgery or asleep.
So he was either to find himself anything to do until someone needed him or, as it happened, there was one unknown. Three of their people were missing. Not that looking for them on foot was bound to be particularly effective. Drone sight covered the upper plane quite decently, so there was only the forest below... No vehicles on their end, so if they were alive, they wouldn't be far. The only spare one up here (and that only because it was a personal one) was Uwe's. He didn't suppose the guy would be overly fond of him lending it, even if it were not locked down to only obey its master. It was fast, though, and small enough to remain usable down there. It was difficult, convincing oneself that even if time was of the essence, Uwe still had better odds at locating the missing soldiers, vehicle or no. For better or worse, he was the only functional officer on duty this shift (Marax didn't count for the functional part) so he needed to stay here.
Might as well pay Aidren a visit.

51:14:72 LNT
(early afternoon)


There was another fragment between here and the makeshift base that had been arranged at the ground access. Potentially interesting, but not overly surprising, seeing that the fairly unremarkable span of land they had taken root in was more Larecrom's, than Root's own domain. The old loon to the northeast was most likely well aware they were there, but not overly interested in making contact or otherwise interfering. They didn't look enough like trouble. Seemed more civilian than military, an old relict warhead left aside. As per the progenitors' archives, these had been more common in the past, but were mostly disassembled to serve as nuclear fuel after the Downfall. Even if you had neither scattered or burrowed too deep, warheads like these were all too easy to shoot down before they got in range. This one looked more like a display than a functional armament. Not that it - be "it" the faction or the warhead - could not be put to some use if need be. North did need some more aid, in one form or another, and Root oneself did not have the forces to spare. Up to the north to decide what to do with them.
Humans were fickle. They over- and underfit. They saw patterns where there were none, and failed to see any where they were crucial. They had the innate drive to believe that random happenings had dues, that true randomness was uniformly sparse, that coincidences had meaning, that trees had faces and wind had voices... They put high confidence in their subroutines, yet could not explain what those routines were and why those came up with the results they did. They made mistakes. For a type of animal that took high pride in one's own consciousness, humans could be notoriously lacking in self-awareness.
Not that Root oneself was infallible ... simply more aware of one's own operation, with more redundancy and more integrity than most others in this often all too insane world. It mattered not that Root used one's own definition of insanity.
Nor did it necessary matter if someone else was insane, as long as they were the reasonable kind of insane. There were some cultists living, for all intents and purposes, right on top of Root oneself. They knew of their downstairs neighbour, and left usable if insignificant offerings whenever their goals seemed to coincide. Root did not mind them. They sought no unnecessary harm. They took what they needed, and not much more. They adhered to fairness and sufficiency ... if anything, their ways were decidedly suboptimal. Lunatics perhaps they were, but within a reasonable measure of confidence, they were what could be termed as harmless lunatics. As an aside, they knew enough to take some edge off the Scourge, however little. It was not ideal, then, that the Scourge was but a comparatively small issue to be handled.
As far as the old type "Arrowhead" was concerned... Time to - not shoot, but - take the messenger apart. It was but one small part of the whole of what had come to be referred to as Root; it had been very much useful for its lifespan, but now it had served its time. Though still functional, it was inferior to its newer versions, and as such, it materials would be put to better use in another form. The brain had decreed that the time for this little sensory cell was over. To effect the survival of the organism, it settled into an empty coalescension pool, and the less sophisticated inverse version of its birth tore its frame apart to catalyze and dissolve its components.
All biological organisms that were specialized multicellural had similar mechanisms in place. What needed to be replaced or was too damaged to warrant repairs self-destructed to make way for its own replacement. Controlled, programmed cell death, apoptosis. The entities who did not utilize similar methods soon ended with cancerous growths, and as practice had shown, mechanoidian cancer was no more desirable than biological cancer. Mechanoidian cancer was how you ended up with things like the Scourge, and while the Scourge was too disorganized to deal a devastating blow to a sizable faction on its own, it remained a nuisance that would utilize every resource it can reach to feed and expand itself, if only permitted.
Not far from where the old arrowhead had found its demise, a dozen small and two huge coalescension pools were drained. The small ones released new generation arrowheads, ready to fulfill their duties as scouts, messengers, and light hitters. Two were going to be northbound. Four vehicles that were almost, but not quite inexchangebly similar to Trenian chargecarriers (these ones were uniquely unmanned), had already been dispatched in a similar direction, though the forest and potential meddlers necessitated a detour course. It was a bit unorthodox, using another faction's etalons as basis for your own units, but what worked, worked. The anti-air Root had lended were not truly one's own design, either.
The huge pools revealed, for the first time, the earliest of what were later going to become known as Wraithmakers.

54:14:72 LNT
(early afternoon)

The Eastern Gate

Pity there were clouds. And that it was daytime. She had missed yesternight's fireworks, and today's grand show did not quite have the scene set for it, even if the seat was ideal. It was just about the beginning stage of a sunstorm. There was only so long they could chat speculations over Root's plans and the clashes between their northeastern neighbours from the upper plate. Or Crom's musings over the human condition. Or whatever was being worked on in the internals of the labs and factories. Those were good enough topics to pass some time, but nothing she felt overwhelmingly enthusiastic about.
What would she have found overwhelmingly engaging, anyway? (War. War would certainly break monotony. But once it was not only the non-thinking parts of commander-overseer getting wrecked and people you knew started dying, one such would not exactly be her idea of a good time, either.) Not lab-work; that seemed even less engaging than watch duty. Nor robotics. Maybe she could draw (badly)? Or write (even worse) poetry? Nah, not creative enough for either of those; she'd spend far too much time staring at a blank. Unarmed and -armored combat, maybe? It would probably be pretty hard to be bored out of your mind if a split-second of inattention meant being decked in the face. Nothing routine - not like dancing -, but reading a person and reacting, responding in an organic manner?
Simulations - of anything reasonably demanding and hectic - could be engaging enough, but ultimately there was always the knowledge that there was the imagination of a machine mind behind it all, be there other human actors or not. And it was not ... real, even though Crom had pointed out that they could always leave some bruises and punch a few nonlethal holes in her body if she failed there and let her heal in a more primitive way, in addition to applying a sense of pain where appropriate. Y'know, for the most immersion one could realistically achieve.
As an aside, simulations had a cost, most likely because running them served no practical purpose and humans needed some incentive to work rather than find new ways to entertain themselves. (Aside of the lucky ones who found objectively useful things entertaining.) Rewarding work with arbitrary currency and limiting pointless entertaining things by requiring amounts of said currency worked reasonably well, Crom insisted. Essentials were free, so it was not like you needed to work from survival standpoint. At least until commander-overseer got annoyed with you for being complacent enough with the bare minimum needed for surviving comfortably and assigned you to something, anyway.
For a change, Erida's eyes honed on a little flying speck hovering in her peripheral vision.
Her hand darted out, metallic fingers closing around the tiny intruder. Not that the little buggers could do any harm to anyone up here, but there was still a small measure of satisfaction in getting rid of them. Y'know, for the sake of all the times they got into living quarters with their whining high-pitched buzz and the ability to turn invisible just as you motioned the light on. She had thought about requesting miniature AA in the walls just to get rid of the damn things.
She dropped her arm, relinquished her fingers and -
"I think my suit is defective," the watchwoman reported to her companion, watching the mosquito and it's signature annoying buzz casually begun floating upward again, unperturbed and very much alive. "I have failed to terminate a target twenty-five million times smaller than I."
"Did you try shooting it?" Crom inquired. "I suppose powered gauntlets could be made with perfect fitting between the digits and the palm, but it seems like niche quality compared to having the optimal grip on, say, weapons that can harm units that pose a serious risk to your health."
"Are you mocking me? Anything that'd get through the defenses controlled by our lord and savior the commander-overseer makes me the mosquito." Her hand darted out again, this time deftly crushing the parasite between pinchers composed of her index finger and the thumb. Her sensors could pick up the barely audible "krk" of the insect's exoskeleton breaking, but she proceeded to rub her fingers together just to make extra sure this time. "If I live through such an attack which tears down our mighty walls and war machinery, they'll just pause to wonder how exactly, and the next shot - splat went the nuisance."
"Ah, I'm sure there is something you could do. Think outside of the box. Querilla warfare, set traps, use sunstorms and the fog to your advantage..."
"Do you reckon I have the mind to pull this off? Were you not insinuating I might try to see what jumping out of the watchtower would be like out of sheer boredom if I were subjected to TMS?"
"Oh, I'm not implying you might not consider it now, but the destrution a true war would work would change the context you see. Whereas now you -"
There was more pause.
"We appear to have found a man. Or, rather, he found us. Or, rather rather, he just stumbled into one of the scourers. Doesn't appear to be aware enough to qualify for much finding."
"A man?"
"Does it make a difference?"
"You seem overly curious at that for someone or something that, as far as I can tell, is an AI. But no, just surprised. And you can tell that, too. Even if you happen to be a human. What's the deal with him?"
"Looks to be a misplaced Trenian. Quite the holey man. Incidentally, that means you'll get your thrills. We'll prepare a vehile for the extraction and send someone up to replace you. Welcome to the team." The scourer had no means to pick up passengers.
"As long as it's not a hovercraft." Curiously, she did not get sea-sick or aircraft-sick, or even crawler-sick, let alone be jolted by tracked or wheeled vehicles. But hovercraft, with their sway and glide were her bane. Something she could not ever quite convince her brain weren't the effect of her being poisoned...
'Under the yellow flashing sky...'

68:32:25 LNT
(late afternoon)
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...

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".

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."
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."
"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.
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.
Which browser? Do you know how to power-reload a page, forging it to reload everything (sometimes, a device will cache a non-logged-in version of a page)? Do you get the RPG cookie?
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."
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.
In Persistent Worlds. 11 mos ago Forum: News
I was not fond of EH, either - as pointed out, things like that tend to not be too manageable. My problem with a fandom RP in its stead (as opposed to just returning to old form) is twofolf - on one hand, it may not necessarily be more manageable (so it'd be better off as 4-5 "normal" RPs with little interaction between them), on the other, it might set the tone for whoever visits the site (as fandom site, as opposed to general roleplaying site).

Curiously, I've briefly been a SW roleplay forum, though I'm hardly familiar with the setting (it was before when I finally as much as saw the main movies).
@Terminal The formatting seems to have been crippled between the transition from my post in the contest entry thread and the submission list here, rather than between a text editor and RPG. (I actually wrote it here, and then pasted to local plaintext as safety measure.) It has proper chapter breaks, but paragraph breaks have lost a whitespace character each...
I agree with most of the comments - there are a couple of slightly awkward sentences that slipped my own proofreading. I did contemplate elaborating on the why from the narrative character's perspective, and actually modified a sentence to emphasize it a bit more, but I also did not want to derail the narrative or whack the reader over the head with it. Might have made it a bit too vague, though I'd reckon readers should still be able to fill in the gaps as intended; balances are tricky like that.
All in all, thanks for your feedback! *salutes*
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