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Definitely intrigued, I'll have to look this over.

The Golem had briefly caught Artur's attention, if only for the fact that it had plainly stated its opinion of him. Though he found it somewhat queer - magical constructs were things that few men encountered in Deadwood, let alone lived to tell the tale. "Aye," he simply answered, though in truth he wasn't sure what to make of Fourteen. "Follow me and you'll do well."

Onwards they stepped, until finally they came to the regal interior which both dwarved snd made a hovel of the only other throne room he'd seen. And Tabitha? The Witch-Queen was no less a surprise - perhaps a part of him expected her to be clad in totems and sigils like some hermit sea witch of the Shattered Isles. But all the same, the regal finery and excess of decorum felt hollow to him. His own experiences as a boy, well before the cusp fo manhood, had taught him to be wary of such places, vipers' nests of plots and court intrugue.

"... What did you all come here for? Riches, safety... but why? Down there, money is truly worthless when you get down to it."

"And yet you've a use for our lot from the Lower Realms," Artur interjected bluntly, "Elsewise you wouldn't have fed your sorceress and her guards to the desert to bring us. Your Majesty." Though the bastard's tone lacked the insolence one might've expected of a sellsword, he never stooped low to kneel or bow, merely offering a forward tilt of the head in acknowledgement of Tabitha's place. Deference wasn't in his nature, though he was wise to recognise just who's guests they were.

"Some of these might want a place in your Kingdom, or riches mayhaps - but I'm a simple man, with simple tastes and I'll ask only for what's mine. The drunken whoreson who sired me named his bastard after a greater grandfather, nothing like the arselicker keeping the dust off our seat."

"I mean to have it back. Swords and spears. I have some wayward bastards of my own for that purpose, but a Queen's favour is one I'm not like to forget." Artur glanced towards the rest of the group, "No less would I forget any other. I am Artur, of the Bastardborn."

Artur had emerged from the battle, bruised but otherwise whole - though he knew his body would remind him of that spear when the aches crept forth in the coming hours. Being displaced was a dizzying experience, initially - he almost cursed when the blood-soaked sand beneath his boots instantaneously hardened into marble, but he wasn't such a green boy to not recognise such blatant magic at work.

Nor could he fail to recognise that the Kingdom surrounding him was beyond anything he'd ever laid eyes upon in his thirty-seven, putting his own wretched homeland to shame. That too was dizzying in its own right - though instead of retching, Artur spat off to one side as the ornately garbed Exusians that had surrounded them made their presence known and ever so kindly reminded them to relinquish their arms, perhaps failing to appreciate he and his fellow travellers had just weathered a raid that had seen these Exusians' fellows slaughtered.

Tugging an oilcloth free, he instead set to work on cleaning the blood from his sword, using the moment as an opportunity to ascertain the measure of the people that named this skywards kingdom their own. Men, women and children. Spellcasters and knights.

Knights, better equipped than most soldiers he'd fought with in his time. Their plate wasn't dented or spotted with rust, their weapons forged by skilled craftsmen, perhaps even bound by spells at the Witch-Queen's behest. And doubtless, they were trained and drilled well enough, yet there was a certain quality to these Exusians that betrayed a certain weakness - that life above the world made them soft. If the ambush of the guardsmen by a raiding band had been anything to go by, their sort simply weren't prepared for the realities that the world offered.

Artur wagered that, to a man, if one stripped away the ornate gilding and castle-forged steel, these men weren't much different than the likes of which he'd fought and fought alongside in his years, no less likely to bend or break under the heat of a true battle. Maybe he was wrong, but their lot had left much to be desired at the camp - not even magic had been enough to save the emissary.

Nonetheless, he had no argument with them. Exusia wasn't the kingdom he claimed, nor did he harbour any desire to ruin the opportunity that awaited him here. Swords and spears.

It was doubtful that the Exusians would've gone to such trouble to pluck them from the desert only to slaughter or enslave them. And doubtless, if he were in the Witch-Queen's position, he would've taken the same care in dealing with a band of travelers-for-hire.

After all, a bastard was no stranger to threats of assassins and plots.

Once his sword was clean, Artur repeated the same motion with his dagger, still crimson-stained from where he'd pricked the clansman's belly and then some. Then, rather than removing his swordbelt, the bastard handed both sword and dagger to one of the waiting knights by the flat of their blades. "Aye, your Queen has no need to fear for her person where I'd be concerned." He made no mention of the hunting blade stowed in a pouch along the back of his belt - though he had no intention of using it here.

For a moment, he eyed Azariah and the peculiar yet deadly metallic curiosity that seemed animated by some queer magics alone,

"Come, boy - I doubt the Queen's folk are like to toy with your pet." Though he was certainly green, at least the lad hadn't shat himself and crumpled when the clansmen attacked them at the camp. As for the rest of the group, those who'd joined the fighting had at least demonstrated they could follow directions. Good enough, for now.

The few who didn't - well, perhaps they'd show some other use. Bur other sorceress and the crone? They warranted watching if nothing else. Though he was no mere swineherd that feared spectres and woodstalkers would curse his livelihood, he'd seen enough to take nothing at face value. Magic was a fickle beaat.

Now to see what the Witch-Queen wanted with the lot of them.

@Maxx@The Man Emperor

Equally awed and terrified, the clansman cursed in an alien tongue as Fourteen wrought havoc upon their kin with a roar of crushed stone. Weary of the golem's bulk, those who had avoided being bludgeoned by its stone fists changed tack, tugging at a section of torn canopy and throwing it over Fourteen's bulk in a desperate effort to blind the stone automaton.

Another clan warrior, distinguished by the dyed bone totems adorning his robes, gestured to Azariah and his magishell, laying the blame of stone and steel automaton alike at the Karlezek's feet.

"The little white one is their master! End him!"

In a matter of seconds, the young adventurer had made himself a target as several clansmen shifted their bloodlust towards the boy, throwing bone, stone and bronze-tipped implements alike alike from a greater distance.

One of these, a spear, sailed past the Karlezek and into Artur's path as he traded blows with an axeman, glancing off his ribs. Though his mail caught the worst of the blow, the force was enough to jar his sword loose and stagger him, giving his opponent a window to knock him off his feet.

Desperate, the bastard kicked out a boot at the clansman's exposed knee and tugged his dagger loose, then lurched forward and drove the blade into the man's belly when he fell. Overcome with bloodlust, Artur snarled as the clansman kicked and writhed, until their robes were soaked with crimson and wits overcame battle rage that he pushed the twitching body aside to clamour for his sword. It left an opening in their flank for others to close in.


Outside, the sandstorm raged on, reducing sound and visibility alike to a brown haze, yet it was clear others now wandered the encampment mere feet below the vantage Kai had chosen to climb. Perhaps Khiar-koff had determined that today was not to be their last, for they appeared to have gone unnoticed while a few startled pack animals brayed and galloped about, cut loose from their masters during the raid.
Those not entirely distracted by the ongoing conversation could not have failed to notice the flapping of the exterior canvas, or the increased braying and groaning of the unshielded moving about outside as the wind whipped up more clouds of sand, eventually intensifying to the point that visibility beyond the flaps had been reduced to a dull brown haze and Exusia itself had been entirely hidden from view to those still in the open.

It was not an irregular occurrence, but no less cause for consternation among the guardsmen posted on watch, wary of stories of the spirits of the dead returned to swell their ranks with those of the living.

And something else stirred amidst the sands.

"Your trust?"

Meanwhile, Tisa Irune had offered a curt answer to the growing concerns raised by Magdalene. "Exusia has no need for slaves. If the Queen sought them, she would not waste her time seeking an audience with stray travellers from-"

"But your Queen does have need of us strays, woman." Artur sharply retorted, "Not slaves."

Growing impatient, the emissary merely reaffirmed her previous statement. "Those are the Queen's terms. You are welcome to return to wherever you came from, once the storms fade. Otherwise..."

She gestured outwards, "Prepare the displacement." The two guardsmen stationed in the tent stepped forward and began to pull aside the furniture planted across the tent, leaving a wide space beneath the high canvas ceiling for the group to stand beneath. "It is your choice, but I will waste no more time. Leave if you will, but those who wish to remain shall stand here."

Chalk powder had already been scattered about the floor, though whether it served a purpose or not remained ambiguous at best. "Send for the Captain, as well." With that command, the two guardsmen had stepped out into the sandstorm, leaving the group alone with the emissary. Those who chose to risk Exusia were eventually guided into the circle, begrudgingly or no. Stood before them, Irune seemed ready to begin the incantation - if not for a simple delay.

"Captain? We should not leave the Queen waiting any longer." She called out again, her features creasing. No answer came and it became painfully clear that any voices beyond the canvas of the emissary's tent had faded away, replaced only with the sharp lash of the desert winds. Then came what could've only passed for a shriek as a shadow lurched forward, then slumped against the exterior canvas of the tent as someone breathed their last.

Backing away, the emissary didn't immediately notice the dust spilling in behind her as a blade sliced through the canvas, not until the fabric was peeled away by a silhouette clad in bone totems and robes whose callused palms grasped at her sleeve. Startled, the woman gave a frightened chant, gesticulating wildly with a free hand, "E-El nath!" and in an instant the robed figure howled in agony, cloth and flesh rotting away from his hand as it seemed to rapidly crumble into dust. She seemed ready to follow it up, her lips moving rapidly, but before the words left her mouth another robed figure had emerged through the breach and plunged a spear through her belly.

"Fucking clansmen!" Artur rasped first, his blade already halfway out of its scabbard as more spilled in through the breach.

"Outlanders," A snarl emerged from the spearman in a harsh regional dialect, dripping with contempt. The emissary crumpled at their feet, writhing until another robed assailant clad in totems knelt down and opened her throat with a blade carved from bone, grunting as the woman's blood soaked the hard sand beneath them. "Witch." A wildebeest's bleached skull served as his helm, framing dark, hollow eyes.

With the interior of the tent exposed to the elements, all could hear the distinct clash of steel and bone, men shouting to one another and the intermittent growling and death rattles of battle. It was no secret that many of the Bone Clans regarded Exusia as an ill-omen and had taken it as a personal affront to their encampment by the Bonewater. And as it happened, they seemed fixated on the armed, fighting guests of the Exusians - though sparing less notice to the likes of Ari, the Vrxyl or the Dust Mother.

Dying here would've been premature, to say the least; Artur gestured to Nakala and Azariah, his sword at the ready. "Spearwife, and you boy - form on me!" Then to Magdalene and the others, "You want to save your skins, loose at the whoresons before they close!"

With both exits blocked and the spellcaster dead, there remained no alternative. A raid was upon them. No quarter would be offered.

Artur had quickly grown weary of hearing his own voice and silenced his own mumbled ballad, content to watch and listen as more entered the tent. It was difficult to discern who was stranger, the living statue, the carapaced insect with a crested horn that loosed a distorted chitter than might've passed for laughter or the cloaked axeman that laughed along with it. Then came the elf, horse and all - for that he perhaps felt a brief pang of sympathy for the mule he'd left outside, even beneath a canvas - followed by a leathery old crone hunched against a walking stick with her stomach laid bare, etched with all manner of scars.

Furrowing his brow, Artur couldn't help but find something perculiar behind her. Behind the yellowed bones, talismans and totems... a Kaimerian? In all his years of warring, Artur had never seen one of their kind so old as this, let alone a woman of their breed. But the form was too distinct to be anything but their kind, and he wagered it would only be a Kaimerian crone mad enough to venture out into a place as rabid as the Bone Sea, alone.

Or was she alone? The vigil he'd kept for raiders on the journey south came to mind. No, not even the Kaimerians would have business here - they were not the sort to hide behind crones either, as far as he knew - too bold for that. Nonetheless, Artur found himself drawn to keeping an eye on that one - if only for a time.

It seemed as though the others were steadily losing patience, if the disconcerted grimaces and furrowed brows were anything to go by - and eventually it was clear that the representative's had worn thin, snatching away the map from the would-be scribe. Shifting his weight forward, Artur listened to Tisa Iruve with a muted expression, his brow briefly arching as she warned of the Queen's willingness to cast agitators off the edge of her floating kingdom, then once more as she stated the terms of entry.

Telportation? Artur misliked that, if only on principle. Place land or sea beneath his feet and he would've traversed the breadth of Deadwood - he had, for that matter. But to have his form subjected by unknown magics - it made his back bristle ever so slightly, even knowing what he'd been walking into. But truth be told, he was more wary of relinquishing his sword - though not for sentimental reasons, as any good steel could serve the same purpose - and gave thought to the other blades on his person. He kept a dagger concealed beneath his cloak and a hunting blade on his person that had served for general use, perhaps those he could've hidden.

Except, these were sorcerers and witches, mages and spellcasters. A dangerous lot to play such games with. Giving it further thought, Artur decided he would adhere to their law - for the time being. He'd taken a gamble already in coming this far, why render that wasted?

"Aye, I'll agree to those terms."

Besides, it wasn't often that royalty could meet face-to-face.

The arrival of Ari did nothing to dampen his spirits, though Artur found something particularly uncanny about the walking mushroom's features and how they didn't quite match the words slipping loose from its form. Though, if any would have need of its kind, the Exusians would. So, with a brief grunt, Artur shrugged - he meant the creature no ill and he'd seen his share of strange folk well before he'd been a man grown to be so repulsed here. "I'd wager they'll find use for you yet, little mushroom."

Even if that use was in the cooking pot.

"The dust storms will be upon us if we don't make haste" Artur finally motioned, "Unless any of you mean to refuse the woman's terms, we should make ready." It was less a suggestion than it was a command.

Indeed, it seemed that there were a good number of folk privy to the rumours of Queen Tabitha's invitation to her domain and the sanctuary it offered from the dying world upon which it cast a shadow. The loose collection of travelers on the coastal road were largely strangers to one another, unable or unwilling to rely on one another for anything but one of the simplest of theories - safety in numbers.

Artur, for the time being, had counted himself among those numbers - but he'd seen time and time again that it was never wise to rely on that alone, particularly when the recent years had seen the Kaimerians growing bolder in their raids beyond the boundaries of their Kratocracy. For that reason, if not instinct, his sword hand never wandered too far from his scabbard, even as he rode atop the relative comfort of a mule rather than afoot.

What had felt like a light desert breeze mere hours ago had gradually whipped up thicker clouds of dust as their procession moved on, which made Artur particularly grateful for the cloak which had kept the worst of the sun at bay and now provided some measure of shelter against the barrage of dust striking from his flank.

Nonetheless, Artur consciously found himself resisting the urge to reach for his waterskin and wet his mouth - a journey remained ahead of them and the distant outline of the floating kingdom was gradually receding behind the mottled cloud of dust slowly enveloping the coast. Soon, his fellow travelers became mere silhouettes, darkened shadows against the desert winds and left to mutter amongst themselves.

Further along the trail they plodded, weary from travel and the elements. Another hour and the storm had subsided enough that the outline of an encampment came into view. High pitched tents with a certain elegance loaned to them, their canopies holding back the stands in stark defiance of the desert winds. The Queen's general invitation had foretold its presence; how else would her emissaries have been able to treat with them? Exusia remained far aloft somewhere in the distance, now a little more discernible since the dust storm had abated. "The Witch-Queen can keep it..." he muttered, clearing his throat and spitting off to the side. Tabitha's crown was of no interest to him, nor was the prospect of finding an esteemed place beneath some dais to serve at the Queen's leisure. No, she was but a means to an end - if she could offer what he wanted. Swords and spears, he remembered, first and foremost.

Eventually, he found a suitable place to dismount, hitching the mule against a post and making sure that it was adequately fed and watered, then gave it a light brushing and a firm pat. Though he'd appreciated the surefooted beast's service in traversing the precarious desert trails, he had been loathe to name it - from his experience, mounts often died while at war, or on the weary road that came afterwards - naming them just made it too easy to form an attachment. Unfastening his cloak, he departed for the envoy's tent, warily brushing past a half-dozen strangers on his way through and tugging a crumpled poster from his claok. A few of the Exusian guardsmen had likely seen his scabbard, but what else could they expect? They were in the heartland of the Bone Clans, after all.

It was clear to Artur he was certainly not among the first to have arrived, nor would he probably be the last. Off to one side, he caught a glimpse of some strawberry-blonde who fancied herself a cartographer, interfering with the map set out for the excursion. To another was a queerly pale boy prying into the business of a woman who was a giantess by comparison, perhaps literally if her taller, muscular complexion was anything to go by. Another two girls, of differing appearance and smaller complexion had also made their way in, one with a particularly rugged, even feral demeanour to her - it had been some time since he'd seen their like.

Idly, he found a space not so far behind from where Magdelene was seated and began to mutter the lyrics to a ballad he'd picked up many years ago as a soldiering lad. "I don't want no Orthosi shilling, I don't want to be cut down. I'd sooner be willing to make me'self a killing, living off the the Ladies of the Town..."
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