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ErskineP2.jpg Erskine Rimebarth

"Quiet Reminiscing"
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It was strange how even the most alien of environments reminded him of home.
Still, like the grave, the waters only flowed as a reaction to the actions of those that traversed them, sending out weakened ripples that would fade back into lifeless serenity. It reminded him of the muck in the trenches after a battle, the resting place of rainwater, blood, and filth from which life had abandoned. While he might have feared drifting back into those memories on most occasions, there was a certain comfort when it came to reflection on the Dead Sea.

A whittling knife in hand, the dwarf had chosen a piece of driftwood as his entertainment for this portion of the voyage. His anti-sociality was not by any means a permanent change in character, but a mood had come over him since they had taken to the waters. Much like the haunting visions of the past, Erskine couldn't put a name to this mood, only that it was a heavy one that threatened to leave him as active as the Dead Sea around him. There was no plan of attack in mind, the dwarf allowing the knife to make its own shallow cuts on the wood and trusting that something might emerge from it. It had been a while since he had sat down to carve something that wasn't a crossbow bolt and from a casual glance, it showed. The initial cuts were sloppy relying more on hand strength than letting the blade do its work, and yet with time, the old lessons were learned anew.

Maighread had been much better at this than he, her hands deft and nimble in comparison to the meathooks he owned. He could still see the mischievous twinkle in her eyes as she playfully poked fun at his misshapen creation. It was amidst these memories that he realized that he had not thought of his beloved for such a time. Not out of neglect or indifference, but because he had not been strong enough to acknowledge that she was gone. The horrors of the Hell Maw would never leave him, yet they were nothing compared to having lost her. That had changed recently, after advising Aria on what little he knew of romance. It had provided just a bit of closure, just enough for the wound to begin to heal.

Pausing in his work, Erskine took a look at it and found it to be... confusing. He stifled a laugh as he admired the fish-like curves of the carving which terminated into a long needle-like point at the other end. Trusting the knife had given him a pointy-headed fish, but there was a certain charm to the oddity. After all, he wasn't exactly the most typical of people. "Perhaps Sir Jiminy will enjoy this?" He mused aloud, already knowing the answer before the first syllable left his lips. It was upon lingering on the figurine, trying to determine where its place in the universe was, that the dwarf realized that he was much more akin to it than he realized. Just as this carving would never be the tree it had begun life as he could never be the same dwarf he had once been... and that was okay. They would find their places eventually, but for now, it didn't matter.

There was a certain comfort in the stillness of the waters around them. Although they lacked the flow of life, each drop of the murky water was a memory of times long past.
 

Elle Joyner

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Arianell Oresh
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The Last Home
A short while after Oryn had excused himself, Aria found herself sinking swiftly back into the mental state to which she had become all too well accustomed. This time however, that feeling was bound to the frustrating realization of itself. Acknowledging where her state of melancholy came from forced her to recognize its resurgence, and with that recognition, the less than subtle reminder that something absolutely had to be done about it. Nathyen had reminded her once, the importance of light in darkness, and at the time he'd been referring to her… but perhaps those words rang true for her all the same.

Rising finally, her tea abandoned on the small table beside her chair, she wandered across the inn to where the others had gathered and coming alongside the familiar figure, she waited for a lull in conversation before reaching out a hand to his shoulder, "Fancy a walk?"

"Suppose it would do my legs some good to grow accustomed to sturdy ground," the locksmith replied with a shrug, rising to his feet. "Lead the way, Boots."

A small smile formed, and shaking her head, she nodded to the door, before starting towards it, “Damndest thing… Sailing. Seems like just when you’ve gotten used to it, you’re off the boat and have to get used to a world that doesn’t rock and tilt all night and day. Still feel it when I close my eyes, sometimes.”

Pushing open the door, she took a step outside, and with it, a deep breath, allowing the cool night air to fill her lungs, “How… how are you, otherwise? Hasn’t been much time to talk since the Misshapen.”

"Dinged and scraped, pride a bit bruised, but alive," Nathyen replied in pleasant candor, but as she studied his eyes Aria could see there was some lingering pain and weariness lurking behind his masque of optimism. "You ever been on water in a ship before, lass? I've no clue what things farm girls do south 'o the Pass."

“Not the least bit, no. Landlocked most of my life, but my… My brother worked for a time on a fishing boat and he’d tell stories.” Looking up, she shook her head, “Can’t say I care much for it, either. Suppose I could get used to it, if I had to, but I’m not particularly keen to make it necessary.”

Gaze shifting, she studied him for a moment, “The Shroud’s not far off. It occurs to me I never asked what you plan to do when we get there?”

"Ah, suppose I'll be keen to make good on some promises I made before I left for the Hollows. Might be the Guild's in need of some hands, though can't say stealin's been made any easier in the Shroud. The new council's made quite a show of usin' the city watch to bash its way through street gangs and thieves, at least it was that way when I left. That must've been right before winter started to end… it's been just 'round three months now, might be four."

A brow tipping up, Aria shifted slightly, “I forget sometimes, what you did before we met. Not sure I’m terrible fond of the idea of you going up against the city watch. You’ve gotten better with our training, but that seems like a good deal more than sparring, Nathyen.”

"I'm not going to go shoutin' about with a collar 'round my neck proclaimin' I'm a thief," he snorted. "I've eluded the watch since I was a boy well enough - 'n there are certain benefactors that keep them well away from us pickpocket types, so long as we keep clear of nobles and watchmen. 'Sides, long as I steer clear of baring steel worst they'll do is cudgel me. Broken bones heal a good deal better than a severed thumb or blade to your gut."

“You’re a grown man…” She noted, with a slight smile, “You don’t need to explain yourself to me. Just… be careful, is all. Broken bones may heal, but a cudgel can do a good deal worse than that in the wrong hands.”

"Ah, that's the first time anyone's accused me of bein' grown, let alone you," Nathyen chuckled, growing somber at Aria's still stoic expression.

Pausing a moment, she shifted her feet, and a momentary look of unease crossed her face before she continued, “...I’m starting to think all of this was a bit foolhardy. Coming all this way. Dragging all of you along. The only real lead I have on my brother came from a orc who tried to kill me. And I’ve put everyone in so much danger…”

"Ah well, truth 'o the matter is there was hardly any reason for us to stay behind in the Hollows. Aye, it's one of few places food still grows in these parts, 'n it's isolated enough from the perils over these lands but it's not exactly a place adventurin' sort stay for long. Oryn's a hired blade if ever there was one, and Nio's curiosity was bound to take her from the Hollows eventually. Elyssia 'n Erskine might be new fellows, but doubtless they're all about their business too. It's not to say we don't care 'bout you or that brother 'o yours, but we've all got other reasons to be anywhere but where we started.'

“I suppose that’s a fair point. And I know what we faced in the Hollows wasn’t exactly with its perils… Misshapen should be nothing compared to a dragon, right? It’s just… different.” Lowering her gaze, she found a rock with her toe, giving it a small nudge, “Those few days we were separated… I have not felt fear like that in a long time Not knowing if you would make it. I know I said it before we left the other side of the sea, but… but it’s not a feeling I much care for. The thing is… even knowing there was a chance Matthias might be alive, I… I never really let myself hope for it, too deeply. It’s easier, I imagine. The isolation. Indifference. I wake every day now, with such… uncertainty. And I guess I always thought that caring for someone would be detrimental. I just never fully understood why. Funny, isn’t it? How we prepare and train our bodies to withstand so much… but it’s our hearts that give us up.”

“Might be you’re one of a few with that sort of heart left in these parts,” Nathyen supplied with a cocked eyebrow. “Most ‘o us learn from an early age not to cling to hope too tightly - but, if I’m being honest, I’m not so sure hope’s all too much a weakness. Might be that’s what keeps you in the fight after most would say it’s been lost.”

“How do you do that?” She asked, rather abruptly, her eyes returning to the locksmith with an oddly tender expression, “For days now, I’ve wrestled with these thoughts and you say one thing that clarifies so much…”

“It’s something we wrestle with daily, I think - it’s always fascinated me, hearin’ the differences in the old stories from before the Scouring to the ones that come after. The tales ‘o spring’s glory and heroism become ones of winter and hardship. Those heroes had to rise to the occasion knowin’ things would be better once the fight was done, we just have to accept that it’ll be a fight ‘til there’s no fight left. I’ve seen countless example ‘o when someone’s hopes sour, ‘n they give up not soon after so might be there’s something to keeping that flicker alive.”

“And you believe that? That… that there’s no end but an ill one?” Facing away, eyes piercing the darkness as if she could reach into it and pluck out an answer, she sighed, “I can’t… I can’t ascribe to that, Nathyen. None of us should. To believe that all of this… all we’ve done will be for nothing. Even if it is just… a fight till we’ve no fight left in us, there are things worth fighting for, aren’t there?”

“You misunderstand, I think,” Nathyen said, hesitating for a moment. “Hope’s needed to keep you goin’, ‘n I think the second you lose sight of it, be it for a better harvest next year or for a world without the sort ‘o unnatural monsters we contend with daily, you’ll give up and die all the same. I try not to let my thoughts linger on a better world in the sense that the South might be better, or we might one day be free to fight wars among ourselves like the old stories say we used to. That sort of wishin’ can be dangerous, but I’d wager I’ve been left the challenges I’m to deal with, ‘n they’d be challenges of an equal magnitude no matter if they were mundane or otherworldly.”

Hooking her fingers into her scarf, she tugged in down, lost for a moment in thought, "So what do you hope for? Outside of all of that? Is there anything…?"

“I hope I live a decent enough life, ‘n that I leave the world in a better shape than it was when it was handed to me,” Nathyen said after a pause, thumbing through his wiry blonde beard. “Anything more feels like I’m askin’ the world for too much.”

“...That’s a fine thing to hope for. Rather beautiful, really.” Steepling her fingers below her chin, there was a sudden shift to her expression - a coyness - as she shifted her gaze away, “Can I ask you something, Nathyen? Or… or rather something of you?”

Nathyen inclined his head, cocking an eyebrow.

“It… it’s a bit strange, and you don’t have to say yes, but… but I’ve been rather curious, and I suppose in a way it’s only natural to be, but I… I’m wondering if you’d… Well, if you’d be willing to teach me… what it is you do.”

"Ah, well I can't make you an orphaned girl pickin' pockets for coin and snatchin' bread loaves for supper, which truth be told's the best way for you to learn. There's no motivator like an empty belly and the touch of a watchman's asp to keep from getting caught. But I can give you a couple 'o pointers on movin' quiet, sleight of hand, and the like." Nathyen paused, a look of incredulous wonder etched upon his face as he examined Aria. "That's 'o course assuming you aren't too much of a saint for the likes of thievery. Surprised you even asked."

Chuckling lightly, Aria gave a small shrug, “I don’t mean to become one… A thief. But I can’t imagine it’ll hurt to know a thing or two about pickin’ locks… and maybe the occasional pocket. But mostly, I just…” Lowering her gaze a moment, she breathed in softly, “I got to thinking about it, on the boat ride. Oryn has his adventuring, Nio her magic… You’ve got your locksmith work. Apart from finding my brother, which I’m not even sure is possible… I’ve got such little purpose. I don’t know what I want… for myself. And it might help, knowing a bit more than just what a soldier or farmer does. Besides…” Looking up again, she gave him a slightly teasing smile, “I’ve beat on you enough in our training, might be it’s only fair you get to teach me something, instead.”

Nathyen nodded, brow furrowing.

"If it's just simple lockpickin' 'n the like, no troubles there. Might be we'll need to buy a couple locks for you to practice on in the Shroud, and sneaking about's easy enough. But I've got to say, Aria - you're as good a fighter as any of us here, 'cept maybe Oryn. You're certainly better than me, 'n a soldier's skill isn't wasted in these parts as you've seen already so do yourself a favor and maybe stop being your own worst critic, 'eh?"

“That’s not to imply I’ve no talent in it, Nathyen.” Almost absently, her fingers curled gingerly around the hilt of her blade, “But to what end? My garrison’s well past the border and the only person who came with me, well… I’ve no idea where he’s ended up. He has a quest all his own, as it is. I’ve every intention of seeing our journey to its full, but after that? I think I got rather lucky running into you lot in the Hollows, but I don’t imagine it’ll happen twice. And I don’t frankly feel terribly keen on the idea of running off without you all.”

"Fair is fair," the locksmith agreed.

They stood at the edge of the worn trail, atop a small rise that gave way to even more flat terrain for miles in all directions. To their right etched the last of the southern mountains that hugged the lower edges of the Dead Sea's shores, a stony grey that shone through with red and gold highlights in the last glowing rays of the setting sun. Behind them rested the small fishing outpost, illuminated in the twilight by the dim flickering of lit candles.

Nathyen took in a deep breath and exhaled sharply, gazing out over the rest of the dirt road beyond.

"Not too much further to the Shroud," he said, abruptly changing the topic. "Another week or two at most and we'll be there - right past the curve of these mountains we'll be able to make passage on another ship down straight to the mountain's base."

“What’s it like?” Aria asked, glancing out over the landscape, painting deep burgundy in the dying light of day, “The Shroud? I know a little from what you’ve told me before, but apart from what sounds to be awful guards and the thieves guild you worked with, I can’t quite picture much else…”

"It's a relic of the past - you'll see it when we arrive at the foot of the mountain, but there's… greenery, lush and vibrant. The walls are white ivory, the gates shining steel. Aye, it's run down and cracked and worn in a thousand places but not even Gol Badhir holds a torch to its magnificence. Inside it's as mundane as any township might be, only there’s more to occupy your mind with. The rich stay in their households made of the old stone of the Gilded Age, the Knightly Orders lay their thumb down on any dissent, and the status quo is maintained. There's a shade over ten thousand within the walls themselves perhaps, and another two or three thousand in the townsteads and farms around it. Crowded comes to mind - crowded, and yet despite the infighting and the politics and the crime, it's safe. Safer than perhaps anywhere else in this land."

“Farms?” Lighting up slightly, Aria looked over to Nathyen again, “...Like an honest farm? I haven’t seen one since I left home. It sounds better than anything I’ve seen up North so far. Are you… are you glad to be going back?” Pausing, her lip twitched up, “I mean… apart from the possibility of being bludgeoned by a cudgel… or a scorned woman…”

"Can't say I'm eager to, but there are worse places to be." There was a somber note to his voice, and the locksmith's eyes flickered to the ground underfoot. "I'll be eager to leave once we find our lead."

“I can’t imagine it’s easy, knowing how you were treated.” Gently, her fingers brushed the back of his hand, before falling to her side, “I’ll do what I can to make short work of our time there. Matty aside, there’s only one other task I’ve got to manage.”

"Might be we'll wait out spring there, venture out again in the summer," Nathyen replied. "Something tells me Niowyn'll find her place among the mages, 'n Erskine and Elyssia… well, assuming they have reason to come along'll likely have their own work to do. A season sounds about right."

“Nio does seem awfully excited.” With a small laugh, she shook her head, “I suppose f it’s truly awful for you, we can always leave earlier, but it might do us all some good to be somewhere more stable for a while. Can’t say I’ll miss looking out for the Others creeping about at night. And it’ll be nice to visit a decent blacksmith. Maybe get you something that’s actually sharp to fight with…”

"Ah, well, not sure that'll help me when you seem to do just fine half killing me with that stick," Nathyen retorted, jostling Aria with his elbow and chuckling.

Grinning, Aria shrugged, prodding a finger at his ribcage, “What can I say… For a thief, you’re awfully slow.”

"Suppose I might be - come on then, let's get back to the tavern. Don't want to be caught out after dark, even if it is within screamin' range of the others."

“Can’t say I’d care much for that, no.” Turning back to the tavern, she hesitated a moment, before continuing on, “I never did get a chance to talk to you, before the Ferry. But I think perhaps it’s better left until we’ve reached the Shroud. There’s some things I need to do… to put to rest, before…”

"Another time, then."

"And with any luck, better times."
 

Applo

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The crew of the ferry made easy company for Aoife. There was a familiarity to the easy comradery of drinking with the crew. How many nights had she spent after a watch in the ale house drinking and carousing with her brothers and sisters of the guard in just the same way? Stories flowed back and forth, jokes too. Nathyen and the Ferryman were the main contributors, but everyone at the table was chipping in. For her part, Aofie had retold the tale of her fishing trip with Snat. It was far from the most entertaining tale, but enough bad ale had been drunk that it had got a decently appreciative laugh all the same. It would be a sad thing to leave tomorrow.

The red-head had felt no compunction at her departure from Molestown, but leaving this place, these people would be a slight wrench. The slow journey across the Dead Sea had given Aoife ample time to get to know the small crew and come to appreciate some of their quirks. Doing a dangerous job to eke out a living for a family they would never get to see enough of. In a way she and the crew were kindred souls; or perhaps were once anyway. Saying goodbye to them would be saying goodbye to her old life for the last time. Perhaps she was still welcome in The Shroud, but she wouldn’t be once she did what needed to be done. This Aoife knew for certain. She would need to find a new path. What path she had no idea though, and that was terrifying beyond words. How did other people cope with such problems? How did mercenaries who had come to the end of their contract even know which direction she would hea-

“I need to refill my drink.”

Stumbling away from the table, Aoife poured the near half a cup worth of remaining ale down her throat as she approached the figure lurking at the bar.

“So, what are your plans for after we reach The Shroud? Aria is searching for her kin; Niowyn is drawn by their magic. Celothel and Nathyen are returning home. I can’t see a reason for you to head that way, or to stick around long once we get there. I’m curious about what road you will take next.”

The barkeep was busier than before. Oryn had only been waiting a short while but it looked like he would be waiting a good while longer to get the ale he had ordered for him and Niowyn. He sighed, cracked his wrist and flexed his fingers. Oryn had just placed his elbow on the bar and rested his head against his palm when someone spoke to him. He didn’t raise his head before she had finished. It was her again. The red-head. The two of them hadn’t spoken much, but this didn’t seem to deter the woman. He straightened, turned to face her and leaned against the bar, elbow still resting on it.

“Good evening.” He said, calmly. Then he paused and bobbed his head in thought. It was something he had been speculating himself quite a bit. He just hadn’t been able to come up with a good answer for it. Not one he was prepared to admit to, at least. Oryn Valahn, relying on other people? Enjoying their company even? Not a chance.

“I’m not sure. I guess I’ll wing it. Worked out so far.” He said at last, shrugging. “There’s always work for someone like me. Change of scenery will do me good, I’m sure.”

Raising an eyebrow, he twisted his wrist again and heard the pop once more.

“What about you? What’s waiting for you in the Shroud?”

“Hah, not too much.”

Placing an elbow on the bar, Aoife leaned in to mirror the sellsword.

“A few loose ends to tie up, a couple of faces I would like to see again and a debt or two that it is past time I paid back.”

Oryn’s answer hadn’t been what Aoife had been hoping for. No plan, no direction. Just vague hope and pleasant sentiment. The handsome oaf was almost certainly correct that they would be able to find employment easily enough, but it wasn’t exactly a plan.

“Where will you head if you can’t find any work? Big men with swords are not hard to find around the Shroud. Is that why you were out west?”

“Not really…” Oryn said and shrugged again. “Before the Hollows I…” He paused, realizing that he had not talked about Calen for a long time. “I said goodbye to a friend before I turned north. We had been working further east - not far from here, in fact.” He had buried Calen east of Ashfen near the foot of the mountains. The next day, Oryn had stopped Dale on top of one of the hills surrounding Ashfen and looked down on it for a good while. Eventually, he had decided against riding down there. Even though he was born there, there had been nothing for him then and there was nothing for him there now. “If I don’t find work in the Shroud, I’ll find it somewhere else.” Surviving in the wild was not new to him, but it didn’t pay very well. But it reassured him that he could travel somewhere else in search of work without starving to death before he got there. “There is little chance I’ll find work involving anything but my sword. I have very few skills, in case you hadn’t noticed.” Oryn chuckled before nodding his thanks to the barkeep as she planted two mugs of ale in front of him. He raised one and drank.

When he set it down again, he shook the thought of Calen. The old goat was dead and there was nothing left of him but his sword and the memories. Thinking of him was the closest thing Oryn got to sentimental, but even so it couldn’t bring him to tears. He had learned a long time ago that tears helped no one.

“Wait, a few faces you would like to see? Does that mean faces that would like to see you as well? Faces that do not cower at the sting of your words?” Oryn tilted his head down and raised an eyebrow at her. “I find it easier to believe that you have debts to settle. But who knows? Maybe there is a person in the Shroud who is a match for your quick wit.”

“Friends from a previous visit. Good drinking companions. That’s all.”

Oryn was easy on the eyes, but that didn’t mean Aoife was just going to spill all her secrets to him. Some things were private and were meant to stay that way.

“As for someone to match my fabulous wit, there is at least one I know.” Green eyes drifted towards Celothel thoughtfully. “though maybe now there is ano-”

“Gentlemen!”

“What on earth?”

Aoife's moment of thoughtfulness was shattered as she twisted to see the familiar source of the shout. The dwarf’s voice boomed from a nearby table and Erskine could be seen surrounded by a few… unsavory-looking patrons.

“I would like to propose a bit of wager, if you all would so kindly be willing. Now, I like to believe I have a good eye when it comes to judgin’ people, and good sirs look to be the type that enjoys makin’ a bit of coin, correct?”

A few laughs and affirmatives came from those surrounding him, prompting him to continue, “Good! Now allow me to set up our wager!”,

That said, the dwarf turned up a bottle of wine, draining the last half of it before placing it down on the table with a hardy thud. Strangely would proceed to replace its cork stopper back in, only to further ram it in until it fell down from the neck and into the bottom.

“Now, as you all can see, I have reenacted a situation some of you might have found yourselves in before. What I propose is that I can retrieve this cork from the bottle without breaking or altering it and I wager these here five gold coins that I shall be the only one to achieve this feat. To sweeten this proposal, I shall merely ask for you kind sirs to handle my bar tab for this evening should I be victorious.”

Offering the bottle, those around them initially seemed cautious before one of them took up the offer, inspecting and shaking the bottle. A few aggressive smacks to the underside and the man was out of ideas, handing it off to another. The next one looked at it, stroking his chin before concocting an idea,

“I think I know this one! Yeah… I remember something about heating it up… hand me that candle.”

Another patron pushed over a candle used for lighting and the man held it up to the bottle. A few minutes passed and after some jeers from his fellows, the defeated man placed the bottle down with a grumble, “All right dwarf, your turn. You haven’t won yet.”

“Of course, my good sir, I am always one to uphold his end of a bargain. To accomplish this, allow me to present this here common handkerchief.” Producing a bit of cloth of various, faded colors, Erskine would fold it in half and begin twisting the closed end before stuffing it into the bottle. Parting the ends still peeking out of the bottle, the dwarf blew into, inflating the handkerchief.

“You see,” Erskine began, explaining his actions, “This stopper does its job because of friction, but unfortunately, said friction makes retrieval a bit more difficult” Turning the bottle up, he shook the vessel until the cork stopper was at the base of the neck, “This of course means that the best way of retrieving it is to reduce the friction between the bottle and the stopper.” Pulling on the handkerchief, the partially inflated end would entrap the stopper in its position and slowly drag it out of the bottle, much to the chagrin and amusement of those around him.

“Our friend is quite the ringmaster.”

At some point during Erskine's impromptu little show, the bar maid had laid a fresh mug of what could just about be called ale in front of both Aoife and Oryn. The red-head savoured a long slow sip from her mug as she thought about her dwarven travelling companion.

“Do you know why Erskine is headed for The Shroud? I have never asked. He could make quite some coin in the taverns there, though he might need to defend himself more nights than not.”

He set the mug down on the bar, wiping the scarred side of his mouth with his sleeve. Oryn smiled as he looked up at Aoife before glancing over at the dwarf, wondering just what his goals were. Erskine was yet another of the most recent additions to their group that Oryn had not exchanged very many words with.

“I haven’t the faintest idea. That routine does seem practiced. So practiced and well-known, that I don’t think Erskine owes a tab in any inn for hundreds of miles.” He chuckled as he watched the dwarf and shook his head before he fixed his eyes back on Aoife. “I think you’re right. He could make some coin. As for defending himself, he seems capable enough for a tavern like this. In the Shroud I’d be more worried. Who knows, if Nathyen doesn’t pick the wrong pocket, you don’t insult anyone with that sharp tongue of yours and I don’t pick a fight with any of the local lawmen, Erskine might be the one who gets us into trouble.” Oryn shrugged again and took a healthy swig from his ale. “And there will be trouble.”

“On that, we are agreed.”

If she got her way, the Aoife knew, there would be more than enough trouble for everybody with plenty left over. The Shroud would never be the same again.

“Still I am curious how our friend knows all his little tricks and I’m pretty sure I owe him at least one drink so the first round is on me if you want to join.”

A coin was pushed across the bar by the red-head as a silent but perfectly obvious request for another drink.

He shrugged and considered for a moment. The idea of engaging in more drinking was appealing enough, but having already talked more than he usually would in a tavern, Oryn didn’t feel like joining. Hell, he’d talked more this evening than he usually did in a week. No, being alone with his ale seemed just fine. He had been scouting for Niowyn but couldn’t find her. She had probably gone to bed. “I think I’ll stay here and brood and be lonely. I’m better at that than I am at socializing.”

“Ok suit yourself.”

The bar woman with a near perfect sense of timing chose this moment to deposit the fresh mug of ale in front of Aoife.

“Enjoy your lonely brooding.”

The hand that landed on Oryn’s ass, hit with just the slightest of thuds. Aoife let her palm rest where it landed for a moment, enjoying the feeling of the man’s well toned physique before squeezing it ever so slightly.

“But if you get tired of being alone tonight, come and find me handsome.”

Relieved of their money, Erskine’s little crowd had thinned somewhat and there was ample room for Aoife to deposit a mug of ale onto the table in front of the dwarf and sit down opposite him.

“You seem to have an endless supply of good tricks up your sleeve. Before that one pays for itself, I thought I should repay the drink you shared with me the night those fiends attacked.”

Lifting her own mug to her lips, the red-headed sipped at the liquid the was masquerading as ale while she stared at the dwarf.

“If we are going to drink together though, I have to ask; where did you learn all these tricks of yours? Was it back in the place you call home?”

“G’evenin’ my friend,” The dwarf replied with a greeting nod, “As much as I would protest to a free drink from a companion, I get the feelin’ you would not satisfied until I accept it, so I will just cut out all the…” What was that word? “...social niceties? Yes, social niceties.” Erskine took his own drink, a hooch lying under the facade of a slightly better hooch, and took a swig.

“Tricks you say?” He said, stroking his coarse, braided beard, “I am insulted, but I must confess that the one I employed here was a trick. Like many of my ‘tavern showcases’, they are but minor things learned from alchemical experiments. The cork display was conceived after one too many drinks leadin’ to a lack of dexterity tryin’ to open a new bottle.”

“I think most people would have solved the problem by smashing the bottle, not reaching for a hanky.”

Green eyes flicked to the wine bottle, now without its cork.

“If you would not call what you do tricks, what would you call it? I know enough magic to know it is not that… I think.”

“Merely science, my friend. You are talkin’ to a dwarf, after all,'' He replied, “Although I am surprised that I have not interfered too much when it comes to those more magically inclined than myself in this group. Some take it a bit personal when your very presence dulls their spells.” Shrugging, Erskine took another sip of his bog-well spirits, “I cannot claim the cork trick entirely. Had some help from someone with a much sharper mind than my own. I just… merely inspired the need to create it.”

“Hah, your friend sounds like a person I would like to meet then. Anyone who uses their brain more than their muscles is a rare find in most places.”

Picking up the empty bottle, Aoife started to rub her index finger inside the edge of the opening as she thought about the explanation the dwarf had given his audience.

“As for dulling our spells, I can’t say for Niowyn, but I have met enough dwarfs in my time, Celotel too I would wager, to know what to expect. Besides, good travelling companions are hard to find. Ones that bottle fire even harder. We are lucky to have you on the road with us. You could be making a good living as a mercenary. Actually, I am curious why you are doing your strange science in taverns and not earning handfuls of coin with it instead.”

“I suppose I could…” Erskine said, his voice quiet and lacking the earlier mirth, “Truth be told, I am nothing more than an aimless fool in my present form. When I first set off on my travels, I had goals, the motivation… but lately I have begun to wonder if it is worth the trouble.” Nezsohrcan was gone, its people scattered across the lands and his memories of the mountain had been slowly replaced by the nightmares of the Hell Maw. Only the memories of Maighread, Akesel, and a few others reminded him that it had once been his cherished home. “With that bit of lamentation said, I perform my craft in strange taverns because it brings me comfort… or perhaps that comfort originates from the free alcohol. Either way, it gives me just a tad bit of stability when otherwise my footsteps have grown uncertain.”

It was hard for Aoife to hold back a sigh born from yet more disappointment. Another aimless wanderer. At least this one recognised the fact about themselves. Not that that helped. Perhaps it had been foolish to hope that her companions would provide a bridge across the gaping chasm in her future. Both were obvious drifters. Oryn by profession. Erskine because no one could drink for free in an inn for more than one night without people getting wise to his game and reaching for torches and pitchforks.

“Comfort is good anyway we can find it in this world. I hope for the sake of your head that it is your science and not the drink that brings it to you. I am not sure either would be enough for me even for a short time. I rather envy you for that.

Seeking scant comfort of her own, Aoife finished the rest of her ale in one go. The drink was weak and watery, but it had to have some of the benefits of better quality booze.

“My cup is empty, so I shall stop stealing all of your time. I am sure your friends are eager to pay your tab and I am eager to sleep in a bed that doesn't rock. I will see you tomorrow friend.”

Pushing herself away from the table, the red-head deftly palmed a few drinks worth of coins onto the table. Then without giving the dwarf a chance to be polite, she pivoted on the spot until the Oryn came back into view and paced over to him with steps that betrayed only the slightest hint of unsteadiness.

“Remember, come find me if you want. I promise it’ll be fun.”

Aoife lips were almost brushing the folds of the man’s ear as she whispered. She was so close that planting a light kiss on Oryn’s cheek required next to no extra movement at all. If her companion would accept her invitation, she had no idea. He was impossible to read. Still there was a slight spring in the red-heads step as she made her way to the group's bed chambers.​

A collaboration with @CasketCase & @Morgan and Oryns ass.
 

Elle Joyner

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Arianell Oresh
COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | N/A



Loss
Dawn’s pink light shone over the horizon, contrasting the dark grey clouds above with brilliant sharpness. Linsinius - the sickly green moon that heralded the coming of spring - had barely faded into the dawn sky, leaving its pale glow to join with the tendrils of dawn in a glow that was simultaneously both unnerving and quite majestic to behold. The air was still chill to the touch so early in the morning, but the sun cast back the worst of the chill where its warm hands touched.

From atop the small rise she stood, Aria could see plainly the path her quarry had taken into the lush growth that hugged the shore of the Dead Sea by the part in the tall grass and the drops of blood in the dirt below. She was perhaps a mile from the inn they had made their home for the night, and were she to look behind her she could see the faintest traces of the tavern’s patchwork tiled roof from the trees that surrounded it.

The road ahead would be long and arduous, with more than just the usual dangers lying in wait. It would hardly do for them to make it through countless Misshapen and trolls, only to suffer starvation before they reached the Shroud, and the bit of early morning hunting did wonders to quell the sense of nervous energy that had bubbled to the surface sometime during the previous evening, when the talk of resuming their journey had begun.

Fingers loosely curled around the body of the yew bow, she ducked a little lower and watched as the wounded hare emerged once more from beneath a bit of dry, wiry brush. Hobbling, it paused and wavered for a moment, before with a chilling, shrill squeal, it collapsed.

Gingerly, Aria started down the hill, towards the shore. There was something foul on the air, carried aloft on the wind as it suddenly picked up from the lake’s shore. Inky black tendrils manifested from the brush the rabbit had attempted to flee towards, snaking their way across the loose gravel. The tendrils paused as they seemed to notice the scent of fresh carrion, and as they swerved towards the dead rabbit Aria’s gaze followed the tendrils up to a lithe body dotted in red thorns that lurched forward, bulbous heads sprouting from gently swaying limbs that dripped with a vibrant red fluid and concealed jagged fangs.

The creature, whatever it might be, made no notice of Aria for now, keeping its single minded focus on the dead meat. As it rounded out from the shrubs beyond, Aria could now see that this was but one segment of its body, for the bulk of the tendrils were still yet out of view in the shadows of the leaves behind. One of the heads sunk down and opened lazily, snatching the rabbit and crunching down, bones snapping, red fluid splashing the dirt below and singing what grass it touched.

Freezing in place, her eyes widened first, then narrowed and reaching back, she gripped an arrow from the pouch on her hip, nocking it against the bowstring.

“No you don’t…” she whispered, sending a cautious shot into the ground where the rabbit had been.

Unperturbed, the creature halted and slithered backward, many heads swaying about as if sniffing at the air. It was then Aria realized, after taking a moment to further assess it, that the creature was more akin to a row of vines and flower bulbs than it was a beast. The fangs mirrored the thorns along its body, and when its tendrils swayed about they creaked like branches in a windstorm. One of its mawed bulbs opened and sprayed a gout of the bright red liquid over the rabbit’s corpse before sinking back into the shadows of the brush behind.

Inching bit by bit closer, without nearing the vine’s reach, Aria released a huff of frustration, her gaze shifting from the wicked flora to the ravaged fauna before it. It wouldn’t do, she was certain. A morning’s hunt wasted, and soon enough they’d be out on the road. So much for being proactive.

“...Rotten bush…” She spat, plucking the loosed arrow free and jamming it back into her pouch.

Already the rabbit was rapidly decomposing, foul stench of rotting flesh filling Aria’s nostrils as she hunched to pick up her warning shot. Only, the stench was too pungent for just one rabbit’s corpse. It reminded her more of the aftermath of the battle of the Hollows than the decay of one slain rodent. Of rotting corpses after a fight, left in the sun and mud for hours or even days. It emanated from where the vines had retreated, carried along the wind as first the flora’s stench had.

A sudden tang of discomfort crept up the back of her throat, and pulling her scarf over the lower half of her face, she took an uneasy step closer, crouching down further to peer into the tangled mass of growth. Carefully, her fingers curled around her blade and slow as her footwork, she eased it from its sheath. As Aria peeled back the first of the foliage concealing the vine beyond, the stench struck her fully. Mangled in the base of the vicious flora was a thoroughly decomposed corpse, clutching a rusted iron sword in its lifeless, pale hand. Maggots filled its chest cavity, which writhed about at the sudden beams of light that cut through the darkness at Aria’s intervention.

The vine’s slender tendrils began to curl about Aria’s foot, barbed feelers scuffing the leather of her boots. Its fanged bulbs were nowhere in sight, but she could see the charred remains of other flora from where the red fluid had done its work.

With some effort, she resisted the urge to gag, grateful, if for nothing else, that the sight of death wasn’t something she was entirely unaccustomed to. Then taking a quick step back on her free foot, Aria made a broad sweeping swing downward with her blade at the vine snaking around her foot. The vine shrieked and spurted a thick, sap-like substance the smell of which was confoundingly sweet like honey, sending the remaining tendrils scurrying back, letting loose the corpse at Aria’s feet.

With a clatter, then a sick thud, the rusted sword then the form itself rolled and flopped in a disgusting flurry, coming to rest with abrupt finality. Skin, like chiseled stone, clung too tightly to bone, a shriveled, shrunken figure, waxy and ash-grey, and from the crown, spider-silk thin hair, pale blonde hung in what, in life, might have been a wavy mane. Around a single atrophied finger, a metal band clung loosely, a solitary red stone at its center like a beacon in the glint of early morning sunrise.

All at once the heat fled from her body, the icy chill grasp of dread sinking sharpened claws deep down into the center of her. Stumbling back, something between a gasp and sharp, strangled yelp escaped her, and as her legs gave, she collapsed in a heap beside the withering corpse.

“...No… no, no, no….” The word repeated, an incessant elegy, as her sword fell from her grasp, and tears blurred her vision, blurred the glinting steel and burnished stone, unmistakably familiar and nearly identical to that which hung at the center of her clavicle. As desperation and fear swelled, the words became less the hushed and pitiful plea and instead roiled, building into an anguished cry as she rose, sword in hand and hacked, stabbed, slammed her blade into the plant with a keen and maddening fury.

“Lass,” the one word came suddenly, cutting through the wet crunch of Aria’s blade sinking into and retracting from the mangled remains of the flora.

She did not halt, however, even as each slash became less focused, the blade heavy, a weight like lead in her grip. She clutched it with two hands, and brought it down, where it stuck hard into the mud of the bank, and as she pulled, yanked, despairingly, another sob echoed. An arm wrenched Aria away from the blade and dragged her out of the thicket, back along the shore. There she was lowered, less than gracefully, onto the ground. Over her loomed the narrow, wiry frame of Nathyen, blade in hand. He lowered the sword to the ground and jostled Aria’s shoulder with his hand. It was only then did Aria realize he was speaking to her.

“...Aria? Lass? What happened?”

Sucking in a breath, her small form quaking head to boot, Aria’s eyes moved past Nathyen, settling on the body, and the words that escaped were barely a whisper, cut raw by her tirade, “...I failed… H-he’s… he’s gone. I failed…”

Nathyen followed her gaze to the body, confusion settling into creases along his brow. Understanding flickered in his eyes and he nodded, rushing down beside Aria and wrapping her in a tight hug.

“You didn’t fail,” he said softly, clinging to Aria. “You didn’t fail, you hear me?”

Tensing, guilt laced words poured bitterly as she shunted herself backwards, out of his embrace, away from the fallen form behind him, “He’s dead! He’s gone! Everything I’ve… everything I’ve done… everything I came here for… Everything...” Fingers curling up into her hair, she burrowed into her knees, words dissolving into tears.

Nathyen stood and ventured over to the body, examining it momentarily and keeping his distance from the weeping sores and wounds that dotted the mangled corpse. He hunched and plucked the ring from its finger before dousing it in the water of the Dead Sea and returned to Aria. Keeping his distance from her, he held out his palm, ring glittering in its center.

“Take this, at least,” he said faintly, nodding to the ring.

Head steering up slowly, Aria’s eyes fell on the ring and her breath shuddered briefly as the back of her hand forced tears from her cheeks, the mud of the bank leaving streaks across pale skin. Trembling fingers finally stretched out to take hold of it, and bringing it close, she shook her head, “I thought… I thought just once-- Just this one time… it might work. I really did…”

Breathing out, she shifted forward, her free hand clutching Nathyen as she buried her face in his chest. Nathyen held on to her until the worst of the sobbing had subsided, left to only a few snivels and choked sobs intermixed with Aria wiping at her eyes. He shifted back to give her space to collect herself, nodding to the ring clasped so tightly in her palm that it had broken the skin at where the gemstone had dug into her flesh.

“Tell me about that ring, if you want or can,” Nathyen said softly, nodding to it.

Turning to the shore, her eyes skimming over the surface of the water absently, her other hand reached up to clutch the chain around her neck, pulling it free, “...My father had them made for us, after my mother died… The stones were from a necklace she wore. Cal’s was sent back when…” Pausing, she breathed in sharply, sniffed, then shrugged, “And mine…” She held out the hand still gripping Matthias’s ring, showing the small silver band with a similar gemstone on her thumb, “When he gave them to us, he… he said they were to remind us of home, no matter where we were.” Lowering her hand again, her gaze dropped to the ring in her palm, “...I need… I need wood. Firewood.”

Nathyen opened his mouth to protest, but then understanding dawned on his face and he nodded.

“I’ve flint and tinder in my pack, ‘n my knife’ll do to cut some wood,” he paused, cocking his head. “Do you want to help? Work might do you some good to get ‘yer mind off it.”

Moving to where she had dropped her blade, her eyes dodging away from the body, Aria gave a nod, "It's not likely to get my mind off it, but I need to help. Mind the vines. Please…"

The pair went about cutting off branches and twigs as the sun began to break the horizon, its pink-orange glow giving way to a brilliant yellow and casting back the sickly green Linsinius. In the harsh daylight the vines that had hounded Aria earlier withdrew further into the thicket of trees until it was utterly removed from sight, leaving the two alone. Neither spoke, working together in somber silence until they had gathered enough foliage and kindling to surround the body and cover it.

Wordlessly, Nathyen held his flint and tinder outstretched to Aria, gesturing them towards the body. As she took it reluctantly from his hand, he nodded.

“It’s your brother,” he explained, voice low.

Taking the items, Aria bent low beside the small pyre they had crafted, and stubbornly brushing at her cheeks, she sniffed softly, “I wanted to bring you home, Matty. I’m… s-so sorry.” Striking the flint until a spark took to the dried kindling, she pressed upright to her feet and stepped back, “Nathyen...W-would you… could you say that thing you said before? With Vardis?”

“Matty - short for Mathias?”

At Aria’s nod, Nathyen inclined his head, glancing down as the flames began to consume the kindling and build into a raging blaze.

“Partings and meetings - simple affairs, like comings and goings,” Nathyen began, clearing his throat partway through. “Only, while partings may bring sorrow, there is yet not one more parting but this. Farewell, Mathias. This is the last parting of this world, with yet one more meeting to go.”

The locksmith stood there for a moment, an embarrassed flush breaking out along his cheeks as he scratched at the back of his neck.

“Sorry, Aria - I did not know him, I’d make it more personal but…” he stammered, shutting his mouth.

Reaching, Aria’s fingers curled around Nathyen’s hand as she shook her head, “Thank you. I… I’d like to stay. For a little while. You don’t have to, but I…” Words hanging, she trailed off in stilted silence.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he replied, likewise letting his words slip into silence, broken only by the crackling snap of burning wood.

Giving his hand a squeeze, she looked down again at the ring encircling her finger beside her own on her thumb, an edge of determination to her voice, hollowed by a pained bitterness, “I’m tired of losing…”

“Life goes in stages,” Nathyen said flatly, gesturing with his free hand out to the outline of the Dead Sea beyond. “When I arrived in the Shroud, it was loss after loss, but it did get better. For a time, and then it got worse. Then better, but not like it was before.”

He chuckled to himself, hand sliding back down by his side.

“All’s to say in my roundabout manner that this is just a temporary stage, ‘n it’ll eventually turn up. Maybe never like before, but the worst stretch ‘o life is just as impermanent as anythin’ else.”

“...I need something from you, Nathyen.” Reaching up to grasp the chain around her neck, she breathed in deeper, “I need you to promise me that you’ll be careful. That you’ll be safe. I know it’s just words… I know… but I need to hear you say it. More than anything, right now, I need you to say it.”

“I swear it,” Nathyen replied solemnly, eyes shifting back to the flames before them. “I’m tired of you losing, too.”

Her other hand curled around the first, clutching his tighter as she lay her head against his shoulder with a nod, “Good enough…” And with another soft sniff, she fell quiet once more.
 

Pupperr

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Niowyn of the Ta'Lassa Tribe



The companions had been on the road from the unmarked fishing village for over a week, crossing the narrow stretch of land between the rivers and mountains to their north and south. Here the rugged wilderness of the valley lining the Fangtooth River to their backs gave way to wide, flat terrain lined in grass that often came to their waists. In the fresh air of spring, the grass was just beginning to regain its green tenor, and looked like a sea of rusted copper swaying in the still chill wind.

Celothel’s mood had changed since their arrival back on land - though she retained that distant air about her, one of otherness and discomfort, there was a newfound warmth in her voice. When they shared stories by night, Celothel often contributed her own perspective where once she would sit in silence by her protector. And, much to Nathyen’s delight and her chagrin, the locksmith had managed to rouse a laugh out of her on one occasion, which had been the subject of much ridicule in the following days.

During their breaks at midday and in the evening, Celothel and Niowyn would continue their informal instruction within shouting distance of their camp. Niowyn’s curiosity was seconded only by her natural talent, and most evenings ended in long conversations sprouting from the roots of a ceaseless deluge of questions that beget even more questions.

On one such night, after they had reached the reach around the bend of the Groveland’s Curtain Mountains and began the trek south along its eastern edges, Celothel sat by the fire she had constructed between her and Niowyn, basking in the brief silence before another question filled her student’s mind. In her lap below was a map of Eladria, and marked in faint ink was the lengths around the Shroud by which she might travel safely. Another week perhaps, and then it was back to the lonely road with Deormund.

Celothel sighed softly, only dimly aware that Niowyn was awaiting for an answer to a question she could only half remember.

“What? No - drawing energy from your body is not the same as using the physical qualities of it to harness Essence,” she said, words slow and uncertain at first as she was wrenched from her contemplations. “What I did with the Misshapen was to use my body heat in substitution of fire, for which you might have done the same with your blood though the results might have been far less pleasant.”

Niowyn shuffled back, and Celothel collected herself, words forming just on the tip of her tongue. She hesitated. How would Niowyn react? Would she want to walk the path she had? Was she too old? Though she could not have been over thirty winters, the Order rarely took in students beyond five or six…Too late, the sentence was slipping past her lips.

“Niowyn,” she said abruptly, realizing with a momentary delay that the ink was dry, the words would be said. “We are some time yet from when you and I must part ways, but, and forgive me if this is perhaps uncharacteristically forward of me, I believe you should seek to join the Order. Your talents are obvious, your bloodline is gifted, and your questions might be put to rest better by a library than the small contents of what I fit between these ears.”

Celothel tapped her temple with a small, uncharacteristically rueful smile before continuing.

“I can see to it that you are given every advantage you might have in writing, and though that makes it far from a guarantee, I believe you might do the world some good if you hone your art.”

Niowyn sat on the cool grass, her back pressed against a fallen tree whose bark was peeling away and giving up against the losing battle against decay. Her eyes watched the fire dance against the black backdrop of night as she listened to Celothel’s proffer and thought back to her first meeting with the woman - to the first time she had ever heard someone speak of her tribe since leaving home. Home. It was only a stone’s throw away over the mountain ridge, and yet, it felt impossibly far. But she could never have anticipated the feelings she had when she heard the Ta’Lassa name slip from Celothel’s lips. It was wondrous, and shocking, and confusing all at the same time. What the Arcanist had shared with her so long ago still poked and prodded at her with curiosity. The Arcanist Order. A treasure trove of history. A place to hone her magical abilities. A link to her people. Niowyn told Celothel she would give her an answer about the Order before arriving at the Shroud and that time was quickly approaching.

Blue eyes wandered from the fire and fell on the sandy haired woman sitting across from her. “I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t interested. Learning about my people’s history was the reason that I left home so that I could bring back our lineage when I returned. But there are so many mysteries to this world that are intoxicating and not only do I want to know what happened to my people but I want to know what the world of old was.”

She sighed lightly before allowing her head to fall back against the log so she could look up at the pin holes in the night sky. She had learned so much about magic since learning from Celothel and not only was she interested in the history of this place, but she was interested in learning more about the magic of the world. And what did she mean by ‘doing the world good’? “Celothel.” Niowyn’s voice was uncharastically flat, “you told me one of your duties was to scout out talent. How did you find me? I remember feeling strange just moments before you approached me. Like something was pulling on me. Was that you?”

Celothel nodded with a hint of a rueful smile playing at the corners of her lips.

“It was - would you like me to teach you how I did it?” She asked with a small shrug of her shoulders. “It is nothing particularly different from how you feel out water, and is often one of the few ways to protect yourself from another mage.”

Niowyn’s head fell back down to look at Celothel. “Yes…” she began before drawing one more breath. “But before that I have another question. How did you know that I was from the Ta’Lassa tribe from feeling me out? Do we have a unique feeling like how water feels unique to me?” The mage allowed her head to fall backward again as she gazed up at the stars in contemplation of everything Celothel had taught her thus far. “Or do we all have our own fingerprints in the very Essence of this world?”

"That is a question with a nuanced answer," Celothel said, hesitation clear in her voice as she pursed her lips. "Your bloodline - your tribe… it plays a pivotal role in a history we only barely comprehend. It is one of many familial lines whose Essence is not so much distinct from them, but is rather a part of them. Here - I will show you what I mean."

The Arcanist paused, gesturing to Niowyn with palms outstretched.

"I want you to reach into Essence as if you were to manipulate water, but before you Tether to an object, instead look for the Essence you are pulling and follow it to the Root."

Niowyn looked to Celothel with curiosity - a familial line whose Essence is a part of them? It went against everything she had learned from her thus far about Essence in the world - about how it existed in the realm and about how people drew on it to use their magic. “It seems bizarre… with what I have learned so far about Essence that there are those who Essence is inherently a part of. And some of those peoples were part of my bloodline.. It’s just a lot to wrap my head around. Wouldn’t those people be incredible mages?”

Her palms opened in front of her to examine and her eyes adopted the faintest glow. She listened for the call of water she had always known but before she whispered back to it, she looked beyond the physical world in front of her. A breath of astonishment drew from her lips as she watched streams of iridescent light pour out of her and grasp for the air and the nearby gourd at her side. Niowyn’s moved to Celothel and she traced the same light from her to the fire between them. A twitch of her eye and a few raised fingers helped her concentrate on the Essence and she watched it spider from their clearing to where their companions were sitting not too far in the distance, reaching for Elyssia and Oryn.

Niowyn looked back to Celothel with a look that was both bewildered and enamoured. “What…” she began as she pushed herself forward to give the Arcanist more of her attention. “What is this?”

“All those gifted in Essence can instead invest a piece of themselves into its embrace, seeing where it is pulled in the physical realm. Without much thought at all, your body pulls on Essence, and so that makes it easy for other mages to track,” Celothel explained. “You can sharpen your view by investing more energy into tracking specific connections, and doing so can also allow you to gauge the mood, status, and sometimes even thoughts of another person, provided they are doing the same to you. It is not as some texts have described as a perfect telepathy - anything more than general sensations are difficult to decipher, and it often takes years of such exposure to be able to read anyone with any skill.”

Niowyn’s eyes returned to normal and the webbing of light faded away. She rubbed her chin as she always did when she was thinking before she gave her attention back to Celothel. “I could read minds…?” She chuckled lightly before continuing. “But that doesn’t answer my question. How did you know I was from the Ta’Lassa tribe when you…” she paused, searching for the word, “looked for me?”

“When you see me, see my tether to the Essence, tell me - what do you see? Is it one seamless connection, or can you tell that I am separate from it?” Celothel asked with an amused smile. “Apologies for answering your question with a question, but I believe this might be more readily apparent from your perspective than from my words.”

The faint glow returned to Niowyn’s eyes as she looked at Celothel’s tether to the Essence - it wasn’t seamless like she described it. It was like the light lost its shine the closer it got to Celothel… it faded away into nothingness rather than grab a hold of the Arcanist. Her eyes wandered downward at herself and found the light grasping her, flowing into her, unlike what it was doing to Celothel. Niowyn looked back to Celothel with a confused expression - “it’s part of me.. flowing into me like the river to the sea. But it doesn’t do that for you.. That’s how you could tell? Is it like this for all of those people with… with the bloodlines you described?”

“It is - though what might be causing this is yet unknown,” Celothel said softly, hunching low to keep her voice from carrying. “What is known, however, is that you will surpass any other magic user without such a gift with the proper training. It is already clear to me, and perhaps as well to your companions here that you are no simple magic user.”

“..how can you be so certain?” she asked, her head falling back again to look to the sky. Her eyes closed as a breeze swept across the clearing and kissed gently at her skin. “.. is it just because of my bloodline, or is there something you’re not telling me?” Niowyn’s eyes fell back on Celothel with a look that could cut through glass.

“Were we to both attempt to douse this fire with the same cup of water, you would do so simply quicker than I ever could,” Celothel replied, nodding to the flames between them. “Were I to compare which of us could cast a larger blaze, your innate tie to Essence means you will always have a baseline upon which to draw. It might be exhaustive, and is useless around a Null, but once trained your stamina and raw power will dwarf mine tenfold. It is this connection - rather, this… this…”

The arcanist fumbled with her hand, as if grasping for the right word.

“...this union between your flesh and the Essence, for whatever reason, runs in your line. We have tracked as many of such bloodlines as we can, and they are recorded in the Shroud, taken from historic texts, familial records, and even some documents from the elves describing which were to be exterminated.”

Niowyn’s shoulders rose and fell as she chuckled softly at Celothel fumbling around her words. It wasn’t like the Arcanist but it made her seem more human. She grinned as she watched the embers of the fire between them escape into the night sky. “A union between flesh and Essence? Careful, it sounds like you’re beginning to speak tribal nonsense, Celothel,” she remarked, playful hints biting at her tongue and eliciting the smallest trace of a smile from the other woman.

“It’s strange…” she began, her voice trailing for a moment. “I never thought that I would be sitting here, with an Arcanist educated in magic, teaching me what she knows… to learn that my people played a role in the history of our Old World. I always knew that there was more to my family… but I never imagined it could be connected to Elves.” She smirked before continuing, “and now I am about to seek membership in an Order to become a mage that will surpass any other mage out there. It’s a lot to swallow and not at all what I had expected when I left home.”

There was a silence between them for a moment, Celothel's eyes gazing into the flames. It was neither amicable nor awkward - rather, it was an extension of the unusual bond the two had forged along the road in its mercurial ability to remain so unremarkable that when at last Celothel did speak, it was if there had been no silence at all.

"What did you expect?" The arcanist inquired softly, eyes fluttering back to Niowyn. "If you do not mind my prying."

“I’m not really sure.” The tribeswoman admitted. Her brow furrowed for a brief moment of confusion as she thought about the question. What did she actually expect? When she left home, she left with a mission to search for the history of her people and return it to them. But it became so much more than that in so little time. Niowyn’s eyes gazed over in the direction of her companions - it really did become so much more than what she first set out to do. “I guess I was expecting to find very little. But that hasn’t been the case at all.”

Niowyn looked back to Celothel with a small smile. “Not only have I started to regain what has been lost to the Ta’Lassa for so long.. But I’ve also started to unravel mysteries I never even realized existed. And on top of that, I’ve made real bonds and ties with these people… I expected to find something, to learn something, but not to this scale.”

“I never expected to be an arcanist,” Celothel said after a brief pause, letting Niowyn’s words sink in before carrying on the conversation. “I was to marry rich, produce children, and die fat and old in some tower by Aetherstone Keep. Life has an odd habit of upending what is expected to happen, and though we all have our burdens to shoulder and dangers to face, I believe it is better this way.”

“I am supposed to be Zah’Le…” Niowyn retorted with a sombre expression until a grin snuck through it. “Married rich, with children, huh? What happened to that?”

"I met Deormund, and he encouraged me to practice my gift," Celothel said with the ghost of a smile etched upon her face as she glanced back towards their camp. "He was a journeyman with the Order, bound to be a Shielder. When I was perhaps thirteen or fourteen I began learning under an arcanist who tutored me in his spare time, and earned this…"

A hand traced the burn scar along her face.

"Not so long after during a confrontation with my father," she exhaled softly. "The Order protected me by inducting me into their ranks, assigning me a Shielder, and sent me into the field to study and learn. I am not a skilled mage by their standards, but I am resourceful enough to survive and provide value where I can. It is far from the comfort and opulence I grew up enjoying, and I must admit on days like these spent wandering the road with a constant, paranoid glance cast over your shoulder I sometimes do wonder what it would be like to be beautiful again, unmarked with children to call my own and never having to lift a finger I wish not to. But, as I said, I believe it is better this way."

Niowyn’s eyes shifted downward, like she was studying the soil which she sat upon. There was a silence that she let hang in the air for a moment but the bond that had forged between the two of them allowed for there to be a silence. Words were not needed, there was understanding there without having to speak. But a piece of what Celothel shared shocked her - that Celothel considered herself ‘not a skilled mage’ and somehow, she was supposed to surpass Celothel without even trying.

“I see a beautiful and talented mage when I look at you, Celothel.” Niowyn’s eyes wandered back to Celothel and she let a gentle smile rest upon her face. “But I have to agree with you when you say it’s better this way. I’m not ready to assume the mantle of Zah’le in my tribe… there’s too much in this world that I haven’t experienced yet.”

“You are too kind, Niowyn,” there was an edge to her tone that left no room for reproach despite its outward pleasantness. “I’ve heard mention of that word before from you - Zah’le. What does it mean?”

“It is the Chief Shaman of our tribe.” Niowyn answered rather stoically. “It assumes leadership and protection over our peoples… and the title is reserved for the most powerful mage in our tribe. For the Ta’Lassa, the Zah’le is chosen by the water. It is not a title that is passed from family member to family member, like some royal or noble traditions do. However, that does not mean that the child of the Zah’le is expected to assume the mantle.” She took a breath, grinned, and continued. “My mother is the current Zah’le… and many many moons ago… the water chose me to be the next Zah’le. But I was too young to assume the mantle. And now it’s just a matter of time.”

Niowyn’s voice carried a sombre undertone as she revealed her heritage and what she was to become. And the more she shared, the softer her face became.

“A curious tradition, and yet I think most would find any traditions to be curious when there is no shared culture anymore,” Celothel said, mirroring Niowyn’s smile. “I doubt all would be so accommodating of my nitpicking as you, though.”

“I don’t doubt you’re wrong.” she retorted as her cheerful disposition returned. “But I have to ask you about Deormund. You knew him before he became your… shielder? Did you ask him to be your shielder? What exactly is that anyway..”

“Shielders are from an aged tradition, going back to the first days of human settlement in this land and possibly further,” Celothel began, vulnerable disposition replaced with her usual, scholarly air as she answered Niowyn’s question. “The details are unclear, and I suspect they were before much of human history was lost in the Scouring, but there was a time when magic users were in the minority of humans unlike today with most able to harness Essence. They were feared and distrusted, and the role of Shielder was less one intended to protect the mage in question, but rather to protect others from the mage. How, then, it came to pass that the role became largely ceremonial is unknown, though I suspect at some crucial junction the magically inclined became the dominant force prior to the settlement of Eladria.

“Shielders now are bound to the mage they are sworn to protect - that process by which you examined yourself earlier, that is the basis for any bond between a Shielder and his or her charge. Deormund and I are linked by a small thread of Essence constantly, a bond that takes perhaps no more energy than lifting my pinky like so.”

Celothel made the gesture to prove her point before continuing.

“After so long, we have a read for one another. Not to the level that I understand his thoughts perfectly, nor he mine, but pain registers across our link. Emotions, too. Sensations. Often we finish one another’s sentences, and much of our communication need only be translated through gestures and facial expressions, and our bond fills in the rest. Newly forged partnerships are not quite so intimate, as each person reads differently, but neither is this bond between mage and Shielder particularly special. Any two such individuals sufficiently tutored could arrange this of their own accord, so I suppose this is my own strange tradition.”

Niowyn couldn’t help but laugh. It was a strange tradition, like Celothel had described the tradition of the Zah’le from her tribe. But what Celothel had explained made sense - a constant tether between two people. “I think you are more tribesperson than you know. Tonight you have talked about unions between Essence and people as though there is spirit calling to each other. And now, a tradition of the Old World passed from generation to generation which is largely ceremonial… That is in all rights, what the Zah’le has become. It was a tradition from our ancient history, one of the only traditions that remained intact after our peoples were lost. I imagine there is more to it than what we know currently but…” she stopped for a moment, to think perhaps, or maybe to add dramatic effect, “that’s all it is now. A ceremonial tradition at best.”

“If the two of you are constantly connected and share such a bond, including sharing pain. Does that mean your life force is connected to one and other?” Niowyn inquired, though she didn’t come out and ask if one of them was to perish, would the other follow. Celothel would know what she had meant.

“No, nothing like that,” Celothel said with a shrug. “Were I to drive my boot knife into my gut, Deormund would feel it until I bled out on the ground, but would live on. At the point we are, though, it is doubtful either of us would fully recover. It would be as if one half of your being had simply been snuffed out like a candle, and for many whose Shielders or charges have perished, they live a half life from then on.”

“I see..” Niowyn’s response was meek as she contemplated the thought of feeling half of your person ripped from your very soul. The thought made her shiver. “Your fates are tied together beyond a world of our own.”

“Do all Arcanists pick their shielders?” she asked, perking up again.

“Frequently they do, and often they are chosen for their prior connection - though I happened upon Deormund when he was still a soldier in my father’s guard, taken from the ranks of to-be Shielders, the Order takes great steps to ensure that the bond is sufficiently likely to be lasting.”

“...what kind of great steps do you mean?” Niowyn reluctantly asked.

“Oh that sounds far more sinister than I intended,” Celothel said with a soft peal of laughter. “Nothing intricate - it is simply rooted into the culture of the educational institutions that used to dot these lands in their dozens that Shielders and acolytes should communicate frequently and in-depth whenever possible to suss out potential matches. Should one prove suitable, they may be bound as soon as both parties are ready.”

Niowyn hummed as she rubbed her chin. If she became an Arcanist, she would need a Shielder. The idea of having a stranger appointed didn’t appeal to her and the Order preferred Shielders to have a connection to their charges regardless. Her eyes wandered over toward where the others were camping and she thought about Oryn. Would it be selfish of her to ask him? It would mean giving up his life… but she couldn’t imagine anyone else in the position.

Her attention fell back to Celothel “and if the Arcanist does not have someone to present as a possible Shielder?”

"Well, it is rather unfortunate, but they remain an acolyte. Perhaps in another time that would have stifled opportunity, but there are few enough of us already that often titles are but loose suggestions of one's talent," Celothel replied.

Niowyn sighed, her head hanging back against the log once more as she stared up at the night sky. “I can only think of one person. But how do you ask someone for their life?”

"It is not an easy thing," she said, shrugging softly. "Even when conducted by the Order it was an awkward experience. One that did not grow into any sort of normalcy for many years - some Shielders and their charges wind up romantically involved, though I've found the thought of any one person knowing me this intimately makes such connections fraught with unnecessary conflict and rather terrifying to consider. I love Deormund, but not in such a manner."

She hesitated.

"But to that end, I believe it is not so different from such requests as marriage. I suppose marriage exists largely to funnel political power, as it did before the Scouring, but… in its roots in the songs, it is a lifelong bond, though navigating the intricacies of such a bond is painfully difficult at times. Forgive me, Niowyn, I'm afraid I'm rambling without purpose now - have I helped answer your question?"

“I enjoy listening to your ramblings, Celothel” she added with a wry grin. “But yes, as always, you have managed to answer my never-ending questions. Thank you, for teaching me all you have, and for recommending me to the Order.” Niowyn paused before continuing, “it will be different without you and Deormund with us” there was a hint of sadness to her voice.


L: Somewhere on the road I guess? | A collaboration with @ze_kraken

 

Applo

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Celothel stood stiller than stone at the fork in the road, gripping her horse’s reins with knuckles tautly wrapped around the leather straps as she stared at the sign before them. It was worn beyond its years, the scrawled writing across the pointed arrow-like shape barely legible but still she could make out its lettering as if it had been freshly penned.

The Shroud.

The sign signaled the border of the Shroud’s domain, or as close to such a border as could be enforced. Not that borders needed enforcing when the Shroud was perhaps the last vestige of old world civilization left this side of the Raven’s Pass, Celothel thought with a hint of wry amusement. But while borders were a social construct past their prime, the threat of a hangman’s noose was very palpable indeed, and Celothel suspected it was the specter of the rope that kept the faint blonde hairs along her arms on edge.

She had made it clear to her companions that this would be where she and Deormund would take their leave, and rather unceremoniously they stood now refreshing their horses in the nearby creek that lay in the scar of what had once been the grander Worwood riverbed. It was an awkward departure, fraught with a mixture of goodbyes both forced and laced with empty courtesy. Niowyn’s farewell had been the most genuine by far, though Celothel suspected it was in her demeanor to make every such gesture meaningful.

Between her fingers, Celothel flipped the coin Aoife had given her, now forged into the shape of a rose threaded through with a length of chain she had pilfered from Erskine’s alchemical inventory. She and Deormund had pooled their talents with fire and metal to shape the token, and now she wondered how such a parting gift would even be received. Her thoughts were not left to themselves for long, for just as she was about to fling the necklace into the riverbed, the familiar footfalls of Aoife crunched along the gravel road behind the arcanist.

“Did they not teach you to read Atherstone Keep?” Coming to a stop just level with the head of Celothel’s horse, Aoife gently took hold of the beasts bridle with one hand and patted it’s neck with the other. “Or are you just out of practice from having poor Deormund do everything for you princess?”

The smile that crept across the red-head’s face as the verbal jabs tumbled from her lips was gentler than it had been in previous sparring matches with the Arcarnist. Less predatory. So too was the tone of Aoife’s voice. While Aoife did not know it, the sign elicited in her much of the same uneasiness it was invoking in Celothel. The wilds were full of danger, but they were nothing when compared to the last bastion of civilization.

“Do you need me to help you with the tricky letters?”

“Oh, Elyssia, come now - that was a particularly tired jest, I expect better of you,” Celothel remarked, the ghost of a sly smile playing across her face. “It is strange, being so close to home but unable to return. Doubtless you are eager to head back - unfinished business, you said?”

“Something like that; and I’m eager for it to be done. I will sleep better once it is behind me anyway.” For a few moments Aoife’s gaze bored even more intently into the battered old sign as she tried to shut out the errant and troubling thoughts that sought to occupy her head. “What does the future look like for you princess? Are you to be shut away in some dusty old Arcarnist tower?”

“No - nothing quite so conjured from a child’s tale,” Celothel replied, turning at last to face Aoife. “Even were I to cast aside these robes, I’m afraid I have a rather defining characteristic writ plain across my face.”

She sighed softly, gazing back along the riverbank.

“This is where I leave you, I think,” she added after a lapse in the conversation. “Any further and I risk too much.”

“You are missing out on the chance to have me arrested and hung as your accomplice you know.”

Patting the horse with a certain finality, Aoife smirked at the scarred Arcanist.

“I am certain they have been people that would have paid for such an opportunity before.”

“When you use it to reference the execution of someone, it is hanged, Elyssia - thankfully I didn’t need your help reading the sign earlier,” Celothel replied, mirroring Aoife’s smirk. “Though I can scant imagine how a woman with a mouth like yours would have enemies. They must be the sort to hate a pleasant, wholesome presence in their life.”

“People are strange. They often have no appreciation of the good things.”

The self-satisfied grin on the red-head’s face faltered, her eyes suddenly full of hesitant uncertainty as she stared at Celothel.

“If things are bad for you at the end of this road, there is a farm near the North gate. Autarky Farm. Tell the woman there that… Tell them that... Little Loba sent you and that you are a friend. They will give you shelter from any storm if you do.”

“Little Loba?” There was a playful, teasing note to Celothel’s voice as she raised an amused eyebrow, waving it aside. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind should the need present itself.”

Again a silence blossomed between the two, lingering for a few moments, disrupted only by the idle chatter of the group at the base of the riverbank carried uphill on the wind.

“Elyssia,” Celothel said suddenly, holding out the amulet she had forged from the coin. “This… This is for you. Were I to take it and leave, it would become just another coin. I might be careless, use it when I wished not to, and I feel there were, ahem no services rendered, so to speak.”

“There is still time for us to change that. We could find a little privacy in the trees if you need it… It might be the last chance either of us get for a while.”

The all too familiar smirk had returned to its home on Aoife’s face though the former guards woman gaze had swung almost magnetically to the golden pendant. Gingerly, she lifted it out of Celothel’s hand and, cupping it in the palm of one hand, traced the golden petals with a solitary finger.

“Now though, I think you would be paying me. The skill needed to add beauty to something as dull as a coin is pretty valuable.”

“Consider it a thanks for your companionship,” the Arcanist replied, gingerly gripping Aoife’s fingers and wrapping them about the coin, gingerly planting a kiss on the former guard’s cheek with a surprising touch of tenderness that still hung with the lightest trace of courtly posturing. “I doubt this is the last you will see of me, though. Though nothing is certain, this country is not so big, the list of places both safe and worth visiting even smaller.”

For several long moments, Aoife gawped open mouthed at Celothel; a hint of redness started to colour her cheeks.

“I… Umm, tha... I wo… I…”

The broken sounds of failed words died away as a hand reached up to touch the spot that Celothel’s lips had so recently caressed. Aoife was suddenly aware of a sense of anguish at the parting. One that she would never have believed it possible for her to feel when she had first seen the Arcarnist back in Molestown. Fingers clenched tight around the golden pendant.

“Be safe Princess. I would like it a lot if I could see you again someday.”

Patting the horse one last time, the red-head turned to return to the rest of the group but paused before she had even taken a step.

“My… The name my parents… My real name... I’m Aoife.”​

A collaboration with @ze_kraken
I said a bang, bang, bangity bang, I said a bang, bang, bangity bang.
 
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CasketCase

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ErskineP2.jpg Erskine Rimebarth
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"New Horizons and Old Worries"
Collaboration with: Deormund ([B]ze_kraken[/B])
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Elle Joyner)
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The companions had just made camp for the evening, Celothel and Niowyn venturing off to conduct their nightly lessons with Aria and Nathyen leaving soon after to drill with their makeshift blades. Deormund and Erskine had taken a seat by the fire, each seated at opposite ends of the crackling blaze.

The group’s temporary encampment overlooked a small ridge that lined the valley they would begin to descend towards in the coming days, and even the mountain within which the Shroud resided was visible on a clear day. With the night sky shrouded in a thick cover of pallid grey clouds cast in the green glow of the spring moon, however, the pair could barely see past the edge of the ridge upon which they rested.

Intermittently the crackling of the fire was disrupted by the hoot of an owl, or the sudden whack of wooden blade upon skin, usually then followed by a curse or two. Spring was in the air, and it felt like it, leaving a warm, humid touch upon the companions’ skin which only the cool gusts of night air alleviated. Deormund began adding the scrape of his whetstone across steel to the subdued orchestra of nightly whispers, nodding to the dwarf.

“I overheard you talking with Aria today,” he said, voice flat but uncharacteristically conversational for the Shielder. “You fought up north, in the Hell Maw?”

Pipe clenched between his teeth, Erskine would be found maintaining his own weapon when Deormund spoke. Seated on the ground next to the dwarf was a small jar from which he had previously dipped his fingers into, now smearing the contents over the string of his crossbow.

“Yeah,” He replied, his usual eloquence and drawl affected by the smoking pipe. Rubbing the thin sheen of excess wax from his fingers across his pant’s leg, he withdrew the pipe from his mouth and exhaled a small cloud of smoke, “Born and raised in Nezsohrcan, forgotten child of Gol Badhir. I could not honestly say I fought there; none of us really did. Fightin’ would imply that there was the possibility of victory. I did do a good bit of survivin’ there, though.”

“My brother ventured that way when the fighting was done and the Knights of the Raven thought they could scatter the surviving army,” Deormund replied with a small shrug. “Nasty business, the whole thing. Survival is likely the best way to put it from what I’ve heard.”

A silence followed, neither man speaking before Deormund uneasily cleared his throat.

“I ask, though,” he croaked abruptly, at just the right moment such that the break in the silence came just a moment too late to be related to their prior topic. “The dwarves of the Shroud all look up to someone you may know of - Kilmah Twice-Born, the one who supposedly was slain and resurrected in the Hell Maw. You heard of her, Erskine?”

“Twice-Born you say?” Taking a few puffs from his pipe, Erskine allowed the sweet scent of smoke to drift in the air as he thought back, “The title is new, but I do recall a dwarf that fit that description although I cannot say I know her personally. While what I know of her is hearsay, I would find it difficult to fabricate a story wilder than being ran through, ignoring it long enough to down a tankard before passing, and yet somehow survive. Hell, I am astounded that it is just the dwarves that look up to her.”

It was possible that what the dwarf had heard was an exaggeration, but back in Nezsohrcan, you took any inspiration you could find and ran with it as far as you could. Mulling over the mention of such a legendary figure, he fought off the urge to chew on the tip of his pipe by asking his own question, “Why do you ask?”

“Ah, well, the joke goes in the Shroud - and doubtless it’s as unoriginal as the lyrics of some young buck bard - that her being tall for a dwarf means only her kind look up to her,” Deormund said with a mirthless laugh, gaze apologetic. “I ask, though, because when last I heard tell of the Shroud in the summer, Kilmah had taken it upon herself to resettle one of the abandoned cities in the Shroud for the dwarves. Might be a good eye for craftsmanship like yours will be helpful, should you want to seek her out.”

“Ah! Of course, I fell for one of the classic blunders when it comes to my kind,” Erskine replied, genuinely chuckling to himself. Obviously, he had heard the height-related jokes before, but it appeared his current travels had pushed the expectations of those out of his thoughts. Deormund’s further words prompted the dwarf to stroke his beard in thought, “It appears I was not the only one who had the same idea, although in sayin’ that, it cannot be argued the fact that she actually made it manifest.” The news was drink-worthy, although there was still the question of what he would do, “While I cannot say for certain that I am immediately ready to leave my mercenary lifestyle, I will most definitely have to survey this city of hers.”

“Ah, well, heard the other cities are haunted by their share of beasts and nightmares,” Deormund remarked dryly. “Might be your work with fire and crossbow will be more useful at first. When I heard tell in the foothills of the Shroud, it was said she’d just begun expeditions to scout the other cities for a suitable place. Might be by now she’s picked one, and needs talented fighters to clear them out.”

So that was it. The dwarf was taken back, not by Deormund’s words but rather by the realization that came with them. He had been so immersed with this journey that he had averted his gaze from the road ahead. Had this been any of his previous jobs, the thought of his next job would have started to weigh heavily once they got close enough to their destination, but here he was, dumbstruck while being handed one on a silver platter. It was with this that he felt a sense of impending loss, irrational, but it made him reluctant to fully commit to the thoughts of moving one from this group.

Then again, it wasn’t like he was leaving them, never to be seen again. Erskine chuckled to himself. Getting sentimental already, ya damn fool? Exhaling another cloud of smoke, the dwarf nodded, “As accustomed as I have grown to workin’ with man, I suppose there is no harm in spendin’ a little time with my kin. As long as they vanquish the thought that I myself give them a family discount for the work ahead, that is.”

“I never much gave thought to what it might be like,” Deormund stated after a brief pause, looking up as he set his blade aside. “Working with man, as you put it. I often have scant room enough for my own thoughts, linked such as I am with Celothel, and those I do refrain from dwelling upon such questions. Gods, I’ve even started talking more like her with each passing year.”


“I happen to come from a very… pungent culture, if I may say so. Aside from the quirks of Nezsohrcan that differentiate us from the Gol Badhir, any dwarf you may come across will bear a deep impression upon you whether you happen to be drinkin’, fightin’, or craftin’ with us. In comparison, man is softer, more subtle, and flows like water. You can find a gal who would fit right in upon the dwarves and yet you can also find a boy who knows an entire library worth of knowledge and spends his days seeking the ultimate magick. Diversity is a great thing, my friend, and it is not something my people tend to have, but it can be… difficult to adjust to.”

“Curious,” the Shielder replied, flipping his whetstone between his fingers. “I’d have thought after so long, we are all hard like steel, but there come times I do let my mind wander, to think back to the times growing up in the Shroud, when the world looked like it did from the stories my parents told me. Diverse, as you said. Not just for the realms of men, and dwarf, and orc, but in the realms of thought as well. It is something we have lost, I think - even if the Shroud pretends otherwise.”

He paused then, examining the gleaming edge of his blade glowing a brilliant ruby and orange in a razor-thin line where his whetstone had passed moments ago.

“And there are still those who would see the ancient ways return - to cast your kin back to their mountain halls, enslave the orcs, and instill man as the dominant species as the elves were some time ago. Be wary of them in the city, my friend.”

“Indeed, a warped sense of nostalgia brings about such foolish mentality in people; dwarf, man, or otherwise.” Erskine concurred, “Took me some time to adjust to such people and even now my nose might still be numb to sniffin’ them out. As horrid as survivin’ in the Hell Maw might have been, our enemies were honest about their intentions.” Finishing the last of his pipe, he tapped the spent ashes out from the vessel before giving a quick clean-up prior to storing it away.

“I can’t say I have high, or any expectations for the Shroud,” The dwarf said, jokingly, “The world itself is still new to me, still beautiful like a great painting. Despite the imperfections, you can’t help but be enthralled after looking upon it.”

“Fascinating you say that,” Deormund offered with a shrug of his shoulders, pocketing his whetstone and sheathing his blade, leaning into the conversation as he scratched at his chin. “Aria likewise has a similar… Well, I have no word for it other than resilience. Most would have simply grown calloused put through what you endured, and yet here you are, talking of life as a work of art. It would do you well to keep that perspective, I think. When Aria first mentioned it, it sounded like needless sentimentality to me, but perhaps I am wrong… Perhaps, there is more courage needed to see what good there is left than to accept that which is wrong. It will keep the philosophers busy for a while, answering that one.”
 

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Fantasy. Modern. Romance. Slice of life. I can persuaded to play more, it's all about plot, really.




Niowyn & Oryn


For some time now, he had been trying to figure out which he preferred. The inn back at the small fishing village, where they served ale, or being on the road. At the inn, the ale was of no quality that made him want to commit it to memory and on the road he didn’t get to sleep in a decent bed. On the other hand, he was used to sleeping on the ground and out here, the chances that he might be approached by Aoife were not as great, he thought. Oryn had finished his ale, called it a night and gone to bed.

He had barely opened his eyes as he banished the memory from his mind. When he sat up, Oryn shook his head and sighed. There were no noises coming from outside his tent, other than the wind moving through the grass. He sighed, cleared his throat, put on his boots, took his sword and stuck his head out of the entrance. The sun was still struggling to send its first pale shards of light over the hilltops, but it wouldn’t be long. Oryn emerged, put on his gambeson and cinched his belt with his sword around his waist. At his back was his knife, which he was going to be using soon. The tents of his companions were scattered around the clearing they had settled in and there was a fire in the middle. Only a thin wisp of smoke rose from it, revealing that there was still some warmth but no fire. Oryn approached quietly, took a few branches and some kindling and put them on the charcoals. A few breaths of air was enough to relight a small flame that eventually became a decent fire. Enough for them to start breakfast, at least. Oryn stood, stretched once more and headed off into the trees, searching for small additions to the first meal of their day. The sun was climbing higher in the sky now, winning its fight against the darkness.

The tribeswoman was crouched among the foliage with a cloth laid out beside her filled with berries of many different colours. Her gourd was missing from her side but a waterskin hung off of her neck and laid at her hip. The snapping of twigs underfoot in the distance paralyzed her for a brief moment so she could listen to what the forest was telling her. Whatever it was was much too big to be an animal and sounded more akin to a human being. Thinking back to what Celothel had taught her about searching for people through Essence, a technique she had been practicing for days since she first learned in, the tribe woman's eyes hummed a dull blue as she found the string of iridescent light as she followed it to a familiar aura. Smiling, she quickly pulled her cloth together with a tight knot and headed toward the noise.

“...gotcha!” Niowyn announced with a bright smile as she tapped his shoulder as though she was playing a game.

In the span of a few hundredths of a second, Oryn managed to notice the cool but faint rush of air that gently caressed the skin at the back of his neck. He also managed to curse himself for not paying attention and letting himself be caught off guard. His reaction was to reach out behind him, and spin. His left hand closed around something and his right found the hilt of his knife. The words this enemy had spoken didn't register until he realized that he was clasping Niowyn's wrist with one hand and having his knife raised to strike with the other. His eyes were wild as they fixed on hers. A few breaths escaped him before he relaxed, lowered the blade and let go of her wrist.

"You… sneaky, light-footed _tribeswoman_." Oryn said with mock disgust. Then a smirk crept onto his face. His heart was slowly beating at a steadier pace but the adrenaline coursing through his veins now ensured that he was entirely awake, had he not been before. And then Oryn realized how close they were standing. He released her wrist, took a few steps back and sheathed his blade. "Sorry about that. You should know better though, than to sneak up on me." He chuckled. "Then again, it seems I’m getting rusty...." He shrugged, clearly not happy with not having heard her.

Niowyn didn’t jerk away, instead her free hand uncapped the waterskin and a stream of water had already trickled out in a defensive measure. But as soon as he realized who she was, her guard fell and the water returned to its place. The look in his eyes, she had seen it twice before - Gol Badhir and The Hollows. A true warrior. Niowyn matched his smirk and rubbed her wrist where he had clutched her. She examined it for a moment before her blue eyes looked up at him with something akin to a hunter hunting their prey. “And you should know I could have skewered you without warning.”

Whatever dark ominous energy she had about her slipped away in a breath and her cheery demeanour returned. Niowyn laughed gently and stepped toward Oryn, placing a comforting hand on his upper arm. “I’m sorry, but you would be terrible at hide and seek. What are you doing out here so early in the morning anyway?”

He watched her silently for a few seconds. Oryn even stood his ground when she approached and put a hand on his arm. He had fixed his eyes on hers, unable to look away when they had glowed blue. It was fascinating and ensnaring at the same time. He relaxed even more now, letting another breath leave his lungs, feet moving out of their ready stance. At her words he raised an eyebrow and shrugged, knowing all too well that she was right. Oryn was and had been since he had met Niowyn, fascinated and in awe of her abilities. “That’s just it, Niowyn. I do know.” He finally said.

In a much more gentle manner than before, Oryn took her wrist again and turned her hand so it was open with her palm facing up. Somewhere not too far off, the musical sound of a bird calling could be heard. Otherwise it was completely quiet. He reached into one of the leather pouches at his hip and let a handful of its contents fall into Niowyn’s hand. A mix of cranberries and blueberries lay in her hand now and Oryn smiled brightly, slowly letting go of her wrist again. “Breakfast.” He stated by way of explanation. “I haven’t found any mushrooms yet. Have you? I take it you’re here for a similar purpose?”

Niowyn watched Oryn’s movement as he took her hand once more and filled her open palm with berries. He was warm and his hand dwarfed hers in size. She studied the berries in her palm for a moment before plucking one away and popping it in her mouth. It was cool from the evening’s chilled air and exploded with flavour against her tongue. She reached for a second one and rolled it between her fingers before extending it to Oryn’s lips. “You would guess right. No mushrooms, mostly berries. But I feel a river nearby, maybe we can try our hand at fishing?”

He paused but kept watching her. The sensation of the berry against his lips was nice, and slowly he parted them and bit down. He did this without moving an inch. Before he spoke, he took in a deep breath of air through his nose. He could smell the scents of the forest, the berries they had picked, the dew on the air and Niowyn, because she was standing so close.

“Did you bring a line or a net?” Oryn finally asked, having gotten used to Niowyn’s ability to sense water. His voice was a little coarse now as if he had not spoken for some time. His heart beat a little faster and harder against his chest, but his eyes remained on her. It took a lot of effort for him to will his feet to move. Oryn turned slightly, ready to follow her lead to the water. It confused and surprised him. Earlier, he would have stepped away from Niowyn, sure to keep some distance between them. He didn’t now. And that made him wonder just what magic the mage was learning. “Will it surprise you to hear I’m a better hunter than I am a fisherman?”

“We won’t need either of those things for the kind of fishing we are going to do” She responded. In one smooth movement her hand fell from his face and to his hand. Her fingers cupped his hand and she gently tugged him in the direction of the river as encouragement to follow her. Once Oryn’s feet started to move, she released him and fell in sync beside him as the two walked toward their destination. “Not really.. but I imagine you’re just fine at both of them. I suppose it wouldn’t surprise you to hear that I’m better at fishing.”

The dawn of the morning had still not reached its peak but the sunlight over the horizon filtered through the trees of the forest like a beautiful painting.”It’s enchanting, isn’t it? Almost magical.”

“It would not.” He mumbled, following along beside her. Anything with water, she was better. Oryn was, truth be told, not a very good fisherman. Whether that was because he lacked the skills and knowledge, or because he would much rather go hunting than fishing, he wasn’t sure, but he figured it might play a part. There was something about stalking your prey that suited him better. And that moment where you pulled the string back, breathed out half way and released was… Well, enchanting and almost magical.

“I couldn’t have said it better.” Oryn said, though his eyes were fixed on her and not the picturesque scenery before them. Only when he dared not look at her any longer, for fear that she might turn her head and catch him, did he follow her gaze. Oryn nodded and smiled briefly. “What sort of fishing are we going to be doing?”

Niowyn turned to him and smiled “I’m going to pull them from the water and you’re going to stick ‘em!” There was something oddly joyous in her tone despite her describing the death of the innocent fish in the river. “It’s a method we used back home. Much easier than your traditional line and rod but you need magic to do it. And if all else fails… we can hunt for real. It might come as a surprise to you but even though I am a better fisherman, I am rather skilled at hunting as well. You know, savage and all.” She paused for a moment, looking away boyishly. “...and maybe some magic.”

Oryn chuckled and shook his head. It wasn’t a gesture that signified his disbelief in her claim, no, he was certain she was a skilled huntress. In fact, it was an indication of exactly that. For a few moments he looked as if he was in thought before he finally spoke up again. “If that is how your people fish, I wager you could make a lot of money as fishermen? Or are the Ta’Lassa so rich you have little need for more gold?” He stepped closer to her. “Or do savages not care for earthly riches, like sellswords like I do?” His eyes widened as he added the last part but he eventually looked away. Perhaps, when he was younger, he should have studied magic more. It seemed that Niowyn benefited from its use in most every aspect of her life. It made things easier. But no, Oryn, thick as he was, had to choose the hard way. Stifling another chuckle, he turned his head and focused on Niowyn once more. “Anyway, I’ll stick ‘em if you can find ‘em.” He said, wondering how far away the water was.

A swift right hook struck Oryn’s arm in a playful manner accompanied by a gentle laugh. “You’re not wrong” she began, before being overcome by laughter once more. “But we are not rich by any means. We just don’t have a use for gold like… sellswords... such as yourself.” Her blatant pause before she spoke the word, sellsword, lent to the idea of the sour taste it left in her mouth. It was not something she was used to and although she realized it was common she didn’t like that was all Oryn thought of himself.

Niowyn’s face softened before she looked back at him, ignoring his comment about sticking the fish and instead propositioned a different topic. “Say… what are you going to do once we reach the Shroud?”

He watched her with a raised eyebrow, wondering what meaning lay behind the way she said the word. But instead of asking her, Oryn was silent. Sometimes when he asked stupid questions, she would look at him with her blue eyes and sigh, shake her head slightly. As if he was a child or at least someone that ought to know better. But instead of annoying him, it amused him. That was until Niowyn got annoyed, at which point he would mind his words and only nod or shake his head when she spoke to him. That thought amused him as well.

“Hmm?” Oryn said, both eyebrows now raised. He hadn’t expected the question or the change of topic. “Well… It’s something I’ve been trying to figure out and avoid thinking about all at the same time.” He admitted, shrugging. His focus now lay on the path ahead. “I’m not entirely sure.” Oryn grinned. “That means, I have no fucking clue. I surprise even myself when I have to admit that the company of you lot isn’t entirely intolerable.” He glanced at her. “I guess I’ll try to find some work there. What about you? I take it there is a reason you’ve been spending so much time with… Celothel? That is her name, yes?”

Niowyn peeled her eyes from her and looked down at her feet, watching one foot in front of the other as the two continued through the wood and toward the river. It wouldn’t be long before they reached their destination but it was enough time for her to learn what Oryn’s plans were and judge if she could even ask him to become her Shielder.

“When you say ‘find work’, do you mean you will continue to be a Sellsword, as you put it?” She asked with curiosity, albeit a hint of worry in her tone. Niowyn completely ignored his second question, more curious about what he was going to do once they reached the Shroud. She fully intended to answer him… but her mind was preoccupied with something else.

His hand moved to his cheek and he scratched it for a few seconds, thinking about his answer. That was what she had planned. As he had stated more than once, this was all he knew and where his skills were. “Yes, I suppose I will.” Oryn finally said, wondering what that tone in her voice was. It made him a little sad to think that when they reached the Shroud, he might have to leave all of them. Or they would go on adventures of their own. “Unless... Unless Aria has more family members she needs help finding.”

Oryn looked at Niowyn for a moment but refrained from asking his own question a second time. She had heard him and there was a reason she had not given him an answer. Perhaps, if things went his way, whatever work he found might keep him close to her for a little longer when they reached the Shroud.

A small but sad smile touched Niowyn’s lips as she listened. He would become a Sellsword again… and then he would leave the Shroud. There was a pang in her chest at the thought of him leaving. The two of them had been through so much in such a short time and she wasn’t ready to say goodbye. Would he choose another path if it was presented to him? But how could she ask such a thing… she would be asking for his life. There was a part of her that wanted him to be bound to her until the end and she knew the reason behind it but she had not given it attention or said it aloud. All she was ready to accept was that she didn’t want Oryn to leave her.

“Celothel told me that I should join the Arcanist Order in the Shroud. Apparently my people are historic legends in the world of magic and my connection to Essence is.. special.” She avoided looking at Oryn for fear he would see right through her. “I accepted. There’s a lot that I could learn. And not just about magic but also about the history of the Old World… and about my people.” She paused for a long moment before continuing. “I suppose I become a student, an acolyte I think she said, until I am ready to graduate into an Arcanist. Although the only requirement of graduating I know of is having a Shielder, like Celothel has Deormund. I guess I still have a lot to learn.”

For a long moment he was quiet. It was uncomfortable as what Niowyn had just said was very important, but the silence they plunged into when she finished talking seemed to grow and draw ever closer around them. But Oryn didn’t panic and desperately try to find something to say. Instead he just took his time, looked down at the ground as they continued to walk and contemplated his answer. It was difficult because he was somewhere between acknowledging her choice and telling her that he couldn’t bear the thought. Oryn glanced at her again and smiled. A few strands of her dark hair came loose and fell in front of her face. Then he cleared his throat and sighed once.

“I don’t need the word of a fancy Arcanist to know that you and your people are special.” His right hand moved. A half-hearted gesture that was clearly the result of a broken thought. It looked more like a spasm, the way his hand moved a few inches away from his side and his fingers stretched. But determined as he was, Oryn followed through. On the second attempt, he stretched his hand out toward her and gave her arm a squeeze, right above the elbow. “I think it’s a good plan, though. You’ll become great. Greater than you already are. And frighteningly more powerful.” He laughed. “What is… What is a Shielder, exactly?” Oryn then asked. “Some kind of ancient royal guard?”

Niowyn looked over to him with a gentle smile at the feeling of his hand on her arm. Her hand found his and she lightly squeezed it to replicate his gesture but she let her hand linger on his, however; the longer it sat there the more her smile disappeared and her expression fell back to sadness. “Thank you for that” she forced out something to break the silence before her hand clasped her other and fell in front of her. Her gaze wandered away from him and found her feet as she explained what a Shielder was.

“A Shielder is sort of like a Royal Guard except for an Arcanist. It’s an ancient tradition spanning thousands of years. In the past, when magic users were a minority and untrusted and feared, Shielders watched over them to protect the world from them.. but somewhere along the line, the positions changed and Shielders now take an oath to protect the very same mages.” Niowyn looked over to Oryn to judge his reaction and forced a small smile before looking ahead in the direction the two were heading. “But it is more than just an oath - the Shielder and the Mage are bound together and connected through Essence. That connection links the two’s emotions, sensations, and even pain. The two share a piece of themselves with the other… forever.” Her eyes wandered back to Oryn again to see his reaction.

He listened and said nothing. The way she had taken his hand and her body language had not escaped him, but Oryn didn’t give voice to his thoughts. Instead, he paid attention to her words and was filled with an inspiring interest in what she told him, as well as awe. To be bound to someone else like that. To have a purpose for the rest of your life. To have something, someone to give your life for. Oryn stopped walking, and found that he was watching Niowyn, a surprised expression on his face.

“That sounds… Beautiful.” He heard himself say, but could hardly recognize his own voice or his words. For a few seconds he stood there, but then he shook his head and seemed to return to the present. “It’s… For those worthy, I mean, it must be quite an honor.” Oryn cleared his throat and closed the distance between them. “I hope, if you do decide to become an arcanist, that your shielder will be both worthy and skilled. Not that you would need the protection.” He grinned, tilting his head to the side.

Niowyn’s footsteps stopped when Oryn did and she curiously turned toward him. There was a weight in her chest that whatever he said next was going to mock and ridicule the idea and squash any hope she had in asking him an impossible question… and then her heart skipped a beat at the words that he spoke. Beautiful. Her bright smile quickly came over her and she reached both her hands to wrap around Oryn’s forearms as he stepped forward but that smile lost its light at what he said next.

Releasing him, she averted her gaze and turned once more toward the river. It had come into view now and her steps carried her forward. “It would be problematic that whoever it ends up being.. couldn’t protect me.” Niowyn slowed to a stop but she didn’t turn to face Oryn. She wanted to ask him but she didn’t know how. Her head turned to look over her shoulder so that when she spoke he could hear. “It frightens me to think that we will walk different paths once we reach the Shroud…” she paused. Her voice was small and almost weak. There was a tremble on her lip. “..and I don’t want that.”

Niowyn turned her head once more, a hand raising to brush away hidden tears from her cheek, and she started toward the river again.

Again he didn’t know what to say. Well, Oryn had discovered that it wasn’t that he didn’t know what to say, but more that there were too many things he wanted to say. He followed her and there was no other sound that filled his ears but her voice. In the time it took him to form an answer in his mind, his thoughts raged inside his skull. Thoughts about whether she would ever consider him to be her Shielder. Thoughts about having to leave her when they reached the Shroud. Thoughts about all the things they had been through and all they had shared. And then it was clear to him. The storm inside his head calmed and he sighed. There was only one thing to do.

“Niowyn…” Oryn began as he had many times before. The way she had brushed her hand over her cheek had tugged at his heart. When he said her name she stopped and turned toward him again. He walked up to her and put his hand on her shoulder, ever so gently. Oryn stopped right in front of her and looked down at her. “I... “ He began, having no idea of how he wanted to begin. His hand came to rest at the curve of her neck. For a few long seconds he just looked at her, clearly gathering the courage to speak the words that lay on the tip of his tongue. “I hate the thought of being apart from you.” Oryn smirked. “You, who has saved my life on several occasions.” Then he was serious again. “I hope that whoever becomes your Shielder is skilled and loyal, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t jealous.”

And just like that, it was as though time itself had stopped. Niowyn couldn’t help but smile, a warm and true smile. Her eyes welled with tears but she didn’t let them fall. One hand found the side of his face, his cheek cool to the touch from the morning air, and the other rested upon his own hand in the crook of her neck. There wasn’t the need for words - soaking in the moment was enough.

Whatever distance was between the two of them was closed when Niowyn took one small step toward him. Her head leaned forward until her forehead was resting against his chin and her arms wrapped around him in an embrace. It was the only time she let a tear escape but it was one of happiness. “You don’t know how happy I am to hear that…”





A collaboration between @Pupperr and @Morgan

 
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Morgan

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Fantasy. Modern. Romance. Slice of life. I can persuaded to play more, it's all about plot, really.



Nathyen & Oryn



The morning mist sent a chill down Nathyen’s spine as he dismounted from Dale ahead of Oryn, boots crunching in the dew-dampened gravel below, scraps of mud clinging to his feet. Oryn was quick to follow behind, sliding down from Dale’s saddle, patting the beast gently on its neck, muttering a word of encouragement as he led it to be tethered to a nearby tree. The pair had grown accustomed to scouting out the trail ahead come sunrise, wary of stumbling upon newfound dangers with no warning as they descended into the reach of land east of the Wailing Keep, opposite its side of the mountains.

“I can’t help but see mist and think of the valleys about Gol Badhir,” Nathyen said, spitting in the dirt by his foot. “I can’t wait to be clear of these parts. Ghosts wander, and the dead walk about. And not the sort ‘o dead that shamble about like in those kids’ tales, no. Eyes blue as ice, pale skin, grasping fingers.”

Again the locksmith shuddered as they stretched their legs, taking a break to allow the rest of their party to venture into sight further back along the trail. The mist had reduced their visibility to perhaps no more than a quarter mile, but a quarter mile more was better than nothing. Nathyen fetched his waterskin from Dale’s saddlebags, sipping at it, nodding to Oryn.

“But, no more entertainin’ my thoughts with terrors of dead men walkin’,” he said, voice remarkably chipper given its prior lapse into melancholy and dread. “You given thought to what it is you’ll do when we get to the Shroud?”

Sighing, he gave Dale another pat on the neck and took a few steps away from the horse to let him rest and eat. Oryn shrugged and scratched the back of his neck, unsure of what exactly to tell him. On top of that, it was early and he was hungry. And he had no intention of fighting dead men with blue eyes and pale skin, but on the other hand, that was much more simple than talk of what tomorrow might bring. Hands at his sides, Oryn turned to face Nathyen and tilted his head to the side.

“Sell my sword like I always do.” He said, shrugging again. That was a short answer and not entirely true. He had even briefly entertained the idea of settling down somewhere, if only for a little while. He had gold enough for the time being. Perhaps he could even just stay at an inn at first. But then Oryn gave it some more thought and realized that after a few weeks he would start to get bored. Then he would start spending his money on useless things. Then he would get restless and start getting in fights. That meant issues with the law and before he knew it, it was either him being chased out of town or led to the gallows. Strangely enough, it was boredom, not the gallows, that scared him the most.

“What about you? Have you run out of ancient treasure to steal and dragons to kill?” He asked, genuinely curious whether Nathyen knew of any other ancient castles that might hold ancient treasure.

“Nothing quite so bold,” Nathyen replied with a shrug. “Often the Shroud produces its own treasure to pilfer. The north’s still got plenty ‘o unexplored places too corrupted to venture to safely, ‘sides, doubt I’ll ever live down returning with no intention of handing off that hammer.”

He nodded to Scarnesbane, tucked safely away in Dale’s saddlebags.

“You ought to be careful luggin’ that around - no one I spoke to knows its shape exactly, but there are some types who were speakin’ of such weapons in the archive I copied the papers from. Types who might not care if they need to resort to less than savory means of retrievin’ it, if you catch my drift.”

“I know..” Oryn said with a sigh. He kicked the tip of his boot into the ground and shrugged. He had been wondering what to do with Scarnesbane for some time now. It was a mighty weapon. A truly great and powerful and terrifying thing to wield, but it didn’t feel right in his hand. “Listen… I don’t mean to be ungrateful or…” He wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Oryn wasn’t even sure he was being ungrateful. He had been tackled by a dragon for it. He cleared his throat before he looked back up from the ground and fixed his eyes on Nathyen.

“I’m not quite sure what to do about that hammer, Nath.” He gestured toward Dale who was carrying the hammer in his saddlebags. “I’d be lying if I said it was a poor weapon and it’s come in handy more than once.” Oryn knew that was an understatement. “It’s mighty. Truly mighty. But…” He shrugged again, frustrated. “It doesn’t feel comfortable when I hold it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s effective enough. I just feel more at home wielding my sword, you know? But I don’t know where I’d put something like that for safe keeping. And you’re right, I can’t keep lugging it around like this.” Oryn chewed on the inside of his cheek and shook his head. “I kept it strapped to my back the first few days after the Hollows, nearly broke my spine.” He chuckled before scratching his chin, glancing between Dale and Nathyen.

“I don’t mention it to guilt ‘ya,” Nathyen remarked, wincing. “Sorry, that came out sharper than I’d meant it to. More’s to say, I don’t think we should part with it just yet - even if you don’t use it, ‘til we find someone who we can trust and knows just what this business with it is all about, we should keep it safe. I know a place in the Shroud we can stow it if you’re not keen on keepin’ it on your person.”

The locksmith let out a soft sigh, gazing out over the misted way below with a stare that seemed fixed on some distant mountaintop. He patted Dale’s neck tenderly, almost as if it were absent minded. His attention returned to Oryn after a brief pause, jolted back into the present seemingly from an uptake in the wind. Spring flooded their nostrils, and something else - something sinister scented with sulfur.

“Catch that?” Nathyen asked, though it took but a sideways glance at Oryn to confirm the bigger man had whiffed at it as well, the same for Dale who snorted and skittishly trotted in place.

Steel scraped against leather and both men advanced, blades gleaming in the fog-filtered sunlight sifting through the thick veil. Nathyen’s footwork was more confident, more measured as he pressed on down the incline to the base of the foothills. Their boots passed without sound along the soft earth, and another gust of wind brought with it the same scent of death and blood. Nathyen’s nose scrunched up and he spat in the dirt beside them as they went.

“Can hardly stand it after the Hollows,” he muttered softly, words but a whisper on the air.

The pair arrived at the base of a great oak by the trail, the mist having abated now that the sun’s rays were beginning to burn it aside, replacing the fresh chill of spring’s dawn with the mild discomfort of a humid day. There was a noise, faint at first, coming from the tree. It was a low moan of pain punctuated by the eerie sound of a rope swinging on the breeze. Nathyen nodded to the tree and Oryn followed, shouldering past the locksmith at the first sign of palpable danger now.

As more of the tree came into view, so too did a swinging silhouette held aloft by a frayed rope. The closer the two came to the figure, the stronger the cloying scent of sulfur and blood became. The two grew more tense, blades held in a guarded position.

They arrived at the base of the tree, gazing up to see a malformed man held aloft by the loop of rope about his neck that jutted to the left at a sharp angle. His skin was ashen pale, and streaks of dark blood had dried across his bare chest. As he meekly thrashed about, he swung about the rope baring a back docked in lash marks that wept thick, oozing blood black as midnight. His limbs seemed unnaturally long, as did his legs, and as Nathyen took another cautious step forward the man seemed to finally notice the pair. He snapped to attention and let out a roar that might have been fierce if not for the way it wheezed and spluttered. His teeth gnashed, and piercing red eyes glared down at Oryn and Nathyen as his limbs flailed about meekly.

“Myrodel,” Nathyen spat, jutting back as the hanged man continued to lash about. “Fuckin’ blood traitor.”

The myrodel’s mouth moved about, wheezed breaths struggling to form words that fell without shape upon the pair’s ears. Its glare intensified and it continued to thrash and rage against its noose, swaying about fiercely with the creak of rope to accompany it.

“Looks like whoever tried to down this one used every trick they had… lashing, swords, and, well,” the locksmith nodded to the rope. “The obvious. Trick is…”

Nathyen approached the counterweight keeping the noose upright, investigating its strength with a probing shake. It remained sturdy and rigid, making no show of snapping.

“...they probably thought he was some sort of fa’et casit - best word we’ve got for ‘witch’ in the demonic sort. Myrodel don’t die like normal men. He might hang here for a few days and dies, might be he snaps free and wanders off. Oryn I’ll cut the rope here and-”

“I’ve seen it,” the myrodel snarled on half a breath - almost an exclamation, if not for its labored breathing. “I’ve seen it! Seen… seen... the Myerit C’ullzirak... seen… I’ve seen it! Soon… so soon… sealed…”

What words followed were lost to a rasping, labored peal of manic laughter.

“Oryn, sword ready,” Nathyen said, color drained from his face. “Now - go.”

The rope snapped and the myrodel slammed to the ground, given barely an instant to clamber to its feet before Oryn severed its head from its neck. The creature sputtered out one last word as its limp body collapsed into the mud below, head landing with a thud not too far off.

“...seen...end…”



A collaboration between
@ze_kraken & @Morgan

 

ze_kraken

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 Background Music


Alfa Slab One
Eczar
Ramabhadra

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THE FOOTHILLS


The light of day pierced the trees,


casting its rays through the dense coverage of pine and oak and cedar as the companions, now fewer in number after the departure of Celothel and Deormund, began their ascent into the foothills that surrounded the Shroud. Where once the path before them had felt dangerous and mysterious, it now carried a comfortable sense of warmth and familiarity in every smoke trail from a homestead's chimney and every cart they passed ferrying wheat. The air was warmer, the grass greener, and the trees more full.

Along their way they passed farmsteads with freshly tilled fields supple with budding life, the small sprouts of grain and maize and potatoes speckling the otherwise muddy brown-and-black rows of cropland. There was a lushness and life to the soil hardly seen elsewhere, even within the bounds of Molestown and the Hollows. If ever there was a reminder of the way things used to be, this was it.

To say nothing of the Shroud itself.

It towered ahead of them in the distance, resplendent in its ivory-hued walls basked in the golden glow of the morning sunlight. Such was its scale that from the moment it came into view, and in the days since, it seemed to neither grow nor shrink such was its magnitude. Nathyen had pointed out the central city among the cluster of other, abandoned ruins that rested up above in the mountains, though there was no mistaking it as the only one to house any sort of civilized inhabitants. Its fellows were crumbling and the wounds of old wars fought were plain to see even from their distance - breaches in the wall, towers melted by hellfire, and holes where once there might have been gates to name a few.

For three more days the companions ventured through the valleys in the shadow of the Shroud until they came upon its based, beginning to trek up a narrow, winding path lined in farmland and scattered ruins of what might have once been some outer perimeter wall. The closer to the Shroud they progressed, the more frequently they encountered what Nathyen had dubbed 'Steelcoats' - a smattering of guards clad in drab grey cloaks and iron helms. They paid the companions no heed, keeping to their patrol routes in groups of ten at least.

"The ones that wander outside the walls carry spears with volcite tips," the locksmith had explained after passing one such patrol. "Others don't make it this far up normally, but it's the type 'o foe they're most likely to encounter, 'n the Shroud's bustlin' with scraps 'o the stuff."

By the end of the third day they arrived at the outer gates of the Shroud, kept open though lined with Steelcoats in a square formation on either flank of the large, coiled steel gates. Behind them stood two gatehouse dwarfed by the scale of the outer wall, itself towering upwards roughly six spans the length of a man. Carts came and went, pausing by the guards to check their papers before being permitted to enter or exit the city. When at last the companions arrived, a pair of Steelcoats blocked their way with crossed spears as another stepped before them.

"Have you any papers to present?" He asked in an authoritative, formal tone - and judging by the extra chevrons carved into his helm, he was an officer.

"None," Nathyen croaked in a voice deeper than his own. "This lot comin' with me to make pilgrimage to the Temple 'o the Raven, and this one 'ere's been named by an Arcanist to be presented to the Order."

"Explains what 'this lot' is doing, but what of you?" The officer questioned, raising an eyebrow from behind the shadow of his helm. "And we'll need to see the naming papers, if you don't mind."

"Be a good lass, Nio, show 'im 'yer documents," Nathyen gestured for her to approach. "As for me - I'm a farmhand, got wound up in the militia of a Knight of the Raven, same as the rest 'o us. Our master perished, 'n we've come to present his sword to the Knights of the Raven."

The officer looked over Niowyn's papers and scoffed, turning the document over and squinting at its seal embossed in wax at its base. He handed Celothel's writ of passage back to Niowyn and waved the group aside, the spears parting to give way to their passage. The officer likewise stepped aside, and as the companions ventured through the gates his stern voice could be heard stopping the next cart in line behind them.

Underfoot the worn dirt roads gave way to cobbled streets cracked and cratered and uneven. Moss and grass grew in the cracks between the stones, and a fine layer of brown mud gave the stones more of a cream colored appearance than that of true slate. Nathyen ushered them down a busy high street towards the city's second of three walls, veering left towards a street corner loosely packed with houses and inns. The structures of the Shroud were hewn into the mountain itself, it seemed, for their outlines looked to blend with the stone underfoot. Others were simple affairs made of wood and stone, with no unifying characteristics - some bore thatched rooves, others ones of tile. Some were created from hardened mud baked in the old ways of the orcish tribes into tough, durable concrete framed with wooden beams. Others looked like they would be more at home in the Hollows than a city as lofty as the Shroud, hardly more than small huts squashed between the cityscape about them.

Nathyen made an abrupt right turn into a warmly lit stretch of inns of as much variety as the other buildings about them, leading them to an inn marked 'the Casual Pint' that was as unremarkable as it was small. Its first floor, if it could be called such, formed into a staircase that descended into the earth below, which Nathyen led the companions down after picketing their horses at the inn's rear and fetching their supplies. At the base of the stairs lay concealed the inn proper - a warm, inviting space replete with alchemical lanterns that cast a comfortable orange and yellow glow across the common room. Tables and chairs of dark oak and pine polished to a remarkably high sheen glistened in the glow of the lanterns, and a truly decadent bar fringed with metal studs lay on the eastern wall of the common room lined in shields, banners, swords, spears, and a host of other storied relics of years past.

The inn was crowded with a wide host of humans, orcs, and dwarves ranging from nobles dressed in finery to sellswords clad for a scruff in an alleyway. The various crowds did not mix - nobles and merchants and scholars to one side, ruffians to the other. Nathyen left the companions to get comfortable and set about ordering food and drink as he arranged their rooms, and that night they shared in a brief dinner, each shouldering the toll of the road that finally was able to be loosened and let go. Few talked, and before long each was to their respective rooms, relishing in the simplest comfort of a fresh bed and sheets with walls and guards aplenty to protect them...

GM NOTES:

@CasketCase @Pupperr @Elle Joyner @Applo @Morgan

THE SHROUD

Welcome to the Shroud! This last vestige of society is a beacon upon the hill, beckoning all to come seek work and protection within its walls but this city hides terrible secrets. Corrupt nobles and abusive, pro-humanist factions all duke it out for control of this resource-rich, safe haven. The city houses many possibilities for those willing to seek them out...

Reminder that a list of the Shroud's areas of renown is here.

INTERACTIVE ELEMENTS

Seek Council with the Knights of the Raven:
The Knights of the Raven reside in the inner sanctum of the Shroud, within the hallowed walls of the Aetherstone Keep. The 3rd gate is heavily protected, and passage in and out is heavily regulated... One must have a compelling reason to enter and seek an audience, a specific item perhaps... Once within the Keep, a number of the Knights' adjutants will oversee your request and weigh it upon its virtues to see if you are worth proper consultation with the Knights.

Approaching with Maud's ruined blade, Shard, begins questline "Admittance into the Order".


Search for Work:
Grogg, the innkeep in the morning, is a jovial orc with a thick beer gut and bushy brown mustache, hair in a wild mane that forms into a top knot. If asked for work, he will mention a number of rumors and passing things he has heard depending on who is asking [player discretion how Grogg interprets the character and which work he offers] -

Seek out members of Albyn family's network of spies and enforcers, frequents of the tavern, begins questline "A Personal Favor to the Family"

A particular magi frequents the Street of the Stag, often pausing to take notes in front of the Arcanist's Archive but not a shred of Arcanist purple is in sight, begins questline "From One Mage to Another".

Dwarves and orcs mutter of striking back at the "Humanist Society", a group of extremist human nobility with pro-human policy points. Many among their number are looking to colonize one of the other cities in the mountains to offer a safehaven from harm. Names are inconsistent, but perhaps asking around will yield more... Begins questline "A Human Society".


Approach the Arcanists:
The Arcanist Order houses open forum with any would-be magic user from 10:00 to 2:00 on the Street of the Stag, fielding questions and offering non-restricted reading time for select texts from the Arcanist's Archive (mostly mundane texts of general application ranging from topics like farming to moneylending). Among their ranks are pairs of Arcanists and Shielders, who keep an eye out for prospective, talented students or members of the Order.

Showcasing your characters' talent to an Arcanist will begin the questline "An Arcanist's Ability"; showcasing a writ of passage will begin the questline "Initiation".


 
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Arianell Oresh
COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Oryn @Morgan, Nio @Pupperr



The Shroud
The morning after arriving at the Shroud found Aria up early, her mind a tumultuous storm. The young soldier had done what she’d always done best during the journey. Staying quiet and reserved, she focused diligently on her tasks, beginning each day on the hunt and ending each day in preparation for the following. Now here, at the end of the long and treacherous road, she felt for the first time the pressing weight of uselessness that had threatened, loomed ever since finding Matthias by the shore. Her purpose for so long had been to find her brother, but without purpose now, Aria felt for the first time since leaving home a straining sense of emptiness.

Upon the table, lay Shard, the broken blade glinting between her splayed palms. Since waking roughly before dawn, Aria had pondered over the weapon, Nathyen’s words upon their arrival resonating in her mind. She knew they owed Maud nothing by returning the blade to the knights, and yet there was a notion within her all the same, now more powerful than ever, to ensure the orc’s cowardly end, and more importantly Vardis’s bravery be brought to light. But in that there was acknowledging her own actions in the events that unfolded...acknowledging it both to the knights, and to herself. On one hand, the closure was welcome. On the other hand, her part in Maud’s death could net her consequences she wasn’t fully prepared to face…

But one thing that had clung to her since leaving the South was that however those beyond the border functioned, honor would not be something she so easily dismissed.

With a heavy sigh, Aria slid Shard back into the makeshift sheath she’d made the weapon and rising, she followed her path back upstairs to their rented rooms. For a moment she paused outside Nathyen’s door, before taking a breath and knocking. The door creaked open a moment later, and what seemed to be a stranger greeted Aria. His dirty brown-blonde hair, once matted and tangled, had been washed and combed back and his beard had been shorn from his face, baring an all too unremarkable jawline beneath. Still, there was no mistaking this as Nathyen - his eyes still had that perpetual unserious glint to them, and few enough would wear a sword at their belt with as much discomfort as the locksmith, though Aria noted with a touch of pride that he no longer bumped his thigh into his scabbard as he walked.

“Mornin’ lass,” Nathyen greeted Aria, voice restored to a pleasant tenor from the night’s rest. “Can’t say I much loved restin’ in a bed - reminded me I’ve got bones and muscles aplenty to ache from a month or so on the road, but how fared your night?”

"Long… as most have been, since… Since leaving the Sea." Looking him over, a brief, weary smile touched the edge of her lips, despite the heavy tone of her words, "I'm not sure I've ever seen you so… clean. It suits you." A curl was tucked behind her ear as her eyes drifted aside, "I have a favor to ask, of you've time to spare today?"

“Ah well, most know me lookin’ much like I did in the Hollows,” Nathyen said with a shrug, scratching his smooth chin. “Aye, can’t say I had much planned ‘sides takin’ Oryn to grab a real brew - said the stuff back at the Dead Sea made him forget what real beer was. That can wait, I think.”

"What you said when we first arrived here… To those guards." Tapping the shattered blade at her side, she glanced up at him again, "I know you only meant it as a way to get in without hassle.. But I've been thinking it over and I think you had a point. I'd like you to take me there… where the Raven Knights are. I'd like to… to return this to them."

“Can’t say I’m eager to go seek some meetin’ with ‘em, but your mind’s made up, isn’t it?” He asked, a small grin tugging at the corners of his lips. “Right, then. Let’s get going shall we?”

Smiling faintly, Aria shrugged, "I think you know me well enough by now.to know the answer to that. But thank you. This… This is something I need to do. Somehow it… feels right. Like putting it all to rest. Not just Maud. All of it. It's something I need to do if I'm ever going to have any sort of life out here."

The locksmith nodded his ascent and the two left the Casual Pint after a brief breakfast consisting of bread and a thick stew mixed with carrot and onion. Afterwards the pair left and ventured out into the bustling city, streets thrumming with a life that was, after so many weeks upon the road, utterly foreign to the two. Steelcoats were interspersed among the crowds, traveling in groups of three or four, hands never far from their cudgels.

Once back upon the main road dividing the Shroud into its eastern and western halves, Aria and Nathyen ventured up towards the city’s second gate. All about them came and went carts pulled along by donkeys and horses, ferrying wheat and other goods to and fro from the surrounding farmsteads and villages dotting the approach to the Shroud. At the 2nd gate they were temporarily stopped by a contingent of Steelcoats before left to go about their business.

The second tier of the Shroud was noticeably finer than the first - the streets here were more complete, devoid of the same grime and cracks that defined the first. To their left and right sprouted structures of the same eclectic blend of structures they had seen upon their arrival the night before, but now were at least clean and fewer were leaning at oblong angles. Nathyen pointed out key landmarks as they went, from a choice few alleyways that saved time if one were in a rush, and the Street of Stags to their left which housed several of the Arcanist Order’s schools and archives.

“So that will be where you’ll find Nio most days,” he said as they went. “It’s also where you’ll find some of the best smiths in the known land, same for craftsmen and the like.”

At last they arrived at the third, and final, gate within the city. The walls here towered over the surrounding cityscape, carved out of the mountain itself, and in the best condition of all the walls thus far. Two turrets rested upon either end of the gate, the leftmost crumbled at its peak and mounted with a large ballista where once it might have housed a small barracks. The guards here were finer dressed than the Steelcoats, boasting an array of boiled leather, iron plate, and steel links. Each wore a sword at his or her belt that rang with a terrible familiarity to Aria - each looked just like the ruined sword she now carried to put to rest.

As they approached the third gate, itself the finest of the three in the Shroud with the same coiled steel design fringed at the intersections with gold crosses, two such guards moved to intercept them. They carried themselves with a more regal bearing than the Steelcoats had, and as they approached Aria noted the sigil of a Raven embossed upon their chests either in the cloth tunics they wore or the shining steel across their breast. Their hands rested casually on the pommels of their hand-and-a-half swords, and one, a human woman, raised a hand to stop their passage.

“That’s far enough,” she declared flatly. “State your purpose for approaching the base of the Aetherstone Keep and be quick about it.”

Her hand briefly brushing the back of Nathyen’s, a simple, comforting gesture, Aria took a small step forward, “My name is Arianell Oresh of Korin, beyond the border.”

Holding a hand up, a gesture of ease, she carefully slid Shard half from its sheath, “I seek audience with the Knights of the Raven, regarding one of your own, slain some weeks past.”

“How came you to pass through the Wall of the Pass? We hear of few enough who have accomplished such a feat - all of them more robust than you, girl,” the woman huffed with a haughty air of superiority about her as she examined the blade. “No matter the merits of your story, this is indeed a talon. Tell me - what fates conspired to pass this blade to you? You say one of our own was slain, how came that to pass?”

“I came through with a companion… A fellow soldier. My friend here can vouch, I’ve some skill, though I imagine a bit of luck did its part all the same.” Shoving Shard into the sheath again, Aria cleared her throat lightly, and her jaw twitched in a momentary spasm of anxiety, “...As far as your slain brethren, it is no tale easily told. In short, I came into possession of this blade when its owner died… by my hand.”

“You’re either bold or idiotic, girl - but I shall entertain your tale for now. It is no place of mine to determine the crimes of one who admits them so freely and ventures so far - weeks, if your story is to be believed - just to clear her conscience. You may pass. Your friend, however, must stay. Unless he, too, comes with tales of the South and slain knights?” There was an edge to the woman’s voice that bordered on mockery as she examined the two, hand in a readied grip at the hilt of her blade.

Looking back to Nathyen, Aria gave a small, uneasy nod, “...Perhaps you’d better have that drink with Oryn, after all. I… I may be some time.”

Nathyen nodded, glancing uneasily at the two knights. He offered Aria’s hand a brief squeeze before stepping back.

“I trust ‘ya won’t harm the lass without her due rights?” He asked, a steeled note to his tone utterly unfamiliar to Aria.

“Justice moves swiftly when murder is concerned,” the woman responded mercuriarly. “Come along then, girl - we’ll see to it you have an audience with the Old Lion to tell your story in its entirety. ‘Oie, you up there, open the gates!”

Returning her gaze to Nathyen, marginally more pale than when they had arrived, Aria bowed her head nevertheless, “I’ll meet you back at the tavern… It’ll be alright.” For whatever conviction her words lacked, she smiled all the same, “We still need to have that conversation we never had…”

And with a breath, she turned back to the gate, hands at her side, as she stepped inside. Beyond the gates she was greeted with a resplendent path flanked on either end with statues that rivaled those at the gates of Gol Badhir. So long had they stood that their features had been eroded beyond recognition, though each depicted a tall, proud silhouette atop a stone plinth as large as some of the houses she had passed along her approach to the Aetherstone Keep which loomed ahead of her in the distance.

The woman from the gate followed Aria, guiding her along the path towards the keep as the gates clattered shut behind them. At the base of each statue rested patterns of gemstones, one color for each - red, orange, green, blue, gold, and purple all in what appeared to at one point have been glyphs or perhaps even words. To her left stood impressive manses, constructed in flowing, curved architecture that was unlike anything Aria had ever seen. Flanking the Aetherstone Keep was a large forest a green so bright it reminded her of the trees back home in Korin more than any she had seen this far north.

For all its pomp and pretense, the Aetherstone Keep itself was plain and unadorned, looking more like a keep built by simple hands than the hallowed grounds of a legendary order. Unlike the Shroud-native structures Aria had passed along her way up, the Keep was separate from the mountain it stood upon, walls constructed of large brick-like slabs of stone seemingly fused together at their creases. Four turrets pinned the corners together, the central keep looming over its walls.

The woman guided Aria to the Keep, ushering her through the open gates and towards its central tower. About the walls of the Keep stood servants’ quarters and stables and administrative offices. When they passed the two knights protecting the tower’s front doors, the woman explained this one was to see the Old Lion immediately, and they parted to let the two pass without further word.

Inside, the main hall of the Aetherstone Keep loomed with an emptiness that shared more in common with the local temple in Aria’s home village than it did a fortress. Arches stood like a ribcage throughout the hall, supporting its upper floors which all occupied the sides of the tower’s center such that one atop the highest floor might look down at all the floors beneath it. It was here all the arches coalesced into an intricate cross of archways, underneath which rested a large blue crystal roughly four or five times the size of a horse. It pulsed and hummed with energy, palpable even at Aria’s distance. From this central point the tower branched off into four distinct hallways - the ones at the left and right branched into narrow halls lined in closed wooden doors richly decorated with golden fringes and intricately carved to depict sigils of more than just the Raven Aria had expected. To the front, beyond the crystal, stood a table atop a large elevated platform.

“This way,” the woman said, guiding Aria down the right hall, into the crammed hallway towards its end.

Once at the end of the hall, before a doorway embossed with twin lions rampant on a pair of doors with golden knobs, the woman knocked thrice. The door opened, and an agitated servant peered out from a cracked door.

“The Grandm-”

“Is busy, yes,” the woman interrupted. “This one is to see him. Immediately. She has claimed to have slain a member of our order and come from the southlands. Let the Old Lion judge her words, lest we mistake our Lady’s justice.”

The door shut and an awkward silence followed before it was opened once more. The servant ushered Aria inside and left the woman out in the hall. Beyond the doors rested an intimate study, warmth emitting from its sunward-faced windows that cast a pleasant glow upon its dark wooden bookshelves and dark green carpets. In the center of the study rested a deck stacked with crackled scrolls and fresh parchment, as well as spent ink pots and quills.

Behind the desk sat an old man dressed in simple, but fine, garments with a dual crest upon his tunic’s chest depicting a lion rampant alongside a raven with its wings outstretched to one direction, away from the lion’s claws. His hair, a mixture of blonde and grey which made it difficult to tell where the old met the new, lay in an impressive mane slicked back, the blend of two hues giving it an almost golden appearance. A well-kept beard lined his chin, and perceptive dark brown eyes peered out from beneath a stern brow lined in bushy eyebrows. A scar ran along his cheek, ending at a patch at the right side of his face which might have once been half of his nose.

“My chief attendant here says you have quite the tale for me,” he said in a voice that carried well throughout the chamber, neither confrontational nor particularly cordial. “Might that be?”

“Aye, Sire…” Her eyes, to some great degree of determination scrolled from the scar along the man’s cheek to his gaze, and breathing in, her hand once again extending in a gesture of caution, she eased Shard free and gingerly set it on the edge of the man’s desk, “Though I confess, I’m not sure where to start. On my part, I never intended to bear anything akin to such a story, but I suppose that was the folly of my Southern upbringing at hand. I hail from Korin, beyond the wall, a small farming village of little note. To make it as short as possible, some time ago… the better part of a few years I left home in search of my kin who had been conscripted and come this way, himself and gone missing. Along the way, I came to the Hollows where I, rather accidentally, came to find myself in the company of a small group heading into Gol Badhir. I offered my services and struck out, and along the way we came across a band in the mountains, most of them farmhands, merchants, fishermen… nothing of note. But their leader was, as I came to understand it, a knight of your order. Again, no doubt, my upbringing to blame, I ascribed certain… characteristics to such a station - namely honor and valor, and so I was rather taken back by the hostile and disreputable nature he showed my party and I. Upon our initial parting we struck a small bargain, largely under threat, but I, for my part, intended to accommodate the bargain. As it turned out, however, it was never this knight’s intention to uphold his own end. We were rather abruptly interrupted then by news that there were Others, heading into the Hollow and so we agreed, with reluctance, to part amicably and aid in the fight. By stroke of what I can only assume was a bit of dumb luck or the hands of fate, my friends and I survived. So too did this knight.”

Pausing, Aria’s fingers brushed absently along her forearm, tensing lightly as memories of that day played in her mind, “He was angry because when we returned from Gol Badhir we had in our possession something he greatly desired… I believe it was his intention to steal it, through force. He set upon one of our own, and another among us, a brave and noble warrior called Vardis fought him… both were injured but Vardis was slain. This knight then set mind to slay another of our number, a locksmith, not skilled with a blade and already injured from the fight. I… I am a soldier, but I hold no illusions to my… lack of stature, yet my own honor held and I interceded. We fought for some time, and I was nearly killed” Her hand rose then, brushing her neck, eyes fluttering briefly shut, “Where his blade had been rendered in the previous fight there were shards caught in his armor. With his hand to my throat, I took one… and with it, I brought him down.” Breathing in, her eyes opened again, meeting the Lion’s, “I buried him where he fell and took the broken blade until it could be returned here.”

For a moment, awkwardly, her expression shifted to uncertainty, before she gestured to Shard, “...I did use it, just… just for a time. Only out of necessity. That-that’s all.”

The old man chuckled, raising one thick eyebrow as he examined Aria, gnarled fingers coming to rest atop his desk after pushing aside the papers he had been examining upon her arrival.

“You’ve either rehearsed that tale a thousand times before coming here, or you speak the truth - I know of few who would spout that out before exchanging the sorts of blank courtesies tradition would expect,” he said, tone laced with lingering amusement. “Come, come - sit at the very least, I fear you might collapse after exhausting yourself of breath like that.”

The knight’s fingers steepled atop the table as he continued to examine Aria, who seated herself across from him in one of the two chairs before the desk.

“I don’t know many liars who would wander this far to admit to a slaying in self defense, though I still have questions before I so casually brush aside the proported murder of one of my brothers. First, though - you speak of this place you come from, Korin as you said?”

At Aria’s nod, he continued, mirroring the gesture slowly.

“Just so. We shall come back to that in a moment. This knight - you neglected to tell me his name. This name Vardis is as meaningless as nipples on a breastplate to my ears. Who was it you claimed to have slain?”

“He called himself Maud, Sire. It was only through another I learned of his connection to this order. We never spoke much of his past, only briefly… when he mentioned the Shroud.”

“Maud - ‘ha,” the old man spluttered with laughter, one hand clutching his chest as he coughed through another laugh, easing his breath with a sip from the cup of water at his desk. “Then you’ve done this realm a service, I think. Always an impetuous one, Maud. If memory serves he was stripped of his rank after hanging men he claimed were fa’et in the riverlands of the Shroud but were simply farmhands who insulted him in some backwater inn, and he ventured west with his more fanatical followers.”

He took the blade upon his desk then, unsheathing it with a practiced nonchalance that bespoke of great experience as he deftly turned the blade about in his hands. He admired it for a moment, eyes lingering on its ruined tip before laying it back atop the desk.

“You’ve also done us a service returning this talon,” he continued. “Though I think it will be best reforged after the unnecessary harm it has caused. Fit to serve a new owner with a new name. But - back to this business of the southlands. I’ve met some of your kind before, and a number of our order hail from that fabled land beyond the Pass, but you’d be the second I’d heard of to hail from Korin. I must admit I am utterly ignorant as to the size and layout of your cities, but forgive me - you have the look of a farm girl about you, as did the one before you have the look of a stablehand. Something tells me our lady the Raven may have ordained this meeting to pass. Might you know of whom I speak?”

As he spoke, Aria straightened and for a brief moment the blood in her ears dulled out the sound of the man’s voice, but at his question, eyes wide, she shook her head, “Korin is… it’s a farming village. Not likely more than a hundred strong. It… it was Maud who first suggested it, but I confess I came here from the Hollows in hope… that I might find him. My brother.” Swallowing hard, she sank slightly in her chair, “But… but then I imagine you aren’t yet informed. If it is indeed Matthias you speak of, he…” Reaching for the chain at her neck, she produced the ring belonging to her brother, “He’s dead, Sire. I came upon his body in a clump of Bloodvine near the Dead Sea.”

“A tragedy, truly - I knew Matthias to be a man of a humble sort of competence and moral fiber,” he said, tone somber, eyes turned down in a frown. “Perhaps when his companions return from their venture we might both learn of what transpired in great detail. Until then, you shall have a place with us for both the services of you and your brother to our order and the realm. If you are even half that of your brother, then perhaps we might also have use of you. Should you wish it, that is - I know not what else brings you here save delivering news both good and ill.”

“S-sire?” Blinking, Aria’s fingers curled tighter around the chain, “I’m sorry but… do I understand you proper? Use of me?”

“As I see it, we are in need of two knights now, and though you are - and you must forgive my bluntness - no knight in your present state, that is no reason to, as the saying goes, look a gift horse in the mouth. If you ventured here from the Hollows, then you must be competent enough to consider, your relation to Matthias and conflict with Maud aside.”

Hands raking through her hair, Aria’s head shook, almost involuntarily, shock still radiating, “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to… to sound ungrateful, but I-This is a lot. Could… could I have some time to think it over?”

“Ah of course,” the old man responded, reaching for a document in a drawer behind his desk at the base of one of the bookshelves.

He scribbled at the document for a moment before handing it to Aria.

“Present this to the guards when next you come to discuss this,” he explained. “Should you wish to accept, you will report to Germund at the Proving Grounds west of here at dawn with this document in hand. Should you wish to speak with me, let the Keep’s staff know you wish to speak with Edmund, though doubtless they’ll go about calling me the Old Lion to you.”

Rising from her chair, Aria’s expression softened and she bowed lightly, “...Thank you. I… I’ll admit I envisioned quite a different outcome to this meeting. May I ask you one more thing, before I go?”

Edmund nodded his assent, eyes glimmering with curiosity as they met Aria’s.

“Matty… Matthias... Was-did he seem… Was he content, for his time here? Was he happy, here?”

“Happiness is so fleeting - here one moment, gone the next,” Edmund said with a mirthless chuckle. “Questioning its existence will turn its sweetness to ash in your mouth, and oft it is those who seem happiest that harbor the greatest burdens. Aye, Matthias seemed well enough - purposeful, driven, and, for lack of a better word, happy but there was a lacking to him. Perhaps the source of that lacking sits here before me, perhaps not, but I knew Matthias was not one to let that image of wholeness slip for fear of burdening another so I cannot say for certain.”

“...Thank you. It’s all I can hope. Truly. I’ll return tomorrow… You’ve my word.” Bowing again, Aria returned the way she had come.
 
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ze_kraken

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AN OLD FRIEND


Nathyen was being followed.


He had noted the tail upon leaving the Casual Pint with Aria but held his tongue, both out of a desire to spare Aria's peace of mind and an understanding none would dare make a move on him while he walked along with a heavily armed companion. But now, standing alone at the base of the third gate beyond which stood the Aetherstone Keep, Nathyen knew it was only a matter of time before he caught that snagging suspicion of being watched once more.

His hand kept close to his sword, palm resting casually upon its pommel as he ventured down the central street. Venturing towards the Street of Stag was no good - too many Guild members frequented there. If he headed off towards the Street of Soot or the Undercroft he would need a more convincing disguise than his plain tunic and overcoat.

Unnerved, Nathyen glanced about but saw no trace of his tail. It had been a tall figure, clad in unremarkable clothes with a hood concealing its face. He had seen long hair, seen the sword at their waist, but nothing more. With the knights to his back beginning to give the locksmith suspicious looks, Nathyen urged his legs into motion at a quicker pace. This would be the more dangerous part - heading down the main street back towards where he might be intercepted by the mysterious tail. Nathyen kept to small crowds of pedestrians and carts, using them for cover as he kept his eyes keen for any sign of unwanted attention.

Nathyen arrived at the second gate and slipped past, back down into the first tier of the Shroud without so much as a second glance from one of the Steelcoats. He had weighed telling one of them, but remembered he was a stranger here again and knew not which Steelcoats were in the pockets of which houses or the Guild. He veered left, away from the Street of Singers and towards the claustrophobic rows of houses that formed the bulk of the Shroud's residential blocks. Once there, he slipped unnoticed - or so he hoped - into one of the many narrow back alleys that dotted the district. It smelled of waste and rotted food, a scent that was as oddly nostalgic to Nathyen as it was repugnant and he tried his best to avoid thinking of just what the liquid that sloshed underfoot might be.

Once there he slid into a nook in one of the alleys that concealed him for the moment from prying eyes on either end of the alleyway. Overhead a cat mewled, and a bird fluttered from one sloped roof to the next, sending a pang of panic shooting down Nathyen's spine. He took a ragged breath and collected his thoughts. Had he imagined the tail? He doubted it. The way the figure had vanished after realizing it had caught his attention suggested it was not a figment of an overactive imagination.

They're Guild, there's no doubt about it, he thought as he scratched at his chin, missing the distinct feel of his beard passing through his fingers. The question is who, and what do they want? Slit my throat? Probably not at first. No treasure that way.

But then, what did he know? Father Lock had gutted men for less. There had been the time when, as a boy, one of his fellows had a finger shortened one knuckle for picking the wrong Steelcoat's pocket. What was the transgression for leaving a fellow Guild member to the Shroud's justice? He shuddered to think of it.

Nathyen cautiously stepped out from the nook he occupied, a plan forming in his mind as he crept along out opposite the way he had come. He would wander about the residential districts for some time yet, lose the tail, then vanish into the cave systems at the base of the Shroud that linked back to the Street of Singers. So far as he knew, only two or three others were aware of this particular tunnel, and wagered it was safer than letting some cutthroat stalk him openly until he tired himself.

The locksmith stepped back out onto the main street before ducking down a side road, glancing over his shoulder to see the cloaked figure from before watching him from the center of the street. As soon as he vanished from the figure's line of sight, Nathyen broke into a run, first down towards the city's outer wall then back towards where the figure had stood watching him from the intersection where the Shroud's westward and northward roads met. He lightened his footfalls as Lock had taught him, feet barely scraping the cobbled and cracked road below as he slipped between alleyways and through gaps in the buildings.

As soon as Nathyen cleared the residential district and found himself back along the street, in the bustling portion of road that stood by the outer gate, he allowed himself to blend into the procession of people coming and going. He cast a cursory glance over his shoulder and grimaced. No sight of his tail, but then that did little to calm his nervous heart. So long as the tail remained in the easterly portion of the Shroud, he had little hope of safely vanishing into the tunnels below and walking headlong into the Casual Pint was not an option. For all he knew, more interlopers awaited him there.

Nathyen fetched a hat from the edge of a merchant's card and donned it, rushing to safety before the man guiding the cart about could be any the wiser. He heard the man shout in surprise a few paces behind, a pang of sympathy and pride rushing through him as he cleared the streams of inbound and outbound traffic. Once cleared he darted into the western half of the Shroud's residential districts, once again worming his way through alleyways and side streets to stay clear of easy sight paths.

He came upon another divot in an alleyway and leaned back into it, fetching his knife from his belt and fiddling it between his fingers as his mind ran through more plans to arrive back to safety in the tunnels below. The locksmith unbelted his sword and fastened it across his back after sliding his arms through the sleeves of his overcoat, letting it hang nonchalantly across his shoulders while being held in place by the sword belt. The knife he slipped into an interior pocket of the coat before hoisting his hair up and into the hat he wore so it no longer hung about his shoulders. Satisfied, Nathyen took a sharp breath, exhaled, and made his way back to the main street running east to west.

The locksmith hurried down the street at a pace that was both hasty and nonchalant to a passing onlooker. He walked past the turn off into the Street of Singers and back towards the eastern residential district, finding no trace of his tail as he went. Encouraged, Nathyen hastened his pace and slid into a sprint the closer to his goal he progressed. He came upon it - a plain stack of crates that concealed a hole in the wall of an abandoned structure deep in the worst of the Shroud's residential blocks. Nathyen made one last glance back over his shoulder before shoving aside the crate and slipping inside, hoisting the crate back into place.

"Hello, Nathyen."

The voice was enough to make the locksmith shriek in surprise, his dagger flashing in the darkness. He lifted a hand to his face as a sudden flood of blindingly bright torch light illuminated the darkness. Before him he saw the cloaked figure, but the sudden light made it difficult to make out any clear features. Dropping the knife as to surrender, Nathyen reached to his eyes and rubbed them to better adjust to the brightness.

"You really didn't think you'd be able to stay hidden in the Casual Pint of all places, did you? Cute, shaving and washing your hair like that, I'll grant you that - but if you thought for an instant I wouldn't know you were here the moment you stepped back inside this city, then I must admit your wits have sadly dulled," the figure continued, and Nathyen's overactive, adrenaline-fueled mind flickered with recognition.

"Hello, Sabine," he replied, blinking a few times until the woman came into focus right as she began to sheath the blade she had apparently drawn on him.

She was a tall woman, lithe and toned muscles clear along her forearms kept bare to the elbows. Her skin was several shades darker than Nathyen's from a life spent in the sun, a rich olive whose vibrant undertones were accentuated by the flickering torch light. Steely brown eyes peered from an elegant brow at him, dark tresses with the sheen of fine velvet remained tucked back in a long flat. Below, she was clad in a studded leather jerkin and a plain dark grey tunic tucked into trousers lined in leather padding, a short sword hanging at her belt.

"Poliver dies, I spend weeks hiding from Steelcoats until Lock gets your fuckup under wraps, and all I get is a 'hello Sabine'? You don't even have the hammer, and you haven't suddenly started dressing like you're one of the Other-damned inhabitants of the fucking Aether district so something tells me you don't have even a penny of that treasure you so graciously staked mine and Poliver's life for."

"What's to say I don't?" Nathyen questioned, a smirk tugging at the corner of his lips.

"Because I checked your room myself," Sabine countered with a shrug. "Did right after you and that skinny boy left for the Aetherstone Keep. Odd turn of events, you coming back with a Knight of the Raven like that."

Nathyen bit his tongue, reluctant to correct Sabine for the time being as he nodded to her lantern and gestured about the house they now stood in.

"How'd you know?"

"That you'd come here? It was a hunch, really - for a second I didn't even think it was you I was chasing, but when you made your way down here I knew it was you and that my best shot at finding you was to wait here," Sabine replied, a bemused smile playing at her lips. "You were right to not just waltz back through the front door. My fellows might not have been as patient as me."

"They were going to..."

"Kill you?" Sabine let out a sharp bark of laughter. "No, no - drag you back to Father Lock's more likely. And that's not an inevitable eventuality, my dear friend. One word, and I let the Guild know I was mistaken and let you and your friends get back to whatever it is you are up to here."

"But you need something - you want the gold, or the hammer?" Nathyen questioned, raising an eyebrow and stepping back towards the crates.

"Oh come Nathyen, be more clever than that - you'd at best be able to turn around before I knocked you unconscious with the pommel of my sword. Come now, treat with me like we're old friends - you've nowhere else to go, and if I want you dead or dragged to Father Lock there's very little you can do about it," she said with a teasing tone to her voice as she gestured for Nathyen to step back towards her. "But very astute of you. I do want something from you. Here I was thinking the Nathyen I'd known a year ago was gone."

Sabine sighed, rolling her eyes.

"You always were the one better suited for picking pockets and cracking locks than thinking under pressure. But anyways, there is something of an opportunity that has emerged since your absence. The Guild's getting worried. Lock's an old man, barely got more than one or two winters left in him, I think. And when a leader like that starts showing his age, people get to talking - circling around him like carrion birds to a fresh carcass. Given our particularly arrangement with the Steelcoats... it would be unseemly if all of the sudden the Guild were to fragment into a dozen or so factions like it was before Lock. The Steelcoats'd be even more corrupt than they are now, and our job would become much, much harder having to navigate the whole web of shifting loyalties."

"How do I play into this at all? You said it yourself - my brain's best kept for memorizin' verse and a sharp tongue," Nathyen huffed. "I'm no enforcer either - you remember what Jameson used to do to me as a boy."

"Aye, I do - shame what happened to him, losing half his finger and all," Sabine said, waving the comment aside. "But you're right, 'Nath, and I've thought about this way longer than you and don't need help planning. I also don't need sword arms. I need someone to deliver messages for me. Messages to highborn and the like. Messages about what's going on with the Guild, and how I will be a better head than any of the others so when knives come out it will be in their interest to back me with whatever resources they might have. We all still remember how you ventured into Katherine's bedchambers under her father's nose - I need that same Nathyen now, none of the other Guild members can sneak about like you can."

"The fact I'm standin' here before you sort of disproves that notion, I think," Nathyen grumbled, spitting to his left. "Other be damned, Sabine - you want to head the Guild? Are you sure-"

"I've had a year to think this over, 'Nath. You aren't changing my mind now. I need to know if you are willing to help me. If not, there are some unpleasant debts for you to pay."

"Right," Nathyen replied awkwardly. "Seems my arm's twisted here, Sabine."

"Oh you can act freely - just might not lead you to the warm reunion you're expecting. Father Lock's gotten crueler in his old age, to try and appear strong. It won't be quick. I suspect you'll have wished you never even so much as looked back in the direction of the Shroud when at last he lets you die."

"What a choice," the locksmith said, voice dripping with sarcasm. "I agree to do this, we're square for all of it? Debt's paid?"

"Debt's paid."

"Right, then, Guildmaster, let's get this show goin' then shall we?"

 
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ErskineP2.jpg Erskine Rimebarth
═══════════════════════════
"A Human Society"

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Mention(s): Deormund ( ze_kraken )

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His first day in the Shroud had been mostly uneventful, as he had hoped. After some time on the road, roughing it out, it was only natural that one took a moment to enjoy the luxuries of civilization: a soft, comfortable bed, a relaxing bath, hearty food, and strong spirits. This wasn't to say that the dwarf had lounged around all day like some pampered pet of nobility, only partially. Sloth's call was alluring, but he knew there was much he had to do before his next job. Replenishment of ingredients and equipment were his priorities after going through a large portion of them fighting off the misshapen.

As boisterous and social as he might have been, Erskine had kept his head down low, even doing his best to replicate the familiar dialect of his "traditional" kin when he had to speak. Normally, he wouldn't have bothered with such paranoid measures, but it didn't take a genius to see the writing on the wall that some here had a great disdain for dwarven and orc-kind, and in this case, it was very literal judging by the banners and posters displayed proudly by some. By nighttime, he would find Deormund's words echoing in his mind and after what all the dwarf had seen, the Shielder's concerns had a considerable weight behind them.

At the end of the day, he had nearly everything he needed, although some of his specialty items would need time to soak, cure, or set before they would be ready for use. All that was left was the most important thing: information.

Morning came and Erskine rose with an empty stomach and a light throbbing in his brain. One might have said he overdid it the previous night, but such observations were flawed as he could have easily drunk more and arisen in an even more miserable state. It appeared he was not the only one who woke with grumbles as the common room of the inn found itself occupied by the working dwarves and orcs of the city venting and unwinding after working all night. Their complaints, from what he could hear, ranged from the mundane such as incompetent management to the more severe as the ever-amicable "Humanist Society" had vandalized a nearby orcish-owned shop in the night. Darker tones of conversation followed as some spoke of striking back, although Erskine would not hear much more detail as he climbed up a bar stool and took his place.


"Mr. Grogg, my good sir, I must say that it appears some scoundrels have been up and about recently. I do fear that soon we might lose this marvelous establishment of yours if this should persist."

Behind the bar stood the bear of an orc... albeit a bear who had decided that hibernation was much more preferable than any other season, judging by the beer-gut and bushy mane; continuing to judge the orc's bar would also suggest that he had long since earned his status of perpetual "hibernation" if one considered all of the armaments and shields proudly on display at the bar. The orc snorted in amusement as he polished a silver chalice.

"It'll take a lot more than a bunch of uppity humans to uproot me," Grogg replied, his voice warm enough to suggest a familiarity with the dwarf, but not warm enough to suggest that there was much to them aside from customer and merchant, "It's not like I enjoy hearing the other side either. Skulking around with talks of revenge or giving up completely and looking for their own inclusive "utopia". Can't say I understand why bashing in some skulls won't work nowadays."

"Ah yes, I do believe I have also heard such talks. If hearsay is to be believed, Kilmah Twice-Born is plannin' an expedition of sorts."

The sounds of seats moving in unison drew his attention and in turning back, he noticed faces full of tension and bodies ready for action. Without thinking about it, he had found himself in the middle of a minefield. Grogg sighed and waved them away, their features partially relaxing as they retook their seats, "Listen, you can't say that name so loudly. Attracts too much unwanted attention; the humanists want to kill her and, as you can see, some a bit defensive." Once again, Deormund had appeared to be right, or at least in the regard that many had begun to look up to her. Erskine couldn't help but chuckle at this.

"To think that one of our humble souls from Nezsohrcan would grow popular enough to become bitterly entrenched in conspiracies. It is just enough to make one parched," Placing his coin on the counter, it would soon be replaced with a tankard, "Once my thirst has been quenched, I am afraid will have to inquire more from you, Mr. Grogg. While I cannot claim to have a stake in this here human society nor of any utopias, I do know I can always plant my flag in the fertile soil of those needing the helpful services of hire hands."
 
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Every heartbeat seemed to take an eon; every breath an eternity. In the privacy of her poky little room, Aoife lay on her bed with her eyes closed but fully dressed. She had no intention of sleeping in this bed tonight. Other nights yet to come, perhaps. But not tonight.

Tonight there was somewhere else she needed to be. Somewhere she desperately wanted to be. The pressure that was pushing Aoife to her destination had been fermenting in her mind and heart for months now. The last few days had made it almost impossible to resist. Each familiar sight along the road, each guard patrol that had forced her to shirk towards the center of the group lest she be seen, each damn stinking heap of manure piled up in a field had called her to tread a different path from the rest of the group.

Resisting had been tortuous and had become ever more so with each step, but resist she had. There was practically no one in the city Aoife could trust. Her traveling companions were pretty much the only allies she could hope for and leaving them by the roadside would be a waste. The red-head could think of numerous uses for Erskine’s strange science. Also a man the size of Oryn with a sword to match was never a bad person to have at your back in any situation. The rest of the group were much the same, all of them far too useful to just abandon; but the place Aoife longed to go was a place for her alone.

And so she had walked and talked, eaten, drunk and laughed with her companions and when the opportunity had arisen, she had slipped away to her room feigning exhaustion from the road. Now she was waiting for the cloak of night to fall, slowly wearing a hole in the bedding as her fingers picked restlessly at the fabric.

Eventually, Aofie couldn’t bear to wait any longer. The view from her rooms small window that had been too light not more than a hundred heartbeats before was suddenly dark enough in her eyes. Rising to her feet, the red-head wrapped a traveling cloak tightly around her body and pulled the hood low over her face. Leaving the Casual Pint unseen was easy enough. Most of her companions had retired to their own rooms at the same time as her and a rear door that led into an alleyway avoided the need to pass through the main drinking hall.

Despite the pressing need that had left her unable to lie still since retiring to her room, as the door latched shut behind her, Aoife stopped for a few moments to take in the world. The sights, the smells, the sounds, hell, even the feel of the cobbles underfoot felt right. Like putting on a pair of old but very comfortable pair of boots or slipping into a familiar bed long abandoned, the world around her just felt right in a way it hadn’t in months. She was home. These were her streets. Someone was going to pay for trying to take them away from her.

The journey to her destination was long by Shroud standards, but the former guards woman attacked the journey like a starving man would a steak dinner. Navigating the maze of the city wasn’t a problem even in the dark. She had grown up in these streets and a decade of walking them night after night as a guard had only reinforced her knowledge of them. A map of the city was all but engraved on her brain.

Aoife didn’t stop until she rounded a corner of a half built house and the looming bulk of the city's walls came into view. Someway to the right, a gate house provided passage through the giant stone snake, but the red-head didn’t care about that. Her eyes were fixed on a small patch of light almost at the foot of the wall. The sight almost brought Aoife to her knees and did cause tears to stain her face. It almost felt unreal, like a dream that would leave her unbearably sad when she awoke. But it wasn’t a dream. She could feel the grit under her boots and smell the manure on the few scraggly fields that still remained free of the ever encroaching houses. This was real.

After summoning the strength to continue her journey, Aofie moved slower than she had before. Her hands lingering over every fence post while her eyes strove to take in every detail. When she reached a crudely engraved signpost, her fingers traced each and every shaky letter. It was like embracing a long-lost friend. Aoife was halfway through a silent prayer of thanks to the Shield-Maiden for granting her this chance when the smell of baking bread teased her nostrils and pulled her onwards.

The first building the red-head reached was a barn, the doors sealed tight against the night and those who might lurk in it. Next came a sty which reverbarated with the grunts and snorts of pigs and goats. Finally, there was a small thatch roofed cottage, golden light pouring out through shuttered windows. On a barrel next to the door, a pair of glowing eyes watched Aoife. Without saying a word, she held out a hand to the cat and was rewarded with the feeling of soft fur being pushed between her fingers while her other hand knocked on the door.

“Who is there?”

Aoife nearly called out in response to the muffled question but then for no reason at all decided to hold her tongue. Instead, she knocked on the door again.

“I asked who is there?”

Once again Aoife held her silence and knocked.

“Who is there!”

This time the words were accompanied by another small sound. It was the sound of a sword easing out of a scabbard.

Raising her hand to knock once more, Aoife hesitated for a moment before tapping out a rhythm that she had been taught before she could count without using her fingers. From the other side of the doorways came the heavy thuds of someone running. This was followed by metal scraping over wood and heavy thuds as bolts slammed home. Finally, there was the creak of old hinges as golden light spilled out from the doorway as it opened and illuminated the wide happy smile on Aoife’s tear streaked face.​

“Hi Mum. I’m home.”​

 

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Decisions



She's heard tell by those that had been there that the Shroud was unlike most of the broken, brittle and deadly North, but in so many ways, Aria had not fully anticipated what those words could mean on a personal level. Much had happened in a short span of time, and the weight of the morning's endeavors had left an anxious curve to her spine that lingered well into the afternoon.

The missive given to her by the Old Lion sat before her at the table, the once smooth document now crinkled, lined and worn from worrisome handling. As her fingers traced the emblem on the parchment, her mind returned once more to the earlier conversation. Since the incident on the shore back at the Dead Sea, Aria had struggled to find purpose. Now it lay literally before her, and where reason dictated an easy decision, her heart struggled to reconcile it all the same.

A boisterous laugh interjected, and her line of sight crossed to a small gaggle of men gathered near the door. The simplicity in their posture, the ease of the conversation returned her once again to those few times at camp or along the road when they had managed just a little respite and a twinge of envy crawled in her belly. Her eyes skimmed the room for something… Anything else. Then she spotted the familiar, comforting strike of blue near the tavern bar and grabbing the parchment, Aria rose, quickly crossing the room.

Coming up alongside where Niowyn and Oryn were gathered, she hesitated briefly, then with all the ease of a newborn ox, she approached.

"...Nio? Oryn? I could really use some help." And as the slight quiver in her voice caught hard on the tightness of her throat, a tear freed itself from the tangle of lashes.

“Aria?” He said, the smile that had been on his face when he had seen her approach them slowly fading away. Oryn raised an eyebrow, watched her for a second or two and then reached for a fresh mug of ale on the bar. The bartender, whom Oryn had instantly taken a liking to, raised one finger to indicate that he would add it to his tab. Turning, he handed the mug to Aria. “Have a bit of that. The ale is good here.” He said, though he figured that he valued the quality of the ale in the Shroud more than Aria and Niowyn both. Oryn glanced over at Niowyn and then back at Aria and then he gestured to the table closest to them. “Do you want to sit?”

Niowyn was about to take a sip of the fine ale the Shroud offered, a much needed improvement from the ale the group had found on the road, when Aria approached them shaky and timid. The tribeswoman placed her mug back on the bar and turned to look at the young soldier. Her brave demeaner had seemingly shattered and before Niowyn was akin to a scared little girl. Instinctively, she reached out to her friend and wrapped her arm around Aria’s shoulder in a protective manner. “Oh sweet Aria.. Come on now, we can talk all about it.” Niowyn looked over her shoulder at Oryn, nodding at him to bring their drinks and follow as she guided the young soldier to a table tucked in the back, away from curious ears.

As she sat, Aria stubbornly swiped at the dampness on her cheeks, the comforting ministrations of her friends both appreciated and a little mortifying. She hasn't anticipated it… The emotional spillover, but in fairness it made sense. The ale between her palms, it's heady scent somewhat soothing in it's own right, she breathed in, "I'm sorry. I should have said something earlier. I didn't… I couldn't think how without feeling like all of this… like I had dragged us out here for nothing. I suppose there was a part of me that thought if I denied it maybe it wouldn't be true but today confirmed it. The day we left the Last Home… I found my brother. In a tangle of bloodvine. It was difficult at first to know it was him, but his ring…" Pulling at the chain around her neck, she held it out, "I discovered today when I returned Maud's blade to the Raven's order that Matthias had been one of their knights. He was here… this whole time and I only just…" With a pause, her fingers pinched at the bridge of her nose, "I'm sorry I didn't tell you. Nathyen was with me when… When I found him, but I couldn't bring it up. It never felt like the right moment. But now something's happened and I'm… I'm so confused."

There was more than one reason for his silence while Aria spoke. For one, Oryn had always found it best to keep quiet and let people talk when they had to, especially when they were in the sort of emotional turmoil that Aria clearly found herself in. That being said, Oryn was not the first person people confided in, or came to when they had problems. Then, he had precious few friends in his life before he met Nathyen, Niowyn, Aria and the rest of their motley crew. Secondly, Oryn was certain that Niowyn offered better advice than he did. So, for a good while he just watched her and nodded. But when she was done, his fist met the table with a low thud, not loud but enough to give his words some weight, and he looked at her with a half-smile and a raised eyebrow. “You didn’t drag us along for nothing, Aria.” Oryn said and paused, glanced at Niowyn and continued. “If I wake up tomorrow and it’s the day I met you lot all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. So if you feel bad, stop it now.” He gave a nod before reaching out and giving her wrist a squeeze. “And I’m sorry about your brother, Aria. The same blood ran in his veins as runs in yours, so he must have been a good man.”

As she listened, Niowyn reached a comforting hand to Aria’s shoulder and lightly squeezed it to offer her condolences. It was difficult for her to understand what it meant to lose a sibling for two simple reasons: she didn’t have any and her people didn’t believe death was the end. Regardless, Niowyn had seen how the others had taken death in their journey together and she knew it was a serious affair for those outside of her tribe but she didn’t dare speak. Instead, she chose to listen and offer a comforting hand instead.

Her gaze wandered to Oryn as he offered his consoling words and she smiled softly at the gentle man’s remarks. Niowyn felt the same as he - she wouldn’t change the decisions she made that brought her here. It was hard to imagine her life without the lot she had grown so close to. The tribeswoman sighed lightly and turned back to Aria, gingerly reaching for either side of her face. “Listen to me, Aria…” she began, her voice was low and soothing but held a seriousness to it. “You don’t need to apologize for anything. We made a choice to come with you to the Shroud. You never dragged us. We are here because we want to be.”

Niowyn released either side of Aria’s dampened cheek and sat back in her chair before she began again. “I am sorry about your brother… but I imagine Oryn is right. And as he said, you have the same blood. I know he has left this place but the dead never truly die.” She reached over and took the ring dangling on the chain against Aria’s neck in her hand, rubbing it between her fingers with a thoughtful ‘hmmm’. Releasing it she looked back to Aria with a small smile. “Do you want to tell us what has happened that you’re confused about?”

Taking another brief moment to compose herself, Aria took a draw from the mug Oryn had handed her, the words ruminating in her mind like something unpleasant might churn in one's stomach. Slowly, setting the mug down, she nodded.

"I spoke to one of the knights… they call him the Old Lion. I told him about Maud. All that happened back in the Hallows. And about our journey here. I wagered I might be in a bit of a tight spot… but I was willing to face whatever the consequences were for… for what I did. As it turns out, though, Maud was something of a defector and they were rather glad to be shot of him. Glad enough that… that they've offered me a chance to join them. The Raven's Order. To train with them."

Eyebrows went up as he listened. Without realizing it, a smile appeared on his face and Oryn nodded approvingly. That was despite the fact that he didn’t know a thing about the Raven’s Order or whether or not Aria wanted to join them. But she wanted to be a warrior or a knight, didn’t she? When he realized he was smiling, he cleared his throat and his expression became a more neutral, pensive one. “And now you are unsure of what to do?” Oryn asked, though he was fairly sure this was what was troubling her.

"I half expected to be hung at the gallows, if I'm honest. I… I never really thought I wanted this sort of life. Not really. I only became a soldier to keep my father out of the fighting, and I only stayed to find my brother. But now that the offer is there..." Looking between the two, she shrugged, "Am I mad to be tempted?"

“Not at all.” Niowyn replied with a soft smile and allowed herself a drink from the ale that was sitting lifeless in the mug on the table. “The beauty of a journey is that you never know where it will lead you.” Her blue eyes wandered over to Oryn for a fleeting second before she returned her attention back to Aria. “I find the best way to uncover what you really want is to talk about it aloud. Why don’t you tell us why you’re tempted by the offer.”

"That's just it… I'm not entirely certain I even understand why. I suppose in part it's a sort of… purpose. After all that's happened, it's something to do that means something. All this time, looking for my brother has been all I've been able to focus on. Now there are these doors opening and I'm not sure, but I know I want to do something… I need to do something. And going home just isn't an option for me anymore."

“Well it sounds to me like you aren’t confused about what to do at all.” Niowyn smirked in a way that let Aria know that she supported her decision.

“She does that to me all the time.” Oryn nodded toward Niowyn and then shook his head, as if he found her wisdom infinitely annoying and tiresome, but then a smile appeared on his face. She was right, of course, when she had said that it would help talking about it. Oryn understood Aria’s hesitation, but even to him it sounded like she was leaning toward joining the order. Purpose was something she was missing now that she had found her brother and he had no problem relating to how she now needed a new one. “It’s annoying, isn’t it?” He took his mug, smirked as he glanced at the tribeswoman and drank.

“Anyway…” He set the mug down, leaned back and crossed his arms. “If going home - going back - is not an option, then going forward is the only choice you have. And if the Raven’s Order can give you a sense of purpose and belonging, then that seems like your best option. I think it’s a good idea. Otherwise you might become a sellsword and we all know what they’re like.” Oryn shook his head. “Or a locksmith...”

"You've all got a terrible habit of being impossibly useful like that…" Aria muttered, but with the smallest hint of a smile, as her misty eyes danced between the pair, "But I suppose you're not wrong. Though I'd warn you, I know a pretty decent sellsword and locksmith, myself." Tapping her chin with a finger, the smile faded slightly, "All the same.. Thank you. I think I know what to do, now. But I ought to talk to Nathyen, first…"

Looking up quickly, cheeks lightly flushed, she cleared her throat, "As he's part of our group, too and all."

Niowyn smiled, looking between the two of them. It felt like home. These people felt like home to her. And with a grin, she reached her mug of ale toward the sky in triumph, “a toast then! To the path forward, to the blooming journey ahead of you, and to our decent sellsword and locksmith.” She grinned at Oryn with that last bit, clinked her mug against theirs, and took a long drink.



A collaboration between @Pupperr, @Elle Joyner & @Morgan

 

Elle Joyner

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Arianell Oresh
COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | All them others



Tough Choices
The imprint of Matthias and Cal’s rings were nearly scarred into her palm, as once again, Aria found herself pacing before the fireplace in the tavern. The sun had already begun to dip and darkened shadows had filtered into the city streets, and still, Nathyen had yet to return. The anxiety that crawled its way into her belly had little to do with it, she knew… He was accustomed to the city better than any of them, and undoubtedly had errands of his own to handle, but the circumstances of that morning’s meeting with the Old Lion had left her shaken, and for all her efforts to keep herself together, her resolve felt hollow and fragile.

The door swung open again and Aria spun towards it, only to find disappointment once more as an earnest young lad strolled past the bar towards a small group huddled in the corner. Clutching the rings once more, she returned to her orbit before the hearth. When next the door shot open, a sound that in Aria’s fixation was as loud it might have been on rusted hinges a century old, she spotted the figure of Nathyen that was both intimately familiar and yet utterly alien pass through the threshold and into the tavern. He gazed about uneasily, and she noted the way his hand hovered about the pommel of the sword at his waist. His eyes met hers, and visible relief cast a warm glow across his face.

Nathyen approached Aria, pulling a chair to sit opposite her. He sank gratefully into the well-worn tavern chair, its cushions creaking and exhaling a puff of air at the sudden pressure placed upon them. He cleared his throat and met Aria’s eyes with his own, head cocking to one side.

“You alright there, Boots?” He asked.

Sinking down, her hands brushing briefly over her face in a gesture that was somehow an impossible mingling of both relief and tension, “I thought… You were gone so long. Is everything alright with you?”

“Caught up with an old friend,” he replied curtly, waving her question aside. “What all did the Knights want with ‘ya?”

"Ah… yeah. That…" Hands winding together, she took in a breath, letting it free again in a soft, slow exhalation, "Apparently I've done them a great service, in ridding them of Maud. He… he was rogue, and took some of their other followers with him. I'd say that was the most interesting bit, but there's more. Matty was one of theirs. Had been for a while. They weren’t aware he was… well, you know.”

“Ah,” Nathyen’s head turned down and he found a sudden interest in one of the table’s splintered lengths of wooden board, picking at it with his thumb. “Doesn’t surprise me he was one of them, though - you two sharin’ blood ‘n all, seems… seems like something you’d’ve done in his position too, I think.”

“Funny you say that…” Rubbing her hands along her arms, her eyes drifted to the flames, dancing in the fireplace, “They, um… they’ve offered me a… well, they want me to join them.”

“And what’d you say?” the locksmith questioned, eyes returning to Aria, hands shrinking back to his sides.

“...I said I needed to think on it.” Looking up, she shrugged, “And the thing is, I… I have, all day. I even talked to Nio and Oryn, but I still don’t know. The thing is, I never thought… when I started this, I never thought it would be a permanent thing. Honestly, I always imagined I’d just… find Matty and go home, again. But so much has changed, and I guess a part of me always knew it… it wouldn’t ever really go that way. Maybe a part of me always knew I’d never go home. And maybe that’s why… why I felt so lost, after finding Matty.”

“Not to kick you while you’re down, but you must’ve heard tell ‘bout how you can only go ‘cross the Wall one way,” Nathyen said, words slow and deliberate. “Regardless, though, might be it’s best ‘ya find something to give you purpose. Not sayin’ this is that, but… it might be a fit.”

“That was a thought, too, yeah.” With a small sigh, she shifted forward, leaning on her palms, “That word has been dancing in my mind a bit too much for comfort, purpose. But I don’t suppose I can ignore it much longer… I’m supposed to go back tomorrow, to let him know.” Eyes shifting up to him, she bit down on the edge of her cheek, “...Does it… does it bother you?”

“What’s it matter what I think?” He laughed, shaking his head. “Not to get overtly sentimental, but I just want you to have somethin’ that keeps you strivin’ to see another day. If this is what will do that for you, then I’ve nothin’ to say but well wishes for ‘ya.”

“Don’t be dumb, Nathyen. Of course what you think matters…” Sitting back, she smiled faintly, shaking her head, “And I’ve plenty to keep me going… but it wouldn’t be half bad, I suppose, having a bit more purpose. And if Matty chose it, it must have some worth…”

“They’d be fortunate to have you, I think,” Nathyen said after a brief pause, tone threaded with a rare touch of sincerity. “Though don’t expect I’ll go ‘round callin’ you ‘sire’ ‘n the like.”

She brightened at those words, and while her eyes turned back to the fire, there was no remaining sense of tension, as a soft laugh escaped, “It seems so long ago, doesn’t it? The Hollows… that first night at the tavern…”

“Different people,” the locksmith replied in agreement. “We’ve done more in the span of half a season than others might do in a lifetime, so it only seems fair it feels like one to us.”

“There’s so much that’s happened… so much that’s changed. Erskine told me a while back that everything's left up to chance, but I can't help but feel as if this bit isn't somehow meant to be. It’s strange, but it… it felt like a part of me died, when Matthias did. And maybe that’s not the worst thing. Talking to the Lion, today, telling him what happened, it was liberating, in a way. I feel like I’m an empty page, and for the first time, the decisions I make are just my own.”

“It’s terrifying, isn’t it?” Nathyen laughed again, flashing Aria a good-natured smile. “But it is liberating, you’re right. I still remember when the day came for me and I cast aside the Guild. But, I think this is what you need, Aria.”

“I’m beginning to think so, too..” Looking to Nathyen, she shifted back in her seat, “But don’t think just because I’ll be training with the Knights I’ll go easy on you. You’ll need to keep up with me, after all.”

“Somethin’ tells me once you’re trained in proper fightin’ we’ll be well and truly a league apart in skill, but I suppose you’ll always need to practice goin’ up against untrained rabble like me.”

“Oi… Not entirely untrained. You’ve done well enough for yourself, lately. I’ve still got that bruise from our last sparring match. And once I get you a proper weapon, I imagine you can only get better.” Smiling lightly, her shoulders rose in another shrug, “And I expect I’d rather miss it…”

“Oi yourself, Boots,” Nathyen rolled his eyes. “There’s only room for one sentimental lout here at this table. While you’re off gettin’ schooled in more ways to remind me there are still new places to bruise, I’m sure you’ll think back to how easily you best me fondly.”

“You say that as if I don’t already think fondly on it.” She teased, with a grin, “Might even write a song on it, someday.”

“Gods be good when you learn to put any sort of thoughts to paper like that - might even manage to make me blush out ‘o embarrassment for you.”

“It can’t be that hard… just finding words that fit, right?” Arms crossed, she feigned consideration, tapping her chin, “What rhymes with girlish weeping?”

“Ah, that’d be easy - whorish leapin’,” Nathyen replied with a sharp bark of laughter, smacking his palm into the table. “That’s the sort ‘o class you have to look forward to in writin’ your own verse, lass.”

“You forget, I spent two years in the company of soldiers, Nate. I’m not so delicate.” Laughing lightly, she shook her head, “But perhaps you’re right. I’d better stick to besting you with a blade, and you can write the songs.”

“Easy to forget when ‘yer so easily shaken by a score ‘o other, innocent things,” he teased, waving aside the remark. “Aye, but I think that’d best be so.”

“If you are referring to that little number back in the Hollows, that’s hardly fair. You sprung it on me, with no warning. And I rather expected to die the next morning, so it wasn’t entirely something I was prepared for.”

“Ah well, unfortunately here we both are, so I’m afraid you’re confined to my tormentin’ you for a while yet, Boots.”

“I certainly hope so…” Smile softening, she shifted, “Everything else might be changing, but I would never want that to… I hope you know that.”

“I do - you’re not half bad yourself,” the locksmith replied with a wry wink and a smile, flagging down a barmaid. “Enough serious talk, though. Or half serious, as makes no difference. Let us drink and properly celebrate our arrival here for a time at least.”

“Well, tomorrow I’ll be on my way to knighthood, so just this once… why not.”
[/div
 

CasketCase

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ErskineP2.jpg Erskine Rimebarth
═══════════════════════════
"A Human Society, Part 2 - In The Shadow of The Wyrm"

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His mouth felt numb and his thoughts felt fuzzy as the dwarf stepped out of the Casual Pint. Giving out a long exhale, he could only imagine how bad his breath stank of alcohol. Erskine's coin had taken quite a hit buying the information off of Grogg, but he at long last had a general idea as to the whereabouts of Kilmah Twice-Born. For one reason or another, she had taken up with the Order of the Wyrm, or at least to the point where she was frequently spotted at their keep. Now he just had to get there; a feat easier said than done with the exercise he was putting his liver through at the moment. To be fair, the challenge wasn't due to the tipsiness, but rather the fact that he was still unfamiliar with the Shroud. Erskine might have hailed from a strange offshoot of his kind, but he was still a dwarf.

Taking in a deep breath, he reached into a series of pockets upon his person, eventually finding the objects he sought; the first was a small map of the Shroud and the second was a wad of mint leaves that he shoved into his mouth, growing sick of the staling taste of ale. Unfurling the rolled parchment, he skimmed over it in between taking glances around to orient himself with what he could estimate was his location. His route determined, he began his trek towards the Wyrm's Keep.

As he walked, Erskine studied the bustling city as people went about their days fulfilling jobs, errands, or seeking out pleasures. By this time of days, the shops were preparing for the lunch crowds, as bakeries filled the air with the scent of bread and pastries, and carts of various goods were slowly being pushed into their respective places, it wouldn't be much longer until the wide streets were filled. All of this was housed in the stonework of his people; the architecture clearly dwarven. A small sense of pride filled him, the longevity of the ancestors' work enduring even to this day. Perhaps he might accomplish something of such value one day, he could only hope. After another glance at his map, he confirmed which fork to take before purchasing a freshly cooked kebab for the road. His stomach would need the reinforcement to soak up all the ale, and the mint could only do much to soothe his growing hunger. Riping off a nearby humanist poster, the dwarf spat out the mint onto it and tossed the crumpled wad into a rubbish bin.

It was ironic that those who believed themselves superiors would do so from ivory towers made by those they deemed "unworthy".

Taking a bit of the kabab, the pungent fumes from the sauce brought forth a reactive cough; no doubt a warning of what awaited him. Still, he bit down on the uppermost chunk of meat and vegetables. Although it wasn't too bad, it was apparent that the sauce was the main attraction; better than an empty stomach. Licking the excess from his fingers, he wiped the moisture onto his handkerchief before withdrawing the map once more. According to it, he should be close now, and after a cursory glance upward, he felt awfully foolish considering the Temple of the Wyrm looming over its neighbors.

"Well... I suppose it coulda been a touch bigger," Erskine jokingly noted to himself as he rolled up his map and headed towards the keep. Hopefully, Grogg's information was up to date and Kilmah could indeed be found within.
 
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Elle Joyner

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Arianell Oresh
COLLAB WITH | @ze_kraken MENTIONED | Nio @Pupperr and Oryn @Morgan



The Shroud
There was no light to filter through the blinds of the Casual Pint’s rooms - being underground, they were as dark as they were chilled and clammy. Still, daylight or no, the growing commotion of the tavern’s main hall meant Aria did not sleep well beyond sunrise. Something rustled in the bed beside her, and she leaned up, rubbing sleep from her eyes to see Nathyen fumbling to light a lantern on the bedside table. Noticing Aria was awake, the locksmith gave her a sheepish smile as flickering light flooded the room.

“I suppose ‘just for a few minutes’ ended up stretching what a ‘few’ means, didn’t it?” He asked with a soft laugh.

Even in the wan lantern light, Aria's skin turned an impressive shade of red as she stared momentarily dumbstruck at the man beside her. For all her days, she couldn't recall how or when they had left the bar room, but the pounding in her head seemed a fairly decent indication that she'd indulged more than intended, and as memory failed to surface, her mind filled in blanks with all manner of tawdry possibilities.

"...Hi." Came the only moronic thing she could think to spit out, before, hands pushing unruly curls back, she swallowed anxieties choking grip, "...Did… uh… do you know… What…?"

“Never drunk yourself to those depths before, have ‘ya? Even when you were soldierin’ about?”

“Can’t say I have… Something about vigilance or… maybe I just don’t care for the headache.” Rubbing her forehead again, cheeks still flushed, she looked up through her lashes, “I don’t… exactly recall how we ended up here.”

“Ah well, not sure I’d care to recall that right now,” Nathyen said with a grimace, nose turning up and his forehead creasing. “Well, Boots, if you can stand, best we get something from downstairs. Preferably somethin’ without a trace of alcohol.”

Blinking, Aria stared for a second time, slightly struck, “Right, yes. I… I need to clear my head before… well, you know.” Pushing herself upright fully, she shifted and paused, reaching for the boots she’d discarded by the bedside, not daring to look up from her feet as she tugged them on, “Nathyen? Do you think…” Pausing, she swallowed, “I’m not really sure how to ask… Did anything… happen?”

“In my experience, ‘ya typically don’t find both people wakin’ up in their clothes when they’re too drunk to remember the night before,” he said with a shrug, the gesture scrunching his face back into a tight grimace as one hand massaged his right temple. “Not that you aren’t…Or’s to say I wouldn’t-”

He paused, words palpably caught on the edge of his tongue.

“Nevermind that now,” he waved the comment aside, tone clipped and to-the-point. “Come on, then, my head’s about to split.”

Something like a breath of relief escaped, and as she buckled her other boot, she rose to her feet, pressing her fingers to her temple before nodding, “Same… The next time you recommend a drink to cope, Nate, remind me to say no…”

Looking over her shoulder to him, her expression softened, just briefly, “...And… not to harp, but I… I just… if it were to ever come to that, I… I would rather hope I would remember, is all.” And as if the words were a snake pressing after her heel, she dodged around the bed and made to open the door quicker than necessary.

Without another word the two made their way into the tavern common room, enjoying magically-purified water and a breakfast of hard tack bread, butter, and cheese. The was sickening to Aria’s nose, its pungent scent threatening to loosen whatever lingered in her stomach from the night before. After both she and Nathyen had taken time to recover their wits, the locksmith cleared his throat.

“Have you decided if you’ll join up with the Knights?” He asked, cocking his head to the side.

“Aye…” Giving a slow nod, Aria picked at the bread, rolling it between her fingers in thoughtful concentration, “Honestly, I think… I think I decided at the offer, but talking to you and Nio and Oryn sort of cleared out the doubt. I need to do this. Not… not just because it makes sense or it’s what Matty did, but because it’s what I want.” Looking up, she gave a light smile, “I just wish I didn’t still feel so nervous.”

“Nervous is… good, I think. It’s easy in the songs and the stories to forget that, for the ones based on history anyways, that the right path forward wasn’t the easiest or maybe even the one that was the most comfortable.” His face hardened as he appeared to be lost in smearing a pad of butter across his bread. “At least, that’s what I’ve told myself. Maybe the Adrian the Bolds and Stormbreakers and the like always knew what lay ahead.”

“...I forget sometimes, that you’re no mere locksmith there.” Chuckling, she took a sip of water, sitting back in her seat, “Someday, you’re going to have to tell me these stories. All I’ve got are the ones back home, and I’m pretty sure they’re nowhere near as interesting and mainly involve feuds over land or maidens with land.” Pausing, she grinned, “Nice to know, too, you think I might be worthy of song, some day.”

“Like your namesake,” Nathyen offered with a soft smile, hidden swiftly behind his cup as he quaffed down the remainder of his water.

"Like my what?" Brow quirked, Aria set her own mug down, intrigued.

“Oh surely you must know,” Nathyen said, hungover weariness cast aside as his eyes lit up in equal parts surprise and excitement. “The resemblance is too close for it to be just a coincidence. Back during the Unmaking, just at the southern cusp of what we know as the Dead Sea it was said Lady Ariana of the Court of Alderstone resisted Piersym’s army for seven days and seven nights. She was one of the last humans to ride dragons in their pure form - trusted of both elf and drake in equal measure. It’s an uncommon name, but… Aria, Ariana - the same root, I thought it was intentional.”

“Maybe… maybe it was. My mother used to tell me stories, nothing quite so daring, but I wonder if perhaps things trickled over the border, were twisted. Huh…” Eyes brightening slightly, she nodded, “I shouldn’t linger too long, if I’m to make this meeting, but I’d like to hear more, when I return. Though… Goodness, I didn’t even think. You suppose they’ll let me come back here?”

“I doubt the Keep has room for all the Knights - I’ve seen them living in all types of quarters in the city, so I doubt they’ll keep you there,” Nathyen said, shrugging. “But then, there could be any number of reasons for them to be all about the city.”

“Then… then I guess I’ll see you tonight?” She gave a slight smile, but it was stretched and thin, and her hands knotted in her lap, fingers twisting over each other. “I should probably go.”

“Aye, suppose you’ve got a story to start, ‘eh?”

“...Just need to remember how to stand.” She quipped, with a nervous laugh, before pushing back her chair, “Not sure what’s said or done in the way of wishing luck, round here, but I could use it…”

“I think a simple ‘best of luck’ still works,” Nathyen quipped back with a bemused smile.

The locksmith staggered to his feet, swaying momentarily. He shuffled over to Aria, wrapping her in a quick hug. Taking a measured step backward, he looked her over and let out a sharp laugh.

“What a way to start a story, too - hungover and tired,” he said with another laugh.

“To no one’s surprise,” She started, looking up at him with a grin, “Someday, maybe I won’t be such a disaster. I’ll see you.” And with a nod and a brace to his arm, Aria passed by the locksmith, making her way to the tavern entrance.

The city beyond bustled with life. In a single intersection, Aria saw more people coming and going than she had ever seen elsewhere in her life. Interspersed among the crowd were the Steelcoats, though they were almost outnumbered by the amount of sellswords she spied in the crowds. Still, in the sea of grey and brown and steel shone splashes of colored tunics and gowns and cloaks. Merchants and nobles and priests wandered throughout the sea of city life, sparing Aria no second glances as she made her way through the Shroud’s tiers towards the Aetherstone Keep.

Upon her arrival, she flashed the guard the papers the Old Lion had given her, and she was ushered through without so much as a shred of the doubt and antagonism she and Nathyen had encountered earlier. She ventured westward of the Keep as she had been instructed, towards an expanse of road flanked by luxurious houses lined in iron-wrought fencing and stone walls that were as defensible as they were impressive to look upon. There patrolled no Steelcoats. Instead, household soldiers bearing the colors and sigils of their charges stood at attention, spears and halberds clutched in practiced hands.

As she pressed on further, she saw the training grounds the Old Lion had mentioned. They were a flat expanse of ground framed in bold white lines of paint that denoted separate sparring grounds. In contrast to the city below, the training grounds were almost utterly devoid of the same chaotic energy Aria had encountered. A handful of silhouettes wandered about - donning armor, oiling weapons, and the like. One, a good head taller than the others around him, noticed her and waved.

“‘Ho, stranger, we are well met,” he called once she was within earshot. “Might you be this Southlander the Old Lion told me of?”

Whatever courage Aria had managed to screw together after leaving Nathyen back at the inn, it felt folded and crumpled like dented armor by the time hse was hailed. When she had first become a soldier, it was out of necessity on her part to protect her father and desperation for those in whose ranks she filled. Now, however, there was an odd sense of personal desire that drove her, and somehow that made it intensely more dire.

“I am.” She answered, with as much steel as she could force inside those few words, approaching with a bow of her head, “Aria, of Korin.”

“Well, Aria of Korin - I am Germund, no suffix,” the man replied.

Now that he was closer, Aria could take a more detailed look. He was large - not in any one feature, she noticed after a second inspection. His arms and legs were lanky, his barrel chest neither having given way into fatness nor a particularly stark definition of muscle. Ashen greyness, the kind that spoke to a recent close shave, clung to his cheeks. Aria could still spot distinct dots of grey and white in his closely-cut locks even though his hair was certainly more pepper than it was salt. His eyes were unremarkable, a bland sort of brown she had seen dozens if nor hundreds of times that morning alone. His clothes were likewise of little note, save for the raven embossed upon his tunic and the fine blade he wore at his side.

“Tell me, Aria of Korin,” he continued, taking a step about Aria to examine her. She could feel the intensity of those bland, brown eyes as they raked over her. “I see you carry yourself confidently enough, but… it’s not all real, is it?”

Before Aria could answer, he was already continuing. “No, no it isn’t. But then courage takes many forms... That sword of yours - no, not that one. The one that is not broken. You use it often?”

At Aria’s shy nod, Germund tutted and finished his circle, standing where he had started before her.

“We’ll see about that. How much did the Old Lion tell you about what exactly it is you will be doing?”

“He was rather vague…” She answered, and though she didn’t move, her eyes followed him, not entirely unlike a lion, herself in that moment, “Though I trust it wasn’t entirely his first assumption he would be recruiting me. Rather expected to find my neck on the gallows, frankly.”

“And yet you came anyways,” Germund mused, more to himself than to Aria. “Courage in many forms. Well, Aria of Korin - you will report here every morning for sparring. I need to get a sense of where you are before we can push you to be more. Once I am confident enough you won’t get anyone killed, you and I will take on the various requests coming in from the townships the Shroud oversees. Most of them are harmless - squabbles over land or livestock, the kinds of things Steelcoats are too crude to handle. Some are dangerous. Brigands and the like. And, of course, then there are the Others, but we have yet to see one of them in these parts in five or six seasons. I trust by the fact you are carrying not one but two swords, that is your weapon of choice, aye?”

“Only one I’ve ever used, besides what I had to if things came about unexpected. Don’t suppose you’ve done much training in iron pans or pitchforks, though, and suppose even less it’ll do much good against the likes of bridands and Others.” Pausing, she touched a hand to the hilt of her blade, her fingers gingerly brushing along the pommel, “It belonged to my father. And the other was… well, I suppose you know that story?”

“Maud was a proper cunt,” Germund said flatly. “You did the right thing killing him.”

He stepped back towards a wooden rack lined with a wooden blade, spear, and axe. He fetched the sword and gestured to a similar rack opposite Aria.

“We’ll start with swords for now,” he said. “Though I do expect you to develop a baseline proficiency with the spear and axe. More importantly, though, once I’m sure you are versed in Proteon with the sword, I will ensure you know what to do against an axe and spear in turn. Have you had any proper schooling before, or just the sort life provides?”

“Only what my father and brother’s taught me, and my mentor after that. A fellow soldier, higher ranking than myself. Said I’ve decent reaction, instincts, but my footwork’s worth a rat’s… well, you know. Took half a year for him to break some old habits, but we didn’t get much more than that before I wound up in the Hollows, then off to Gol Badhir without him.”

“So we’ll start with the basics, then,” Germund said with a nod. “First with guards, then thrusts. Afterwards we’ll see how quick of a learner you are. There are fourteen guards, and we will start with the first three - low, middle, and high…”

Over an hour passed as Germund guided Aria through each of the guard positions, and when to use each one. Several of them, she noted, were simply the same as another but mirrored to the left or the right.

“Though I don’t expect to you to become ambidextrous,” Germund had explained, “knowing when to use what side of the body when fighting opponents of different handedness can spare you a great deal of confusion and sloppy cuts.”

Germund explained that these guards were best suited to fighting either with a buckler and longsword, or just a longsword clutched in both hands. Shields, he said, were for fighting in the rank and file of centuries past.

“Armies don’t exist anymore, and I doubt you’ll ever see their likes again,” he said.

After the demonstration, Germund gestured to a point of their segment of the training grounds marked with a horizontal bar of white paint. He stood along his own opposite Aria by about five paces, adopting what she now recognized as a low guard with his wrists extended out and down, wrists facing Aria, blade tip just inches above the ground.

“At your mark,” he said, nodding once more to the bar of paint.

Shifting, Aria’s feet met the bar, and while she was all too certain her heart’s hammering could be heard through her armored plate, she held what she hoped was that courage that had been first noted by the man opposite her. Own fingers curling a tight grip on the hilt, she held her blade at the ready.

Germund approached, closing the distance between he and Aria in two strides, blade held low in the same guard as before. His eyes betrayed nothing, and he made to move to Aria’s side only to be cut off by a quick pivot and feint. The two began pacing about, little over two paces away from one another, neither advancing nor ceding an inch of ground to the opponent.

It was far different from sparring with Nathyen. There was none of the amusement, the jesting, the quips, and for the first time in a long time, Aria found herself feeling oddly out of her depth. Despite all she had done from the moment she’d crossed the border, she was still just a farmgirl, taught with sticks in the fields outside her home. Yet despite the insecurities coursing through her like hot blood, there was something else within her that she had not felt in a long time… Pure determination. A need to prove herself.

And with that spark of fire in her belly, Aria took a sudden, swift sweep to the side and swung down on Germund. Wood whistled through the air, and their blades met with a resounding crack between them, jarring Aria’s wrist. The weight of Germund’s blade withdrew as swiftly as it had arrived, and swatted aside Aria’s sword before she could resume her earlier position. She just barely managed to step back and adjust her sword in time as evidenced by Germund’s practice blade sweeping through where she had been standing just a moment before.

Before Aria could tell what was happening, the ground was rushing away from her as she fell backward. She landed atop the hard packed dirt of the practice ground, a welt flaring red hot in sudden pain on her left shin. Dust plumed up around her, and she suddenly became aware of Germund’s practice sword prodding her in the collarbone. The weapon retracted, replaced with Germund’s hand. As Aria took it, he dragged her to her feet and stepped back.

“What happened?” He asked, tone neutral.

Dusting herself off, giving a small shake of her head, Aria looked to the marks on the ground in an effort to retrace those steps in her mind, “Left myself open. Missed the low guard. Came in too close, I’d guess.”

“Very good - swords have reach.” He said, inflection free of condescension. “You were right to step back when you did, but let’s walk through what you should have done as well. Here, swing at me like I just did.”

As Aria swung in a slow motion, Germund stepped back and extended the tip of his sword towards Aria’s step, taking another measured step back. There the tip hovered, and he nodded in approval as Aria reflexively backed away from the sword’s tip.

“Even if you moved to try and get your blade out of the way,” he explained, moving in the same methodical manner to strike Aria’s blade away. “I’ve bought myself space and time. Too close and…”

He stepped forward, pushing on Aria’s sword to move it far to her side. Once within arm’s reach, he lashed out with his boot, lightly tapping the shin he had not earlier struck with the tip of his foot.

“...we see all the other ways you can kill and maim without steel. Understand?”

The bit of praise for understanding her error tasted sour for the bitter realization that it was the same lesson, nearly word for word, that she had first taught Nathyen. In her efforts to prove herself, she’d forgotten the very basics she had formed her foundation on.

“I do…” She answered, with an obedient nod, before, forcing down her frustration, she returned to the mark in resolute silence.

The two exchanged bouts of swordplay well into the afternoon, breaking only to take sips of water and for Germund to explain the finer points of guards and when to use them. Though he had the upper hand over Aria, she had managed to get the first touch on him just under half the time, often through a mixture of her own improvisation and Germund’s instruction.

By the time the sun had begun to tip from its peak into its descent, sweat plastered both their brows and clung to them in a thick film. Germund stocked the practice swords back along their racks and nodded to Aria, the ghost of a smile etched on his otherwise stonelike face.

“They teach those in Korin well,” he said. “Though it might be just as well I am inclined to believe Korin a place of all warriors on the account of two anomalies deciding to venture north of the Pass.”

Wiping a hand across her brow, Aria met the man with a curious look, and seemed for a moment to wager her question, before it was asked quietly, “...Did you know him? Mathias?”

“Not particularly well, but he’s given me a good share of welts,” Germund replied with a shrug. “I was never sent in the field with him, but I’ve heard that he could be quite ferocious when cornered. Seems you might have that in common with him, if you slew Maud.”

“There was nothing ferocious about what happened with Maud…” She admitted, frowning lightly, “Not on my end, anyway. I just… he was going to kill someone I care for and I could not allow that to happen, so I did what I had to do. I think… I think in many ways, the Mathias that left home is not the same as the one you knew. He was very gentle, there. Not… not built for all of this. But I’m not sorry to hear he grew into it. I only wish I’d come sooner…” Breathing out, and bending down to rub where the welt on her shin had undoubtedly already bloomed into a bruise, she glanced up at Germund, “Does it always change you? All of this?”

"Some are born able to divide the violent parts of their mind from the mundane," Germund said, usually flat tone warming into notes of sincerity as he studied Aria's face. "Others, like Maud, equate a penchant for violence with their sense of purpose. More still are left broken in thousands of unique ways. I once met a man who could never frequent the Street of the Stag, for the banging of a smith's hammer sounded to him too similarly to the way a warhammer bashed in his mother's head as a boy. I think this life, meaning life in service of the Raven, culls those who might shatter their minds like the man with his hammers. Doubtless we all have our own demons to contend with, but a strained mind is not a shattered one. That leaves the ones who flaunt their expertise at killing and those who know a life taken is a serious thing. Mathias never struck me as the one to delight in violence, even in service for some greater good. There are others who could tell you more than I, but that is my impression."

“Even hearing about… about what sort of man Maud was, I don’t delight in it, either. What I did. I don’t regret it. Not for what it prevented… but there are times when I still cannot sleep at night, for the thought of it. I realize, considering where I am… what we’re doing here, that may give you doubts as to my… capabilities. But if I have learned anything from my time here in the North, it is that certain values that are overlooked as weakness can often be an unexpected boon. I suppose they are in many ways what separates us from the Others. And sometimes, in some cases, what makes us not so separate at all. All the same, if he was able to hold onto at least a little of who he was, then good for him.” Trailing off for a moment, she briefly touched a hand to the chain around her neck, before lowering it, looking to Germund, “When should I return?”

Germund’s expression was neither compassionate nor particularly disinterested. His brown eyes seemed to gaze through Aria as she met them, and the large man shrugged.

“The same time as today I suppose,” he said, and something in his voice indicated to Aria he had not given it much thought until just now.

"Same time it is, then." With a nod, Aria extended a hand to the man.

Germund clasped Aria’s wrist and shook.

“See you on the morrow.”

After bidding Germund goodbye, Aria left the training grounds. It was a short time. before she returned to the inn. She had been through it before, the intensity of the lessons, but it had been some great while since her body had felt quite so thoroughly worked over. The grueling walk was eventually made somewhat lighter without the weight of the armor she had, for so long, become accustomed to clinging to, but with the myriad bruises, welts and scrapes that lined her head to toe, she felt less like a knight and more like meat, seasoned for supper.

Arriving shortly after the sun had begun its climb below the city wall, Aria dropped almost immediately into a seat near the fire and with a small groan, a mingled song of pain, exhaustion and elation, she let her head fall into her open palms.

“I see you understand how I feel after a wallop from you, ‘eh Boots?” Came Nathyen’s familiar tune, and as Aria looked up from her palms she just caught the sight of the slender locksmith sitting opposite her by the hearth.

"That's hardly fair. Germund is twice my size, and the sticks are considerably more solid." Smiling dryly, Aria dropped back against the seat, "I'm not sure there's any bits of me that aren't bruised."

“I’ll take it easy on you when next we spar, then,” he replied in a teasing tone, nodding to Aria. “It’s… odd, seeing you without that mail on you. Might say you even look like a woman. Ah, not that I wasn’t aware of the fact before, I mean.”

Chuckling, Aria nodded, "Been a while since I felt safe enough to take it off. Dare say it'll be something of a new look for me, for the time being anyway. I… I traded it. And don't feel bad. It's only fair to think it. I was rather aiming for that illusion when first we met.

“Traded it?” Nathyen asked, raising an eyebrow. “Ah, suppose the Knights’ll see to getting you better mail, anyways. And don’t take this to mean you should start runnin’ ‘round in dresses ‘n the like, but it suits you to take that burden off, I think.”

Shaking her head, she laughed lightly, "Not sure I've actually ever worn a dress. Not entirely handy on a farm. Not sure I'd even know how to get in one. But I agree. I… I think it's been more of a burden than I even realized. Not just the armor but all of it. The pretense… filling shoes I never meant to wear. I feel oddly… Freer. That, or I had one too many knocks in the head." This, as she rubbed a particularly painful knot beneath her curls.

“We’ll see how you feel on the morrow, then,” the locksmith replied. “It’s odd - I’ve seen you out of that armor two or three times now, but it’s… different this time. Freer, as you say. And this, coming from someone whose head’s been left unknocked all day.”

"Well, free or not, we'll have you properly knocked tomorrow." She teased, leaning forward to give his knee a prod, "Don't think I'll slack off on your training, bruised or not. Tonight, a reprieve, if only because I'm not entirely sure I can even stand, anymore. I think I'll get washed up and get some decent rest. None of that dastardly ale of yours."

“It’s mine, is it? Mind tellin’ the innkeep that, elsewise I might have to pay for it again, ‘n that doesn’t seem fair,” he quipped with a laugh, waving the comment aside. “Right, then, seems you should go get that rest, then. Somethin’ tells me you’ll be at it early again tomorrow.”

"What's not fair is my head's still paying for it. And I find I rather prefer recalling who I go to bed with." Rising, slowly and tenderly, she shook her head again, and moving past him a little, she reached out to grasp his shoulder gently, "Goodnight, Nathyen."
 

Applo

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A Personal Favor to the Family
A collaboration with @ze_kraken

The figure in the dark cloak was not born to a life of skulduggery; Aoife had decided shortly after first noticing them tailing her through the back alleys of the Shroud she had wandered as a child. Perhaps it was the cloak itself - a rather flowing thing, prone to being swept in dramatic ripples and flares in the wind. It stood in stark contrast to the splashes of color and greys and browns of the city’s fighting men, made all the more obvious by the way its hood cast its wearer in intense shadows that seemed to defy the sunlight that flitted down from above. The attempt at tailing her was almost so bafflingly obvious that for a moment a suspicion tugged at the back of her mind that this could not be the only tail, but as the day went along no new figure emerged ready to gut her.

It was not until she returned to the Casual Pint did Aoife’s tail approach her, sliding from a corner in the tavern not dark enough to conceal the midnight-black cloak: even the shadows were no place for this one. Now close enough to take a good look at the figure, she could spy pale skin peeking from underneath the cloak, a set of thin lips just barely visible. The chin was soft and feminine, the thin lips lined with just a shade of plumpness that spoke of womanhood. Only, as the figure seated itself opposite Aoife, she saw then it was no woman but an effeminate man that sat before her. He lifted his hood enough to cast his face in the light while leaving it concealed to onlookers, gesturing to Aoife.

“I take it you’re the one who has been asking for me,” he said, voice nasally and high-pitched with a raspy undertone that sent chills down Red-head’s arms.

“That depends on exactly who you are.”

Picking up her drink, Aoife held the mug aloft with both hands, using it as a shield between her and her unsettling new companion. It wasn’t just the voice that had her unnerved. If this person was who she hoped they were, they were incredibly dangerous. If they were someone else, then dangerous did not even begin to cover it. At the same time, letting her worries show wasn’t an option; Aoife had learnt that lesson many years ago. And so like she always did in these situations, she hid them behind bravado and anything innocent looking that could be used as a weapon.

“I was asking after someone who I thought could move unseen through this city, not a man who trudges through the gutters like a fat merchant asking to be robbed. Can I buy you a drink? It must have been thirsty work following me for so long.”

The stranger’s brow upturned, and Aoife noted with satisfaction the way his lip quivered before stretching into a wide, taut white grin that shriveled back to their tacit state a moment later.

“If perhaps you carried blades sharper than your tongue, I might have made a greater effort to conceal myself, or else send someone more inclined to snag you in some back alley,” he replied with a nonchalant shrug that almost managed to play off her earlier comment. “Such as you are, all I might need to disarm you is a gag, but unfortunately conducting business is rather difficult when only one of us can speak. And doubtless my voice is unpleasant to listen to without pause - gods, it even drives me a little mad. But here I go, rambling on - do I need to worry about you?”

“Not unless you give me a reason to worry about you.”

Releasing her drink into the care of just one of her hands, Aoife slumped back in her chair with a motion that seemed like a shrug from her whole body; a move that coincidentally, though not unwelcomely, increased the distance between her and her drinking partner.

“It’s funny, you aren’t the first person recently to remark on the sharpness of my tongue or suggest gagging me. I think I preferred it when the words came from their lips though.”

Taking a sip from her cup, Aoife’s eyes never left her companion as she watched for even a hint of possible betrayal.

“They would tell me to stop being tiresome and say what I wanted, so here it is: You have access to certain… um... resources. I am looking for some information I’m sure other people would rather be forgotten. I think you can see where this is going.”

“I see what you want, but you’ve neglected to inform me as to what it is you give me to gain access to these ‘resources’,” he said, fingers lifting from the tabletop to form quotes around the word before slinking back into the folds of his cloak. “An associate of mine told me she noted that you were magically inclined when she sensed you, is she correct in that assessment?”

“Your associate is good for her word.”

Reaching a hand out towards the sunken candle that was just barely illuminating the table, Aoife pulled the flame from the gnarled wick. Green eyes were filled with the reflection of her new charge as the red-head had the errant flames dance and swirl through her fingers before snuffing them out with a quick clench of her fist.

“What I can give you is probably an easier question for you to answer. I have been away from the city for a long time, but it is still my home. The gutters you trailed me through today, I was born in them. Not only did I survive, I dragged myself and my family out of them without owing a thing to anyone but myself. I am sure a man like yourself can understand what that means and could find a use for someone like me.”

“I don’t know you - but I know your type. Yes, the details change, but I don’t care about what makes your story unique from the dozens if not hundreds of others like you. You’ve made no splashes in any of the gangs I’ve contacted, which means you are either a very committed liar or wishing to remain anonymous for the time being. So be it, anonymous. It happens I may have work for you.”

The man steepled his fingers atop the tabletop, and Aoife noticed that his fingernails were immaculately well-kept.

“It’s a deeply protected secret that Lord Narder Tolpher is currently having an affair - and in my circle, these sort of things matter a great deal more than they should,” he continued, cocking his head to one side. “I think I have pieced together who the subject of his affections is, but even if I am wrong, people talk, other, richer lords start looking into it, and so it goes.”

He flicked a document from his cloak and slid it across the table to Aoife.

“The kinds of people I use to plan this kind of evidence can’t be trusted. They’re in the pockets of lords besides myself - I don’t know where your allegiances lie, but the fact no one knows you says that either you’re not in the pocket of anyone I need to worry about or I’m the first to approach you. Either way, you’re useful to me. Get this into possession of the Lord’s wife, make it look like she stumbled upon the letter - simply letting the rumors spread do no good unless someone credible is involved, and Lady Tolpher is quite an ornery thing. Very traditional. This sort of news won’t go a day without being shouted from every street corner in the Aether district.”

“Good to know things are just like I left them.”

Retrieving the letter from the table, Aofie turned it over and over in her hands. How light it was to cut a man down as certainly as any sword. In her mind, she questioned what it was this Narder Tolpher had done to earn the ire of her cloaked accomplice. She didn’t ask this question because such questions were the type that should be asked in these sorts of situations and because a clear conscience was a luxury that she could often only afford with ignorance. Besides a Lord of the Shroud almost certainly deserved everything that was coming to them.

“I’ll make sure that the lady finds this just as she should. Seeing as you will know when I have done my part, I assume you will contact me rather than the other way around?”

A nod followed, and the hooded man made to leave his chair before hesitating, hovering over the seat with a hand supporting himself atop the table.

“Should you be approached by any others with offers for similar work or information after our parting here today, speak to a man named Iylsan on the Street of the Stag. Explain the situation to him, and he will see what it will cost to keep you in my good graces, at least until this job is complete. I don’t like competing interests. It makes things messy.”

With that he nodded again, more to himself than to her, Aoife noticed, and left the tavern in one seemingly continuous billow of his cloak.

“What a prick.”

The whispered word bounced off the drink in Aoife’s mug because while the little creep made her skin crawl, he was the kind of creep that would probably know if she sneezed.

“This better be worth it.”
 

Morgan

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Oryn


The people of the Casual Pint roared in applause. Oryn chuckled, shrugged and looked toward Grogg he innkeep. Earlier that very evening, the two of them had been sharing stories and Oryn had shared one in which he casually explained how he hit an almost impossible shot with a bow. A shot that, according to Oryn himself, would have gone down in legend had anyone but his “fucking horse” been there to see it, as he so eloquently had put it. Grogg had shaken his head and sighed, not believing a word Oryn had said. Taking offense, the sellsword had stubbornly (and a little drunkenly) maintained that he was telling the truth. After a short while of arguing back and forth, another frequenter of the Causal Pint had asked what they were yelling for. Oryn had retold the story, more arguing had ensued and finally Grogg and the other man had asked him to prove his skill. Finishing the last of his ale, burping loudly and standing from his seat so quickly that he knocked his stool over, Oryn had agreed.

One particularly brave (and drunk) individual had volunteered to place an apple upon his head and stand at the back wall of the inn. Oryn had taken his dagger, measured out fifteen feet and turned to face his target. Before he had begun, he and Grogg had agreed that each time he hit the apple, Grogg would give him an ale – free of charge. He had nodded, sighed, closed one eye and thrown the knife. Despite not being able to stop swaying, Oryn had thrown the dagger, hit the apple and pinned it to the wall. After being served his free mug of ale and drinking half of it, he had increased the distance by three feet and thrown his blade again. He repeated this three times. On the fourth, he had loudly declared that, as a gesture of good will, the next round of ale was on him. Oryn was not quite sure why he did it, but he had more gold than he knew what to do with and so far he had spent it on little else than ale.

Unsurprisingly, the patrons of the Casual Pint were quiet and focused on Oryn and his idiotic display at the promise of free ale. Increasing the distance once more, the swordsman found himself with his back against the wall across the room. He watched his target at the other end, let out a deep breath and wiped his mouth. He drank deeply from his mug, set it down on the table next to him and sighed. He took his stance, setting his feet more widely apart than he normally would and looked at his target with one eye closed. “Right…” Oryn said, turning the blade in his hand and sighed again. The inn was quiet as a grave for a short while. Then Oryn pulled his hand back, stepped forward and threw and the Casual Pint erupted in cheers and laughter.





SLAM

The mug hit the counter so hard that ale splashed over. Grogg had apparently foreseen this and immediately wiped the wooden surface with a cloth. He looked incredibly displeased – an expression very unlike the one of the person he was looking at. Oryn was smiling and generally looking incredibly smug. Wasting not a moment, the latter of the two seized the mug and drank heartily.

“If that hadn’t been so impressive, I would have thrown you out myself.” Grogg said. When Oryn set his mug down, the innkeep promptly slapped the sellsword across the face after which both of them laughed. A few minutes passed where people came up to have their mugs filled with ale and the orc was busy. When things calmed down again, Grogg returned to blue-eyed, scarred man and placed both hands on the counter, placed his weight on one leg and sighed, shaking his head. “In all my years I’ve seen plenty of little shits like you come in, brag about their skill only to have their heads caved in.”

“I’m not little.” Oryn interjected and drank some ale. “I a shit, though. Can’t run from that I think.” They both laughed. “And I’d like to see anyone in here try to cave my head in.” He nodded once and drank again.

“Judging by how you’re throwing them back, I don’t think anyone has to. It’ll feel much the same in the morning.” Grogg said, gesturing toward the mug. He watched Oryn for a moment. “How come you’re sitting in a bar drinking when you got skill like that?”

“It’s just practice, my friend.” Oryn said with slurred words.

“Skill? You hit that apple in the same spot five times. How do you do that?”

“I aim for the middle.”

Grogg first answered Oryn’s laughing with another slap to the cheek, which he didn’t seem to mind and then the orc shook his head. “There are people in the Shroud who could use your sword hand in battle, I’d wager.” He nodded and placed a fresh mug in front of the sellsword. Then Grogg’s eyes lit up with amusement and he chuckled. “Aaaah….” He said, nodding knowingly. “Perhaps something else has caught your eye. I’ve seen this too, you know…” Grogg eyed Oryn for a few seconds. “I’ve seen how you look at that pretty little dark-haired woman.” Oryn, despite his drunken state, looked very sober and serious for the few seconds he stared over his mug at the orc. Grogg chuckled in his deep voice, patted Oryn on the cheek and left.

For a few moments, the people of the Casual Pint had been focused on him and Oryn had been amused performing his little antics. For a short while he had forgotten the boredom he was stuck in, being the Shroud. He had felt as though he had a purpose when he had been with Nathyen, Aria, Niowyn and the others, but now.... Now he felt that was slipping away from him. Oryn sighed annoyedly and told himself to stop drinking. Tomorrow.



 
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