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Sentry

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About Sentry

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  • Birthday 03/10/1982

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    Stalwart Sentry
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  1. “How come you’re not afraid of blood?” A pair of amber eyes peered up at him, wide and curious. The summer skies lit his pale irises even more brilliantly, like jewels that had caught the ray of the sun and trapped it within its facets. Batuhan regarded the young Xaela with equal interest, a small smile quirking up one corner of his lips. He was older than the boy by eight summers and easily towered over him at his full height. “Should I be afraid of it, boy?” Arasen smiled wide, white teeth gleaming within the tanned complexion. “Not at all! It’s only that there are others who don’t like seeing it. Their own anyroad. It might be that aether makes up our soul, but it’s our blood that gives us our strength.” The younger boy puffed out his chest and proudly pounded his fist against it twice. “It’s our passion and life, pumped through our veins.” The older Xaela tilted his head with amusement. The boy had enthusiasm of his youth, but there was wisdom and knowledge in his eyes. Confidence in his words. “Is that why you are studying in the ways of the blood shaman?” Arasen bobbed his head excitedly. “I am going to be the best there is.” Batuhan huffed, laying his larger hands on top of the boy’s head, tossing his braids about and letting the beads at the ends of them clack around playfully. “I guess then I better look after you very carefully.” The younger Au Ra pouted, frowning and waving off Batu’s hand. He clearly didn’t appreciate being treated like the child that he was. “Well, good thing you are not afraid of it then,” he muttered. “Since we will be bound by blood. Through a ritual.” Batuhan nodded sagely. “Until the end of all suns. I, as your warden, will always be able to find you. And know if you are in danger.” There was an odd twinge in the back of his mind, that after the ritual, he will forever be linked to this young boy. And yet Arasen belonged to a strong and important bloodline, and Batu had been watching this boy from afar. Unlike so many others of his age, Arasen always looked to the stars and to the distant horizon. As if looking to a life and possibilities beyond what was right in front of him. That was something worth protecting. “You are not afraid of it are you?” The older Xaela teased, eyeing the boy. “It is not an easy rite. You will shed as much blood as I.” Arasen paused before answering, a frown pinching his young face. When he did look back to Batu, it was after a good amount of thought, and there was new eagerness to his expression. “I am not afraid. I want to know firsthand what it’s like, to feel blood magic. Runes written in blood are far stronger, you know. I already know what summoning and weaving aether feels like, but using blood… that is going to be something else.” The young Xaela grinned from horn to horn in anticipation. Any other might have doubted the wisdom of being bound to a boy that spoke such nonsense and with such fervor. But Batu saw the dreamlike idealism on Arasen’s face, the boy continuing to talk about endless possibilities of blood magic. Of how it can change the properties of runes, promising to find ways to enhance even the oldest and simplest of spells, of healing what was incurable before, and many more that was beyond Batuhan’s limited understanding of such magic. The boy wanted to better the world. And Batuhan wanted to see that world. “I am sure even our bond can be improved…” ~ “How long?” Arasen stuttered, his eyes wide. It lacked the light and clarity that Batu was used to seeing. “How long have you been here? Were you following me?” Batuhan narrowed his eyes, tilting his head slowly as he scrutinized his ward. “Long enough to know that you and they were not strangers.” His jaw was set, and his tone hardened. “You were hidden from me.” The older Xaela never liked it when Arasen dampened their link, making it impossible for him to use their bond to track him. It was something that should not be possible, and yet for Arasen, almost anything was possible where blood magic was concerned. Batu had learned this long ago. “As long as I have been residing here, I have been patrolling the area regularly. I became aware of more Xaelas on this isle in the recent suns, so I followed them. And after scouting them, I discovered they were Jhungid. They wore no obvious markings, but I recognized their scent upon the wind. The udgan of various tribes often carry a unique totem on them that they would never discard. And with the Jhungid, it is a peculiar mix of herbs. I would recognize it anywhere.” His gaze and tone sharpened slowly as he looked over the younger Xaela. “I followed one of them here, to discover that you were meeting with them.” There was a pause as Batuhan lowered his chin, locking his gaze with his ward. There was a keen and almost accusatory edge to his expression, one that would brook no lies. “...How do you know them?” What happened next was something Batuhan was wholly unprepared for. His eyes flickered to Arasen’s hand, one that rose with the palm facing him. And in that instant, he felt a sharp piercing pain on his chest, beneath his shirt. When he pulled the fabric away, Batu saw the mark. It was the one that was branded upon him years ago, the rune that bounded him to his ward. Only now, it was bleeding like it was a fresh new wound. Droplets of blood began to seep through the pores that had long sealed over with scarred flesh. And suddenly, this sensation was familiar to him. Batuhan remembered that this had happened before, these old tattoos from the rite of binding coming to life again. It had involved the Jhungid back then too. But somehow, that memory had been hidden away, until now. Batuhan’s hand locked around Arasen’s, and despite its weakened state, the grip was firm, fueled by outrage. “What are you doing?” Again the memory returned, he had asked this very thing before. Years ago. Back then, Arasen had worn a sorrowful smile. He shook his head and whispered words that were still lost to him. The ward that looked back to him now, however, wore an expression of panic and frustration. “I am sorry, my brother, that I must invoke this mark once again.” His hand pressed against Batu’s chest, the crimson stain spreading across his splayed fingers. “Three commands you will abide, you will not question and you will not remember. You will only obey the will of the one who bound you.” Batuhan’s hand shook, with pain as well as a newfound rage, as rivulets of his own blood began to trail down over his knuckles. But his body couldn’t move. It was as if invisible chains had sprouted from where Arasen’s hand laid against the mark, and held him still where he stood. The whites of his eyes surrounded the deep green pupils as the older Xaela glared down at the ward he had trusted all his life. “You bound me…” he hissed, furious and incredulous. Arasen’s visage softened where Batu’s was riled. “I did,” the younger Xaela said quietly. “Long ago. When I thought I would use this to save you.” But the flicker of tenderness didn’t last long as Arasen bore into him, his voice turning cool and losing what little remorse it had. “I am lucky I had the foresight to bind you thrice.” Batuhan glared at Arasen, and barely managed to shake his head. “What are you planning to do?” he demanded hoarsely. “I will ask you to believe me, as you have always done.” Arasen’s voice was calm and his words were slowing impossibly. Batu saw the younger Xaela blink, but when those eyelids opened again, his eyes were shining like the brightest sun, blinding all else from his sight. His words echoed loudly, almost painfully, as if reverberating within the cave walls. “And help me get my cousin back home.”
  2. “I need more time.” Arasen was trying his best to keep all contempt from his voice. He had practice with it over the years, but each time he had to “negotiate” with Kiratai, it had always ended in an extreme test of patience. Toragana was shrewd enough to bear witness to all the meetings between them, for Arasen dared not try something in her presence. While she was not as old or skilled as Siban, Toragana still had years of practice over Arasen. Not that such a thing would grant any further clarity over the Sight. If anything, it only entrenched the older udgans deeper into their traditions, making them rigid and single-minded. It was the elder voices amongst the shamans that continued this blood war between the two tribes. But Toragana, much like Siban, was different. They saw possibilities outside of the single path that was laid out before them. Arasen should be thankful he supposed, for if it wasn’t her counsel to an influential warlord like Kiratai, he would never had an ally within the Jhungid. And despite what web of influence he himself had fostered over the years, all that had been accomplished so far would not have been possible without further aid from someone outside of the Kharlu. Even as patient and careful as he was, Arasen knew that he needed accomplices that would not fall under the auspice of his father or Bayanbataar. But despite this alliance that defied the age old beliefs of their people, here Arasen was, again pleading his case. His frustration simmered behind his placid mask, his voice still never rising above a calm and reassuring tone. “It is nearly done. She will return with me, any sun now, willingly.” Arasen’s amber eyes flitted between Kiratai and his udgan, then to the five other Jhungid around them. One stood next to the warlord, while two stood guard at either side of the cave they were in. They might still be in the isle of Shirogane, but Arasen had no doubt that these warriors would be able to dispatch of him quickly and silently should they deem him a threat, without a single Sekiseigumi being the wiser. Every time he was surrounded by the Jhungid, Arasen couldn’t help but recall the first time he had been lured out into that ruin. He'd nearly died. Those fears had long been dismissed, but the memory never quite left him, lingering in the furthest recesses of his mind. “It has been moons already, son of Tugan.” Toragana narrowed her eyes on him, and the light silver limbal rings seemed to burn a bit brighter against her black irises. While his lighter eyes were set within the black tribal markings, her face was the opposite. White dots lined her dark brow, set like stars in the night against her near black complexion. It was almost an eerie sight, and Arasen couldn’t help but appreciate the intimidating appearance of it. Even if she called him by his father’s son, purposefully trying to dig under his skin. Kiratai flicked a glance in the udgan’s direction, and Arasen knew that it was Toragana who needed convincing, not Kiratai. But he was astute enough to show deference first to the warlord, then to his udgan with a low nod. “The lost daughter needs to come of her own accord, I’ve told you this,” Arasen reminded them patiently, yet again. “She needs to give herself willingly for the mark to be fully realized. And only then--” “So were Siban’s words,” Toragana cut him off sharply. “That was her vision. But you and I know that the power is in the blood. The mark is only a tether. We can harness the power ourselves.” “You saw what happened when we tried to recreate the mark using only blood. It was utter failure!” How could they be so blind? Arasen clenched his teeth to keep his temper at bay. It was greed for power that always made them arrogant. This was why they had always failed in generations past. None had the foresight. Or the patience. “That was because none of them was gifted with the mark. She is the bearer.” The udgan sounded so sure, so confident. “And what if we fail again? We can’t just feed her to the worm and start all over. This is our only chance we will have in our lifetime!” Arasen felt his mask starting to falter. All the females that have died so far, they were all Kharlu. The Jhungid had yet to bring an offering to the altar. They knew nothing of sacrifice. The warrior next to Kiratai brought his hand over his sword as if in warning, a sight that Arasen had become so accustomed to over the years. They have never trusted him, nor he them. Toragana was about to retort, but Kiratai stepped forward, silencing the udgan. “You had enough time. Let her breathe the air of her homeland to be fully convinced, and be reminded of her path.” There was no changing the warlord’s mind, this Arasen saw in the Jhungid’s green eyes. “We have done it your way long enough. Sacrificed our own men in that attack outside of the Reunion. We could have killed your warden for what he did to my men. We let him recover here at your request.” Kiratai stepped within ilms away from Arasen, his hissed words washing over the Kharlu’s face. “You’ve played your games long enough. Don’t think I don’t know about the escaped wife. I can pluck any of your pieces off, whenever I choose.” Arasen almost bared his teeth. “I’ve already told you the use she will have. If you want to topple the powers within the Kharlu, she is essential.” Kiratai held up a hand, silencing him with but a gesture. Arasen knew better than to contest his authority. How much this warlord reminded him of his own father… it brought a hint of bile to the back of his throat. He just had to remind himself yet again that the male was useful. A means to an end. For peace. “We are leaving with the lost daughter. If she isn’t convinced yet, then you will make sure she is by the time we reach the ruins.” The warlord spun away from Arasen, unwilling to accept anything else other than silent obedience. “Send word to your people to make ready the preparations.” Kiratai nodded to the Jhungid standing behind him, who returned the same and darted off toward one of the ends of the cave. With a single hand gesture, the three raced off into the streets of Shirogane. Toragana lingered a few moments, as her warlord exited the cave in the opposite direction. “I thought you would have stepped out of Siban’s shadows by now,” the udgan said with a smug narrowing of her eyes. “And I thought you stopped trying to prove yourself better than her,” Arasen shot back cooly, meeting her gaze with a venom of his own. “Siban?” Toragana scoffed as she began to make her exit. “The old woman is dying and delirious. I have long passed her skills.” “No,” Arasen called out after her. “Chanai.” That stopped Toragana in her tracks but only for an instant. She said nothing as she resumed her pace a tick later, her stride more brisk than before. But that jab gave Arasen little satisfaction. He had so little choice now, and the Jhungid was about to topple the house of lies he had so carefully erected. After waiting for what felt like forever, he finally started to make his own exit out of the cave, when another figure appeared to darken the mouth of it. Another Jhungid? Perhaps Kiratai finally decided to dispose of him? Wild thoughts began to swirl in his head. With Toragana’s interference, it was difficult to foresee what they would intend. But when Arasen approached closer, recognition began to settle upon his features, and his amber eyes widened. “What were you doing here?” Batuhan asked in a voice that rumbled with both disbelief and suspicion. “What were you doing with the Jhungid?”
  3. A drop of blood spattered onto the dried marrow, a thick crimson trail left in its wake as it flowed down the length of the bleached bone. Arasen squeezed his fist harder as he held it hovering above the ground, forcing more droplets of his lifeblood onto the carefully arranged stones and bones before him. The pain of the clean cut upon his palm barely registered in his mind, his focus solely upon the arcane patterns and symbols forming before him. It was not an easy task to find a completely isolated area to perform the augury. Ever since their return to Hingashi, he had withdrawn from the company of others, save Batuhan who was insistent upon checking in on the Xaela. The fact that the rest of the group that had traveled to the ruins cared little on what Arasen did or where he went was no surprise. It was plainly clear that the three that were taken by Otsuyu were each struggling on their own to recover after the ordeal. And Nabi was too engrossed in Saltborn’s illness -- for the Confederate seemed to be in the worst state of them all -- to mind the affairs of her cousin. And this suited Arasen just fine. He needed time to contemplate his next steps. He had thought that the ruins would bring him so much closer than it had to bring Nabi to his side. But his cousin seemed to be solely devoted to aiding in Saltborn’s recovery. Whatever it was that plagued the Confederate’s health, Nabi seemed to prioritize above her own well-being. He thought for certain that the growth of the mark upon her skin would have alarmed her, and that she would turn to him for answers. But it was all but forgotten in face of the hyur’s pain. Arasen reached into the alter, a circular arrangement of white sand upon the ground encircled by a thin copper wire, his bloodied finger starting to trace lines and symbols upon the granular canvas. As the crimson smeared in between the formations of crystals, each rock started to emanate a subtle glow, as if awakened from a deep slumber. And with each additional illumination, the Xaela’s clear amber eyes began to shimmer. Questions floated through his mind. Would killing the Confederate be the answer? It would be a difficult task, especially amidst the serenity and security of a place like Shirogane. But it was not impossible. But as his fingers became more coated with stained soil, the bloody patterns on the ground began to whisper to him. His answers laid elsewhere. Saltborn in peril as well as the suffering of the rest of her friends only seemed to motivate Nabi into further devoting herself in aiding them, rather than instilling fear and uncertainty in the Xaela. The movement of his hand quickened with the next stroke, some white sand thrown into the air as Arasen’s tracing upon the earth became more frantic. He needed to know. He needed to see. With another flick of the wrist, more flecks of his blood were scattered over more bones, and it was then that Arasen’s eyes flared bright for an instant. There he saw a scene he should not be privy to, except for his Sight. Saltborn was screaming at Nabi, trapping her against the wall. Arasen heard not the words. But the Confederate had a maddening look to his eyes as he spun and reached for a knife. Arasen was both horrified and enraptured at the scene. For an instant, he thought the pirate would do Nabi harm, but he turned the blade towards himself, about to plunge it into his arm. Arasen squinted, as he only saw a glimpse of the man’s flesh, but where once a metal gauntlet used to be, now his limb was dark and marred. Nabi bolted forward and screamed something, though no sound reached Arasen. With another blink of the eyes, the vision faded, giving way to another. Ghoa and Batuhan were seated on a large rock, overlooking the ocean. She was handing him a small ring, and the woman’s features held both melancholy but also tenderness. The ease in both their forms as well as their proximity to each other, Arasen knew that the two had grown much closer since their first meeting. Despite the wistful pang that clutched at his chest, Arasen’s hand moved again to continue the tracing before him, the deep red diagram becoming more intricate and chaotic. Another flick of the wrist, and that vision too left him. He needed more. He knew he had not yet found that one thread, that singular vision to guide him on what his next action should be. That glimpse of a possible path that could bring about the destiny he so longed for. His breaths were becoming heavier, more hungry, his limbs trembling from the strain. The Sight was both a great gift and a great curse. Its price was never an easy one. Then he saw a crackle of yellow energy across the darkness. Arasen’s movement stopped, and even his breaths ceased for a moment, as another vision unfolded before him. The Xaela’s amber eyes widened, shimmering bright within the black paint that crossed his features. His pupils darted aimlessly, seeing and unseeing at the same time. When the vision finally released him, Arasen gasped, tumbling forward, both hands clutching at the ground as he struggled to stay upright. He gulped for air and his entire body stumbled with weakness from both blood loss and what the Sight took from him. It was a cost he had paid many times before, but each toll seemed pricier than the last. But he finally had an answer. How to proceed. If all went well, it would require no bloodshed -- only the sharing of truths. After all, that was his sole purpose here: to achieve the ultimate truth of peace, and through that save countless lives. Now he had a way to make Nabi realize it as well.
  4. Going to add sketch of Elam Grave here, done by Ruen/Anchor. I love it.
  5. Years ago... Arasen was certain his lung had been punctured from the broken ribs. Every breath was coming harder and more painful than the one before. He could taste both copper and bile on the back of his tongue, and the stones beneath him bore the stains of his lifeblood, as more droplets continued to splatter onto the ground from both his nose and his split lip. His stomach was roiling with both nausea and pain; every movement felt as if something new was tearing inside of him. His assailants were sure he would die this night. They had left him alive for three suns now, and after this last beating, the most savage one yet, even they pondered out loud the thought of granting him mercy by delivering a quick killing blow to his throat. But then the Jhungids laughed, and Arasen still recalled the callousness to which they dismissed the idea. “Let his gods grant him mercy, since they didn’t warn him of this.” How could those words hurt him more than all the injuries he had suffered? And yet, the thought that he had followed his vision here, that meeting with the sworn enemy of his tribe would lead to peace, it speared him deeply with both pain and anger. He had been so certain that this was the first step in paving the way for the end, where wars were no more. Why did they not understand? Arasen believed wholeheartedly that this goal to somehow bring an end to the endless cycle of violence would be welcomed with open arms by both sides. After all, he wanted both Kharlu and Jhungid to prosper -- to share in the wealth of the land, and to live in unity, for they all were sons and daughters of Nhaama. But the meeting proved to be nothing but a trap. Upon traveling out to this ancient ruins, a place that long held forgotten magic and history, Arasen was met with betrayal. The Jhungid who had sent secret missives agreeing to negotiate for a treaty, they only sought information from him that they can use to gain advantage over the Kharlu. Anything that would give them further insights into the preparation for the next battle, and the movement and encampment of the main tribe. When Arasen refused, stubbornly clinging to his hope that an agreement could be reached, they resorted to interrogation through torture. Now, too, Arasen wondered if this would be his last night. Were those visions for naught? Were his dreams of peace nothing but a fool’s errand? The Xaela dragged his battered body to the center of the atrium, the only place within this entire ruins where the twilight irises could be found. If he would die here, he wanted to die with the flowers that bore the colors of the sun, its golden shimmer as faint as the hope that was dying in his heart. He could barely hear the echoes of laughter from the Jhungid on the far side of the atrium. That was when his eyes came upon a faint white glimpse buried in the soil. A small thin bone, lying within the flower bed. Arasen didn’t know why, but he reached for it. And when his fingers curled upon the white marrow, the visions came. She was so angry. Another had died here too, so long ago, a woman named Otsuyu. But the flowers gave her no release. Nor did death. She had known no rest for as long as she could remember. But she knew brutality and cruelty. And in her fury, Arasen felt it too, the same hatred stirring deep within. And as her form slowly rose, materializing through stones and shadow, he felt everything grow cold around him. The walls and the paved ground had become black as if ink had spilled over them. White breaths plumed from his lips as his breaths quickened, goosebumps racing along his arm. Fear struck him then, but so did something else: Recognition. Arasen knew instinctively that they both shared one thing: suffering at the hands of wicked men. And as he stared up at her pale white pupil-less eyes behind a curtain of tangled black locks, he understood. He had the gift to unleash her wrath, and in return, she would devour his tormentors. She hungered for vengeance, and for so much more. The spirit’s loneliness was almost palpable. The Xaela heard the cries of alarm rising from the Jhungid. But he didn’t care. He extended his hand out to her without thinking. In this forgotten place, he was her only connection, and she was his only means of survival. The spirit’s head lowered, her milky eyes looking to his open palm. Her withered lips parted, revealing hundreds of needle-like teeth. She didn’t smile but Arasen saw the faintest wisps of breath drifting from her lips, as if there were words that went unsaid. Then her hand lifted, and her finger touched his. There were no screams that followed. Only deathly silence. Now... Arasen fingered the baubles hanging from his necklace -- a leather strap strewn with various carved crystals and totems. He knew every single one of them, from their shape to the intricate runes carved onto their surface. He could pluck any number of items from his necklace without looking, they were as familiar to him as the appendages of his own hand. So when his touch drifted to the spot where a certain small and thin bone used to hang, his movement slowed, noting its absence. It was where the bone of Otsuyu’s finger used to hang, between the oval shaped onyx and a jagged nuummite, just below his left collar bone. How strange that he missed her presence now. Arasen stared across the campfire, their small band huddled around a small pit in the ground, trying not attract attention in the middle of the Steppe plains. Ghoa had bedded down on the other side of the flames, and both Batuhan and Shael were off on their patrols. Anchor continued to keep his distance from the rest of the group, and Nabi, as usual, went to his side once the camp was made. Things had not gone the way he had planned. Arasen had brought the group to Otsuyu and per their pact, she had fed on those she took. She had been so hungry, for he had not returned to the ruins for so long. But the three that the spirit took, they all still lived. Arasen would have been satisfied with the deaths of one in particular, although not all, for the dead would not require healing. And as expected, Nabi called upon the earth to do what she could to help them. What surprised him was his cousin’s ability to free them from Otsuyu’s spell. He had imagined that he would play the essential part in releasing them, but Nabi had done it on her own, using her mother’s teachings. And even amidst the confusion wrought by the ghost, Arasen still failed to achieve one thing: to kill Saltborn, Nabi’s strongest tie to her current life. It was for the Confederate that she took off the warding bracelet, and it was to free him that she called upon the aether without hesitation. Arasen could feel her drawing upon the energies of the flowers, and he couldn’t help but feel a pang of resentment when they responded so readily to her. When Otsuyu could not fully satiate her hunger by completely draining another, she turned on him. Her only ally. Outrage still burned inside of him at the thought. The bond that was forged between him and Otsuyu had been incorruptible for years. Then suddenly the spirit would turn on him when she was unsatisfied with his offering? Was it that their pact was disturbed by her feeding on Saltborn’s cursed aether? Or was it Nabi’s doing? He did not know. But despite the fact that they all lived, Arasen still considered himself fortunate. Nabi’s mark had undoubtedly grown as she used more of her abilities to aid her friends. Saltborn, by some odd stroke of luck, also did not recall the actions Arasen had taken against him, just before Otsuyu took him. The Xaela had been so careful not to reveal his true intentions to any of them. But when he cast a spell on Anchor, making him doubly vulnerable to Otsuyu’s influence, Arasen knew the pirate had to die. He could not return to consciousness to let Nabi know what her kin had done. But Batuhan and Nabi had foiled his own attempts at bringing his blade to Saltborn’s neck without becoming aware themselves of his murderous motives. But as fate would have it, Otsuyu had scrambled the pirate’s memories prior to him waking. Even in her death, the spirit granted him a boon. Arasen believed that this was yet another proof that he was on the right path. That the gods and fortune smiled upon him. The pains he had suffered was just the price he had to pay for his destiny. The fact that he had to shatter the bone, the only item that bound Otsuyu to him and to this earth, was unfortunate, but necessary. He had to destroy the spirit, before she turned on him, or revealed to the rest that she and he shared a pact, that he had been to the ruins before. And none could know of the deeds he had committed there. Not if he had any hope of still convincing Nabi to abide by his council and return with him willingly to her people. Otsuyu had to be sacrificed, for the better good. They all served a purpose, he himself included. He would help Nabi realize hers. His amber gaze returned to the sleeping form of Ghoa. His thumb and index finger absently rubbed together, recalling the blood rune he had secretly inscribed upon her hand while he was tending to her wounds. Arasen’s face softened with regret. Batuhan cared for her. That much was obvious. His warden and kin by everything but blood, after all these years, was allowing himself to feel something he had not for a long time. A pity that it could never be. There was a disheartened ache that saddened Arasen at the realization. But he had decided since the night when he met Otsuyu, that loyalty and idealism had no place in his heart if he was to succeed. They were all gods’ pawns and everyone had to play their part. His own cousin, the spirit that saved his life, and even his best friend... he would give all that was asked of him and more. Arasen narrowed his gaze as he stared into the fire, hardening his thoughts. There was no room for remorse. But his fingers still lingered by the necklace, between the two black stones, continuing to trace the absence there.
  6. Batuhan had never needed to read. All the knowledge he had gained throughout his life had been from listening, observing, and practicing. Books were never something that held any worth to the warrior. He could discern more details from the tracks the creature left behind, or how an enemy fought or even held their weapon, more than any written words on parchment. So when he was left with a pile of books at his feet to pass the time as he recovered, the Xaela had initially scoffed at the idea. But one could only spend so much time sulking by himself. The lost daughter -- Nabi, as he had finally gotten used to calling her -- often left the clinic for errands, and to attend to the stall she often spoke of in Kugane. Which suited Batuhan just fine; the idea of being attended to like some infirm weakling left him exceedingly uneasy. But there was only so much he could do on his own to pass the time. The dumplings that Ghoa had brought briefly motivated him to try and use his almost-useless hands. He appreciated that Nabi did not hover around him when he was trying to eat or practice coordination with what still felt like gnarled roots attached to his wrists. He became frustrated quickly in her presence, the heat of humiliation burning away his patience. But when left alone, Batuhan had tried many times to grab those dumplings. A few attempts he succeeded in bringing it almost to his mouth, only to drop it just short of his lips. Eventually hunger got the better of him and he held the round container by the wrists and brought the entire thing to his face to gulp down the contents. A sun later, he spotted an owl outside his window. It had caught a mouse, held dead within the grip of its talons, and was tearing into its dinner with its beak. Batuhan narrowed his eyes. Plenty of creatures lacked hands and yet were capable of hunting and feeding themselves. And while his hands lacked the strength, at least the rest of him was no longer withering away from the poison of the enhancement. The Xaela scowled at the pile of books again. While its contents may be useless, the purpose of why Nabi had brought them for him were not lost on the warrior. He reached out with his bare feet, gripping at the binding with his toes. While they were not as coordinated in the fine movements, there was undeniable satisfaction in the strength he felt in his muscles there. The book wobbled in the uneven grip of his toes but he slowly lifted it and brought it onto the bed, setting it roughly in front of him. His lips twisted upwards in satisfaction. It was a mundane and insignificant feat, and yet it made him not feel so incapable. A passing thought that Ghoa might give him ‘extra points for style’ made him snort quietly. He squinted with concentration as he reached out with his bandaged hand, fingertips now exposed. He could feel the rugged edge of the cover as he ran his thumb along the side of it. His lips twisted as he turned his wrist and curled his fingers just enough to open the book. The words there were Hingan and entirely unfamiliar to him, but that didn’t matter. He could feel the light weight of the binding against his forefinger. He pressed the pad of his digit lightly and swiped across from right to left, turning the page. When the paper yielded and he was staring at the next set of foreign words, Batuhan smiled. Batuhan had never read a book, but just looking at those lines made him exhale with a feeling of accomplishment. He continued to turn page after page, pausing when he came upon illustrations, taking time to trace it with a fingertip, savoring in the light sensation there. By the time he was finished, he was holding the book open with his left hand in the loose grip he had managed, while his right was flipping through and turning each leaf easier than before. He reached out to grab the next book by the bedside with his feet again, this time managing a much steadier hold. Anchor Saltborn, the champion of the pit, had challenged him to face him one day, as they never did in that ring. Despite Nabi’s reassurance and Ghoa’s encouragement, Batuhan still could not deny that in the back of his mind, there were dark shadows of doubt that he might never be able to fight at all -- never be able to grip his axe, never wield another weapon in his hands. But now with Saltborn wondering out loud if he would ever be able to stand against him in a contest of martial prowess, the Xaela felt a strong determination take hold of him. Not only would he recover to return to the Kharlu to give Ghoa a chance at freedom, but someday be able to meet Saltborn’s challenge. He had always wondered how a match between them would have turned out. Batuhan was reaching for his third book when the door opened. There was eagerness to his gaze as he turned to the entryway. He wanted to thank Nabi for the books, for he was negligent in showing any gratitude to the woman who saved his life and possibly proved Siban wrong. And if it was Ghoa with more dumplings, he was eager to try yet again to grip them, either hand or feet. And perhaps show her how far he had come. But the Xaela’s eyes widened at the figure standing by the door. It was neither of the auri females, but rather a taller and broader figure. A ring of bones clacked around his neck and the polished baubles hanging from his horns glistened in the light of the room. The golden eyes that looked back at him were well known to Batuhan, but unlike those of the lost daughter, these pair were sharper, like crystallized amber rather than sunlight. White teeth emerged between the lips that grew into a broad smile. “The rumors of your illness have been greatly exaggerated,” Arasen Kharlu said, greeting him with an appreciative nod. “I am glad to see you well, clan brother.”
  7. A scaled hand dug into the loose gravel, a fistful of dirt excavated from the ground as it was brought up to the Auri nose. The Xaela warrior sniffed at it, then loosened his fingers to allow the soil to fall freely back to the earth. Batu remained crouched, perched on the edge of the bluff. A winter gale whipped the heavy cloak against his frame, his long black ponytail tossed about behind him. His dark eyes were narrowed as he looked to the ruined mountain before him. It was the same mountain that had been his prison for the last two moons, where he'd been forced to fight, where he had no choice but to accept the aberrant things called enhancements onto his body, and where he finally killed his captors and escaped. But his current freedom would not have been possible if it weren’t for the hyur they called Saltborn. It was after Saltborn’s fight, the one that everyone had been waiting for, holding their damned breaths for, that everything within that mountain fell apart. Even as Batu was being led back to his cell after his victory, he'd heard the distant roar of the crowd when the final match inevitably came to an end. He wondered who was the victor. No one doubted that it would be Ashen Bear, the reigning champion of champions. But having fought alongside Saltborn in their first trial, Batu had wished to see the hyur continue to survive as he did. They had been thrown into the mountain at the same time, faced the same First Trial, and fought off the same enemies. Batu wished that the man continued to live, at least until came the time where the two would face off against each other. But he couldn’t speculate about the conclusion of the match for too long, for the cheers were silenced by gunshots. The guards around him became distracted, and there was a flurry of activity all around. Batu dared not make his move, not yet, not while he still wore that circlet around his neck. But then as if Nhaama herself had heard his prayers in that moment, there was an audible click from the metallic collar, as it loosened and began to slide off his neck. By the time the metal ring bounced off the dirt, Batu had sliced the throat of one of the guards. He used him as a shield against the bullets shot by the second guard, then once he closed the distance, the Xaela gouged out the eyes of the other. He then grabbed their guns and began to make his way away from the ring, searching for any exit out of the mountain. That was when he heard Saltborn’s voice echoing through the caves. "If you bloody well be dyin' down here, be makin' it for your own for once!" Batu heard more clamoring around him; other fighters, other slaves that had been forced into this hell beneath the earth, they too heard the call. And they too were freed from the hold of the collar, freed from the fear of their masters. More cries and screams---dying guards and fighters alike---reverberated through the caverns. The Xaela kept running. He didn’t know where he was going, only that he had to leave. He ducked into opened cells when he could, to evade guards running through the halls. But as he hid out of sight from a pair of approaching footsteps, he saw two figures running through the tunnel. A slave boy, followed by a female. A Xaela, with raven hair and golden eyes. That sight made Batu freeze, almost stepping out of the shadows. That was when another guard rounded the corner, and began to draw his gun down on the boy and the female. Batu reached out from behind the bars of the cell, grabbing at the guard’s neck and yanking his head backwards to crash into the metal grate. The Xaela held him there, waiting for the guard’s breaths to leave him, but beyond the view of the bars, he once more saw the au ra. She nodded to him, and then disappeared down the hall before Batu could say a word. The warrior flexed his fingers and warmth of fresh blood began to wash over his hands and the guard went limp against the bars. By the time the Xaela stepped out from his hiding place, the boy and the female were long gone. But even before Batu could give them pursuit, he heard another explosion, this one from the direction of the arena. And it sent a cloud of dust and pebbles raining down upon his head. Then down the other end of the tunnel, the one that the woman and the boy had come from, Batu saw another figure. Saltborn. The Xaela said nothing, just watching the hyur as he crouched onto the floor. His right arm was hanging from an odd angle, and there was a pained look in his eyes as he forced the same limb into the cracked ground below him. His hand was reaching for a crystal vein. The Xaela wasn’t sure what happened next, but there was a yellow light that flashed from the hyur’s eyes, one that then flooded down his right arm through his veins, flowing into the ground below. The crystal fissures lit up like lava streams, only for an instant, before they began to shatter all along its length. Then the entire mountain began to shake. That was the last time that Batu saw Saltborn. Too much debris and dust filled the caverns after, and the Xaela had to sprint away, dodging falling boulders and metal grates alike. He somehow found a way out, following one of the slaves through a servant’s entrance. By the time he finally breathed in the wintery air of the mountainside, he had killed two more guards, stolen their armor, and cloaked himself against suspicion and the cold. Still perched on the cliffside, Batu glanced at his hands, one still coated with dirt. His gaze followed along his digits until it came upon the unnaturally sharpened fingernails. With a slightest flex of his fingers, beads of poison started to form at the tips. A grimace darkened his features as the Xaela shook the foul moisture from his hand with a flick of the wrist. He had poison coursing through his veins now, all due to the modifications that were made on his body. As Takamoto’s new champion, he was made a new vessel for a collection of poisons, those that he could easily inject into his victims through mere graze of his razor sharp fingernails. But Batu was no fool. He’d seen the withered and emaciated body of Takamoto’s previous champion. The poison that was wielded as a weapon, slowly poisoned the vessel as well, causing muscle and flesh to waste away with time. Batu brought his forearm in front of him and clenched his fist. The effect was not yet too noticeable, but the Xaela could feel the foreign substance coursing through his system. His totemic abilities and talents had slowed it down significantly, but he knew it was inevitable. Someday soon, he too would become a ghost of a man, like Norisada. Time was precious. And he had much yet to accomplish. Ironically, this mountain, where this curse had been placed upon him, had also resurrected his main objective, the task that he had been given when his tribe sent him forth---one that he previously believed he had no hope of realizing when he was captured and forced to fight for his life. But on that final day, he had a glimpse of his purpose, the possibility that he might see his mission to completion. He memorized the two Xaela faces he had seen. One bore blue-silver tresses and pale silver eyes to match, and the other with distinct features that were so familiar to him. Yes, Batu needed to return to his tribe, and tell them what he had seen. And who he had found.
  8. As the sun was setting to the west, the sky was starting to shed the colors of day, letting the darkness slowly spread over the port city below. Marius sat on the rooftops, overlooking the herbal stall that had been rebuilt. Nabi had yet to return to her usual post, but the missive in his hand reassured him that the herbalist was back in Hingashi, recuperating with the Naeuris in Shirogane. He hunched forward in his perch on top of the tiles, his hands hanging limp with his elbows propped on his legs. His fingers rubbed at the parchment in their grasp, a letter in each hand. Both were from non-Imperials, and both would be rather frowned upon should his superior officers get a wind of it. What missives would an Imperial soldier be exchanging with savages after all? Marius was relieved to hear that Nabi had been retrieved and was safe. From the scattered bits of information he had gathered both from her and from the gruff Highlander that visited him a few suns ago, he had deduced that a friend of the Xaela had gotten into some trouble, being forced to fight in some illegal Doman fighting pits, and then Nabi herself got herself into that same mess when she tried to help him. At least she had left Kugane equipped with the little device that Marius had constructed for her. It would have rendered one of those collars useless. He was more than surprised when a Highlander woman, one named Shael, then came to find him suns later, to inquire -- no demand -- of him a way to free Nabi of the same collar predicament. Marius was far less willing to help a woman who was practically threatening him with violence, but she seemed to have genuine concern for the Xaela herbalist, in her own angry way. And he did want to see Nabi well, so against his better judgement, and definitely against the wishes of his superiors should they ever find out, he engineered a new device, this one that deactivated and unlocked those collars remotely. Should Justus or anyone else above him find out that he had shared Imperial technology with savages, ones that were used on conscripted soldiers no less, he would certainly face serious punishment. He never did liked that term. Savages. Marius let out a long sigh, his frame going lax in his reflection. Drucilla would be furious with him. She had always scolded him for showing any kind of leniency or benevolence toward anyone not Imperial in origin. But while his allegiance to the Empire and the emperor never wavered, he never believed that it meant being unable to show empathy or doing what he felt in his heart was the right thing to do. Was that why he also blatantly ignored his superior officer’s orders to find and bring in another ‘savage’ for questioning and study? His findex finger tapped against the letter in his other hand. One that had been left at the holstery in his name by Liadan. It had been months since he was shot on the pier, and she had healed him miraculously with her magic. After he was cleared to return to duty, free of any undue influence or effects of Eorzean magic, Justus had handed him an order, to bring in the healer responsible for such an extraordinary feat. There were questions to be answered. Marius had all but refused. Not outright, but by feigning the ignorance of her whereabouts. Her letter since reassured him that she was no longer in Hingashi, and for that he was relieved. Now he wasn’t openly disobeying orders. Liadan was no longer within the Imperial’s reach. ‘I want you to know that, whatever else may come, I am glad to have met you. You are the first of your kinsmen who has ever treated me with true civility and kindness. Even more, you risked your life to safeguard mine. I shall never forget what you did.’ It was for the best. With her back in Eorzea, Liadan was back with her own people, and hopefully, despite the contents of her letter, in the safety of her own land. Marius leaned back, gazing up at the myriad of colors of the sky. His eyes drifted to the brilliant reddish hue toward the western horizon. And without conscious effort, his thoughts kept wandering back to the tresses that bore the same hue.
  9. How did this happen? How did things go so wrong, so fast? Elam lifted himself just an ilm, to gain another look at the rest of the ring from behind the cover he had taken. He didn’t hear the impact of any more bullets near him, not since Nagakane was shot, but it would be foolish to think that Shael wasn’t keeping him in her view. The woman had been clever, using Ghoa’s pearl, one that he had been listening in on, to make him think that she was laying a trap for him at the Uzuka estate. Nei had sent most of her entourage of soldiers to fortify her own home and to root out the smuggler. Instead, Shael had been bold enough to execute her plan here, in the arena. All for that Xaela girl and Saltborn. Elam grimaced, jerking to the side to get another look at the ring. Both the Xaela and Saltborn had fled into one of the gates below and was nowhere to be seen. He also saw Torrad laying limp by the edge of the dais, and Ghoa no longer in his grasp. That deceitful bitch had double crossed him. Somehow Shael must have known that he was listening in, and they both misled him into complacency on this most important sun. Then there was Musa. The old man was drawing his last breath from the looks of things. Nei had confided in Elam only a few nights ago that she had been slowly poisoning the elder sponsor, all the while pretending to be his ally. The poison was to take its full effect on this sun. Whether Musa’s champion won the match or not, he would no longer be in the way of either his or Nei’s ambitions. Yet somehow, in the last minute, Musa must have found out. He was the one that aided both Xaelas in their escape. Now the entire arena was thrown into chaos. All was not lost, Elam knew. He just had to make it out of here without Shael planting a bullet in his head. But once he did, and with Musa dead and Saltborn having officially won the match, Elam could spin this to his advantage. He would fill the vacuum that Musa’s demise would leave behind. And then, he would make sure that everyone that have wronged him this sun would pay dearly for daring to declare themselves his enemy. Elam noticed a pause in the sound of the gunshots, and taking a chance, he remained low and darted from his cover to the edge of the dais, rolling off of it. The crowd surrounding it was in a rabid frenzy, pushing and climbing over each other to make their own hasty exit. He pushed off from where he landed, eyes narrowing as he looked for the best opening, when Torrad weakly clawed at his feet. Elam glanced at him impatiently, his foreman would know better than to expect any pity from him. But what he saw on Torrad’s face was panic, his eyes darting from him to the ground next to him. Elam narrowed his eyes, following the man’s gaze. There was a small flash of light, a distant spark... no-- A fuse. It had already been lit, the sparking flame heading quickly for the dais, along the base of the railing. His eyes widened as he watched that spark race along the wall... and just as quickly slip beneath the dais. And then all he saw was white, and everything burned.
  10. Elam had seen Ashen Bear fight, and in every single match, Bear’s victory came without question. His opponents were almost always crushed beyond recognition, their bodies mangled and twisted at the perverted roegadyn’s feet, shattered bone and pulped meat to sate the howling masses. Whatever enhancement Musa had granted his champion, it had made the creature unkillable. Bear would receive strike after strike without flinching; once a sword had run him clear through the midsection, the blade's tip poking out his lower back, and still Musa’s fighter remained standing. The wounds just closed on their own; whatever flesh that was cut and torn was soon replaced by that thick tarry substance that continued to ooze from the man. Elam knew that Anchor couldn’t win this fight, at least not on his own. But for Elam to be successful in coming out the clear victor on the dais, there could be no hint of foul play. And even though Ghoa’s intentions proved to be treacherous, he still trusted her skills to formulate the right poison. He needed one that would give Anchor some advantage in this match, however slim, without it being obvious to anyone watching. Once that card has been played, then it was all on Saltborn and his stubborn tenacity to survive to win him the match. He also was equipped with a modified enhancement, the gauntlet that was now bound to his arm was deadlier than ever thanks to Nei’s contribution. As the Ringmaster dropped that red cloth onto the ring to start the match, Elam leaned forward, hands clasped in front of him. The towering figure that began to cross the length of the arena was more monster than man. Droplets of black ichor dotted the sand as he lumbered forward, the green eyes beneath that mountain of distorted flesh looking intently to his opponent. His arms were unnaturally long and his digits were like coils of vines that hung well past his knees. There were protrusions on his head that resembled hollow wooden trunks that had been broken at the shaft, and where there should have been muscles along his shoulders, arms, and legs, instead were more black bulges of what resembled entwined bramble. Ashen Bear wore no armor. Elam knew that his overgrown, over-layered thickened bark of a skin was his armor. If it wasn’t for Nei’s gift onto Anchor’s gauntlet, Elam wasn’t sure if Anchor could even injure this creature. It was clever on Saltborn’s part to somehow convince Nei to grant him that boon. Elam wondered what it had cost him to gain her favor. Despite his looming size and the slower speed that came with it, Ashen Bear did not fight like a mindless beast. He lumbered toward the quicker and more mobile pirate as Anchor started to dart past him for the best opening. But he waited until the pirate closed in to attack, before retaliating with a strike of his own. Bear’s arms shot forward like black-veined, living vines, lacerating the thighs of his opponent with his hard barklike fingers that cut the flesh raw. And he was aiming only for Anchor’s legs. Saltborn staggered back from the attack, his new claws digging into the stone wall as he used it to pivot away from Bear’s unrelenting swings. Then when he gained some distance, Anchor did something Elam didn’t expect. He extended those sharp claws of the enhancement and pieced his own chest, drawing forth on his own blood and aether. The Confederate’s eyes flashed that eerie amber color that was his signature energy, new static electricity ripped through the air. Fueled by his own unnatural aether, Saltborn launched himself against Ashen Bear, the blade of the gauntlet extending as he did so. Elam’s eyes lifted to the rest of the arena as the crowd roared. They had no idea what Saltborn just did, using that aberrant aether of his to power the gauntlet, which would feed it right back into his own body. It would be like an adrenaline push should a normal person use it with their own aether, but Elam knew there was something wrong with Anchor’s. That’s why those exposed to it looked desiccated from inside out, as if that energy poured into them had burned away the very life that existed in the body before. Just how are you living with such a thing running in your veins, Saltborn? The lengthened blade pierced through one side of Bear’s head. Yet what should have been a mortal blow to any other opponent was just another bleeding wound to the black lumbering beast. Black liquid oozed from where Anchor’s blade had cut him, but as that thick sap began to spurt forth, it hardened to form new layers, soon starting to cover the deep cut that Anchor had delivered. Elam couldn’t tell if Anchor was starting to realize that his opponent was healing himself as he fought, that the wounds had to come quicker than Ashen Bear’s ability to regenerate his body parts. Anchor didn’t seem deterred by the fact that the head wound barely slowed his enemy. He feigned a dash to one side, only to bait a swing from Bear. Then with a lightning-quick strike, that extended the blade of Anchor’s enhancement cut clear through the roegadyn’s arm, sending the black vine-like limb spinning through the air. The crowd roared with its approval at the violence. But Saltborn found himself too close to his opponent, trying to free Bear from his other limb. The roegadyn coiled his arm around Anchor, pinning him against his chest and tightening his unrelenting hold. Not only did it completely rob Anchor of his distance and mobility, but it also pinned that gauntlet to the man’s side, unable to be wielded. Elam could see the Confederate’s struggle, trying to wiggle his arm free of the grapple, but to no avail. As the arm continued to constrict, the tight set in Anchor’s jaw eased as his lips parted for air and his head started to lull back. That was when Elam felt it again. That pulse. A sudden release of energy through the air, charging up that static that electrified the atmosphere whenever Anchor fought with that sickly yellow glow about him. Elam had only witnessed this pulse twice now, and it always emerged when Saltborn felt trapped. Possibly desperate. It loosened the snakelike grip upon his body just enough that the Confederate was moving again, this time up Bear’s arm, as he drove his blade near the collarbone. Elam was starting to feel more confident when Anchor began hacking off bramble and bark from Musa’s champion, until one violent swing of Bear’s arm swatted Saltborn away, sending him flying through the air. He smashed the ground some twenty fulms away, rolling, sand spraying. The crowd fell silent when Anchor didn’t move from the ground. Yet when he started to rise, almost mechanically, with his right upper limb hanging in a strange angle, the audience howled again for more violence. Saltborn pierced his flesh again, allowing the gauntlet to use his own blood and aether to charge him once more. Reckless move, Saltborn, Elam thought. Anchor was continuing to use his own energy to gain additional charges of power now, but he would pay for it later. Saltborn took off through the arena, and this time his blade extended unnaturally long, just as it did for its previous owner, Nei’s former champion, and it sliced at Ashen’s other arm. It didn’t quite sever it all the way through. Its arm barely hung on to its torso by black tendrils. Still the roegadyn moved, turning to face Anchor. And when Anchor thrust his blade forward, that mutilated arm still swung up in time, bark-like fingers closing around his gauntlet. But then there was a flare in Anchor’s eyes, a flash of deeper yellow, and another pulse of static; it rippled the air and the sand all around it. The blade that was caught in Bear’s digits shot forth even longer, obliterating his hand and his limb, bursting straight through the massive roegadyn’s heart. Blackened ichor spurted into the air, akin to the eruption of a fresh oil well where the blade exited Ashen Bear’s back. Only this time, the thick fluid didn’t harden into a new layer of skin. The tree like mass that Ashen Bear then went still. He didn’t fall, it just remained where it stood. Unmoving. The entire arena suddenly fell silent, the audience holding their breath. Many of them, like Elam, had watched Bear’s matches before. He had never lost, and many wondered if the blow that Anchor had delivered was enough to kill him. There was a long moment of tense silence, the Ringmaster looking to the Curator for confirmation. Elam glanced to Nagakane as well, who studied the readings on his tablet, before he looked up and shook his head at the Ringmaster. The Ringmaster turned back to the crowd with an ecstatic grin. “The victor of the final match! Saltborn of the Cove!”
  11. 20 years ago “They are gettin’ younger and younger,” Lodmund said with a sigh, pausing mid-step with boxes held against his chest. The Highlander’s eyes were narrowed on a young girl standing off in the distance. She couldn’t have been more than twelve-years old, but she was holding a pistol in her hand. “Ye can’t put a proper age tae savin’ yer own home.” Oddmar shrugged, setting the crate that he was carrying down onto the ground with a grunt. The older Highlander wiped at the beads of sweat upon his brow before looking to Elam. “Ain’t that right boy? Yer just shy of eighteen winters yerself.” Elam nodded, waving away the cloud of dust that rose as he tossed the box that he was carrying onto the other crates laid before him. The three Highlanders had been unloading the latest delivery of supplies of weapons and food, when Lodmund brought all their attention to the gathering at a nearby tent. It was Aylard Greyarm’s tent, one of the more prominent leaders of this particular cell of the Resistance. Elam squinted his eyes to spy a young girl there, of reddish chestnut hair and freckles upon her face. She was wearing a frown along with a fresh bruise on her cheek, but her body language--balled up fists and a rigid back--told Elam that the girl was not upset about whatever circumstances had resulted in that injury. No, the girl was angry. Fuming, as she stomped her feet on the ground. Aylard was kneeling in front of the young girl, speaking quietly. Elam knew the older man to be stern and strict, and rarely did he show any hint of tenderness to others. But how he spoke in close proximity to this girl, and the patient fatherly expression the man wore, Elam took note. “Who is she?” He leaned closer toward Lodmund, who finally huffed and set his box down onto the ground. “Greyarm knows her family.” Lodmund shrugged. “Dirty Garlean sympathizers, they are. But supposedly, that doesn’t apply to their only daughter. She’s been getting into fights with her family, other sympathizers and anyone who voices any support for the Imperial regime.” “I guess best recruit, train, and turn all that energy into something useful. Before she gets herself killed anyroad.” Oddmar snorted and lightly slapped both the younger men on the arm. “Now get back to the wagons. Plenty more crates where those came from.” Elam nodded, watching the exchange between Aylard and the girl for a moment longer, before trotting off after Lodmund and Oddmar. “She got a name?” “Shaelen Stormchild, I think it was.” Years later... “Shh! Keep it down, will ya?” Shaelen snorted out a laugh, tossing her head back as she fell backwards onto the rug. Her hands greedily tugged at his shirt, yanking it free from his breeches. “Who will hear? And if they do, who cares?” Elam fell on top of her, his hands catching the ground just enough so he didn’t crush her with his weight. He grinned at her as his shirt was becoming undone, one button at a time. “How is it that you get this way only after combat?” he breathed against her, his lips roaming from her collarbone, to neck, to her earlobe. “I wine and dine you and nothing. Flowers and gifts don’t win you over either. But spilling the blood of Garleans… you’re hungry like a coeurl in heat.” “Hey! I did love the gun you gave me!” Shael pulled the shirt off his chest, her hands going to unbuckle his belt. As she her lips began to graze over random parts of his torso, Elam wondered how that word love only came from her lips when it came to arms and weapons. Although with his breaths quickening and the heat rising within him, this wasn’t the time or place to complain about it. --- “You piece of shite. Soddin’ son of a whore. Coward. Greedy gil suckin’ snake. Go! Leave!! Never come back!!!” Those were Shaelen’s last words when Elam left the Resistance. He wanted something more. Something better than the futile efforts to win back the homeland he barely recognized. He wanted more than to just scrape by sun after sun, just combing the wasteland that was Gyr Abania for any kind of headway or advantage against the Garleans. Elam wanted more from his life. He wanted comforts, food, wine, wealth... and most importantly power. Power to change things. To rewrite the rules. And he wanted her. He asked Shael to leave with him. To make a new life in Ul’dah. With all the skills they had between them, experience with guns, weapons, explosives, and espionage… he knew they could make a new life for themselves in the land of Monestarists. A better life. Something more than fighting a lost war against the Imperial forces that had no end in sight. But not only did Shael say no, but she turned him away in disgust. That was the last time he would see her, for years. From a child soldier who had an uncanny skill with guns, to a fearless girl who backed down from no one, even those within the Resistance who begrudged her for her Garlean allied family, to the passionate woman who cared too much about a cause that it eventually twisted everything into blood lust and anger… Elam had fallen for her, but he couldn’t stay fighting for her. It would be over a decade before Elam saw her again. It was in Ul’dah, when she was hired to smuggle illegal Ishgardian relics for one of the Monetarists he was working for. It was then that he learned that she too had left the Resistance, a year after he did. She had burnt out on all that rage and hate. And the woman he saw in the Quicksand was cocky and carefree, with a crooked grin that rose easily to her lips. She had a ship of her own called Peregrine, and a first mate, a Roegadyn she affectionately called Shooey. Elam and Shael’s reunion had been a tepid one at best. It was as if she had completely forgotten about the year long affair they had, and a friendship that spanned much longer than that. Shooey didn’t seem to like him much either, and Elam was secretly jealous of the closeness that Shael and Shooey shared. Their kinship was obvious to him even from a distance. It was by pure happenstance, that the company that Elam was working for, The Cove, had gotten involved with the last surge of the Resistance efforts in Gyr Abania. And in the ancient ruins of their homeland, Elam found himself working side by side with Shaelen again. She also had been convinced to rejoin the war efforts, although he had long suspected that when the tide started to turn, that she couldn’t ignore the calling of her home and heart much longer. To this sun, Elam would deny that he ordered the early detonation when he knew that Shooey was setting up the explosives in Castrum Abania. There was a part of him that wondered if Shael would have sought him out in her grief once her first mate died. There was another part of him that hated the fact that he almost looked forward to it. It had been years since he saw her last, why did the thoughts of her still linger in his mind? Even more so, did he let her presence affect a calculated decision in warfare? The answer to that question didn’t matter to anyone but Elam. The war was won, Gyr Abania was freed from Garlemald’s control, and Shael disappeared from Eorzea since the night of the explosion. His part in the war did lift Elam in the eyes of his employers within The Cove, that he was assigned a whole new branch, to expand their business--both legal and illegal--into Othard, by becoming their lead agent in Kugane. He was put in charge of making contacts and business dealings on behave of The Cove, with Hingans, Domans, and Garleans alike. He had the entire resources of The Cove’s eastern division at his disposal. Elam was becoming more powerful and wealthy than many of the Monetarists he used to work for years ago. And expanding his reach into the newly liberated Doma, he knew that his ambition could be limitless. This would be the new start, a new chapter in his life. So when Shael found him again on this side of the world, entering his employ for Garlean weapons, Elam didn’t know if this was his way of getting everything he deserved or if she was a reminder that he was still no more than that green soldier lost in a homeland, looking to find his place in the world. Gods, he still wanted her. But he hated her for that. Elam tried to control the woman that had eluded him before. He began to drug her drinks when they talked. He knew well of her addictive habits, for they both had relied on all sorts of substances throughout the war. But slowly Elam began to realize this was no longer the same woman he wanted for all those years. Shael was no longer addicted to violence, no longer looking to him as her kindred spirit, no longer needing him as she used to. He and she knew they both enjoyed walking that line between rage and control, of unleashing anger and turning it into violence and taking pleasure in it. But somewhere along the way, Shael had cut him out of her mind and heart, she no longer needed to share that side of her with him. And now, the woman who had occupied a far corner of his mind since they met twenty years ago... that woman wanted him dead. Elam leaned back, pouring himself a glass of his best rum as his thoughts finally returned to the present, leaving the reverie of his past. He couldn’t help but wonder if the Spinner was taking a special delight in weaving his previous years back into his present. Not only did the only woman he’d ever consider bonding with years ago now wanted to kill him, but the person that Shael had been scheming with was none other than Ghoa, the Xaela that had recently reawakened that nearly forgotten desire and lust inside of him. The same Xaela that he had invited to join him at his side, in grabbing all the power that he could in this world. The same au ra that had confessed to him only bells ago, that she had plotted to poison and kill him to gain her independence from him. As he swirled the rich brown liquor within the glass, he slowly narrowed his eyes. He was no longer some boy following the lead of others in some idealistic political cause. He was no longer some love-sick puppy who begged a woman to leave with him for a better life. Elam Grave was now on the brink of winning the final match upon that dais of powerful criminal lords, and gaining more influence and control of the Doman underworld than any other westerner could ever dream of. He had no place in his heart for longings. He had no place for a heart in his plans. Both Shael and Ghoa could rot in hells. He needed no woman. He would see to it that they both met the end that they deserved. He would have power, and that was the only mistress he would ever want.
  12. Nei Uzuka always thought she should have been born a male. She was the first born to the clan Uzuka, and had she been born a boy, nothing would have been denied her. Her father’s lands, her ambitions, the power and the influence she knew she could wield so much more effectively than the whimpering boy that was her younger brother. She had watched him with baleful eyes ever since she was old enough to understand, that because of that little limp lump of flesh that hung between his legs, he would be the jewel in his parent’s eyes, and he would have all the choices that she would never be given. Her parents were generous enough to provide her the education of a noble lord’s daughter, which became even more plentiful with the Garlean occupation. Her parents were quick to turn sides, which meant they retained much of their wealth and comforts along with their holdings. Or… at least they managed their holdings for the good of the Empire. Nei spent much of her life honing the only two weapons she had. One was given to her at birth and cultivated since, features that had been greatly praised for years: high cheekbones, bright blue eyes, silky raven hair, and a curvy shape that easily drew the attention of the opposite (and in some cases, the same) sex. The other was her mind, one that allowed her to see the flaws in others, sense their desires and hungers, and allow her to manipulate them to get what she wanted. Since she wasn’t born into privilege, she learned how to use what she had, to abuse other’s privilege. She writhed one last time, feeling that all-too familiar shudder of the man beneath her, arching her back in time with his final hip-thrust and letting out an audible gasp. When he was spent, she rolled off him, onto to her side amidst the silks that were tangled around her legs. She didn’t bother pulling the sheets back up over her chest for the sake of modesty, her breasts rising and falling with quick breaths taken. She raked her hair away from her face, letting her dark locks fan out around the pillow beneath her. This was just another calculated move, one she has made all her life. Her deep blue eyes glanced to the man next to her, a sly smile quirking her lips. “I’m not used to seeing such frowns in my bed, at least, not afterwards,” she purred. Nei turned to her side to face him, propping her head against her hand. “Your champion won today. Again. You should be happy.” Elam Grave was staring at the ceiling, his thick dark brows furrowed. It was as if his mind never left the arena even as she and he were pressed against each other, skin to skin. “Winning isn’t everything. I thought it was, but not after Musa wrested control of my own champion’s fate from me.” His voice simmered with anger. Nei smirked with a shrug of her bare shoulders, lightly gliding one perfectly manicured nail along his chest. It traced one long scratch after another, amongst many that she had left upon his torso. “He made his move. He means to see his champion’s victory uncontested. Unquestioned. Are you surprised?” Elam scowled in consideration. “I had expected something. But to then take the girl away from me as well? For what purpose?” His expression and voice were growing darker, his vexation building. “Why did you bring her?” Nei asked outright. When Elam gave her a sidelong glance as if to protest, she tutted. “Don’t insult my intelligence by denying it. Or saying she was Hikomoro’s guest. You arranged it, I know. Why?” Nei of course already knew why. Something about that Xaela got under Grave’s skin. She was his property, and then Saltborn took her away from him. Nei recognized easily enough when men became territorial and possessive. To threaten it was to threaten their very livelihood. She could not argue, if someone had taken something that was rightfully hers, she too would have to make an example out of them. But then why continue to obsess over the object once it was no longer lost? “I wanted to watch her watch him.” Elam was staring at the Hingan chandelier that hung above them when he answered matter-of-factly. “Then I wanted him to kill her. Kill her and win the final fight for his freedom.” A soft but incredulous snort escaped her lips. “You mean to free him after? Even if no one ever leaves the pit?” Elam slowly turned to her, his eyes intent and his voice firm. “I will win the final fight, I will make new rules. I will set him free if he does as he is told.” Nei slowly narrowed her eyes. This was why Grave had made an enemy of Ieharu Musa. His ambitions to change things, break the rules, setting new standards with more successes he gained. It held implications far beyond the arena. If he should succeed in the ring, he would use it as precedent to extend his influence similarly elsewhere. And Musa, a son of a long line of warlords, one who abided by strict traditions and values, would never suffer such a thing. Not even for all the power and the wealth that a connection to the west could bring. “Even Hikomoro might object to that,” Nei said as she sat up, reaching to the bed stand to light a pipe. “And he is your strongest ally.” That brought out a sly expression to split across his face. “You are not my strongest ally?” Nei tossed her head back in a laugh, her smile too broad for it to be genuine. “If you believe that, then you are a bigger fool than I took you for.” When Elam just snorted and looked back to the ceiling, Nei allowed all amusement to fade, as she eyed him keenly. What was the point in setting Saltborn free other than to make a statement? Was there something else to Elam’s ambitions with this Confederate? She could understand the draw to his savagery, in some ways. Even Musa mused about acquiring Saltborn as his own champion. She herself was tempted to toy with the man for a bit. He was after all, instrumental in her rise and taking over the void that Yumishi had left behind. But why bother with having him kill the very girl he was being punished for saving? Especially if it risked his focus in the ring? “Saltborn may be your champion,” Nei narrowed her eyes, her tone growing sharp. “And your greatest strength in the arena, this I can’t deny. He has gone farther than anyone ever could have foreseen. But I fear he’s also your blindspot. In your efforts to make him what you want him to be, you risk too much, make questionable decisions.” She took a long draw of her pipe, exhaling the smoke to the ceiling languidly. “You brought the girl to the pit for his sake, and it gained Musa’s attention. So far, you’ve just been lucky in all your gambles. I wouldn’t keep testing fate.” She gave him a sidelong glance. “Your champion should be long dead by now.” “Except for that girl,” Grave said wryly. Nei snorted. “Except for that girl.” She propped her hand with the pipe onto her knee, lazily drawing a silk sheet over her chest to ward off some of the chill. She watched Grave as he continued to stare off into the ceiling, no doubt lost in his own thoughts. This little tryst was just a distraction after all, a way of release for both of them after the bloodlust that usually wound them up after the pit matches. Neither of them revealed much about their own plans, although Nei used the opportunity to try and glean whatever hints she could of his machinations. She had no doubts that he was likely doing the same, from these little bedroom talks. After a long moment of silence (in which neither of them felt the need to fill with words), Elam finally stood, and began to dress himself. He never stayed long in her place, and if there wasn’t much more to be prodded out of him, she preferred he didn’t linger either. “I am starting to think you have some hidden fascination with Xaelas,” she remarked off handedly as he was pulling up his breeches. Grave took the bait, pausing and looking back to her with an arch of the brow. “You can’t let this herbalist be, and now you have another that you bring for Hikomoro’s benefit,” Nei added with a sly smile, gesturing vaguely with her long pipe. “You should do a better job in trying to hide your jealousy when Hikomoro has his hands all over her.” “You’re wrong,” Grave said bluntly. The response came too quickly for it to be true. Nei just smirked. “And you should do better than to fall under Musa’s shadow,” Grave shot back, his eyes trained on her. That made Nei pause, the smug expression she had plastered on her face faltering for an instant. One corner of her lip quirked in annoyance. “I always like our bedroom talks, don’t you?” She shrugged again, taking another draw of her pipe. “I wouldn’t miss it,” Grave gave her a curt nod then headed out. Nei allowed her expression to turn sour after his departure, looking down the length of her pipe. He was more clever than she had initially thought, but... he was still a man. As they all were. Even Ieharu Musa. And she would use what she could of them until she got all that she wanted.
  13. It was not a common occurrence that a non-Garlean -- a non-military personnel no less -- would ask a Garlean soldier on how to dismantle an Imperial magitek collar. And yet, here was Nabi, a Xaela herbalist that he would call a friendly acquaintance, asking him just that, her golden eyes earnest and hopeful as she peered up at him. Marius didn’t quite know what to say at first. She didn’t know that he was a Garlean soldier, nor of his Imperial citizenship. But he had let it slip during one of their conversations over tea that he did know a bit about magitek; he was an engineer before his demotion and transfer to Kugane, after all. He had been careful not to reveal the nature of his association with Garlemald to Nabi, not out of shame for his homeland but to avoid any discomfort on the herbalist’s part. If she had known that he was Garlean, would she have still come to him? They had met a few times, their first encounter being rather serendipitous at the Umineko Tea House. They shared a liking for those little treats called dangos, and she always seemed to find him visiting the stall near sunset at the end of his shift. It was her rambling nature and amiable personality that eventually eased him into conversing with her. She was one of very few with whom he allowed this luxury; his superiors would not be too fond of him socializing with non-Imperials. But as he regarded the Xaela woman in front of him now, he almost didn’t recognize her. Her usual boundless energy was nowhere to be found. There were shadows beneath her eyes and a wan look about her. Even her voice sounded muted, and he thought there was a hint of desperation behind her gaze. This was not the woman he had come to know over the last many months. He had heard that her clinic and stall had burnt down in an accidental fire, but he hadn’t quite learned of the details or the circumstances. He had been dealing with his own set of ordeals for a time. But clearly something more than an unfortunate random fire had occurred, and left her in a certain state of worry. “Inquiring about Imperial collars… is a bit unusual.” Marius cleared his throat with a hint of unease. He gestured for her to sit on a bench, and took a seat next to her. She had been waiting for him by the tea house, and as soon as he arrived, she had taken him aside, wasting no time in asking for this favor. There was a nervous frailty about her, she looked as if she would flutter away with the slightest bit of a breeze. “Why would you ask this?” Nabi bowed her gaze, looking to her hands wringing upon her lap. “It’s being used against someone. Someone I care for. I wish to free him from it.” Marius arched a brow. Those collars were known to be used against conscripted soldiers. “If they are under the Imperial authority--” he began to protest. “No!” Nabi quickly interrupted, shaking her head. “It is being used by Domans now. It is being used illegally to force people to fight in pits. For gambling and money.” A look of distress darkened the woman’s wearied countenance, and that made Marius incline his head toward her with a keen eye. “I see. Perhaps they were left behind after the occupation.” The withdrawal of forces from Doma after its liberation was a hasty one; he would not be surprised if many Imperial weapons and technology were left behind. Still… the thought that some of it was being misappropriated for criminal use disturbed him. And the fact that it brought such woe to a woman he’d always seen as a cheerful bright ray of sunlight vexed him. “I do know of the make that was used in Doma.” He internally argued with himself that sharing such an information was not disloyalty to Garlemald. Such technology was never meant to be used outside of the auspice of the Empire, and as such, this would aid in putting an end to such illicit activities. Moreover, it gave him a chance to give some relief to a woman who had always greeted him with mirth and goodwill. “I think I can help.” Marius exhaled with a smile. “Tell me what you need.”
  14. Elam almost smiled. Just what would a wolf do, if a doe approached and laid itself on the ground, bearing its neck? After all the trouble this Xaela had caused him, now she came to him, begging. He recalled the last time he had her at his mercy, the satisfying crack the back of his hand made against her scales. That was when she had showed a glimmer of defiance, her eyes wide with fear. He could still smell the same fear, like blood in the water, but the woman was holding it in check. All for… what, Saltborn? They both knew that there was some reassurance of safety in the public eye. He couldn’t do as he pleased on the third floor of the Hostelry. At least, not physically. “Would’ve saved me a lot of trouble and Saltborn a lot of pain had you decided wisely long before this,” he said indifferently, returning his attention back to his dinner, content to leave the Xaela on her knees. He could see her flinching even in her bowed posture, her head and gaze remaining lowered still. She closed her hands upon her lap and straightened her back, those golden eyes rising back to him full of pleading and naivete. “Ask of me anything. It was my transgression. You need not punish him for it.” Elam let out a quiet snort of amusement. It was true that her refusal had started it all. But it was Saltborn’s gall to betray him that stoked his fury. What was it about this fragile creature that somehow drove a man like Anchor to turn on him? To go against all logic? He paused as he plucked out another piece of fish from the steaming pot. “Anything?” Nabi swallowed and nodded stiffly. “Aye. If it would gain his freedom.” “How about if I were to offer your services as a potion maker to an associate of mine, for the rest of your life? To work without sleep, to be beaten at will, and to service him in whatever way he wanted?” He quirked a cruel smirk. “You would go without protest?” He could see her shaking, but she nodded. “Anything.” A slow deliberate smile lifted his lips as he regarded her. “Alas. It is too little, too late.” He pointed his wooden sticks at her. “This is why you should have considered my original offer more carefully and weighed the consequences of your actions. My associate, the one that died, would have treated you much better than most. But that opportunity has passed. Besides, as long as Saltborn lives, he is going to gain me a lot of coin and influence.” He set his utensil down, reaching for a bottle of sake. “And he also offered me a poison maker to replace you. One that would be much more cooperative. “So… it turns out, I don’t need anything you have to offer.” Elam lifted his glass of sake in her direction before tossing it back. “But I do appreciate the gesture.” Nabi sat there stock-still, her expression distant and distraught. Elam just stared at her, and a part of him was surprised at how much he relished her torment. To think that such a meek and powerless thing would even dare to defy him. “But since Saltborn bound himself to my service to ensure your safety, I’ll grant a token of goodwill.” He reached into his vest pocket, where he drew out a small pouch. He tossed it onto her lap. He watched as confusion washed over her, before she slowly opened the small bag, letting a trinket fall out onto her hand. It was an earring, tribal in design with different metals and ores strung together. As he suspected, she recognized it immediately. She looked pained as she carefully fingered the fragment of the raw obsidian and quartz at the end of it, the two pieces together resembling a moon at first quarter. Her face contorted only for an instant, but she was valiantly struggling to keep her composure in front of him. “If we are going to coexist peacefully in this city, best keep good relations, aye?” He gestured to his foreman who stepped up behind Nabi. “Now, let’s get you back on your feet and to your precious family and life again. People are starting to stare.” Elam watched as she rose, a blank expression on her face as she cradled that earring close to her chest. He gestured with a flick of his fingers for her to be led away by Torrad. Of course soon as she began to make her way, the foreman left her be. It was part of the contract after all that neither he nor his men would touch her. But Elam knew he would see her again.
  15. Torrad Stonebreaker had always taken pride in his name. It was one that was earned through feats of strength, rather than granted through blood. He cared not for his father’s heritage, weak and miserly merchant that he was, struggling for scraps in the streets of Pearl Lane. Nay, Torrad was a strapping young man, and as soon as he could gain employment within the circle of Monetarists in Ul’dah, he leaped at the chance. He started as one of many bodyguards, but his size and strength soon gained him notice, and his willingness to do just about anything his employer wanted of him gained him ranks quickly. He was strong, hungry, and brutal when he needed to be. None had bested him one on one, and not one mission he was in charge of, he had failed at. When he rose to the rank of foreman for Elam Grave, The Cove’s lead man in establishing their business interests in Kugane and Doma, Torrad was confident that soon his own ambitions would be realized. He just needed to succeed in all things that Grave asked of him. Then the disaster struck at the fishing village outside of Isari, because of one bedeviled Confederate. Torrad now watched the very same man ascend the stairs to the third floor of the Hostelry, approaching the table where Elam Grave was leisurely enjoying his dinner. Anchor Saltborn had asked for the meeting after a fortnight of silence since the slaying of Aritake Yumishi and the disappearance of the Xaela alchemist. A deep scowl drew his brows as Torrad recalled his own role in it all. After all his men had been killed, and with the crew of the Ironsong turning against him as well, he had managed to negotiate a truce, in hopes of preserving his own life. There was shame that twisted his insides, and anger that simmered along with it, that this gaunt-looking pirate could bring him to such defeat. As Anchor sat down across from Grave, Torrad’s finger twitched over his sword that hung by his side. He would have given almost anything to strike down that cursed man where he sat. But he dared not disobey Grave, he now knew too well the price of betraying that man. The greeting between the two men were careful, both speaking in calm neutral tones. Grave was intent on hearing what Anchor had to say, and the latter had come prepared to parlay. Anchor briefly echoed the false tale of the ambush that Torrad had recounted to Grave, but soon moved onto the purpose of this meeting. It was after all, Torrad believed, what sent the pirate into his rage filled killing spree. "See, you's almost be makin' an error with us." Anchor leaned in, setting his arms over the table. “An error? And what would that be?” Elam paused as he poured himself some sake, mild curiosity in his raised brow. "During the madness of it all, your little piece of merchandise be gotten loose. Mayhap have had the time to be noticin’ it look an awful like familiar to a senseless wench that be workin’ here locally.” Anchor leaned back, his folded hands sliding off the table and draping between his knees. “Ya see, I don’t be carin’ much of the daft wench. But, she be a resource to tendin’ to my crew and me and my own for some time now. We know there be little thing of trust in a world such as this one. Paid for by blood and coin it is. But we had no trouble with her. She be daft. Easy to manipulate. Skilled. Ya don’t find a thing like that often.” Anchor cleared his throat, “Ya see, be stealin’ somethin’ of that sort, be stealin’ somethin’ from us. So… lucky you, it didn’t go through, aye?” Elam said nothing although his eyes narrowed just slightly. He gestured vaguely with his hand to continue. "That said, and in your own words, you's be payin' us generously for the work and we has no intention of endin' dealin's. You seem you gots plenty of enemies... and I gots plenty of fight left in me." Anchor looked from Elam back toward Torrad, before turning back around. "However, the continued deals go hand in hand with a proposition, of sorts. Let that woman return to her work, baskin' in ignorance as she likes. In return, I gots a name of another that'll prove ya more useful." Torrad bore his gaze into the back of Anchor’s head. All for a blasted girl. Fool. Bitterness welled up inside him, enough that he had to clench his hands into a fist to release some tension. But whatever insanity that had taken hold of the man on that dock in Yanxia, was not present this sun. Anchor went on, to offer another poison maker, to replace the Xaela. One that would be far more familiar and comfortable with all that Grave would ask of him. And to Torrad’s surprise, Grave agreed. In exchange for the girl’s complete silence and one of her new formulas. Torrad’s scowl deepened. The woman was too naive, too inexperienced to pull off such a lie. To return to her old life in Kugane, to her burnt stall and home and pretend as if nothing happened? He wanted to snort loudly. “You telling me you can convince her to just… forget about all that?” Grave echoed the same thoughts. “Go back to… what, her life as it were?” His eyes narrowed on Anchor. “You must have a lot of pull with this girl. Something I never managed to get. Despite her being so… easily manipulated, as you say.” "No need bein' so hard on yourself, Grave. She be havin' a good taste now of what soil lays under the green painted over it all, thanks to ya. She knows more than ever on consequences." Anchor sounded confident, encouraged by Grave’s malleability. "Ya lay the options clear for a one, and they should be takin' the smart one. As it is.” “This agreement..." Grave’s lips curled downward, although his expression was one of appraisal. "Sounds fair enough." He set his utensils down, reaching for a second untouched bottle of sake and pouring two glasses. "As long as you can guarantee that the Xaela keeps her mouth shut. And as long as I have a capable drug-maker, my patrons will be happy." Anchor sat up, letting out a slow exhale. "Aye. She be keepin' her mouth shut. You and your own don't be layin' a finger on 'er. You'll have your man for makin'. And a crew to be gettin' dirty outta your pocket." He nodded firmly. Grave grinned lopsidedly, seemingly pleased. “The fate of the Xaela depends on her silence. But I’m sure you’ll see to that.” He set the second cup of sake in front of Anchor and lifted his own in the air. “Not exactly what I had planned, but at the end of the sun, we just need to keep our customers and employers happy, aye?” He tossed his head back and swallowed it in one gulp. “And I can always use a crew for dirty work.” "That I will," Anchor assured, although he did not knock his drink back until Grave did so first. "And a crew can always use coin." There was a hint of triumph in the pirates voice. Grave watched him, that one sided smile broadening just a sliver as Anchor finished his drink. But that expression faded as soon as it came, his jaw set. “Since that matter is now taken care of…” He set the second bottle of sake back to the side, then reached for the first he had been nursing before. He poured out what little was left, and began to sip at it again. “Let’s discuss that ambush.” His tone was suddenly business like. He set his cup down once it’s been emptied, lacing his fingers together as he leaned in. “I like to know my enemies. A word of an ambush like this… it gets around to the people that matter in my business. Can’t let that stand. My business partner getting ambushed and butchered on delivery. “So I did a little looking. And the story that my foreman gave me… didn’t quite explain everything.” Grave flicked a glance to Torrad which almost made him twitch. Grave turned his attention back to Anchor, his expression hardening. “Why all of your men survived and all mine, except for one, died. And there were no bodies or evidence of this mysterious ambushers to be found after.” Anchor stiffened, and he too flicked a look back to Torrad for an instant. There was no ready answer coming forth, a pause of silence falling between them. The pirate finally snorted. "Some might be sayin' it luck, aye? Not one to be lookin' a gifthorse in the mouth, as it were. Especially considerin' how I made out." Anchor set a single elbow on the table again, glancing back over to Torrad. "Look like to me I not the only one be gettin' a close call." He flicked a finger over the lobe of his ear pointedly at the foreman, the earring there swaying before settling again. Anchor shrugged. "And aye... between the desperate lootin' the dead an' the not far off lands to raidin' tribes of Xaela or other, I be not too surprised there little to be found after." He cleared his throat. "Who uh... you runnin' things up west lately? Mayhap have angered the wrong crowds?” Torrad watched Grave, for now he recognized the man was just waiting, like a wolf, watching its prey. “That was my first thought,” Grave said quietly, one finger tapping on the sake bottle he just drained. “It couldn’t have been Garleans looking for their stolen weapons, this time around. And there are plenty wealthy Doman lords looking to claim whatever territory as their own in the new Doma. But they all have their signatures. And no crime scene is clean, not when people die or make a hasty getaway. If all things were picked off, I might have believed it. But…” He shot another look at Torrad, this one slow and purposeful. “Bodies left behind, no one stepping up to fill that void… didn’t make for a believable story.” “So I asked my foreman again.” Grave turned back to Anchor, his voice lowering. “And then my foreman told me the truth.” He tsked. “Of course, I understand. Who wouldn’t put their own lives first?. But he’s learned the price of lying to me. He’ll never speak another lie again. Or speak for that matter.” Torrad said nothing. He couldn’t. There was an empty space where his tongue used to be. A cold silence followed, wherein Anchor suddenly shot a hand toward his katana, but stopped as he had to regain his balance with his other hand on the table, as if he was falling out of his seat. Torrad grinned inwardly. The poison in the sake was taking effect quicker than he thought. He could not see Anchor’s expression, but the man was now bent over the table, like an animal in panic. Then the Highlander felt a familiar static in the air, wavering, just like the quivering form of the pirate as he struggled remain upright. Torrad recognized it. It was the same energy that filled the air in Yanxia when Anchor’s eyes glowed yellow and unnatural energy poured forth from him. "Best make your... next move carefully... or this whole floor... be reduced to splinters." Anchor’s warning was guttural, desperate. Torrad took a step toward Anchor, one hand going for this sword. But a hand raised from Grave that halted his movements. “I need not make any move,” Grave said calmly, his tone steady. “The next move is yours. I meant what I said about our deal. Your crew gets to keep their healer, I get a poison maker. That deal will still be honored, unless you intend to break it here and now.” One corner of his lips quirked upwards, although it wasn’t a smile. “Torrad told me about how you killed the Doman lord. We found his body, after the fact. His veins desiccated, his body withered like someone blew him up then deflated him. And mess where the head used to be.” He blew out a snort. “Impressive.” Torrad remained still where he stood, ready to strike down the pirate if needed. He almost wished that Anchor would do something foolish to warrant it. It was the Confederate’s fault that he could no longer speak. “I’m not going to see you die today,” Grave continued, each moment allowing the poison to take stronger hold. “Or here. But after what you did, there is a price to be paid. If you want to release whatever it is you have and try and kill everyone, and probably yourself in the process, then by all means.” He gestured to the Confederate. “But rest assured. I am not intending to die today. Willing to take the chance that I wasn’t prepared for you to do something? "This is your choice now, perhaps the last I'll ever offer. Keep the deal and take your chances when you wake. Or, act out like a beast on its last throes of life and see where it gets you." Grave leaned in, as if daring the man. "But after, my men will find your crew and the Xaela. Ironsong may have the Confederacy to hide behind, but her, I will have her hunted. And I will kill her." Torrad watched as Anchor continued to try and stay upright. His head began to fall toward, but he positioned his hand over the table to steady himself. He drew in a long breath, perhaps trying to gather the strength to talk. When words finally did come, they came as air, his vocal chords too weak to work above a murmur. "The price then...?" Torrad’s expression mirrored the amusement of Grave’s visage, the latter enjoying watching the man struggle. The pirate was lasting longer than either of them had expected. “You will have to find out when you wake,” he snorted. “But you will fight and you will suffer, until I say so. You will only die if you wish it, or if you fail.” Anchor's head bowed over, hands and arms sliding over loosely, knocking into a few dishes with a soft clatter. His form started shaking. Torrad could swear, he heard soft puffs of laughter escaping from the man. "Bring it..." was all he breathed before the pirate lost consciousness.
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