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    Stalwart Sentry
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  1. Arasen had long become hardened to the glares, the looks of disapproval and distrust that most never bothered to hide from their faces. His father had always made his displeasure known to his own offspring – a son of a powerful warlord who wanted nothing of battle. It was a lingering sore to the mighty warrior’s pride, and had Tugan Kharlu had his way, his first born would have been left out in the prairie in the cold of night, for the wolves to devour. “Take the screaming whelp away,” his father had ordered. “The gods have cursed him and taken his mind. This is no blessing.” Even now, Arasen remembered those words, and the disgust that burned in his father’s eyes like embers. He was but a child, looking to his parent for succor when the grisly visions his young eyes were not prepared for still came for him, but instead he was cast out to die like a wild animal. It was only by the grace of Siban, the only woman in the tribe who might have had more sway than the warlord, that the bedeviled youth was saved. She took him in to nurture him through his torment wrought by hallucinations, somehow able to pierce through his endless wails to lend soothing words. While Bayanbataar nor Tugan approved of her decision, neither challenged it, for who would dare defy the gods? As eccentric as she was, none could ever question her visions, not even the Khan. So it was to Siban that Arasen owed his life, and it was to her that he would bow his head in earnest when sanity returned to him. To the rest, Arasen learned quickly how to act, to show deference when he felt nothing but disdain in his heart. His greatest test of his pretense was when he bent his knees, his forehead lowered to the ground in obeisance, in front of his father who had once sentenced him to death. Tugan had no choice then but to accept him back as his blood, for the boy had since been ordained by Siban that he too had been gifted with the Sight, and would learn under the old woman. But the glower never faded from his father’s face. There was no hint of pride that a sire might show his cub; it was as if his progeny was a stranger to him. Tugan was too proud of a creature to hide his feelings, so the rest of the tribe also began to mirror his father’s wariness. If the eldest son could not earn the approval of the second most powerful warlord in the tribe, no one else dared to show him respect either. So as Arasen matured, he became very skilled at plucking even the sliver of distaste behind people’s mannerisms, even when they were disguised. It also begot numerous calluses around his heart, for if he could not be hurt, he was all the more able to maintain his composed veneer. It became his way of survival, and eventually, his means of realizing his destiny. So the daggers thrown his way in the way of scowls by the crew of the Wavecutter pained him not. As he made his way off the Confederate ship, he merely curled a polite smile and offered a nod in Shigeyori’s direction before disembarking. But once his feet touched upon the pier and his face was no longer visible to any of them, Arasen was relieved to be finally free of their scrutiny. The events of the day had taken their toll, even on him. And nearly drowning in the sea was the least of it. More than nearly losing his life, it was the moments of complete honesty that lingered with him still. Nabi had glimpsed his darkness. His willingness for cruelty as he had shown her. It was his knee-jerk response to the gentleness that she showed him. Was vindictiveness the only thing he could offer in return for kindness? Was it the only thing he was capable of? The younger Kharlu peered up at his warden that walked in front of him as he was led through the beach of Onokoro. His exchange with Batuhan still weighed his mind, along with doubts he held for the others, and the dread of what the judgement his cousin would bestow on him. But despite his trepidation he followed, until all the eyes of those who mattered were on him. Did they burn with hatred? Were they cold with indifference? Darkened with misgivings? It wouldn’t have pained him. He had not felt the weight of such things for as long as he could remember. He should have been able to meet all of them without cowering, as he had done all these years. His faith in his path and his belief in himself had dulled any ache it would have wrought. But when his amber gaze were met by a pair of warmer golden eyes, Arasen could not deny that single pang deep within. He wasn’t allowed to wallow in that strange sensation. With a pointed look from Batuhan, Arasen dropped to his knees and lowered his head onto the sands, his hands placed humbly upon his lap. He bowed deeply in front of Nabi, no matter what her guardians wished for his fate. “I’ve come to beg you for your forgiveness, cousin.”
  2. “I would have word.” Arasen had come to recognize that tone very well. On numerous occasions over the years, more than he could count, Batuhan had taken his ward aside, away from the judging eyes of his father, and spoken to him quietly. It was less when he was younger, for mistakes he made then were forgiven by the way of naivete and idealistic foolishness. But later on, when he began to learn the ways of steering other’s viewpoints, enabling him to make more bold choices for the sake of his own gains, often times it came with his warden’s stern disapproval. Batuhan never had the heart for the suffering of the innocent. But he was wise enough to know that such a price was what many within their ranks were willing to pay, for the path to nirvana was not without its darkness. But the older Kharlu remained ever the steadfast guardian, wanting to protect his young ward and their small but growing sect from the pitfalls of ambition. Arasen always took his counsel to heart. It was important to him to know where his brother in oath stood in all things. But the younger Kharlu never returned the same courtesy. He couldn’t. If Batu ever fully became aware of all the sins he had already committed, and his willingness to go even further, Arasen knew he would receive more than just harsh words of rebuke. Would the man who swore a blood oath to protect and stand by his side suddenly turn against him? Arasen didn’t want to know. It pained him to imagine the day when his ardent guardian would no longer stand with him. Even if he had come to accept that such may come about of his own doing. But on this very sun, Arasen believed that day had arrived. When rage lit his eyes like lightning at the sight of Nabi bound and partly unclothed, Batu had thrown him against the wall, his arm pressed crushingly over his neck. Such was a scene Arasen had envisioned, somewhere in the back of his mind, when fear and doubt often took hold. But hurried words had somehow stayed his warden’s fury. Since Ghoa had already laid the blame of the entire ordeal on Toragana, it was easy for Arasen to nurture it further. But while Batu allowed him to breathe, from that moment on, the younger Kharlu felt a distance between them that he hadn’t before. There was wariness where once there had been complete trust. Arasen found himself wholly unprepared for the depth of pain it wrought. Had he been too reliant upon their bond? Or the magic that had entwined their souls together? Arasen believed that Batu’s growing fondness for others had been completely erased after the seal was spent, but something had changed after his visit with Saltborn and Ghoa. Had the two stirred up memories that were buried by his command? Had they such a power to break the influence of his blood bond? Or was his own warden starting to resist it on his own? It was impossible to ignore the growing doubt in the older Kharlu’s eyes as more revelations came to light after. After having shared with Nabi much of the venom that flowed deep within his veins, believing that she would not wake in time to tell the others, Batu freed her from the spell that enfeebled her. That left Arasen no choice but to tell the truth to the rest, or at least as much as Nabi and Batuhan knew. And if it wasn’t for Batuhan standing between Saltborn and himself, Arasen was certain that he would no longer be breathing. So where did his brother stand now? Batu came to his defense again, at least when his very life was threatened by Pjel. ‘He is not whole, nor beautiful. But he is the lost daughter’s kin and my blood brother,’ Batu had told the Viera warrior, willing to put his body between her sword and his ward. Was there still a thread of kinship left between them? As frayed as it was? Arasen had believed until now that he was willing to pay any cost the gods might ask of him. He had resigned himself in the past, with much difficulty, that if the gods asked for his brother’s life, he would give it. He had accepted the solitude and loneliness that this prophecy demanded of him. And yet when death came for him, when the depth of the ocean swallowed him whole while he still hadn’t fulfilled his destiny, when it seemed that the gods would forsake him after all he had sacrificed, it was the hand of a hyur that Arasen had marked for death that reached out to save him. Now, he didn’t know what to believe. Arasen stared dumbly back at Batuhan, the younger Kharlu momentarily lost to his thoughts. He shook his head, giving Batu a weary smile. It was salvageable. Not all was lost. A new path had to be forged. And it started first with repairing what was left of the bond between him and the only person in the world who cared for him. “Yes,” Arasen said quietly. “Let us talk.”
  3. Aboard The Wavecutter Nothing was ever simple. It was a lesson that always came to back to him when he least wanted it. Shigeyori found himself gritting his teeth, angry that it had been taught to him yet again, like a painful slap to the hand. Just a trip into the Bay of Yanxia was all that was asked, delivering Kiratai of the Jhungid tribe and his kin to the northeastern corner of the Steppe; it sounded like an offer too good to be true. Considering the debt that was owed the warlord in his captain’s stead, Shigeyori readily agreed. Even when Kiratai informed him just the sun before the trip, that there would be some additional guests that would be accompanying the group, the Quartermaster of the Wavecutter agreed. But when those ‘guests’ turned out to be an unconscious Confederate, an unwilling Xaela, and another one so ailing that she had to be carried on board, Shigeyori’s shifted uneasily, biting back his protests. A debt was a debt. He owed them, and he would pay it back. He heard the murmurs amongst his crew when the Jhungid udgan made her pronouncements as they returned: Kiratai had been slain, but their divine course still remained unaltered. When she continued to claim more power through words, that the vicious storm that appeared out of nowhere was a sign of the gods’ anger, the hyur simmered. He could see her bending the truth, using coincidences to sow fears into the hearts of sailors. He was eager to be rid of the witch. Sooner he could get them to the Bay that they leave his company, the better. But the more she tried to wind the yarn of influence around her finger, more Shigeyori pulled in the opposite direction. Mayhap that was the reason he approached the Confederate. He had been brought aboard the Wavecutter unconscious and injured, and left in the supply hold bound with rope. The Jhungid seemed to pay him no mind after that. But with the storm underway and the ship operating with a bare minimum crew, all hands were needed on deck. It was his decision to free the prisoner, he was a seasoned sailor and could help the crew, the Jhungid witch be damned. Then when the Confederate, as wiry and gaunt as he was in frame, dove into the raging ocean after two Xaelas had that been thrown overboard, the man --Anchor Saltborn, Shigeyori later learned-- had caught his attention. Enough so that after when all things had settled, and Saltborn was breathing hard but still continuing to work the lines as he was previously ordered, Shigeyori offered him a chance at freedom. “You weren’t part of the bargain, and I don’t see that you gotta be.” The Quartermaster searched the hyur’s expression intently, trying to bore into the man’s heart. Why was he here? “If you set yourself apart from ‘em, I can make an argument to keep you on the ship when we drop ‘em off.” The offer clearly surprised the Confederate, as he stared back in silence. But soon his expression hardened. “The lass--the one with sick--her lot be in with my own. She be no more their kind than I be. Set for Onokoro. I--there be contacts there--she needs a bloody doctor, not tae be dragged off tae them brutal plains o’ the Steppes.” The man had yet to show anything but grit, but there was a silent plea in his words. “Dead man can’t feel gratitude. But a livin’ one can owe ya--as much as ya believe ya owe these dalcops.” Mayhaps it was the fact that Kiratai was no longer alive. It was the warlord that was owed, not his kin. Or the fact that the Wavecutter just barely managed to pull out of that storm, with no one lost at sea. In part, thanks to this man who didn’t bargain for his freedom, but for someone else’s. And Shigeyori couldn’t argue. Kiratai was dead. And debt from someone living and capable as Saltborn was definitely worth more. “Tolui!” Shigeyori shouted to the boatswain without turning. “Set a course for Onokoro! We’re stopping there first!” The roegadyn by the main mast poked his head up, leaning to the side to get a better view at the two hyurs. “Onokoro? Not sailing straight to the Bay?” Shigeyori’s continued to stare at Saltborn, expression grim and intent. “Need to pick up a few more men. In case we hit another storm like this along the way.” It wasn’t a lie. It would be pure luck if they were met with another storm like that and came out of it again unscathed. “Aye, aye!” Tolui hollered without hesitation, turning around, whistling and shouting orders to the rest of the crew. The Quartermaster leveled a scowl at Anchor. “It’s just a short stop, for the safety of the crew and the journey.” He tilted his head. “You’re gonna have to figure out a way to make the best of it.” He spun around sharply from the man, making his way back to the wheel. Forgive me, Captain. I am going to have to find another way.
  4. A year ago... “More. I need more.” It was not enough. No matter how much was spilt, it was not enough. The irises remained impassive as ever, their ebony petals swaying in the slight breeze. Their velvety skin wore numerous beads of crimson, and yet nothing happened. Were they not hungry? Do they not yearn to drink of life? Toragana glared at the circular enclosure, the bed of flowers that sat in the center of this ancient place. It was her altar, born of the earth and a resting place for the gift of the gods. She could feel the threads of magic woven thickly into the soil, and the very air itself tingled against the runes engraved upon her face. She had offered them what they wanted. And yet, the gods were silent. The sacrifice, ignored. As another body was dragged off, she could hear the murmurs all around. So many were wavering. Losing their purpose. Weaklings. “We have no more,” another voice murmured fearfully behind her. “She was our last.” “Then get more,” the udgan hissed, spinning around sharply, her blood-soaked robe billowing out, as if a sea of red was pouring down the steps she stood upon. “Tell the son of Tugan, none of them were worthy. They could not bear the the true mark.” Many bowed in deference or fear -- she cared not -- but she could see the glances of apprehension that they exchanged, she had heard the whispers on the wind. Some were starting to falter in their devotion. Unwilling to dirty their hands so that they may save everyone else. Toragana’s chin tilted up arrogantly. Her conviction would never break. This was but a trial, to cull their numbers of the disbelievers. This path could not allow for the weak of heart. The white limbal rings of her eyes dimmed, all light disappearing from her dark gaze, as she scanned those gathered, for the weakest amongst them. “No need,” a booming voice cut through the thick tension, drawing all eyes, including that of the udgan, to the towering figure that entered the atrium. “My lord,” Toragana bowed deeply from her waist, displaying due reverence to the warlord that led them all. Kiratai was the weapon she would wield for the gods, but to everyone else, this Jhungid warlord was the leader in their hearts, not her. “We have received word.” A slow smile crept along the warrior’s scarred face. “One of the Kharlu has located the lost daughter. The son of Tugan will head to Reunion to meet with her.” He turned to one of the warriors standing near and tilted his chin. “He wants a welcome party. Send five men.” A twisted look of amusement crossed the warlord’s face. “He just asks that none be killed.” Toragana stared almost unbelieving. Finally. She was found. The last piece to the prophecy. An awed sigh left her parted lips, but that was the moment the gods would grant her a glimpse. The white arcs around her eyes suddenly glowed bright, white light suddenly encompassing everything between her lids. And she saw. Kiratai no longer living, but as something more. Something that hungered and ravaged. There was blackness in him that seethed and roiled, spilling forth ravenous and deranged. There were others: she saw a giant blood stained sword, veins glowing with both light and sickness, and a crackle of lightning. And beyond it all, she saw a hint of a golden glimmer, a warmth that had been too long absent. She reached for it, and all the shadows coiled and shot out from her hand, wanting to snatch what she had been longing for so long. With a gasp, the vision was no more. Kiratai stood next to her, his large hand steady upon her bony shoulder. He regarded her with care, his eyes darting between hers. A fierce warrior he was, but she mattered to him. Toragana could not say the same. “What did you see?” he inquired, curious. The white limbal rings had faded to the pale slivers as the udgan looked up at the warlord. She could still see his bloated features, his jaws opened unnaturally wide in its wanting. “Our future, my lord,” she breathed in awe.
  5. It still hurt. Batuhan’s hand rose to his chest, clutching at his leather tunic as he closed the door to the storage room behind him. He did not want to make a show of his discomfort to those he left inside, they seemed uncertain of him as it was. And he of them. But it was not entirely born out of distrust. Despite his lack of recollection, a part of him knew that he had forgotten them. Somehow. That single memory that returned to him, of his word given to the hyur, it was enough. Batu knew they had met before. They had spoken long before this sun. And somehow, he had felt enough faith in the man whose face was now estranged to him, to swear on his life that he would protect the lost daughter. How had he forgotten? One hand suddenly shot out to the wooden wall of the hallway, his palm slamming awkwardly on the grained surface, skidding over it as his weak fingers found no purchase, his feet sliding as the ship titled violently against another wave. The far door leading to the deck was flung open, as two more figures appeared within its frame, they too struggling to find balance amidst the gale that pelted them with rain and wind. Lightening and thunder crackled behind them as shouts of sailors outside echoed in the distance. “Batuhan, wasn’t it?” A female voice called out to him, her tone lacking any gentility. It was the Jhungid udgan. Something about her felt cold and distant, her very visage mirroring the darkness, the white dots upon her ebony brow like stars in the night. Only there were no peace to be found in her reflection, the six white circles upon her head starkly punctuated the lightless complexion of the shaman even more. Her black gaze, with its eerie white limbal rings, was fixed on him, her black robes settling upon her thin form as the warrior next to him forced the door closed behind them, shutting out the storm. “Toragana,” Batu answered back dully. He regarded her, silently thankful that the throbbing in his chest made it easy to greet her with what would seem a flat, half-lidded look. The escaped wife had suspected that this udgan was why he couldn’t remember her. And while he was not studied in it, Batu knew of the various arts that the udgan were capable of, calling upon the gifts granted to them by the gods. He doubted not that Toragana would be capable of such strange feats. But as Batu lowered his hand purposefully away from his torso, the rune beneath felt as if it was freshly carved into him only minutes ago. And it gave him doubt. “Checking on the prisoners?” Toragana asked as she carefully began to make her way down the narrow hallway. The wooden beams of the ship creaked all around them, boldly fighting against the turbulent sea. Another Xaela, one armed with a longbow across his back, was accompanying her, though he slowed as they neared Batuhan, his eyes narrowing on the Kharlu. When their eyes locked on each other, there was more than just wariness there. Batuhan sensed rancor behind the male’s gaze, the other’s lips just barely holding back a snarl. And yet there were no reasons that Batu could recall that warranted such animosity. Had they met before? It was Jhungid passing a Kharlu, it was very possible that they had crossed each other on another battlefield. But here, on this ship, they were supposed to be working together to bring an end to that yearly warfare. Batuhan kept his eyes on the archer as they both passed by, just answering Toragana with a nod. When they slowed by the door to the storage room, Batu tensed and stilled, waiting. Both the hyur and the escaped wife within, seemed weakened from a recent bout. If the two Jhungid meant them ill, it was unlikely that those inside could put up much of a fight. “I had to put the male down,” Batu grumbled, placing his hand on the door as if the matter within was already settled. “The escaped wife is looking over his wounds.” He flicked his eyes at Toragana. “Will you be performing the rite of passage?” If the udgan was considering reaching for the door, the question stopped her in her tracks. The white rings of her dark eyes flared for a moment, before she narrowed a look upon Batuhan. The archer behind her stiffened as well at the mention of the fallen warlord. “It will have to wait until we can lay Kiratai upon the soil of his homeland," Toragana snapped. "His spirit will not rest easy until he knows the embrace of Nhaama.” There was a bitter cut to the edge of the udgan’s words. Even though she had immediately declared the untimely death of their warlord -- at the hands of a foreigner no less -- the will of the gods, it was clear to Batu that all of the Jhungid entourage seemed shaken by it. He would be too, had he witnessed Arasen’s death in the same manner, just fulms away from him, a bullet hole in the middle of his forehead. Toragana and Batuhan exchanged one more icy look before the shaman turned sharply and began to make her way down the corridor, undoubtedly to where they had taken the body of their former leader. The archer followed, although his eyes were slow to leave Batuhan. A long exhale plumed from Batuhan’s nostrils as he pushed off from the wall, making his way to the opposite end of the corridor. He had only bought the hyur and the escaped wife a little bit of respite, but he hoped that they could make some use of it, before Toragana decided what her next play would be. Would she make a show of strength by making the prisoners suffer? No, as the escaped wife reminded them all when the hyur faced off against all of them at the pier, the Jhungid needed to keep the Confederate alive, as a way to make the lost daughter cooperate. A low growl rumbled in the back of his throat as Batuhan stalked toward the last door on the hallway. There were too many questions and he had no answers to any of them. Was the escaped wife Arasen’s ally? Were they using the Confederate to force the lost daughter into fulfilling the prophecy? Was she not supposed to be a willing participant? Who shot Kiratai dead? Were there more enemies waiting for them on shore? Why could he not remember? Why was the rune, the one that was burned into him years ago when he accepted his lifelong bond with his ward, the mark that was supposed to symbolize their fealty and trust in each other, why did it ache in his chest everytime he questioned all these shadows in his path? Why was Arasen’s words, imploring him to forget everything since they parted ways, and only to remember his duty, why was that the last thing that rang crystal clear in his mind? No. That wasn’t the only absolute. There was another unerring memory. The oath he swore to the hyur. The lost daughter’s guardian. Batuhan swore that he would protect her. It was his own words, and Batuhan was not wont to break his promises. As he reached for the door leading to the captain’s quarters, he paused, looking to the slow movement of his weakened hands. Injuries he did not recall and yet his hands moved instinctively as if he had grown used to their slower speed. He had been this way for moons. He had become accustomed to the afflictions that he could no longer remember receiving. This void that existed in his mind began to burn like kindling, sparked by simmering frustration. He wanted answers. He pushed the door open, expecting to find the one person who he knew would have them within. Batuhan paused as his eyes widened. Where he had expected to see the petite form of the lost daughter tucked in bed, he saw her now unconscious, her hands bound in rope. More, her robe had been pulled down and off her torso, exposing her entire back. Arasen was kneeling over behind her, his fingers tracing Nabi's bared skin, when lightning flashed through the portholes in the walls. They lent the amber within the younger Xaela’s eyes a cold but eerily glow in the dark, as his gaze snapped to the door. “What… are you doing?!”
  6. “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.”
  7. “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?”
  8. 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.
  9. Going to add sketch of Elam Grave here, done by Ruen/Anchor. I love it.
  10. 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.
  11. 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.”
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.
  15. 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!”
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