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Everything posted by Sentry

  1. 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?!”
  2. “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.”
  3. “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?”
  4. 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.
  5. Going to add sketch of Elam Grave here, done by Ruen/Anchor. I love it.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.”
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
  11. 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!”
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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.”
  15. 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.
  16. 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.
  17. Justus paced the length of his room. The Decurion read the reports from the Sekiseigumi thrice, his eyes combing over the words as if there were some hidden meaning to be found in between the letters. Aventine had been shot. Multiple times. He should have died. But instead, he sat in the brig without a scar to be seen on his body. A white dome of light? Healing that came from some gnarled tree branch? Preposterous. And yet... Aventine’s own report had also mentioned a Hearer. He was saved by one of those Eorzean tree-worshiping savages. Of all people. Justus flung the report to the far side of the room, the individual papers flying into the air. His chest rose and fell with pent-up screams of anger he couldn’t release. His breath hissed through clenched teeth. This was Grave’s fault. He and his kind. Aventine had been left alone to patrol the docks. Just picking him off should have been an easy task. Where did this cursed Hearer even come from? Why was she there that particular night? And what had possessed Aventine to protect the damnable woman? Kanekazu, the lead samurai on the case, had mentioned something about honor and returning favors. Justus skimmed over all that nonsense. Sentimentality would be the death of anyone. Only, in Aventine’s case, it had saved him. Was he cavorting with the savages? If that was the case, it was going against protocol. But bringing attention to such a minor infraction would only raise more questions, would only beckon extra eyes onto everything else that had occurred. That, Justus could not afford. Close scrutiny by those above him may uncover the flaws in the records and the missing inventory. Once Aventine was dead, he would make the perfect scapegoat. That, and the excuse for more arms and soldiers. Why did he refuse to just sodding die? At least this incident bought him some time. Aventine would be put through multitude of medical exams. It still amazed him that after multiple gunshot wounds, the man only had minor bruises to show for it. Had the healing magic of Eorzea been grossly underestimated all this time? Certainly Garlemald had their own medical advancements, but nothing that was able to treat a fatal gunshot wound in matter of seconds that left the wounded almost as if he was never injured at all. Justus narrowed his eyes, his pacing coming to a stop. Perhaps that was how he would twist this investigation. A request for soldiers to fortify against savages and their attempts to kill one of their own, as well as commissioning a side investigation into Hearers and their abilities. Certainly the medical engineers and historians may take interest in the details. Granted, they had no facilities for the study of such things, not here in Kugane. But should they bring one to the mainland of Ilsabard, certainly more complete experiments could be done. It would be a tricky thing, since Garlemald was under the guise of diplomacy within Hingashi that no such hostile actions would be authorized. Justus let out a triumphant snort. He would task this to Aventine. It would get him off the trail of the missing weapons, and keep him busy until Justus could figure out a new way to cover his tracks. And if Aventine disobeyed, then Justus had every right to exercise his authority for disobedience against a superior. He just had to come up with plausible orders. And they should at least sound legal. Grave would just have to wait. The scrutiny would be increased for awhile, and he could not risk getting caught. He knew the Highlander would be unhappy with this news, and that only drew another disdainful sound from his nose. He needs me, not the other way around. Justus was certain of that, at least. His course settled in his mind, the Decurion sat to begin the first of many requisition letters.
  18. It felt like he was drowning. Marius had been shot before, during his previous years of service; it was an expected part of duty as an infantry soldier. And the typical lifespan of a grunt was the shortest when compared to the rest of the ranks in the military, drastically so. So when he was demoted back to the lowest rank after his disobedience, he knew that a part of his sister’s distress was because of her concern for his safety. He still remembered comforting her with the knowledge that he was to be stationed in Kugane, a peaceful port city. What dangers could there be when he was just serving as a guard to the Consulate and overseeing trade ships? The bullets had easily penetrated his Imperial armor. From the target light he had spied only a seconds before the shot went off, he had already known -- even as he used himself as a shield to protect Liadan -- that likely whoever was shooting had advanced weaponry. He felt the piercing pain in both his upper back near the shoulder and another in the mid lower back. Lung, and possibly kidney. At least it was not his spine. Not yet. He was able to still reach for his gun and return fire, for however long he could. “Get to safety,” he grunted as he raised his gun to where he thought the shots came from. But it was too far. He had no view of the shooter. At first he thought it was his blood loss that was causing him to lose sight. Everything became washed in white, and soon he realized that there was a dome of light that had descended over both him and Liadan, the smaller hyur lying beneath him. But in her hand was a glowing white staff. “I’d be an easy target if I left this shield, soldier.” Liadan squirmed to the side to get a better view of what was happening, her voice sounding oddly distracted. “I mislike the openness of this place. We are too easy a target.” She closed her eyes and the light that swirled from her staff shifted to a pale green. Marius squinted as a thick mist began to rise through the wooden beams, as if emerging from the water beneath their feet. She was a Hearer. Marius had almost forgotten. It had been months since he had seen her last, and their last encounter while he was in uniform had not been pleasant. She had not known who he was behind the mask, just another Imperial soldier that terrified her. As he took a seat next to her on the pier on this rainy night, he had hoped to tell her the truth. That the man who had soaked her on the streets of Kugane was also a Garlean soldier. But now that he was bleeding internally, he would not have that chance. And even as he scanned the area around them, his arm with the gun was getting heavier by the second. “If you have to make your escape, the water might be the best route.” He turned back to her when he was reassured that the fog had hidden them from any ranged shooters. But that relief was short lived. His hand lost the hold of the gun, and it clattered to the ground. His reached down to steady himself, and his eyes came upon the blood staining her cloths. His blood. He coughed, and a coppery taste rose in the back of his throat. “”We both go, or none at all. But first...” Liadan said firmly then laid a hand upon his shoulder. He could see in his periphery, a flare of pale green light. His eyes were drawn to the staff that she gripped in her other hand, that too mirrored that faint shimmer. Suddenly his lungs expanded again with a new breath, as if he had just broken through the surface of the ocean for air. His arms no longer felt like they were tied to an anchor, and he grabbed his gun again and pushed off his knee. His body was responding, partly from the aetheric healing she just applied, and also in part due to the adrenaline running through his system. He glanced to the static dome around them. “Will this shield move with you? We should get off the pier.” His mind was racing still, there had been no further shots fired since the shield was raised. Did the shooter run? Was he the target or Liadan? He could also hear shouting from the other end of the pier. The alarm must have been raised. “No.” Liadan shook her head. “Unfortunately, I reacted instinctively. This shield is too strong to be mobile.” She too looked through the shimmering haze. “However, I believe the Sei-Sekiseigumi are here. We may not need to move now.” As they both expected, three samurais rushed up to them through the fog, two of them with blades drawn. “Drop your weapon!” The one in the center commanded. While the Hingan did not recognize Marius behind the Imperial mask, Marius knew him to be Kanekazu. They did not talk much, but he knew the samurai to be a strict but fair warrior. Marius obeyed and laid his gun back down, keeping his hands up. One of the other samurais sidestepped around the glowing shield with his sword drawn, warily eyeing Liadan. “My apologies, honored sir.” Liadan gave a nod to the Hingans, the white light fading from both the branches of her staff and the air. When the glow from her staff was extinguished, the dome also disappeared. “It was but a shield. We were attacked from a distance. This soldier was shot.” She kept her voice firm but respectful. “Restrain him and search him,” Kanekazu ordered the other two samurais. Marius grunted as he was pushed back down to his knees, the forceful movement returning the burning pang to his back. He could feel the warmth starting to flow from his wounds even as his hands were pulled behind him. “She tells the truth,” he said through gritted teeth, ignoring the growing ache. “The shots came from up high. She only raised the shield to protect us. You need to search the beams north of us.” Kanekazu narrowed his eyes on both of them, then let out a sharp whistle to draw the attention of one of the other samurais searching the docks. He motioned northward toward the beams. He then scanned the rest of the pier before turning back to Liadan. With a lift of his chin, he gestured to the fog that still swirled around them. “Is this your doing as well?” “It was the only thing I could think of to force our attacker to move closer and hopefully expose him or herself.” Liadan sighed. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to cause more trouble. I will ask it to disperse.” She closed her eyes for a several moments, her breathing becoming deep and even. A sharp breeze swirled around them and the mist began to drift away. When she opened her eyes, she wore a consternated expression. “Please be careful with him. This man nearly gave his life to protect mine when we were attacked.” Liadan gestured to her blood soaked clothing. “None of this is mine. He used his body as a shield. He is still wounded.” Her tone remained calm and polite, but Marius could tell there was tension in her small frame. “The healing I did was minimal, designed to keep him alive and little more. I need to finish healing him.” “A conjurer,” Kanekazu observed. “Isn’t that what the westerners call you?” There was an odd inflection to his voice, possibly a hint of respect or appreciation. But his stoic expression did not betray either. His attention didn’t stay on her for too long as he glanced to the two other samurais next to Marius. “If he is healed enough to live, then we will take him to the barracks for questioning. If he is innocent, then the Consulate can send their own to retrieve him and finish the healing.” Marius winced when he was dragged back to his feet. He could see the crimson drops from his fingertips staining the wet wooden floor. “Search the water as well,” he muttered. “It would likely have been the shooter’s escape route. And a guard for the lady. She may have been the target.” Liadan straightened, raising her green eyes to meet that of the samurai in charge. "I am called a Hearer in the place of my birth. An emissary who intercedes for mankind with the spirits of the land. I know I ask much, sir, but among my people, to save the life of one you hate is an act of great mercy and honor. His people and mine remain at odds, but I would finish what I started. I owe him a great debt for his protection. I would repay it." She turned and gestured toward Marius. "I merely stabilized him. I could not afford to do more while holding the shield in place. Even now he bleeds. Please, do not leave me with such a debt on my conscience." Kanekazu’s features tensed, his eyes narrowing. Just as his two men were about to drag Marius off, he held up his hand. Much to Marius’ relief, they halted. He shivered with another pang that shot through his back. “Honor demands that debt be repaid,” the samurai echoed solemnly. With that, the two men stepped away from him, leaving Marius to sway slightly. The heaviness to his limbs were starting to return, and he had to blink a few times behind that mask to regain his focus. That was when Liadan stepped in front of him. “I can’t force this,” she murmured to him, her gaze going over that featureless Imperial mask that covered his face. “It’s a gift, to be accepted or refused. But you risked much to shield me, and I would see you whole again without being further damaged by butchers playing at healing.” Marius lifted his gaze to meet her eyes. “You don’t have to do this,” he replied quietly. “You have already saved my life.” "You don't know many Hearers, I imagine." Her visage remained serene. "I made a mistake once, a long time ago. I called forth something I could not control. I did it to protect my family. I did it because I wanted vengeance. But blood that has been shed cannot be replaced, or atoned for, with yet more bloodshed. By the time I understood this, it was too late. And I was then too ignorant to control what my fear and grief had called forth." She swept her hand down to her bloodstained clothes. "My hands are red with the blood of your kinsman. This is something that I will have to carry for as long as I live. Yet you saw fit to lay your life down for mine. You who do not even know me. You who could not know what I am. Will you give me this one thing? I shall ask nothing else of you. I would but have you know what your people seek to destroy. For it is almost certain you have never felt the healing of one such as me." Marius stared at her for a long time in silence. He could not quite comprehend her words. That someone like her would be responsible for the violence she was admitting to. But before he knew it, he found himself nodding. “I do not doubt your words, Lady Hearer. Do as you wish.” Liadan regarded him intently, wordless, before she gave him a nod in return. She brought about her bone-white staff in front of her, one hand steadying the tip of it upon the wooden pier, her other hand rising to place her palm flat against his chest. She then closed her eyes, and prayed. What followed was something Marius did not understand. His eyes widened as that white blinding light returned, traveling down the shaft of the staff. There were symbols carved upon the bark that then came to life, as if written anew in starlight. Then beneath her fingers, the same light flared, spilling out in streams and ribbons around him. Even before he could flinch, it wrapped around his entire form. It was a magic that he had never seen, followed by the sensation he had never felt. Just as she had said. It was a surreal feeling; he felt as if he was almost lifted from where he stood by the sheer force of those glowing tendrils. He felt those metal slugs within his body leave him, and he knew he should feel pain as it traversed the thickness of his torso, but there was something soothing that immediately followed. Even his vision was drowned out in the light, as images flashed before him in an impossible speed. He didn't know how much time passed, or if it passed at all, until finally the world returned to him, leaving only his gasping breaths in the silence. His feet were firmly back on the ground, had they ever left? There was a trail of moisture upon his cheek. Where did that come from? His mind spun with what he had just experienced, but one thing for certain, no pain remained upon his body. He let out a long exhale and looked down. Somewhere, his hand had gripped hers. His fingers closed in just a little tighter, just enough to bare his disbelief and awe. "That was..." he rasped, then stopped. "What was that?" Liadan was looking to their joined hands, her expression turning thoughtful. Her gaze was slow to return to his face, but when she looked upon him again, there was a certain gravity in her eyes. "Something most believe was lost so long ago that few even remember its name. It has been kept hidden for longer than we two have lived out of fear and, I confess, out of pride. Out of a belief that some are unworthy - as if mortals could ever be wise enough to decide who deserves hope, and who does not." Her voice turned almost derisive with those last words. She sighed, her features softening and she smiled again. "That, soldier whose name I do not know, was hope. The hope of all mankind. The light which never dims, no matter how great the darkness grows. Many names have we called it, and none have truly captured it. It is aid when all seems lost, a promise long-forgotten but now fulfilled. It is that which the Void fears most, for it is that which the Void cannot overcome." When her answer left Marius speechless, Liadan took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. She still did not pull back her hand. "It is the reason I left my homeland. For too long have we few stopped up our ears to a world losing hope. I will not close my ears to their cries, no matter who they may be or what banner they follow." She tilted her head, some of that weight leaving her frame. She gave him a wry look. "And, I suppose, you are now privy to perhaps my greatest secret." The softest of exhales left his lips, the slow smile that rose upon face hidden behind the helm. She confessed of horrors, but this was the Liadan that he had met months ago. The woman who wanted to heal the world, the woman who spoke to happy warm spring waters. His pale eyes studied her face, the one he had recalled time and again since. "Marius," he whispered. "My name is Marius." That seemed to shatter her serene composure that had been unbroken until that moment. “M-Marius… but…” she stammered, a look of shock suffusing her features. He could see the recognition flaring in her eyes. Kanekazu stepped in between them in that moment, blocking their view. “Well, that was an impressive display, Hearer.” His tone was one that would brook no further delay. He gestured to his two men, who then took Marius by the arm and started to lead him away. Marius glanced once behind him as he went along dutifully with the Sekiseigumi. He could see her leaning to the side to get another look at him, confusion evident on her face. He had wished that he could have told her in his own time and his own way, but it was not to be. He had already waited too long, and tonight only demonstrated that some things may never come to be. Liadan had entrusted him with her secret, so in return, he had given her his.
  19. The sound of the shouting crowd buzzed in his ear like static. The cacophony of heckling, hollering, howling echoed off the ancient stones that formed the domed ceiling of the underground chamber, and the scent of sweat and smoke thickened the air. His own beads of perspiration trailed down his temple and dripped onto his bare chest. Elam Grave flexed his fingers, his knuckles wrapped tightly with bandages. The cloth was heavily stained with dark crimson, made of both fresh and dry blood. None of it was his. He bounced lightly on his feet with his fists in front of him, keeping his gravity centered, even as he kept his eyes on his opponent. It was a grey skinned Roegadyn, almost twice his girth. He already bore a bruised nose and a bloodied lip, and his left eye was swollen shut. But he still remained standing, and for that Elam was impressed. How else would those watching fully appreciate the demonstration? The Roegadyn came at him again with two quick strikes, a jab and a cross. He had already lost some of his speed from the beating he had taken, and Elam easily evaded the first and redirected the second with a strike to the man’s wrist . It was like batting away a child trying to paw at him. He felt the tingling traveling down along the length of his arm and quickening his movements. There was a distant pulsing in the back of his head, and his sight felt more keen, his senses more alert. The jeering was louder than ever. The refined form of Pluto worked better than even he anticipated. Elam stepped in, delivering a roundhouse kick to his opponent’s midsection. The Roegadyn raised his leg to block, but pure brute strength of the Highlander sent the larger fighter stumbling to the side, reeling from the unnaturally forceful blow. It was as if he had been struck with a thick steel beam in full swing. Elam strode forward, not allowing a breath of recovery. He thrusted his foot straight out at the Sea Wolf’s abdomen, then grabbed his head to shatter his jaw with his knee. The Roegadyn crumpled to the ground, unconscious and bleeding from his misshapen face. The crowd suddenly fell silent at the sudden and savage ending. Serious wounds were not an unusual thing in this underground Doman fighting pit, but the Sea Wolf had been their long running champion for the past moon. For him to be so soundly defeated by an ijin, who felled four other combatants before him, too much coin was being lost all at once. Suddenly the audience erupted into another screaming match as winners and losers shouted at each other for their money. In the chaos, one lean midlander leaped over the railing that enclosed the fighting circle, rushing Elam with a blade drawn. He spat out some semblance of a curse in Doman; Elam could only make out something about cheating. Grave raised his forearm as the knife was brought down upon him. The Highlander grinned when he felt just a graze, the sharpened edge skidding over his skin as if it was skating along a metal plate. The potion worked just as she said. His dark deep set eyes narrowed wickedly at the now stunned attacker, just before he crushed the man’s temple with a vicious hook of the elbow. The midlander too collapsed to the ground, limp. “Halt! The victor is clear!” The ringmaster trotted out onto the ring with his hands raised, as the rest of the crowd shifted uneasily. The glances and glares that were shot in Elam’s way were not kind, but they also held a large measure of fear and respect. Elam flexed his fingers again, still feeling his strength teeming just beneath the surface of his skin, ready to spill over again, if called for. He wondered if it was just the potion, or the fury that had been building since Torrad delivered the news of the disaster that happened in Yanxia when the herbalist was supposed to be delivered to Aritake Yumishi. One of his biggest investors in new Doma, his new partner for the chains of pleasure houses and drug trade, was now dead, along with most of Elam's own men that had accompanied the shipment and some of the Confederates under his payroll. What boiled his blood was that Torrad was unable to identify those responsible for the attack, and the fact that his alchemist had also been taken by the same party. The Cove had competitors, the East Aldenard Trading Company being their greatest rival. But they would not go to such lengths as this. Likely this was the work of other Doman nobles, those who wish to stake their own claim upon the fresh fertile soil that was the new Doma. Such opposition was not wholly unexpected, but the fact that he had not had even a whiff of something like this in the waiting was more than alarming. How had they even known of the abduction? He had been careful to orchestrate the fire to make it seem accidental, even leaving a corpse behind to deter anyone looking. He rarely went through such trouble in conducting slave trade. Nabi had been the exception -- the alchemist that refined and potentiated the effects of Pluto, the incredible substance that was burning in his veins. The sound of fabric ripping around his knuckles was lost on him as his grip tightened and his hand shook with anger. He needed to find these new enemies and put an end to them quickly. If he was going to have a firm hold in this new underground enterprise, he had to make it known that he showed no mercy to those who crossed him. But first, he needed to find new investors now that Yumishi’s fortunes were lost to him. Like those that ran these illegal fighting pits. Only these new patrons could not know that the maker of the drug he was demonstrating was no longer in his possession. He had other drugs to trade after all, thanks to Ghoa, as well as a wealth of arms trade and plenty of slaves. He would dangle plenty of other offerings in front them while this little mess sorted itself out. Elam bared his teeth in his best, most feral grin as he entered through the aged red wooden doors in the back room of the underground chamber beyond.
  20. Aritake Yumishi was an ambitious man. Born the second son of the house of Yumishi, he would have never inherited his father’s lands and wealth, which consisted of a sizable chunk of the southern coast off of Doma; it would have gone to his brother, Hikotoke. But the Imperial occupation that began when he was twelve years old made the matter of birthright moot, since all holdings and properties were immediately claimed by the great Empire and their sympathizers. It was also in thanks to the reach of Garlemald that both his father and his brother were killed in a failed uprising. Aritake had better sense than his kin; he had escaped to Kugane and laid low for all these years. Then when Lord Hien rose and took Doma back from the Imperial clutches, Aritake was one of the first to shout at the top of his lungs his support for the returned heir to the throne. He didn’t take any part in the liberation, of course, that would have been too dangerous. But where he lacked in bravery and patriotism, Aritake excelled in exploitation. When the ijin began to come flooding into Kugane to trade, Aritake seized the opportunity to make his connections with those that mattered. Those with money. Elam Grave was one such man, and with the promise of expanding businesses and political power into the newly liberated Doma, Grave and his employers at Crescent Cove Enterprises agreed to invest in the brothels and the drug houses that Aritake would soon establish throughout Doma. The Cove were paid handsomely for the illegal cache of Garlean weapons which would arm his guards at these establishments, as well. And this sun, Aritake was to receive the best alchemist that Grave had to offer this side of the continent. Aritake awaited impatiently as Grave’s men arrived at the fishing village, with the crate in tow. Behind him were the Confederates that were also under Grave’s payroll. Aritake had dealt with them once before, in the Garlean weapons delivery. They seemed the hardy sort, they had survived a Garlean ambush to still deliver the goods, after all. “Open it,” Aritake said with a lift of his chin, watching as the wooden crate was loaded onto the wagon. “I wish to check what I’m paying for.” Grave’s men glanced at each other, before the foreman nodded. With the lid removed, they pulled up a petite figure of a Auri woman, bound at the wrist with a bag over her head. Aritake leaned over on his horse and yanked the linen sack off her head, to look upon a confused and frightened Xaela. Golden eyes, Grave had said. Such things were said to be good luck to whomever possessed them. This obviously wasn’t the case for this alchemist, since she was sold to be his, to use as he willed. “Was violence really necessary?” Aritake tutted, noticing a growing welt upon the woman’s cheek. “We wouldn’t want her suffering from a head wound. She’s supposed to concoct potions!” Torrad, Grave’s foreman, stepped forward with an apology. He muttered some vague threat to the gagged woman, to which the Xaela shook her head emphatically at the Highlander. “She will behave from here on,” the Highlander grumbled. Aritake pursed his lips with satisfaction. He had a distaste for beating women. He would hate to use his whip to deliver a lesson so early on. With the slave trade filling his pleasure houses, his own alchemist would provide the unique blend of drugs that Grave had promised. The second son of house Yumishi could easily become one of the wealthiest lords of new Doma. But then something happened that he did not expect. Aritake had not kept an eye on the Confederates, for they were part of Grave’s payroll after all. But one of them began to stalk toward the wagon, and drew his sword. The Doman lord had thought nothing of it at first, until blood splattered from the backs of two of Grave’s men, struck down by the pirate. Aritake remained sitting on his horse, somewhat puzzled, even as his own guards rushed forward to protect their lord. “Stand down, Anchor!” Torrad shouted angrily as he spun around, drawing his own sword. He stood behind the Doman soldiers however, perhaps trying to deduce why the Confederate was suddenly turning on them. Aritake sniffed as his soldiers surrounded the pirate. He was confident that his own men would cut down one very unwise -- and perhaps unstable, by the look of blind rage on his face -- Confederate. But as their swords clashed, the one called Anchor dodged and swerved with surprising speed. But it was three against one, after all. A slash to his leg was delivered by his soldier but the man did not slow down. When a second cut was delivered to his back, Aritake smiled, certain that the pirate would be slain in matter of moments. But then he glimpse the man’s eyes. What had formerly been an unsightly red hue was now glimmering odd amber. Anchor did not seem to be slowed by the second cut to his back either. He parried away more blades with his own, then in a move that Aritake could not quite follow, he thrusted the sword through the first soldier’s chest, then jerked it back and twisted his arm to run it through the man coming in behind him. He somehow then sidestepped the third and cleaved the third soldier’s skull. Torrad then stepped forward, his longblade drawn. “You crazy shite-eating son of a coeurl…” the Highlander growled angrily and the pirate and the foreman clashed swords. The Highlander managed to land another hit on Anchor, slashing him from shoulder toward his torso. But still the Confederate remained upright. Was this pirate a demon? Aritake felt a shiver run up his spine. But his head snapped around when a shot rang out. It was the Confederate’s quartermaster. The rest of the Ironsong’s crew had not deigned to get involved in one of their crewman’s idiocy. At least, until now. The quartermaster was aiming at Torrad with a Garlean pistol. The Doman lord pulled back on the reins of his horse, back pedaling. He looked at the wagon driver who still had his prize loaded behind him. “Go,” he commanded in a hiss. But just as the wagon lurched forward, he spied the Xaela alchemist, climbing out of the box and jumping off the side of the moving wagon. Aritake was watching his fortunes collapsing around him. He drew his whip from his belt and with a snap, wrapped it around the Xaela woman’s neck, yanking her back to him. He wound his end of the whip on the saddle and reared his horse around. He would at least make his get away with what he had come for. That was when he saw the pirate sprinting full speed, leaping onto the wagon. With a swing of his katana, the driver’s head went flying. Then the pirate spun and flung his sword in Aritake’s direction. The Doman lord raised his gauntlets to block the flying weapon, the katana clanking to the ground as it grazed off his well made and very expensive armor. But now, this crazy pirate was without a weapon. Aritake grew bold. The fortunes were turning again. He spun his horse around and drew out his own pistol, ignoring the foreman, the crew, and the quartermaster for now. This yellow-eyed pirate was a rabid dog that he alone could put down. He aimed the pistol at Anchor who was now weaponless, and fired. The man should have fallen. He didn’t. Blood trailed his every step; his chest, now also gifted with a gunshot wound, heaved with liquid breaths. But still he ran toward the Doman lord, unnatural strength allowing him to leap onto the horse, his hands going to for Aritake’s throat. Aritake desperately attempted to fire his pistol again, when he saw the veins upon the pirate’s face -- around his eyes, his arms -- all bearing that same sickly yellow hue. The lines beneath his skin pulsed. Aritake, his panic drowning him, noticed the same glow upon his own body, like fissures upon a cracked land. Too late, he felt an ungiving pressure build within his own head and neck. The last thing he saw was amber light bleeding into his own vision, blinding him... and then everything went red.
  21. Elam flexed his right hand, sensation finally returning to his fingertips. He splayed his fingers out then turned his hand over, where two rough lines of abrasion had marred his skin. He had struck the Xaela hard enough, that the top of his hand had been scratched by the scales upon the woman’s cheek. He could still recall the fury that ignited instantly within him when Nabi had brought out a small knife to knick his arm. He had not given the wound itself much thought at first; it was the very fact that the woman had brought out a weapon with intent to cut him that angered him. Such a petite girl, she didn’t even know how to truly cut a man to stop him. He laughed at her at first, then sent her sprawling to the floor with a vicious backhand. That small knife in her hand went spinning on the floor, disappearing under a bookshelf. Elam didn’t care, he was infuriated. She had panicked when he had taken hold of her wrist, squeezing it tightly to emphasize the fact that it was in her best interest to work for him and his employer exclusively, and that the time of patience and cordiality had run out. Did she think that such a minuscule wound would ward him off? Scare him away? The girl was so naive, Elam was ready to teach her a lesson about not listening to those who were far above her in the position of power and strength. He could do a lot worse than threaten to break her wrist. That was when his leg gave out from under him. "What..." He had muttered with his eyes widening. A heavy numbness had quickly spread throughout his body. He fell hard onto the floor of her clinic, his limbs frozen, unable to move. He barely managed to lift his head, as he watched her scramble up and running for the door, no doubt about to call for help. But Elam had not been foolish enough to come alone. He saw his foreman, Torrad Stonebreaker, standing just outside the door when she threw it open. Much to his relief, the Highlander grabbed her and covered her mouth before she could scream. A quick thinker, Torrad had a drugged piece of cloth ready for just the occasion, a few breaths of it rendering her unconscious in his arms. But seeing his employer lying limp, the foreman dropped the Xaela on the ground in a heap, and rushed over to Elam. Elam remembered the rage that burned inside him at having been found so handicapped, left helpless by a woman half his size. It was humiliation that fueled his fury. But the decision that followed was not made hastily. After Nabi refused him, he could not just let her be. After her show of defiance, he could not let her livelihood remain. While the foreman looked nervous at following his orders, he obeyed without protest. With all of his strength now having returned, Elam poured himself a glass of his finest rum and approached the window. Across the port city, a bell echoed through the air and he could hear shouts as people raced toward the Rakuza District. There was an ominous black tower of smoke that was rising into the sky. It would be too late. The oil that was poured throughout the clinic behind the herbal stall was highly flammable. It would turn into a burning tower of flame in minutes, incinerating everything within. A quick fuel to dispose of what he wanted, without setting all of the port city on fire. He considered himself an efficient businessman after all. It would do him no good to incur heavy damage to his own city of business. But the Xaela’s herbal stall and healing clinic would be no more. Soon it would be reduced to a burnt carcass of a building, along with the unrecognizable charred Auri corpse that laid within. Swirling the dark brown liquor in his glass, he reached with his other hand, bringing out the two pearls again. Anchor would provide the transport, and Ghoa needed to fill in in Nabi’s absence. At least, for a little while. He still needed to meet demands, and this development would delay the production a bit. Elam tossed his head back and drained the entire glass of rum, washing away the bitter taste that lingered in the back of his throat. It was only business after all.
  22. Alcohol was both a boon and bane when conducting business. It often loosened a client’s tongue, made him more amenable to negotiations, and if consumed in excess, made him pliable to all sorts of suggestions. It also shortened tempers for some and clouded judgement. At least, that was where the bane came in for Elam Grave. He usually limited his intake strictly to no more than two glasses of the finest rum. It was hard for him to become drunk, but he had learned early on that indulgence beyond four cups often made him irritable. His thoughts were still clear, but his temperament sharpened. At least he took comfort in the fact that none would ever find him docile under the effect of too much, but he was well aware that even anger could be taken advantage of. And that it was a weakness. He hated weaknesses. So why, after entertaining a particularly wealthy Doman noble who was insistent on both of them drinking beyond their tolerance, did he think it was a good idea to answer the Xaela herbalist’s call to her clinic on the same night? Perhaps he thought her gullible enough that he was confident he could still get away with playing the part of a wealthy and generous merchant even while inebriated. She certainly wasn’t the type to be able to take advantage of anyone’s emotional state. But he should have also remembered that she was a valuable asset to him because of her uncanny aptitude with alchemy and herbalism. Certainly someone with such intellect was not beyond all deception, and it was much to his displeasure that this night of all nights, he would discover such was the case. Nabi had somehow gotten hold of a book that listed many of the various potions and drugs of Eorzea. Some academic fool in Ul’dah had recorded such things onto paper, then published it for all to read. Nabi had all sorts of questions, because of course she did. Most of the drugs he provided her were of the illegal sort, and those too were listed in that cursed book. She recognized too many of the substances, from Pluto, to milkweed, and blackwood rose. He had made up some vague tales to explain their use, but she questioned why the illegality was never mentioned. Her questions were earnest, but it still made Elam clench his teeth that she even dared to question him. Didn’t she know that he could easily snap her in two like a twig? Elam knew it was the alcohol burning through his veins that tensed his muscles, his tone much more short and rough than his practiced smooth drawl. He mumbled out some lie, flattered her on her ability to separate legality from usefulness of any substance. She didn’t seem to shy away from the intellectual curiosity side of things, and yet he could see that the usual sweet naivete that shined in her eyes was clouded with doubt and suspicion. Who was it that made her turn against him? Was it Shael? Or that Ishgardian mercenary? “If it is forbidden there… perhaps we shouldn’t continue to experiment with it here.” Nabi gave voice to her doubts again, as if he hadn’t heard it the first time. “I am just worried that--” Elam slammed a fist into the wall as he loomed over the tiny Xaela woman, pinning her just using his looming frame that she had no room to maneuver around him. She flinched, her back stiff against the wall. Her eyes were wide with fear and she blinked quickly up at him. “Mister Grave, you are scaring me,” she said quietly but firmly. Perhaps it was the surprisingly calm tone she took with him that yanked him out of the rolling waves of rage that crashed against his insides. The cursed alcohol. He took a long, controlled breath in and exhaled slowly, forcibly releasing the fury that was knotting his muscles. He bowed his head, his forehead coming close to touching hers. She shrunk away from him. “Apologies, lass…” he said in his most rueful voice. “Had far too much to drink for the night.” When she didn’t move and said nothing in response, Elam pushed off the wall and turned. He rubbed his face roughly, to hide the deep scowl that twisted his expression. He knew it only took one misstep to break a trust carefully cultivated, and he knew he might have stumbled this night. He kept his back to her as he struggled to compose himself, trying to calculate his next move. “We… all make mistakes, every now and then.” Nabi finally said quietly behind him. Elam let out a long exhale, turning around with some relief. He was struck with disappointment as soon as he saw her face however, it was still full of doubt. Her words were to try and reassure him, nothing more. He had enough sense to keep his expression as sorrowful as he could, and nodded in response. “I should go before I do something more foolish,” he grumbled, reaching for his coat. “I don’t think we should continue to--” Nabi started as he hurried toward the door, once again trying to make her case clear. Elam stopped her as he held up a hand. “Please... lass,” he said as humbly as he could manage. “Make no decisions tonight. Not after my asinine display. We’ll talk in the morn, after I’ve grovelled at your feet, sober. Then if you wish to turn me away, I’ll accept your decision.” Dramatic choice in words, but he hoped it would tug at the woman’s sympathies. Before she could say another word, he quickly turned and left. Once the cool night air greeted him, a dark glower emerged. He fished out a couple of pearls from his pocket, twirling it between his fingers. If Ghoa couldn’t convince Nabi to change her mind about their contract, then more drastic but calculated measures had to be considered. And Elam was never the one shy about taking drastic measures.
  23. “Aventine, you are on pier duty.” Justus pyr Druilio did not look up from his papers as he barked out the order, his dark eyes narrowed intently on the report that was in front of him. It irritated him that he felt nervous enough to avoid the gaze of an inferior. The pen in his hand tapped with some force onto the desk. “Pier duty?” Surprise was evident in his voice, as Marius oen Aventine stood in attention in front of him. Justus had made it a point to avoid assigning him to anywhere near the weapon shipments since the day when he had to shoot Hawkins, the previous Eorzean contact. Justus knew that Aventine had initially advocated for himself to investigate the missing cargo, but he had assigned him to other duties far less important. That was his mistake. He should have kept a better eye on Aventine. It was only after the blasted can’t-help-but-be-earnest peon reported that he saw suspicious activity on the pier, that Justus had become aware of his continued meddling in the matter. I had forbade it but he continued to investigate under my nose. His lips twisted into a sneer at the very thought, and he had to forcibly prevent himself from grinding his teeth. He should have swiftly punished Aventine for his insubordinate behavior, but the report he had made was filed to both him and his superior officer. To save face, Justus had no choice but to act on it. That did not go over well with Grave. Not one bit. It was when the tip of his pen nearly punctured a hole into the document that Justus stopped his relentless tapping. “I have reports of the raid on the stolen weapons,” Justus said, barely keeping check of his simmering anger. “All five soldiers, butchered. No weapons retrieved.” “Sir,” Marius answered, consternation darkening his features. “If we had sent more in pursuit… perhaps--” “I did not ask for your opinion,” Justus snapped as he slapped the pen against the desk. “With Doma no longer under the Imperial control, large excursions into Yanxia are now frowned upon. At least we only lost conscripted Domans. They died upon their own treacherous land.” Justus noted the slight tightening of the man’s jaw even as Aventine continued to stand silent in attention. He had no doubt that Marius harbored some sympathy--or even a vague sense of loyalty--towards other soldiers who were not true Garlean. That made Justus detest him even more. “So now we’ve lost both the weapons and the soldiers. So I am assigning you personally, to oversee the arrival and departure of the next shipment. Since you seem to have taken a personal interest.” He didn’t bother hiding the disdain in his voice. “Dismissed.” “Yes sir.” Aventine saluted sharply, before turning and exiting the room. Justus stared at the door that closed behind him, a displeased twist lingering for awhile longer on his face. At least this might be the last I have to deal with him. It took much convincing on his part, but Justus was able to deflect much of Grave’s ire. After all, he had just told the Highlander the truth. He was just covering his tracks in sending those soldiers, but he had no intention in ending what had been a profitable deal between him and the agents of Crescent Enterprises. Justus also reminded Grave that he sent the least number of soldiers that he could, and conscripted forces no less, with inferior arms. Had he asked to send an advanced squadron, likely Grave’s forces would have suffered heavier losses. Grave finally seemed appeased when Justus offered up Aventine as the leak for him to eliminate; assassinating one of his own would have been much too tricky for Justus to handle it himself. But a Garlean soldier dying at the hands of Eorzean savages would draw suspicions elsewhere. And perhaps it would lend more credence to his argument of sending more weapons and soldiers to fortify the unit guarding the Consulate. Justus could then have his pick of the newly assigned to command. A nasally exhale escaped his nose as he picked up his pen again, scribbling his signature upon the report. The deaths would be blamed on the Domans as well as the Eorzean smugglers that were responsible for the theft, while much care was taken not to blame the Hingans. The peace--and the trade it brought--had to be maintained between Garlemald and Hingashi after all. Kugane was an important port for the Imperial trade industry. There was also the smuggling ring that filled his own pockets that Justus had to protect. Aventine would be but a barely notable sacrifice in the larger picture, a bug crushed by the wheel that would keep turning. Justus finally snorted, shook his head to rid it of thoughts of Marius oen Aventine, and reached for the next report.
  24. The tiles were slick with rain that fell from an ink-black sky. Despite the rubber soles of his boots, Marius found certain inclines over specific spots still caused him to slip. He had become well familiar with their locations by now, as he came out nightly to breathe the cool evening air. Even rainfall did not deter his excursions; he found that the expanse of the ocean view, the bright colors of the city, and the endless canvas of stars above cleared his mind and renewed his spirit. Lately, some of his duties had come to weigh more heavily on his mind. Marius had witnessed Justus shoot someone in the head. The accusation was that the foreigner, an Eorzean, was stealing Garlean weapons while the ship was docked in Kugane. The man was judged and executed on the spot by his commanding officer, without as much as a word in his defense. Marius knew Garlean law to be strict without mercy, but something about this case still did not settle easily in his mind. Just how did he manage to gain access to the weapons? Some of the inventory that was found was not meant for general trade, the technology was too advanced. So how had they come to be on the trade ship? Surely the Eorzean had other contacts to enable his access, but with the deadly sentence passed, no further questions could be asked. Marius had initially inquired around about the dead man, but was immediately dismissed by Justus from the investigation. He wasn’t sure if it was a way that Justus was trying to minimize the appearance of flaws in security by leading the probe himself, or if it was motivated by something more. He was curious about the truth himself, so he had been watching the streets at night as well as discreetly investigating the dead man and researching any possible acquaintances. All without gaining the notice of his superior officer. These were the speculations that perplexed him, and he found running over the rooftops, sometimes at full sprint from building to building, released the tensions in his muscles and freed his thoughts from their usual constraints. He skidded to a stop at the bottom of the sloped tiled roof, finding leverage with his wide stance and lowered posture. His quickened breaths came as small puffs of steam against the cold night air, his chest rising and falling after the run across the city. But his attention was drawn upwards, toward the towering wooden beams that overlooked the city from the north. He spotted a figure swinging from the wooden pillars, the silhouette visible only when it was set against the bright banners that hung higher up. He squinted to try and make out the details, though the person was dressed in all black and well hidden by the darkness of the night. With a curious smirk he decided to follow, and stepped over the tightly hung ropes with the lanterns hanging above the streets. He crested a few more rooftops before he was able to close some distance between them, and as he did so, he could see that the figure was a woman, with a gun holstered on her back. Well, well. An odd mixture of alarm and curiosity pushed him to continue pursuit, despite the fact that he himself was not armed. As she leaped with ease from one pillar to another, he had to admire her dexterity. As he too liked to climb and test himself with balancing challenges, he made a mental note to try and test out her path through the pillars the next chance he got. Marius finally came to a stop at the end of the last building on the street, the courtyard of the Sekiseigumi Barracks opening up below him. The woman still continued to traverse through the air, although she too eventually reached the end of the rafters. “Where will you go now?” Marius murmured to himself as he watched. He then arched both brows when she turned and looked directly at him, giving him a two finger salute. He thought he spied a grin. Then she leaped off the pillar. Marius leaned forward as he watched her free fall through the air, until she grabbed at a high hanging banner, the fabric twisting and knotting with her weight as she gripped it firmly to slow her fall while she slid down its length. A high pitched whistle came from one of the watch towers; apparently the odd movements of the banner had finally caught an attention of a sekiseigumi standing watch. A few shouts rang through the air and Marius saw samurais darting through the streets in the direction of the woman’s descent. Her silhouette disappeared beyond the walls and rooftops of the barracks, and so did the rushing guards. As he stood at the edge of the roof, Marius could not see the final fate of the pillar jumper. What a reckless thing to do, he mused with a shake of his head. But still, the adventurous part of him wanted to see if he could duplicate the feat himself. When no further shouts came from that corner of the city, Marius turned and trotted the way he came. If she was caught, he would find out in the morning when he made his patrols, and if she wasn’t… Well, perhaps he would see her again tomorrow night. But as he made his way back toward the Bokairo Inn, he noticed a flicker of light on the pier, near the Garlean trade ship. He paused and lowered his goggles over his eyes to get a better view, quickly spotting two figures on the docks. He frowned; only guards should be stationed near the ship at this late hour, and of the two that he could make out, only one of them wore the uniform. The other was a taller hyur, possibly a Highlander. Could this be a lead into the Garlean weapons theft? The rain began to fall heavier, now drenching his hair and snaking in rivulets down his cheeks. Bad idea for bad weather... But it was an opportunity that Marius could not ignore. He leaped down from the rooftops onto the streets below, and began to make his way toward the docks.
  25. The taste was bitter on the tip of his tongue, with the drug leaving a distant burn in the back of the throat as he swallowed. It was not unlike the effect of strong whisky, and for that, Elam Grave was pleased. Who would have thought that he would find a uniquely skilled alchemist here in the Far East? A curious thing, she was, and blissfully ignorant of the illegality of various drugs in Eorzea. The Xaela had already found a way to extend the duration of the Pluto’s effects. He told her that it was a compound developed to help soldiers on the war front and that potentiating its effects would help the end certain conflicts quickly. But the compound she was able to produce working with milkroot, usually an unpredictable hallucinogen, was truly remarkable. The alchemist he had worked with in Ul’dah had combined it with somnus in an effort to be able to induce hallucinations, while preventing the user from getting too agitated. It still was unpredictable, but when the delirium was pleasant, it had the potential to attract avid customers. This new compound that Nabi produced, however, was far more marketable in that she isolated it down to specific emotional effects. And even now, only minutes after he sampled a droplet of it, he could feel a wash of warmth throughout his body. His fingertips tingled, his muscles felt energized and his senses sharper. He could not tell if it was making him feel more lustful, or just eager for something. Hungry. But hungry for what, he could not say. Elam snorted to himself as he uncorked his bottle of rum and took a long pull from it to banish the aftertaste. Perhaps sampling it himself was not the wisest decision, but the Xaela had assured him that as long as he kept it to a droplet and no more, the effects would be mild. After all, if he was going to tout its benefits to his more favored clients, he should be able to boast of it genuinely, no? He reached into his vest pocket and withdrew a second vial, laying it on the table next to the first one he had already tasted. What could Nabi produce with blackroot rose? He’d make up a tale that he was searching for a cure in case someone accidentally ingested it, if only to get her to study it. He had come to learn that her alchemist’s inquisitive nature often led to experimental side products as she investigated the drug’s properties. “If you could isolate the different effects of a poison, it is much easier to understand it and counteract,” the woman had chirped cheerfully. It was almost painful to listen to all the mundane details of her process, but if it meant she would share with him all the curious byproducts of her research, he could bear to act intrigued for a few bells. Maybe after he plied himself with some whiskey, anyroad. The woman had a penchant for rambling, and she seemed convinced that even the oddest things could have medicinal properties if it was used correctly. By the same token, Elam knew those very same things could also make a profit. He saw an opportunity to have a unique drug maker of his own and he wanted it. He even made the Xaela a generous offer to work for him and his employer exclusively. Who knows the unique potions she could make, if she wasn’t wasting her time as a healer? The temptation of wealth wasn’t enough to draw her away from that small stall peddling herbs on the streets of Kugane. He had no idea why, but it was only a matter of time before he found a way to get what he wanted. Everyone had a flaw or weakness; he just had to find it and exploit it. He was pouring himself another glass of rum when the door to his office crashed violently open. Elam’s hand slid under the desk to the gun hidden below, but paused when he recognized the woman standing across the threshold. “Decided to accept my offer?” Elam smiled cooly. “I don’t like what you are up to,” Shael Stormchild held a gun in her hand and she was glaring at him behind those red glasses of hers. “I don’t like you doing business with people I know.” Elam rolled his broad shoulders languidly. “Kugane's a big port. You're just going to have to learn to share, Stormchild.” She leveled the gun at him, and Elam could spy a small blue glow down the barrel. “Not these two. I am not sharing them. Find someone else.” Elam arched a brow. “Two? You're speaking of the mercenary you introduced me to… and… who else?” Shael frowned, and there was hesitation before she answered. “Nabi. The Xaela herbalist. You’re doing business with her, right?” Elam laughed. “Curious friends you’ve made.” He slid his hand out from under the desk, pouring himself a glass of rum. He pulled a second glass from the side drawer. “Care for a drink?” “Say it. You are going to leave those two be.” Elam snorted. “Reckless and impulsive as always. See, this's why you were good for jobs that no one else would take. Problem is, you were never patient enough to actually make your smuggling business a success. You could have made a lot more money if you just knew when to hold your tongue and keep that gun in its holster.” He gestured to the sofa in the room, across from his desk. “Sit. Let’s deal. Your friend the mercenary has yet to give me an answer. He seems to have a bad opinion of me.” Elam gave her a pointed look. “But the Xaela, now... She’s skilled. You’re going to have to do more than threaten to shoot me for her. My employer already knows of her. You get rid of me, someone else takes my place. You going to shoot them all?” When Shael’s nostrils flared but the woman remained silent, Elam pressed further. “I've a better offer than the one you already turned down. How about just a single job... and you can have everything you want.” Shael furrowed her brows, but her gun tip lowered just slightly. “And you expect me to believe that?” “Wait until you hear what the job is. I need it done, and it's risky as all hells.” Elam knew that the bait at least was too good for her to turn down right away. The risk and the reward of what she wanted. He grinned inwardly when she holstered her gun, and began to pour the second glass of rum, while one hand slyly reached for those two vials.
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