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Lightsnowe

To Have Lost

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The crackle shot out like thunder through the small glade in the wooded forest, casting birds from their perches and critters into their burrows. Another whip-shot crackle, like deep thunder boomed out and another. A voice raised higher and higher before abruptly cutting off. A cluster of figures writhed against one another beneath the stoic evergreens, turning proud grass to churned mud.

 

They had descended upon him from nowhere. Four quick-handed bandits, laiden with knives and swords. Beneath the mid-day sun, dappled by forest haze and the gently questing fingers of tall branches swaying in a cool breeze, he had only an instant’s warning. From the brush, from behind a barrel-wide oak, another dropping from an overhead branch. They were quick and had the element of stealth and surprise, each a lean-muscled brute clad in hard boiled leather and brandishing sturdy weapons. They were hard, tough men. Grinning with wolfish certainty and hunger.

 

Asimenios Dies’Irae didn’t flinch, and he didn’t falter. He had had some years to get tough, himself. In the brief span before the ambush was sprung, he assessed his attackers and moved to deny them.

 

Another, VERY loud crunch echoed through the wooded glade, like the croaking and groaning of a collapsing tree. The bandit Asime struck flew backwards, actually knocked from the ground, and collided with the ground. He skidded to a halt, and didn’t get up. Two of his peers lay in similar disheveled heaps, breathing heavily and moaning in barely conscious pain. The final man standing blinked slowly, taking in the sudden violence with a gasp. His legs began to shake and his fingers quailed as he struggled to notch an arrow and train it on his prey.

 

‘Mmh,’ Asimenios rumbled in a chest-deep grunt. He fixed the remaining archer with an unencouraging stare, proceeded to stride towards him. The Au’ra towered head-and-shoulders over the Hyur, almost devilish with his dark hair and darker horns. ‘Should’ve thought of that sooner, chum. An arrow flies quieter than any man. I would’ve fired from cover, moved in when it was a sure thing.’

 

The bandit cursed his fumbling, nearly dropping his arrow. A few paces away, Asimenios could see better the freckles peeking over his poorly shod face-mask, the thin-ness of his half-gloved fingers. The wet fear screaming from panicked eyes.

 

‘Keep it in mind. For next time.’

 

The young bandit cursed again, finally setting his arrow and drawing. He released. The arrow went nowhere, snatched right from the bow by a quick metal hand. Asime, having closed the distance in a blink, thwapped the poor kid over the head. The arrow snapped, fell to the grassy floor. With a start, the would-be bandit also dropped on his butt, blubbering in fear.

 

Asime sighed through his nose, surveyed his work. The other three would live, though they might not be popping out from cover and jumping on anyone any time soon. Then he assessed the youth, grumbled some. A satin pouch dropped from beneath his broad cloak, he gave it a kick and it rolled to the lad with the jangle of coin.

 

‘Tell them you played dead, but nicked me all the same. They’ll respect you. Maybe enough to not ask any questions when you sneak off, and find yourself a -proper- vocation in the city. Mm?’

 

One of the leather-clad piles nearby groaned, started to come to. The youth stared at the pouch, then snatched it up with clear shame. By the time he looked back up, the Au’ra had gone. Leaving only the forest breeze and the unpleasant noises of men who’d been taught a valuable lesson.

 

~~~

 

The tavern was a sleepy little cabin in the thicket of the woods, a sleepy little haven for those bold enough to meander along these northern paths. Little trade came this way, deterred by reports of bandits and other, even less savory things. Asimenios hardly expected to stumble up[on it at all, this dainty little two-story building. Constructed of rows of logs and a steepled thatch roof, it seemed almost so idyllic as if to have been contrived from some author’s imagination. He nearly ignored it and set about being on his way, but for the rumble in his belly and the ache of his feet.

 

An hour or two only, enough to catch my wind, he thought as he marched towards the place, its chimney whispering a thin tendril of dark smoke. No more, then I am on my way. I’ve a decent head start, best not squander it.

 

As steadily as his steps guided him to the tavern, he took care to guide his thoughts away from his pursuers. To dwell on the whole of the picture, the truth of what happened, shot lances of cold pain through his heart and piercing flares of dread in his temples. He hurried across the dirty forest road, as if to outpace his own dreadful memories.

 

A single hardwood door was his only barrier. It groaned conspicuously, disgorging a wave of warm, spiced air while simultaneously announcing the new-comer. Asimenios regarded the rustic interior with a sweeping glance. It was nearly as empty as his belly. He assessed the sparse inhabitants briefly. One could never shake what had become habit; sizing up possible threats, identifying who was and was not on alert, dividing simple curiosity from purposeful intent, the tricks of the trade for any long-lived war dog.

 

For their part, the tender and handful of patrons would catch an eyeful of their own. The Au’ra was of the tall and powerful build common amongst his people, ornamented by a weathered, forest green cloak and a defaulting scowl. Remarkable were the jet black horns protruding from the sides of a dark-haired head, and the harrowing quality of the eyes gazing back at them. They blazed with barely contained savagery, like a pair of pink diamonds set upon pools of abyssal black. Bright irises and dark sclera were not so unusual, but it was as though this one’s eye color had been cranked by some mad Maker’s hand to their extremes. They were unsettling to look at for very long. While one or two opted to stare, much of the tavern-dwellers opted to return to their own business as quickly as possible.

 

Asimenios Dies’Irae found no offense in either category. He understood the nature of his appearance. Certainly there were plenty of dark brutes parading around these days, carrying themselves like conquerors, behaving like cunts. He understood the prejudice. It served him well, at times.

 

Dissuading company has its advantages, on the hurried road.

 

Floorboards creaking beneath his armored feet, the Au’ra crossed to a barren booth, eased himself in with a graceful shift and proceeded to unstrap one of his gauntlets. Before he had set it on the darkwood table a nervous slip of a waitress, a pale haired miqo’te with a tidy red bow set in her braids, scrambled over to offer greetings and a pitcher of water. She seemed unphased by his sullen demeanor. Tall dark and brooding were a gil for a dozen these days. Her fearlessness drew an unfamiliar chuckle of laughter from his parched lips. She did not seem to share his private amusement.

 

He placed an order and set to sinking in the cushions of his booth, tilting his horned head to peer out the adjacent window. And as much as he strained himself to NOT think about it, his mind refused to drift too far from the events of the day prior. His skull throbbed suddenly, his pulse jumped, and his frown intensified as unseeing pink eyes rested steadily on the paths outside.

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The wind rustled gently through the trees as D'hezrel Saephica jolted awake from his dream. The Miqo'te sighed, "yet again with that nightmare". He sat up from his bedroll, groggy still from restless sleep.  Rubbing his eyes, he looked over to see his chocobo, Layla, staring at him. "Come on old girl, I'm fine!" he said as he rose to his feet and stretched. The chocobo gave no response, and began preening herself. "Hmph, some conversation would be nice once in a while!" D'hezrel scoffed as he began to lazily pack his belongings and tidy up the area around his camp. The Keeper of the Moon Miqo'te was of an average build, slightly tall, with light green eyes and shaggy golden brown hair. He had a noticeable scar over his right eye, though the eye itself was bright and undamaged, the gash on his brow bone was easily noticed. D'hezrel grabbed his harp and strapped it carefully to the back of Layla's saddle, he had practiced archery from a young age, and was mentored by a Bard who frequented the Inn his parents owned. Any time he handled his instrument it brought both fond and painful memories back to him. The Miqo'te strapped his quiver to himself before grabbing his longbow and hopping on the back of his chocobo. They set off at a trot onto the dusty path as their barren camp spot lay behind them. 

 

-------

 

D'hezrel and Layla were at a slow pace when they came to the path before the tavern, her dusty yellow feathers ruffled in irritation as the Bard rolled his eyes. "Will you calm down? The tavern's right there! You can have yourself a nice rest outside while I get myself a drink...and maybe some food." The Miqo'te's ears perked up in thought as he pondered if he even had the money for a drink, much less food. It didn't matter, maybe he could play a tune and earn himself some tips...gamble with the locals and snag enough gil for fancy grilled meat of some sort!-- The daydreaming schemes whirled in D'hezrel's head as he imagined this feast before him, not realizing he was steering Layla straight into a ditch that lay near the path. The chocobo reared up and before he knew it the Miqo'te was flat on the ground with Layla staring him in the face. "Yeah, yeah that was my fault." Aching, he got off the ground and decided to walk the rest of the way, which wasn't far. He grabbed her bridle and they walked together. The Bard realized what a fool he had been to daydream like that and lose sight of things, but he was tired and hungry, and most likely broke. He secured Layla and pulled out a weathered coin purse from his pocket. Opening it, he sighed, "Enough for probably neither, perfect." Grabbing his harp, bow, and quiver, he prepared to go inside.

 

-------

 

D'hezrel opened the door to the tavern and stepped inside, it was a place he had visited a couple times while traveling through the area, but not often enough to know any regulars well. He was so tired that his first thought was to find a place to sit. He found a nice spot at his own small table and set his quiver and bow to the side of his chair and laid his harp to rest in his lap. He looked up to see a Miqo'te girl smiling cheerfully at him. She offered some water, which he eagerly accepted. When she moved away, he immediately noticed a commanding presence near the tavern's window. An Au'ra, certainly of a different quality than anyone else in the tavern. He looked down, he didn't want to be caught blatantly staring at this stranger. However, he was very curious. What was such a person doing here at this tavern? The Bard's curiosity was getting the better of him as he went to meet the stranger's eyes.

 

 

 

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The groaning door swept open then shut, a new figure strutting into the humble little half-pub. If Asimenios registered the addition of another newcomer to the thin herd, it did not show in his vacant, unhappy posture. In truth, he was miles away. Or years, perhaps. A bluebird bounced along just out the window, probing for seed in the unkempt grass. Even its brilliant plumage failed to draw the Au’ra from the deep well of his thoughts, pink and black eyes fixated on nothing at all.

 

‘Me sir? Me sirrr? SIR!’

 

The wait girl stamped her foot to punctuate the squeak of her voice. Asime withdrew from his reverie and affected an apologetic, sheepish half-smile. He reached to help her place his meal on the table before him, rumbling with a low ‘ah, thank you darling.’

 

He hadn’t realized how hungry he’d become until the warm aroma of fresh bread and savory notes of thick stew drifted from his bowl. Despite the gnaw in his belly, he ate slowly and deliberately. Straight-backed and silent. Guiding morsels onto the fork with a brush of the knife, chewing thoughtfully and on occasion daubbing his dark lips with a kerchief kept draped over his lap. He seemed for a moment to fumble his utensils, dropping the fork and staring balefully at it where it lay on the floor. A scathing oath churned in the brilliant pink of his eyes, but never found its way to his throat. Reaching, he pinched the silvery item between two fingers, polished it clean on his kerchief, and set back to work.

 

A keen observer would find the Au’ra man lacked either of his thumbs. Pugilist bandagings wound tightly over firm knuckles as well as the empty sockets where the opposable digits should have been. It made eating with fork-and-knife studious, deliberate work. There was clear temptation to simply skewer the meats and ‘tatoes floating in his stew and wolf the whole lot of them down. Asimenios Dies’irae suffered his indignity patiently, affecting an air of proper nobility.

 

Only when his meal was complete, his belly filled and his legs stretched, did he part with the ghosts of the near-present and afford himself another sweep of the tavern’s inhabitants. Measuring, gauging. And then…

 

Oh.

 

A dusky catte lad, youthful and well-made, was holding eye contact from across the tavern. Naked curiosity dominated the youth’s features. The pale mark over his eye lent him a rogueish charm, the state of his boots and attire suggesting time spent on the road.

 

You too have tread the winding paths of this place. Not all of them have been paved, I see. 

 

Asime lowered his horns just so slightly as to convey a solemn nod, then politely turned the intensity of his own appraisal elsewhere. But before he could drift back into some deeply personal reverie, an idea surfaced from the snakepit of his thoughts. He glanced back at the fellow, a Bard if that harp and bow were any indication, and pursed his lips. Debating. Debating. Deciding. Decided.

 

The towering Au’Ra scooped up his little bowl with thumb-less hands, glided up to his feet and bridged the gap to settle back in at D’hezrel’s table. Here he set his empty bowl down, and folded cable-muscled arms beneath the cover of his tattered old cloak. He spoke in a low, sonorous tone that required no repeat despite its quiet delivery.

 

‘Well met, Minstrel. I wish not to intrude upon you or your business. However I have business of my own, and find myself in need of a guide through these unfamiliar woods. Tell me, are you familiar with the North and its forests?’

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Their eyes met. The gaze was mysterious and intense, D'hezrel watched as the Au'ra rose from his seat. Twelve preserve me, I've just messed up royally! The Miqo'te thought, as exaggerated ideas of what tall, brooding strangers did to patrons rudely staring at them in bars churned in his head. The figure came closer and was about to be at his table in an instant. Oh, what will Layla do without me? The Bard lamented. However, in his imagination, the chocobo was frolicking in verdant fields, blissfully ignorant of her master's absence. In fact, she was greedily munching Curiel Roots from a Hyur maiden's hands! Why that two-timing little--!  The minstrel's thought's were suddenly interrupted when the very danger that spurred them now sat in front of him. D'hezrel's eyes were wide as he had expected--wait, what did he expect again? Seeing the man up close, he gave off a different air. Not one of a bloodthirsty brute who was ready to lop of the head of any young minstrel's staring his way, but an air of nobility. The Bard also carefully noted that the Au'ra had bandages around his hands, though he only caught a glimpse. The way he spoke to D'hezrel was polite and with purpose, therefore the minstrel was immediately relieved. Not only had curiosity not killed the cat this day, but the question he asked was one D'hezrel could definitely answer.  

 

"Well met good sir! You are not intruding at all, I travel these woods often, never spend more than a few days in one place. As for the North, I know almost all of its areas as I travel quite frequently. I was just passing through this area--" A giant, echoing growl escaped from D'hezrel's stomach. He had still not eaten, and it had been a good day and a half since his last meal. His ears drooped as he laughed awkwardly, "As I was saying, I was just passing through this area on my way to the North as well, actually. I would be more than happy to join you." He smiled warmly and bowed. "The name's D'hezrel by the way, D'hezrel Saephica!"  The Miqo'te really was more than happy to join in on someone's travels, he was a travelling minstrel after all. However, the aching in his stomach was whispering to him to make a bargain, as maybe this was his chance for a meal. "And may I ask, good sir, for your name?" He asked politely, "and perhaps, i-if I may be so bold..."  The Miqo'te waitress walked by just then with a steaming platter, the smell wafting from it made the young minstrel pause and stare longingly at the food as it passed. He instinctively salivated and quickly swallowed. His eyes slowly trailed back to meet the pink jewels staring at him. "I'll gladly trade my services to be your guide in the North, but I am positively starving and haven't a gil to my name. If you get me some warm food, I'm in your debt!" 

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The dark tower of a man, brooding and windswept, sat upright and stared hard at the minstrel. Absorbing D’hezrel, measuring him. Abruptly, Asimenios Dies’Irae burst into laughter. It started as a low rumble but gathered momentum as it slipped from him, threatening to cause a scene.

 

In those early moments, Asime decided he very much liked D’hezrel Saephica. Flighty as the proverbial catte in the birdcage, the youthful fellow was refreshingly honest. There was a sense of rare trust about him, the sort a confidence man would deploy to abrade the suspicions of their designated mark, only in D’hezrel this charming unguardedness was genuine. 

 

A satisfying contrast to the dandy vultures of nobility, those cretins all too eager to smile to your face while sharpening their knives. Asimenios had long past learned the value of mistrust; the hungry, sincere, transparent minstrel before him read like a favored breeze after years of stuffy mid-summer’s haze.

 

‘By all means,’ the dark Au’ra chortled whilst composing himself, now with a hint of fondness softening his statuesque features. ‘Terms of agreement and bellies have long held that much in common: each will render the other utterly useless when empty. Miss. Miss?’

 

The maiden flounced over, beaming. Eager to join in whatever merriment had occurred at this table. It had been a slow day, after all.

 

‘Yes, I hate to trouble you but I would like to order the house special for my associate here.’ A glance. Appraising. Deciding. ‘At double portion, if you please. And whatever the gentleman will have to drink, thank you my darling.’

 

Politely, Asimenios turned his horns elsewhere. A learned gesture, diminishing his presence to allow the other lad the opportunity to speak for himself. Granting him the last word. Shifting the interaction from one man gifting another to a more mutual arrangement.

 

The habits of the court are long-dying. Too well have you trained me in them, Bloodwing. Too intimately do they cling to my very manner.

 

Drifting off in thought. Returning to the bard’s expectant gaze. He had introduced himself, in the process offering a cursory detail of his knowledge of the surrounding environs. This was good. A knowing guide would save him much time and frustration; there were many, many things Asimenios Dies’Irae was capable of, navigating was not one of them. Bloodwing had once teased him thusly, that at birth his sense of direction was swapped for a sense of stubbornness. It was implied he’d traded his sense of humor as well, for an extra inch or two of height.

 

You were always so clever, weren’t you. What was it Amberley used to say? ‘Sarcasm is a metric for potential’? Small wonder we are where we are.

 

Asime inhaled through his nostrils, exhaled through his teeth. The perfect sigh. He snapped from his thoughts and spoke again, low enough to ensure privacy.

 

‘Forgive my distraction. I am weary from the road. My name is Asimenios Dies’Irae.’ A slight pause, reading D’hezrel’s eyes for recognition. Satisfied at finding none, he resumed.

 

‘Though that can be a mouthful, reduce my name to whatsoever suits you. I am sojourning northward, for as long as the roads will carry me. I have no particular destination to mind, nor any specific purpose. My only particular hurry is placing as many miles between myself and the city as can be measured.’

 

Asime touched one of his bandaged fingers to the bridge of his nose. His nose was coated in the dark, hard scales of his people, and he seemed to favor scritching the specific spot when he was debating something. This gesture revealed his missing thumb, a simple blank where the digit ought to have been. If he was self-conscious about the maimed condition of his hands, he did not show.

 

‘I am to understand the wooded glades house their own dangers; you needn’t worry for your safety, not in my company. Though as ever, be prepared for the unthinkable. Unthinkable are our times, Master Saephica. But much like the times before us and and those beyond, we will endeavor to plot our courses.

 

‘As to payment, I am of some small means. Certainly we can arrive at some agreement suitable for the both of us.’

 

The meal arrived, crisp breads and thick stew. A sweet, jam-filled pastry with a tart berry dipping sauce, a large leaf rolled with cheeses and meats. The maiden shimmied off with Asimenios’ bowl, leaving the broodish Au’ra to occupy himself with his favored pastime of thoughtful introspection while D’hezrel ate. Giving him the space to enjoy himself, savor the food. He had more questions, of course. But they could wait.

Edited by Lightsnowe

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D'hezrel watched as the Au'ra sat up and stared at him. He imagined the man hailing the waitress to ask for some meager porridge, perhaps.  However, to the surprise of the Miqo'te, his host suddenly began laughing! Oh great, he thought to himself, believing the laughter to be some mockery of his request, I thought this once maybe I could-- but his self-pity was interrupted when the man heartily agreed to his request. D'hezrel's ears perked up immediately, the man's features showed true kindness in that moment, something the Miqo'te saw becoming a rarity in those days. 

 

And true kindness it was! Double portions of the house special were ordered for him, the Bard could scarcely believe it. He stared slack-jawed at the man before the stranger had politely introduced himself. He shook his head slightly bringing himself back to reality, "A-ah yes! Master Dies’Irae, Asimenios Dies’Irae. If I may, I'd like to call you Asime for short, if that's alright." The Miqo'te was happy to know his host's identity and was grinning from ear to ear thinking of his feast to come. "I cannot thank you enough Master Dies’Irae for this coming meal!"

---

He paused, noticing what he had missed before when the Au'ra raised his hand to his nose, Ah, that's it, missing his thumb, must be the same for the other hand as well with the bandages I assume. D'hezrel was beginning to hold Asimenios in very high respect already, such a drawback and it wasn't a drawback to this man,

or didn't seem to be. A skilled warrior as well D'hezrel thought to himself. He nodded in response to Asime. "Ah, yes, these woods are not without their danger, sir!" He leaned back slightly in his chair, "I am very grateful for company in these times, for as skilled as I am with a bow an ambush in these woods can be a hassle for even seasoned warriors." The minstrel leaned in again with his hands under his chin. "Payment?" The Miqo'te tilted his head slightly. "Why, my good sir, your payment for my services arrives just now!" The waitress had arrived with food, a feast fit for a king in D'hezrel's starving eyes. He ate with vigor but savored every bite, the meal was every bit as delicious as he could have dreamed. He particularly enjoyed the jam-filled pastry, the Bard had quite a sweet tooth when he could get his hands on them.

----

Soon empty dishes lay before D'hezrel as he politely slid them to the end of the table for the Miqo'te waitress to pick up. Pulling clean linen from a belted pouch on his side, D'hezrel carefully wrapped the only surviving food from his feast, two small chunks of bread and some of the hard cheese left from the platter. He wrapped a portion for them both, and stuck the rations back into his pouch. "For the road" he explained, and smiled at Asime. He knew depending on the road they took it might be a while before they reached another settlement. "Now, Asime, you may ask me whatever you wish. I am in your debt and my services are fully paid for with the meal you have provided. I am a simple man who has a love for travel, adventure, and as you have just seen, food." He chuckled to himself, "I am also somewhat of a nomad. I haven't had a permanent home in ages, therefore helping you on your journey would be my pleasure after the kindness you've shown to me!" 

 

He stopped, his voice lowered to where only he and Asimenios could hear, "However, the road we take next may depend highly on your circumstances. I do not wish to pry into your business, sir, I only ask you to trust me." 

 

 

 

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Ah. Transparent, yes. But not without his own cleverness. ‘Low cunning’, isn’t that what you called it? How derisive. There is plenty of cunning in this one, and nothing low about it.

 

Asime had affected a fond sort-of smile while D’hezrel attended to his appetite. An effortless wave of the hand dismissed the expected string of thanks bubbling forth from the bard. While Asimenios did not at all doubt his sincerity or gratitude, he could find no esteem in having merely provided what the kingdom should have provided some time ago: stability.

 

No man aught be cast out to the wanderer’s road, for hunger and lonesomeness to grind the soul out of him. They deserve better. You knew that, once. Before your love of salvation overran your love of sanctuary.

 

D’hezrel would find his host drifting off into these quiet reveries, dwelling in them almost longer than he seemed to inhabit the present. Fifty-fifty, at least. Which is not to say Asime was impolite; he responded with appropriate grace and prattle. He even breached their low, private tone for a hearty chuckle at the minstrel’s cleverness.

 

‘Your payment for my services arrives just now!’ he had said grandly, metered out perfectly to the arriving clink and clank of several dishes with such impeccable timing as to have been concocted from the mind of a professional musician.

 

Gradually the meal’s contents diminished, and the empty plates gathered. For his part, Asime had collected up a small bowl of peanuts, occupying himself with shelling them between unsteady fingers and arranging them in a tidy congregation on the table’s dark surface. The task was ponderous and seemed to require much of his attention; a simple task made exponentially difficult for want of proper hardware (namely his thumbs), the stoic Au’ra took to pinching the shells between his knotted knuckles and simply squeezing fingers together until the strain crushed the little nuts out.

 

D’hezrel was not without his own industry, squirreling away some bread and cheese and stowing them for the road.

 

Practical, too. And earnest to boot. A sweet enough tonic, proof against the bitter isolation of the open road.

 

The Au’ra listened while the catte expressed his thanks and outright joy at having a filled belly, guaranteeing a muted ‘naturally, you are welcome, sir’ in response. And displaying the coy observance of a natural survivor, D’hezrel lowered his voice and delicately broached the as yet undisclosed subject: What are you running from?

 

Asimenios weighed his responses carefully. It was not for lack of trust, no if D’hezrel were being deceitful then he deserved to win whatever con he was running because he was the most convincing companion to have ever been devised. Liars, bastards and selfish men alike were as numbered as the salts of the sea, and Asime had met every manner of them. The bard before him was cut from a different steel entirely, of that Asime was certain.

 

No, the Au’ra hesitated because he struggled with the truth himself. It was all much to process, and here in this humble little pub did he suddenly realize he hadn’t prepared himself to explain any of it sensibly. To his own satisfaction, much less that of a newcomer to the tale. In his hesitation, a deep dark brooding set itself in his expression, a silent intensity so forlorn as if to have been the stuff of the old playwrights. Distractedly, he pressed one of his lean fingers into one of the peanuts on the table, stuck it to the digit and guided it steadily to his mouth.

 

Munch munch.

 

‘I suspect, Master Saephica, my business may very well become your business, should you embark with me. Not to dissuade you, but to inform you honestly, the worst of the matter has already been lived through, survived. But as with all things there are repercussions, ripples that will reach out on and on once the stone has been cast. Who is to know how far they will stretch? Or whether more stones are in flight.’

 

Another bandaged finger prodded at a little nut until it stuck. Another supplicant drawn from the congregation and sacrificed to the God of Munchies.

 

Chew chew.

 

‘But I am mincing words. Stalling, perhaps. You are a minstrel by trade, yes? Or rather you possess the bearing and charisma of one, the discretion and conspiratorial manner of a story teller. Accompany me, and I will permit you to write my story. It could do with some editing, for a certainty. A bit at a time, until such a time has come when you are satisfied with the truth, or we have had our ways parted.’

 

Eyes drifting to the table, the noble hunted another worthy sacrament. This effort included flicking about the undeserving, the unfit. Those peanuts roasted too darkly, or too misshapen, or simply unlucky. He skewered his choice on a fingernail, reeled it in.

 

Crunch crunch.

 

‘Am I wicked? Some would say so. Am I a danger? Yes. Am I dangerous? Not of late, and insofar as I can help it, rarely again. Am I -in- danger? I do not believe so. I have been wrong before. So very, very wrong. The city holds no love for me, nor I for it. And thus must I away, and in departure so leave behind all that I was, and all I would have become.’

 

As if that explained everything neatly, straight-backed Asimenios regarded eager D’hezrel unhappily. Clearly unused to describing himself, or his comings and goings. Clearly in desperate need of a listening ear, a steady shoulder. A guide, through the tangled wood of his pain.

 

He cleared his throat. Banished yet another little peanut to join its kin in the Lifestream.

 

‘Encouraging more questions than answers, I am sure. Forgive my theatrics. For the cost of tolerating them, for the cost of one meal, and Gods-Be-Good, mayhaps for the cost of your own safety, will you join this crippled old soul Northward, D’hezrel Saephica? My tale may very well make you a wealthy man, some day. If you've the steel to undertake it.’

Edited by Lightsnowe

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The minstrel listened carefully, he waited patiently for all details to be divulged to him before continuing as he did have a tendency to overreact at times. He nodded on the occasion and very much admired the man's sophisticated speech. Reminds me of good old Master Haummont the Miqo'te thought as Asime went to crack open a peanut. He reminisced of his mentor, Haummont Tuipiere, the man who taught him all he knew of being a minstrel and almost everything he knew about archery. His eyes closed a bit as fond memories of lazy days in the summer, strumming away with his harp began to fill his mind, and, a familiar voice shot through his head like thunder--Gods damnit boy! There you go again lazing in the sun when you're supposed to be polishing your aim! Shall I have you muck out the stalls for a third time this week? D'hezrel's eyes snapped open as Asime continued his conversation. 'Well, he reminds me of the favorable parts of Master Haummont' he thought to himself. 

 

---

The Bard waited until the Au'ra had finished his tale, he scratched slightly under his chin. "Yes, well I am a travelling minstrel by trade, both a storyteller and writer of songs. Though I have yet to write many of my own stories as of yet.." he looked expectantly at Asime and continued, "..the journey ahead seems to be the perfect opportunity for this indeed!" His tail swished in obvious excitement at this idea, the fear of the road ahead lessened as his trust in his companion grew. He nodded at the bow that lay beside him, "And I won't be useless if we come across any danger as well. I've trained for years under a master archer and though I can be wary when travelling by myself having another companion will make the journey feel much more secure." He tried to grin confidently but felt it probably came off as foolish, he still needed to work on looking brave and not looking like an arse while doing so. 

 

---

 

D'hezrel had a twinkle in his eyes as he rose from his seat and smiled at Asime. "I think it's high time we said farewell to this place and began our adventure to the North. No good tale was ever spun on the backs of the cautious. I've frittered away enough time on my barren travels, it's time for something new!" The Miqo'te, full of vigor from hearty food and optimism was at the highest point he'd been in a while. He grabbed his belongings and headed out the door, politely waiting for his guest to follow. When they arrived outside, he called out to Layla as she grazed to the side of the tavern. The chocobo raised her head for an instant, but then went back to her meal. He looked back at Asimenios, "My chocobo, Layla" he explained, "she's a feisty one, but my ever faithful companion." He grabbed her bridle which was tethered loosely to a tree and untied it, she continued her grazing. He tugged on her reins lightly. "I've raised her since she was a hatchling actually, come now Layla, we haven't time to lose." She pretended not to hear. "Now, now Layla, come on--hnnngh!!" With a harder tug, the chocobo finally ceased her grazing, lifting her head and looked at D'hezrel as if she had done nothing wrong. He rolled his eyes at her and apologized to Asime for the inconvenience, promising that she meant a great deal to him and was actually quite an asset when she wanted to be. "Alright, we will take this path then." He pointed towards a thick wooded path with a small dirt trail. "This leads up into the Northern forest, it's relatively safe..." he paused, questioning himself on if it was the safest path, "but it is our fastest path there. We can camp at nightfall." He walked towards the trail with Layla following behind him, his harp on his side, his bow in hand, he was ready for what lie ahead. Looking back at Asime, he flashed a benevolent smile as they began the first steps on their journey.

 

'This really may be the chance to prove myself. Mother, father, Master Haummont...'

 

 Dark memories drifted heavy in his mind, but he let them again sink deep into the chaos of his mind as happier, lighthearted thoughts replaced them.

 

 

 

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Moving out into the gently sloping pathways extending beyond the small pub, Asimenios shrugged his cloak against the coming afternoon chill. The movement of his concealed arms cast a pair of ripples through the thick material. Its frayed hem twisted and mangled, hanging just about the knee.  He frowned thoughtfully up at the descending sun whilst D'hez delivered his own little self-pep talk. The youthful minstrel clearly eager to begin a new adventure, he was simply vibrating with enthusiasm.

 

It was nearly contagious.

 

When D'hezrel introduced Layla, the stoic noble found himself smiling almost involuntarily. While the chocobo regarded her keeper with the frank disapproval of something she may have accidentally stepped in, Asime merely strode over and reached to rearrange the brilliant plumage just beside her throat. Combing the lush feathers between his bandaged fingers, enraptured by the majesty of the testy bird.

 

'Ah Layla. Of course you are. Beautiful creature. A most wondrous specimen.'

 

Caught in his doting, Asimenios collected himself, withdrew his hand with an apologetic cough and made for the thicket his guide had indicated with outstretched finger. It was just as well pride should reassert itself; surely the chocobo was an instant from pecking another of his digits.

 

And they of such short supply. Rendered down to a pointer and a pinkie. Well equipped for the concert-going scene, surely. 

 

Accompanied by the crunch of gravel and the whisper of wind, the trio marched onward to the forest's skirts. Where the archer flashed a cheerful grin, stoic Asime returned a dutiful nod, and the journey was begun.

 

~~~

 

'What was that?'

 

It was the first he'd spoken since they set out, his growling tone seething across the air with warm suspicion. Asimenios' march came to an abrupt halt, his head tilting sideways to aim his horns at the nearby clutch of trees. Hollow as a lonely heart, his horns amplified the vibrations of movement, granting and impeccable sense of hearing. Thus when the grimy shuffling sloughed its way from between the infinite rows of evergreens composing the forest's twisted paths, Asime knew his paranoia was justified.

 

'Steel yourself,' he said, and put action to his own advice by placing himself between Layla and the source of the approaching rustle.

 

No had he moved than a wriggling, gelatinous figure shambled out into view, stumbling and fumbling with faltering inhuman balance. The sight of the thing drew Asime's previously withdrawn pout into a disgusted scowl, his harsh eyes narrowing as they assessed the horror before him.

 

It was some unrighteous marriage between a man's skeleton and an ooze's figure. Sculpted in the ever-melting shape of a broad-armed Hyur with 'skin' and form composed of transparent green jelly, its skeleton was clearly visible, the hollow jaws working soundlessly. It appeared to be wearing some semblance of clothing, the hard liquid of it writhing and sloshing in the shape of arms and legs.

 

'Some manner of... skele...plasm?' Asime peeled his eyes away to regard D'hez, wordlessly inquiring whether he'd ever seen such a thing. When he glanced back, two more had joined the first, and still others could be heard shambling behind.

 

The skeleplasm in the lead reached out its irregular, misshapen arms, questing around like the blind. Whatever foul senses guided it were sending it closer and closer to the trio, and when it was within range it lurched forward with startling speed and intent, issuing a wet burble of a roar.

 

'Shit!' Asime cussed, swaying lightly out of the thing's reach. He spared a final glance at D'hez and Layla, recalling the lad's earlier words and confidence. Well, there was no time like present to put faith in the archer's ability. Pushing concern from his thoughts, he eased into a comfortable stance, punched his fists together. The shock of that simple motion shot his cloak out all around him, a small wave of displaced air issuing from the force.

 

'Come then, creature. For I and mine shall be your undoing.'

 

The Skeleplasm convulsed and bellowed with a phlemgy ooze throat. Its kin stumbled forward, numbering a dozen at least, lashing out at the adventurers with mindless, purposeless malevolence.

 

 

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D'hezrel trotted alongside his companions, planning their journey in his head and listening to the soft melody of the forest. The path he chose was generally safe as far as he knew, any time he traveled its winding turns the most he came across were a couple of bandits. He figured if they ran into any of those, they would be easily dealt with. There was a familiar rustling of leaves, buzzing of insects, the sounds of birds in the trees, the sound of ooze dripping on foliage as it squelched towards them--wait, what? No sooner than his ears had snapped to the direction of that sound had Asimenios stepped between he, Layla and the forest to whatever approached them while warning them of the approaching danger. Almost immediately after an absolutely repulsive figure lumbered out of the trees.

 

---

 

The Miqo'te regarded Asime's bewilderment and related completely. D'hezrel meekly shrugged his shoulders, "Your guess is as good as mine friend, it's something completely unholy though and I believe whatever this...thing...used to be would want us to it out of its misery as quickly as possible" He then pondered a small moment on his companion's naming. "Skeleplasm. I like it!" His moment of trivial flattery was interrupted when some more of these wretched creatures had joined their comrade, and it seemed a dozen more behind that. The minstrel instinctively took a step forward when the first monster had reached out towards Asime, the situation was escalating quickly. D'hezrel had to think, he was taking the conditions of their situation lightly at first, but now it was becoming apparent that the tides had now turned against them. He knew Asime's glance towards them was one of faith, and he wasn't about to let his gracious host, the very person he had promised to guide, take on a small army of Skeleplasms by himself. To hells with that notion! 

 

---

 

"Alright Layla," D'hezrel hastily pulled out a bright orange vegetable from deep in his pocket. Plump and carrot-like, it was a Krakka root. The bird shuffled around excitedly, she immediately chomped at his hand and would have probably taken a few fingers if he had not snapped his hand away. "No, no, no!! After everything is slain you unruly fowl!" he scolded as he stuck the root back into his pocket. Pointing to the oozing creatures squirming towards them, she understood. With surprising speed, she advanced towards one of the creatures to the left side of the group, launching herself into the air she leapt upon it, her talons slicing through the Skeleplasm's jelly-like skin like butter. Her foot caught the skull of the creature through the ooze, and her weight came crashing down on it like a boulder, smashing it to the ground and shattering the skull into many pieces. The ooze dripped down her talons and she raised one up and shook it vigorously, like a cat who had just got it's paw wet in a river. She looked back at her master with ruffled feathers and seemed very displeased. You owe me for this her posture seemed to imply. Meanwhile the Skeleplasms were quickly advancing towards Asime, D'hezrel had dawdled long enough, he noticed that the Au'ra had punched his fist together in preparation for the fight, the very force had caused his cloak to blow from under him. Damn, the Bard chuckled to himself, maybe I shouldn't be so worried! D'hezrel grabbed his harp from his side and ran back towards the opposite side of the path, slightly farther from the Skeleplasms' reach.

 

---

 

"You gave me dinner, I'll now give you a show!" He shouted to Asime from his position. The Bard calmed his thoughts, steadied his breathing and thought of the amazing feelings he had while at the tavern. He let the excitement of all the new experiences and adventure rush through him, and the kindness of his newfound companion Asimenios. One hand held the small harp steady against him, the other plucked across the strings numerous times and created a powerful melody that resonated through the air, a deep chord that journeyed across the breeze to his comrades and foes. He aimed to imbue his partners with slight vigor and weaken the unholy creatures, however it's effect would not last long. Readying himself, he placed his harp back to his side and reached back for his bow, it was time to prove his worth as an archer. "The strength you feel does not last very long! They are weakened! Strike while we can!" He called out to Asime.

 

---

 

He drew his arrow back, he felt the soft feather of it brushing by his cheek. Closing one eye, his other marked it's target--an unfortunate, blundering ooze near Asime was closest in his sights, a heavy whooshing sound was heard and the Skeleplasm fell to the ground, a thick arrow piercing through it's skull. Meanwhile, Layla had felled two more of the creatures, and another challenged her with a horrific roar that she answered with her own squawking cry, before tackling and mauling it. "That's my girl!" D'hez cried out to her, singing various praises for her vicious enthusiasm as he shot down another plasm-creature. The path was beginning to swarm with the monsters as the trio scattered in various positions to avoid them and fell them in turn. D'hezrel had almost backed into one as he was aiming for another but he heard it's gurgling cry, quickly dashing forward, he felt a rush of air swing by his head as he was nearly grabbed by the creature. "Not today you awful, unholy thing!" He swung himself around and aimed upwards, the creature screamed and spat flecks of ooze in his face. Hrrghhh...the Miqo'te nearly lost his lunch with that. D'hez kept his senses together and pulled his arrow farther back, letting loose as jelly from the Skeleplasm's head suddenly exploded upwards and rained down, some landing on him as he groaned loudly. Wiping the grime off, he then quickly glanced around the path, eager to see how Asime was getting along.

 

 

 

 

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The simple command to ready himself was the last attention Asimenios paid to his guide, diverting his full attention to the foreign creatures shambling in alarming numbers from the cover of the forest. Their movements were erratic and inefficient, and though guided by no obvious means of sight or sound they seemed drawn to the living. Having some small experience with the un-living, he presumed there may have been some greater hand controlling the small company of oozey hosts from elsewhere. His head turned this way and that, trying to assess some pattern to their movements that would betray their supposed master.

 

He did not have very long.

 

A misshapen gelatin arm lurched back then lashed forward in a whiplike spray. Almost simultaneously, a pair of thick ooze arms came smashing down from above, and a gout of mist-like filth sprayed from a more distant Skeleplasm. The three independent attacks rained down upon Asimenios’ unmoving cloak. Long streamers of smoke hissed and bubbled as the material melted, twisting about itself as it was pummeled.

 

It was empty. Somehow the Au’ra had simply moved out from under it, leaving the garment hanging in the air to divert his opponents. Three separate impacts, loud as the whip-crack of thunder, snapped out just then. And three Skeleplams were simply filleted, the transparent thick flesh shaved away and the exposed skeletal structure scattered like dice in the grass. They did not rise.

 

Asimenios Dies’Irae’s movements were brief and difficult to track. He could be seen here, poised behind one of the lumbering creatures and suddenly glimpsed elsewhere, turning and twisting with an athlete's grace. Both targets, some ten paces away from one another, exploded outward like a popped seed, their bony structures revealed and disassembled.

 

Impossible to follow with the untrained eye, he was a blur of motion punctuated by thunder and crushed bone. Each small movement was calculated by unblinking pink eyes, shimmering with silent intensity that did not reach a dispassionate face. Every little gesture betrayed years upon years of hard discipline, tempered by a lifetime of struggle and sharpened in the fires of war. One instant he was striking the ribcage out of its host’s gelatin body, the next he was wheeling in a graceful aerial twenty yalms away, smashing a vacant rotted skull down the fleshless throat of its undead owner.

 

One of these abrupt motions drew him beside D’hez, as the bard wielding his harp and lent his voice to an old and invigorating battle litany. Without his tattered old cloak to conceal his frame, Asime was all lean, angry muscle. A dulled silver half-breastplate hugged his slender chest, the bared skin above and beneath crisscrossed with clean bandages. Equally silver greaves extended to his knees, heavy metal. Heavier than any man should move so quickly in, at the least. Nimble as a leaf on the wind, Asime was there then gone, visible than not.

 

‘I am fond of that song,’ he stated in passing. His voice reached D’hezrel from four separate angles, each accompanied by the percussive crunch of a Skeleplasm being broken. ‘One of Goldenbrau’s ballads, isn’t it? His earlier works were always so… rousing.’

 

A burbling ‘plasm belched and swiped at where he had stood an instant ago. Asime slid effortlessly around to its flank. His stiffened fingers gestured towards its shoulder from behind, and with an echoing gunshot the limb burst off. He whipped his body in a sharp backflip, his heel catching the ooze-bleached chin and launching its skull off into the heavens.

 

He didn’t seem to be carrying any firearms, nor any weapons of any kind. What then was the cause of those noisy whip-cracks which accompanied each of his empty-handed strikes? A pair of shambling fiends broke from the treeline, rushing in unbalanced and sloshing wildly. Asime was busily pulling another skull apart the way one might tear into fresh bread. They heaved upon him as a duo, dripping sizzling acidic goop on the earthen path. The Au’ra cursed again, threw his left arm up and braced his heels beneath him.

 

There was a harsh bubbling sound, the distinguished hiss of a substance boiling away instantly. His bent arm bracing against the two bodies, the bandages wrapped around his limb disintegrated immediately, shredding away inside the Skeleplasms and melting away in their goopy frames.

 

Asimenios bared his teeth in a rictus of pain and reached even deeper into his assailants. He punched through the spine of one to reach the ribcage of the other. Then YANKED so hard he pulled their whole skeletons out in one tangled mass. The ooze maintained its humanoid shape for a moment before sloshing to the ground. He whirled and whipped the two fused skeletons across the way, where they clanked along like a xylophone kicked down a flight of stairs.

 

Up to this point, he had been engaging with the enemy without ever actually touching them. Each of his brutal punches, or whirling kicks, had enough force behind them the very air he moved through cracked  and snarled. He had been restraining his blows just inches from their oozy bodies, letting the wind of his strikes do the work for him. It seemed the most efficient means of dealing with this disturbing matrimony of clawing undeath and broiling ooze-kin.

 

But it appeared he had gotten carried away and now half his arm had been melted off.

 

Or at least it would’ve been, had it not been composed entirely of scales.

 

From shoulder to nail, his entire left arm was composed of a tight mail of natural dragonscale, its peculiar coloration depicting a series of twisting draconic heads snaking through crashing waves. Like the tattooed sleeve of some gang minder, but grown naturally, unless Au’ra had some secretive method for inking their scales.

 

Asimenios seemed more self-conscious of his arm than the thumbs missing from either of his hands, scowling and clutching at what slick remains of his bandaging sizzled along the exposed limb. Demurely, only now did he shift his gaze to his bardic companion, to measure how he was faring against this unusual foe.

 

D’hez seemed to be enjoying himself, taken to the fray with his pitch-perfect voice and all the entertained confidence of a master duellist. With the time-honored encouragement of bribery Layla too was promoted to vanguard. They made an impressive pair, Asime noted briefly. Arrows found their marks swiftly and effectively, beak and talons unphased by sizzling ooze plucked skeletons apart or smashed them to the earth beneath powerful avian feet.

 

The respite was short-lived. Despite the shame of his revealed arm, there was still work to be done. Though the herd had been thinned, a clutch of the Skeleplasm things still milled forth from the forest’s depths. Forsaking his earlier grace and sound-barrier-smashing efficacy, Asime opted to simply pummel his remaining targets with his draconic arm. He darted at a three-some in a vengeful smear of dark hair and hateful eyes. Gouging the empty sockets of one skull, he tugged the creature off-balance, tossed it into the other two. Five abrupt motions later, and he’d beaten the lot of them into a messy, powdery substance.

 

D’hezrel, Lalya can manage the fleeting remainder. I must set myself to divining from whence these creatures have spawned. The road can wait, t'would be negligence to overlook so clear and present a threat.

 

He had his back to D’hez then. One of his ears twitched, and without turning he whistled sharply to the bard and pointed straight up.

 

The skull he’d booted into the stratosphere earlier had finally returned from orbit, falling steadily like the world’s most obvious skeet shot.

Edited by Lightsnowe

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D'hezrel watched in awe as Asime fought with ease, the quickness and effectiveness that the Au'ra felled the monsters with was frightening to say the least--frighteningly wonderful! A wide, goofy grin spread across the Bard's face as some stray ooze flew inches from his face during the carnage. Are these the type of heroes Master Haummont witnessed in his adventures, or wrote about in his legendary ballads? With his back to D'hezrel, the Miqo'te saw his towering figure looming ahead of him like an enigmatic stranger again, his left arm covered in dark dragonscales, bandages melted away by the ooze. 'Ah yes' he thought quietly to himself as his hand inadvertently trailed to the scar on his brow, 'we all have our secrets don't we, friend?'

----

His thoughts were suddenly interrupted by a sharp whistle from Asime, who was pointing upwards. He shook his head, and his ears perked up to a sudden whistling sound of an object approaching at a very high speed. Looking up, he saw what looked to be, no, it definitely was, a Skeleplasm skull falling from it's long journey after Asimenios sent it on a much needed vacation. Fumbling with his bow, he aimed upwards and was taking quite a gamble as the tumbling head became larger and larger on it's decent towards him, his scanning jade eye stared at the whirling mass and CRACK. Briefly it whipped around midair with an arrow lodged between the eye sockets, nearly breaking it clean in half. "HEY! I got it!" The Miqo'te yelled in triumph. His victory celebration was short lived, the last of the ooze creatures were gathering, however their numbers were greatly decreased at this point. They gathered round the back of Layla and D'hezrel as the Miqo'te took a step back. He looked to his companion. "You go on ahead Asime, Layla and I can handle the remaining Skeleplasms, we can catch up with you. I have skills in tracking and will be able to find you easily if you leave me signs on your trail." The Bard turned his attention back to the disgusting ooze creatures as they crawled forwards, closing the distance between the trio quickly.

----

Layla was quick to jump on the lead plasm-creature and make quick work of him, it's dying belch faded as the other's came closer. "One down, six more to go! Come on girl, together now!" D'hez rushed forward, bow in hand, jumping onto Layla's back as they rushed forward towards the rest of the unholy group of creatures. He drew his arrow back and steadied his breathing, feeling his breath sync with Layla's as she leapt in the air, her talons ripped through the first Skeleplasm's skin and grabbed it's skull, smashing it to the ground as was her preferred Skele-killing method. The moment she crashed to the ground, D'hezrel had picked his target beside her, and loosened his arrow the moment her talons made contact. There were three Skeleplasms left, they stumbled a little bit behind the shattered remains of their felled comrades. He dismounted the bird, stepping towards the creatures. Roaring and spitting, they blindly came forwards towards the two, lined up quite nicely beside each other. Hmm...this should work the Bard thought to himself while readying the arrows in his bow, he glanced back to Layla. "Stand back please would you darling?" The chocobo stared at him, she had grown tired of this incessant combat and began preening herself. He rolled his eyes and stepped forward, out of her way. The three plasm-creatures were very close now, their ooze dripped and hissed as they swiped forwards towards the Miqo'te. He chuckled and drew his bow, which had many arrows now readied to be shot. "Sorry, your disgusting, oozy reign of terror ends today, my foes!" He aimed. Whizzing sounds could be heard as many arrows sliced through the creatures, their gruesome roars silenced once and for all as their arrow-pierced skeletons fell to the forest floor.

 

Edited by FloraScarlett

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'Ex-cellent shot man,' Asimenios exclaimed with an enthusiastic fist pump. 'Two points, House Saephica!'

 

He mimed the efforts of some excited referee, awarding accolades and praise to the rightful champion. Even so far as to cup hands over his scowling lips to mimic the approving hiss of a distant, cheering crowd. The Au'ra seemed pleased with himself. It must have been the adrenaline. More creatures announced by burbling guttural sounds emerged, were summarily put down. Asimenios wavered in uncharacteristic hesitation. Displaying an uncanny amount of insight, D'hez assured him he and Lalya had the scene under control, encouraged him to get along with whatever it was he seemed itching to do.

 

Under other circumstances, with a lesser companion perhaps, Asime might have bickered or lingered on a moment or so longer. But this skirmish, however brief, had illuminated D'hezrel's skillset. When the bard called out that he'd catch up, the noble believed him. And was gone the instant the final syllable dripped from D'hez's honeyed voice.

 

Taptaptaptaptaptap.

 

Silversteel greaves sped him along the forest's floor, winding in and out of tree-filled cover. The woods blurred by at an unthinkable speed, dotted here and there by the unnatural form of a mis-stepped Skeleplasm. They were a breadcrumb trail that swelled from brush and undergrowth, shuffling along at random. As Asime encountered them, he adjusted his course, smashed a skull or bent a spine, then darted along. The flow of actions became monotonous. Sprint, kill, turn. Sprint, kill, turn. His thoughts turned inward.

 

He reminds me of you. Or the ghost of you. Bittersweet, a thing like that. Memory. You put those summer years behind you so effortlessly, but not for me the forsaking of old loves and brotherhoods. Scrape as I might, their etchings in my heart have become permanent. Were we able, were the impossible achievable, would you relive those days with me? Filled with piss and vinegar, ready to take the world by storm. Would we still be whole, if she had met me first?

 

Something glugged and swung at him from behind a passing tree. Asime twisted beneath the almost comically slow swipe and in the same movement threw his heel into its center. Dislodging the skeleton from the ooze seemed to unmake whatever union bound the two. By simple economy of hitting it very hard, he'd put this observation to use several more times along the wooded side-path. A fair trail of broken and bubbling forms would render following his trail of destruction laughably simple.

 

--

 

Some time later, Asimenios came skidding to a muddy stop in an unexpected clearing. The trail of wandering monstrosities had lead him here, to a trampled glade where the sun beamed down upon a hollowed out cluster of boulders that signified the entrance to an underground mine. Discarded wheelbarrows and pick-axes littered the immediate vicinity. They were rotted with age and neglect, untouched for several seasons. Likewise the broken boards criss-crossing the old mine's entry way were speckled with moss and fungi, the torch-sconces flanking them worn almost entirely down to splinters. Asime gathered his breath, stalked around to pick up as many minute details as would present themselves to a cursory investigation.

 

Countless footsteps spread out in every which direction, grass bent and burnt, stone eroded and melted into the vague shapes of humanoid feet. Why would an ooze opt to walk? The creatures were clearly not graceful or balanced enough. It would save them all manner of energy to simply roll or slither along like others of their kind. Were they skeletons who wore oozes, or oozes dwelling upon the structure of skeletons? Neither seemed a very pleasant option.

 

The state of the tools suggested they had simply been left behind, a rotted picnic table had been cast upon its side with a few acidic score-marks burnt into its wooden flank. Clearly the... things.... had come from the mines. As he assessed the scene, another Skeleplasm came bubbling and swinging into view, glad to prove his point. It stumbled along aimlessly, before by some unknowable stimulus detected the Au'ra and adverted itself in his general direction with raising arms. The skull bobbed about like a buoy in high tide. Asime side-stepped its clumbsy swipe and swatted it into broken heap some yalms away.

 

'Whatever unrighteousness stitched you together, aught to have done so with a little more care.' He stomped its face into the mud with a squelch. 'To what end were you made manifest?'

 

'rEnD aND tEAr!!'

 

Something hard hit him between the shoulders, actually cast him hurtling through the air. The blow was ferocious and entirely unexpected, and though a dizzying knot of pain squeezed his head from impact Asimenios kept wits enough to stick his landing. Twisting, draconic tail lashing for balance, he landed in a crouch against the tree he was surely meant to crash into, threw a withering glare at whatever had managed to get the drop on him.

 

It was another Skeleplasm, though much, much bigger. The ooze that slurped around its form was nearly thrice the width of a large man, sporting twin heads which howled with baleful fury. It was clad in rusted old chainmail which strained and stretched beyond capacity to restrain its sheer bulk. Its massive mitts clutched a prodigiously large column of stone improvised into a club

 

'REND anD tEAR!' the heads repeated in unison, their unholy voices undulated beneath the bubbling acid within which they were suspended.

 

'Sage advice,' Asime muttered. He coiled his legs beneath him and shot off the tree, drawing back his smashin' arm for some good smashin'. Only this time the twin skulls, chattering with mindless hate, turned to track his lighting movements. It actually twisted up its stone club in time to parry his grasping claw, turning him aside with a powerful flick of its wrist. He tumbled lightly, cast a hand-less cartwheel, lowered his posture again.

 

Well this is alarming.

 

The brawler darted to the side, then juked in quickly, closed distance with the hulking Skeleplasm. He threw a series of seven strikes, fists and feet. The ponderously slow creature somehow turned aside each of them, and managed to sneak in a haymaker swing of its own with a limb it sprouted from its barrel-shaped chest. Asime found he had to twist away and retreat a hop or two back, only to have the creature lurch forward and press its attack. It was horrifyingly quick for its weight. The acidic pseudo-flesh coating it seemed denser than the usual variety he'd been thrashing around all afternoon, and the steel of its armor was doing him no favors.

 

A minute of hard combat trudged past.

 

Another.

 

A third.

 

Asime was beginning to tire. His strikes were becoming less and less precise. Whenever he shifted to the defensive, the hulking ooze would bubble its gleeful refrain ('rEnD aND tEAR!!') and close distance like a masterful fencer, wallowing in with its heavy club. The weapon missed Asime's head by an inch, crashed through a young birch like it were a toothpick. A spray of splinters peppered the nearby brush, the deafening crash of a falling tree echoing through the forest. The Au'ra threw himself into a long roll, spun back to his feet just in time to parry aside a brutish smash and counterattack with a riposting jab of his stiffened fingers. Unbelievably the monster leaned its armored bulk into the blow. Asime's fingers punctured through the steel and dug into the painful acid below. He shouted in frustration and pain, diving again to evade a cross-swing.

 

Thrice-damned creature. Had I my blades, a letter-opener even, this would've been decided before it ever began. I curse you, Liore Bloodwing. I took your smile, you took my thumbs. But at the very least you can still hold a damned sword!

 

'REND AND TEAR!' bellowed the Hulkplasm, swinging again with tireless enthusiasm. Asimenios nearly turned his ankle, he dodged so gracelessly. He was having difficulty finding his wind. It had been some time since he'd been in his peak shape, he doubted he'd ever reach that level of fitness again, even were he to survive this unexpectedly stubborn encounter.

 

'Im TRYING!' he roared back, ducking beneath a whooshing backhand and responding with a desperate flurry of toe-kicks.

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D'hezrel stood triumphantly in front of his defeated enemies, breathing heavily. "I haven't felt a rush like that in years! What about you, Layla?" He looked over at his chocobo who seemed to be glaring expectantly at him. Oh...right! He reached into his pocket and tossed the Krakka root she had been waiting for up, which she instantly devoured midair. "Right then, off to find our gutsy Au'ra companion!" He dashed in the direction that he saw Asimenios take off before his dark figure left sight in the thick forest brush. The Miqo'te scanned the thicket carefully, looking for signs of trampled leaves, footprints, any crushed foliage to suggest his friend had traveled this way. He saw the heavy impressions of Asime's boots etched into the dirt, there's a start. Looking up he saw--Ah, there we go, a satisfied grin spread across D'hezrel's face. A path of conspicuous carnage and gore of unfortunate Skeleplasms lay before him in the trees ahead, a straightforward passage to his destination. "Come now Layla, let's go find our host!" He whistled for her and she trotted up, he leapt upon her back and with a few clicks of his tongue they were at a canter through the brush, cautious to avoid the carcasses of various Skeleplasms. Their acid and ooze was splattered haphazardly on the trees that they passed, piles of their bones and slime lay on the ground in misshapen piles. D'hez began to judge ones he deemed as "artistic" along the way, perceiving shapes in some of the felled monsters. "I say, Layla, doesn't that one there look nifty? The one with the skull smashed in the tree over there. Looks like he smashed it with such force that the head looks like a snowflake, or maybe a star? How neat!" His observations earned no response from the chocobo as she trotted forward.

---

They continued along their trail for a while, but then Layla's feathers began to ruffle and she suddenly became visibly agitated beneath her master. He pulled her reins immediately, petting and calming her as he perked his ears forward to listen intently to the forest. They twitched, picking up every slight noise. In the distance, a great struggle could be heard. He yelled for Layla to run, hurrying them to whatever lay ahead. The chocobo dashed full speed through the forest, following only the sounds of whatever fray was before them, the wind whipped through the minstrel's hair until finally they came to a clearing. Before the two stood a hulking, massive Skeleplasm unlike any they had faced before. It was locked in combat with Asime, and he looked rather the worse for wear. At the sight of this creature, Layla reared up and shrieked, nearly throwing D'hezrel off if he hadn't of been able to calm her, though he was just as frightened himself. He dismounted with his bow and harp in hand, his breathing was uneven as he looked at his companion in the grips of this giant monster. "Go, into the forest," he told his chocobo sternly, "I'll be back for you later you cheeky old bird." Despite her sassy nature, Layla hesitated, for deep down she truly was a loyal creature. "I said GO!" This was the first time D'hezrel had shouted at her in such a tone, she immediately disappeared into the forest.

---

Turning his attention back to the Skeleplasm, it had begun to notice him, which was probably a good thing as Asime was losing his strength quickly. His eyes darted over the creature, scanning for any weakness, his mind was flustered and panicked. What are you doing, boy? Master Haummont's voice suddenly rang in his mind. Remember what I taught you, lest you lose more of those closest to you. "Of course!" the Bard shouted out, bringing his harp close to him with absolute determination. He would turn his negative emotions into strength, using his music. He would have to be fast with his song, he knew the creature wouldn't give him a chance for another. He could at the very least revitalize Asime, and with the two of them together, they might have a chance at killing this monstrosity. His voice rang out, the creature had definitely turned his attention to D'hezrel, but the Bard managed to focus as he played his song, strumming vigorously on his harp as the waves of music burst out across the glade. The music this time seemed stronger, it almost laid thick in the air as the minstrel turned his pure dread and anxiety into strength and vitality for both he and Asimenios. Finishing his song, the creature had now begun to rush towards the Bard, "REND AND TEAR!" it screamed with it's stone club raised high. D'hezrel stood fast, readied two arrows almost instantly and aimed towards the left head of the Skeleplasm as it came dangerously close, he shot both arrows into the same head, the creature staggered but didn't fall. It just seemed to piss it off. "REND AND TEARRR!" it screamed again, and D'hez was nearly crushed as the club came down and he dashed to the side to avoid it. He shouted to Asime, "Shit, now I know why you looked near death when I got here. This one might prove to be a little problematic." The Miqo'te yelped as another swing from the hulking-plasm threatened to flatten him, he sprinted forwards and shot a volley of arrows back at the creature, it roared back in anger.

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'Oh good, you've made it,' Asime snarked, twisting underneath a devastatingly wide club-swing. 'I've got this fiend on its last legs, but figured you wanted the last hit.'

 

In truth, heaving and bleeding from a handful of minor scrapes, the Au'ra was not faring well at all. He found even his finely honed stamina was threatening to deplete. A chilly numb was spreading from heart to limbs, and his chest couldn't seem to hold its air with any rhythm or steadiness. He'd been worn out before, he'd experienced what it was to be exhausted but still require the steely will to stand and fight. But he was at his apex, then. Sourly, Asime suspected he would never quite reach that peak again.

 

He found some strength left, kindled by the anger of his bruised ego. Squared up and traded more bone-shuddering blows with the hulk.

 

D'hezrel's arrows were finding their marks, cleverly dividing the lumbering monstrosity's attention. When the bard drew its ire, Asime found an opening to hammer away at its jellied flanks with his hard knuckles. He laid in with a staccato of punches, furious blows that would have crippled a normal man. The double-headed thing hardly seemed to take note, trudging at the offending source of its slowly growing pin-cushioned state.

 

Then, quite suddenly, the plink of the bowstring was traded for the delightful pluck of the harp. D'hez appeared to be lending his voice to song, an old battle litany the words of which were unfathomable but unmistakably potent. Unbelievably, Asimenios felt his very spirits lifted, the burden of heavy breath easing. His racing blood settled warmly, the ache stretching along his shoulders and hips soothing away. He did not waste any time being baffled, lept at the Hulkplasm with a shout of renewed vigor.

 

'Whatever THAT is, I would have more of it!'

 

Energized, and without concern for barely dodging that oppressive, monstrous club, Asime returned gratefully to the offensive. Leaning his weight into each blow, he laid down seven strikes in the span of a breath, then whirled and hove whirling kick that sliced the very air around them. 'Rip ANd TEAR?!' the bellowing beast burbled, off-set and hesitating uncertainly. Whenever it attempted to shift towards D'hez, it found itself being pummeled by three angles at once. Whenever it turned to swing at the pummeller, its heads would be knocked all about by the impact of hailing arrows.

 

'Hah. Twould seem after all two heads are not better than two other, separate heads.'

 

Enough raw damage had connected with its bulky body, the massive ooze was beginning to leak. Thin ribbons of brightly colored gel-flesh sloughed off its skeletal frame, bearing a frustrating bubble of agony. Asime shifted tactics again, purposefully striking deep holes in the jelly body to expose pieces of bleached white skeleton, prime targets for the bard's whistling arrows. Bit by bit they whittled down the skeleton within, almost vertebrae at a time, dissecting it with whirling, surgical precision.

 

At long last, enough jiggling blue meat had been peeled away to expose one of the two skulls. D'hez filled its hollow sockets with feathered missiles, splintering it beyond recognition. For his part, Asime gripped the base of the skull and heaved with a growl. He tore it from its neckbones, then proceeded to bludgeon the remaining head with the satisfying clack of two coconuts. The great club whomped heavily as it fell from dying gel fingers, and at last the massive monster burbled its last. It slumped to its 'knees', before melting away. The too-wide skeleton remained poised on its knees as the ooze sizzled away, one arrow-filled head fused to the other.

 

Asimenios grumbled an inconvenienced oath, surveyed the immediate area. When he was satisfied no further unwelcome friends would come shambling out to beat at him with sticks and stones, he heaved a weary sigh and slumped down onto his bottom in the sod and churned grass. Panting. Unsightly with wounds and melted clothing. Still, his shoulders were square and his back straight. He closed his eyes, sucking air into his belly and willing it to spread feeling back into his worn-out limbs.

 

'I'd be remiss to pretend you did not just save my life, Master Saephica. And a fool to boot.' Asimenios peeked over at the bard with one knowing eye. 'Presuming the Lovely Layla remains equally unharmed, you have conducted yourself masterfully in the face of death and danger. I commend you.

 

'And that song of yours. I cannot place the language, but I know of the melody. It is old. Boldly I would suggest, older even than you. How is it exactly, that you have come to know it?'

 

Perhaps he was governed by whims of humor and curiosity. Perhaps he was seeking an excuse to rest a moment longer, catch his wind. It was impossible to tell, though as the adrenaline wore off it would appear the noble's grim expression softened considerably the longer he watched his new bardly companion. Softened no doubt by the young man's antics, manner, carefree charm. The skirmish had cost him some of his enthusiasm for the road and much of his good mood, but the accompaniment of D'hezrel threatened to replenish both. 

 

 

Edited by Lightsnowe

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D'hezrel breathed a sigh of relief as he watched the hulking Skeleplasm at last slump to the ground in defeat. The Bard smiled at his host and raised his bow in the air, "I couldn't have killed that monstrosity on my own, that was some great team work my friend! However, I'm not letting anybody--plasm or not--kill the very person I'm supposed to guide, not very good etiquette at all!" Lowering his bow, he gave a shrill whistle. Lo and behold, his chocobo came dashing out of some nearby bushes immediately after, as if she had only been standing in them and watching the fight from nearby. He made a dramatic movement to scold her immediately-- "I told you to run away, you daft bird! That means at least fifty yalms!" He pried his eyes from her to meet the eyes of his Au'ra companion, "Yes...it appears she is, thankfully. Fortunately not hit by a sway swing of that brute's club!" 

 

D'hez was catching his breath and surveying the glade when his ear twitched at Asime's question and a wide smile spread across his face. "Oh! Yes you see, it's much older than I am. That song in particular is one passed down to me by my Master Haummont. An Elezen, he was, that song was actually written entirely in Old Elezen tongue and has been passed down for generations!" He began talking excitedly when reminiscing about his mentor, fondly remembering their time together. "I didn't even get to perform the whole piece thanks to hulk-for-brains over there, sometimes you just have to shorten it to make it work." He pulled out his harp, stood up proudly and began to sing:

 

Mélodie du vent

Venez écouter mon appel!

Car la force des audacieux est récompensée par des lauriers

 

He finished and looked very satisfied with himself, singing without fear of having a stone club smash you to bits was much more appealing. "In common tongue the translation is, 'Melody of the wind, Come and heed my call, For the strength of the bold are rewarded with laurels' he recited it in a poetic tone, glancing at Asime as he set his harp back down. "Master Haummont was ten times the Bard I could ever hope to be, but I'd like to keep his legacy alive." There was a deep melancholy in D'hezrel's eyes, but as if aware of this, he quickly looked away from Asimenios and to the forest, as if to survey their surroundings. He didn't let his silence last long and let a cheery smile illuminate his features as he faced Asime again. "Ah, if you let me ramble I'll never stop." 

 

 

Edited by FloraScarlett

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Gradually, steadily, he got his lungs back. The heaving and huffing diminished to a more nasley sniff, the great rise and fall of his powerful chest easing down as to be imperceptible. In not so many words, Asimenios designated this a proper time for a brief respite. Prying fingers probed his sturdy travel pack for something particular, and eventually plucked out an exquisitely carved pipe.

 

A little baggie materialized from somewhere, Asime pinched out a generous heap of greenish hue and was soon exhaling a thin streamer of smoke from between unhappy, pursed lips. He regarded D’hezren, seemed to debate something within himself. Ultimately he offered the pipe, a scale-clad brow shifting upward. He searched the dusty annals of his memory for a Haummont, came up wanting.

 

Amberley would have remembered. And you, by proximity.

 

He frowned. Engaged on the present topic, if just to speak over his dour inner monologue.

 

‘Ramble on, Master Saephica,’ he grumbled, voice turned to gravel by the cloying, sweet smoke. ‘That was beautiful. I have not heard its like in an era.’

 

Hard eyes shifted over to Layla, loyal Layla. It should be said Asime made no effort to conceal away his relief at the chocobo’s unharmed return. Hardly a feather out of place, she’d also navigated the field of combat without mis-step. He’d shudder to imagine how the tide may have turned, should the Hulk Jelly Guy have encountered her first.

 

Well, she may have simply stomped its heads in and have done with it.

 

Asime permitted himself an amused smirk at the thought, saluting the majestic creature with his steadily dwindling pipe. ‘Car la force des audacieux, est récompensée par des lauriers.’ He repeated the line in his warm growl, absent any of the art or melody with which the bard had masterfully delivered.

 

‘You sport a laurel of your own, mm?’ A thumb-less hand drifted up to his own face, traced an invisible line miming D’hez’s prominant scar.

 

‘What boldness rewarded you with -that- little reminder?’

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The Miqo'te watched as Asime shuffled around in his pack, finally taking out an ornate pipe with which he began smoking shortly after. He offered the pipe to D'hezrel, something the Bard did not expect but very eagerly accepted. It has been ages since I've last enjoyed something like this, D'hez thought to himself as he puffed on the pipe, handing it back to his companion and nodding his head in thanks. He choked a little and shook his head, looking up at Asime right as he inquired about his scar. He met the pink jewels of eyes staring at him, and sighed. "Ah, well yes. This? Not sure if I could ever call it much of a laurel at all." He rubbed the scar slightly with his fingers, remembering that night. It, of course, was as vivid as if it was happening in front of him again. Horrors he could never forget.

----

That day he had been out in the stables, tending to Layla, she was acting a bit more flighty than usual but it didn't raise too much concern in the Miqo'te, who was only about twenty years of age at the time. The quaint little Inn his parents owned was nearby, and he had trotted up to it as he would have any other day unconcerned of any danger that would be inside. He opened the door and walked in, only to be greeted by a horrendous, unspeakable sight that haunted him in nightmares both waking and asleep. No sounds emitted from the young Miqo'te, frozen in terror after seeing his murdered parents as they laid silently on the floor before him. A hyur bandit came from the side and grabbed him, laughing maliciously as he began to scream and fight the grip of the man. The bandit grabbed D'hezrel by the back of the head and slammed him into the edge of a table, slicing open part of his cheek and brow and nearly missing his eye by a hair. His right eye burned and his vision blurred red from the blood. "Do I get to kill this one too, boss? He's a fighter!" The cruel hyur swung D'hezrel around and pressed a knife to his throat, threatening to end his life in an instant. D'hez began looking around, only to see the slaughter this group had committed all around him, some of their regulars lay dead around the tables, then he looked over to see a bulky Roegadyn this bandit had referred to as their "boss". When he turned around and moved aside, D'hezrel gasped and felt more hot tears slide down his face as he saw Haummont, barely alive slumped on the ground. "Leave the boy." Haummont choked through a raspy voice, "You've spilled enough blood this day, Wiltgybal. I'll tell you what you want to know. In exchange for the boy's life." The Roe raised his eyebrows and laughed, a barbarous, cold-blooded laugh. "Oh, we've finally found the bargaining chip for you, eh? Don't kill the boy, yet, Elstan." His crew of misfits roared with laughter. Wiltgybal turned back to the Elezen, a seething tone in his voice, "Now, where is the amulet I seek, Minstrel. Lie to me and I'll hunt every damn innocent this side of the woods, including your precious boy over there." Haummont Tuipiere sighed, a heavy raspy sigh that threatened to be his last. His face was bloodied and near unrecognizable from the beatings he had received, he told the Roegadyn the location of the amulet he so desired. "Let the boy go, I'm feeling generous today." Wiltgybal looked back and told his crew. Elstan, the hyur bandit flung D'hezrel to the ground and kicked him. "You're a lucky little shit, better get out before the boss changes his mind!" The Miqo'te was dazed, he felt the blood from his face dripping onto the hard wood floor. Looking up, he saw the Roegadyn raise his axe in the air above his Master. The Elezen looked up, smiled, and told him to run. "Run, far away from here boy. You have much to learn and I'm sorry I won't be there to teach you. Please go now" With tears stinging his eyes, he swung around and dashed out of the Inn, running and stumbling as fast as his legs would take him. It felt as if the world was crashing around him, as if nothing was real anymore. He fell into Layla's feathers in the stables, sobbing heavily, she shifted uncomfortably not understanding fully what was going on, but definitely knowing she wanted to get out of there. He grabbed his bow, quiver, and harp which were laying nearby and they were off. The wound on his face, still fresh, stung as his hair matted in the drying blood on the spot. He did not know how far they traveled, but he knew he never wanted to go back. 

----

He told this story in detail to Asime, recounting everything he could in passionate detail, occasionally stopping when it became painful for him. He assured the Au'ra that he was okay, and would continue. It felt important to him to be able to retell what happened on that horrific day. At the end, he clarified. "My parents were actually my adopted parents. They were Elezen as well, just as Master Haummont was. They took me in after my real parents abandoned me at the Inn. Mother and Father...they treated me as their own even though I wasn't." He then found the strength to smile, "So, it's not much of a brave scar with a heroic tale to it. Kind of an appalling story to go behind it, but I've healed much as this scar has over the years. I've trained relentlessly to become better, to become stronger. To never let any brute take away my loved ones like they were that day. You'll never find me far from my bow and harp for that very reason." He squinted his eyes, "In fact, I'd love to meet that Roegadyn again one day. Wiltgybal. That name is burned in my memory forever." He looked over at Asimenios, "Sorry if I've dimmed the mood, my friend! Not good etiquette of a Bard to go around telling bleak, bloody tales, eh?"

 

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Little drifting ribbons of smoke twisted and coiled in the air, brushed away by the delicate broom of a small maiden of a breeze. The occasional leaf plucked itself from above, came spirally down in lazy circles before coming to rest on the forest’s floor. Asimenios stared a withering hole through D’hezrel, his jaw slackened and his scaled brows taut.

 

It was a miserable tale. The frequency of its like in these ages made it no easier to swallow. Vivid of imagination, the Au’ra could see the blood pooling on that favored inn’s floors, feel the sharp prick of the cold knife against the lad’s throat. And though still as a draconic statue, the old warrior’s heart ached with the deep, haunting sorrow of unmitigated fury.

 

His scaled hand crawled into a fist so tight, the powerful fingers creaked against themselves.

 

Some time was allowed to pass. Airing out the intensity of D’hezrel’s unhappy tale. Distant and withdrawn, Asimenios remained very, very still. Until abruptly he sighed some smoke, leaned over. He snatched up an unsuspecting pinecone and lobbed it at the bard, aiming for a headshot.

 

‘I disagree. I believe you were very heroic. And to this day remain so.’

 

He shuffled uncomfortably, flicked the smouldering ash from out his pipe and crushed it beneath his heel.  He busied himself with flicking the ornate little trinket clean, tucking it back into one of his concealed pouches. Avoiding eye contact, pursing his stern lips. ‘It takes steel to hold that much pain in you, takes bravery,’ he continued after some quiet had been permitted to pass. ‘If it gnaws at you, you do not show it. If it burdens you, you do not seem slowed. I have known men to been split in half by less things than the loss of the only loves they’ve ever known. I have seen the dark they turn to, to feed their hunger for vengeance. To fill that emptiness punched into them, in the shape of their beloveds.’

 

Drawing his shoulders back, he tilted his horned head just so to inspect the clenched fist before him. He raised the mutilated hand aloft, gradually willing the digits to uncoil. He flexed them, wriggled them. Inspected them distantly.

 

‘Nothing can sate it. Nothing can warm you once you’ve given yourself to the burning flames of hatred. When they run cold, with nothing left of you to feed from, there is nothing left. Nothing at all. You’re a brave man, Master Saephica. To refuse the temptations of hate and remain determined towards that which is good and kind.’

 

Asime lurched, rocking himself back onto his feet. Somewhere along the way he managed to gather his cloak back up, drew it over his half-clad shoulders until he was a dark shapeless blob with silver feet. He crossed the distance between himself and the bard, pressed a single fingertip into D’hez’s chest. It’d feel like being prodded by a steel rod, or jabbed with a metal skewer.

 

‘And you -are- good, D’hezrel. You are good, and I believe your parents -all of them- and your master would be proud of who you are becoming.’

 

The cold, hard shimmer of his eyes twisted around the open copse of trees. Hungering for detail. It would seem the dual-headed monster was in fact the ringleader of their slimey foes. Under other circumstances he’d have suggested they clear the nearby tunnels of the rotted mineshaft, but the urge to move along was starting to wriggle itself in the back of his subconscious.

 

‘If not for your self-actualization and steadiness in the face of danger, then for your talent of archery and pathfinding. Of which we’d best be employing the latter, sir. I am no astrologian but I judge some hours left to this day, and I am certain there will be diversions aplenty ahead. We needn’t tarry here much longer.’

 

The warrior regarded the minstrel with an un-knowable expression. It wasn’t quite pity, it wasn’t indifference. It was something approximating a measure of kinship. Real recognizing real. He pinned D’hez beneath the intensity of this stare for a moment or so longer than could’ve possibly been comfortable, then selected a random route back into the woods. Striding away at his brisk pace, a dark cloud of seething silence.

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They sat in silence for a moment then. D'hezrel looked to the side, sighing a little. It was a dreary, pitiful little sigh--thwack. "Ouch!" The Miqo'te flinched as a pine cone knocked him square in the head. Nodding, he understood. He smoothed his hair where it had hit while he listened to his companion's lecture. He always couldn't help but see some of Haummont in the brooding Au'ra, he would have chuckled if the moment hadn't been so serious. But really, he thought, they are similar in ways, I'm certain Master Haummont would have pelted me with something even harder if he saw me moping. 

 

He did deeply appreciate Asime's words. The Au'ra approached him. He felt the prod of the man's finger in his chest, a single pointy reminder of who he was, or rather who he was to those around him. D'hezrel couldn't help but feel a slight pang of guilt, for what Asime had said was true, but there were deep pits of hatred entrenched somewhere within him. They were hidden and he did his best to overcome it. Yet, he feared the day when he might face Wiltgybal again and feel it boil to the surface. "Thank you, Asime. Truly. It means a lot to hear that from you." The Bard met the intense gaze of his comrade for a second, but it was torn away as Asime began to survey the forest around them. 

 

‘If not for your self-actualization and steadiness in the face of danger, then for your talent of archery and pathfinding. Of which we’d best be employing the latter, sir. I am no astrologian but I judge some hours left to this day, and I am certain there will be diversions aplenty ahead. We needn’t tarry here much longer.’

 

D'hezrel nodded in response, it would be best for them to leave this place, stained with apprehension at this point. He whistled for Layla who trotted over, eager to leave this place at last. In a quiet manner, he rose after his companion and followed suit. Bow in hand and harp in tow, with Layla not far behind, they set off. He held Asimenios in great respect at this point, though they had only traveled together for short while. He was silent for a time, much like his solemn companion. He stepped ahead to guide them through the brush and examine trees, moss, or anything to help guide them to their destination. Eventually the Miqo'te began to tire a little, he slowed his pace, coming to an abrupt stop. His eyes trailed up to the towering Au'ra, then suddenly, he spoke. "Asime, what happened to your hands, if I may be so bold to ask?" 

 

 

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They were just three voyagers, ambling along the winding road. D’hez took point, and good thing too as Asimenios Dies’Irae would have marched them right back to the inn from which they’d departed. The stoic fighter had a sense of direction, but only just a sense. He could navigate his way out of a blanket, perhaps. Or a paper box, provided the walls could be punched through.

 

He’d lapsed into a comfortable, companionable hush as the miles marched by. Layla’s crunching footsteps, guided by powerful avian legs, metered out a steady drumbeat. D’hezrel busied himself with the mysterious and almost arcane occupation of proper ranging. Asime witnessed the minstrel prodding and pinching a plump plume of greenish moss, but what the lad could divine from the humble substance was beyond the warrior’s own uninitiated ken. He would soon return to the comforts of his own distant thoughts. While his body shifted effortlessly through the earthen paths of the wood, his mind treaded the hallowed vaults of haunted memory.

 

How much time had passed, he couldn’t be certain. But D’hez came to a halt, abrupt enough as to nearly be bumped into. Grunting, Asimenios emerged from his unpleasant revery with a rapid flurry of blinks. Casting his gaze to and fro, black and pink seeking any potential dangers in the uncomfortable domain of the deep forest.

 

‘What is it,’ he hissed. Perhaps more harshly than he’d intended. When D’hez turned and delivered his inquiry, Asime deflated ever so slightly. He breathed an apology and looked elsewhere. Anywhere but the earnest curiosity beaming back at him. He seemed to shrivel before it, like some horned bat cowering beneath a beam of sunlight.

 

‘That is bold,’ he admitted, stalking over to a flat tree stump and wafting his cloak out to sit upon it. 

 

‘But not undue. A portion of your payment was to be furnished with fiction, after all. A story, my story. As with any fool’s errand, this story begins with a man in love. And ends, as you plainly see, in loss.

 

‘Once there was a man of faith, and of action. An Inquisitor of the Holy See, he rooted out corruption and evil, punished the cruel and championed the freedoms of the common. His was a creed of mercy for the deserving, and mercilessness for the wicked of heart. The youngest of his peers, he established a reputation for thoroughness, for even-mindedness, and for justice.

 

‘The Inquisitor gathered colleagues and associates along his career, as any upholder of law is wont to do. Among the closest were a mercenary and a scrivener. The pair assisted him on many, many of his cases, to the point where the three became inseparable. The mercenary was a jokester, but the finest swordsman of the era. And the scrivener, she was brilliant and beautiful, drawing connections which escaped even the seasoned mind of the young Inquisitor. For years upon years, they three stood proof against the cold cunning of The Enemy. A bastion against the tides of chaos, working ever to bring peace and order to the realms.

 

‘So well known, so beloved had they come to be in the eyes of the people, the noble trio rose in fame, or notoriety. Larger, more insidious cases of Chaos and Heresy sprung up across the land; cultists conjuring up facsimiles of their horrid Gods, plague-mutations warping farm-life into hungering monstrosities, languid noble families practicing blood rites in the heart of their own cities! The unthinkable foe became the ordinary for our Inquisitor and his band. And in the fires of their trials was forged a deep, deep love.

 

‘The call came, in time. A village engulfed by the walking forms of the dead. An old, intelligent evil was raising itself an army. Possessing the minds of neighboring innocents, driving them to march upon their fellow man. Our heroes heard of this unholy occurrence and made for the captive village, a fateful place. A place where the end would begin, a nightmare none could have forseen.’

 

Silence, then. Asimenios swallowed hard. He found his throat had suddenly become dry, nurtured himself with a pull from the round canteen at his hip.

 

‘That will be all, for now,’ he decided abruptly. The weight of his tone and the unfocused hate in his eyes would brook no negotiation. He rose from the stump, enshrouded again in his cloak. Nodded at the path, suggesting they resume their march.

 

He would be surly for a while, quieter even than before. Were such a thing possible.

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"I see..." D'hezrel's gaze slowly crawled to the ground and his ears drooped. He felt bad for asking, but his curiosity had been immense. The Bard dared not prod any more, the intense seething coming from the Au'ra could be felt in the air. Even Layla kept her distance as they walked, and walked, and walked. The forest loomed before them, seeming to stretch further than it was in some wicked illusion, imagination only. It had been many miles, the air began to become crisp with the scent of a large lake nearby.

---

Aside from the melody of the forest, and the sounds of their footsteps, the journey was silent, until the Miqo'te finally broke the stillness with a low sigh, "We've made it to the coast, the first mark of our journey." Exhaustion did not allow him too much enthusiasm in his statement, but he was relieved. It had been a tremendous effort to get to this place, which lay many miles from the tavern they departed this morning. He expected no reply from his stoic companion, D'hez motioned for Asime to sit and rest while he prepared their camp for the night. It was a little spot near a rock formation, close enough to the water to hear it lapping the shores as he went around finding wood for a fire. Soon enough, the darkness that was engulfing them was replaced instead by the light of the fire made by D'hezrel.

---

The Bard reached into one of his belt bags, fishing for something, he dug out a linen package he had wrapped at the very beginning of their journey. Bread and cheese from the tavern, still wrapped in the neat little leaf it had come to the table on. 'Though...it looked a lot better back then...' He thought quietly to himself, stealing a glance at Asime and wondering if offering it would be insulting at this point. During the many fights he had been on since that delicious feast, the bread and cheese had taken on an interesting shape having been tossed and smashed in his bag, but food was food. Debating within himself, he hatched a plan. He set his portion aside, and, arranging Asime's in a special way, brought the leaf over and set it beside the Au'ra. "Eat whenever you're able, you don't have to, but I thought I'd offer." He quickly shuffled away, settling back at the campfire to enjoy his own squished bread and cheese, he certainly gave Asime the more undamaged pieces to enjoy. On the leaf set beside Asime, a slightly flattened bread lay curled down, in a frowning, mouth-like shape, with two wedges of cheese above it almost as if representing grumpy eyes. D'hezrel was naturally trying to cheer his comrade up, or get himself killed, whichever came first, it was his only hope. 

---

He finished his small ration and washed it down with some water from his flask, avoiding eye contact with Asime at all costs. "Well, I'm going to sleep now. I'm a light sleeper and the slightest noise will wake me so we shouldn't fear any beasts of the night." He was true to his word, and kept his weapons close to his side as he lay down to rest. A light cloak and a thin bedroll from his camping supplies sufficed for his exhaustion to take him almost immediately. 

 

The stars circled endlessly in the sky over the adventurers; Their dreams haunted by different demons, yet their fates intertwined.

 

 

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The woodlands were not his domain. The further D’hezrel guided him, the more clear that became. One passing shrub was for all intents no different than any other, an entire congregation of looming trees indistinguishable from one another to Asime’s untrained eye. Which is not to say the morose fighter disliked the forest. Quite the opposite, in fact. There was a gravity to its silence he could appreciate. Everything in its proper place, each twig or piney needle serving some specific purpose, though their intricacies escaped him. The woods were a fine reprieve from the meaningless noise of the city, the errant bustle of its single-minded inhabitants, the sheer waste of its unequal splendors.

 

How have I come to spend so very much of my time in a place so ill-suited to me? How many of our kind disparaged the woodfolk and their uncouth manner? What rubbish. I would trade a year in those courts for a minute anywhere else.

 

Yet, he had stayed. It did not take him long to puzzle out why. The memory shamed him, tightened his indifferent frown into a pained sneer. He reached, grasped the flank of a healthy oak and sheared away its hard bark with a tug of his scaled hand. It felt no better to have lashed out and hurt another being. The shame deepend. Asime dropped a fistful of crushed bark and marched along with his head hung.

 

The time came, minstrel D’hezrel proposed, to encamp for the night. Distant, Asimenios murmured his assent. He turned this way and that, surveying their little site. The lapping of the lake and the notes of stirred freshwater hinted at their general location, but for all he knew they could’ve been in the prior inn’s backyard.

 

The nobleman cast about for a proper place to sit, judged the nearby cluster of boulders too high and stalked into the nearby brush. There’d be an apocalyptically loud crash before he returned with a massive log tucked beneath either arm. He dropped one before D’hezrel’s firepit, and the other at an L beside it. Satisfied, he crouched down with a quiet grunt and a pop of the knees and sat on the forest floor, his back supported by his designated log. He would not move again for some hours.

 

And he would’ve been content to enshroud himself in the gargoyle-like stillness of silent fire watching, his statuesque features drawn in tragedy, were it not for his companion’s thoughtfulness. Humble D’hez, kind D’hez. The bard provided a little leaf-plate laiden with road-worn sundries, arranged in an all-too familiar interpretation of a certain Au’ra. Asimenios neither smiled nor scowled deeper, impassive as he ate a bite of this and a bite of that. He procured some jerked meat from another of his mystery pouches, then measured some out onto his improvised plate.

 

He didn’t eat much, not much at all. Much of his time leaning over his leafy plate was spent prodding at the cheese and breads and jerk with his fingertips. Stirring, arranging. Eventually he would return the remains of his makeshift meal to D’hezrel and resume staring into the fire as though in contest over whose eyes would cool first.

 

The food on his plate had been re-arranged in a perfect portrait of a running miqo’te with a bow, being propelled along by the gusting winds of his own farts.

 

Maybe sometime between now and then, Asime turned his horned head and fired off a wink. Maybe not.

 

Some time passed. The warrior did not account for its passage, still as a statue. D’hezrel excused himself to sleep, plunked down with all the exhausted relief of a weary traveller.

 

‘Goodnight minstrel,’ Asimenios murmured as quiet as the campfire’s crackle. ‘May you find in sleep the peace denied you in these past waking hours.’

 

For his part, Asime wouldn’t find sleep for some time. It would need to creep upon him, catch him unguarded. The embers were smoldering their last glow when his lids finally shut, at last too heavy to hold open.

 

They were upon him instantly. The things he would see behind closed eyes. The content of his nightmares, moving and accusing and coiling around him. He lasted for as long as he could, and as he descended into sleep he prayed to whatever godliness remained it would be a quick night.

Edited by Lightsnowe

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'Where is this place?' It felt so familiar as the Miqo'te walked down the hallway, his steps echoing as he went down the stairs. Everything was hazy, it felt like looking through a tunnel. Was any of this real, or not? He reached the bottom. Looking over, he saw a woman with her back to him standing over a quaint little bar counter, worn from many years of service. "Mother?" He called out. She did not answer. An elezen with silver hair, falling in a neat little bob around her shoulders, it looked so much like her just then. "Mother?" He called again, louder this time. She began to turn, painfully slow. She faced him, there was no light in her crystal blue eyes, a sliver of blood dripped from the edge of her mouth as she began to fall, there was a giant wound in her belly where a weapon had torn. He screamed, he screamed as she fell in slow motion before his eyes and he ran towards her as his limbs were weighed with what felt like bags of iron sand. Suddenly, a blur, looking over he saw his father rush like a mad man to catch his mother before she hit the ground. He was heavily wounded, and bleeding all over. The floor space separating them began to stretch, the more he ran towards them the further they fell away. He reached his arms out and screamed, "WAIT--MOTHER, FATHER, LET ME SAVE YOU!" The echo of his footsteps were deafening, his limbs were screaming louder than he was. "Please, wait for me.." his last, desperate plea was heard by no one.

 

---

 

D'hezrel startled awake, his body was covered with sweat after an intense nightmare. He laid for a few minutes, taking deep breaths and reflecting on his horrible dream. Best not dwell on it, he thought to himself, or I'll be depressed for an age. He finally groaned and sat up, stretched, and yawned several times before getting up to check on Layla. She was still half asleep, it was only a little past dawn and the chocobo absolutely refused to acknowledge anything or anyone right then. D'hez had his hands firmly on his hips as he looked at her, "You get thirty more minutes alright, I'm being generous!"

 

---

 

The Bard went about doing various things around camp, he got the fire blazing again, warmed himself, and went into the immediate area to see if he could find them some food other than smashed butt-bread and cheese that they'd rather sculpt than eat. The Miqo'te scanned the forest--perfect. He spotted the cutest little squirrel hopping across the foliage, and soon it was shot, cleaned, skinned, and roasting over their campfire. He glanced over to his companion, unsure if still asleep, but decided to call to him, "Asime, sorry to wake you, but I have food other than smashed leftovers and I'd like you to have some." He placed the roasted squirrel bits on tree bark he had fashioned into a makeshift plate and laid it by the fire. D'hezrel stood up, and continued, "Also, we need to find the best path around the lake, I'd like to scout ahead and see what I find, before we go wandering. I'm taking Layla and will be back shortly!" The Miqo'te smiled, he placed his harp on Layla's saddle hook, and grabbed his bow. He mounted her. Before trotting out of camp, he turned her to face him. "Oh, feel free to eat the rest of that. I've squirreled away plenty for myself." He patted his stomach, laughed, and the duo disappeared into the woods before the minstrel could be properly chastised for his horrible joke. 

 

---

 

They hadn't traveled too far from camp, the lake waters sloshed against the shore as the chocobo and her Master scanned the area. D'hezrel was talking quietly to himself and planning their next course, a formation of rocks was coming up and Layla was becoming uneasy. The Bard stopped. Something didn't feel right, he took out his bow, he listened carefully...but not carefully enough. He was taken by surprise as a huge fish-like beast leapt from the waters and pounced on him, knocking him straight off of Layla, who screeched in panic and began flapping wildly. In almost an instant, he was surrounded by Sahagin with spears pointing in his face, his bow had been knocked out of his reach. Layla instantly charged towards him, but more spears swung around to face her and she reared up, shrieking in anger. The chocobo looked desperately for an opening, she snapped her beak at the creatures closing in on her, spears in hand, D'hezrel panicked as the creatures took hold of him and began to drag him away, "ASIME!! Layla, A-SI-ME!!! Ugh!" One of the Sahagin smashed the butt of their spear into his gut, "Ssssssilence, land walker!" The bird cocked her head at him. That word. A command, by his tone. Asime. She associated that word with the dark mass they traveled with, her Master was always saying that word to the dark blob with shiny feet. Layla only knew to go back to camp, to "Asime". One of the creatures lunged their spears at her, but she leaped out of its reach and into the forest. Wildly she ran, back to their camp. Layla came back to the camp, her saddle off-kilter, reins loose by her head and--most concerning--D'hezrel's small harp still hooked in place on the saddle. The bird screeched loudly searching for the companion they had traveled so far with, Asime.  

 

---

 

D'hezrel fought the entire way back to the Sahagin camp, much to the creatures' displeasure. They butted him many times with their spears, but still, he fought. They had tied his hands and feet, and ended up gagging him as well, due to his yelling. Luckily, the creatures weren't covering their tracks, as they dragged him the entire way to their camp. It left distinct marks in the soil, directly to their location, north of their little campsite on the shore. Please Layla, the Bard begged in his mind, just this once have listened to me and followed through. I will SHOWER you with krakka roots. They tied him to a post, where the Elders of the tribe began discussing their plans for sacrificing him to their god. There would need to be a ritual first, an intricate one. He looked over, two of the tribe's marksman were currently fighting over his bow, much to his annoyance. He began yelling at them through his gag, but only muffled noises came out. The guard watching him noticed, and began kicking him for fun. Many of the fish-beasts were laughing at this. The Miqo'te scowled, I prefered the brainless Skeleplasms, I think. 

  

 

 

 

 

 

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'Hng,' the noble Au'ra had delivered in response to his companion's awakening. Followed soon by a clever 'Mmmmmngggh'. Truly a paragon of silver-tongued repartee, Asimenios rumbled like a displeased cavern. He'd slept sitting upright, for the few hours he'd managed. He was slumped when D'hez got to him, though in those vulnerable and blurry pre-wakened moments time moved oddly. By the time Asime had -actually- woken up, or at least approximated coherency, the bard and his lovely birb had already taken to the trail. Luckily, he didn't catch D'hezrel's devastatingly awful pun, else the morning might have proceeded much differently.

 

The old warrior loitered, just a bit longer. Rubbing his stiff thighs with his sore palms, gazing about the makeshift campsite blearily. The more years gathered on his shoulders, the longer it took him to divorce his fitful dreams from waking reality. There was another timeline in his private dreamscape, another world where the events that dragged him here hadn't happened. When the time came, as every morning it did, to shake off this fantasy and return to the hard earth, well he was rarely glad to be back.

 

Absorbed, tired. Miserable. His long fingers pinched and prodded at the carefully grilled corpse of the unfortunate rodent provided him. Some of it made its way into his belly. As D'hezrel had silently observed during his own morning tasks, some foods were more easily sculpted than eaten.

 

If hunger is a spice, perhaps guilt is a bitterant. 

 

So distant and self-piteous was he, Asimenios hardly noticed Layla's frantic approach until she was nearly hopping on his cowed head. Her brilliant feathers came into view, and one by one, sense by sense, the veils over him peeled themselves away and he returned to the present with startling clarity. The fire was crackling, the wind was whispering. Very distantly, the water was burbling. The ground was quivering where Layla's broad feets were pounding and raking. His shoulder was being nudged by the hard edge of her insistent, worried beak.

 

'What is it? Where is your-'

 

A bit slow on the upkeep, but he figured it out eventually. The disheveled arrangement of her saddle was hint enough, but the harp is what captured his attention first. Numbly, mechanically, he stood and reached out, adjusting the saddle as to be comfortable for her.

 

'Easy- easy. There she is, there's my good girl.' Asime unsheathed the little skewer from the corpse of his breakfast, a thin shaven twig with a nasty little point to it. The squirrel's remains he offered to Layla, awarding her loyalty. And palming the small twig he made for the very obvious footprints leading away from camp. First a step, then a trot, then a jog. Leaning into a sprint. His body took some negotiating, the stiffness of a poor night's sleep made for a stubborn hurdle.

 

As for the fishmen, congratulating themselves and cavorting around the prone figure of their most worthy sacrifice, their own encampment was a meager handful of logs fashioned into out-facing spikes walling a small clutch of leathery tents. A single altar  sat in the center of the encampment, grey stone speckled with rust-colored bloodstains. The ministrations of the previous night's 'worship' were still spattered around the mud beneath. Evidently the Sahagin were more far more effective with sacrifice than carpentry.

 

A whole knot of the creatures bobbed and danced about, waving crude weapons and bleating like they'd just won something significant from the Gold Saucer. The trio of elders watched on wistfully, stroking tendril-beards and burbling at one another in their cryptic water-tongue. This one had plenty of fight in it, they observed as D'hezrel waged war against his bindings. The Deep One would be pleased to be offered such vigor.

 

Things were looking pretty good. It was going to be a productive morning. And then something dark and awful stormed into the camp. The elders turned to gawk at it, a black cloud which cast their people around like the fabled waterspouts of the ancient ocean. It drew nearer, silent and hateful. Two bright stars glimmered balefully from that darkness, pinning them with authority and intent. They bubbled fearfully, called their strongest to gather in a knot around them and the sacrifice.

 

The dark thing came to a stop. One of the young ones, blessed by the Deep and filled with indignation, scrambled forward and jabbed into the darkness with a rusted trident, squawking an oath.

 

Asimenios purposefully slowed his movements, then. This was now a display of force, and he intended all to see. He simply kicked aside the clumbsy thrust, and with three sharp movements disarmed the stringy-limbed fishman and twisted it into a reversed arm-lock. It thrashed violently, all tough lean muscle and animal fury. Asime jabbed his breakfast's skewer between its wrists, impaling them up into the meat of its lower back. It squalled and thrashed no longer, arms pinned. Helpless. Still, it tried to twist and lunge at him. He simply stomped one of its ankles, then cuffed the side of its temple, and it soon sagged on one good foot, eyes rolling.

 

Asimenios gripped the fishman by its pinned wrists, and presented it to the tribe with a grand gesture of his free hand.

 

'This belongs to you,' he shouted clearly. It'd been some time since he had raised his voice. He was not unpleased to see it could still have an effect.

 

'And THAT,' he pointed at D'hez's valiant form. 'Belongs to me.'

 

Weapons were gripped and ungripped nervously. The elders watched on, cruel intelligence in their aquarian eyes.

 

Asime gave his captive a small tug, one that couldn't have possibly been comfortable. 'I am interested in trade. Just as the Sons of Charybdis once traded with the Sleeping Serpent of the Far Water, a trade in honor of the Old Way.'

 

It was a gamble, of course. Dealing with fish folk is not often a sure thing. They had him with their numbers, but he had the advantage of astonishment. If watery eyes were fixed on him, they wouldn't be searching the brush for a certain sneaky Chocobo, or watching a specific catte squirm out of his bindings. And they certainly wouldn't spot the harp tucked away in the folds of the noble's tattered cloak, ready to be tossed at an instant's notice.

Edited by Lightsnowe

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