Jump to content

A Shrouded Road [Backstory, OOC Welcome]

Recommended Posts

Chapter 1


In the waning twilight the sky had taken on the color of dying embers; as the sun fell below the horizon, it gilded each leaf with pale fire.  Following the retreating day, thin gray clouds had begun to stretch out to veil emerging stars and the low growl of primal thunder preempted the darker storm yet to arrive.  Through the thick canopy of intertwined boughs that fading light scarcely managed to reach the forest floor; streamers of slowly dimming radiance danced with every breath of wind that wove through the tapestry of leaves.  It created shadows upon the faces of ancient trees, with their bark as canvases for illusory faces and they were not silent. The wood groaned as the wind bent their branches and the leaves hissed together; mournful sounds that seemed to echo in the Black Shroud where even birds had been stifled in anticipation of the coming tempest. 


For Lyanne Westwinter those illusions only became more pervasive as the clouds consumed the last of the light above. She was not some naïve hyur waif afraid to step from her door, but the open wastes of Thanalan were a different monster from those she could concoct within her skaldic mind, lurking from behind those elder trees. 


Her hair had slipped from its short tail, the chestnut strands tumbling over her dark skin and plastered across her neck by humidity and sweat.  Even her travel ragged clothing clung to her torso uncomfortably and the weight of her pack seemed to grow exponentially with every mile that had passed since they had departed in the early morn.  He never seemed to tire.  Lyanne turned her eyes from the passing trail and to the figure a few steps ahead of her. A man, if by silhouette alone, covered in a cloak with the cowl drawn;there were only glimpses of his angular jaw and the dark skin of a miqo’te.


“It’s going to rain, should we break for camp?” She asked her question rhetorically, transfixed upon his back rather than the skies.


If the man wanted to escape the rain he would say as much, she just wanted to hear his voice to alleviate the silence and take some childish comfort in his presence.  Lyanne had seen only the lighter skinned of his race and those of a fairer sex; the scholar in her was possessed by a terminal curiosity.  Sinces he had hired him as a guide within New Gridania two days ago he had strung together scarcely more than a handful of words to her, punctuated by a severity that had initially warded even her jovial disposition.




His reply provoked an irrational, utterly exhausted titter from her.   When the laughter dissolved it was replaced by a Cheshire grin; what did she expect?  She picked up the pace to walk beside him, hooking her thumbs into the straps of her pack and turned her head curiously to stare at the length of his jaw.  She caught only a fleeting glimpse of his pale blue eyes reflecting the fading light, unwavering as they stared upon the open road. 


“You don’t talk much do you?  You know it is going to be another week, we ought to at least get to know each other.”  Lyanne let her grin fall into a more sincere smile.


There was only silence afterward however, as the jaw of her companion set into some dour expression.  Still she smiled intently, until the muscles of her mouth hurt and finally it began to wither away.  Her stomach sank and she tipped down her chin dejectedly, she couldn't even help it when her elbows slumped down against her sides without loosening her grip upon the pack. 


“…Khaal’to Rus.  That… is my name.”  He spoke and the words that erupted sounded more like some incantation than a name; the particular accent infused by his predatory teeth gave the name an exotic flair. 


Lyanne almost gasped in surprise, lifting her chin to stare into the profile of the hooded miqo’te with the grin renewed.  Almost thirty years old, her reaction was not some mere girlish impulse,but rather relief from the foreboding loneliness that the depths of the Black Shroud impressed.  It had taken less than a day for the last vestiges of the city to vanish and the marks of civilization fell away soon after; time became a strange thing after that.  A few hours within the wood felt like whole days slipping away. 


“It’s nice to meet you, Khaal.  I’m...”


“Lyanne Westwinter, scholar from Ul’dah.  You told me when you hired me for this errand.”  His elongated teeth seemed to tint every hyur-forged syllable with his own animistic accent as he seemed to prefer enunciating the words within his throat rather than across his tongue. Yet the way he seemed to patiently form the words is what truly composed its gravitas.


As he spoke, his profile turned toward Lyanne a touch, enough where the last gasps of daylight seemed to fill his expressive eyes with a preternatural gleam.  There was no hostility inferred within them however, rather it seemed to the woman that his stare was composed of nervous curiosity.  Despite that understanding she could not suppress the instinctual shiver that traced her spine; it was like being stared at by a wolf.   Still,it was not merely his eyes that had taken her aback but in the eloquence for which he conveyed his thought.  Others would prattle on quickly about their mundane lives or gird it with embellishments.


"I hadn't thought you forgot!"  She quickly insisted, raising up her hands toward the predator with a sudden blood rush in her cheeks.  "It was.. we just.. never formally introduced ourselves. Well, I mean, you didn't..."


"Oh...sorry.  I'm not good with those sorts of things."  His reply, by contrast,seemed almost timid in comparison to the animistic expression he wore.  Lyanne could only blink owlishly as her hands slowly lowered back to her sides. 


"You don't have to apologize, Khaal.  It is just.. er..."  She hesitated,furrowing her brows toward the darkening horizon.  "Well, tell me about yourself then.  Where are you from?  Is this all you do?"


"There is nothing interesting to tell." His voice was lowered, with that quiet nervousness seemingly vanished.


"Certainly there must be something!  Some--"


"You are jaded by the stories you've read."  He interrupted with an almost wicked bite in his tongue, that for once his sharp intonation matched his features. "There is no great mystery in my life, no great secret or tragedy.  Not every quiet man of the road is possessed of some intrinsic legend only waiting to be explored.  My story is plain, Miss Westwinter.  There is nothing to tell."


Yet for as much as he defied her in that tone, his tongue seemed too quick for a 'man of the road' and too nimble around philosophical concepts for someone who only wandered through the Black Shroud. It provoked a hunger for more knowledge within her and Lyanne was not about to let a stubborn shield of words stop her. 


“Not every story is interesting by its origin alone.”  Her rebuttal was unnecessary, she knew, but for Lyanne it was more interesting in how he answered rather than what he answered with.


“And yet it is what our lives will often be predicated upon.  I have an ordinary life, Miss Westwinter.”  His insistence was marked by the woman and she crooked her brow.


“Ordinary only by the context of your perspective, from my own it appears wondrous and if you insist upon retorting anything but admission I will dock your pay.”  Lyanne put on the mock snooty airs of a noble woman, hoisting her nose in the air and stepping in front of the guide to stop him in his tracks.  “And consider yourself lucky, Mister Rus, that I have not already done so for calling me ‘Miss’.”  She raised her index finger for him and wagged it disapprovingly, clucking her tongue once before that façade twisted into a brilliant grin. 


With her interdiction Khaal had come to a halt before her, and his cloak, once fanned at his wake, collected back into his heels.   To her scrutiny it appeared as though the cloth were reticent to fall still upon him, as that mercurial movement was echoed by his hood and the shadows it cast over his countenance.  Through that ethereal veil there was a ghost of a smile written across his pale lips, barely turned up at the corners till the faint glint of his sharpened canines appeared.  With the final gasps of light spent on the horizon, there was little more than the contours left for her to view and the impression of the miqo’te before her. 


“As you wish, madam.”  His riposte was utterly seamless and quickly formed; the guide even acted the part of willing servant as he bent at the waist, flourishing his arm into his sternum with an elaborate bow. 


Fresh laughter spilled from her lips and conjoined with further mock admonishment as she shook her head.  Her amusement was quickly tempered however when lightning slashed the skies above the canopy of tree limbs, the first call to the rain that began to spit after it.  Within a breath that fine precipitation turned into a torrent and sheets of rain permeating any shelter the dense leaves would have offered.  Lyanne gave an exasperated sigh and her shoulders collapsed, her chestnut hair quickly turned dark with moisture and flattened out against her crown.  She turned her chin skyward.


“Thanks.”  She murmured with mild irritation.


“You…didn’t bring a cloak?  A coat?  Even a hat?”  The question from her miqo’te companion was simply astonished.


“It’s summer!  I… I didn't think it…”  Lyanne stammered back toward Khaal, her cheeks flushed from embarrassment even if she would insist it was just the cold.


“You can stop there.”  He interjected with a voice that sounded far too self-satisfied.  “You didn’t think.” 


“I already regret hiring you.”  She lowered her voice to a near whisper, lowering her chin as rivulets of rainwater poured over her temples to stare at the trail that was quickly turning into a quagmire.


It was only when she felt the weight of his cloak across her narrow shoulders and the cowl atop her crown that she lifted her chin again.  Rain hissed softly as it danced over the leather, rasping elemental words into her ears, and she found the warmth of her guide sinking into her damp figure.  The musky cologne of the miqo’te seemed to permeate through her.  He smelled of the woodland; trees and soil,shadow bred flowers and the faintest overtones of coppery blood.  Lyanne couldn't help but turn her cheek against the interior of the hood, her chest rose to take in that scent and fall to memories of another man.  It left the smallest smile upon her lips, one expressed now to her guide turned benefactor. 


She had walked beside Khaal’to Rus for two days and yet to see him like this, stifling whatever words that may have come in thanks. 


He wore a veritable mane of hair, the length of her arm down the breadth of his back, colored with a spectral hue of white with the tapered edges inked with obsidian.  The wild and unkempt strands had not seen the service of a brush in weeks. Moment by moment the rain lacquered the hair to his brow and cheeks,smoothing it into a spider-web across his spine.  Atop it all, two grand ears stood proudly,pinned back and reflexively shaking out the water like some over sized wolf. 


His skin had the complexion of dark ash, where the warmth of youth had been long since stolen to exposure and hardships unspoken.  Deprivation had brought his cheeks down to the bone, yet rather than leave him a mere emaciated or gaunt figure it had brought out a narrow and feral countenance. Upon it there were traces of faded scars, where claw, tooth, or blade had left their memory. 


Those memories were told however, within the eyes she had only caught a glimpse of before.  Each stroke of lightning in the skies above birthed them with a glow reserved only for the beasts in the wild to reflect in the darkest night.  Lyanne had seen the eyes of men from war before, the way they peered into distant recollections and horrors; yet the predation in his gaze expressed that this veneer of sentience was only a thin mask.


Below the cloak he had worn a simple cotton shirt, turned neigh translucent in the rain and it conformed quickly to his lean torso.  As privation had marked itself within his face, so too had it left an indelible mark upon his body; there was no sheath of fat across the sinew below it, each ribbon of muscle had been apparently wrought by this vicious life.  And still the shadows of scars would remain, innumerable to count as though he had shirked the touch of a Conjurer no matter how grievous the wound had been.


“It’s a loan, hyur.  I expect it back.” 


His words broke apart her reverie and inspection, Lyanne had to blink owlishly to refocus her eyes upon the man rather than permit her bardic soul to overtake her once again.  Instead she briefly shared in a lecherous grin and below the shadow of her hood, wagged her brows at her guide.


“Well aren’t you the sweetest kitt…” 


“You may not want to finish that.”  His ears twitched in irritation, flicking drops of water, which only incensed her grin further.  “There is a trade post about ten miles from here, with warm beds and hopefully a merchant.  Come along now, I am not… fond of the rain.”


Lyanne straightened her shoulders and swept up her arm with a militant salute, her heels clipped in snugly to one another with a rigid back.


“Yes, sir!  Forward…!”  She positioned the ball of one foot back and spun about with precision, voice raised grandiose bellowing.


“…march.”  He added blithely with what she could only describe as a heavy-hearted sigh.  “Keep your voice down.  Or at least try to.  There are no Wood Wailers to keep the highwaymen and ixal at bay here.” 


The guide set back to the road and strode before her, his long white tail switched irritably below the loose scabbard draped over his hip.  A long, thin blade with twisted hilt etched by years of use and, at times, rough care – the weapon itself was not what possessed her to stare, but the way his hand set atop it.  They reflexively hugged around the pommel in time with the steamy breath he exhaled, as though he were trying to find some comfort in cold iron.  For some reason that mere touch stymied the good atmosphere and made the hairs on her neck tingle; several times her mouth opened to speak and to ask after it, but found herself muted all the same.


Minutes passed in a return to silence as the rain poured and the laughter of before had become only a warm memory.  Lyanne had yet to take her eyes from the water soaked guide before her from the shelter of his cloak and contented herself by remaining within his indirect embrace.  There were a thousand questions she wanted to ask, each more important than the last and all the while he would not release his grasp upon the blade and she wondered if he could at all. 


                I wonder if he was like this too.


Her hands tightened into the cloak as the memories of another came and went, now only fragments of bygone laughs in the summer sun.  Here, in this dark and storm wrapped forest,those thoughts felt all the more distant. It was harder to remember his face; those traces Lyanne had often wondered were more illusions than the reality of what—


So lost in thought she did not waken back to the rain soaked road until she bumped into the extended arm of the miqo’te. Out parallel from his body and in complete stillness, she dared to peer up upon the wet face of her guide only to see it carved with complete focus upon the darkness reaching out in front of them. 


“What is it…?”  She dared to whisper, taking a step to the side to take into his shadow and the nervous flick from his tail.


He was silent after her question, but above his crown of waterlogged hair she saw his grand ears twitching to sounds that she could not likely perceive at all.  Watching up the length of his back the vast array of interwoven strands of muscles was taut in some feral readiness and her heart seized with sudden worry.  Crowding further into his back her nervous eyes fled back upon those shadows of looming trees and their tempestuous shroud, where imaginary danger was cast each time lightning swept the skies to momentarily reveal gnarled roots or overgrown brush.  Yet his eyes never wavered from where he stared and finally he rasped to her:


“There is blood ahead.”  And when he spoke these words she felt color flee from her cheeks, not for the implication of bloodshed but the way in which it flowed from his lips.  No fear, no eagerness, as though he had merely said the sun was going to rise and all the more weary for it.  “We should go arou—“


“Someone could be in trouble.”  Lyanne interjected, her fingers outstretched by instinct to pinch into the damp shirt he wore and she felt the cold, damp fibers between each.


“…you hired me to protect you.  Not to guard these roads.”  His response was punctuated when he turned his chin somewhat to gaze down upon her and expose her once more to darkened profile of the ashen miqo’te.  Lyanne felt a shiver run down her spine, but steeled it none the less by straightening her shoulders and tightening her fingers against his shirt.


“Then protect me.” 


She hesitated when she relinquished her grasp upon his tunic, but with no small degree of effort let her fingers unravel, and then took a step around the stalwart figure.  There was another pause when she found herself facing the shadow and rain alone; the skald took a breath and marched forward with every bit of determination that she could muster.  Still, she only found herself sinking further into the embrace of the cloak.  Why did her feet feel so heavy?  Each step felt like the mud was going to swallow up her heels and leave her trapped within the quagmire.


Somewhere above there was the cry of thunder; her determined stride seemed to carry her closer, and with it even the sound of the omnipotent storm seemed to be drowned out by the noise of her heart thudding in her ears.  Mud and water splashed noisily whenever her heel came down, and she could not deny the twisting knot firmly planted in her belly.  Gods and Goddesses above, she was terrified.  The forest itself had become a monstrosity to her; creatures within it dwelling far more horrific than her own imagination if only because they were real. She could not bear to look upon the trees surrounding her with the same rationale of a child believing that not looking for the monsters under their bed would keep them at bay.  Her fingers shook like the very leaves above.


“…stay behind me and do as I say." Khaal spoke from behind her, the sudden noise would have sent her squalling into the wood had it not been usurped by utter relief just to hear him.


Lyanne released a shuddering breath and gave a nod of admission, but even as she slowed to permit the advancing miqo’te to pass her, she could not help but reach out and place her hand atop his, still wrapped around the grip of the sword.


“Thank you, Khaal.”  The words were breathy, but earnest. 


It evoked only a momentary pause in the guide, who looked toward her knuckles and then away again.  Lyanne could not describe what she saw in his face at that moment, but there was something about it that made her heart sink and throat close.  The impression left her standing still within the downpour; hand still outstretched when the guide slipped away and closer to the waiting darkness, the woman wondered why.  Why did he look so… sad?


Lyanne came into his shadow as soon as he took the fore of the road once again and reached out to pinch her fingers into his tunic.  There was something comforting in feeling the damp material and the slight resistance as he continued forward.  It was easier to focus upon the breadth of his back and the feeling of his tail switching at her abdomen than it was to dare look upon the trees whenever they were momentarily lit by the storm.


“Too late.”  He whispered.  The words were nearly consumed in the next snarl of thunder as that flash of lightning cast a haunting glow upon the road and the graveyard it had become.


A chocobo lay lifeless in the midst of a shattered caravan, bodies of guards now strewn about with faces buried in the mud or decorating the overturned cart.  Their garish wounds were hidden behind tattered armor or pressed down into the earth, but still the overflowing smell of blood infected her sinuses.  And there were those who had tried to run, those who had worn no armor at all and carried no weapons with them.  Traders;men and women that littered the mud soaked road, as dead as their guards.  There were no strangers to death in these years after the release of the Primal, Lyanne had witnessed every manner of horror and though her skin paled a touch she found herself strangely numbed to the sight of carnage.  She felt only the echo of pity, something that needed to be felt out of a moral obligation; compassion was a hard commodity to find in this era.  Anger and revulsion were far more potent,especially when she caught a glimpse of those she could only surmise to be the culprits.


Over six feet tall and adorned as men might be, but with the features of beasts wrought to sentience.  Their long necks were ended with cruel,birdlike faces, beak and maw lined with jagged teeth capped with the spires of long horns; feathers erupted from their forearms and the rest of their lithe bodies.  Their only similarity to the men and women strewn around them were the savage wounds that had marked them.


By instinct she separated herself from the shadow of her protector and forward into the midst of torn bodies; their blood joined the channels cut by the rain to flow in rivers over the road, so fresh that the stench of death had not yet permeated through the storm heavy air.  She carefully tip toed past the corpses and over them, peering for even the smallest sign of life only to be greeted with a graveyard stillness. 


“Bandits…?” Lyanne questioned, fighting the knot that had twisted her stomach up with a touch of nausea. 


“Mm.”  His agreement to her rhetorical question was only a guttural sound at first.  “Ixal, beastmen, must have taken them by surprise in the storm.”  His explanation was colder than the rain that fell upon her now and the icy tone ran her through as readily as any blade would have.  "They couldn't have gone far, we should take what we can and go.”


That caused an irrational fury to rise up in her, spinning the young scholar on her heels to stare at the miqo’te with as much venom as she could muster.   Already he had stooped down beside the body of a young hyur guard, evidently rifling through his pockets for what coin or supply he carried.  Her fingers clenched down by her sides and she had to forcibly temper her voice from yelling at him, lest she call back those that had attacked this caravan in villainy:


“How can you?!”  She hissed and marched feverishly toward him,stooping forward to grasp at his tunic with both hands as though she could shake some sense into his brain. 


The moment her fingers once again found his damp clothing however, they were greeted with a far more visceral response; his hand shot up in a blink, wrapping his fingers around her thin wrist as though it had been put into a vice.  The heat of his skin was palpable, as were the calluses emblazoned upon his palm, and by the pressure put upon her limb the warning of his patience was evident.  Any romantic image of her guide as a dark,brooding, but genuinely kind-hearted stranger was lost to a far more grim and savage reality.


“I believe this is the least of their concerns, ma’am.  They don’t have a use for it anymore, we do.  Now would you kindly go see…”  He paused; in fact they both did, when the sound of a pained groan gathered above the sheets of rain. 


The beastman leaned against the side of the overturned cart, alien hands clinging at a split open belly from which Lyanne was only thankful she could not spot entrails amidst the gore.  She and Khaal both stared at the beast in the feet that separated them, though it scarcely had the strength to snarl at them both let alone fetch the jagged blade resting at its side.  She was no expert in death, but its sign was clearly written upon the creature and meanwhile it would suffer.  For all the cruelty and hatred it seemed to bear them both, in agony they were strangely pitiable.  Wide in the darkness, filled with glistening pain; Lyanne had to bite her lip and twist her gaze to the stoic miqo’te beside her.


“Should we… do something for it?”   She whispered the question, turning her eyes from the wounded beast and to Khaal. 


He stared under rain-soaked hair, eyes cloaked by long bangs with the remainder of his façade drawn into an expression too clouded for her to read.  Though the way he was postured Lyanne was certain it was only a façade; the hand that had once restlessly caressed the pommel of the sword had become utterly still. 


“There is nothing to be done.  Let’s go.”   Khaal said with a dismissive air.  When he turned to leave, her hand jumped to his wrist.  Lyanne lowered her chin, averting her gaze rather than meet his when the guide turned his profile to her.  “It’s dead.  Its body is just learning.”


“It… he is suffering.”  Lyanne protested rather than relinquish her grasp upon Khaal.  If anything she tightened her fingers further, searching for some reassurance he would not offer.


Only now did the miqo’te truly seem to pause,that every muscle became utterly still as if he were disconnected from time.  Below the curtain of rain he was an ethereal figure, come to claim the souls of the fallen with shadows as his robe and the razor glint in his eyes a predatory sickle.  His hand moved to the belted on scabbard, and thumb lowered to flick open the clasp that kept the hilt secured in the sheath.  He drew it from the whetstone lined leather with a long, insidious hiss and her blood ran cold with the sound.


“Then do it.”  Khaal whispered at her, eyes narrowed to defiant slits and he turned over his wrist to offer her the end of the pommel.


Lyanne stared at the weapon and the hand holding it, gradually her own reached out to take it.  She felt her heart beating furiously in her chest, her thoughts evaporated as soon as she felt the worn, indented leather occupy her palm.  There was nothing mystical about the edge, it did not tingle with some unknown power, but it seemed to howl with a life of its own all the same.  The sudden weight caused her arm to strain under the tension and the tip shook by her own shivering grasp. 


“Take it, put it through his chest.”  The miqo’te gave his intonation as though it was gospel and she couldn’t help but stare at her comrade with wide eyes.  She had seen death, she had cleaned up in the aftermath, but the scholar had never taken a life before. 


He stared at her even with the rain that cloaked his narrow frame; there was no compassion in his gaze, no warmth, no remittance from the order he had given her. The memories of their early smiles and the faint illusion of comfort under the cruelty of his stare.  Lyanne wanted to escape, instead she found herself paralyzed. 


“Do it, Lyanne.  It will never be easier than this.  You want to end his suffering, end it.”  His even tone began to falter and fade into a snarl; razor teeth glinted when the next stroke of lightning tore through the heavens. 


“… I can’t.”  Her protest was scarcely more than a whisper,even in her ears.  Moment by moment that weapon felt heavier and the tip swayed each time the storm-wrapped wind swept past.  Her heart raced with an erratic staccato, tears filling her eyes with indecision.  Fear.  It was terror.  Some primal horror kept her from raising that weapon, as though the mere act was going to incite some terrible retribution.


“I said do it!” The last of his composure seemed to evaporate behind his yell and the sudden eruption made tears burst from her eyes, while the blade tumbled from her grasp.  


She raised both her hands to cover her face, feeling as if she had suddenly reverted back to a scolded child. Khaal bent in front of her and took the sword up from the mud; his silence seemed to override even the groaning agony of the mortally wounded ixal until she could only hear the steady rhythm of his breath.  Lyanne let her hands slide away from her face to stare at the guide.


“I want you to remember this moment.”  He breathed, his attention transfixed upon the sword.  “I want you to remember how heavy it was, what it felt like.  I want you to remember what it is that you asked me to do.”


He raised his free hand up to the mud covered hilt, smearing his finger first against it and then dragged lines onto his cheeks.  There was a moment of reverie from Khaal, his face painted ritually and Lyanne thought to speak until he spun and drove the end of the blade into the chest of the ixal.  There was a wet sound of muscle and flesh being peeled away, the thick crunch of bones cracking followed by the wood of the cart splintering under the sudden force. He remained statuesque for the last instant when the final gurgling rasp left the lungs of the mutilated beastman, then slowly withdrew the blade.


She was captured in utter, shocked silence.  Staring as ribbons of blood began to dribble out along the edge of the new wound upon the crumpling beast and the way its body seemed to relax in final repose.  The action had been so quick, so merciless, and without so much as a warning to precede it.  She wasn't sure if she ought to be in awe of the dexterity to do so, or in horror of how casually performed it was.  Even when her eyes warily returned to the stoic Khaal she could see nothing of his thoughts; it seemed as if the storm washed away any expression he wore at that moment.


“Khaal… I…” Lyanne could not find the proper words to craft her apology.  Her heart ached, not for the slain one, but the lonesome figure of the miqo’te that turned back to the road and into the darkness.   

Link to comment

(Wow, that was certainly a lot of work! You have a good sense for detail, and your words flow well :). Thank you for sharing your work...I write stuff and post too, so I know how potentially nerve-wracking it can be ;) I'm always one to support a fellow story poster...nice job :thumbsup: )

Link to comment

Please sign in to comment

You will be able to leave a comment after signing in

Sign In Now
  • Create New...