Animus Lost

Day Three in Ivy Territory

The last two days of traversing the hostile territory of the Ivy Court had began to strain on Fritz’s senses. Between the keeping an eye on the group, the surroundings, and the restless nights of attempted murder by plants, Fritz was sure he hadn’t looked his bad in over fifty years. On top of all that, Fritz was still sore from the airship crash and then the changeling’s fixation on him.

Fritz sighed heavily as he finished another scan of the surrounding. He could find nothing, apart from the terrain actively trying to slow them. Still, something felt off, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched by unseen eyes. There have been no signs of Ivy scouts since day one. Since they hadn’t encountered another force, Fritz speculated that the scouts weren’t due back for a few days. The trek through Ivy Territory reminded Fritz of his scout training way back when in Koth. It wasn’t uncommon for instructors to lead recruits to the middle of the heartwood and bid them good luck and be back for inspection in a few days time.

Fritz shook the thoughts of Koth away as he caught up with Arhk, who was engaged in a tug-o-war match with a rather fierce tree root for his crutch. Stepping the root, Fritz kneed and jerked a piece of the root away from it’s parent tree. The rest of the roots seem to give up on fighting Arhk, allowing him to free his crude crutch and continue walking after giving the tree a stern look.

Fritz felt bad for everything Arhk had inherited from him his ill-fated mentor and everything the party had put him through. Deciding on taking his mind off the nagging feeling of being watched, Fritz caught up with Arhk again.

“How you holding up?” Fritz asked, not quite sure where to begin.

Arkh shot a stern glance at Fritz, then smiled a bit. “I just want to get this over with. My leg’s not going to set right, with all this traveling, and I won’t be able to take a proper look at in the middle of a forest.”

“Not exactly rainbows and sunshine in the martyr forsaken excuse for a forest,” Fritz joked before deciding into something he knew was on Arhk’s mind, “If it’s any consolation, you’re a doctor to me, not a criminal. Thanks for whatever you did to stop that changeling.”

“Don’t uh…” Arkh hesitated. “Don’t mention it.”

“I’m serious,” Fritz continued, “You being a blood mage is not that big of an issue, at least to me. You may have your ‘do no harm,’ but do you know how many thieves I’ve acquired things from?”

Arkh chuckled at that. “There are more than a few Cartographers that could learn a thing or two from you. Philosophy is not as exact as some scholars would have you believe.”

“If I were to believe what scholars preached to the uneducated masses, I’d be out of a job,” Fritz smiled, “I don’t want you to beat yourself up over this. We all have skeletons in our closets, some are just more illegal than others.”

After several seconds of silence from Arhk as they strolled for several more seconds before the feeling being watched took over Fritz’s senses. Fritz slowed down to a stop while he did another scan of the area. Just before finishing, Fritz caught the sight of something ducking behind a tree. Drawing his crossbow, Fritz carefully took a wide path to view behind the tree. Nothing was there.

Another figure caught his attention, Fritz turned and shot an arrow blindly then thinking he may have hit and the his target ran off. Fritz off in the direction of his shot for several minutes before he slowly came to the realization that his nerves had gotten the best of him. He turned back to where the group was headed only to see no one.

Martyrs Damn it.

Second Day in Ivy Territory

Arkh was traveling. The familiar smell of leather and horses surrounded him as he fondled the little bell tucked inside his glove. Who was that woman? He’d never seen a Beastman as beautiful as her.

Arkh jerked up, clutching his leg. It felt as though his wounds had reopened, and he became suddenly aware that he was covered in a thin layer of sweat. The pain faded rapidly, and Arkh looked around, wondering where the horses had gone.

A dream. It had been a dream.

A few feet away, Albin had been scooping up some probing foliage, and paused when Arkh snapped awake. “Alright, lad?”

“Yeah,” Arkh responded. “Just a dream.” He laid back down, and closed his eyes.

Arkh yanked angrily at his crutch, in an effort to break the creeping vines’ grip on it. Things had gone dramatically downhill over the past few days—not that they’d been particularly shiny to begin with—and the stress was beginning to wear on Arkh. His frustration had gotten so unbearable, that, in a moment of fear and anger, he’d used his magic on a Jottun. It had been effective enough, but the secret was out. He knew that now, to the others, he would always be “Arkh: Blood Mage.” If he was very lucky, he might get an “…among other things” thrown onto the end.

He found himself wishing desperately for a break as he matched his strength against the grasping undergrowth. He knew that this was a bad time to have an emotional breakdown, but it was all becoming simply too much.

“Gotcha, lad,” Albin declared, coming up from behind as he swung his shield in a downward arc. The shield’s sharp edge cut the vines like an axe, and Arkh stumbled back with the sudden freedom. He spent a moment regaining his footing, and replacing his crutch.

“Thanks,” he offered, ashamed of his handicap.

“S’nothin’. Jus’ gotta keep movin’.”

Arkh wordlessly resumed his march, struggling to maintain even the slowed pace that Valiraura’s rejection forced them to keep. The journey was hard on his leg, but he didn’t want to bother the others any more; he already felt like a tremendous burden. He winced as the pain came, trying to put as much weight as possible on the cruch, and kept the pace as best he could.

It was some time around midday that his preventative measures were no longer enough. He’d been struggling to navigate a fallen tree, when fire and agony shot through his leg like lignting. He fell, and gripped his leg once his body had met earth.

He couldn’t sleep. It was all he could do to keep quiet about the pain. He writhed in agony as his leg was gnawed at by an invisible toothy maw. He’d given up on having a restful night long ago.

Wait, what? Sleep? In the middle of the day?

Arkh blinked, and noticed Fritz and Goldie standing over him. “I’m starting to think this would be easier if we just carried him,” the blonde-locked woman suggested.

“Nah,” the Elf replied, casually. “I think he’s faking it.”

“Hear that, Arkh,” Goldie said, kneeling down. “Fritz thinks you’re faking it.”

Arkh grunted, struggling to sit up. “I’m pretty sure dying hurts less than this.” He suddenly became aware that his leg was not hurting any more, and recognized the irony of what he’d just said. Goldie scooped a shoulder under his arm, and helped Arkh to his feet.

Arkh stared into the bowl in his lap, poking idly at the cold chunks of potato and leek. Albin had thrown a fit over not being able to actually cook the food, but Nameless had—accurately—pointed out that starting a fire would only attract more attention from the Fey. After the brutal encounter from the day before, none of them wanted another fight.

None of them but Goldie wanted another fight.

None of them but Goldie and Nameless wanted another fight.

None of them but—oh fuck it—it would be smart if they avoided getting in any more fights.

So, they sat in the dark, eating their cold soup. They’d found a large, rocky outcrop, completely devoid of vegetation, and agreed to rest there for the night. The occasional curious vine managed to make its way up to them, but that was a relatively easily solved problem, whenever it happened.

A strange twitch in Arkh’s leg startled him. He looked down to see what might have happened, but the alien, clattering creature behind him shoved him forward as he paused, as if to say ‘keep moving.’ He stood, to continue walking, and felt that his foot was wet with blood, the tight leather sticking to his skin uncomfortably. He hoped that—if he was lucky—he’d die before they carried out their plans for him.

No, not him.

Arkh shook his head, and again. Where was he? He wasn’t walking, he was sitting, staring at a bowl of cold soup. He shook his head again and blinked, trying to clear his head.

Nameless spoke from next to him. “Pretty bad, huh?” Arkh looked up, confused. “The soup,” Nameless said, gesturing towards his bowl.

“Oh,” Arkh said, as clarity returned. “Yeah. It’s pretty bad.” He slid his bowl over to to the massive Beastman. “You can finish mine, if you want. I think I need to sleep.”

Nameless grumbled something in Norscan, shrugged, and poured the bowl’s contents into his own. Arkh smirked a bit as he laid down. “I thought you said it was bad?”

“Food is food, my friend.”

Arkh rolled over, pulling his robes tight around the splint on his leg. It ached a bit, but the pressure would help during the night. He tried to think of his bed in Cliffport, his quiet room, his peaceful life. He tried, but he was too tired. So, he slept instead.

First Day in Ivy Territory

Today on Animus Lost… we rejoin our adventuring company as they endure the tiring journey for Grakkas’ lost friend, Meru. While on that journey, their new, mysterious ship captain, born of Ivy but enslaved by the Holly, along with Scary Horse, have been swept up by the Jottun. Join us as they set out to save them.

“I thought you had permission to be here.” Buckley looked to the group in surprise. He dropped the scry and took the lever from his mouth.

“We did.” Arkh piped in, “From the Holly.”

Albin moved Arkh aside to look at Buckley and the rest of the group, “But now we’re in Ivy territory.”

“Who gave you permission before, then?”

There was silence as they all looked at each other with the same questioning faces. Goldie nearly shouted, “Well, Quinlan was Ivy! SHE must have been letting us pass!”

There was a round of eye rolls and exasperated sighs as they all realized that Goldie must be right.

“Well,” Arkh said irritably, “we should at least get moving before the flora takes us over.” Making jerky motions to break the strands.

Fritz took that as his cue, “Okay, Goldie, Nameless, you take point. Albin, follow up.” He then gestured to their new arrivals, “You three after that. Tell them where to go. Arkh, you follow them. I’ll keep an eye on you all from the rear.”

Without much hesitation, the mercenaries followed Fritz’ orders, gathering in their places around the three “children”. Kana and Safara moved to resume their stations at Buckley’s elbows while he closed his eyes and continued his strange, modified Scry.

It wasn’t long before Albin grew bored and began to fiddle with his newfound gift. As he “empowered”, or so he called it, since it felt essentially the same to him, he noticed something interesting. The plant life around him became easier to move through. If he really concentrated, he could even feel it carry his step.

“Wow.” he mumbled to himself, “that’s cool!”

He continued to test it, pushing his limits, and didn’t even notice how well it was working until Fritz called out from behind, “What the hell, Albin?”

He was looking at the Beastman’s furry shoulder blades and rising higher still to glimpse Goldie’s hair. When he realized what he was doing, his furious concentration wavered, and the plant life swiftly receded, causing Albin to fall several feet to the ground.

“AAAOWWW!!!!!” Albin howled, standing and rubbing his nose while making a face.

Nameless turned to give Albin an incredulous look. “Are you kidding me? You weren’t complaining when the zeppelin crashed, but this?

“I didn’t bump my nose when the zeppelin crashed!” Albin complained.

Everyone rolled their eyes and grumbled, but it wasn’t long until he could feel Goldie and Nameless testing it for themselves.

“So if you’re using Old Magic…” Albin continued to question Kana and Safara. Buckley never spoke. “Then why don’t you just levitate instead of fighting the vegetation?”

“It’s more difficult, in the end,” Kana replied. She seemed to have more patience for his needling. “We’re giving our magic to Buckley, rather than use it for ourselves. We can continue like this all day, for several days.”

Albin was about to ask for more information, when Fritz called out, “Three ahead!”

Goldie, Nameless, and Albin were ready to fight almost immediately, but didn’t see the three Fey soldiers until they jerked in surprised at seeing them.

“We can’t let them go,” Fritz said quietly. Albin knew what that meant, and wondered for a moment why he even said it. His heart sank when he realized that the words were meant for Arkh.

Albin watched one of the soldiers notch an arrow and pull back on the bowstring. It was hard to tell where they were aiming, but he decided that their Scryer was most important to him and prepared to jump. When the arrow was released with a soft thwang, Albin reached up and exposed his torso to the incoming attack to reach up high enough to cover Buckley. His tactics paid off, and he felt the arrow sink deep into his shield and ring out. Buckley didn’t seem to notice his near-death experience, still concentrating with his eyes closed. The two girls pulled him down by his arms and he offered them no resistance.

Albin landed heavily and felt Goldie’s familiar magic bolster his strength. He heard her raise her voice in a great, shaking roar and watched as she charged recklessly at the bowman with Always There close behind. A Fey soldier drew a thin, wicked blade from his belt and stepped in Goldie’s path, blocking her while the bowman attempted to reload his weapon, shaken by her display.

Goldie and Always There reached the soldier almost simultaneously. Albin felt a pulse of Vulcani Magic and watched helplessly as the ground shifted beneath Goldie’s feet, causing her to swing wildly. The Fey in front of her smiled as he easily dodged, moving to her unprotected side… and into Always There’s brutal downswing.

…at least he died smiling.

Blood splattered the bowman’s face, and he turned to his companion and shouted something in their language. The mage immediately turned to run, and was rewarded with a bolt through his shoulder. Stumbling and crying out, he continued to move away at top speed.

“ALBIN!” Frtiz shouted from behind him, “AFTER HIM!”

Goldie’s shouts from behind were so loud that they vibrated, buzzing in his ears, and he was certain that his help was not needed there. Sergeant Stubby loped after him as he began to give chase, but was swiftly left behind.

The Fey mage was bleeding, but he was moving swiftly with the help of his magic. Albin could feel the oppressive, dampening aura of his opponent’s Dragon Breath, and laughed to himself.

He didn’t need magic to take down one skinny Fey.

There was a rumbling noise beneath Albin’s feet, and, with a sudden burst of the Fey’s Vulcani magic, a solid, earthen wall exploded from the ground in front of Albin.

Without hesitation, Albin threw his body into the obstacle. The wall crumbled with his weight, and it was such a satisfying break that Albin couldn’t help himself, “OOOHHH YEEAAAHHH!!!”

Following Albin’s warcry, the Fey looked back, wide-eyed, and reached up to the trees with his good arm. A branch bent low for him to grab, then pulled him high into the canopy.

Albin’s first instinct was to copy him. The dampening Breath weakened as the Fey moved away, and Albin reached for his Vulcani magic.A thick branch hung low in front of him, and he grabbed it, willing it to fling him upward. Instead, the wood strained and threatened to break, so instead of willing it to move, he willed it to stay. The trees grew so close together that it wasn’t clear which interwoven branch belonged to which trunk. Albin pulled himself up under his own strength and, understanding his relative newness to this type of magic, remained as close to the thick trunks as he could. Giving chase through the trees by willing the branches he touched to remain still and strong.

The Fey he pursued was beginning to panic. He was rapidly losing blood and slowing from the injury as well as magical exhaustion. In a last ditch effort to lose the Dwarf, the mage caused the branches to part, too far for the Dwarf to jump it, then the branch on which he stood bent backward to fling him forward across the gap.

Albin jumped anyway.

The Fey shrieked when he realized that he couldn’t change his fate. Albin caught the skinny scout midair by the legs and weighed him down heavily. Albin climbed up the Fey’s body for a better grip and prepared for impact.

Albin swiftly lost his sense of direction after they met the first few branches. They tumbled uncontrollably toward the ground, Albin ducking his head and balled up. He felt the Fey’s body jerk and break as his unprotected limbs met the branches with Albin’s weight behind them.

When they finally found the ground, Albin stood. The Fey, surprisingly, did the same.

“Heh,” Albin mocked him, “this is what I’m built for. Outlast anybody.”

“How?” The Fey replied in a thick accent, breathing heavily and holding himself at an awkward angle. “How can you use the Vulcani Magic?”

“How can YOU use Vulcani Magic?” Albin said condescendingly.

The Fey’s expression darkened, “It’s not for you.” he said as he built up his next attack. A stone spear emerged from the ground behind him and struck toward Albin.

Albin sidestepped, slapping the stone aside with his buckler the same way he would a blade. Slipping his large round-shield loose from his arm, he chucked it. The sharpened edge of the shield bit into the unarmored Fey, and he went limp with a quiet grunt and fell silent.

Looking up and around at his surroundings, Albin realized that he had no idea where he was or how to get back. He stood staring at the trees, willing them to show him the way, for several minutes. He was beginning to think he might be lost when a rustling in the underbrush caught his attention. Shields at the ready, he awaited the arrival.

With wagging tail, Sergeant Stubby wiggled toward Albin, as happy to see him as ever.

“OOOHHHHH GOOD BOY!!” Albin exclaimed as he reached out to pet the dog. When did he get so tall? “Where’s Fritz, buddy? Find Fritz!”

Albin and Sergeant Stubby burst loudly from the underbrush and knocked into Always There. Sergeant Stubby wiggled over to Fritz, licking Always There’s boot randomly as he passed and pranced happily around Fritz’ feet, looking at Albin for praise, which was freely given.

“Did you get ‘im?” Fritz asked without preamble.

“Yeah.” Albin replied flatly.

Safara wasn’t so easily convinced, “Are you sure he’s dead?”

Albin didn’t reply at first, he only reached behind him and pulled out the severed head he’d carried with him and tossed it out to land at Safara’s feet, “Pretty sure.”

Arkh, who was still standing just behind her, gagged and coughed at the gruesome sight. Albin used that opportunity to brag about the chase, exaggerating a few key points.

“We should find a safe place to bed down,” Fritz said flatly after Albin was done, clearly not amused, unlike Goldie, who was rapt.

The group moved on, leaving the severed head to keep Arkh from losing his lunch. Buckley pointed them toward a steep overhang set inside the bank of a wide, shallow stream. Albin volunteered for first watch, and exhaustion allowed most of the party to sleep soundly.

Before long, Albin noticed that even the roots hanging from the outcropping and the short moss lining the moist floor reached out to the sleeping forms of his companions. Every few minutes, he made a point of checking on them, cutting them out when they were in danger of being consumed. It made for a tough watch, but at least they didn’t have to constantly move to stay alive.

On Trust

The Falcon’s specialized head and body shape, the textbook read, as well as its uniquely small wings, allow it to accelerate rapidly when flying at a downward angle. This makes the Falcon particularly suited for high-altitude hunting, affording it the luxury of being able to choose its prey from among many different options. It simply waits until the best option presents itself, then strikes with lightning-like quickness.

“Martyrs save me, tell me something I don’t already know.” Cyleena rolled her eyes as she mumbled, slamming shut the book in her hands. She tossed it aside into what was rapidly becoming a large pile of books she’d declared ’useless," and reached across the table for the next hopeful candidate.

“The Emperor’s Wings: How the Falcon helped Cinderfell become an Empire,” Cyleena read the title aloud to herself, shrugged, and cracked it open. “You know, I’m losing faith in this library pretty fast, Archie. We’d probably have better luck in the Guildhouse.” She idly flipped pages, hoping to find something that would catch her interest. “What do you say we grab some food, then head back?” She waited a moment for Arkh’s response, then looked up from her book when it never came. “Archie?” She set her book down, and leaned forward across the table, to get a better look around her pile of books.

Arkh had his head down on a book, his robes slowly rising and falling as he snored softly into the musty pages. Cyleena got up and walked around to his side of the table, where she rubbed his shoulders. “Hey, Archie, wake up.”

Arkh snorted through his nose, and jerked his head off the book as his eyes struggled to regain focus. “What’s happening,” he inquired, fearfully.

“Relax, Archie. You fell asleep, it’s okay.” Arkh blinked for a moment, then wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve. Cyleena sat down next to him, and leaned in to examine him. “You feeling alright? You look exhausted.”

“Yeah, I’m…” Arkh shook his head, trying to force himself back into the waking world. “I’m fine, I just didn’t get much sleep last night.”

Cyleena stood up, and began moving back to her side of the table. “Let’s go get some food. I’m not finding anything useful here, anyway.”

Arkh looked down at the book in front of him. “But I was reading…”

“No, you were sleeping.”

“This library has lots of stuff that the Guildhouse doesn’t.”

Cyleena picked up her pack and slung it over her shoulder. “Yeah, and it’s all crap. Come on, I’m hungry.”

Arkh closed his book and added it to Cyleena’s pile, then grabbed his pack. “Yeah, alright. I guess I wasn’t really finding anything, either.”

“What were you looking for, anyway,” Cyleena asked, as they made their way to the door. “Tremme got you doing another research paper?”

Arkh shook his head. “No, just,” he shrugged. “Just looking for something new to read, I guess.”

“Well if you’re that bored, you’re welcome to help me on my project. You know, instead of dragging me halfway across Cliffport.”

“I may have been tired earlier, but I distinctly do not recall any dragging.”

“Well, we passed a waffle place on the way here, and since you’re gonna treat me, there may very well be some dragging before the day is done.”

Arkh smiled at that. “And why, exactly, will this be my treat?”

“Because despite your selective memory, I did not, in fact, want to come all the way out here.” Cyleena looked at him with her best puppy-dog eyes.

“Ah, yes.” Arkh gestured with his hand as he offered a melodramatic bow. “As you wish, milady.”

Cyleena furrowed her brow, and grabbed Arkh’s hand, which she had only just noticed was heavily bandaged. “Archie, what happened to your hand?”

Embarassed, Arkh quickly stuffed the hand into his robe pocket. “We uh…” He looked away. “We were working on making salves and ointments today, and I grabbed a hot beaker. Burned my hand pretty bad.”

Cyleena hissed through her teeth as her face contorted in pain. “Yikes. You alright?”

Arkh shrugged, and turned his head back to her. “Yeah, Tremme took a look at it already. It’ll be fine.”

Cyleena smiled a bit. “Alright, then.” Her face perked up as she noticed the waffle place, over Arkh’s shoulder. “And speaking of being fine, how great do waffles sound right now?”

“Hi, Master Tremme.” Cyleena slunk through the door, a pile of books in her arms. Her hair was a haystack of white and silver, and her soggy robes dragged orange and red leaves in with her as she stepped inside.

“Goodness, girl,” the Dwarf inside announced, noticing her hair. “You get a hood for a reason.”

Cyleena brushed the comment aside with a wave. “I’m just here to drop off some of Archie’s books. He forgot them at lunch today.”

Tremme reached out and accepted the small stack. “Thank you, he’s writing up a report right now, but I’ll make sure he gets them. Lad’s taking to surgery pretty well.”

Cyleena smiled a bit. “Oh yeah?” She pondered silent for a moment. “How does that tie in with ointments?”

Tremme furrowed his brow at the question. “I’m not sure I undersand.”

“Oh, well, Archie told me that you were working on salves and ointments yesterday. I just assumed that meant he’d be taking a break from surgery for a while.”

“No… no, we finished up that a while ago.”

“Well, then how did he burn his hand?”

Tremme shrugged. “I don’t know. He showed up with the bandages yesterday morning, I assumed he’d hurt himself overnight. He said he was fine to operate, so I didn’t badger him.”

“Oh.” Cyleena replied, unsure how to move forward.

Tremme spoke again, taking notice of her nerves. “I’m sure he has good reason, Cyleena. Lad’s fair taken with you. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Nodding quickly, Cyleena took in a breath. “Well, I should go. Thank you, Master Tremme.”

“Of course, lass. Thanks for bringing these by.” He gestured to the books on his desk.

Cyleena stepped out into the wind and rain, and pulled up her hood.

“How long, Archie?” Cyleena’s voice was cold and distant, and was barely above a whisper.

“About seven inches, but I don’t think we’re at that point…” He’d trailed off as he met Cyleena’s gaze, and quickly realized that she wasn’t in a playful mood. His smirk vanished as he examined her face. “How long what?”

“How long were you going to keep it from me?”

Arkh tried to swallow, but couldn’t seem to get past the lump that had just arrived in the back of his throat. “Keep what,” he barely managed to whisper.

“I know why you haven’t been getting much sleep,” she explained, and Arkh suddenly realized that she looked very tired. She looked like she hadn’t slept in days. “I followed you.” Her eyes began to shine as tears welled up, announcing their intent. “I saw you.”

In a flash, Arkh’s world was red. He’d been careless, and he was furious that he’d left enough clues for her to get curious. He’d spent more than a decade meticulously measuring every step he took, making sure no one could ever even guess… and a single pretty face made him forget all of it. His heart exploded in his head, and it felt like every beat of his pulse was going to push his eyes right out of his skull.

No. Not now. Not with her. She was worth this. He didn’t deserve her, but dammit, he wasn’t gonna let this be the reason. He forced out a slow and low breath, calming his heart as his muscles shrank back to their normal size. He spent a long moment focusing on his breathing, and then finally looked back up to Cyleena. He was surprised to see that she hadn’t flinched one bit. He’d expected her to at least get a little uncomfortable, but there she sat, patiently awaiting his response. Ash help him, he loved her.

After a long moment, he found what he wanted to say, and met Cyleena’s gaze. “The only time I’ve ever hurt anyone with it was almost thirteen years ago. I’ve never—”

“I don’t care about that, Archie, any of that,” Cyleena interrupted him. “I want to know how long you were going to keep this from me.”

Arkh found himself unable to hold her gaze, and looked down at his hands, still bandaged from the night before. “I don’t know.”

“Were you ever going to tell me?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” he confessed. He’d assumed that he would’ve been able to keep the secret forever, but in this moment, he realized that was never even a possibility.

“Think about it now,” she demanded. “What am I worth to you?”

“I don’t have to,” Arkh responded, almost immediately. “I’d throw this away, if I could. I’d throw all of it away. My magic, my maps, my ribbons. I’d give up everything, if it meant I still had you.”

Cyleena winced almost imperceptively, then folded her arms. “Not good enough.”

Arkh pressed his palms into his face, frustrated that he hadn’t seen this moment coming. She cut through him like a knife, and ripped away every mask he’d ever put up. No one ever understood him—truly him—like she had, and he’d known from the beginning that no one could ever hurt him like her. It had been his favorite thing about her, but now he wished for nothing more than to have given her the simple respect she so heartily deserved.

“Cyleena,” he finally began. “I’m a sorcerer. I’ve known for some time now, but I’ve always rejected my gift. I’ve been warned against allowing the magic to corrupt me, and bend me to its will, and I have chosen the life of a scholar, to guard myself from it. I have hurt people in the past, but always by accident, and I have always taken steps to atone for my actions.” He looked up, and, though he still couldn’t look her in the eyes, studied her face. “I’m telling you this because I trust you, and because I… because I love you. And I don’t want to keep any secrets from you.” He closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them, and met her gaze. “And because I want you to forgive me, for having kept it from you for so long.”

Cyleena dropped her arms a bit, and let her face soften. “That’s better,” she said. “But you’re not done apologizing.”

Arkh smirked a bit, and let out a short, almost pained, laugh. “No…” he trailed off. “No, I don’t think I am.”

On Difficult Decisions

“Vera, Celeste, please sit.” The Abbess’ voice was soft, yet commanding, her distinctly northern accent punctuating her already pristine aura of poise and dignity. She gestured with her hands as she spoke, indicating two chairs opposite her desk, and seated herself once her two guests were comfortable. “I thought you might like to know that Zoe is going to be alright.”

Vera and Celeste, backs straighter than an arrow, both let out a sigh of relief, and exchanged a look of mutual concern with one another. The Abbess continued. “The damage is far more emotional than physical, but, assuming she can move past this, she’s going to be just fine.” She paused for a moment, as if to reflect on what she’d just said, then leaned forward onto the desk between them. “But that’s not why I wanted to speak with you.”

Celeste hung her head slightly in what resembled a gentle bow, and Vera blinked slowly as a soft frown threatened at the edges of her mouth. “We know,” Vera said, barely above a whisper.

Time slowed to an agonizing crawl as the three of them searched for the right words to begin the conversation that none of them wanted to have. It was the Abbess that eventually found what she needed to shatter the oppressive silence. “How long has this been going on?”

Vera turned her head slightly to examine Celeste next to her, who had yet to raise her head. “This is the first time he’s done anything like this, Abbess.” Sadness tugged at her cheeks and lips as she spoke, and she had to blink rapidly to keep her vision clear. “We never knew about this, you must understand!”

The Abbess gently held up a hand in arrest. “I believe you, Prioress. You are both pious Ladies of Ash, I do not need any convincing on the matter.” She returned her hand to the desk. “But I wanted to hear it from you.” Her gaze drifted to her hands, which she folded together, in what was likely to be the greatest gesture of discomfort she would ever show. “Have you spoken to him?”

Vera responded, clearly holding herself together better than Celeste, who now had both eyes tightly shut, and was focused heavily on keeping her breathing level. “Yes, Abbess.”

“And what came of that?”

“He does not understand what he did. He…” She looked around the room for a moment, searching for the right words, somewhere in the rafters. “He knows that he used magic, but, right now at least, he doesn’t realize it was any different from ours. From Cinder.”

The Abbess nodded gently at that, and took a moment to process it fully before speaking again. “You must teach him, then.” Celeste raised her head at that, and both Prioresses stared wide-eyed at their Abbess, confusion painted clearly on both their faces. “You must explain to him what he did, and explain to him what it means. He must be made to understand what…” She hesitated, and sighed. “What he is.” Celeste put a hand to her mouth, and drew in a broken breath through her nose. “And how he must leave that part of him behind.”

Vera put an arm around Celeste and pulled her close, who was now quietly sobbing into her hands. As it had before, the room fell quiet; Celeste’s occasional, muffled gasps as the only real sound amid the silence. After a long while like this, Vera raised her head, and looked at the Abbess across the desk. “And then what?”

A look of profound, empty sadness came over the Abbess, who looked away as she sighed. When she opened her mouth to speak, it was not her voice that came out, but the voices of shame and regret, heavy with the burden of what had to be done. “In a few weeks, the Cartographers will be coming by, asking for any orphans that might be interested in a future with the Guild.” Her eyelids fluttered briefly as her gaze remained fixed out the window. “Archibald will leave with them.”

Somehow, Celeste found it in her to regain some of her composure, and leaned over the desk with imploring hands. “Please, Abbess. Please don’t send him away.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have any other choice, Prioress,” the Abbess said, a grim frown creeping across her face. “The boy needs to grow away from his magic, and that is not a life we can give him here.” She sniffed a bit, making a marvelous performance of hiding her shame. “Beside that, Archibald has always had a love for maps. The Guild will give him much that we cannot.”

Vera remained stoicly quiet as Celeste pleaded with their superior. “I cannot do this,” she said. “I cannot send him away. Please do not ask this of me.”

“I’m sorry, Prioress,” The Abbess responded. “I’m sorry, but the decision has been made. Archibald will become an apprentice at the Guild, or he will find something else that suits him. But he will not find it here.” Celeste resigned, and slumped back into her chair, where Vera resumed holding her. “Thank you for coming to speak with me,” the Abbess eventually offered. “You should go to him, now.”

The two Prioresses nodded, stood, and excused themselves, taking care to clean their faces and tidy their hair before entering the hallway. When they’d closed the door behind them, the Abbess rapidly drew in a deep breath, and quickly exhaled it through trembling lips. She closed her eyes, and leaned forward over her desk as the tears she’d been holding back finally made their way out.

On Chance Encounters
This was actually written for last session.

“Easy, girl,” Arkh said, gently patting the mane of the horse beneath him. He immediately felt stupid for doing so, as not only was his horse not acting nervously, but she had never—not once—acted nervously. He had never been given a reason to assume that this horse could be scared of anything, let alone something as mundane as coming to a stable. He mentally shrugged, and guessed that he probably just wanted an excuse to pet her.

Arkh dismounted, and led her to an empty stall, where he removed her saddle and bridle. He hung both on a hook outside the stall, closed the door, and walked out to speak to the stablemaster.

“So, how many days?” The stablemaster was a short, thin man, though his voice was commanding enough that Arkh imagined he never had a problem with the horses.

“Just the night. I’ll be continuing on in the morning,” Arkh replied.

“Mhm,” the stablemaster nodded, “And the name?”

Arkh lifted his head a bit. “The horse’s name? Um—”

“No, sir,” the stablemaster interrupted. “I just need your name. My son will be here in the morning, and we’re working on manners.”

“Oh,” Arkh said. “Then, Cartographer Greene.”

“Excellent. And where will you be staying?” Sensing Arkh’s hesitation, he continued. “In case we need to contact you, if something happens with your horse.”

Arkh nodded at that, then squinted for a moment, remembering. “Um, the… The Blasted Badger.”

“Thank you, Cartographer Greene.” The stablemaster said. “Your horse will be fed and groomed, ready for you to ride out by dawn.”

Arkh placed a small stack of silver coins on the table. “Thank you. I’ll see you then.”

Arkh stepped into The Blasted Badger, and was immediately greeted by the odor of smoke, alcohol, and greasy meat, all somehow combined into one super-stench. A small part of him wondered if this was a mistake, but was promptly overriden by fact that it was his first night on the road, and he wasn’t about to let a smelly inn be the thing that made him chicken out. Eyes from all over the tavern began to find themselves upon him, and Arkh wondered if he was the only one here that hadn’t killed someone.

Thankful that his hood was up from the rain outside, he worked his face into the best scowl he could manage, and approached the bar with what he hoped was an intimidating walk. He worked his way onto one of the stools, and pulled back his hood after setting down his pack.

The barkeep eyed him suspiciously, then, after a moment, approached him. “What’ll it be, traveler?”

It took all of Arkh’s willpower to not immediately correct the man and show off his Cartographer’s badge, but Arkh decided that such a gesture would not be appreciated in this particular establishment. He elected to order a drink, but suddenly became aware of the fact that he didn’t know of any, other than ale and whiskey, which he’d never had before. Not wanting to come off as a child, he settled on the more adventurous option. “Whiskey, and a room for the night.”

“Five silver,” the ’keep responded.

Arkh began to root through his pocket as the ’keep began filling a glass, though the clank of coins on the bar caused him to look up.

“This gentleorc’s on me, Duke,” said a strange human, from the stool next to him, to which the barkeep—apparently Duke—nodded. Arkh hadn’t noticed the man arrive, but wasn’t about to turn down free room and drink.

“Awful kind of you, stranger,” Arkh said, doing his best to mimic the accent and diction of what mercenaries he’d met before. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just in a giving kinda mood, I suppose,” the stranger said. “Though I couldn’t help but notice that horse you rode in on.”

Arkh raised an eyebrow, and reached for his drink. “What about her?” He took a sip, and immediately wondered what, in the name of ash, could possess someone to actually want to drink this.

“Just a curious horse, is all,” the stranger replied. “Can’t say I’ve seen many that look like it. Where’d you get her?”

Arkh couldn’t come up with a lie fast enough, but didn’t want to compromise the hardened persona he felt he was actually pulling off. So, he only told part of the truth. “She was assigned to me, in Cliffport.”

“You’re a Cartographer?”

Damn. Oh, wait! Idea! “Mercenary. Held on contract for one of their Leads in Utica.”

The stranger seemed to buy that, and nodded in thoughtful contemplation. “Well, enjoy the drink,” he said, getting up from the stool as he patted Arkh’s shoulder. “See you ’round, friend.”

Arkh nodded quietly, and took another agonizing sip as the stranger left. After he was gone, Arkh called Duke back over. “Say, who was that?”

Duke shrugged. “Never seen ’im before.” He held up a bottle. “More whiskey?”

“Martyrs, no.” Arkh responded, then rebounded. “That is, no, I’m fine.” Duke put down the bottle and wandered off to another end of the bar. Arkh reached for his pen, then stayed his hand. This moment, he decided, might be best excluded from his journal.

On Losing One's Way, Part III
(Also Written by James)

A tear fell from Arkh’s chin and landed on the page he was reading, immediately blotting the years-old ink. Arkh quickly started dabbing at it with his sleeve, and managed to contain the stain before it spread—though the damage had been done. He tossed the journal back onto the desk and wiped at his face, furious at himself for ruining Banagher’s personal effects like that.

Though he’d told himself that he’d long since accepted Banagher’s fate, Arkh had never given himself the chance to grieve properly; it had now arrived with a vengeance, and the guilt of having put it off for so long was compounding his grief tenfold. Banagher had been his teacher and his mentor. He’d been there to help Arkh grow into the man he’d become—as much of a man as he was—and he’d never asked anything more of him than his best. He’d been many things to many people, but to Arkh, he’d been a friend. To the troubled young boy who missed his family, and had never once felt like he was where he belonged, a friend as good as Banagher was worth the world. And now, that world was gone.

Before he left New Turath, Arkh had promised Banagher that he would return with a cure. It was now, standing in a dead Cartographer’s abandoned study, that he realized he would probably die before he could fulfill that promise. He hadn’t started showing symptoms yet, but, if Banagher was any metric to follow, he wouldn’t have much time left once he did. The thought weighed heavy on him as he began to understand that he was not mourning one death, but two; his friend’s, and his own.

Arkh set himself down in the desk chair, and gazed across the room, trying to calm himself down. After a moment, he realized that he was looking at a piece of art Banagher had hung: some kind of painting, though obviously devoid of any actual paint. He remembered Banagher teaching him the Fey word “erita,” for which there was no Estanic equivalent. Roughly translated, it meant “the feeling of watching your reflection disappear, as ripples mar the water’s surface.” He’d heard a few Fey use it when discussing their own culture’s art (and indeed, if he remembered correctly, there was an entire artistic movement around the term), though he’d never understood its usage. As he studied the piece, an abstract mess of emotional colors and evocative shapes, he wondered if he was experiencing erita right now.

The last three weeks had been the most trying of Arkh’s life, each one marked by more challenges and hardship than the rest of his life combined. He’d made friends, been to amazing places, and experienced wonders he could never imagine otherwise, but he couldn’t help but wonder if he’d lost some of himself along the way.

Arkh wiped his eyes as the sadness hit him like a crushing wave. One of his first nights on the road, he’d attacked a small child, furious at being separated from his maps. Barely a week later, insistent on being listened to, he’d started a fight—a fight that had ended in many deaths, including a Fey general that was just trying to protect them. Then, not even a few days ago, he’d deliberately pushed Cerlissa—Cerlissa!—to attack and harm one of his closest friends, in order to prove a point.

“The mercenaries,” as Arkh was fond of calling the others (a term that he idly wondered might be designed to convey his contempt for their profession), all fought and killed for a living. When it was necessary for someone to be killed, they did the deed without hesitation, and were efficient and professional about it every time. Arkh had long snubbed his nose at the ease with which violence came to them, but he was now beginning to understand that he had remained in the shadows the entire time, constantly pushing them to greater and greater violence when it suited him. Because it suited him.

Arkh was suddenly aware that his right hand was covered in blood—from the wound he’d neglected to bandage—and found the metaphor unsettling. His right hand, the hand with which he wrote, drew, and performed surgery; the hand he’d broken when he’d attacked Gwind; the hand he’d used every time he swung his forging hammer; the hand upon which he could still feel Cyleena’s gentle touch; the hand that now betrayed him as it painted, in clear detail, the betrayal he’d committed upon himself. He clenched the hand into a fist, and blood dripped from his wounds onto the floor. He watched, silently, as the droplets stained the stone-and-dirt floor, like his tear had done to the journal.

And just like that, his anger was gone. All of Arkh’s pain and rage left him, and had left him lighter and more free for the loss. Though he carried with him the disease that was killing him, it was not him who had made it. It was not him who placed the plague on Banagher and so many others, and it was not him now that stole countless more final breaths. It was not him that had attacked the dignitaries in front of that derelict train, and it was not him that swung that accursed sword at Nameless—though his hands had been used to do so. It was not him that was responsible for so many of the atrocities he had seen and experienced since his departure… but that would no longer be the case.

Arkh was reminded of a line from an old poem, the rest of which he’d long since forgotten. “We are all going to die. I intend to deserve it.”

On Losing One's Way, Part II
(Written by James)

“Ugh,” Cyleena grumbled with disgust, barely above audible volume. “Mercenaries.”

Arkh set his bowl of rice down, and turned around to inspect the new arrivals. Through the door in the back of the dining hall, twenty or so men and women—of widely diverse shapes and sizes—poured in, and began lining up for food. Though most of them took this opportunity to arm down, a few of them still wore their weapons and armor, which made Arkh slightly uncomfortable. All of them looked like they needed a bath.

Arkh turned back around, and picked his bowl back up. “I dunno,” he shrugged, “I can’t rag on them too hard. At least they get to go out on field missions.”

Cyleena frowned dramatically at that, then returned to her meal. “I just don’t understand why we still keep them on contract. Vulcanica’s roads haven’t been dangerous for fifty years. It’s not like we need their protection.”

“We’ve had this conversation before, you know.” Arkh picked idly at his rice, having eaten his fill several bites earlier. “Cinderfell is relatively safe, yes, but that doesn’t mean that everywhere a Cartographer would go is completely free of danger. New Turath, for example, gets attacked almost every day. This is a peaceful time, but there are still dangers. I’ll admit, I don’t like that they tend to insist on going everywhere armed to the teeth…” He looked up, and paused for a moment. “Are you planning on finishing that?”

Cyleena grinned through an overstuffed mouthful of mashed potatoes, fork poised to deliver another bite. She vigorously nodded, and attempted to say something, but it only came out as a mushy, muffled “huh, ooeehamuhh. Hiahoor.”

“Ah, yes, that mastery of honeyed words you Dren are so famous for,” Arkh offered dryly, doing his best to conceal a smile. “One can’t help but wonder how you managed to evade all those suitors long enough to make it here.”

Despite her furious giggling, Cyleena managed to work her way through enough of the mouthful to eventually swallow, and promptly took a big swig of her drink. After finally catching her breath, she returned to the conversation. “That was rude to say, and you know it.” Arkh held up his hands in exaggerated apology. “And as I was trying to say, you were rambling. I got bored.”

Arkh playfully flicked rice at her while calling her a name. “Oh no,” she said, leaning forward to let a pair of mercenaries pass. “You don’t want to start a food fight right now.”

“Food fight?” One of the mercenaries behind her queried—a stocky and particularly hairy Dwarf. “Fritz! Food fight!” He bellowed, then upended his plate into the face of the Elf with him. He promptly looked around to see if anyone else was following his lead, and slumped a bit upon realizing that the entire hall was just staring at him, confused, and a little afraid. “Well damn,” he grumbled, “that food looked tasty.” He slunk off back to the food line, while the Elf began picking bits of mashed potato out of his hair.

Eventually, Cyleena turned back to Arkh, and gave him a look of “wanna get out of here?” He nodded, carried his dishes to the wash bin, and followed her out into the courtyard.

“Besides,” Cyleena said, stepping out into the sunny Cliffport day. “They act like barbarians.” She jerked a thumb towards the dining hall they’d just left. “What an uncivilized way to waste food.”

“Oh, that’s right,” Arkh said sarcastically. “For a moment there, I forgot that your last name is Dren. Thanks for reminding me.”

Cyleena rolled her eyes dramatically as she turned her head to Arkh. “Oh, Archie. What I meant was, that living a life where death is in the job description… one tends to lose track of the things that keep us who we are. Living for nothing more than the payday at the end of a job,” she shrugged. “I can imagine how most things would start to lose their meaning, after a while.” They walked in silence for a moment, then she turned to Arkh. “Well, at least I won’t have to worry about that happening to you.”

Arkh laughed at that, in comfortable agreement.

To See Through Another
Mini-scene with Arkh and Nameless. Sorry for any weird perspective changes, it was a group effort.

Far past sundown, somewhere above the endless forests of Valiraura between Warden’s Keep and Havashem, Quinlan was mumbling and singing quietly to herself, much like she had been ever since everyone had nodded off to sleep for the night. A lurching brought the nerve-wracked Arkh fully awake with a start, and much to his dismay, he hears the continuous, thoughtful mumbling cease, and the solid THUD of Quinlan’s weight hitting the deck. Arkh heard Nameless shift and his head rise up. He had nodded off while watching her man the controls, and she had landed so close that the noise woke him. Quinlan caught his eye as he looked up at her, “Hey, there. I found the South River, so I’m cool to take a break. Wanna see something cool?”

Nameless stared at Quinlan for a moment, readjusting to wakefulness. He nodded. “You have yet to show me something not-cool. Please do.”

The creak of leather and slight movement of her ears betrayed her broad smile at the statement, and she shifted her goggles to sit on top of her head. The whites of her eyes shine brightly against her ruddy brown skin. “Well, I’m not sure how safe it is. I did it with a fox once and it seemed fine, but it didn’t want me to touch it again. Disorienting I guess. Anyway, I’ve been really curious to give it a shot with a person if you’re up to it.”

Nameless raised his brow and stood, slapping the light layer of moisture off his armor. It tended to collect when they flew through clouds. “If it shows me more of flying and the airship, I am definitely up to it.”

Eyes growing wide with excitement, Quinlan skipped forward and, realizing that nearly everyone else was asleep or trying to remain so, ducked her head and glanced around nervously, “Gimme your hands!” it came out as a muffled squeak from behind the stiff leather covering her face.

Nameless cocked an eyebrow, and held out his hands, trusting she wouldn’t do anything to hurt him on purpose.

Quinlan eagerly snatched them up, then thought better. She let go and removed her long, thick gloves, revealing more ruddy brown skin than she had since they’d met. She then took a deep breath and placed her delicate hands back into him palms, “Have you ever dealt with Pact Magic before?”

Nameless’ eye twitched, barely visible. He could almost feel the pact burning inside of him, full of an unknown amount of power he was scared to touch. “You could say I’m familiar.”

“Cool, that might make it easier. It’s not pure Pact, though.” You can feel the magic increasing, flowing from her through your hands. Arkh, sitting quietly aside and strapped to the mast and doing his best to avoid letting the sick in his stomach project into the material world, could feel it too. He remained silent during the exchange, eager to learn where this conversation would go.

The feel of it was strange, there seemed to be a bit of Pact, a bit of Vulcani, a bit of Dragon, and maybe even something else entirely. It felt wild and dangerous.

The corner of Nameless’ mouth curled up. This was something new. He held her hands tightly and closed his eyes, intent on feeling the magic.

“How much have you fiddled with magic?” Quinlan spoke up, “Know any mages or anything?” She was clearly stalling. Maybe even hesitating.

The tone in Quinlan’s voice made Nameless nervous. Better to tell her now than risk some kind of magical blowout. Quietly, he said, “I don’t use it, but I do have a pact. Would that cause… problems?”

A nervous laugh bubbled from her, “Uhh, I don’t know, the Fox didn’t have a Pact.” In a moment of silence, the magic began to saturate the air, “Who’s it with? Mine’s with Sepharine. She’s actually pretty nice.”

“I don’t know who Sepharine is, unfortunately. I may be missing out.” Nameless smiled, hesitated. Spoke. “Mine’s with Cerlissa.”

Raising an eyebrow, Arkh made a note to look up Sepharine later, but remained silent as he listened.

The magic never faltered but Quinlan was clearly giddy, “REALLY? Herself Herself? Sepharine says she’s the best Arbiter in the history of time, and I don’t think that it’s a hyperbole. She says she’d do anything for her. You met her in person? I heard that she refuses to hold more than a handful of Pacts at a time.”

Arkh chuckled at that, louder than he meant to.

Whispering loudly, Quinlan ducked her head and glanced sideways toward Arkh; apparently she hadn’t noticed him wake before, “Sorry I woke you, I got excited. Sky Goat’s met Cerlissa! Herself Herself!”

Gesturing groggily to the sleeping mercenaires, Arkh spoke. “We all have.”

Nameless chimed in, “I’m not very familiar with her, uh, personally, but I’ve talked to her some and… hit it off?” Nameless wasn’t sure how to explain himself, so he fell slilent.

“What?” Quinlan was clearly baffled and possibly a tad alarmed by the statement, but interrupted herself, “You ready? If I’m right, you’ll see something super duper magnificent but it’s also… well… you’ll see.”

Nameless steeled himself. “I’m ready.”

Arkh clutched the rope that held him to the pillar, but otherwise remained silent. To him, nothing spectacular seemed to happen, but Quinlan suddenly looked at Nameless uncertainly, then checked around the deck. Voice a bit alarmed and confused she blurted, “What?” She looked down at her hands in awe, still holding on to Nameless.

Nameless only grinned and said quietly, excitedly, “IT WORKED!”

Suddenly, Quinlan let go of Nameless and wiped her hands off on her pants as if to brush something away. “I… I’m sorry.” she stutters a bit, seeming to cringe, and looks at Nameless a bit fearfully.

At the same time, Nameless shook his head to clear it, “That was… Very strange.”

There was a long, tense silence as Quinlan simply stared at the Beastman with wide eyes. Then, seeming to realize something, she strode forward and wrapped her long arms around his torso and laid her head against his cold armor. “I’m sorry. You’re always so quiet… I never knew you were so angry.”

Nameless was taken aback, and shivered. Not from the cold, but from memories. For a split second, they flashed in front of his eyes and he relived them… And just like every other time, he swallowed them, and burned them for fuel in his heart’s forge. He seemed to deflate in her arms, and put one arm around her in response. “It was not something I expected to share.”

Arkh only stared, having no idea what was happening beween the two of them.

Quinlan moved her head from Nameless’ armor and looked up, a flicker of sadness gave way to excitement, “It WAS really cool, though, right?”

Nameless smiled, and nodded. “It was definitely that.” then, he considered. “Did you see everything?”

Quinlan stepped back, staring at her boots and glancing at Nameless apologetically said, “I didn’t see anything. I could just feel it. You don’t have to explain, really. I didn’t think… I didn’t know… I really want to try it again, because despite… It’s really super cool.”

Quinlan shifted her glance toward Arkh, and when they locked eyes, she cocked her eyebrow questioningly.

Nameless followed her eyes, and grinned goatily at the Orc. “I think it’s your turn, friend.”

Arkh raised an eyebrow quizzically. “I’m not sure I even understand what just happened.”

Tension fading quickly, Quinlan held out a hand, “I don’t think words would suffice. What do you think, Sky Goat?”

With a pondering look, Nameless nodded, as if he contained certain wisdom Arkh did not. “I think someone as scholarly as Arkh would benefit greatly from the experience.”

Quinlan’s smirk grew to a shit-eating grin and she held Arkh’s gaze.

Frowning dramatically, Arkh furrowed his brow. “Well now I’m just uncomfortable.”

After a short, lofty silence Quinlan stated, “That’s not a ‘no’”


Giggling, Quinlan strode up to Arkh, “Take off your gloves, then, before it fades.”

Frowning, Arkh removed the fur-lined gloves. “You think as a kid that grew up around magic, I’d be more comfortable being surrounded by it.” He offered his hands forward, pensive of what came next. “Well, let’s get this over with, then.”

“You’ve been surrounded by it for hours…” Quinlan cocked her head, “Well, fair point.” Not waiting for any more prompting, Quinlan reached out took Arkh’s hands, her rich red-brown skin offsetting his olive weirdly.

“By the way, I didn’t even know you had Pact, Nameless,” he called over the Fey’s shoulder, to the Beastman behind her.

“It won’t take as long this time. So you don’t have a Pact? How long have you been together?”

Arkh recalled his journal. “I’ve been with the others for about eighteen days now.”

“That’s a roughly specific number.” She stated teasingly, then tensed, “It’s like falling…”

Nameless chimed in. "It feels just like a Pact Travel.”

Arkh smiled at the Fey’s wit. “I’m not sure if we’re still in yesterday, or if we’ve reached tomorrooOOH BOY,” as the world dropped out beneath him. Arkh braced and closed his eyes for a moment, then it was over.

When he opened his eyes, he was very surprised to see himself. He felt the deck beneath his feet, though it felt familiar now, rather than alien and terrifying. Everything was the same, but he felt vastly different. He jerked his arm, expecting to watch the Arkh in front of him move, but there was nothing, though he clearly felt his arm move.

He felt more than than his arm, though. He could feel the zeppelin. It wasn’t just a hunk of dead wood tied together and sewn bits of cloth. It was alive. Arkh had never known what it felt like to be truly confident until he stood, leather clad, atop his own creation. Flying.

“Fascinating.” He heard Quinlan’s voice rather than his own. So that’s it. They switched. He watched himself look over to Nameless and throw him a flirtatious wink, and took another leather-scented breath, “I have to admit, I’ve never hear of anything like this before.” Nameless was smiling and returned the playful wink, “How long have you been able to…”

Arkh went limp as he fell back into the more familiar Orcish muscles.

“Hey!” Quinlan, still holding tightly to Arkh’s hands was pulled down with him, “Oh no. Oh no oh no oh no I’m sorry I’m so sorry.”

Brushing himself off, he slowly returned to his pillar of sanctuary, where he held fast as he spoke. “Ahem. How did you swing that deal?”


Smiling as he let Quinlan help him back to his feet, “I meant to ask, how did you do that?” Gesturing, he continued, “All of it, that is. The zeppelin, the… switching places… I’ve never heard of any of this.”

Realizing her mistake, Quinlan punched Arkh’s chest in playful relief, causing him to rock back and rub at the point of impact. That seemed to cure her irritation and she replied to his question, “I dunno, I just kindof figured it out.” Quinlan smiled and looked at her new best friends, “No one wanted to teach me and I didn’t know where to start so I just said, ‘what the heck, let’s start with this’ and there was no one around to tell me it wasn’t possible.”

“No offense,” Arkh offered, as he put his gloves back on, and returned to his place by the pillar. “But that’s extremely strange, even for Pact.”

Quinlan cocked her head, “I’m a Vulcani mage, too. And a bit of Dragon. I read some books, but they were in Estanic. I’m not… great at Estanic.” Eyeing the still, sleeping form of Goldie as if contemplating waking her, Quinlan hesitated, “I… don’t think it’s something people should know. Not my people, anyway.”

“I could help you with those books, if you’d like.” Arkh immediately wondered if it was a mistake to make such an offer, but brushed the concern aside. “And beyond that, you’re quite talented. You said you’re only eighty years old?”

Quinlan began climbing up the swinging rope ladder toward the control platform, and this time her connection to both Vulcani and Pact magic was more clear as she prepped for her duties, but still carried on a conversation as if she didn’t even consciously do it, “Eighty-seven, but, you know, I didn’t do much but fiddle and read for most of my childhood. I’ve always loved magic, just not the… fighting part like the Holly makes us learn.” Chuckling, she reached for one of the many levers, “You could say I wasn’t great at it.”

Sending a sideways glance at Nameless with a bit of a smirk, Arkh called up the platform. “I think the others have the fighting part covered.”

Nameless nodded, and would have pat the handle of his sword were it not hanging from his back.

Quinlan leaned precariously over the nest to look down at Arkh, “I said ’wasn’t’. Enough scorn from your peers and a kid will do anything to catch up. Sepharine helped me do it.” Quinlan’s smirk was clear, even in the dark.

Taking pains to conceal his slightly soured mood, Arkh began re-securing himself. "Yes… Cerlissa helped me catch up too, for a while.” Realizing the uncomfortable road he’d turned onto, he straightened back up. “When we land, I’d love to take a look at some of those books.”

Giving Arkh a clearly befuddled look, “Why would you ever back out of a contract with Cerlissa?” She looked away suddenly, as if to hear something only her long, straight ears could pick up, “You guys should try and get some sleep. There’s a storm ahead.”

Arkh nestled into his blanket, and tried to ignore his nerves at the prospect of a coming storm. “Long story,” he offered, and did his best to close his eyes.

“They’re in Utica, the books. I borrowed them,” Clearly distracted, she placed her green-tinted goggles over her eyes and waved, disappearing above.

It wasn’t long until her voice was heard again, singing a Fey song, Arkh could translate the first verse as

“Holly stands in the hall, fair to behold:
Ivy stands without the door, she is full sore a cold.
Nay, ivy, nay, it shall not be I wis;
Let holly have the mastery, as the manner is.”

Arkh bundled up and slid to the deck to attempt some sleep, as she had suggested, but he heard Nameless’ metal shoes click and the rope ladder creak as he followed her.

After Quinlan had sung a few lines and tapered off, humming it instead, Nameless’ voice droned, “The song is about the Fey houses?”

“mmhmm, the courts. You know about the war?” She didn’t look at him, immersed in her controls.

“I am almost entirely ignorant of other cultures. I was fairly settled in my town before things occurred and I was driven to leave.”

“Oh,” Now she turned to give him an unreadable glance, “Well, the Ivy court has always been a bit troublesome, this war has been a long time coming. Utica was the last straw, though.”

“Always been a bit troublesome? How do you mean?”

“You know,” She shrugged as if he had to know, “always grasping for more control. They’re all traditionalists. Short sighted, xenophobic. Been at it for a few decades now, but the Holly will win.” Nameless noticed a slight hesitation in her movements after she said that, “Have you seen much of Cinderfell? …You’re from Cinderfell, right?”

“I am. A town far removed from most of society. I’ve traveled through a few places, but mostly just as work came along. Building, transportation. I fought in an arena once.” Nameless flashed his teeth.

“Oooohhhh, tough guy. You wouldn’t mention it if you hadn’t been a winner, hmm?”

“It is still something I am proud of. If you go to the arena in Tagliari, you will see my name on the wall as winner of last year’s brawl.”

“Well, maybe after whatever it is you’re doing here is over, you can show me where Tagliari is.” The smile showed in her voice where it was hidden behind her mask, “Shouldn’t you be resting now? I imagine someone like you gets himself into enough trouble without facing it tired.”

Nameless nodded. “I should. Thank you. For waking me, and showing me.. Whatever it is you call that magic. I hope to show you Tagliari when we’re through here.” He smiled again, and went back down the ladder.

“Hey, do me a favor?” She called down as his foot hit the deck, “can you tie this rope back onto the dooblidoo over there before you hunker down? It broke again.”

On Losing One's Way, Part I

Arkh lowered the letter in his hands, and looked to the mote of light hovering above the bedroll. Though it had reached its intended destination, the letter had come at a terrible price—one that the people of this town were only just beginning to pay. Had Banagher known what would happen, Arkh had no doubt that things would have played out very differently. “And yet, here we are,” he mumbled softly.

“What was that?” Asked Fritz, to his left.

“Oh,” Arkh said, surprised that he’d spoken out loud. “Just… nothing. Just talking to myself.” He tapped the letter with his finger for a moment, then held it out to the Elf. “You should keep this.”

Fritz held up his hands in abdication. “It means a lot more to you than me.”

“I know,” Arkh said. “That’s why I want it to be on you. I don’t trust myself with it.” Hesitantly, Fritz reached out a hand and took the letter, wordlessly tucking it away. “Thank you,” Arkh said, and got up.

He wandered around the house for a long while, studying each room in detail before moving on to the next. He pulled open drawers, studied cabinets, even flipped through what books he could find, all before returning everything exactly the way he’d found it. He wanted to explore, he wanted to be distracted, and he wanted to take a moment away from the others. Mostly, however, he wanted to learn about the life of those he’d never had a chance to save.

When the General Orlaith had died, Arkh was okay with it. Well, not okay with it, but he’d accepted it. He’d had the time and opportunity to give her the care she’d deserved, and when she finally did die, she did so only after having a true fighting chance. Beyond that, she’d gone willingly, and had done so in sacrifice to a Fey ritual of life. When she died, she did so without pain, and surrounded by those who had cared for her, if only briefly. Arkh had, quite literally, done everything he could for her, and felt no guilt in her passing.

But when Arkh looked to the mote, all that was left of Danagh, he felt nothing but guilt. Two brothers, both dying of an inexplicable disease, had longed to spend their final moments with each other, and neither had gotten the chance to do so. They both died alone and afraid, and, in Danagh’s case, without anyone watching over him in his final moments. This was a man that Arkh had never met—had barely even been aware existed—and yet he felt guilty that he hadn’t been there to help.

Arkh was suddenly overcome by a feeling of chained rage. He felt his innards clawing to escape as his thoughts came to all those in New Turath he’d so casually left behind, to track down the mercenaries. His blood boiled as he realized how many had died because of, and how many had been exposed to, this monstrous plague. Every single one of them wouldn’t know why they were dying, and wouldn’t know how to stop it. His shoulders slumped in guilt and anger as a hundred-thousand voices silently asked “why” to the heavens, and he felt them all within him. Guilt and grief and impotence and a burning rage all tore at him from nowhere, and he slammed his fist to a nearby tree trunk in hatred of everything.

Realizing what he’d done, he withdrew his fist from the splintered wood, and quickly looked around to see if his friends had noticed. Confident that they hadn’t, he sheepishly tucked his bloody hand into a pocket, and shuffled himself to a corner to inspect it.

As he plucked slivers from his knuckles, he wondered if his anger wasn’t directed at the plague, but rather himself. The plague had done exactly what it had been designed to do, he imagined, and take advantage of the fact that no one understood it. It traveled by way of ignorance, and by now, had spread far beyond anywhere he could have set foot since contracting it. He’d been hesitant before to move forward, not wanting to expose others, but now realized that he was wrong to think so. He’d let his fear of making things worse prevent him from actively making them better, and he realized that it would behoove him to simply assume that, by this point, everyone in Vulcanica had been exposed.

He hissed through his teeth as he pulled out the last sliver, then popped the cork on a nearby bottle of whiskey. He took a small swig before emptying the remaining contents on his hand, and then promptly felt foolish for doing so. He was, after all, already dying of a disease not known for leaving survivors—fussing over a minor infection was a relatively pointless affair. He shrugged internally, stuffed his hand back into his pocket, and resumed his inspection of the house.


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