Animus Lost

Cantankerous Caution for Contracts

Early Spring, Year 113 of the Third Age
11 Months before the events of Animus Lost

Fritz sat with his legs on a nearby table, drinking a cup of fresh tea as he watched Ashll pack up a bag. She rummaged through their Ibygyan apartment for her various travel items. Frtiz looked down at his tea and spun the cup in a circular motion before taking a sip. He silently cursed himself as scalding liquid rolled past his tongue and down his throat. He grimaced as he placed the cup down and lowered his feet to the floor before turning his attention back to Ashll.

“Another trip to Trada on Guild business?” Fritz asked, realizing just how burned his mouth was from the tea, “How many times they gonna send you there before they want us to move there?”

“Would be cheaper for them, wouldn’t it?” Ashll replied, looking frustrated, “Have you seen my pocket knife? I can’t seem to find that Martyr blasted blade.”

Frtiz smiled, pulled a small sheathed blade out his pocket, and tossed it onto Ashll’s travel pack before continuing, “I’m serious Ashll, What are they having you do there? There can’t be that many ‘potential’ recruits in that small desert city.”

Ashll looked frustrated at Fritz for keeping the knife from her and then stood still and silent as she contemplated his words. After several seconds, she looked like she was about to say something, but a knock at the door interrupted her.

Fritz sighed and stood to get the door as Ashll went back to finish packing. When Fritz opened the door, a familiar looking business man stood before him. Fritz smirked and let in Mr. Finkel, junior.

“Geoffrey,” Fritz greeted and then stepped back to let the young man in, “How’s the old man?”

“He’s doing well,” Geoffrey said entering the apartment, “as long as there’s business to be done, I don’t think the Martyrs will let him die. Where you going Ashll?”

Ashll flushed as Fritz turned confused to her but she regained composure quickly, “Guild’s sending me off to Trada again.”

“Hm. Wonder why they didn’t have me give you the mission,” Geoffrey shrugged and turned to Fritz, “must be above my paygrade. Fritz, you up for a potentially dangerous mission to retrieve a mysterious item from an anonymous buyer who knows you by name?”

“Don’t sugar coat it Geoff,” Fritz replied amused as Geoffrey handed him a scroll. Fritz sat at the table and rolled it out flat.

The scroll read in Estonic:
To the Thief known as Fritz Karhil,

We require your specific skill set and work history for a task of utmost urgency. In the town of Crossing, residing in the mansion of the Lord Solomon, is a small ring with no discernible markings. Please fetch this ring and meet a Guild contact in Utica for transfer of the ring to our agents by the Spring Celebrations in about two weeks time. This should give you plenty of time to prepare and execute this task.

While bloodshed isn’t necessary, we understand if a guard or two needs to disappear. We hold no personal quarrel with the Solomons or the town of crossing. Furthermore, by accepting this contract, we expect the item in question unmolested. Do not attempt to wear or determine the meaning of the ring. We will know if you do.

Payment, if delivered on time, will be no less than 10,000 gold.

If you choose accept, sign the line below followed by a fingerprint in your own blood.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Fritz glared at the scroll for a few seconds before he realized that Ashll had stopped packing and was reading the scroll over his shoulder. Her face was stern and Fritz guessed that her thoughts mirrored his own. It wasn’t uncommon for the Guild of Deals to receive and distribute contracts from unknown organizations or individuals.

“I don’t like it,” Ashll said as she went back to finalizing her packing items.

“I’m inclined to agree,” Fritz agreed and turned to Geoffrey, “how often do you give out contracts that are sealed with blood?”

Geoffrey shrugged, “not too often, but it’s not unheard of. That’s not going to stop you from taking this contract, right?”

Fritz scowled, “Well, Ashll is going to be gone for several weeks again, so I might as well, bu-”

“You’ve gotta be joking me Fritz,” Ashll interrupted, ”this contract screams suspicious. Bounty that high on an item, plus signing in blood?”

“But, I’m not signing in my blood,” Fritz continued as he was expecting Ashll’s interruption. Geoffrey raised an eyebrow as Fritz got up and walked over to a nearby desk. He opened the desk and pulled out a small flask filled with a dark red liquid. He shook the vial as he walked back to the table. Ashll, seeming to be done with packing, leaned against the wall near the table with her arms crossed and an unamused expression over her face.

“When they try and kill you, don’t coming running to me on this one,” Ashll said, her face remaining unamused.

“Love you too,” Fritz said smiling as Ashll rolled her eyes, “Standard Guild fees apply on this Geoffrey?”

“Yup,” Geoffrey said matter-a-factly, “Twenty percent, any extra going to you of course. Little extra for not informing them about what you’re going to do with that, is it, cow blood?”

“Pig,” Fritz said opening the vial and letting a bit of the blood flow on to his thumb before pressing his thumb on the parchment down firmly and making sure his full print was pressed onto the scroll before releasing. He then took a quill offered by Geoffrey and signed his name before rolling it up and handing it to Geoffrey.

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On Questions, and Answers

“Now that is a scary horse.” Cyleena’s voice carried a hint of fear, though it was mostly masked by an almost sarcastic level of concern.

Arkh looked at her quizzically, taking his eyes off the towering mare in front of him. “You really think so? I think she’s beautiful.”

Cyleena turned her head slightly and raised an eyebrow. “You would.”

Arkh shot Cyleena a look that reminded her of him sticking out his tongue, before he turned back to the horse, and began stroking her mane. “Well, anyway, she’s the only one in this stable that would have anything to do with me. The stable master was afraid any of the others would buck me off, judging by how they reacted to me.”

“Are you sure that’s really a thing, Archie? That sounds like the kind of nonsense you read in fairy tales, like flowers wilting while the bad guy walks by.”

Arkh didn’t miss a beat. “You remember that day at the aviary?”

Cyleena hesitated, then frowned. “Sure. The keeper said that something spooked them.”

Arkh tied the mare’s reins to stable door, and turned to walk with Cyleena. “Yeah, something did. Animals have always had a problem with me, ever since I was a kid.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder, at the mare now behind them. “Until this horse, that is.” From somewhere in the stable, a stallion let loose a very distressed whinny. “Don’t ask me why, but I’m not about to—literally—look a gift horse in the mouth.” Furious stamping erumpted from the pen they walked by. “Besides, I have zero interest in making the journey to New Turath on foot.”

The two of them stepped outside, and began walking through the courtyard, towards the dormitory. The day before, Arkh had received notice of his promotion and first field assignment, but with it came news of his favored mentor’s death. Arkh was a trainwreck of emotion, and struggled greatly to keep control of himself throughout the day.

When Cyleena first heard of Arkh’s promotion (and Banagher’s death), she’d been giving a lecture on crop rotation and the dangers of overfarming. She promptly cut the lecture short, and made a beeline for the newly-minted Junior Cartographer’s quarters, where she mananged to calm him down and comfort him. It didn’t take a tremendous amount of imagination to figure out what kind of comfort she’d offered.

They’d managed to keep their relationship relatively hush-hush up to that point, so news of a Senior Cartographer spending the night in a Junior Cartographer’s quarters spread across the campus like wildfire. Had the two of them looked around while walking through the courtyard, they might have noticed a lot of errant stares and whispered exchanges. Instead, they were too busy locked in conversation, as they always were. The world silently judged them as they moved through it, and, for the first time in nearly ten years, they didn’t care one bit.


“What if I’m not the right one for this,” Arkh wondered aloud, carefully loading his map collection into a backpack. “What if it gets dangerous?”

Cyleena sat at the edge of his bed, legs crossed, feet dangling above the floor. She was leaning back on her elbows, maintaining a position that just barely qualified as sitting. “Archie, you’re more decorated than me, and half the other Senior and Master Cartographers in Cliffport. How many Ribbons do you even have right now?”

Arkh attempted to look like he had to think about it for a moment. “Uh, hundred-twenty, I think.” It was 126, exactly.

Cyleena rose an arm in a pointed gesture. “See? I don’t know if Lead Blackstone has that many.” She pushed herself up, and slid off the bed. “Besides,” she said, as she walked towards the lanky Orc, “it’s not like you’re going to Haven, or Aurora. It’s New Turath. You’ll be safe.” She reached out, and pulled his chin so their gaze met. “You’ll be careful, but you’ll be safe.”

Arkh nodded silently, and reflected on what she’d said. After a moment, he returned to packing his maps, and she returned to the bed. The silence lingered for only a moment before Cyleena spoke again. “Why aren’t they sending you on the rail?”

Arkh winced a bit, indicating that he’d asked the same question earlier, and wasn’t pleased with the answer. “Well, fiding and assessing Lead Banagher is only part of my mission. He had some mercenaries on contract when he died, and I’m supposed to interrogate them, too. The horse is in case they aren’t actually in New Turath when I get there.”

“Horses can ride the rail,” she offered, somewhat confused.

“I think the hope is that I’ll find the mercenaries on the way. The Council is having me follow the route they think the mercenaries are most likely to take.”

Cyleena frowned, and remained silent. Arkh, finished with packing his maps, began going through his small library, and pulled out the most important ones. “Besides,” he ventured, “this will give me a chance to actually see the country I’m moving through, instead of it just being a blur in the window.”

“I suppose so,” Cyleena said in a skeptical tone. “It just seems like the Guild is really interested in you talking to these Mercenaries.”

“Of course they are.” Arkh returned to his desk with a stack of books in his arms. “I mean, it does seem a bit fishy. Half a dozen mercenaires, held in contract to protect a single Cartographer, and then he just drops dead without warning?” He shrugged. “I can’t blame the Council for being a little curious about it.”

Cyleena’s eyes narrowed behind Arkh’s back. “Then why are they sending you?”

Arkh turned around slowly, a single eyebrow raised. “Excuse me?”

Immediately realizing her mistake, Cyleena leaned forward, arms extended. “Oh, no, I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant, you’re literally the freshest Junior Cartographer in the entire Guild—you got promoted in the same breath that they gave you the news. And this isn’t even the kind of mission that a Junior from Cliffport would normally get; there’s a whole Guildhouse full of perfectly capable bodies up in New Turath. The excuse that you were so close to Lead Banagher is… well, it’s a pretty tenuous connection, if you ask me.”

Arkh finished turning around, and crossed his arms as he leaned back against the desk. “Well, no one did ask you. I’m not going to pretend to understand why they picked me, but they did, and I’m excited to go. Why is that such a problem?”

Cyleena slumped a bit. “Archie… Archie, that’s not what I meant.” She stood up, and smoothed her robes with her hands. “I’m just worried that you’re not being told everything.” She moved towards the door, then stopped as she passed Arkh, who was still on the defensive. “And for what it’s worth, I’m very proud of you.” She leaned forward, and kissed his forehead. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow’s a big day for you.”

A moment later, the door clicked shut behind her. Arkh tilted his head back, and closed his eyes in frustration. “This is why,” he said, to no-one but himself. “This is why you don’t deserve her, Arkh.”


Arkh had been on the road for nearly two full days when he found the note. It had been carefully tucked away in one of his pockets, almost as if whoever put it there didn’t want it to be found right away.

Archie,

I’m not mad at you, and I hope by the time you read this, you’re not mad at me, either. I’m very proud of you, and I’m so excited that you finally got your first field assignment. No one deserves this moment more than you.

I hope you get the adventure you’ve always wanted, and that you see things you’ve never seen before. I know that this new chapter, and whatever exciting moments it contains, will be worth the wait. My only regret is that I won’t be there with you to see it all.

Please be careful, please be safe, and never stop exploring.

I love you.

Cyleena

Arkh folded the letter back up, and held it gently for a moment before tucking it back into his pocket. She’d brought him tea and smoked meat the morning he left, and they talked briefly while he ate. He had apologized for the way he acted the night before, and she hugged him. He rode out of Cliffport not an hour later, excited for the journey ahead of him, and happy in the knowledge that she’d be there when he got back.

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Pocket Change
Part Two of Fritz Frazzled Foregoing

Part Two: Pocket Change

Winter – Year 60 of the Third Age

Three sharp knocks shocked Fritz out of his sleep. It took a few seconds of darkness before he realized that he had must’ve drunkenly buried himself in blankets and pillows to keep himself warm. The knocks repeated. After the needlessly loud reminder of what had woken him, Fritz sat up and released a deep sigh as his eyes adjusted to the light coming in through the window.

Fritz stood and glanced out the window on the way to the door. From his tavern room window, the busy dock workers of Cliffport had been toiling away for several hours. Fritz couldn’t hold a yawn as he opened up his door. He yawned, and his vision blurred briefly before refocusing. Before him, he saw an Elven woman, and a rather fancily dressed Human man holding a folder overfull with papers, waiting for him.

“Fritz Karhil?” asked the Elven lady.

After a second of looking over both her and the businessman, he groggily gave an affirmative answer.

“Good,” the Elf replied flatly and, before continuing, entered the room, followed by the human. The room wasn’t large by any means, and having three adults inside definitely made it feel smaller. Fritz closed the door and turned to his ‘guests.’

“You have been quite the thorn in the Guild’s side, Mr. Karhil,” The Elven lady said matter-of-factly, “most thieves don’t make it as long as you have without the Guild of Deals taking notice. You’re very lucky you didn’t catch more negative attention.” Fritz had crossed the room to his bedside desk, which hosted a jug of water and an empty glass. On his way, he rudely bumped into the human.’ There was little room to navigate, and these two had interrupted a good sleep. The Elf’s words had registered as he finished pouring a glass of water.

Fritz raised an eyebrow and amusedly asked, “Why’s that, miss…?”

“Ashll Rad’yer,” Miss Rad’yer answered, glad to have gotten Fritz’s attention, “and it just so happens my old partner has been foolish enough to get the attention of the royal guards. Long story short, I need someone to be a… business partner, of sorts. That, and the Guild would rather not have to subdue such a skilled thief. May I ask from who, or where you acquired such skills?”

“No,” Fritz replied bluntly and turned his attention to the human, “Why’s the suit here?”

Ashll smiled, “Mr. Finkel is here to arbitrate over the necessary paperwork, and provide the payment you already so graciously already accepted into your own pocket.”

Fritz grinned sheepishly as Mr. Finkel touched his coin purse, noticing it was significantly lighter. He turned back to Ashll as Mr Finkel now glared at him, “I’ll bite. The Guild of Deals wants to reign in any independent thief it sees as a threat, but what’s stopping me to taking contracts without the Guild’s knowing?"

“Aside from breaking your contract, and the Guild hiring bounty hunters to bring you to the authorities?” Ashll replied matter-a-factly. After Fritz to nodded, she continued, “I suppose the only thing holding you back, Mr. Karhil, would be my blade. Until I can trust you on any assignment, you’re not leaving my sight.”

While she spoke, Mr. Finkel opened his bag and took out a lengthy scroll, fancy quill, and ink well. She placed everything on Fritz’s bedside table, for him to glance over.

“What? No honor among thieves, Ms. Rad’yer? I imagine there are fates worse than a death by such lovely hands.” Fritz felt satisfied with his charming approach.

“Mr. Karhil,” Ashll sternly replied, despite a slight grin. She waited for Fritz to make eye contact, “sign the damn papers.”

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To Enrage a Valentine

“It sure would be a shame if the best kept secret in history were to get out!” The cartographer shouts at the back of the Elf’s head.

…Well. It seems they’re holding back more than I thought.

The nearest of the line of Elves is craning around to look at the Orc shouting fighting words. Funny, since I really thought he was a fairly timid fellow, even if he was touting around a fancy sword. No wonder that blighted horse likes him, there’s more to him than just a dork with a pen.

This Elf is looking pretty shifty… stay calm. They’re just posing. They’ll walk through thinking they’re the cock of the walk. Just let them think it. Keep your head down and don’t get noticed. Breath. Keep yourself under control, Astrid. What would Rikkus say?

That feeling, though. What a bizarre and familiar… magic. It’s certainly a foreign flavor, but someone’s about to unleash something big… who? Who is it? Not Batul… this Elf. It’s this Elf that’s looking so intently at my cartographer… no… he’s aiming.

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On Promises

Arkh’s knuckles were raw, and the linen he’d wrapped around his fingers was saturated with blood. His robes were dirty and ripped, and a large section above his left leg had been completely torn away, exposing a badly scraped knee. His breathing had long since slowed, but his heart still pounded in his head, threatening to return him to the frenzy he’d so recently left.

The wooden chair he sat on was simple, and offered little comfort. It had been worn smooth through years of use, though sturdy enough to that it seemed bound to hold up for many more. The room itself was sparsely decorated, and the walls were mostly covered with bookshelves and maps. The desk in front of Arkh was easily the fanciest thing in the room: mahogany wood, with detailed carvings on the three sides. Atop it rested a placard that read “Lead Cartographer L. Quinlan” in finely engraved lettering. Beneath that, in smaller print, the appellation was repeated in Asur and Dawi, to indicate her multiple fluencies.

Behind the desk, on a much more impressive chair than his, sat Lead Cartographer Quinlan. A look of frustrated disappointment was painted clearly on her face, enhanced by her already angular features. In front of her rested a few pieces of paper, though she paid them little mind. Her cold gaze was fixed on Arkh, who averted his eyes and instead focused intensely on the floorboards at his feet. After several moments of painful silence, Lead Quinlan drew in a breath to speak, flaring her nostrils and briefly raising her shoulders as she did so.

“I don’t suppose you started it this time, hm?” She paused, her sarcastic tone hanging thick in the air. “Three fights in eight months. Shall I pencil you in for another two this year, or were you hoping to break your record?”

Arkh blinked slowly. He’d been here many times before, and had a good idea of how this was going to play out. He’d be chided, he would apologize, she would tell him it can’t happen again, and—if she was in a particularly bad mood—she’d reassign him to a new Master Cartographer. The new Master, once acquired, would wag their finger at him, tell him not to get in any more fights, and then pretend nothing was amiss. Then, they’d act surprised when he got in another fight a few months later. He let out a gentle sigh.

When it became clear Arkh didn’t intend to respond, Lead Quinlan spoke again. “We’ve been lenient with you in the past because of your impressive academic performance. Make no mistake, Apprentice Greene, you are an outstanding student—but your marks alone are no longer sufficient to keep you from trouble.” She paused for a moment to let her words sink in. “You’re going to be transferred to Master Cartographer Tremme. I hope, for your sake, that he instills in you the discipline you so badly need.” She grabbed a quill from its inkwell and began to write on one of the pages in front of her.

Arkh finally lifted his chin, and spoke as she wrote. “Where’s Master Tremme’s office? I don’t think we’ve met.”

Without looking up, Lead Quinlan responded curtly. “You haven’t. His office is in the medical building.” She lifted her gaze to meet his. “And he will likely prefer that you address him as ‘Physician Tremme.’”

Arkh pulled his head back a bit, and pondered for just a moment before responding. “No, there must be a mistake. I’m an Apprentice of History and Cartography.”

Lead Quinlan returned to her work. “Not anymore. Effective tomorrow morning, you are an Apprentice of Medicine.” She returned her quill to the inkwell and stamped the paper. “This document officially designates you as an Apprentice Physician. Any Assessments and Ribbons you completed as an Apprentice Cartographer will remain, but you are hereby barred from formally engaging in any non-Medical studies, until further notice.” She sealed the document and handed it across the desk.

Arkh accepted the folded piece of paper, a stunned look of disbelief on his face. He wordlessly slipped it into his pack, and laid his arms on his legs.

“You will remain Physician Tremme’s Apprentice until he releases you, and you will not be reassigned. If your behavior has not improved, instructing Cartographers will be advised against taking you on as an Apprentice. You have a bright future in the Cartographers, Apprentice Greene, and it is my sincerest hope that this will be the last time we have to teach you this lesson.”

Arkh nodded as the words washed over him like a cold wave. Her point was clear: shape up, or find a new job. He grabbed his pack, and, extracting himself from the chair, headed for the door. “Good luck, Apprentice Greene,” was called from behind him as he opened the door, and stepped out into the hallway.


“I’m not particularly worried, Mr. Creswell,” Arkh said, carefully examining the wound. “I’m not seeing any signs of infection, and the itchiness is actually a good thing.” He pulled away from the man’s arm, and looked him in the eye. “Means it’s healing properly.”

Mr. Creswell let out a sigh of relief. “Thanks, doc. I knew I couldn’t afford to visit the barber-surgeon, and I only just learned about the Guild having doctors this morning.”

Arkh stepped away and fetched some linen bandages from a box on the floor. “I’m glad you came here instead. The surgeons in this town stick to pretty archaic methods. Just keep it dry and bandaged, and it should be feeling much better in a few days.” He returned to the man and began winding the fresh linen around his arm. “That being said, if it still hurts in a week, come back and visit me.”

A muffled “ahem” from behind him caused Arkh to turn. Master Cartographer Tremme stood in the walkway behind Arkh’s station, and spoke when his Apprentice looked at him. “Come with me when you’re done, I have a new patient for you.” Arkh nodded, and turned back to his work. He finished wrapping the bandage and sealed it off, helped Mr. Creswell off the table, and saw him on his way.

“You’ve picked up a lot in the past few days,” Master Tremme said as they walked, “and I think it’s time for your first serious assignment.” Arkh flushed a bit at the praise, but was pleased to hear it. He’d only been studying under the Dwarf for a week, but he’d taken to the material like a fish to water, and wound up enjoying the work a lot more than he expected to. They walked down a hallway into a part of the building that Arkh recognized as the long-term recovery ward. He’d been here a few times, but only in passing, and was excited to get a real assignment.

The two of them stopped at the bed of a sleeping elf girl. Master Tremme plucked a stack of papers up from a repository on the bed, and presented them to Arkh while looking at the girl. “The patient is suffering from multiple small injuries, as well as a broken ulna and a concussion. I suspect her left femur is also fractured. She’s recovering, but she’s moving at a much slower pace than I would like. I want you to keep a very close eye on her, and administer some basic coordination and memory tests when you think she’s ready. You won’t be getting any other patients until I’m satisfied with her progress.” He shifted his gaze to Arkh. “Any questions?”

Arkh glanced over the stack of papers, then back to the Physician before him. “Yeah… what happened to her?”

Master Tremme briefly narrowed an eye, then walked up to the head of the girl’s bed and gestured towards her face. “Her name is Cyleena Traft, she’s an Apprentice with the Guild. Do you recognize her?” When Arkh offered up a slight frown and gentle head shake, Master Tremme let out a small sigh and returned to Arkh. “About a week ago, she got in a fight with another Apprentice. He got some scraped up knuckles,” he said, and gestured to Arkh’s still bandaged hands, “and she ended up in Intensive Care.”

Arkh felt like his stomach had just fallen through a hole in the floor, and like his heart had jumped up into his throat. He tried to say something, but the words felt like dust in his mouth, and all he could do was emptily flap his lips. Tremme continued. “Every action has a consequence, Apprentice Greene. You chose to harm someone else, and this…” He paused for a moment, to study Cyleena. “This is the consequence.”

Arkh suddenly regained himself, and quickly turned his head to face Master Tremme. “She was threatening to hurt another apprentice! Doesn’t the Imperial Army call that a pre-emptive strike?”

Without looking away from the girl, Master Tremme breathed in through his nose. “Archibald, do you remember the first thing I taught you, your first day here?” Arkh thought for a moment, then deflated a bit, and nodded. Master Tremme continued. “Tell me, Apprentice, what is the first rule of being a Physician?”

Arkh responded sheepishly. “Do no harm.”

“You always have a choice, Archibald. You are an Apprentice of the Cartographer’s Guild, and a particularly gifted one at that. I have no doubt you would have been able to think of an alternative solution to this problem.”

“I’m sorry, Master,” was all Arkh could manage.

“I’m not interested in your apology,” He turned to look Arkh in the face. “I’m interested in you learning to actually put that brain of yours to use. It’s one thing to be a brilliant student. But it’s another thing entirely to be able to use that knowledge to enrich the lives of Cinderfell’s people.” He sighed a bit. “And if you ever want a field assignment, you’re going to have to understand the difference.”

Arkh wordlessly resumed reading the stack of papers, intent on knowing every detail about his new patient. Master Tremme took a step back, and turned to walk away. A step later, he turned back. “I said I wasn’t interested in your apology, Archibald.” He gestured with his head when Arkh turned to face him. “But I imagine she will be.”


“I’m still m-m-mad at you, Archibald.” Cyleena’s bright green eyes were full of malice, and her mouth held a slight frown, even as she spoke. She’d been healing well, and her arm had been out of the sling for almost a full day now without any problems. She’d developed a small stutter as a result of the concussion, but she was getting it more and more under control every day. Arkh still felt a huge pang of guilt every time he heard her little voice struggle to complete a sentence. “Y-you had no right t-t-to do th-that.”

Arkh met her gaze unblinking, and she held it at long as she could before cracking a small grin at the corner of her mouth. Finally, she laughed, and he chuckled along side her as he spoke. “Well, I would apologize, but you basically set me up for it.” He gestured at the chessboard resting on her lap.

“You c-c-could have waited a few more t-turns, at least.” Her smile spread across her face as laughter began to dominate the conversation.

The first few days had been rough for both of them. Cyleena had been in so much pain, and had such a difficult time speaking, that just seeing Arkh had been more than enough to get her very upset. Seeing her struggle that bad made it hard for Arkh, and made him feel a thousand times more guilty than he ever did on that first day. Eventually she came to terms with the fact that he was going to be taking care of her whether she wanted it or not, and calmed down a bit. She calmed down even more when she realized that he was actually pretty good at it. When he finally sat down to give her the full apology, she hugged him.

He came to learn that she, too, had struggled to keep her emotions in line, and had been getting into trouble for it—indeed, the very reason for their fight. As a larger girl, not many Apprentices her age were willing to stand up to her, and it wasn’t until Arkh that she’d ever been badly hurt. Him apologizing opened a floodgate of emotions, and she realized that next to her sat someone who genuinely understood her—and who she understood—even if he wasn’t aware of it.

They bonded quickly, after that. Being his only patient, Arkh had a lot of time to devote to helping her recover, and was gone for only a few hours each day to work on his studies. Eventually, he just started studying next to her, so she could look over his shoulder and pester him with questions. She eventually explained that she was an Apprentice of Plant and Animal Science, and was only a few years behind him in study. Her excuse was that picking up some medical knowledge would probably help in the long run. He never protested.

“I should probably be getting ready,” Arkh said reluctantly, as he stood up. “I’m on thin ice as it is, and I really don’t want to fail my first Assessment with Master Tremme.”

Cyleena drooped a bit, and frowned a very fake frown. “You always leave b-b-before the rematch!”

Arkh grinned, and gave an overly dramatic bow. “And I always will.” He lifted his head and smiled at her. “I’ll come by before lights out and let you know how it went. In the meantime, I want you to keep practicing.” He placed a pile of paper and a charcoal stick on her lap. The pages were covered in crudely-drawn mazes, visual and logic puzzles, and places to practice writing.

Cyleena frowned, and spoke in a deadpan monotone. “G-gee. You s-s-sure know how to sh-show a lady a g-g-good time.”

“I’ll make it up to you,” Arkh promised. “Tomorrow we’ll go for a walk.”

“M-m-maybe somewhere other than the G-guildhouse courtyard, th-th-this time?” She sarcastically lifted an eyebrow—a surprisingly dextrous move. Arkh noticed, and wondered if she might be recovering faster than he thought.

“Alright,” he offered. “I promise.”

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Albin's Journal: Entry #1
Demon Slaying

So the dumb beast-kin is holding me in the air with his dumb old magic. My feet can’t touch the ground my spiked shield, my other shield, my armor all useless to me. As this dumb demon is about to walk up to the only connection to nature magic I have seen on this whole journey so far, and this demon is about to ruin it. Everyone is just letting her walk on by, doing nothing about it and telling me to stop. Well, almost everyone, but good old trusty Fritz. Fritz… that guy always has my back. So then I get this IDEA. Like all the ideas I get, this is going to be great. So I take off my helmet, and I use all the great teaching the Dragon Battle Mage Grakkas had taught me, and with all the strength this Iron Forge Dwarf could muster out I threw my spiked helmet at that stupid demon that’s trying to mess with the tree that I am pretty sure has a connection to either Gwind or Nature magic. I need this. I have been on this journey so long it wears, so I must found out what the tree means and protect it from this demon. So my spiked helmet hits her and the spike jams right in her chest. And she just stops moving forward and she is just standing there with my helmet inside her and a couple of arrows from Fritz, and it looks like she is either vibrating or convulsing and BBBAAAMMM SHE EXPLODES right then and there. And then this weird thing happened. Well, I don’t know if this is weird and I haven’t seen a lot of demons die. But all these weird white orbs just start pouring out of her chest, and this isn’t just a little bit, but every where I can see in the Dogleg Forest. And they are just everywhere. High and low. But it’s also like they aren’t there, because you can walk through them and they go through you. So to conclude the fight, demon came out of nowhere to harm my tree. No one wants to stop her. I throw my helmet at the demon. Demon explodes with white orbs everywhere, and now everyone is mad at Albin but Fritz and Champion. So now I have to talk the angry gang into staying the night in the cabin so that I can meditate/study that tree. So while sitting in front of this dumb tree now for five hours, and nothing is happening. I think everyone is asleep, so I empower a little bit so I’m not as hungry, and I don’t need as much sleep, then one of white orbs that is closest to me glows brightly and gets sucked into me. It feels really good. Like, I mean really good. I feel not hungry at all, and not tried a wink. I now have all this energy, and I feel super charged like I could do almost anything right now. I spend the rest of the night meditating and still nothing. Well, I hope this wasn’t all for nothing. I did kill a daemon out of it, and the last ones to do that was The Dawn Patrol so it wasn’t a bad night. I am unsure about this tree still, because I feel something from it and I am worried about these white orbs, because they are all over the place and anyone could pick them up, and I think it will amplify magic and health. We will see what’s to come and I have at least one trusty member that I know will have my back.

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To Raise an Heir

Astrid Valentine had always been rather petite. The ball gowns and badly fitting leathers that she wore belied that fact, and when she wore the plain, boy’s trousers and tunic that she had bullied out of the stable hand’s son, no one looked twice when she ran through the palace halls.

Now, Astrid was curled up under the throne. Adults never ever looked up or down, so when her father sat for the People’s Audience, he never noticed her there. His long robes covered the front, so none of the common visitors would see her either. The only risk here was Rikkus. He might spot her from the back of the throne if he approached, or if she made any noise.

This wasn’t the first time that the girl had done this. Well, this isn’t the first time that she’d listened in on meetings. It wasn’t uncommon for her to be caught doing it, either. Titus would huff and puff about it in front of Rikkus, but then he’d wink at her and she’d pretend to scowl and pretend to apologize, but Rikkus would find her again in a closet or, once, hiding in the enormous skirts of an Ibygian dignitary. Much to the Ibygian woman’s surprise.

Astrid had been hiding now for several hours, but she was patient. She was quiet. She was determined. The things that the people said were interesting enough, but nothing she hadn’t heard before. People would wait all day long to approach the king and ask for respite from a flood in a small town in the Heartwood, or to ask for a blessing on their newborn, or any number of crazy things. From dawn to dusk, Emperor Titus would humor the people without even a pause for lunch… which meant that Astrid wouldn’t get any lunch, either. Her heart suck a little at the thought, but if she was to be Empress someday, she’d have to get used to going without lunches.

Several more common people stated their grievances to the Emperor before a female voice really caught Astrid’s attention.

“Uh, sir? I have some strange news to bring you.” there was a sound of fumbling and rustling before she continued, “I’ve travelled South, and I brought this in return.”

“State your name, race and city, please.” A bored sounding clerk said for what seemed like the hundredth time that day.

“Uh… Ashll, Elf, aaand… Koth.”

Her father shifted and someone started walking away from the throne.

“It’s some kind of dog statue, sire.” Rikkus’ voice made Astrid’s eyes widen. She resisted the urge to peek out around her father’s robes to see.

“What’s the significance of this?” A Councilman asked the woman, “Some trinket you’ve stolen from Westwater?”

“What? No, I said I went South, not West.” the woman snapped. Astrid noted that she didn’t deny that she’d stolen it. But what was South? This was South. Avalon, maybe? Did she steal it from Grakkas? The woman kept talking and Astrid strained to listen, hanging on every word, “It’s called a Fu Dog, from, well, Fu.”

“What is Fu?”

“It’s a place South of here. I brought that to show you.”

The Emperor was quiet for a moment, but the smarmy councilman took the chance to interject, “What hoax is this? Countless expeditions have traveled South, expensive expeditions at that, never to return, and you’re telling me YOU went there, alone, and you’ve come back with a jewel encrusted statue for the Emperor, for what? What favor do you expect to curry here?” The councilman’s voice turned toward Astrid, “Sire? I suggest that we turn her into the authorities and—”

“I am the authorities, Aulas, calm down.” Astrid’s father sighed, and she was proud of him, then, for shutting him up, “In the interest of saving time, Rikkus would you kindly show Ashyll to a guest room and watch her there? I’ll take the statue and have a look at it before I see her. Next audience, please!”

Astrid was appalled. This was too important to brush aside as if it were rumors of marauder sightings. This was solid evidence of the Fu! Taking a moment to banish her indecision, Astrid decided to be patient. She wanted to sneak out as she’d snuck in, but even though Rikkus was gone and the audience chairs were all in one row on the stage, even with the throne she sat under now, the commoners would probably see her making for the door and look, which would make her father look, and then she’d be caught.

Waiting took forever, though.

Suddenly, she was uncomfortable, bored, and irritated, which is how she remained for the rest of the day as she waited for the Emperor and his councilmen to vacate the room.

When the swishing of robes suddenly gave her a clear view of the room, the grand, heavy door was shut to the people. The room was empty save for the pile of favors the people had brought. Baskets of sweet rolls, grand dresses—more than a few looked to be Astrid’s size—and even a beautifully crafted bench lay piled in the corner of the room. The servants would be in soon to take care of it, so Astrid didn’t have a lot of time. Once she heard the chattering of the councilmen fade behind the closing door to the antechamber, she unraveled herself and made for the servant’s stairs.

Before she got there, she noticed that there was a red statue peeking out from under a basket of colorful ribbons. It was an unusual shape, and glittered in a way that clouded Astrid’s better judgement. She moved toward the pile and exposed the rest of the statue. A glittering red lion, guarding some kind of ball.

…or was it a dog?

“Hey!” someone shouted at her, taking her for the stable boy she was posing as. They didn’t get any further than that, for Astrid grabbed that statue and ran.

When Astrid ran, no one could catch her… well maybe Rikkus. Rikkus caught her a lot, but Rikkus wasn’t there and whoever chased her now certainly wasn’t Rikkus. Even with the heavy statue held to her chest, she disappeared easily into the busy halls of the citadel and took a moment to catch her breath and take note of where she was.

Sometimes, when she ran, she just kept running. She didn’t have a destination. It was her favorite use of the Dragon magic that Rikkus insisted she learn. Today, she found herself up several flights of stairs in the Eastern wing of the palace, facing a few choices. She could go back to her room, where she could inspect the statue more closely, in private. She could go to the kitchen and needle some cake or a sandwich out of the cook… or she could go find the Elf lady’s room that her father had sent her.

If she was quick, she’d find the lady and talk to her before her father was finished with his dinner. He’d be taking his time, since he hadn’t eaten since that morning.

It didn’t take her long to make the decision, and she was off to the guest quarters as fast as her feet could fly her there.

Astrid was dismayed when she found the room she was looking for. Rikkus stood guard outside one of the many doors of the guest chambers, and she was nearly caught simply because she looked down the hall.

It took a moment of deliberating, but decided to go anyway. She entered the closest room to her and started rummaging around for a bag or something. Failing that, she stripped the bed and wrapped a sheet around the statue and tied the ends around her body like a toga. Jumping a few times to be sure that the statue wouldn’t slip, she walked out onto the balcony and stepped up onto the rail. Pivoting, she called on her rudimentary Dragon Magic, focused on trusting herself, and leapt.

For a terrifying moment, it seemed as though she might have misjudged the distance, but her feet landed steadily on the next balcony, her hands slapping the rail. It was a little louder than she’d hoped, but it got the job done. Astrid climbed over and prepared to do it again.
She miscounted once and ended up in an empty room, but when she’d gone back outside, she came face to face with some lady.

“Are you Ashll?”

“Yeah, who’re you?”

Astrid ignored the question, “Is this a Fu Dog?”

The woman’s face darkened when Astrid showed it to her, “That’s mine, girl.”

“Then where’d you get it?” Astrid hoped that if she just kept talking, she’d get some answers, “You said you got it South of here, did you steal it from Grakkas?”

“What?” The Elf was taken aback and glanced at the door to her room, “Come here, so I don’t have to shout.”

“So you can steal it back and toss me over? No.” Astrid wagged a finger at her, “You tell me where you got it or I’ll scream. Rikkus will hear me and when he comes I’ll cry and he’ll punch your funny ears off. Where’d you get it?”

The Elf narrowed her eyes and gave Astrid a suspicious glare, “Astrid Valentine.”

Astrid pouted a little and folded her arms, but Ashll didn’t seem to mind. She smiled and continued, “I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you where I got it if you promise to give me that statue back.”

Astrid hesitated, then gave her a curt nod and motioned for her to back up. Then she hopped over and handed the Elf her statue.

Ashll glanced toward the door again and asked in hushed, excited tones, “You were with Titus in the Audience room?” When Astrid nodded, she continued, “It’s just as I said, then, I got it from Fu. That’s what’s down there. It’s a vast land full of warmongering Elves, mostly. I snuck into one of their temples and grabbed this to bring back and show Titus. Your dad.”

“Why are you telling me, then?” Astrid was suspicious again.

“Because, dear lady Valentine,” Ashll said it almost ironically, “Titus may not want to listen to me now, but you might. And you’ll be in charge someday.”

Astrid didn’t know what to say to that, but she was certainly listening.

“Do you think we can make another deal?” Ashll asked the girl, who nodded, wide-eyed and curious, “If you help lead me out of here, I’ll send you secret intelligence letters telling you everything I learn about the Fu. I’ll send them at least once a year.”

Biting her lip, Astrid stood up straight and nodded. “You’ll tell me everything you know about the Fu?”

Ashyll nodded.

“If you’re lying to me, I’ll never forget it. I’ll remember your face for as long as I live, and Rikkus is teaching me a lot Dragon magic and I’m really really good at it so don’t go expecting to outlive me, Elf lady. I’ll have you publicly shamed and I’ll personally pluck all the pretty hairs right off your head! Now follow me.”

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To Hatch a King

::Seven years ago::

Boutros Grav couldn’t stop daydreaming. His friends had been poking fun at him for weeks after his drunken admission that he wished he could start a family with his long-time girlfriend, Devorit. Of course, his family would never allow a marriage with an Elf. Grav children can’t be carried by Elves. Still, Boutros and Devorit would still talk of ‘What ifs’.

‘What if the same thing happened with us that happened with Vicorin?” Devorit would say, smiling her happy little smile. Boutros would imagine what his life would be like, had he been born with pointed ears rather than curving horns..

“Sir?” The jeweler called to him a bit nervously. Boutros turned back, snapping out of his reverie, “You, uh. That ring is seventy-three gold…” the jeweler trailed off at the end, unsure of himself.

“I’m so sorry,” Boutros said, once he realized that he nearly walked off without paying, “I don’t know where my head is today!”

After paying for the ring, a gift for Devorit, Boutros continued toward his destination. He knew precisely where his head was, and his body was following it. He walked swiftly toward away from the Golden City toward the lakeside manor that Devorit resided.

Just after he walked past the last shop, something caught his eye and he turned to find a man flipping a coin in his hand. To his great surprise, the man turned and locked eyes with him.
“You must be Boutros.” The man’s basso voice carried the short distance and grabbed his attention immediately. “I heard a fun rumor about you, Boutros Grav.”

Boutros didn’t answer. He only fr=[===owned at the man and waited.

“A little birdie told me you had funny little wish to have a funny little baby with a funny little Elf. Are you going to see her now?”

This infuriating man just stood there, flipping his infuriating coin and not even looking at him anymore as he mocked him for his desires. As childish as they might be, it was one thing for his friends to poke fun, it was quite another for this strange Human to do the same. Putting the newly bought ring on his pinky finger, next to his Grav signet ring, he bolstered himself and got ready to show this idiot his place.

“What if I told you…” the man kept talking as Boutros walked toward him, ready to punch his lights out, “…that I can make that funny little dream…” He dodged the first one. Lucky. “…a stone cold reality.”

That gave Boutros a bit of a pause. “What?”

“You heard me.” The man didn’t seem phased at all that just a moment ago, Boutros was trying to smash his head in. “The thing you want most,” he stepped forward and put a finger on Boutros’ forehead, “A baby with an Elven woman. It’s possible, and I can make it happen.”


“So you’re saying that this mage can make me pregnant?” Devorit seemed skeptical, “With you?”

“That’s what he said.” Boutros felt a little odd, now that he was saying it aloud himself. “He was… well he also said that there was a price…”

Now Devorit furrowed her brows.

“Okay, so I was pretty sure that I’d be terrible at explaining it,” Boutros shrugged and continued, “And I knew you’d have better questions, so… I kindof brought him along…”

Aside from a slight exhale of frustration, Devorit’s expression didn’t change. When Boutros stood and stared at her, she motioned at him and said, “Well? Quit standing there! Where is he?”

When Boutros returned, the man spoke, “Hello, my dear. I understand that our Boutros has made a muckery of explaining this to you. Let me reiterate for him.

“I’ll leave out the dirty details, since you can leave those to me. All you need to know is that I have the means to take the two of you funny little fools and use you to make a baby. There are two prices for this, the first is the blood price—”

“Blood magic?” Devorit recoiled.

“Yes, it is Blood magic, which disgusts you.” The man then continued as if she hadn’t interrupted, “The blood price is someone’s fertility. I suggest you find a brutal rapist or something. The second price is for my participation. That price is a little steeper. For that I require your identity. I’ll give you until the child is born to leave New Turath without a word. I will take your place.”

Devorit thought for a moment, then turned to Boutros, who nodded to her, assuring her that he was willing to pay that price.

“This has to remain a secret.” She said, finally, “How do we know that the blood sacrifice won’t go screaming to the winds about Blood magic?”

Boutros chimed in before the man could reply, “I’ll pay it.”

The Human raised an eyebrow at that, but shrugged his assent.

Once more, Devorit looked to Boutros, and gave him a curt nod. Her eyebrows still furrowed with her determination, she turned back to the mage, “What is your name?”

When he was reluctant to reply, Devorit put her hands on her hips and stood her ground, “I will have the name of the man who is giving me a baby and taking my husband’s identity. If we’re paying two prices, so are you. What is your name?”

Frowning, the man relented, “My name is Rathiel. When shall I return?”

“You,” Boutros interjected, “Aren’t going anywhere. There’s no reason we can’t do this right the hell now.”

Raising his eyebrow again, Rathiel shrugged.

Devorit turned to Boutros, “What will Alem do? Do you think he’ll notice?”

Boutros frowned and shook his head, “Don’t worry about my father. It’s not my problem anymore. It’s his.” Gesturing at the Human, “I don’t care what he does with Boutros Grav. Didn’t you say once that you wanted to go to Utica?”

Devorit smiled and took his hand.

Rathiel smiled and gestured for them to lead the way.

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Fritz's Frazzled Foregoing
Part One: The Death of Yance Kvek

Autumn, year 53 of the third age
2 Days before the Dawn Guard lead assault on Utica

Sergeant Yance Kvek scaled the wall of the once capital fortress of Utica. In the distance, the camps of the army and militia of every major city in the Cinderfell Empire prepared to take back the city and topple the tyrant, Redhammer, who took power in a military coup just a short time ago. Getting to and ascending the wall was easy. Nightfall had lasted several days and the only source of reliable light was the campfires behind him and the eerie glowing column of light that projected from the palace that was located in the heart of Utica. It also helped that there was a surprising lack of guards posted on the wall. Perhaps Redhammer didn’t expect infiltration and scouting of the city.

Yance shrugged off the thought as he turned his head to make sure the rest of his three man team were still behind him. Kaya and Valin were only a few meters behind and didn’t show signs of struggling as they scaled the massive walls after him. As Yance reached the top, he peered up and down the barricades. Nothing. This disturbed Yance as he pulled himself and silent stepped on the stone overlook. Yance reviewed his mission as he waited for his comrades to finish their climbs.

Of all people, his father, General Enre Kvek had given Yance this almost suicidal mission into the unknown. The object was to get in, acquire what information on the strength of the city as they could and, if able, disable or destroy any siege emplacements that Redhammer’s forces may or may not have set up in preparation for the impending assault.

“So let me get this straight,” Yance remembered asking his father angrily, “you want me and my people who sneak into the most heavily-defended city—next to our home—filled with the most deadly soldiers and traitors known to the Cindefell?”

General Kvek grimaced and replied, “The Stoneborns and I aren’t happy with the situation, but we feel that Koth has a responsibility to the Empire to cripple as much of the traitor’s advantages as we can prior to the siege. Furthermore, you and yours are the currently the best choice. Decades of peace haven’t done anyone’s military any favors.”

“Yes sir,” Yance said and turned to leave.

“Yance,” Enre said and waited for Yance to stop and listen, “Don’t screw this one up. Lots of soldiers on counting on this info.”

Yance snapped back to the present as Valin finished his climb and ungracefully stomped down onto the stone walkway. Yance turned angrily to the orc as he balanced himself. Valin looked down to see he had slipped on a pool of an iced dark red liquid. Valin looked up at the other two with a mixture of disgust and concern.

“Ignore it,” Yance ordered Valin before he could speak. They all knew what it was, but the mission took precedence over who the source of the iced blood was. Though, as he looked over the ramparts into the once great and thriving city, Kaya voiced a thought that had come to all the members of the scout team.

“Where is everyone?” Kaya whispered mostly to herself as she observed what the others had.

“Not our concern,” Yance replied as he formulated a plan,” Alright, we make our way to the nearest guards barracks then cover any open marketplace for trebuchets or ballistas or whatever the traitors may have set up. I want to be out of this city before our siege engines get set up.”

The orc and the human nodded and followed Yance down the inner wall into the vacant streets.


It was several minutes before the small scout team had encountered their first set of fully plated beings patrolling the streets. They were easily avoided, most of the city’s street lamps were out, having been out of oil for some time now.

When they finally reached the nearest barracks (which took them a little longer to locate, due to not having an exact map of the city) Yance ordered Valin to cover the entrance while he and Kaya entered the dark and seemingly abandoned barracks. Yance recoiled as he opened the heavy wooden door and a rush of rank air rushed out of the building. After recovering from the lack of stretchless oxygen, Yance entered the barracks.

Being in darkness for the past several days made it easy for Yance’s eyes to adjust to the darkened confines of the barracks. He stepped further into the barracks and took in his surroundings, trying to avoid the stench. There were signs of a struggle, chairs and other objects knocked over and misplaced. There was also a splatter of what Yance assumed was blood in a man-shaped indent in the wooden wall of the barrack’s entrance.

Yance stepped carefully through the room, making sure not to disturb the random items on the floor, with Kaya in tow. She took the effort to follow Yance step by step as the reached the busted-in door of the next part of the barracks, presumably where the bunks were. He passed through the threshold of the doorway and froze. He stared into the barracks at two lines of armored hulks standing silent and still, thankfully not noticing the two humanoids frozen in fear in the doorway.

Yance frantically signaled Kaya to back up and took a step back without watching his step. He fell none-too-gracefully to floor, his equipment crashing around and the mug he stepped on rolled frantically across the floor. The two of them froze and silently stared into the doorway they had been trying to slip away from. After several seconds, they could hear a set of metal boots. Kaya helped Yance up, and the two were almost to the door before the twang of a crossbow and a cry from Kaya caused Yance to turn. He saw a full metal suit holding a rather worn-looking crossbow in one hand and a rusty axe in another. He also saw Kaya on the ground, with a bolt sticking out of the inside of her knee.

Yance raised his own crossbow as the armored assailant started making its way across the room, dropping its crossbow. After leaving his sights, he released a bolt that slipped into one of the breathing holes in the helm. Yance was aiming for an eye, but it would have tol do. The knight recoiled from the hit, but continued forward without breaking stride.

By this point, Valin had heard the commotion and taken the initiative to enter the barracks. Upon seeing the monster and the state of Kaya, he drew his longsword and charged the knight before Yance could warn him otherwise. Cursing to himself, Yance attempted to pick up the crippled Kaya. Before he could stable both himself with the added load of another person weighing down one side, he heard the sound of Valin’s sword helplessly bounce off the full plate, followed by a swish and thud as Valin’s headless form fell the ground.

Yance cursed again, not even an half hour in the city and the mission had gone bottom up on him. The two hobbled out of barracks. Several meters out, Yance turned slightly to take a look back to see how many pursuers they had. Surprisingly, the metal monster wasn’t following, and from what Yance could tell, was more interested in collecting the parts that it had separated from Valin rather than chase the two of them down.

Both disgusted and relieved, he guided Kaya into the maze of back streets of Utica.


The two had hobbled for about five minutes, before Kaya finally gave up and demanded that Yance let her down. Once down, he inspected her and the wound. The bolt was wedged deeply in the tendon under her thigh and the bleeding hadn’t slowed. Remembering what little medical training he had received from the Koth military, he tore a strip of cloth from the pant leg under her wound. Not only did this allow Yance to inspect the wound more carefully, but gave him the material to tie a makeshift tourniquet.

Kaya released some whimpers as he had finished tying the tourniquet. All things considered, she had held it together remarkably well for having a limb rendered useless by a foot long wooden bolt lodged into her knee.

“How bad?” Kaya asked after several seconds of heavy breathing.

“Outside of a miracle, you probably aren’t gonna win any races anytime soon,” Yance grimly joked and started making plans on how to exit this forsaken city as he reloaded his empty crossbow.

“Where’s Valin?” Kaya asked, her breathing slowed further and she finally took time to observe her surroundings.

“Dead,” Yance replied, his voice cracking a bit as it sunk in. Valin wasn’t the brightest but he had been part of their little scout unit for the past several month. Other the course of Valin’s service with him, Yance had learn to appreciate the orc’s less subtle approach to conflict.

Kaya didn’t reply right away. Both of them stayed silent for several moments before both of them turned to a growling noise. A rather boney dog stood no more than three meters away, teeth bared and continuing it’s growling. Before either of them could act, the dog started to bark at them. Yance, left with very little options, raised his crossbow and released the freshly loaded bolt. The bolt struck the dog it the throat and the barking stopped as soon as it had started.

Yance let the crossbow fall at his side, letting his sling catch it as he dropped to pick up Kaya. As he was about to lift her up, he noticed that something had caught her attention. Yance looked in the direction she was looking to see two armor clad figures entering the alley and approaching them. Before Yance could continue to assist Kaya, she had pushed him in an upward direction and spat out a panicked, “Go!”

Yance stood up with the push she had given him and paused for a moment before unslinging his crossbow and handing it and a bolt to Kaya. He took another look at the figures rapid approaching them, then turned back to Kaya.

“May the Martyrs find room for another,” Yance said quickly before running down the alley. Behind him, he heard the crashing of steel against cobblestone as, what he guessed, one or both of the armored figured started after him.

Towards the end of the alley, he heard one set of boots rather close. He stopped, turned, and dove at the legs the armored figured. He felt the weight of armored figure’s legs crashed into his side and their owner crashed to the cobblestone street. The crash caused Yance to roll with the momentum that the armored figure’s direction. Yance’s side was surely gonna be bruised for several weeks to come and he was sure a few ribs were broken but it wouldn’t matter if he didn’t get out of this martyr forsaken city. Once he finished rolling, he righted himself, drew his knife, and jumped on the suit of armor as it rolled onto it’s back as it tried to right itself.

Yance drove the knife into a slit in between the helm and chest piece. The knife entered the slit and there was sound of steel on steel. In a panic, Yance used his adrenaline to pull the helm off to find a soft spot to finish off his opponent but instead of a man, he found a monster.

Before him, a human child’s head was in the place what Yance guessed on top of an orc sized body. The head was connected the torso by metal plates and bolts. Patches of hair were missing were also missing from his grotesque being. It’s eyes, which had mismatching colors, were locked with Yance and were filled with rage as lipless teeth snapped at him. Before he could fully registered what lay in front of him, he drove his knife in the spot of flesh between it’s jaw and the metal plate.

The frankenstein-esque creature underneath Yance thrashed about for a few sounds, trying to through Yance off, before finally stopping as blood filled it’s lungs. Yance would’ve let loose a sigh of if he wasn’t freaked out about the monstrosity under him. He sat, frozen, before he heard the sound of a crossbow firing followed by a crunch. Yance turned in time to see the second knight withdrawing a mace from a smear of the wall.

Yance swift turned back, stood to run, and, after stumbling on a arm, ran into the dark maze of streets and alleys of Utica.


Yance sat quiet in a random tavern behind the bar. He had chosen this specific out of repair tavern at random on his way town. He had long regained his breath but the events of the past few hours had him stuck in spot. He had accepted that with any other enemy force, he would’ve been put into a similar spot. He had also accepted the fact that he, too, should be dead with his comrades. It wasn’t for their actions, he would be dead right now. The latter thought bugged Yance more than it should’ve.

Yance contemplated his next course of action. He could return to the camps and his father and explain his failures and why he survived while the rest of his team had met there sudden and unfortunate fates. This option would require him to explain how he had failed to lead what was suppose to be a relatively simple scout mission.

A thought dawned on Yance. If he didn’t show up, they would just assume the mission a failure and the whole team dead. This course of action also allowed him to avoid the inquiries of treason for being the sole survivor. Additionally, he would have to face those the friends and family of Valin and Kaya back at Koth.

While initially sickened by these thoughts of cowardice, the more he thought about the subject, the more he felt like it was the best option. Finally, Yance stood up and noted a book left on the bar table.

The Trials and Tribulations of the Dark Ages – Monsters and Martyrs by Fritz Gabany and Marko Karhila.

After staring at the book for several seconds, Yance made up his mind.

Yance Kvek died in a rundown tavern in a war torn Utica and Frtiz Karhil was born.

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Consortium With the Enemy
Keeping friends close and your enemies closer.

Gone Gone Gone – Philip Philips

“Heads up,” Rauru called. Meru, along with the rest of the battlepack, shifted slightly from their concealed trench. They had been waiting for hours for the lightning rail to make its appearance, and now it was racing toward them. They still had a ways to wait, but Meru and the others were perking up and itching for the fight. Meru wanted badly to prove herself to her new squad. She was the only natural-born among them, and it carried with it a stigma of weakness and complacency among the Shou Fu.

Meru watched Rauru closely for his signal to Shift, and put forth extra effort in order to make the transition just as quickly as her dog-born companions. Soon, the lightning rail’s warning whistles could be heard as it glided and crackled on its tracks, and Rauru finally motioned for the attack to begin.

The eight of them burst into a sprint, eating the distance between their hiding place and the rails. The conductor didn’t have time to comprehend the danger and act before all eight of their massive bodies hit the cars in practiced unison. With a loud crackle of some kind of magical power, the engine lurched and derailed. Meru scrabbled up the side of the train and leapt high as the train’s cargo followed its engine, crashing and whipping around as the rail continued to snap angrily.

Perfect.

Meru landed lightly on her paws and kept moving. The cargo had to be destroyed quickly, before any survivors of the crash rose from the confusion.

-

Grakkas flew lazily in the warm winds over the Southern plains. He was returning to Cinderfell for the first time since the Dawn Patrol had parted ways, and was filled with an unexpected trepidation. After living for so long in constant urgency, the quiet rebuilding process was too painful for him to handle. He was the first to leave after Gwind had ascended, and he wasn’t sure of what his reception would be like after over a decade of self-imposed exile to Pelor’s Fire. Aurora became something of a second home to Grakkas… although he wasn’t entirely sure where his first home was, exactly… and Anubis even became something of a friend as they traded their knowledge with one another. Anubis had seemed so powerful when they first met, and indeed he was. Still, it was strange, upon departing from Aurora, to realize that Anubis was now his peer.
Shaking his head a little, Grakkas inspected the lands he had taken part in saving as it scrolled by, and he could almost imagine the way it looked, back then. Had it already been twelve years? He thought of how easily Westwater had burned in the Hellfire. That had been the last straw, seeing how badly the peaceful little town of Westwater had been rent by Baphomet.

If he didn’t pay attention, he’d miss his mark and pass by Jarl’s little place. Grakkas focused on the landmarks below and flew a little lower, below the cloud cover. He chose to visit Jarl first, since he had been the most understanding of everyone. Cerlissa was brooding constantly over her contributions and itched to travel North, but Baldred had convinced her to stay a little longer. Probably out of fear for her sanity. Vicorin… well, Vicorin’s just an ass. Grakkas looked forward to seeing him.

As Grakkas studied the ground and humored a little nostalgia, something seemed different. He looked a little closer to find what looked like the straight, distinctive line of the lightning rail. Frowning, Grakkas looked toward the mountains ahead of him, to the East, making sure that he hadn’t already passed Westwater while he was caught up worrying about stupid things he couldn’t change. It couldn’t be the lightning rail. The rail stopped at Westwater…

That’s when he noticed the train. He watched in mild curiosity, intending on asking Jarl about it, when the train lurched and flew off in a crazy direction. Grakkas hesitated, but a few moments later, when the sound of the crash made its way to him, the spell was broken. Grakkas dove toward the wreckage.

Soon, Grakkas knew that the train hadn’t crashed on its own. Giant armored dogs nearly the size of Grakkas himself were working quickly over the wreckage. He watched one of them fish out the conductor from the engine car. He flew (let’s face it, fell) as swiftly as he could, empowering himself as he went, but he didn’t make it to the babbling conductor quickly enough to save him, and the dog unceremoniously shook the man, breaking his neck and probably his spine.

It’d been too long since Grakkas had a good fight. It was over for that dog the moment he had landed on it. Most of its rear had been crushed from the initial impact, but Grakkas knew better than to leave even an injured combatant behind him when confronted with multiple enemies. He reached down and grabbed the growling beast’s throat and tore it out. He then threw the gore in the face of the nearest dog and drew his sword.

There were still several of the dogs to contend with, but the first died easily enough. Grakkas stood, still atop the beast that had killed the conductor, and roared a wordless cry of challenge to them.

-

No one could have planned for this. None of the spymasters that Meru had spoken to had told her that the area was guarded from the air. She had seen the beast land hard on top of Rauru, and looked over the train car just in time to see it tear out his throat and send it flying into the face of Grikoru, who yelped in surprise and hopped away.

Meru racked her brain trying to figure out just exactly what they were dealing with here. Her first thought was “Dragon”, but despite its shape, it just wasn’t quite big enough. Perhaps a young one…

It was then that the thing stood, and Meru knew its name. Even in dog form, she was able to warn her nearby squadmates of the danger.

“Grakkus.” She growled. Tiru, the nearest to her, looked toward Meru in alarm.

The fabled Dragonkin was known even in the Dynasty. He uncurled himself and drew a fantastic sword from a rather plain-looking scabbard. He stared down two of them, who circled, unsure, before locking eyes with Tiru, who refused to back down from this threat. Tiru moved forward to attack, breaking the spell and causing the rest of the squad to move forward at the same time.
Meru had other plans. She knew facing Grakkas head on was a death sentence, so she broke formation and loped around to his flank.

It looked for a moment to be a mistake. Grakkas cut through Tiru with an almost lazy swipe of his sword, and the rest of the Fu were retreating quickly, leaving Meru on the other side of him and stuck. Separated from the pack.

Her decision proved to be the best in the long run, however. Grakkas was pursuing and managed to cut down Grikoru with a blast of bright, liquid blue flames that stuck to her like tar. The retreat was going to end badly for them if Meru didn’t do something about it, so she ran and leaped at his back. She bit down at the base of his wing. Lucky, since she may not have been able to pierce his skin to hold on anywhere else. His skin was strange to the touch. Leathery and pliant, but resisting all attempts she made to tear through. Meru scrabbled at his back with her claws fruitlessly, until she invoked her secondary rite. Familiar magic spread through her thick, blunt claws and suddenly, Meru was finally gaining some traction. She used it to rake open long wounds in Grakkas’ flank.

Meru knew that this would be the last thing she did, and silently urged the remainder of her squad to run. To retreat to fight another day. She also knew that they wouldn’t hesitate to do so. It was the way of the Fu to cut their losses and abandon their injured or weak, she just didn’t think she would be one of them so soon.

Grakkas finally reached around to remove her, and she tasted blood as he pulled her off. She hoped, for a moment, that her squad could see that. If they did, she’d always be known as the one who drew blood from the Vulkann sky menace.

What happened next wasn’t something she expected. As she struggled helplessly in Grakkas’ hands, he took a deep breath and blew in her face. She felt the Shift approach against her will. Panicking, Meru twisted and fought harder, managing to bite down hard on his forearm before Shifting back into her birth form. She was tiny, but not helpless. She drew her sword and prepared to die at the hands of a legend.

However, Grakkas seemed suddenly unwilling to fight. Meru was infuriated by his arrogance at this point and feinted, then stabbed him sharply with her spirit sword. She could probably Shift back to the fighting form now, since her armor and sword was working, but she didn’t think she could do it quickly enough.

Grakkas’ only response was to sheath his blade and scowl at her. At least, Meru assumed that he was scowling. It was hard to tell. Meru’s rage consumed her, and she unleashed a volley of attacks. Each cut she made was smaller and shallower than she expected, but she was drawing blood. She’d keep it up until he bled out if she had to.

-

This Elf was making it very difficult for Grakkas to keep her alive long enough to interrogate her. Her friends had run off without her, but she didn’t seem altogether worried about it. Odd, since he had killed three of them on their way out. But this one seemed ready enough to challenge him alone.

This damned sword was beginning to irritate him, though. He was about ready to just light her on fire and have done, but this was a magic Grakkas was unfamiliar with. Having gone through all the trouble to find and acquire the Stones of Power, Grakkas had assumed he knew all about the various magics that could be found in the world. Turning into a giant dog-bear-beast wasn’t something covered by any of the Magics found in Vulcanica, and that piqued this Dragon’s interest well enough to motivate him to keep this insatiable Elf alive.

So he waited. He waited until she got sloppy with anger or exhaustion. It took longer than he thought it might. He absorbed the stinging blows as best he could without any armor on. None were as bad as the mighty tears she’d given him near the base of his left wing, but each one of them held a painful quality that Grakkas was no longer much used to bearing.

When he saw the opening, he reached out with both hands, quick as a snake, and grabbed her by her arms. The look of surprise on her face was worth every stinging lash she’d given him. It was even better when he spread his wings and began to buffet the air, slowly rising with his angry cargo.
He honestly didn’t expect her to put her sword through his forearm. It really did not occur to him that she was so bent on making him murder her. What he wanted to do was drop her and let gravity deal with it. Instead, he flexed his forearm, locking the sword there, and twisted it out of her grasp. He was holding the Elf awkwardly in one hand by her shoulder, causing her to cry out in pain from his claws.

When her voice started changing, Grakkas started to get worried. He looked down at her to see her twist around and plant a furry paw on the arm that held her. Genuinely worried that he’d be forced to kill her, Grakkas began to make for the ground again.

The change was swift, and soon he was dealing with a dog-bear-beast again. Out of real options, Grakkas punched her in the face. “What is wrong with you?!” he shouted at her.

In response, the Elf-beast lunged.

Grakkas punched her again.

This exchange repeated itself several times, until the Elf-beast became very slow to recover from the blows. When she was finally so dazed and exhausted that she half laid on the ground, Grakkas took a moment to remove the sword from his arm, only to have it disintegrate in his hands. Sighing, he approached her again. Slowly this time.

The woman didn’t move against him this time. Taking a deep breath, he empowered it to suppress her again. Dog-bear-beast made way for Elf woman once again, and Grakkas reached out to pick her up.

She seemed to surrender… until the last possible second, when the same damned sword found its way to his thigh. It wasn’t deep at first, but Grakkas was so surprised to find it there after having watched it disintegrate in his hands, that he didn’t move away at first. When he didn’t, she took the opportunity to give it a shove, until the tip of the blade met bone.
Grakkas looked at the sword in utter shock, then at the face of the Elf, then back at the sword in his leg.

Then his leg gave out.

That was it. Grakkas reached out to the tiny form pinned her on her back. He dragged his leg behind him and swung around to straddle her. Then he put one massive hand on her chest and one on her face. With a push, he pressed all the air out of her lungs, and stopped when he heard a pop. Then he covered her nose and mouth, as well as most of the rest of her face, until she passed out.

Her armor and weapons all vanished, then, and he was left with a naked, bruised, and broken Elf woman.

Grakkas became suddenly awkward, straddling a naked woman in the middle of nowhere, and swiftly removed the hand he’d used to press the air out of her lungs. He bent over to check if she was dead. She wasn’t, which was a relief. If she had died, Grakkas would have taken all these injuries for nothing, and he’d feel both stupid and guilty all at once.

Frowning, he remembered the lightning rail, probably full of injured passengers. Not even a full day back to Cinderfell and he was starting right where he left off, tending to the wounded. He wasn’t sure how to touch the Elf now, so he left her there, confident that she’d be out for a few minutes at least.

When he turned towards the cars, however, he didn’t hear the usual wailing and praying that generally accompanied the afflicted. In fact, it was entirely silent. He glanced back at the Elf and limped closer to the train. He was relieved to find that the cars weren’t filled with passengers at all. It was a cargo train filled with food and supplies, probably headed for Trada. He spotted a car spilling out apples and knew that it would be going all the way to Aurora by way of ship. It hurt Grakkas in a special way that he wasn’t able to save the only passenger on the train, but it lifted a great burden knowing that he could rest and heal himself and move on.
So Grakkas sat and concentrated on his Dragon magic. He empowered, and felt the familiar strength of empowerment, but his wounds continued to weep. Grakkas frowned and drew on the Stone, and it seemed to work, only he continued to bleed. Truly alarmed now, Grakkas shuffled back over to the Elf and lifted her unceremoniously over his shoulder. He probably couldn’t fly, now that he’d lost as much blood as he had, so he concentrated on his meager Pact travelling skills to get him the rest of the way to Jarl’s place in the mountains.

-

The jarring, falling motion woke Meru, and her head lolled as she tried to look around at her surroundings. They had definitely moved away from where Meru had fought the Dragon Grakkus, but she wasn’t sure how she had survived long enough to be here.

That’s when Meru realized that she was still in the hands of Grakkas. She meant to attack him, she really did, but she was so weak that her armor had left her, and there was such an immense pain in her back and chest that she decided to play up her unconsciousness for a little while longer.

She could hear a small child yell in the Vulkann native language, “DAD. SOMEONE IS BLEEDING IN THE YARD.”

There was a conversation somewhere after that, but her Vulkann was honestly pretty sketchy, since there weren’t any native speakers in the Dynasty. She had a hard time keeping up with their quick, mumbled conversation. Then Grakkas spoke, and it made her start. She could have kicked herself for giving herself away like that, but she continued her limp facade in the hopes that he wouldn’t notice.

“Jarl,” She assumed that was the man’s name that was stepping out of the house now, “I fucked up.”

“I’d say you did.” the man responded, “Who’s the girl?”

“Forget the girl, idiot, I’m bleeding out here!” Grakkas let Meru slide off his shoulder and drop to the ground, and it was all she could do not to groan in pain from the impact. Her foot was twisted under her in a weird way and while she managed to stay silent, she couldn’t keep her face from showing her discomfort.

“Mabel!” Jarl called toward the house, “Mabel, quick with the bandages! Clear off my workbench please thank you!”

Grakkas and Jarl moved away together, and Meru caught a few mumbled insults from Grakkas as they went inside, leaving her in the yard. When it had been quiet for a moment, Meru chanced moving her leg to a more manageable position.

“I didn’t think that looked terribly comfortable.” a woman’s voice all but sang to her. She spoke in a slow, melodious accent that Meru found comforting and beautiful. “Oh stop pretending,” she went on, “Straighten that leg out. Here, I’ll help you.”

The woman’s hand caught Meru’s ankle and she tugged, hard. Meru yelped as she was flipped onto her back. Her eyes fluttered open to gaze on a tall, slender figure standing over her. The sun was at the woman’s back, and something about the way she stood just so, made Meru think that she was standing there specifically to make Meru peer into the sun in order to see her face.

“I’m Mabel,” The woman said, “and I’m here to make sure you live.” The woman crouched, revealing a face with large, wide eyes and a slender mouth. Her ears were longer than Meru expected to see, but the whole effect, while mildly unsettling, made for a beautiful, ethereal look about her. She continued to speak after Meru had focused her eyes on hers. “It’s not going to be pleasant, but if you work against me, it’ll be worse. If you try to kill me,” Meru felt the woman’s cool finger poke her in the forehead, “I’ll take it personally. Understand?”

The woman leaned into Meru, her finger digging painfully into her forehead until Meru nodded and said, meekly, “Mm hmm. Yes. I understand.”

With that, Mabel went to work. She began to hum a tune that Meru could have fallen asleep to, if it weren’t for the twinging, stabbing, jerking pains racing through her every time Mabel touched her. It made for a very strange experience.

-

Grakkas took a deep breath and opened the door to the room that Jarl and Mabel had cleared out for the Elf to recover in. He’d been attacked before and knew what to expect. He expelled the magic suppressing Breath upon entering, but didn’t see her.

Grakkas stepped further into the room, and once he did, he heard the soft click of the door shutting behind him. Alarmed, Grakkas grabbed the door handle and, in his haste, tore the entire door off its hinges. When he stepped into the hallway and looked out to see which way she went, he found her kneeling at Mabel’s feet.

“Wrong way, darling.” Mabel had her finger place’s between the Elf’s eyes, pushing her down. “I’m afraid we want to keep you alive, and if you go barging into my son’s room, you may startle him. He’d tear you apart in a moment, so I suggest you sneak out the other direction next time, hmm?”
The elf whimpered a little as she tried to resist the Fey woman, and Grakkas watched in awe as Mabel subdued her using only the one finger. Mabel won the exchange and the woman caved. “Yes. Okay.”

“Grakkas?” Mabel released the Elf, who dejectedly turned back to her room. Mabel followed her there, presumably to replace the bandages that had slipped in the scuffle.
“Hmm?” Grakkas growled meekly. There was no denying Mabel anything, and he was ready to take what he knew was coming.

“You have this door fixed by the time I’m done here, got it?”
“Hm.” Grakkas grunted his assent and turned and picked the door up off the ground to inspect it. He winced at his forearm, still hot and sore from where the Elf had put her sword through the flesh there. “Mabel?”

Mabel turned her attention toward Grakkas, her earrings jingling.
He gestured toward his arm, “Do you think you could uh… check on this? After?”

-

Meru sat quietly at the table for dinner. She’d managed to resist most of Grakkas’ attempts to heal her using his vile Vulkann magics, but her body eventually betrayed her and she was now able to sit up and breath without much discomfort. Grakkas had broken nearly all of her ribs, her collarbone, and dislocated her arm in their initial fight. Further, Mabel had broken her foot near the heel, as well as her nose when she had fallen from the initial injury, when Meru had attempted to escape her treatment. She tried to fight Grakkas when he had come to her room to retrieve her, but in the end she was sitting at the dinner table, staring at her full, untouched bowl of dumpling soup.

Everyone was talking amiably to eachother. Jarl was somewhat quiet compared to Grakkas and Jarl’s son, Rathiel. Mabel only interjected to poke fun at Grakkas, and it was all Meru could do not to laugh at some of her comments.

It was all so… normal. As if she were a fly on the wall rather than a prisoner with her knees tied to a chair.

“Have you seen Gwind, lately?” Grakkas growled through his pointed teeth.

“Not since she took over the godhood, no.” Jarl replied. Meru understood the words, but not their meaning. Perhaps a cultural thing that her tutors hadn’t known of. Jarl added, “BH is a Protector now, in New Turath, though.”

“Oh? How’s Cerlissa holding up?”

Mabel dropped her fork and rolled her eyes. Grakkas looked confused.

“Is Cici coming to visit?” The young boy all but stood in his chair, “DAD AM I OLD ENOUGH FOR A CONTRACT YET?!”

Mabel shot Rathiel a look that wilted him back into his seat and quieted him into silence. Meru was lost, but it looked like Grakkas was, too.

Maru knew the moment she made the mistake. She was paying too much attention to the conversation, and found herself locking eyes with Mabel.

“If you don’t eat, I’m going to have to feed you.” She spoke into the quiet tension. Meru didn’t know what feeding her would entail, but Mabel had a way of following through with her promises, so Meru slouched and began to shovel some of the soup into her mouth.

“Don’t worry, Grakkas, Cerlissa promised she wouldn’t do it, no matter how much he begged.” Jarl turned toward Rathiel and said “One school of magic at a time, alright, buddy?”

The conversation continued on, and when everyone was finished, Grakkas stood and gave Meru the same look he always gave her when he was about to approach and expected a fight.

Before he came any closer, Meru spoke up. “Can I try to walk?”

Grakkas hesitated, looking toward Jarl for permission. Jarl shrugged and Grakkas moved to untie Meru from the chair.

Making sure not to move too sharply or quickly, Meru stood. Grakkas moved the chair out of her way as she did so. She had stood in her room before, but it was small and there was no room to walk about.

Meru turned around, using the table as a support, then faced the hallway. She took a deep breath and put her injured foot in front of her. Placing it carefully, she put some weight on it and continued the step.

Just as she lifted her other foot from the ground, her foot twinged and caved. She flung her arms out wildly in an effort to balance and found Grakkas’ arm as he reached out to catch her. She was surprised that he didn’t just let her fall. She looked over to find that she’d grabbed the same forearm that she’d stabbed. She quickly let go of it, and took a breath to try again. This time, she expected the pain and hobbled forward on her own.

Meru found herself turning to smile at Grakkas, proud of her accomplishment. She watched his face shift from frowning concern to delight when she did, and it bolstered her. She managed to make it to her room, with a bit of his help, under her own power. She was exhausted, then, and slept through the night.

-

Even with his wings folded tight to his body, Grakkas took up most of the room as he sat on the Elf’s bed. He had decided to wait her out, and she looked antsy enough to cave, soon.

“Please leave.” She looked like she was using every ounce of her patience in order to say ‘please’ between her teeth.

“Tell me your name and I will.”

The Elf put her face in her hands and made a frustrated noise. “I’m not telling you anything, just go away so I can plot my revenge.”

Grakkas chuckled. Meru had taken to describing all the colorful ways she’d kill him after she had healed after about the second day that he had been camped out on her bed. They were getting pretty amusing. It had been six days since Grakkas had entered her room intending on getting her name out of her, and Jarl had bet that he’d leave the room without it. Grakkas wasn’t about to owe Jarl anything, so he just stayed in the room with the Elf. He was on her bed so that she couldn’t be comfortable while avoiding him, which was a feat unto itself when he took up a good third of the available space. She seemed more talkative now than she was in the week he’d spent staring at her. He hadn’t slept at all, for fear of her killing him. Also because it annoyed her that he was staring at her upon waking. All the quiet boredom of her sleep was made worth it when she scrunched up her face in irritation when she woke.

She slept a lot, too. She was doing much better now, able to walk on her own, but she had some bruising on her lungs and kidneys that caused her a lot of discomfort, and her bones still ached her. She resisted Grakkas’ attempts to heal her using his newfound skill in Old magic, but she couldn’t stop him from monitoring her using the same magic. Particularly when she slept.

Grakkas was very familiar with her injuries by now. As she slept he felt each fiber stitch itself back together, and that patience paid off. Understanding how a body heals itself naturally helped him understand how better to do it himself.

Unfortunately, the more he understood her pain, the more he wanted to fix it. He saw right through her cool facade. She was hurting, even as she stood now trying to ignore him.

“What?” the girl asked. “What is that look for?”

It was pretty close. She was going to attack him. He kept staring at her, knowing that’s what was triggering it.

When she moved toward him, Grakkas flinched. He felt stupid for flinching, but flinching can save your life sometimes. Weirdly enough, there was no incoming attack to dodge. The Elf limped over to Grakkas. Staring at the floor she knelt and seemed to hesitate, then turned her head to one side, exposing her neck.

“What are you doing?” Grakkas shifted to get a closer look at her.

“I submit.” The Elf said, still not looking him in the eye. “My name is Meru, and you may have me.”

“What?” When she didn’t reply, he reached out to touch her shoulder to get her attention. In a fluid motion, she fell back, away from him, and laid on the floor. She still wasn’t looking at him, and he was confused to the point of alarm. The bed creaked as he uncurled himself from it, but she still didn’t move. She just lay there like she was giving up on her life. Grakkas placed his foot on the far side of her and carefully, as if she was going to strike at any moment, stepped over her and made for the door.

Keeping a careful eye on the motionless Elf, he opened the door and left. He didn’t even go brag to Jarl about getting her name. He went quietly outside to bed to think about what might have changed.

-

Meru was confused. Grakkas had sat on her bed like a gargoyle for nearly a week, and then leaves when she finally submits. She sat up in her suddenly empty room, and was disquieted. She found she kind of missed the company. She had spent a long time being alone in this room while she had been recovering, and she hadn’t realized how much she didn’t like it until Grakkas had left again.

She missed her squad. She missed sleeping in a tiny room with seven other fellow Ru warriors. Carefree and sprawling haphazardly near and atop one another. Despite how uncomfortable and tired she was, she dreaded sleeping alone again.

Meru sighed and walked across the room to sit on the bed to think. When she sat, however, the frame creaked and snapped where Grakkas had planted himself, and Meru’s heart sank even further.
As she sat, defeated and bewildered at what the past week had even meant, she noticed something amiss.

The door was still opened.

Meru hopped up and paced over to check, and so it was. Grakkas had remembered to lock it, but in his apparent haste to leave the room, the door wasn’t entirely shut.

Her heart was pounding. She could leave. She could go back to the Fu Dynasty where she belonged and sleep with her companions again, rather than alone in that dusty little room on a broken bed frame.

Meru stepped out into the hallway, looking up and down, and moved toward the front door, avoiding the bedrooms altogether, and keeping close to the walls to lower her chances of finding a squeaking floor board. Finally, she made it to the door and found it unlocked. Opening it, she breathed in deep, relishing the fresh, outside air.

A growl froze her in her tracks. Meru peered about to find a large form laying near the door. A closer look revealed the sleeping form of Grakkas.

That was quick. Apparently going without sleep for a week will do that to an… a Dragon.
Suddenly, Meru felt a bit torn. For being a prisoner to someone that she nearly killed, he’d been very gentle with her. Indulgent, even. More than that, though, she was starting to enjoy his company. She wanted to know more about him.

She bit her lip, deliberating. She could run now. Get away from this house without hurting anyone in it. Only, she didn’t know if she’d make it. She didn’t know how long she was unconscious, so she didn’t know how far or in what direction she was from where they’d hit the lightning rail. Her injuries were still fairly severe. She didn’t have any supplies…

As much as she knew that these were all just excuses to stay, it calmed her to have them. They seemed valid enough. She stretched and looked around in the darkness. She hadn’t known that it was so late. There was no window in her room to tell the time with.

After a little bit of awkward, self-conscious false starts, Meru lay down near Grakkas and scooted herself so that she could feel his warmth. Immediately upon touching him, he rolled toward her and she was suddenly worried that he might crush her… again. She made an involuntary noise of alarm, but it turned out to be unfounded. He leaned toward her and, with an unfathomably large clawed hand, pressed her body to his chest like a child’s favorite toy. It was clear that he wasn’t awake, and she almost giggled at witnessing such an unconscious… adorable thing. His wing unfurled to cover them both, and Meru quickly dozed off to the comforting sound of a sleeping body nearby.

-

Someone was touching Grakkas. He hadn’t slept in literally a week, and they couldn’t just let him be?

“How long have you been there?” he heard Mabel ask. Grakkas grunted. This is where he slept, who cares how long he’d been there? He was sleeping.

“Umm, since last night. I think.” Another voice replied from somewhere nearby. He really didn’t care who it was. He wanted them both to leave.

“Here,” Mabel continued, “Let me help you up.”

The touching continued, until Grakkas realized that someone was attempting to lift his arm. He stopped fighting it and was startled fully awake when something in his arms started to wriggle out of them.

With a startled huff, he opened his eyes to discover Meru standing up and looking briefly back at him, looking chagrined as Mabel smiled knowingly at her. Meru glanced back and, seeing that he was awake and looking up at her, she… blushed? What the… what? Grakkas didn’t know what was going on, but he was altogether far too tired to sort it out right then. He closed his eyes and laid his head back down to sleep.

What felt like a few hours later, he awoke to a great thumping noise. Grudgingly sitting up, he went to investigate.

It sounded like it was coming from the other side of the house, and he shook off the last of the fog of sleep as he rounded the corner. What he found there made his blood boil. Meru, in full dog-bear-beast regalia, was crouched and ready to pounce on Jarl’s son, Rathiel.

Grakkas shot forward like a dart from a blow gun. He was on Meru in moments, ready to tear her apart. She didn’t react how he had been expecting her to, however, and nearly rolled past her when she yelped loudly and fell limp. Grakkas pinned her down and raised his fist to strike when she further surprised him by transforming voluntarily to her Elf form. Once again, she lay entire without clothing beneath him. Only this time, she was fully alert, palms out, and she was stretching backward awkwardly, exposing her neck and chest to him.

Grakkas hesitated. Only then did he realize that someone else was hitting him.

“GET OFF OF HER I WAS ABOUT TO WIN THE GAME GRAKKAS GET OFF GET OFF GET OFF.” Rathiel was beating his fists on Grakkas’ thigh, and Grakkas thought it was about time to get some information because something was very different about the Elf and this whole situation.

“Grakkas! Wait!” Jarl ran up and touched Grakkas’ other thigh, “It’s not what it looks like.”
“I was playing.” Meru spoke up. She was still stretching backward, but she was looking at him now. “I swear, I wasn’t going to hurt him. I was playing.”

Grakkas looked at Jarl for confirmation, who nodded and started to push him off of the girl. He obliged him and stood straight, confused again… still.

“What is happening?” Grakkas asked Jarl, “Also, she told me her name so I win.”

Jarl was about to reply, but the little yard between the house and the back shed became suddenly crowded with a three canine intruders. Grakkas stood and cursed his thoughtlessness. His sword was on the other side of the house, leaning against the rail of the front porch. It couldn’t be helped, so he empowered, using his Dragon Stone, and readied his Demon Fire. With Jarl here, this wasn’t going to last long.

-

Meru opened her eyes when Rathiel suddenly stopped yelling. Grakkas had shifted his attention elsewhere, and Meru twisted around to see what had caught his eye. Grakkas finally moved away from her, allowing her to see what had quieted everyone.

Three of her former companions prowled into the yard; two of them in guardian form. Baru locked eyes with Meru, “We’ve come to arrest you, Meru, and take care of any witnesses.” As he finished the sentence, his eyes trailed to the shed, where Rathiel was headed, probably to hide. Grakkas reached for his hip, where his sword would be. It was probably still up front.

Suddenly, Meru realized that something was wrong. There should be four of them. She whipped her head about, trying to spot Shezru. He was a stealthy bastard, and probably waiting for an opportune moment to strike unexpectedly.

“What for?” Jarl spoke up.

Baru focused on him, and replied, “For surrendering to the enemy, of course.” He past Grakkas, back to Meru, “She may have given up Dynasty secrets.” a smirk cut across his face as he finished, “We just can’t have that.”

Even before he finished speaking, Baru began to Shift. Meru was still lying on the ground, and didn’t have a lot of time to react. Her Spirit armor whispered into existence, and she rolled away slightly to try to deflect the attack. Grakkas intervened, however, and shoved him mid-leap, throwing him off target by several feet.

Meru scrabbled to her feet as Grakkas followed up on his attack on Baru. Jarl was deftly avoiding and confusing Tisru and Junru to the point where they were nearly attacking each other. Grakkas was clearly more reserved after having been injured by Meru, and was clearly on the defensive. Rathiel emerged from the shed dragging a warhammer as he ran fearlessly toward his father.

Meru decided to follow Rathiel’s lead. She didn’t want any of them to die, but as the aggressors in this particular situation, she preferred Grakkas and Jarl’s family to the wanton destruction spearheaded by Baru. The Vulkanns had been kind and forgiving, and suddenly the ideals instilled in her as a Ru seemed empty and worthless. She’d rather stay here than return to the Dynasty under accusations of treason.

Solidifying her resolve, Meru shot around to the front of the house, heading toward Grakkas’ sword. As she rounded the corner, however, she stopped cold. Shezru was closing the door quietly behind himself as he entered the front door of the house.

Mabel.

Meru darted back to the side door and quietly opened it. As she slipped inside and past the master bedroom, she could hear Mabel chopping something at the counter, humming quietly as she worked. Meru’s heart was beating rapidly, and she had to force herself to calm down and keep moving. She was almost there.

“Jarl, could you ask Grakkas and Meru to quiet down out there? They’re going to bring the house down if they keep it up.” Mabel still didn’t know. Meru wanted to cry out, but she feared that if she gave herself away, Shezru would hurry to kill his mark. Mabel went on, chatting amiably, “I think there might be something there, love. You know I caught them cuddling this morning? I wonder what they were doing in that room for all that…”

There was a screeching, metallic noise and Mabel cried out. Hoping she wasn’t too late, Meru exploded into a sprint down the stupidly long hallway toward the kitchen. Mabel was pressed up against the counter holding her hand to her chest, her chopping knife, twisted and still glowing red skittered across the floor away from her.

Meru didn’t think about it. She didn’t consider the long term consequences of attacking a fellow Ru in a blind rage in defense of an enemy civilian. She only knew that Mabel didn’t deserve to die.

Her first attack made contact, but her focus was bad and he was able to shimmy away from it before it did any real harm. She closed on him and shoved, hard. His lower back hit the protruding countertop, knocking him off balance and gave Meru a chance to hook her blade beneath the plates of his armor and lodge it there.

This was a tactic that the Fu sternly discouraged. If a Spirit weapon is separated from its creator, it can be recalled and reformed. If it’s lodged in a living body, you lose your weapon. Meru subscribed to the logic that an impaled enemy was easier to overcome.

Shezru was far from beaten, however. He regained his balance and lunged at Meru. She slipped inside his guard, but the sheer weight of him atop her injured body was agony. Her newly stitched ribs cracked and ground against each other and she tasted blood. She could feel the hilt of her blade pressing against her stomach, entirely out of reach. Meru was starting to panic. Of all the times that it would have been fine to die, this was not one of them.

Shezru was moving to slice open Meru’s throat when he emitted a grunt of pain and surprise. He twisted back to throw Mabel across the room behind him. She managed to keep hold of the bloody, two-pronged fork that she’d used to stab him. He made the mistake of lifting his weight from Mabel and she retrieved the Spirit blade from him only to replace it immediately, at a slightly corrected angle. He reared back from her instinctively, but Meru followed him. She ignored her bodies screams of torment and kept hold of her blade.

The next few moments would never leave her. The familiar smell of Shezru’s sweat, his breath warm on her face as she followed his retreat. Her own screams ringing in her ears and the distinct, slippery feeling of blood between her hand and the handle of her blade. She caught up to him and rammed the sword through his armor, feeling it pierce the layers around his organs, scrape on bone, and finally penetrate his heart and lung, lodging itself firmly into his ribcage. She closed her eyes, and continued to follow him as he fell to the floor.

When her blade whispered from existence, she knew he was dead. Meru used the last dregs of adrenaline to drag her broken body over to Mabel, who sat up to stare wide-eyed at Meru.

“Are you… Okay?” Meru ask her.

“You saved my life.” Was Mabel’s only response. She sported a long, shallow scrape along her face, and she still favored her hand, but she looked okay. “You killed him to save my life.”

“I…” Meru coughed and drops of blood spattered, she must look like hell. “Yeah. I guess I couldn’t stand the thought of missing out on your dumpling soup.”

Mabel scooted over and put her arms around Meru, “Thank you.” Meru grunted in pain at her embrace, but didn’t fight it.

There was a commotion at the back door, and the smell of acrid smoke wafted in. The sound of running footsteps came closer and Meru wearily formed a short blade and turned to face the next problem while Mabel steadied her shoulders.

Jarl hesitated when he entered the kitchen. After taking a quick moment to consider the evidence of what had happened, he rushed to Mabel and helped her to stand. Without Mabel’s steadying hands, it was easier for Meru to slide to the floor. Her small blade vanished, but she kept a weak hold on her armor out of habit. Something was badly wrong, and she felt like she was dying.
Now was fine, though. Mabel was safe. Jarl was safe. Grakkas was… here? She felt the ground fall away from her and lifted her eyes just enough to see his vaguely familiar shape.

“Come, Mabel,” Jarl said calmly, “The house is on fire. Rathiel is outside waiting.”
The dimness of the house gave way to bright morning as they left the house. Jarl and Mabel started to bustle about in an attempt to quell the sticky blue flames that had attached themselves to the outer walls of the house. Grakkas lay Meru down on the grass.

“You’re dying, Meru.” Grakkas told her. His voice sounded a little strange, and when she looked at him, his face was twisted with emotion. She could only nod in response. She knew it.
A pulse of powerfully acute magic rolled over her, and when she looked up again, Grakkas was smaller. Not small by any means, but his massive wings were missing and his overall bulk had given way to a more natural tone. Meru had never really thought of Grakkas as a man before. She’d thought of him as more of a creature. A story. This must have been what he looked like before he stepped into the songs.

“Let me save you.” It was a question. It sounded like an order, but he could have done it with or without her permission. She didn’t have the strength to fight it, and they both knew it.
“Take me with you.” Meru shut her eyes in an effort not to cry. The pain of her injuries was one thing, but the anguish of leaving her life behind was another thing entirely. Grakkas picked her up off the grass and leaned her against his chest.

“You can’t keep up.” He stated matter of factly. The blankness of his tone gave him away. He didn’t want her to die.

“If you can grow wings,” Meru took a steadying breath, “…So can I.”

Meru felt the pain from her wounds suddenly lessen. It felt like diving into a river after hard training in the heat of the day. She couldn’t help but relax into it, and soon she felt the pull of sleep drag her into unconsciousness.

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