Greetings, glorious adventurers! If you're joining in our Alpha One spot testing, please follow the steps here to see all the latest test info on our forums and Discord!

My Kingdom for a Tavern (5/17 Chapters|40k words)

HydromanceHydromance Member
edited February 22 in Community Creations
My Kingdom for a Tavern
A Silly Tale That Almost Certainly Didn’t Happen Because There’s No Way I Accurately Guessed All the Lore & World Building I’ve Referenced

By Hydromancer


Chapter 1: Inn Media Res

~Dramatis Personae~
(In Order of Appearance)

Bramalamb “Bram” Son-Enkor Clan-Durahl (Dwarf)
Played by Benoit Blanc
Bartholomule the Daystrider
Played by Alan Tyduk
A Shadow upon the Precipice (Tulnar)
Played By Summer Glau
Bellicose Fade of Chevalion (Elf)
Played By Daniel Ratcliffe on Stilts
Overly Tallish Patron 1 (Human after a fashion)
Played By Emma Stone wearing a fake beard
Overly Tallish Patron 2 (Human after a fashion)
Played By Jess Bush


“Bartholomule, get yor ass ovah ‘ere!'' The frost mantled dwarf roared through the dark.

A brindled daystrider carefully picked each step with its long slender legs, retorting with a musical series of high pitched squeaks and squawks. The softly falling snow slid off to either side of its narrow form, save for the bundled packs belted to its back, to pile further around the creature. There was no path to be seen, if indeed there even was one. Only the trench formed in its master wake broke up the surrounding landscape, and even that much merely marked the immediate path to follow. The daystrider was in no hurry.

When the impatient traveler’s command failed to increase the beast of burden’s speed, he turned to trot back, with a particularly colorful curse not heard on Verra’s surface since time immemorial. A staff carved from a singular vein of peppered granite towered over his form as he hunched against the face of the frigid, yet merciful gentle, northern wind. Atop the staff a jade mere spread out, a fan shaped blade of sorts, and he tilted the staff so that the mere might shield the falling snow from his face. A shock of dirty blonde hair, a lional mane truly, burst from a thick cloak’s hood that struggled to contain it all, and with a heavily gloved and insulated hand he brushed the offending hair from his vision. The strength of his icy blue stare, cold still than the air as it was, failed to inspire Bartholomule much as his call had. So with a huff, he powered his way back through the snowfall, less with physical prowess and more through sheer force of will. The dwarf grabbed the daystrider, carefully yet firmly, by its rope-like trunk so that his large squarish eyes could peer directly into the creature’s beady little orbs.

“Move like ya got ah purpose in life,” he growled through frozen and chapped lips. “Ya got eyes in yor ‘ead. Use ‘em!” The dwarf jerked his head back towards the path he’d been forging. “That light ah ‘ead at the edge of the treeline? That’s us! That’s the goal!” Grabbing the daystrider’s bicep (he only needed to reach above his head slightly) he pulled the beast forward along with him. “Now let’s ‘ustle! Ah want ah fire for ma bones and ah fire for ma belly, and if ya want that ant ball that ah promised ya then get us there ‘fore the damn night ends, alright!?” The promise of a delicious treat of crunchy ants pasted together didn’t inspire additional speed for the poor creature, but it clearly caught the gist of the dwarf’s pleading. With a squee, its snout snaked up from where it’d been licking the snow to probe the traveler’s face, as if its master was hiding an ant ball in his mouth. With another huff, truly more a defeated sigh, the dwarf trudged onward.

Eventually the traveler’s hood gave up attempting to contain his voluminous hair, and cold as he was he declined to take up the fight on its behalf. An observer from afar could be forgiven for thinking a giant frost-bitten dandelion had pulled its roots up and was slowly being chased by an anteater capable of walking atop the snow. Which of course was patently ridiculous; the carnivorous dandelions weren’t native to this side of the Tradewind Sea.

Ever so slowly, the various moons rising helped pierce the dark, and through the sporadic cloud cover new sights were gleamed. The vine and snow cloaked remains of what was likely once the stone body of a windmill or watchtower. A ghostly parade of some sort of furred herd animal, pale yellow eyes glittering even at such a distance. A free standing frozen waterfall, whose origins remained shrouded in the low hanging clouds. Finally, as the treeline ahead grew in size and detail, the snow slicked roots of a mountain rose just passed the evergreen canopy. More importantly, just under the growing forest wall, the bright lights of a freehold blazed ever brightly.

The dwarf knew what he’d find; an odd holdout of civilization, where traditional dünzenkellian architecture surprisingly grew into a more py’raian style around the second stories. The last he’d been here, only the construction shed and stables had been properly finished. There was however, only one building he was looking forward to seeing completed. One with a welcoming fire and a well stocked bar, where he could finally be off his feet and freshen his spirits in the top shelf of spirits.

The Bubble & Hearth Tavern.

The night did not in fact end before the distant lights resolved into a charming snowbound collection of tightly grouped buildings, though the better part of an hour did. The winter blanket laid heavy upon the tall peaked roofs and piling again the windward sidings, softening edges and blending worked wood to natural; had the buildings not been so brightly lit the dwarf doubted he’d found the location even had there been no snow to obfuscate the not yet well-worn path. The central building was the largest and most welcoming, twin chimneys hinting at the comforts to be found within. Tall posts carved from pine trunks were mounted with iron braziers, forming a short colonnade from the edge of the freehold’s claim. They ran right up to the principal building’s broad double doors, mammoth oak portals gilded with copper that caught the light of every flame’s flicker. The doubly illuminated posts (cleverly carved and gilded shapes seemed to dance in the firelight) towered like silent sentinels beckoning the weary traveler’s forward. So tall were they that the heat failed to reach the earthbound snow. It was a picturesque view set against the dark of an old growth forest, stolen straight from a fairy tale. It was warm in a way that had nothing to do with heat. And it’d been too long since one Bramahlamb ‘Bram’ Son-Enkor Clan-Durahl, formerly of Sanctus -now of Verra- had laid eyes on it.

The freehold had been well maintained despite the weather, and the path to the stables was cleared, likely that very day, by its inhabitants. A menagerie of exotic mounts and mules already slept tightly snuggled in small but cozy stalls, and Bram eyed the lot. He sized them up each in turn, evaluating the dangers they might present to his daystrider upon waking. He recognized less than half by sight, and fewer still through word of mouth. Verra seemed to be an ever-churning sea of new bewildering creatures to discover and tame. Unfortunately, there were precious few stalls left available to choose from, and naturally they bordered creatures he knew the least about. He made a snap decision to house Bartholomule next to a blackened fox with twin cinder tipped tails large enough to ride (he strongly suspected he should know the creature’s kind, but his exhausted mind could not recall). The fiendish fox looked no less threatening than the rest, but he figured that should it come to it the fox looked capable of delivering a quick death; in the end that’s all anyone could ask for. Slightly less important in his mental calculus was the idea that the owner probably had good coin to compensate the dwarf if the worst came to pass. To his studious eye, the beast had a style he’d bet many overly tall elfish types would fawn over, dropping clean n’ gleam gold to own one. Hmm. Mayhaps Bram could pick out the owner if they were still awake in the tap room, and start working on a down payment in good dwarven glowein. Voidal hells, he’d settle for one of the odd Tulnari variants he knew Belli kept for customers with more… unusual tastes. Packs unloaded and an ant ball firmly wrapped in the daystrider’s trunk, he patted Bartholomule’s shoulder which elected a very content sounding squawk.

“Try nah to get eaten ya strung out goose,” Bram suggested warmly, “but iffy can’t be ‘elped, get ah good kick or tree in. You might be the weirdest mule ah’ve evah owned, but yor clan Durahl now. Act like it!” With the packs slung over his shoulders, Bram made for the tap room side door closest to the stables.

A Shadow Upon the Precipice he hadn’t noted caught his attention, perched as it was on the tavern roof’s above him. Specifically, a long thin tail of some sort caught casually flopped over the lip of the roof and started swaying about. It was likely an intentional act to draw the dwarf’s eyes, for as they followed the tail up to the rest of the darkened form it tipped a hat towards Bram. The figure had been crouched there long enough to accumulate its own cloak of snow, suggesting an impressive tolerance for the weather, pose, and vertigo. The thin shadowed form of a long spear laid across its lap suggested a night watch. How well it was handling the plunging temperatures despite the thinness of its form suggested a Tulnar. A new hire then, given there weren’t any Tulnar on the payroll last time he’d paid a visit to the freehold, and a quiet one at that.

Without breaking stride, the dwarf offered a curt nod of acknowledgement in return, and when he wasn’t struck down by a spear through the chest, pushed his way into the blazing bosom of the freehold.

There wasn’t enough stone for it to be home, though there was drink. There weren’t enough dwarves for it to be family, though there was comradery. The beds would be too soft, the mugs too small, and the music too… well not to his taste. Tallish folk music. But in the heart of winter on a world both so old as to be unknowable and too new to be tamed, there were precious few taverns Bram favored. The Golden Feather had better regulars, the Brew Dragon better drinks. But. But! If in all the ale houses in all the freeholds in all the world he had to walk into this one… then, well, he could sleep soundly knowing it was the safest tavern around. It was, after all, run by the (secretly) scariest herbalist a dwarf could ever ask for as a friend.

A startingly tall elf glanced up from the bar where he was entertaining a couple of nighthawks as Bram entered the taproom, and a gentle smile blossomed from ear to ear across a plain face.

“Welcome back, Brambalamb Son-Enkor!” called Bellicose Fade, barkeep and proprietor of the Bubble & Hearth Tavern.

Upon their first meeting, Bram had assumed Bellicose was Vek, given his blue skin. It didn’t help that at the time Bellicose had been wearing a wooden mask, and it’d been an easy mistake to assume the thin branchlers that marked him as a py’rai elf were part of the decor. He’d never gotten a straight answer from the elf about his unusual coloration, and to his knowledge Bellicose was the only blue elf to be found. Even his raven black hair could have been a mark of orcish heritage as much as elven. How he kept himself was as well markedly out of the norm for his people. A thin red stripe of leather was strung across his branchlers, two or three inches from their base, allowing Bellicose to hang his bangs up and out of his face as opposed to the more traditional method of around the sides of the tree-like appendages. His dress too was a hodgepodge of various cultures’ garbs, niküan sashes and empyrean stitched patterns. Even his barkeep apron was a repurposed dwarven smith’s, a parting gift from Bram himself last season. He was eccentric, yes, though in an open, friendly fashion. Nothing in the elf's kindly appearance betrayed that he'd ever been much more than a humble tavern keeper. Bram naturally knew better; he had the scars to prove it.

“Copper for your thoughts, silver for your troubles?” asked the hobbyist gardener who’d moved heaven and Verra, faced and occasionally defaced the region’s most dedicated warriors, for the sole sake of building a tavern of his own where he could serve others. Though Bellicose was no mage, he conjured Bram's favorite drink before the dwarf crossed the room to his favorite, low set corner table.

A few moments later, with his staff, backpack, and saddle packs leaning against the wall, a warm smile of his own finally defrosted Bram’s face as he collapsed into a stout chair with a stouter stein of glowein (thankfully a dwarven based strain). He inhaled the sweet yet pungent aroma of his drink, carefully swirling the stein to activate the bioluminescent fungus at ale’s heart. A green-red glow softly lit his face as the dwarf heartedly drained half the stein in a single go, and he regarded the deceptively lithe elf he once foolishly thought he’d break with ease in his own pursuit of power. “Wit’ ya Belli, ah coppah’s nevah bettah spent.” He raised the stein in salute. “And if ya keep hirin’ new hands to mind the place then as yor friend ah need ordah more ales so’s ya can keep ‘em happy!” he jabbed a stubby finger towards the ceiling. “Ah met ya new shadow up on the eaves on ma way in by the way.”

The elf whistled an amused jingle. “They must like you, if they let you see them. That, or they figured you for no threat to me or mine.” The softest verbal jab accented ‘no threat,’ which in turn earned a derisive snort.

Suddenly recalling some of his manners, the dwarf produced twin coppers and slid them across the tabletop. The coins slid mayhaps faster than was polite, and mayhaps Bram had put more force between them than he would at any other bar; it mannered little. Without looking, long blue fingers swept the coppers and flipped them through the air back to Bram.

“Please, too much by half and the first drink is on me,” the barkeep protested.

Bram snatched them both from the air, and flicked one with his thumb in return. “For ya drink then ma friend.”

“Nay I say, I know the owner,” Bellicose jested as he batted the coin away, “I drink for free.”

Even as the coin rolled into Bram’s waiting hand, he flicked the second copper back. “Were that we all should be so lucky to keep such friends! For ma second drink then.”

Clink! Went the coin as the elf flicked it back with his nail. “I apologize, but you must finish your first drink first before receiving a second. House rules.”

Clink! Went the coin as the dwarf returned the favor. “Ah nevah ‘eard such ah outrageous rule!”

Clink! “You have now.”

Clink! “Fine. Then ah accept yor original offah.”

Clink! “Indeed? Which was?”

Clink! “Coppah for ma thoughts.”

Clink! “Indeed. I should think two in this case.”

Clink! “Two coppah for ah thought? Outrageous!”

Clink! “That’s not… fine, what’s on your mind?”

Thud! An emptied stein crashed down on the copper as it sped back yet again to Bram, and he slid both stein and coin beneath back across the table with a smile. “Ah think Ima have an udd’ah glowein.”

Bellicose’s smile widened as he accepted the empty drink and full tender. “Then the pact is sealed.” He intoned the words of power as he clapped his hands together once. The ancient rites of hospitality thus invoked, invisible strings of essence passed between them. “Allow me to refill your stein good sir.” He rose and returned to the bar.

With a sharp dwarven nose, Bram inhaled the lingering aroma of his ale appreciatively. “Ah detected ah hint of some’em new in that first glowein, spiciah even.”

Bellicose’s brow arched happily at Bram’s observation from behind the bar where he'd returned to fill a tray of drinks. “I was part of a fresh expedition to the next vale over,” he called out, “the one we were struggling to push into last summer due to the Corruption.” Bram could hear the capital ‘C’ even though the bartender said it as casually as pouring a drink, which he did as he spoke. “Well the Calico Harts, new guild in the area, lovely group and sweethearts all, organized working parties and escorts to clear out the worst of it.” One of the patrons sitting at the bar politely flagged Bellicose. He shrugged an apology to Bram, and turned to help his other customers.

While he waited, Bram studied the two figures at the bar. They were humans after a fashion; at least he didn’t think they were intentionally hiding pointy ears with their floppy hats. His eyes narrowed. They also, male and female both, wore their hair long and wild enough that either or both could still have shivears tucked hidden away. There was precious little other that distinguished humans and elves to his mind. Privately, he’d always suspected they interbred, or tried to anyway. He’d certainly read a few… questionable tales of entertainment involving such sexcapades. Not intentionally of course, oh no, or at least he didn’t pick them before any other options on hand he hadn’t read thrice over. Unfortunately most literature that had made the trip from Sanctus was still educational and/or business related, and to his knowledge no print houses had yet to be re-established in Verra in lieu of more foundational pursuits. More was the pity. For scholarly pursuits, of course.

Bellicose returned to the table, placing a tray of steins and selecting one for himself. He swirled his own glowein, too forcefully for Bram’s cultured tastes, and oblivious to the dwarf's wrinkling nose continued on. “We found a treasure trove of new flora, including some delightful peppers that you detect now amongst the more traditional spices.” He sampled his own concoction, added a dusting of more pepper grains from a shaker he pulled from one of his many apron pockets, and swirled it some more.

Bram's slow drawl slowed even more as the alcohol soaked his taste buds and soothed his soul, "Nevah heard of 'em, but if Chevalion was willin' to work wit’ these Harts, assumin' of course ya weren't freelancin', well then Ima sure they'rah nah completely useless."

"No no," the elf confirmed,"it was a sanctioned venture. The guild didn't co-organize the trip as we've got... more local concerns of late to attend to," he hinted, "but it wasn't difficult for those of us with a green thumb to convince the higher ups of the benefits of our participation.” Bellicose reclined in his chair, nursing his drink as he reminisced. “All in all we mapped the better part of the vale, collected a cornucopia of resources, and forged a fresh relationship with a very exploratively minded guild. All of which has been, in a word, refreshing.” he sighed lightly and wet his whistle before carrying on. “Chevalion has really been tied down this year as we’ve continued to develop our assets in Whet’s Edge. The town has also had to deal with a few forceful, and might I say rather rude, highwaymen groups that passed through the barony for a time.” He grimaced. “The bandits were quite the annoyance. They didn’t exactly pose a tremendous threat to our operations or the town in general, but harassed enough caravans heading in and out of town that they forced us to divert time and manpower to deal with their ilk. And with our numbers we had a devil of a time running them down, burning out their rat nests.” He sighed more heavily and drained his own drink. “Honestly we only succeeded in encouraging them to leave for greener pastures, and even that much was quite the effort.”

The second stein thumped onto the table, and Bram harrumphed as he traded a third from the tray for the first copper. “Oh Belli, really? Ah dwar-ah-elf of yor talents? Ima surprised at ya ma friend. Sounds like ya might be startin’ to lose ya edge, if yor strugglin’ to deal wit’ such uncouth types. There was ah time when ya would ‘ave culled such chaff wit’ ya gardening tool wit’out ah second thought.” Bellicose’s eyes casually met Bram’s, flickered to the pair of patrons at the bar entertaining each other with colorful insults in their own little world, before returning back to the dwarf. As mild a reproach as they came, but for the bartender it was a polite but firm reminder they weren’t alone. The dwarf smiled and shrugged an apology.

“I am but one soul Bramalamb,” Bellicose pointed out. “I can’t be everywhere at once, and my interests these days are focused on my patrons and my garden, as you well know.” His eyes lifted to a guild crest over the bar, a helmed lion wielding a sword like a walking cane and a second resting over its shoulder. “Chevalion has been very generous in supporting my botany studies. I am indebted to them, and happily count myself amongst their numbers. Through steady herbalism and clever application, I’ve provided far more value to the community than I ever could have through… more forceful methods. The Calico Hart expedition for example.”

“Still,” Bram observed over the lip of his drink, “if the ne'ah do wells weren’t much morah than nuisances, Ima surprised it took yor whole guild to run ‘em out of town.”

Bellicose nodded. “Insightful as ever my friend. What they lacked in skill and organization they made up for with dogged persistence.” He dipped a finger into his drink and began tracing something on the table between them. “If rumor is to be believed, they seemed to think they’d been brought together by a particularly notorious and capable individual with a… history in the area.”

As he finished tracing, Bram sat up and leaned further in to make it out. He could not hide the surprise on his face if he’d tried. Not quite a question mark and almost a seven. It was simple as far as symbols go, though the faint glow of the biolumen gave it the impression of a magical sigil. It was the personal sigil of they who’d been only known by the same name, who’d cut a bloody swath through Whet’s Edge in its earliest days and forever altered its path. Scythe.

“I suppose it gave them someone to rally behind and keep the faith. That is until Chevalion’s efforts became too much for their petty theft to be worth the trouble.” Bellicose’s eyes met Brams once more, and they were the eyes of a troubled man who’d seen too much. A man who was afraid he might see trouble again. He wiped the glowvein from the table with an apron rag.

Despite his friend’s serious, Bram barked a laugh. “Belli Belli Belli. Yor face is longah than Bartholomule’s!” He made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Ma friend, Scythe is dead. Ya saw to that well enough. Dashed ‘em against the rocks of Crown Bluff yor self.”

A rueful smile over took Bellicose. Just because the past had finality, didn’t mean it didn’t hurt. “I know Scythe is gone,” he said quietly. “And I know they were no one’s martyr. But they were an idea.” He cocked his head to the side as he regarded the surface of his drink, as if trying to divine answers. “Ideas can be tricky things to ever truly kill. And if they inspire the wrong types, well… I worry who or what could rise from such aspirations. Likely as not, they won’t show Scythe’s… restraint.”

Well, that was a bit of a mood killer.

For a few moments the two friends sat quietly, with only the crackling of the pair of fireplaces that flanked the main hall and the background conversation of the last patrons at the bar filling the silence. Bram tried not to let the same concerns for the future weigh him down as they had his friend. Instead, he allowed the warmth of the ambient air and ale both to sink into his marrow, focusing on enjoying the moment, the company, on just comfortably existing. He idly wondered how long the rooftop sentinel planned to stay out in the cold. Would they still be there, still as a statue save the occasional tail flick, when he went back out to check on Bartholomule in the morning?

The faintest pull of an extra sensory alert, like the softest plucking of a single harp’s string, brought Bram’s thoughts back to his friend. A tether of Obligation tied him to Bellicose through their pact of host and guest; normally this would grant the host a sixth sense about responding to his customer’s needs. Bram’s sensitivity to Essence, however, allowed him some measure of access to Bellicose as well. Right now his friend needed reassurance, or at least a distraction, lest he trip down a spiraling staircase of depression and guilt.

“Ya certainly traded ya swords for plowshares,” Bram offered slowly as his thoughts reoriented on Bellicose, “but Ima sure ya’ve kept ah few knives up ya sleeves. It's still ah dangerous, brave new world out there aftah all.” It was his turn to slew to the pair at the bar and back. Even in their casual evening attire both wore arming swords, as if to conveniently punctuate his point. The way their insults, body language, and faces were heating up, Bram realized that his point might not be the only thing getting punctuated soon.

“I look after me and mine,” Bellicose suggested neutrally, drawing Bram’s attention back to his own conversation.

When Bellicose didn’t elaborate further, a snort escaped the dwarf. “Oh yes, and Ima sure its ah trowel ya wave about all willa nilla to keep the locals and the odd corrupted crittah at bay.” He winked. “C’mon, don’t look so down. Ah new Scythe rises up, and ya’ll cut ‘em down again. By the Seven, if Ima not around, call ma back and ah’ll help!” He vowed.

Bellicose was quiet for a moment more as he stared into the drifting crimson and verdant hues of his drink, the glow casting a sharp purplish relief of his lower face. “There’s more than one way to defend what you cherish, Bramalamb. A little diplomacy goes a long way.”

“Diplomacy,” Bram parroted flatly.

Shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Bellicose tried to organize his thoughts as they spilled out. “We have a certain… set of skills that has helped us excel over the years. Skill with blade and bow was useful on Sanctus, and the Seven know how useful in reclaiming what we have so far of Verra. And yes, it will continue to be useful still,” he conceded Bram’s point of combating another Scythe, “but here’s the thing; as we reclaim more and the more we rebuild, it feels like relying on our combat forms is counterproductive.” He raised a hand to cut off Bram’s protest. “I know. Whet’s Edge was, and still is to a large extent, a place that respects strength above all else. But, there’s more than one way to move a mountain.”

It was an old saying from the early days of Sanctus, when the early refugees had to contend with a frightened and inhospitable landscape. It spoke to the strength of unity, where a thousand stonecutters could achieve what one could not. The implication wasn’t lost on Bram, and he quietly observed his friend who grew increasingly animated.

Placing his drink down and away so that he did not accidentally knock it askew as he began to talk more with his hands, Bellicose continued to unspool his chain of thoughts. “Look at what we’ve built here.” his hands stretched out to take in the room, but clearly indicated more. “Sword arms won us the breathing space, but it was the axes that chipped wood not bone, picks that bit into stone not flesh, that made this a world worth fighting for in the first place. A thousand stonecutters Bram, that’s who built Whet’s Edge. And a thousand, thousand stonecutters will raise it to staggering heights, but only if we support them!”

“Fine, let’s support ‘em so’s they can ‘raise us to staggerin’ ‘eights,” Bram said charitably, “case closed.”
“No,” Bellicose replied sharply, “no… you aren't seeing it. Or rather, I’m not doing it justice.”

“Well, just whut is ‘it’ anyway?”

“Look… the strength of the blade will defend our borders. But, it won’t change anything within them. First of all, short of a surprise upset no one is ending Dart’s mayoral run.” He referred to of course the current anonymous mayor, who hid their identity behind a mask with a frog carved into it. “Fully eight lion masks entered the last electoral combat, and Dart finished off the last 3 single handedly to defend their rule. In melee combat. With a shortbow.”

Bram grunted but said nothing. He wasn’t supposed to know of course, but one of clan Durahl’s favored daughters had worn a lional mask that election. Her guild still seethed that eight of their best fighting back-to-back hadn’t earned a masked nom de guerre.

“Secondly,” Bellicose continued, “every hand that holds a sword is one that doesn’t hold a hoe or a saw. But it's more than just simple numbers.” His excitement did not lower, but he chose his words more carefully now. “You once mentioned your matriarch taught you that when all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” Bram nodded. “Well, I think there’s something similar when you’ve trained your whole life to fight to reclaim your ancestral lands, but it's more… subtle. Sinister almost. We’ve poisoned our minds without realizing it.”

With a flourish, a slim dagger appeared in his hand. “Behold, a weapon.”

“Yes, very impressive,” the dwarf allowed.

“Yes, shut up.” the elf commanded. “I hold in my hand a tool… with which to slice your jugular clean open.” The latter part of the proclamation was delivered with an uncharacteristic chill.

Bram couldn’t stop his eyes from going wide. His staff where it lay against the wall almost imperceptibly shifted a hair’s breadth towards the table. It wasn’t that he thought Bellicose would do it; he simply knew that in this moment, caught unawares as he was and against the dagger’s master, he would die if this came to blows. He slightly sobered at the thought. Very carefully and deliberately, he took a deep swig of his glowein, though he did not drop his eyes from the dagger for a second as he did so.

Dark purple eyes studied Bram. “You feel it, yes? Mayhaps ever so slightly, but it's there nonetheless.” Bellicose’s eyes broke away to make sure the nighthawks hadn’t noticed his bit of legerdemain, and just as quickly the weapon vanished. “Fight or flight, the thrill of the promise of violence.” his voice softened. “This instinct has seen us through so much danger…. But I worry it's become too natural, too quick to pounce. A weapon in hand, or before you? All the much swifter the quicksilver rushes through our veins, steel ready to flow. We can’t think beyond tomorrow’s horizon when all we see is the setting of the sun on a life, ours or theirs. It doesn’t matter who ‘they’ even are. It's us versus them,” he spoke bitterly now. He spoke of experience.

“We lost months, Bramalamb,” Bellicose spoke more plainly, tiredly. ‘The bandits? We lost months dividing our time between plus-ing up our caravan guards, scouting every dell between here and Connor’s Crook for their dens, and maintaining our smithies. Chevalion added nothing during that time to our footprint here; we added nothing to Whet’s Edge.” His eyes drifted to the flames of the nearest fireplace, though it wasn’t fire he perceived. “What if we hadn’t lost that time? What could we have gained, for ourselves and our neighbors? What if…,” he paused, and looked seriously to Bram, “... what if we’d negotiated with the brigands, false Scythe or not? What if we convinced them to settle the hinterlands, or even in the vale over hill with the Calico Harts? How much more could we all be together, How much stronger? How much could we have accomplished in those otherwise lost months? An alliance founded not on convenience, but community?” He turned back to the flames to ponder his own words.

‘Um…” Bram was taken back. “Well that is to say… whut? The wannabe scythian ne'ah do wells? Seriously Belli?” This was wild talk, even for Bellicose. As far as Bram knew, everything the elf had ever won was by violence. Even the tavern. Especially the tavern.

“Ma friend, look here… ah understand whut yor gettin’ at, ah really do.” He put as much empathy into his voice as he could. “Workin’ togethah, of course we’ll get furthah that way. But we hafta exercise some sense ‘ere. The udd’ah guilds in the Whet, they’d slit yor throat the moment ya opened yor arms to ‘em, let alone some ne’ah do wells from outside the claim.” He tried to think how he could put it simpler than that. “Whose gonna trust ya? When yor at each udd’ahs throats one moment, and proposin’ friendship the next?”

“You did.” Bellicose observed without hesitation, never drawing his attention from the flames.

Well. Shit. That was a good point.

“So, yes,” the elf concluded, “A little diplomacy goes a long way.”

The dwarf remained unimpressed.

“Arrows goes ah long ways furth’ah.”

“You know what I-”

“Voidal Hells,” Bram suddenly announced, rather loudly, as memory and tongue alike were similarly loosened, “Ah once saw ya lob yor torch ovah someone’s ‘ead into the next fella’s face.”


“Who were we fightin’? Ah ‘member it being a bloody mess. Ya diplomacy didn’t reach furthah than the length of ya sword arm that day, HA!”


The table thundered as a meaty squared fist slammed into it. “WAIT! Weren’t ya fightin’ me!?”

“SON-ENKOR!” Bellicose finally snapped, his eyes wide over a nervous smile as he half stood and awkwardly side stepped between Bram and the two most-likely-humans at the bar that had turned their bodies and attention towards their table. “Oh hohohohaha,” he continued through a smile full of clenched teeth, “finish your ale and allow me to shepherd my guests to their room.” His eyes sharpened for just a brief moment as he added, “and then I’ll be back to deal with you.”

Bram blinked and Bellicose's face was all apologetic smile, though he doubted he was the intended audience. The elf fully righted himself and hurried to the bar to offer what excuses he may for Bram’s outburst, but the dwarf didn’t hear what was said. Instead, as he stared at nothing in particular, and all he could hear was a ringing in his ears. It was an echo of a memory when last Bellicose had spoken words of a very similar nature to him, albeit from behind a facade. His left temple briefly ached from the blow that had rung against his helm that once upon a bind, muddlingly his wits like so much crystal snuff and dropping him to the ground.

‘Stay down Herald of Durahl,’ the masked figure hunched over the dwarf had hissed, though the voice seemed to his ears to originate impossibly behind him on the blood slicked stones, ‘or I’ll be back to deal with you.’

He finished his glowein, then Bellicose’s drink for good measure, and neither for the first time nor the last thought to himself that he wished he’d heeded the warning.



  • Options
    In the relative quiet of the tavern, Bram didn’t quite nod off. He knew the time was past the witching hour, and a long day’s journey weighed on his body, sinking him further into the chair. His breathing grew light and slow, though he only allowed his eyes to partially close. Through heavy lids, his gaze wandered about the tap room. More importantly, he listened.

    Verra sang a beautiful language, simple and clean if you had the patience for it. One simply needed to look to the natural aspects of the world and learn their individual tunes to appreciate the song as a whole, to hear its message.

    Earth. The large stones that formed the base of the Bubble & Hearth’s outer walls were only lightly worked, but were carefully selected and placed by expert hands. They fit snugly together until they were as much a tapestry of natural art as they were functionally a shelter. Not a few of them had been placed by Bram’s hands in fact. They sung so softly, so slowly, and so low that a novice might mistake it for a monotonous hum. Yet it was a harmonious chant, simple and strong, as firm a foundation as the stones themselves. It reminded Bram of the echoing choirs of his youth, chanting night and day in the cavernous cathedrals of clan Durahl, keeping the memory of Verra’s song alive for untold generations lest her trueborn children forget.

    Sanctus stones did not sing as they had no life.

    Fire. The twin fireplaces sang a sweet duet, crackling and popping to an improvisational rhythm. It was a rich infusion that could pierce straight to your heart and warm you from the inside, like hot chocolate on this cold winter’s night. The fireplaces were lively stages, an exposed orchestral pit where each tongue of fire would riff together, softly swaying as they serenaded their transfixed audience. They sang of your woes that you might forget them; they sang of your transgressors so that you might forgive them. Their siren voices were clear and crisp, hypnotic melodies to lull your senses into a relaxing state where you might forget your duties, your obligations, and for a while simply exist.

    Sanctus fires could only roar, only hate.

    Air. Ever flowing, the wind was as boundless as it was formless and from the bottom of the dales to the crown of the world it sang of freedom. The intelligent races of the world had learned to harness the wind for their own music, but for all their skill and talent they were far from original. The air from their lungs? Borrowed from Verra. Their flutes and horns, pale imitations of the forest canopies and winding valleys. The very best bards understood that never could there be a new note that Verra hadn’t originated, never could there be a symphony that Verra hadn’t first composed. Their magic flowed from their ability to hear the music that naturally flowed around them, and bringing the melodies of nature together in a way that their allies could perceive more easily. It was the closest a mortal could come to partaking in Verra’s Essence. Even the humblest tavern player knew that when they sang or cajoled music from their instruments, they were merely the messenger of a grander design.

    Sanctus winds were aimless and cruel.

    Water. Babbling brooks, crashing waves, and the pitter-patter of raindrops; the percussion of water was a ceaseless cadence, almost military in its march. In many ways it was the element through which most mortals would naturally catch snippets of Verra singing. Even then, to many folk the white noise would be just that; a random collection of noises that just happened to form a beat. But, for budding bards it might be the first chance to hear beyond the chaos, feel the music from within rather than perceive from without. Water was the element of life, from which all lives derived, and without which all lives would shrivel and die. Thus, the music it would produce was often the sweetest, most full of essence. Amongst the bardicaly inclined, natural sounds of running water were particularly cherished.

    Sanctus waters took more than they gave.

    Taken all together, as rarely as it happened, a mortal could learn more in a concert of Verra’s elements than in an entire lifetime of empirical study. It was a goal, nay a high, the most attuned individuals could spend their best years chasing, only to fail in grasping little more than a snippet of divine quartet. Here in the still night of the Bubble & Hearth, the elements slept almost as soundly as the patrons, though their music was never far from the surface. Bram however, had learned to be patient, if only insofar as when it came to waiting for Verra to sing next. He simply had to keep himself open, and awake. He took a deep breath, almost as if to shake himself awake from the inside out, and focused more on the material world around him to keep his mind sharp.

    A fresh traveler could be forgiven for thinking the Bubble & Hearth was older than it was, even if it had to have been built post Return. The smell of spilled drink, dried herbs, and burning incense easily overpowered the odors of wood stain, mortar, and tannin that would otherwise hint to the building’s recent construction. The candles burned low this late into the night, further obfuscating the small details that would reveal the truth. The tabletops were barely dented or graffiti-ed; smoke only lightly marked the ceilings. The threshold had been crossed by mere hundreds of boots not thousands, and scuff marks were hardly to be seen upon the stone. The stuffed ducks on one wall, posed as if just taking flight, looked so fresh they could have been mounted that very day. The tap room was charming and well cared for, but it lacked the sort of character that would come naturally with age, with wear.

    Tired footsteps interrupted the dwarf’s study of his surroundings, lightly echoing as they did down the staircase. Bellicose appearing wordlessly and looking as worn as Bram felt. He crossed to the farer of the fireplaces, retrieved an iron poker, and began tending what was left of the flames. The charred remains of the fuel cracked and spit as he coaxed oxygen into the heart of the hearth, but underneath the noise Bram heard the tune of the elemental Essence spark. He listened with his heart, and hummed along softly for a moment or two, before his Essence matched Verra’s. His voice softly buzzed with a crackling not unlike the fireplace, and words not his own sang true.

    “Last restless embers in a bed o’ ash—
    Their flickering grew dim—
    Lest smolder die as warmth fled high—
    The poker stirred them ‘gain.”

    Only a trickle of power leaked into his voice, but it was enough for Bram’s tiredness to, well if not disappear, then certainly be pushed to the back of his mind for the immediate future. Bellicose’s ears twitched slightly, and a moment later he was standing taller, his movements less lethargic. He crossed the room with ease to the fireplace closer to their table, tending this hearth in turn. The flames here added another verse to the song of Verra, and Bram continued to sing.

    “A burning dream yet snuffed, still mourned forlorn—
    A memory o’ loss—
    New sparks be’d struck, ol’ flames reborn—
    Last phoenix dew sown true.”

    The first fire, though it was no longer tended, hissed and flared in response to the second, suddenly fiery mirror images of each other as they danced in a unison that only Bram could see. Together, through mortal lips, they sang a final verse.

    “The fuel is stacked, now bellows fan the flames—
    Midnight’s last bell comes due—
    Light the fires, rise the pyres—
    See morning’s light anew!”

    Though he said nothing as the song ended and searing words lingering upon the air, the tension followed the tiredness in parting from Bellicose. He half turned to address Bram, still stoking the hearth as he did so.

    “The last two guests are settling in for the night,” he explained, with no trace of the intensity his voice carried minutes earlier. “Thankfully, they weren’t really paying attention, and assumed your outburst was over there being no vacancies.”

    Bram’s face froze in horror before stuttering his disbelief. “N-no rooms left? Yor full up all the way out ‘ere in the wilds of the Seven’s green Verra!?” He’d slept on many a common room floor before, but rarely after such a long day of travel. To boot, it was cold enough that he’d practically have to wrap around the grate of a fireplace to keep from freezing to death in his sleep. Well, perhaps that was an exaggeration, but he allowed himself the thought nonetheless. He was the victim here after all, him!

    “Chevalion recommended this location for the freehold for a reason,” Bellicose reminded his shocked friend. “Just outside the forest, an hour’s ride to the river, and closer still to the deer trails leading to the mining ruins. We might as well be the official boarding house for every delving team from Riverstone to Whet’s Edge, and rightly so!”

    Belli,” the dwarf cried, “ya knew ah was comin’!” He grabbed the saddle bags from where he’d laid them against the wall and dropped them heavily on the table. “Ah brought yor damn bluemoon gemstones and lava slug shells ya wrote for, all the way clean ‘cross the Pilgrim Plains!” He squeezed his eyes shut so hard they almost hurt, and pinched the broad bridge of his nose. This was not happening, it couldn’t be! He exhaled a groan that welled up from his core, and with suddenly bloodshot eyes stared daggers at his friend. “Do ya mean to tell me, ya didn’t save ah single room for yor ol’ pal Bram?” He flung his arm towards the staircase. “Whut? Ya gave the last two rooms to those two tallards that were fixin’ to stab each other earlier?” He thumped the table with the flat of one hand, and pointed with the index and pinky of his other. “Ya call ‘em back down ‘ere Belli! Tell’em ya made ah mistake, that they are sharin’ ah room whethah they like it or nah. Or have’em draw lots to see who cozies up wit’ the fireplace of their choice. Ah don’t care!”

    Finished stoking the fireplaces’ flames, Bellicose settled back down at the table to calm Bram’s burning anger instead. “Funny story,” a note of amusement entered his voice, “but I actually only had one room left, and it only had 1 bed at that. I had to offer them the room at half price and even then they still almost came to blows.” He smiled as he idly dug the poker into the stone floor, softly twisting it and inadvertently adding some of the missing character Bram had been musing on earlier. “Of course they split the cost between themselves; you’d think they’d be happier about only having to pay a quarter of the cost to stay!”

    Any other time Bram would have found this story hilarious, and insisted on buying another round for the both of them as they made light of the other travelers’ plight.

    The dwarf almost began vibrating with anger. The hairs on his arms and neck stood on end. Even his mane and beard seemed to lift, as if attempting to stand on end but struggling over the sheer weight of his golden locks. The silvered coins woven into his beard also helped, but it was a testament to his state that there was any movement to be noticed at all. The worst part was Bellicose maintained his amused smile, idlily whittling away into the floor with the poker like a teenager who’d only recently ‘discovered themselves’ for the first time. It was infuriating. In fact if he didn’t know any better, Bram would swear that the elf was---

    “---wait,” he said as realization dawned, “ya pickled blueberry, yor pullin’ ma axe? Ya got ah room for rent left… right?” He tried to keep the desperation from his voice. He mostly succeeded.

    A full smile bloomed on Bellicose’s face, raising Bram’s hopes. “No,” he said simply, in turn felling Bram’s hopes.

    As confusion spread noticeably across his friend’s face, Bellicose laughed, filling the room with a melody that would have at any other time been infectious. “I’ve no rooms left to rent out master Son-Enkor, but fear not! I have a guest room in my private apartments set aside for you, with a lowered wash basin and a few other amenities to accommodate you during your stay."

    His body sagging as he let out a long breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding in, Bram slowly shook his head. “T’was ah cruel joke to play on ah friend, Belli.” The twinkle in Bellicose’s eye allowed Bram to intuit this was payback for his outburst earlier, and while he’d never admit it aloud it seemed fair play. Instead, he settled for a rueful grin.

    “Fucked mean,” a new raspy voice observed.

    Startled, Bram’s stone staff jumped to his open hand as he sprung up, spinning it once to point the jade mere towards the voice, noting even as he did that Bellicose was even faster to his feet, poker at eye level and ready to thrust.

    Perched on a bar stool was an unfamiliar tulnar, a mix of reptilian and porquillian features rolled into one being, cloaked in frosted leathers that slowly dripped snowmelt onto the floor. Its eyes were cast down as it nonchalantly carved into a small piece of wood with its raptor-like claws, as if oblivious to the two figures brandishing weapons its way. A long, thin spear noticeably lay across its thighs as it perched, and the tulnar rested elbows on the weapon as it worked at its craft.

    After the briefest of heartbeats, Bellicose let slip a short sigh and his combat stance dropped, the tension in the moment fleeing as he did so. “Owl, how many times have I asked you, politely, to stop sneaking up on me like that?” This was clearly a common occurrence.

    “Ah, ah’hah!” Bram proclaim as he suddenly recognized the Shadow Upon the Precipice from before; the tulnar was positioned exactly the same way as it had been on the ledge outside. He mentally comforted himself with the knowledge that surely, he’d of course recognized the silhouette (which he’d correctly guessed was a tulnar nonetheless) if only he hadn’t been so tired from the day’s tribulations. “Yor snowy watchah makes thyself known. Owl, wasit?” He raised an eyebrow towards Bellicose who shrugged.

    “They’ve never told me their real name, if they have one as such, but they claim to like the sound of ‘Owl’ just fine,” he offered.
    “Good noise,” Owl rasped, “nice call.” It rotated the carving in its hand, whittling away at a fresh section, maintaining its overly casual demeanor.

    The butt of the staff dropping to the floor with a soft ‘click’ of stone on stone, Bram resting against it. “Ah amp name given yor predilection for silent perching. Ma name is Bramalamb Son-Enkor Clan-Durahl,” he dipped his head ever so slightly, “but ah go by ‘Bram’ just fine.”

    “Bram, like bush,” Owl observed.

    “Brambles,” Bellicose corrected, and caught Bram’s eye. “Don’t let them fool you,” his voice dropped conspiratorially, “I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect Owl has mastered the common trade tongue much more thoroughly than they let on.”

    The dwarf’s eyed narrowed in suspicion at Owl. He’d known plenty of tallish folk who were untrustworthy, offering pledges and oaths confidently despite never planning to keep to their words; this felt like a new twist on an old con. Even Bellicose’s deception by omission on room availability, despite Bram deserving it, irritated his good dwarven senses.

    “Words words words,” Owl offered, breaking Bram’s train of thought on civility, “sharp words, soft words. Steal words, eat words. My words.” They spoke with a cadence and gravitas that suggested some pearl of wisdom, though in his state Bram struggled to make sense of any implied meaning. Perhaps they were just showing off some of their growing vocabulary.

    “Here’s a word for you,” Bellicose called as he replaced the poker in its stand, and threw Bram’s saddle packs over his shoulder, “bed. Another, go.” He winked at Bram, “I’m sure they’ll figure it out. Now, speaking of bed, mayhaps I should show you to your room?” He nodded towards the stairs. “If you think you can surmount one more obstacle for the night?” he quipped.

    Shouldering his own backpack, Bram feigned a grimace as he eyed the wooden staircase, “Ah just hope yor carpenters knew their trade well. If ah end up in yor root cellah, ah’ll have some choice words of ma own that even Owl will undah’stand.” He braced himself stoically for the climb. “Now lead on mistah tav’urn keepah, to yor finest guest quartahs!”
  • Options
    HydromanceHydromance Member
    edited February 2
    Chapter 2: Inn Inceptium Finis Est
    ~Dramatis Personae~

    (In Order of Appearance)

    The Gate Guardian Commander (Human) Played by Gina Torres

    Bellicose Fade, Lancer 1st Class (Elf) Played By Daniel Ratcliffe on Stilts

    Captain Moss, Salamander Commander (Human) Played By Reginald VelJohnson

    Dale Bornson, Salamander Lieutenant (Human) Played By Zac Oyama

    Rey Dylandy, Salamander Lieutenant (Human) Played By Samatha Béart


    -Years Ago-
    -Six Months Post Return-

    "You are all, every one of you, dead... you just don't know it yet." The human's voice boomed throughout the hall.

    Bellicose Fade, Lancer 1st Class of Salamander Company, Aelan Open Reserves (or AOR), blinked once. Then he quietly giggled to himself. If he was dead, then he thought he was doing a rather splendid impression of being alive. They'd only been standing in an exaggerated formation for ten minutes or so, but the carrying pole over his neck (not to mention the burlap sacks hanging from it) that he’d slung one arm over to steady and the extra barrel under his other were starting to burn his muscles. To speak nothing of the rest of his kit. Luckily for him, as a pole volunteer, he was in the very back of the hall where there was more space for the extra supplies being hauled, far from the officers. His minor slip earned him a bit of side eye from the human with their own pole over their neck next to him, but the gate guardian giving her speech at the head of the hall was well out of earshot, even if she’d been elven.

    "Something funny, recruit?"

    Oops. He'd not realized some of the gate guardians were walking the edges of the group.

    A stocky human stepped uncomfortably close to Bellicose. As the elf towered over the wee little man by a good three or four heads, Bellicose estimated the guardian was short even for a human. Furthermore, he thought it was grossly unfair that someone so short could be so intimidating. Hmmm. Better think fast.

    "My... hair was itchy?" Brilliant!

    The human was already lifting his chin to what had to be close to or max reach to stare the taller elf in the face; they now leaned backwards to better take in Bellicose's fresh cut. Pigs had been butchered with more finesse. Elves were already a rare sight in the Aelan gate camps on Sanctus. An elf with short hair, sliced off in lobs the night prior by a bunkmate, was unheard of. Add to all this the fact that this gangly, freakishly tall elf was honest to gods blue, which was a totally unknown phenomena as far as this human's understanding of the universe went, and the scene started to shape up into a bad setup for a worse punchline.

    With a twitchy brow and a pull of the end of his lips, the human decided he didn't want to hear how the joke ended. "Well keep your itchy hair to yourself, Giggles. And pay attention to the commander. Your mortal soul, such as it is, probably depends on it." Bellicose awkwardly lifted the hand slung over the carrying pole and leaned his head in the rest of the way for an approximation of a salute. Satisfied, the human wandered off to stalk the rest of the line.

    Heh. Smooth as butter on a baby veal's bottom, was he.

    Bellicose had been half listening to the commander as she spoke, and mentally rewound her speech, catching back up to the present.

    "Every breath you have ever taken on Sanctus is false." The commanding gate guardian was imposing. Tall enough to rival Bellicose, stern face, and arms stiffly held behind a ramrod straight back. "There is no life here. A sacred ark though it has been, a divine gift and sacrifice of the Phoenix herself, make no mistake. This," the commander made a showy, broad sweeping gesture with one arm, indicating the room they stood in and the vast beyond, "is a tomb world." She half turned, replacing her arm behind her, and swept the opposite arm out to indicate the massive, fortified doors behind her at the end of the hall. "There, is where you will draw your breath for the first time truly." Her voice had been level, calm. She'd projected but only slightly, as her voice naturally carried and bounced down the narrow halls. Now her voice began to slowly rise in pitch, and an emotional fervor crept into her words as it did. "Verra is life. Verra is ours, by right of inheritance and Divine Mandate. Verra is the true gift, born of all the Seven!"

    If anyone noted the deliberate choice of the Seven versus the Ten, they didn't react. Come to think of it, Bellicose wasn't sure how thorough religious education was amongst the humans. It was entirely possible, simple creatures they be, that they believed only the Seven had a hand in Verra's creation. Well, he wasn't about to dissuade them from the misconception. It was an easy mistake to make, and anyway mentioning The Others tended to be a faux pas in polite company. He especially wasn't going to correct the misstep in a room full of mostly armed, mostly human warriors slowly working themselves up in a frothing mass. Speaking of which....

    "The divine gate has been lit! By the decree of Norlan do we stand ready! By the grace of Resna do we stand tall! And by the light of Shol do we stand res-O- LUTE !" She was shouting now, and placed heavy emphasis on the last few syllables. The group stirred silently, clearly moved by the passion in the commander’s voice and feeling the sense of occasion. The anticipation in the room was suddenly electric. Even Bellicose admittedly privately to himself that he was starting to feel it. Who wouldn’t?

    It had been several years since the divine gates began stirring, their ancient stone structures ever so slowly beginning to charge with Essence. Which, of course, was impossible. Essence didn’t, couldn’t, exist on Sanctus. The small world existed in a plane of existence much closer to the Void than the Celestial Palace. There was no magic on Sanctus without the Essence to fuel it. The very knowledge of magicraft that had been carefully preserved and studied was entirely theoretical in nature for countless generations of mortals.

    Until now.

    Until a lone persever acolyte conducting a field study in the dusty old gate ruins thought she was going crazy… because she could hear someone humming just out of sight. Naturally it took some time before she realized her peers weren’t playing tricks on her. It took longer to convince her teachers something definitively odd was occurring in the ruins of antiquity. It didn’t help that the ability to hear the hum appeared to be something of a rare gift. Once several priestesses discovered they could hear it, however, the Aelan clergy moved as quickly to study the unprecedented event as they did to blackout any news of it escaping their inner circles. Such a flurry of activity and secrecy did not go unnoticed. To those movers and shakers who made a point of keeping tabs on rival organizations, it wasn’t difficult to infer that whatever the secrecy was over, it involved the divine gate their ancestors had used to escape the apocalyptic invasion of Verra. Not that either the spies or even the priests realized just how monumentally the discovery would alter the course of their lives and that of history itself. The reopening of the gate, of any of the gates, was almost inconceivable without Essence. And then the high matriarch of the dwarves loosened the missive heard ‘round the world; the dwarven divine gate was singing. It was calling . Apparently, dwarves had a better knack for hearing the Essence. The stones of the gates were not of Sanctus, but of Verra. And She was calling her children home… by name . Or so the rumors went.

    “SALAMANDERS!” Oh oh, they were finally getting to the good part!

    “You’ve sworn your sword and service to our king for a year and a day. Is his trust placed in vain!?”

    “FOR KING!” The company shouted as one, including Bellicose.

    “What of ancient Aela!?”

    “FOR COUNTRY!!” The room roared.

    “WHAT! OF! VERRA !?”

    FOR VERRA !!! ” The walls shook, dusting drifting down from the ceiling. Now Bellicose allowed his excitement to begin to bubble to the surface. Not that he really believed in king and country, but he loved a strong Challenge and Respond. There was a rhythm to it that pleased him, and his blood was certainly pumping now. Ha! Dead indeed.

    “That’s what I thought! Hold that fire tight in your hearts, and holdfast lancers,” the gate guardian commanded, “final preparations have been completed. In a moment the doors will open, and you will exit upon the call to march. Continue forward until you’ve reached the center of the divine gate chamber.” Her gaze began to sweep across the assembled company, making eye contact for a moment with many of the lancers as she spoke firmer. “Now if you haven’t heard a word I’ve said before, hear me now! Once inside, maintain separation from one another, but DO NOT touch the walls or pillars. When the gate begins to glow around you, you’ll know it's time. The experience may be… disconcerting. Focus on why you are here! Remember your oaths, your families, your pride! Today you walk out of the dark and into the light! Keep your legs underneath you, your eyes forward, and your hearts towards Verra.”

    An aide approached the commander, whispered in her ear, and stood back. “Stay at ease, but DO NOT set down your gear. Be prepared to march momentarily.” The two guardians ducked through a side door.

    Almost immediately, the lancers began to speak quietly amongst themselves with their neighbors. There were words of encouragement tinged with nervous excitement, promises of seeing each one another on ‘the other side’, and not a small amount of speculation and gossiping.

    “-fucking kidding me? I packed backup daggers for my backup daggers . You don’t know if-”

    “-safe if the AOR is being called up, innit? Probably just be doing manual labor to free up-”

    “-not like we are making the first trip. There’s been what, a couple thousand troops who-”

    “-dragon sightings. The king even started commissioning Verra-side siege weapons to-”

    “-kind of fancy meter stick? It's all they talked for months even though we were told-”

    “-learn magic then what's even the point of going? I’m not going to muck stables-”

    “-enough rations! I heard there’s almost nothing that isn’t slimed in Corruption-”

    “-your hair yet!? Didn’t you hear about the bugs? Half the company already-”

    “Two silver says the lieutenant touches the walls or pillars the second we-”

    “-hell’s a snorse ? Dale, you can’t believe everything the sergeant says-”

    “-they’ll wait until we bleed and die making sure it’s nice and safe-”

    “-damn straight I’m staking a claim just as soon as my contract-”

    “-probably just sign back up until we see more civilians start-”

    “-his crown, sword, chalice, and staff; or was it a scepter?-”

    “-find them in Verra before too long, I don’t know about-”

    “-guilds’ just begging for folks like us too pretty to die-”

    “-gods, saw it myself! Blue as berries, just hanging-”

    “-too much magic… what if it’s true? Couldn’t we-”

    “-is blue too? Hehehe I’never actually seen an-”

    “-volunteers now that all the real companies-”

    “-fucking fireballs and lightningbolts mutha-”

    “-same season as Sanctus? What about-”

    “-dwarves can’t just waltz in there like-”

    “-so an elf, troll, and dwarf walk into-”

    “No godsdamnit Dale! For the last-”

    “-you wouldn’t go straight for-”

    “-castles, ruins, you name it-”

    “-us in trouble before we-”

    “-mead in each hand-”

    “-really cheating if I-”

    “-are we there yet-”

    “-no crossbows!?”

    “-pee before we-”

    “-sweet kisses-”


    “-is glint? I-”



    “- Dale -”




    Humans, Bellicose silently observed, were an amusing lot. Soldiers in particular. The gambling, the superstitions, the constant bedding of one another, the getting enraged at learning your current pillow mate had already bedded your entire squad even though you already had as well… the entertainment never ceased. It was a decent lot to throw his own in with for a time, and if there was violence to be had upon the other side of the gate he was reasonably certain they’d hold the line. Well… he was reasonably certain they’d make excellent fodder and that he could outrun them at any rate. This was an open reserve unit after all; the bulk of the truly skilled and disciplined had already made the transition during the previous six months. Had he still been a member of his enclave, he was sure he’d have made the journey long since as well. Amongst the Aelan though….

    “Salamanders!” The gate guardian commander suddenly appeared on a balcony above. The doors of the hall began to immensely creak. “Stand ready!”

    It appeared Bellicose was finally done waiting.

    The sounds of 100 lancers shifting their weight, their various forms of armor settling, adjusting their loads, and the lieutenants relaying shouted commands was completely and utterly drowned out. Instead the company’s walla was replaced by two iron banded doors so heavy they scraped the ground, sending sparks flying helter-skelter; counterweights groaned from behind stone walls. So much volume moved that a breeze swept the hall, causing all the wall scone flames to flutter. It was all appropriately theatrical. The finishing flourish was the ends of the doors slamming into the walls, the resulting echo shaking everyone’s teeth.

    Over the heads of the rest of the formation, Bellicose could see that the doors led to an open air area, ringed by the walls of the fortress. And the structure in the center could only be one thing. Two stories tall, thousands of stone pillars naturally arched together to form a dome. Despite the sheer darkness of Sanctus night, despite the lack of obvious sources of light, the structure seemed… distinct. Not glowing, not lit with an inner light, just… the dark did not touch it. It was as if the stone that made up the arched dome was more real than the world that existed around it. With a start, Bellicose realized that was probably because the gate was more real. More real than Sanctus itself. A shiver ran down his spine and arms. A prickly sensation confused him for a moment, until he realized he had human bumps. How distasteful. He hoped none of his compatriots noticed.

    On the balcony the commander surveyed the formation for the last time. “Lancers, march in the light of the Seven. Trust in one another. And remember….” She let the silence hang for a moment, then a moment more. “NO RISK!” she shouted.

    “NO REWARD!” thundered the combined reply.

    She nodded once, then focused on Captain Moss at the head of the formation, flanked by lieutenants Dylandy and Bornson. “You have your orders, captain. Your company is released to your command. Gods speed!”

    The mustaches, grisly faced commander nodded back, and stepped to the side of the formation to better guide it.

    LAAAN-CERS!” He stressed the syllables, and every member of the formation braced with anticipation as they saw his fist raise, flattened into a knife hand. “ MARCH! ” The knife hand chopped down.

    As one body, 100 lancers took the same step. Then another. A hundred boots stepping in unison echoed off walls to become 400 hundred more, then 1200 before the next boot fell. They marched to the beat of the drumming of their own feet returned a thousandfold, out of the drum itself and into the night. A night whose only stars were the distant lights dotting the ground as it slowly curved up and into the sky before fading from view, a river of twinkling braziers and watchfires. A night which became as cold as it was impenetrable at the edges of the world. A night which was their last in the ring world of Sanctus.

    They marched in silence. There was no cadence save the crunch of dirt. There was no Challenge and Respond, as everyone’s voice was stuck in their throats. Gone was the gossip and idle chatter. To speak now seemed somehow sacrilegious. This was holy ground after a fashion. Everyone of the assembled lancers were descended from a Verran exile who fled through this very gate, or one just like it spaced out around the length of Sanctus. Everyone of them was now fulfilling the long forgotten and cast aside hope of their forebears. Each generation that came before had dreamed of, then died before, walking the path they now marched. This fact even occurred to some of them in formation. More than one tear was quietly shed for friends, for loved ones who would never make the journey with them. Still they marched in silence.

    Soon boots echoed on stone once more as the first rows passed under the outer arches. As Bellicose brought up the rear, his chest began to tighten. The Divine Gate! It… honestly didn’t look like much even close up. There was no decoration, no carvings, no sense of occasion. Though it grew darker the farther from the torches of the fortress they marched, the stone of the gate still cut through the night. It was like the structure impressed itself directly onto his mind, the aid of light unnecessary. This place was clearly magical, and impressive in its subtle own way. Bellicose was just expecting… more. More flash. More blatant evidence of magic. A glowing archway through which he could spot Verra. But no. As the troop entered the center of the dome, everyone could plainly see the entire structure was perfectly symmetrical. Captain Moss called them to a halt as soon as they’d marched far enough in to allow Bellicose and the rest of the back row to fit inside the central ring, the only defining feature in the middle of the dome. It was the first any of them had spoken, and it broke the spell they were all seemingly under. More than a few jumped at the command, and as a whole the formation came to a halt rather sloppily. Suddenly they found themselves standing in the odd not-quite-dark with no sign of an actual gate or what to do next. It was all rather underwhelming. A nervous energy began to spread throughout the group, darkened silhouettes twisting this way and that, trying to make sense of their predicament.

    Bellicose felt it before he saw it. He felt it inside , a new and intrusive feeling but not unpleasant. A thrumming. Like that of a taunt bow string after letting loose an arrow, only the string didn’t slow. It gained speed. Began to shake the whole bow, then even the archer, until finally the world began to shake. All the while the thrum grew. It grew now in Bellicose himself though he loosened no arrows. Gasps throughout the crowd alerted him to the fact he wasn’t the only one who felt it. He gripped his carrying pole and barrel tighter, planted his feet firmer to steady himself. The thrum felt powerful. He felt powerful . But he needed an outlet, lest the power burst from his chest. He wasn’t proud enough to fight the panic rising in his gut, but he gritted his teeth nonetheless. Now was not the time to lose his head, not when he was literally on Verra’s front doorstep. Or figuratively? Whatever. He needed his wits. Clearly something profoundly magical was affecting the entire formation and if he was going to survive whatever this was then–

    –was that a firefly?

    No. A single mote of blue-green light floated up in front of him, an ember on the wind. He was transfixed by the sight, surrounded as he was by dark and not dark. The thrumming didn’t slow, but it did… spread. To the mote. As if this tiny mote of light could shoulder the tiniest part of his burden. Another mote, and another more floated up beneath the first as it continued its path domewards. With each mote Bellicose realized he could breathe just a little bit easier, that the thrum spread to each mote about him. Suddenly there were dozens. And not just around him. The darkness retreated around the lancers as each gained their own following of light. Those with free hands reached hesitantly to touch them, while others turned their gaze upwards to follow their ascendent. A small elven smile met the sight of the others transfixed so, and Bellicose watched one lancer positively hop to grab after her own collection of glowlights. Oddly, as her boots fell back to the ground, there was less a clap of sole against stone so much as there was… a chime? Her eyes dropped to the ground, and by the light of ten thousand false fireflies Bellicose could see them go wide in surprise. Then horror.

    Bellicose followed her gaze down in time to catch the ripple of light her hop had created, across countless motes of light that now formed the ground beneath their feet. He realized with a start the entire stone circle beneath the dome had been replaced with pure light. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Then why the horror in her eyes? With a sudden sinking feeling, he tapped the light once with the toe of his boot. A softer chime sounded as a smaller ripple of light raced out from the point of contact, the motes spreading out to reveal… what could only be a bird’s eye view of a world he’d never seen before. As his own eyes widened in terror his brain comprehended he was looking down from hundreds, if not thousands of feet in the air. It was a height that did not naturally occur on Sanctus, save for the curvature of the ring. The effect was in principle similar, but gazing down as more motes spread to reveal a verdant land with thin blue ribbons (Streams? Whole Rivers? ), Bellicose realized it was not the same in practice. He developed an instant and lifelong fear of heights.

    Without warning or fanfare, the thrumming, motes, and floor all abruptly vanished together. Bellicose blanked like a fresh sheet of albino sheep parchment. As the gravity of a world he’d never felt before asserted itself first on his feet and then the rest of him in turn, there was only one thought he could muster. The same, far too late thought that surely every other member of his company was sharing.

    The gate was down.
  • Options
    Chapter 3: Inn Girum Imus Nocte Et Consumimur Ignni
    ~Dramatis Personae~
    (In Order of Appearance)

    Bellicose Fade, Lancer 1st Class (Elf) Played By Daniel Ratcliffe on Stilts
    Captain Moss, Salamander Commander (Human) Played By Reginald VelJohnson
    Dale Bornson, Salamander Lieutenant (Human) Played By Zac Oyama
    Rey Dylandy, Salamander Lieutenant (Human) Played By Samatha Béart


    -Years Ago-
    -Six Months Post Return-

    Stone pillars surrounded Salamander Company, rising to form arches, rising higher to form a dome. But this was not Sanctus. The structure was not the same one they’d stood in moments before. It couldn’t be. Sunlight highlighted gaps in the dome, nearly blinding those who suddenly found themselves standing in its broad rays. Beyond the pillars a courtyard of sorts was revealed, a far cry from the fortress they’d drilled in for six months straight. And yet, though it would often seem silly upon recollect, the most striking difference was birdsong. The trill of dozens of birds serenaded them as if in welcome, their nests dotting the wear and tear of the stonework. They sounded so… happy. They were full of life and colorful of wing in a way that made the birds Sanctus pale by comparison.

    Feet planted Verran Firma though his stomach still attempted to plunge, Bellicose’s brain caught up to his senses with a shock. He wasn’t falling anymore. Had he actually fallen? He felt locked in place, trapped in his own body, until he very suddenly wasn’t. He instinctively drew in a deep breath, and almost choked when the air was noticeably warmer than the air in his lungs it replaced. The fresh air was invigorating! The warmth seeped throughout his body, and he felt something akin to the thrum from before. This new sensation was far more subtle, trickling in slowly. It felt not a raging storm but of reserved potential, and somehow inexplicably his. Like a part of his soul he hadn’t realized he was missing. It occurred to him that if he ever saw the gate guardian commander again, he’d owe her an apology. With a pang in his heart, he knew he probably never would.

    “-are we-”
    “-D-did you-“
    “-those lights-“
    “-on your guard-“
    “-feel warm inside-“
    “-if we’re dead right?”
    “-sick on you I swear-”
    “-spells, or ‘least herbs-”
    “-if it's corruption? I don’t-”
    “-Shol’s light illuminate me-”
    “-gods above, look at the sky!”
    “-bird magenta? Have you ever-”
    “-the lieutenant touching a pillar on-”
    “-bit humid too. I thought I saw a river-”
    “-never again. To the void with Sanctus!”
    “-crying. Make yourself presentable Dale!”
    “-tents or camps. Hell, the ruins look solid-”
    “-called Summer Gale, but she’s probably a-”
    “-nearest temple, and ****ing kiss the stones!”
    “-Resna for answering my prayers, and keep a-”
    “-ancestors from Darrowshire… think its still out-”
    “-horny at a time like this!? This is history! I swear-”
    “-reform the Lightpact? I’d pledge my spear if it was-”
    “-said their older sister is an officer who could get us-”
    “I’m serious! I think I can feel magic in the very air! Its-”
    “-singing? Before we fell? Then louder as we fell? How-”
    “-get a good still going before anyone higher up notices-”
    “-bathe in the river! Check out the tans if you know what I-”
    “-and keep an eye on Dale. Gotta keep’em away from any-”
    “-crops and animals could be completely different from what-”
    “-money to be made, I mean real gold! Forget this lancer bull-”
    “-write back to my folks as soon as I find a scribe and tell them-”
    “-best I’ve ever felt, and I’ve done crystal snuff off a courtesan's-”
    “-if the sailings anything like what I’ve seen. Verra isn’t flat is it? I-”
    “-could sneak out tonight and see if we can’t find some local color-”
    “-drinking only purified water just in case. Don’t know what humors-”
    “-cloak out of a ****ing dragon’s hide! You can’t tell me that isn’t the-”
    One voice cut through the rest.

    “Form up salamanders!” Captain Moss shouted, and the company jumped to follow the order. A number of lightly armored soldiers crossed the courtyard and under the dome to meet with the captain. After sharp salutes were exchanged new orders were evidently passed, and the captain turned to address the formation.

    “Alright lancers, we’ll follow these guards to the supply depot and you’ll drop any goods and hand receipts you volunteered to carry. After everyone is settled up, we’ll be escorted to a bivouac that’s already been set up for us in a freshly cleared section of the city. Keep your hands to yourselves, and if you start to feel…” the captain paused to side eye the camp guards, “...magical, alert one of our escorts immediately. There are evaluation stations set up to test any newly discovered talents, and apparently a monthly bonus pay if you rate high enough.” An excited murmur passed through the company at the mention of free coin. “Yes yes, shut your ****holsters!” The escort next to him looked young enough to be his daughter, and her eyes positively bulged out of her head at his last comment. The captain certainly had a way with words, and there was a reason he was in the AOR though he was a man of considerable talent. “We’re at ease within the city ruins, but let's double step out of here! The next company is scheduled to travel through the gate in 15 minutes. Now hussle!”

    The next hour passed in a wondrous haze. The sun was high, and the sky bluer than Bellicose. They moved through the reclaimed areas of the ancient Aela ruins accompanied by escorts and the ever present distant sound of running water. Apparently much of the former capital city had been built on a great river. He quickly deduced one of the first tasks the original soldiers must had set to, once the city was secure of course, was clearing the detritus so some of the inter city canals could flow once more. With every step Bellicose felt more alive, and by the time they reached the supply depot he was practically bouncing off his heels. He was glad to be rid of the carrying pole with its hanging sacks and the barrel under his arm, as well as for the 10 silver and change he made off transporting the goods from Sanctus. It wasn’t much, but he was low on coinage at the moment, having invested so much of what money he had into personal gear and supplies for this venture.

    The march from the depot to their bivouac was even livelier. An entire army was more or less camped within what was left of the city walls, filling in the rough shape of what was Once with what was New. The sight of a number of orcs and dwarves surprised Bellicose, though he noted most of whom he saw appeared to be skilled tradesmen, smiths or carpenters, that would have been highly sought after to help restore the capital. He was only marginally jealous they’d beat him through the gate… but once his contract was done he’d be free to escape the city limits. He decided he got the better lot. Only a few of the buildings they passed along the way appeared to be restored and inhabited, and a great many more appeared too dangerous to attempt to occupy. Mostly, he noted two or three walled remains that had been cleared out, with camps set inside for the additional shelter. He hoped they’d be so lucky.

    The formation was led towards what seemed to be the outer section of the city, down a grassy road that followed along a canal filled with supplies being ferried to and fro on rafts. They turned down a side street, and he noticed someone had scrawled on the remains of a wall ‘Tent City’ in ash. The buildings’ footprints grew smaller, and the surviving structures had fewer levels. After passing several lots with occupied tents, the company finally arrived at a two story structure that was only mostly missing one of the walls. A small walled yard surrounded the building, and 20 or 30 tents were spread across the dilapidated building and yard. They were given the rest of the day to settle in and get their bearings, and the captain set them to immediately reorganizing the space. By the time their escorts had returned to show them to the mess area for dinner, the first floor of ‘Salamander House’ had been converted to the company common area and the second floor to the officer quarters and stores. The tents were arranged in orderly rows along either side of the courtyard, either against the outer wall or the building. There was just enough of the yard left for a large campfire, and the road out front was cleared enough for drills. By and large, if they couldn’t have a proper barracks, it was as nice a setup as they could reasonably expect.

    Lieutenant Bornson also accidentally conjured a willow o’wisp of lightning that injured three others and burned down a tarp covering a hole in the ruined structure. Bellicose hadn’t seen the actual conjuring in action, but he was one of the first lancers to rush to render first aid alongside Captain Moss. As they began applying balms and bandages, the oddest look of confusion flashed over the captain’s face. Before the officer really knew what he was doing, he emitted a soft glow from his hands as he rubbed the cooling balm over the wounds of one lancer, and by the time he was done there seemed little need for bandages, though they wrapped the injury site all the same out of an abundance of caution. Though Captain Moss warned the rest of the company to wait until they visited one of the evaluation stations to attempt further magic lest they ‘hose themselves or others’, Bellicose noted lancers trying every matter of gesture and phrase to elicit a magical effect when the captain was absent or had his back turned. Some of them even succeeded, to various degrees.

    Bellicose for his part was simply delighting in his new found vigor. True he might miss out on the bonus coin if he didn’t manage to manifest any sufficiently impressive magicks, but he also wasn’t concerned about any shortcomings either.

    As an elf amongst men, he was more than confident in his abilities. He had several years of training under his silvered belt, both under his families’ tutelage and then more recently as an AOR recruit. He could wield the bow, sword, and spear as well as anyone and better than most. In addition there was any number of weaponry besides that he’d at least not hurt himself wielding if he must. The rations he’d carefully packed that morning he’d dried and prepared by hand, a useful skill from his days of fielding training. He was a fair hand at horse riding, and a crack shot in the saddle. So maybe his personality was a touch too flighty for proper military discipline and bearing at times. And so what if his little pranks weren’t as well received as they were funny? Hilarious even! He more than made up for these slights with his battle prowess anyway. Dexterous enough to out wrestle stronger opponents, spry enough to leap a camel in a single bound, and clever enough to out play a fair number of opponents at Go; he was as well rounded as a captain could ask for in a lancer.

    Not that he planned to be a lancer much longer. Technically speaking Bellicose was already six months into his year and a day he’d signed up for, and he doubted he would ‘re-up’ his contract. He’d actually tried out for the AORian scouts corps initially. The thinking went that he'd be in one of the first companies through the divine gate, but he hadn’t anticipated Aelan scouts placing such a high value on stealth in the field. Bellicose was fine at camouflaging himself from a distance and moving silently, and his longbow sniping was second to none during qualifiers. Stealth at closer ranges however… well, as the tallest elf any of his instructors had ever seen in their lives, he hadn’t been difficult to find. He allowed that the blue skin could have perhaps something to do with it, but only just. At any rate, he’d been forced to watch his scout class got their shot at Verra before most while he brushed up on spear and shield… for six long months. But no longer. He was actually standing on Verra!


    That night the company gathered in and around the first floor of the Salamander House. They created an impromptu porch with a tarp ceiling in front of the open walled side of the first floor, so they could include those who couldn’t comfortably fit in the common room. It wasn’t particularly well lit just yet, and even those in the shelter of the building had to squint to make Captain Moss out. He revealed the building had actually been a small tavern before the exodus. He learned this fact when one of the lancers collapsed part of the ground floor by freezing the stone floor, and causing several icy blocks to slip where the mortar was worn away. The stones crashed into a previously unknown basement, and a squad that roped down found several partially filled wine racks. Beyond all expectations, some of the wine was actually still good. The softly glowing runes crafted into the racks, notably only around the bottles that were still good, just might have had something to do with their state. The good captain had decided to make the most of the discovery by leading a toast with the company. It would certainly make for good morale, and the way rumors flew around it would have been impossible to keep the stash a secret at any rate. It took every clay mug, tin travel cup, the captain’s glassware, flask, and bowl available, but the company readied 100 drinks.

    “If you sonsof******* could stop setting our camp on fire for five minutes,'' Captain Moss paused for polite laughter and a few catcalls, “I’d like to share a few words. Tonight, for the first time in our lives, we sleep under a sky full of stars. If I could trust you chuckle****s, I’d assign a shift of archers on the roof in case there’s night flyers to worry about, but I don’t want to wake to the roof collapsing on me.” He shook his head at the thought and sighed. “Make no mistake, this world will be the greatest challenge of our lives. I’ve already touched base with a couple of other captains, and while the immediate area around the city is mostly safe, incidents are still common. The wildfire here is numerous, incredibly diverse, and extremely dangerous. Outside the city walls you’ll stick with your squads at all times for safety.” Lieutenant Dylandy coughed pointedly, and the captain read the room. “But I suppose all that can wait till tomorrow. For now just let me say you lot are the motley-est crew I’ve ever laid eyes on, but if you get yourself killed you’ll answer to me. Its a brave new world, but its our ****ing world! We’ll break this *****’s back even if we have to ride her till the Seven call us home!”

    “Fh-**** yea!” lieutenant Bornson called, in a voice that suggested he’d already sampled some of the wine earlier.

    One of the sergeants cursed under their breath. “****ing really Dale…?”

    “ANYWAY,” Captain Moss raised his drink, and 99 more rose in answer. “Lancers. To the Seven’s Peace!”

    Lieutenant Dylandy raised her glass higher. “For King and Country!”

    Lieutenant Borson raised his glass higher as well. “Fooor Verra!”

    “And with the formalities out of the way….” Moss raised his glass as high as he could, and a subtle light about his hand illuminated his drink. His crystal held red wine became a fiery beacon that in the dim light was especially impressive. “SALAMANDERS! **** THEM UP!”

    99 voices responded. “AND BURN THEM DOWN!”

    100 drinks were thrown back, finished, and the gathering broke into cheers. A second round, and the captain warned the last, was poured to more cheering. The rest of the night was a merry gathering as Captain Moss worked his way throughout the space, making sure to take a few minutes at each improvised table and conversation circle to check in with his lancers.

    Sitting on a barrel tucked in the corner with his back against the wall, Bellicose was both in the heart of the party as well as removed enough to observe the festivities. Torch light caught in his eyes despite his corner being particularly dim, and the heat of the moment danced in his heart. These humans could cut loose as freely as any elf he’d known, and while they lacked elven grace they made up for it with pure zeal. The musk of dusty ruins and too many bodies in proximity made for an oddly alluring fragrance, and he longed for a good elven dance fire. Still, this was good. He almost felt as if he could draw strength merely from the comradery in the air. It was intoxicating, and if he got any more heady he might let one of the officers who’d been flashing her battle scars at him all evening drag them back to her bedroll.

    He imbibed his wine. It tasted of strawberries and smoked oak, bringing him back to his youth. It was good enough to be served at an elven noble’s table, and he guessed that they hundred humble foot soldiers were demolishing their weight in gold’s worth of wine. If he factored in the fact that this could be the last vintage of old Aela left, never mind the eons they’d been impossibly preserved, even just one of the bottles was for all intents and purposes absolutely priceless. And what was more, Bellicose was fairly sure Captain Moss knew that. He might even be hiding a bottle or two to cash in to retire on, but the old bastard probably hadn’t hesitated to spoil his ‘motley crew’ with the rest. And the rest of the lancers as like had no idea.

    “Alone as usual, elf?” The captain observed when he made his way around to Bellicose’s corner.

    With a smile and a wink Bellicose responded. “I like to watch.” He earned the eye roll he hoped for from the nonsense human.

    Captain Moss leaned against the wall next to Bellicose and crossed his arms, observing the merriment. “I appreciate your keen eyes, but it might be a good time to start sticking closer to your squadmates.”

    From the corner of his eye Bellicose caught Lieutenant Dylandy eyeing them as she passed by an illuminating, glassless window a dozen paces away, and he got the distinct impression she’d been seeking him out specifically. Maybe it was the way she slightly bit her lip as she studied him. Their eyes met, and hers widened as she realized she’d been caught. She apparently decided to own it, and favored him with a cocky grin, still biting her lip. She even slowly ran a finger down a scar on her neck. The scar trailed down, disappearing into her open topped shirt, where she hung her finger for a moment to pull it down just a touch, further exposing her décolletage. Well. That settled it; he was definitely her prey on tonight’s prowl.

    “You make a convincing argument,” the mischievous elf replied, “I’ll definitely start sticking close to someone or another.”

    The captain grunted, oblivious to the cross-room flirting. “I mean it. Watch their backs, but let them watch yours as well. The riverlands have been cutting the fat from companies rather fast, eating the foolhardy and loners alike. I know you think you’re above us mere humans. I have it on good authority, however, that the other powers are having as much of a hard time as we are, your kin included.”

    That… was actually disturbing. The captain was many things, but a liar he was not. It was difficult to imagine the Queen’s Dragoons were struggling with mere wildlife, and they’d almost certainly been spearheading the py’raian reclamation efforts. Bellicose’s mirth faded a touch.

    “Just be a teamplayer Lancer Fade.” A dark weathered hand clamped Bellicose’s shoulder. “Keep faith with the Seven and your fellow lancers, and I’m sure we’ll all do fine.” Captain Moss pushed off the wall with his back and began to turn to walk away.

    “Worry not cap’n, I plan to lead a private prayer service this very night.”

    The captain turned back in confusion, then followed Bellicose’s line of sight to the auburn lieutenant who’d begun approaching. “For ****’s sake Rey, not again,” he muttered under his breath, and locked eyes with the elf.

    Fraternization between officers and the rank and file lancers was, of course, absolutely forbidden. It was also a rule followed about as well as the rest in a reserve unit. Which was to say, not at all, or at least not publicly.

    “There will be no problems with good order and discipline Lancer Fade.” It wasn’t a threat or a promise; he was stating fact. His tone suggested it was ill advised to challenge that fate. “I know Lieutenant Dylandy knows that. I know you know it.”

    Hmm… the captain wasn’t technically ordering anything to not happen. He knew better than to issue orders no one planned on following, and there were more strategic hills to die on. It was a night for morale after all. Bellicose had tipped toed across thinner tightropes over deeper abysses than this situation presented.

    Bellicose dipped his head slightly and touched two fingers to his lips, then his forehead. “Of course cap’n, I wouldn’t dream of disrupting the ranks.”

    Captain Moss departed without further word. A certain lieutenant occupied his spot on the wall, though her body language was far, far more inviting.

    Lancer Fade,” the greeting was standard; the delivery anything but.

    “Please ma’am, it's a night for dropping such formalities. Call me Bellicose.”

    “Okay Bellicose…Belli.” He could see the effort it took her to keep her face casual. “No formalities. Tonight I’m just Rey.” Her tone was decidedly less casual, but low enough that only he could hear.

    “I’ve heard you are something of a skilled scout. Actually, that you almost made it into the scout corps?” She raised a questioning eyebrow.

    Bellicose found this to be an unexpected but nonetheless interesting opening. He grew excited at the possible places she could take the topic of ‘scout’, including the obvious.

    He dipped his head and tilted his face slightly towards her ear. “It's true I’m afraid. I’m a failure,” he joked. Full of false humility, he allowed a breathy sigh into her ear, and observed her human bumps rising. “Something about being too big and blue.”

    It was Rey’s turn to tilt her head ever so slightly towards his, her own voice growing breathy as well. “Some of us ladies in the company have a pool going, you know. A few men too. Whether you are… blue all over…?”

    It was a line Bellicose was so thoroughly familiar with that he had already mentally prepped his response. “Young miss Rey,” he said with mock surprise, suddenly louder than he’d been all conversation,” what a deliciously scandalous question! How ever am I, a cultured, older, more experienced elf of refined upbringing to respond?”

    She jumped in surprise at his volume and quickly looked about to see if any of the others had noticed. Thankfully more than a few of them had procured modern ales from elsewhere in camp, and the night was developing into quite the brewhaha. No one seemed to pay their little corner any mind. Her shock quickly turned to mock anger, and she punched him playfully in the shoulder. She was sure to let her hand there for a moment, just in case there were hard feelings.

    Bellicose also noted the distinct lack of attention.

    He turned his head fully to face her, his voice returning to their conspiratorial tones. “Why, how would you feel if I asked whether you were… red all over…?” His voice was so low it was positively husky now. Under the cover of dim light, a long elven finger began tracing the scar on her neck slowly. “What if I asked whether the roses matched the hedge?”

    Turning to meet his gaze, her eyes were intense enough to light the building on fire again. “Would you like to find out?”

    “Did you bet blue all over?”


    He dropped his most devastating elven smolder on her. “Well, you’ll certainly need to confirm it for yourself to claim your prize.”

    For a hardened warrior, her cheeks couldn’t possibly blush any more. “T-There’s a, uh, bit of a building ‘round the corner I noticed earlier. Only partially cleared out. Would you join me in a little scouting expedition?”

    Ah! He’d almost forgotten she’d opened with a scouting line.

    “I’d be a craven coward not to aid you on this quest.”

    Without another word, Lieutenant Rey Dylandy heroically led Lancer First Class Bellicose Fade on a daring nighttime scouting mission. And yes, she did indeed confirm that blue elves were blue the whole way round. For science. In recognition of her distinguished accomplishments, Lieutenant Dylandy earned 20 silver from her peers, as well as their pride and admiration.

    For his part, Lancer Fade was content to simply serve at his superior officer’s pleasure. He was also pleased to discover the roses were indeed red, and smelled twice as lovely.

    (Author's Note: The unedited version of this story can be found on Ao3 under the same name.)
  • Options
    HydromanceHydromance Member
    edited February 15
    Chapter 4: Periculum Inn Mora

    ~Dramatis Personae~
    (In Order of Appearance)

    Bellicose Fade, Lancer 1st Class (Py’rai Elf) Played By Daniel Ratcliffe on Silts
    River Spirit (Elemental) Played By Andy Serkis
    Rey Dylandy (Human) Played By Samatha Béart


    -Many Years Ago-
    -One Year Post Return-

    Dark clouds rolled over a dusky red sun horizon, promising distant troubles.

    For Bellicose Fade however, trouble had already found him.For an elf with supernatural, Essence-fueled stamina Bellicose was short on breath. He flew through the forest’s underbrush having long since thrown caution to the wind. He was in as rough condition as he could recall, though in fairness the fever hampered his memory somewhat. His left arm was hastily belted to his chest, and he was grateful for the numbness for the time being. He was certain the blinding pain would return sooner than later. At least the arm was in one piece, which was more than he could say for the shield it once held; the traitor’s axe had seen to that. His spear was buried too deep in a separate traitor’s chest to quickly retrieve, and that too had been abandoned. All he had now to his name was the leather armor on his back and an arming sword he traded the dead traitor for his spear. It was a testament to the direness of the situation he found himself in that he ran towards the oncoming storm.

    Thunder rung in the distance though no lightning flashed. Bellicose hissed. He’d grown accustomed to the cacophonous wave of a lightning ball frying everything within reach like so much kindling. Unfortunately for him, his squad mage was dead along with the rest. He didn’t know how many andirons were chasing what was left of his company, but it was likely the salamanders were as out magicked as they were outnumbered.

    How had it all gone so wrong? He’d always known humans were fickle, but for so many soldiers to outright desert was unconscionable. The worst had turned to raiding the nascent camps or the caravans supporting them. Settlers who already had their hands full with just trying to survive off the land stood no chance. And now this, hunting their former comrades. Bellicose was sick to his stomach. He didn’t know how much of the feeling was disgust, and how much was the disconcertingly green tinged wound from the arrow he’d dug from his side. He wasn’t sure he wanted to know. The bastards that assaulted his patrol and chased him even now were aptly named. Andirons the curs had named themselves. They’d been the latest defectors, and they drew their name from the two companies from which they’d primarily defected. The majority of the turncoats were light cavalry from Wolfheart Company. Their stolen mounts made for excellent hit and run tactics on the many small civilian camps that were beginning to spring up throughout the Riverlands. Unfortunately, the rest of the traitors… were from Salamander Company itself. And so fire dogs became Andirons.

    Parrying branches that whipped by with his stolen sword, he tried not to think about the lancers with whom he’d broken bread, sharing fires and occasionally beds. So many of them were either cold in the ground, or hot on his heels. He wasn’t sure which group clawed at his heart more. Even in his sorrow, he couldn’t help but judge both. What was worse, he hated himself for it even as he recognized he was attempting to distance himself from the pain. He reminded himself they only humans. He’d mistaken them for good folk, who’s comradery he’d foolishly grown to enjoy so much that he’d been seriously considering renewing his contract after all. A contract that should he survive the night he’d actually be free of, though he didn’t hold his odds in high regard.

    Grief and fear rocked his body as much as his physical ailments. His heart seared hotter than the poison burning in his side, the pin pricks that were slowly growing from his left should down to the elbow, or the fever tightening a vice around his temples. His body was beaten, but it was his soul that was shattered. He’d lost everything.



    Bursting out of the tree line at last, Bellicose half rolled down a furrow, and using his momentum bounced up to flip over the other side. ****ing hells did it hurt to twist so, and he landed on his bad arm to boot. Suddenly the pin pricks were erupting up and down his entire arm. He wasn’t sure how much more pain he could handle before it overwhelmed his mind, let alone his body. Picking himself up from the ground, he froze midway. A body lay not 20 paces from him, where the sloping ground met the muddy edge of a large forest stream, or perhaps a small river. He quickly scanned up and down the waterway, while his ears were suddenly attuned to every shifting branch and rustling bush. Of his sense of smell, the decay of death overwhelmed any other scents that might otherwise alert him to imminent danger. A low rumble of thunder, this time properly accompanied by the gleam of distinct storm light, reminded him his time grew thin. Bracing himself for what, or who, he may find, he snuck closer to the body.

    The corpse was in rough shape. He surmised it had been human, though it was difficult to tell at a glance. It was covered in a partially dried mix of mud and blood, and much of it had been smashed in. Even the fallen blade by its side had the last foot or so snapped off. They’d clearly been a soldier, though of low position given what was left of their simple armor. A small tin badge affixed to the yellowed cloak born the unfamiliar symbol of a badger. Thankfully it wasn’t a salamander. Thankfully it wasn’t… another body of a comrade he couldn’t bury. Bellicose supposed he should feel terrible for such a selfish thought, but he was currently emotionally exhausted past the capacity. If he lived through this nightmare, he was sure the guilt would haunt him eventually. He eyed the cloak, and then the sinister clouds that neared ever closer. It really wasn’t his color, but he might as well adding desecrating a corpse to his list of sins to feel guilty over if he weathered the storm. As he awkwardly pulled and worked the cloak free from the remains with his one good arm, he considered the evidence before him. The body was at least half a day old, so the danger may not be immediate. He was the first looter on the scene, suggesting it hadn’t been brigands that rearranged the corpse’s face and chest, so the danger was local. The sword hadn’t prevailed against the assailant or assailants, and neither had… well hello there! A long, surprisingly elven bow lay a few feet further, partially obscured by reeds. This was an interesting development. Unfortunately he didn’t have time to solve the mystery of how what appeared a low ranked human soldier came to possess such fine eleven craftsmanship just now. Instead, Bellicose ever so carefully rolled the body on its side as best he could, trying not to vomit as parts of the body did not hold together well. He mostly succeeded, save for the burning of the back of his throat. He was rewarded for his efforts with a hip quiver, though it contained only a handful of arrows. Quickly checking the missiles, he was forced to discard two that had snapped, though he kept a third that had only lost its arrowhead. The baying of hounds in the distance encouraged him to move with more haste, and he half tore the belts for the quiver and sword from the sundered remains.

    Corpse blade sheathed, traitor’s sword carefully tucked through the belt behind the sheath, and quiver belted to the small of his back, he retrieved the bow. It looked in fair condition, and the bowstring as dry as he dared hope. The cloak was foul and too heavy for his likening, coated as it was in river mud and spilled blooded, but it could still obfuscate him from the sight of his pursuers should he need hide. Hells, the spatters of brown and red on the yellow canvas actually made it a better camouflage for what was left of the autumn foliage. The deathly miasma about it might almost help cloak his own stench from the hounds that were surely hot on his scent. Hopefully he didn’t catch a disease from it in the meantime. Luckily the hood seemed spared the worst of the filth as it hadn’t been worn at the time of death, and though it wasn’t quite large enough to properly conceal his features, he could at least stretch it over his branchlers for some shelter. With the sun quickly setting and a web of darkness stretching out from under the forest canopy, he imagined he cut quite the alarming figure.

    He eyed the opposing tree line across the river. The ground quickly climbed on the opposite shore into a short bluff, the trees partially obscured by the elevation. If there was danger there it eluded his gaze. Of course, there was danger everywhere on Verra, but he weighted the unknown threats he may yet sneak past against the hope that a river crossing could further help to scatter his scent and tracks. It was the least difficult decision of the evening thus far.

    Bellicose made it three steps into the shallows before the riverbed began to shift and rise. A mound of mud began to grow, carrying fist sized rocks that cracked loudly as they jumbled together.

    He didn’t panic. He didn’t breathe. He didn’t even blink. Instead, he slowly backpedaled with as soft and muted steps as he could, sliding his boots gently through the water until he returned to solid ground.

    On second thought, this side of the river wasn’t all that bad, was it? He could traverse the forest’s edge for a bit longer and try crossing further upstream where the footing wasn’t so… perilous.

    He spun on his heel to run—

    —straight into the tip of a spear, impaling himself through the abdomen. He knew instantly it was a terrible gut wound, likely fatal. Just as he knew the auburn hair and shocked, grey slate eyes of the woman who held the spear.“… Belli?” Rey Dylandy, former Lieutenant of Salamander Company, asked with what seemed genuine horror, her voice barely above a whisper.

    The barest smile managed to form on his lips, though speaking was beyond him. At least he could die knowing Rey would regret running him through. The growing sound of water displacing reminded him she’d need to survive first.

    ****ing he—!” Her cry cut short as Bellicose clamped his hand over her mouth with what strength he could muster.

    He wasn’t sure that whatever was slowly emerging could hear them, but best not to tempt fate. He shook his head, and when he saw the understanding dawn in her eyes he dropped his hand to hers.

    Go,’ he mouthed, and began prying her fingers from the spear.

    Her eyes darted over his shoulder and back to meet his, and horror turned to grim determination across her face as her hands tightened around the haft. Perhaps it was the rapid onset of blood loss induced shock, but for the span of a single heartbeat, Bellicose actually thought she meant to fight to save him. She’d be crazy to try.

    Apparently, she agreed.

    “I’m sorry,” she whispered, and ripped the spear from his torso.

    Bellicose was gone before he registered her sorrow.


    It was with no small amount of surprise that Bellicose awoke. His mind swam in a haze darkly, but he was reasonably sure his last memory was being murdered by a former lover. The day was truly full of surprises.

    As his eyes focused and his senses expanded, he became aware of several interesting facts.

    One. He was lying flat on his back against the cold ground, yet he held something small and warm in his hand against his chest. Warm enough in fact that his body was only cold where it contacted the ground beneath him.

    Two. He was in a small cave of some sort, barely illuminated by a soft blue-white light. The corpse cloak, vaguely greenish in the light, was hung from roots that pierced through the cavetop, and appeared to be mostly covering the exit. It helped block the elements and conceal the light.

    Three. As feeling returned he realized that while he still sore across his body, particularly in his left arm and gut, he was no longer in actual pain. The burning in his side was gone, as well as the fever. His left arm was laid out flat against his body and no longer felt broken.

    Four. Perhaps most surprising, Rey sat across the small cave from him. His collection of arms lay atop his leather armor next to her, a small glowing blue orb nestled atop the gear. In the low light, she was almost as blue as he was; he thought this was hilarious for some reason he couldn’t place.

    Five. He was still alive. Still couldn’t quite get over that.

    “So,” he practically croaked, “what’s a girl like you doing in a cave like this?” He attempted to sit up, but thought better of it when the flat of a spearhead was suddenly lightly but firmly pressed against his throat.

    “I need your word that you’ll hear me out.” Her voice was quite, serious. It promised consequences. “I don’t mean to explain myself to you; I owe you nothing. But I do want to… talk. While we still can.”

    Bellicose thought she rather owed him a lot, for her betrayal if nothing else, but it was an argument that wouldn’t be worth the effort. He slowly reached up and gently pushed the spear just far enough from his throat that he could speak without the risk of impaling himself against it twice in one day. “Of course,” he replied.

    The spear retreated, but she kept it at her side. Ready if need be. Yes, this was going splendidly.

    She pulled a small squat vial, no larger than a a fist, from her pouch and held it up so that he could see. “I burned through two of these to keep you alive. Don’t make me regret it.”

    He sat up fully, leaning his back against the equally cold cave wall. In the soft blue of the cave the vial appeared to be filled with a blue-black fluid, but Bellicose knew in proper lightning it would be a mixture of berry red and ambersap tones. He realized he could still taste the bitter king’s foil on his tongue, and on a hunch checked his stomach. Though blood thoroughly soaked his riptorn shirt, the area where she’d sheathed her spear was stained in additional hues that would match the potion.

    “I assume the potions are from the batch you lifted from the company stores?” It’d been the salamanders’ first, and sadly only, shipment of health potions. It was still no small miracle that such magic, straight out of a fairy tale, was possible. It had been among the very first lost formulas that the Returned alchemists rediscovered.

    “I said I owe you nothing. You should be grateful that I saved your life.”

    That was fair.

    “You owe me a good bit of gold for them you know.”

    That wasn’t.

    “You may think you owe me nothing. You owe Bornson an arm though.” Bellicose cooly observed.

    Rey sighed as she placed the potion atop the pile of his gear. “I saved Dale’s life.”

    “I’m glad your life saving abilities improved before you got around to impaling me.”

    Her stare was almost sharp enough to stab him again. “The others would have killed him. I made sure he didn’t give them a reason to, and let’s be honest; he’d of gotten himself killed eventually if he stayed a lancer.”

    Okay well, that was a pretty accurate assessment. The very first health potion had been used on Lieutenant Bornson when he wandered off from his squad, stumbled into a nest of blood thirsty ambulatory plant monsters, set them on fire with his growing powers, and was terribly burned when they bullrushed him. Bellicose wasn’t about to admit to it though, and changed the subject.

    Do Rey tell me, fa so la ti do,” he called singsong, “why am I alive? Why spare the effort, never mind the potions?” He was definitely still a touch lightheaded.

    “Don’t try to be cute,” she abolished. “You were never half as cute as you thought you were you know.”

    He sat up straighter and clutched his stomach. “Okay, ouch. I think that hurt more than the spear.”

    The cave was small enough it was easier for Rey to cross at a crouch than stand up. The slap held nothing back. She knelt next to Bellicose, ignoring the flare of anger in his eyes, and continued.

    “Do not test me Bellicose Fade.” Her face was harder than he’d ever seen it. “You’re only alive now because I didn’t realize it was you when I struck. I’m still in the process of deciding whether to let you live or finished what I started.” She took him by the shoulders and forced him to lay back down.

    He charitably allowed her to guide him to the ground. He knew all too well she was capable of backing up her threats with action. He also decided uncharacteristically to hold his tongue. His face stung fiercely, and he didn’t trust his self control at the moment. He was as like to say something to get his throat cut as try to kiss her… which probably was also likely to get his throat cut.

    Rey took a depth, and began checking over Bellicose’s wounds. “I am sorry, you know. I don’t regret leaving. I am sorrow about hurting you.”

    Her apology mellowed him somewhat, and the anger in his eyes softened. “You could have said something, left a note. Mayhaps I would have joined you.”

    She had the gall to laugh. “I’m sorry about the spear Bellicose.” She paused when she saw the hurt on his face. “Belli,” she said softer and cupped a hand to his face, “be serious. It was fun while it lasted, but we both know it was just fun. You play the fool, but you never would have abandoned your oaths, even for me. Besides, its not like you ever actually had feelings for me.” There wasn’t a trace of emotion to her voice as she probed the scarring from the spear. She was simply stating facts.

    “In the beginning sure. Mayhaps I developed feelings latter,” he said defensively.

    The look she gave him was equal parts incredulous and humored. “Oh really? And how long ago did these so called feels develop? Skinny-dipping in the lake? When we snuck off on night watch? When we almost got caught in the basement?” Her fingers glided over his ribs where the poisoned barb had bit, poking tenderly.

    Bellicose smarted from her playful tone, and with a jolt of sudden clarity found his face warming. “I don’t know…,” he said slowly as he unraveled the complexity of his feelings, “…how long did it take for you to drag me here?”

    Rey paused her triage as the gravity of his question hit her. She hid her face and any emotions it might betray. Instead, slowly, she laid down besides him, resting her head on his chest. She hadn’t done that in months. Actually… she hadn’t done that since their very first night together. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders.

    “I’m sorry,” was all she said.

    “I know,” was all he replied.

    She’d been ready to drive her spear through his throat less than two minutes before, and now was cuddling up next to him. Human women were crazy.

    “20 minutes,” she whispered into his chest.


    She turned her face to look up at him. “We aren’t far from the river at all. It couldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes.” Her face was steady, but when she turned to lay against his chest again, he thought he might of felt the smallest touch of cool moisture press against him. He honestly wasn’t sure if he was imagining it. Given how the conversation was going, he preferred not to know.

    “So. Are you going to kill me?” he asked cautiously.

    “Probably not, but don’t push me,” she threatened.

    At this point that was about as good odds as he was going to get. Better than the odds her fellow andirons or that river creature would have given— wait!

    “You said it was 20 minutes back to the river!?” He didn’t try to hid the alarm in his voice.

    “No, I said it took 20 minutes to drag your gangly elven ass here,” she corrected him. “You’re lucky I’d already stumbled upon this den before I… found you.”

    “Rey, there was half a squad of andirons chasing me before we stumbled into each other!” Part of him wanted to throw her off and grab his gear. Part of him wanted to hold her closer and damn the consequences. “If they haven’t already found us and are waiting for me to politely exit so they can take turns undoing your good work, they’ll be upon us soon enough!”

    She shook her head as she lay against him. “We are fine for now. I sent Smalls off with a bloody bit of your armor, made it look like you’d doubled back through the woods. The hounds following you are good, but it will take time for them to realize their mistake. I dropped an ever smoking candle by the river to confuse our scent as well.”

    Once skewered, Bellicose hadn’t had the presence of mind to notice Smalls, Rey’s pet… something. They still honestly weren’t sure what it was, half way between a pangolin and a boar. It was entirely too intelligent for the elf’s liking, and it was very much named ironically.

    “Our tracks?” He asked next.

    She clicked the heels of her boots together in response. Ah, of course. Her blessed boots. The main body of the salamanders had been on an extended patrol in the near wilds a few months prior; kobolds swarmed their camp one night en mass. The company had no idea there were even nests in the area. The little bastards had some magical way of not leaving tracks, and to the surviving lancers’ delight they’d discovered the power to be native to their scales. Half the company sported kobold hide boots afterwards. Unfortunately for Bellicose, his squad had been loaned out to another company at the time, helping to secure an important caravan heading to the Winstead encampment.

    He worked backwards through his memory, searching for anything else that could give them away. “Did the boots work on the blood trail?” Surely he’d loss half his life’s blood on the trip.

    She shook her head again. “I doused your stomach with half of the first potion immediately. It sealed up pretty good, but I’m afraid the scaring is… bad. I don’t think I got the rest of the potion down your throat in time to clear it up.” He felt a finger slide over the scaring, tracing the cross it made. He winced, but not from pain. Despite her light touch, he could feel how raised the scarring was, and dreaded getting a better look at it eventually. Scaring on humans could be quite fetching. Rey herself was evidence enough. For an elf however… he’d be forever marred. If he wasn’t already welcomed in polite elven society, knowledge of the unbecoming scars would do the trick.

    Still, he rested easier. They were probably safe for the time being. The sun had clearly set, and the soft pitter-patter of rain drops foretold the distant storm was distant no longer.


    “Rey, how long was I out? I hear the rain, but is the storm coming or going?”

    “Still coming. It hasn’t been quite an hour yet since I found you. I dragged you back, fed you the other half of the potion, removed your gear, and cleaned your wounds. When you didn’t wake, I fed you the entire second bottle. That was… 10 minutes ago?”

    She was resourceful, strong, and fleet of both foot and thought. Qualities Bellicose had always admired, but now doubly so. Triple even. He felt fresh feelings growing and quashed them down. He was already in enough pain.

    They laid quietly together listening to the rain slowly build. It could have been 10 seconds or 10 minutes. Bellicose focused on trying to hold Rey tight but not too tight, to memorize exactly how she felt against him. However long it took, he finally realized he was acting like a nervous teen. Even worse, a nervous human teen.

    Rey had been right about one thing. The flirting, the sneaking, the sex; everything between them had just been for fun. Voidal Hells, half the fun was the forbiddeness, the thrill they might get caught. When they’d hid in the Salamander House basement and almost been caught by a lancer skulking about for any missed wine bottles, he’d seen the thrill in her eyes grow until she couldn’t handle it. That had been… one of their most intimate encounters. He grinned like the fool he was just recalling the memory. But it had never been about him, or at least, not because of him. Not really. It could have been, would have been, any of the other lancers if he hadn’t let the magic of that first Verran night go to his head. And in absolute fairness, it was the same for him. She’d always been the fun, flirty human woman with the exotic red human hair.

    Until she wasn’t. Until now. Until it was too late.

    His arm relaxed. She nestled her face into him deeper.

    He let his mind wander, though it didn’t wander far from her, and a new question occurred to him.

    “Young miss Rey,” He asked suddenly, “what was the creature in the river? How did you defeat it?”

    His chest muffled a laugh, and she rolled away to rest on his arm. “Are you kidding? I didn’t try to fight it! I pulled the spear because I knew it’d be easier to drag you back here unconscious than try to lead you back on death’s door with a gut wound.” Her brow knitted in concentration. “Its hard to describe exactly. Do you remember those golems that caused us to divert around that gully once?”

    “Earth elementals,” Bellicose corrected.

    “Sure elf boy.” She stuck her tongue out at him.

    Without thinking, he leaned over to kiss her. She caught his face before he could. An odd look flashed across her face, somewhere between anger and pain. She leaned forward and gave him the slowest kiss he’d ever experienced. When she pulled away, her eyes were wet. She laid her head back down, still resting on his arm, and started at the cave roof with tears unshed.

    Bellicose understood. He reached towards her face, hesitating when she flinched. His joke earlier aside, that one tic actually did hurt more than the spear did, going in or out. She relaxed, and when she didn’t pull away or push his hand back, he quietly wiped her tears away. He laid back down to join her in studying the cave roof, neither of them addressing the tears.

    “Don’t go back to the river,” Rey said after a moment, and they both ignored the slight waver to her voice.


    “No,” she said more firmly, “it was huge Bellicose. Dragging you away, I could see it grow twice as tall as you, at least. It didn’t move to pursue us, but if it did…” she didn’t politely didn’t finish. They both knew if it had, they wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. He’d been dead weight, and there was no reason for her to die as well.

    “It wasn’t stone, or at least not mostly. It was mud, or sludge, and I think it spit some river rocks in our general direction. I don’t know if its aim was bad or if it wasn’t sure were we were, but the way the rocks bounced several feet off the ground was terrifying.”

    “Wow yea, okay. Not going back to the river,” he agreed.

    The rain started to pick up sightly outside.

    Rey sat up suddenly, and moved to the opposite side of the cave. She placed the glowing gem and arms to the side, pulling the worse for wear leather armor up and holding it out for Bellicose to slip his arms in.

    His heart dropping, he silently obeyed, walking on his knees so as not to knock his head against the ceiling. She was kind enough to secure some of the small straps for him, speeding up the process considerably. When she finished. She rested against his back and wrapped her arms around his chest.

    “Don’t follow me.” She commanded.

    “I know.” He obeyed.

    “Don’t think of me.” She recommended.

    “I won’t.” He lied.

    “Don’t die.” She pleaded.

    He didn’t answer.

    She slowly disengaged, and reached for the glowing stone, tapping it against the potion with his weapons. “You owe me for the first two… but this one’s on the house.” She pocketed the stone, and the cave was as dark as they both felt. “Drink it before you leave. I know you don’t have all your strength back yet.”

    “What makes you think that?” Bellicose inquired, genuinely curious.

    “Because,” she paused as she pulled the corpse cloak aside, but did not turn back, “you would have held on tighter.”

    The cloak fell back. She was gone.
  • Options
    Chapter 5: Reformatio Inn Peius

    ~Dramatis Personae~
    (In Order of Appearance)

    Bellicose Fade, Lancer 1st Class (Py’rai Elf) Played By Daniel Ratcliffe on Silts
    Axe’em of Andiron (Human) Played By Danny Trejo
    Pricker of Andiron (Human) Played By John Leguizamo
    Macey of Andiron (Human) Played By Maria Canals-Barrera
    Geoff of Andiron (Human) Played By Richard Kiel
    River Spirit (Elemental) Played By Andy Serkis
    The Puritan, Elven Scout (Empyrean Elf) Played By T2 Era Linda Hamilton


    -Many Years Ago-
    -One Year Post Return-

    Bellicose stared into darkness, at nothing, for longer than he cared to admit to himself. Finally he realized he’d squeezed his fists so tight the warm object in his hand was digging into his skin. He hadn’t opened his hand the entire time. He hadn’t needed to; he knew exactly what he held. He opened his hand now, and placed the glowing blue-white gemstone carefully on the ground. Rey—

    His heart leapt into his throat.

    she’d always loved the bluemoon stones.

    By the soft light he equipped his weapon belt and arms. It was only slightly difficult on his knees. When he was finished, he held up the last health potion and stared at it intensely. The stopper was half the width of the vial, and a thin red strap of leather wrapped around both glass and cork.

    “Sure. !##$ing why not,” he finally decided. Pulling the strap loose, he popped the cork off and downed the vial in one go. !##$. He did feel better. Stronger. His muscles felt energized, his soreness a distant memory. In a rage he threw the vial against the cave wall as hard as he could. He wished his heart could feel as good. He dropped the cork, but kept the red leather strap. He wished…. He didn’t know what he wished. He gathered six months of black mane and tied it off into a ponytail with the strap.

    Standing as tall as he dared, he swung the corpse cloak around his shoulders, hood up once more. He grabbed the bow and pocketed the moonstone, before finally half crawling from the cave. His branchlers scrapped the ceiling through the cloak, but he didn’t care. He didn’t care about a lot of things at that very moment. He just wished he couldn’t care about what hurt the most as well.

    The rain was starting to fall with a temper, and the canopy above whipped about in the wind. For half an instant he considered waiting out the storm in the cave, but he couldn’t risk it. If the andirons were still out, storm be damned, he’d be as good as dead if they cornered him. If they weren’t, he could make exceptional distance before they broke camp in the morning. Even if they were about, the storm would hide him as well as anything else. It was going to be a very, very rough journey, but he was confident he knew enough of the Riverlands by now to weather the trip in one piece. It was dark, but not so dark he felt the need to produce the bluemoon stone and make himself an easier target. Two of Verra’s three moons were out, and the glow of the closest was still cutting through the clouds, if just barely. That wouldn’t last much longer, and he needed to make as much distance as possible before the worst of the storm hit. Keeping the bow under the cloak as best he could, Bellicose oriented himself by the moss of the trees and started heading south, towards what passed for a highroad in modern Verra. If he was lucky, he could avoid any patrols in the dark, shoulder the worst of the storm, and make the gates of old Aela before the sun rose.

    The wind began whipping harder at his back as Bellicose half climbed/half stumbled up a short but steep hill, putting trees between him and the rain as often as he could. He was already miserable, especially as the late fall frost was heavy upon the ground. He moved the moonstone from his pocket to tuck it under his armor where it could press against his chest, where the warmth would count the most. He hoped… she was doing better than he was at the moment. The only silver lining was as the rain began to sting, it really took his mind away from more painful topics he might otherwise have dwelt on. As he crested the hill, he was glad to slip and fall at the last moment. Not for the jolt from landing on his face, sobering though it was and distracting from his thoughts. No, he was glad he wasn’t silhouetted by moonlight at the top of the hill; it meant the andiron squad he had just about stumbled on top of belike hadn’t seen him just yet.

    Bellicose promptly slid back down the rain slick, leaf covered hillside for a few feet, before low crawling under the crest until he reached a tree growing near enough the top to provide cover. Pulling his cloak as tight as he could over his branchlers, he gingerly poked his head around the mossy trunk, and surveyed just how much he was well and truly !##$ed.

    Four humans stood huddled under a particularly large tree near the opposite base of the forest hill. His Essence spiked just a touch, and his already impressive elven eyes and ears sharpened. He could tell all four were not only the survivors of the group that ambushed his own squad, but that they were all former salamanders. Decently armed and armored, including the big bastard with the axe that broke Bellicose’s arm earlier. He probably should know their names by now, but in all honesty he rarely had paid attention to the particulars of most humans, even his comrades. He sized the opposition up as best he was able given the conditions. Axe’em had demonstrated a few Essence powered abilities during the ambush, and would be most troublesome if it came to close quarters combat. Eliminating the traitors would be prudent, and for the next 24 hours or so technically his duty, but putting this !##$er down would be his genuine pleasure. The actual biggest threat he surmised however, was the prick shouting at the others about which direction was back to their camp. Pricker was the mage, and their heavy hitter. Bellicose could still hear the screams of the others as they were chained together by lightning links. Putting an arrow through his throat would be a close second delight. Hmm. The woman he didn’t actually recognize from the company, though she worn similar armor. It was either looted, or she was a wolfheart on foot. He wasn’t sure of her skill with the mace that rested over her shoulder, and he hoped he wouldn’t have to find out; he tagged her as Macey. The last figure he realized he actually did know; Geoff had made passes at every woman in the company, including publicly hitting on the lieutenant. Captain Moss did not suffer fools lightly, and had the brazen idiot sent to the stocks for a week. Geoff deserted shortly after being released back to Salamander Company. While he wasn’t obviously armed, he seemed to be keeping pets now instead of fighting himself.

    Two hounds also whined and danced about in the rain, trying to find shelter that didn’t exist. Ax’em seemed to be arguing back against Pricker and Macey that some reward for clearing out all of the salamander lancers was worth the storm. If Geoff had a dog in the fight (heh), he wasn’t making his case. Instead he was down on one knee, trying to corral his pets.

    There were few paths forward, and none of them good. He’d only survived their earlier encounter because he was the fastest elf on two feet. He could return the favor of ambush, but as low on supplies and even lower on allies than he was earlier, it was a doomed approach. The only soul in the forest not actively trying to kill him had not only come the closest to succeeding, but had abandoned him to his fate all together. He supposed then instead he could hold fast, let them pass by, and continue on after the coast was clear…. No, his best chance was likely to duck back down the hill, give the group as wide a berth as possible, and hope the storm continued to cloak his existence. While he mulled options, he watched one of the hounds return to Geoff’s outstretched hand. Bellicose drew a sharp breath. Even at this distance, his Essence enhanced eyes identified a strip of fainted ocher material. Red on yellow. He ducked back behind the tree and quickly checked over the corpse cloak. Sure as !##$ on a freshly polished boot, the end of the corpse cloak shredded in several places; from when he’d been dragged from the rocky river’s edge mayhaps? The how of it mattered not, only that the hounds had his borrowed scent. The rain would hopefully limit the detection range, but he couldn’t count his life on it.

    He drew the headless arrow. Bellicose hadn’t idly kept it on a whim. He’d learned from his stay on Verra a number of uses for his Essence, including empowering more than just his own body. He knew a number of extremely useful trick shots, methods of extending his spirit into inanimate objects and even the terrain around him to great effect. Did he risk starting a conflict now before the hounds alerted the others, gaining the upper hand? Or rush down his side of the hill as fast as he could given the weather, and pray to the Seven to elude them? Truly it was the same few options he’d had before sans remaining, but now he could sense the peril in delay. He peered around his cover again to judge the group’s disposition. He found a furried snout inches from his face.

    Bellicose slammed the arrow into the side of the hound’s head, knocking it against the tree. His Essence surged throw his arm into the wooden shaft, and brambles practically exploded forth, lashing around the suddenly very confused creature. The tree itself grew vines to embrace the hound, and in the blink of an eye it was bound tight. Below, Geoff cried out suddenly as if he’d been struck, and spun to point directly at Bellicose above.

    “There! THE LAST LANCER!” the scoundrel screamed in pain. Events rapidly unfolded from there.

    His decision made for him, Bellicose pulled one of his precious few arrows, power still surging through his hands, and loosened the missile at Pricker; the quiver held only four more. By now the winds were beginning to howl, and the rain was flying sideways. The arrow had no business reaching anywhere near it’s intended target, but then again it also shouldn’t have been glowing with a soft red ferocity. At the same time, Pricker placed his thumbs together and splayed his fingers wide. The mage unleashed a volley of missiles of his own, warping streaks from each finger illuminating a thousand drops of rain. Axe’em and the second hound sprinted forward, eight bruises of light on the world flashing over their heads.

    The arrow weaved through the blustering winds, and zeroed directly in on Pricker’s face. There was truly no justice in the world, Bellicose thought, as a purplish bubble of light wrapped around the mage at the last second. The arrow was deflected harmlessly away, and Bellicose spun around his tree for cover. His back pressed to the moss, he felt the dramatic impacts on the opposite side of the tree.

    As bark exploded out, he nocked another arrow and poured a not so insignificant amount of his currently built up Essence into it, weaving two thoughts together as one. In ancient Toren, he mentally sang to give the complex Essence shape; ex uno lumine, multa gravia. Rolling around to the opposite side he popped out to find another volley arcane inbound, Ax’em at the foot of the hill, and the second hound nearly upon him. Even as he loosened his second missile (three left), Bellicose knew he was in perilous positioning. If he didn’t improve his odds immediately, he’d be breaking one promise made that day already. His mind awash in desperate tactics, he realized he may even need to break another.

    Lightning split the sky overhead.

    One arrow, almost immediately blown off course, nonetheless split into a hundred ghostly apparitions wailing into the ground in an expanding cone down the hill and beyond. Bellicose rolled back around the cover as the second cavalcade rocked the tree, which audibly groaned and split from the repeated assault. Subconsciously he did the mental math, realized the hound was nearly upon him, and the cost of dealing with it. Gritting his teeth, he rolled around back to the original side of the tree in time for the final arcane arrow to find its mark at last. A concussive punch impacted his left shoulder, twisting him about even as he spotted a lunging mass. Whipping back around, he slugged the hound with the flat of his longbow…batting it into the bramble nest against the tree. Pained cries were silenced as vines quickly wrapped the beast’s snout shut, and it came to rest along side its sibling.

    Two arrows gone, and Bellicose hadn’t managed to deal with any of the original threats yet. Over the roar of rainfall however, he heard his luck slowly beginning to change. The andirons found the bite of his last scatter shot to be harsh indeed; their muscles began to seize and they had to strain to move. Even so, he had very little left time to monopolize on his high ground advantage. And then suddenly he had less as with a might roar, Axe’em seemingly pushed through the pain that weighed him down and sprinted up the hill. Even more annoyingly, in a flash of purple light that Bellicose was very quickly coming to associate with the arcane, Pricker popped into existence just behind his comrade. Slowed as he was, the mage had other means of traversal. Pricker spun his Essence into lightning, sending it snaking somehow around Axe’em and up the hill.

    Bellicose was out of time.

    He leapt half way down the hill in retreat, but the lightning was quicker; it surged over the top and down after him. With a choked cry of pain Bellicose tumbled down the rest of the hill as for but a second his limbs went wild, his mind static haze. And yet, as his focus returned and he found himself rolling level onto the forest floor, he thought that the magic should have tortured his body more. Hadn’t the cries of his squad mates been so much worse? Shouldn’t the rain amplify its effects? Axe’em cresting the hill and leaping, impossibly, almost the whole length of the way down without snapping any bones sharpened Bellicose’s more immediate concerns. What he needed now most was speed.

    Bellicose was too pretty to die here. The Lion’s Sherwood was half swamp on the lower end, and he refused to die in the next best thing to a bog. He planned to die centuries later, in the master suite of a brothel surrounded by his favorite paramours, like a real elf.

    The lancer popped up from the ground and broke into a dead sprint. It was as dangerous as it was difficult to move so quickly in the dark and stormy night, but he kept his knees high and touched the ground as little as possible. He also pulled the bluemoon gemstone from his armor and jammed it into a split in his branchlers. The light it offered was just enough that his elven eyes could pick out the terrain for each step just before he planted it, dodge around trees that suddenly leapt out at him in the darkness. It should have also offered an easier target for the andirons to follow… right where he wanted them to go. Axe’em was close enough not to care.

    “Come back elf friend,” Axe’em called out gleefully, “we just want to talk! Let my axe whisper sweet nothings into your skull!”

    “No thanks human friend!” Bellicose called back over his shoulder. “My skull needs time to move on from my most recent heartbreak!” He could sense his pursuer was close enough that he didn’t need to yell too loudly. In fact, Axe’em was close enough that his response was cut of as Bellicose held a branch for a moment and let it slap back into the human’s face. It was the small things in life that brought the elf joy. He gained a few strides on his lead.

    Like a bee on the wind, Bellicose made a line for the river. Fresh baying alerted him that the hounds had broken free from the bramble prison, and he assumed the others were equally hot in pursuit. He was a dead elf sprinting if he didn’t find an ally, and fast. He hoped an enemy of an enemy would suffice. Exploding from the tree line, he was ready for the furrow the second time around, and with a mighty leap cleared the gap… but he didn’t make the other side.

    A too bright golden nimbus enveloped Bellicose in the air as a javelin formed of pure light pierced his side. The javelin was formless until it wasn’t, solidifying in place and in his body. The abrupt agony of another spear occupying his torso wasn’t quite as bad as the sudden lurch backwards, and he landed on his back on the former side of the furrow. He had all of a second to make out the chain of equally glowing golden light attached to the javelin reaching back to Axe’em’s fist before both constructs vanished, and the traitor was upon him.

    An axe gripped in two hands fell at Bellicose’s head, and he instinctively blocked the swing, locking it above him with his longbow against the axe shaft. It was a short reprieve, and the much physically stronger Axe’em smiled a toothy grin as he leaned in with muscle and mass to slowly forced the axe’s head closer to the elf’s face. In a proper melee dual Bellicose didn’t favor his odds against Axe’em, and this was anything but. Even with both arms holding the longbow in the world’s most dangerous chest press, it was a quickly losing battle. It was a good thing then that it wasn’t a proper fight, as Bellicose kicked his legs up from the ground and rammed the pointy end of his boot toe into one of the human’s eye. Bellicose couldn’t recall if Axe’em was one of the salamanders that had snickered at his choice of elven footwear, but either way he imagined the human suddenly appreciated the dragoonish influence on modern elven footwear. Pointy elf boots were not just for decoration.

    The howl Axe’em unleashed as he flew back and grabbed his eye put hounds to shame. There was an astonishingly minute amount of blood for how hard the human gripped his face, how fiercely he must feel the pain. He whipped around with an angry red face, one hand over his wounded eye and the other with the axe raised for a killing bow. An arrow pointed directly at his good eye greeted him.

    “Catch,” the lancer behind the bow quipped.

    Axe’em made no noise this time as his head snapped back and he toppled backwards to the ground. The arrow having passed directly through his eye and embedded deep into his brain, he never made another sound again in fact. Bellicose snatched the arrow from the human’s skull and reholstered it. Waste not want not, especially when so low on missiles. While he was at it, he couldn’t help but note the little glass vial tied to the human’s belt. It was concerning how quickly he was becoming comfortable with some light corpse robbing. Much like the cave, Bellicose only had the soft light of of a bluemoon to judge the vial by, but he expected the blue-black liquid would have a lovely gold-red sheen by candlelight. He quickly secured it to his own belt.

    There was no rest for the wicked however, as the pair of hounds broke the tree line. Bellicose found himself more empathetic to the creatures than the human, servants who merely saw to carry out their master’s wishes; he bore them no ill will. He’d spare them if he could, if they let him. They charged, one before the other, and he planted his feet just before the furrow’s edge. As the first hound pounced, he dropped and leaned his shoulder into the impact, almost spilling into the trench as the mud he sank his feet into began oozing into the gap. With Essence gifted speed, Bellicose lifted the hound with his arm and shoulder, flipping it over his back into the furrow where it splashed into the accumulating pool below. The second hound was more wary, trying to flank him even as he spun to club it with his bow. The hound ducked the bow but missed its target, ripping tooth and claw into the trailing edge of the corpse cloak as it overshot the ground. Suddenly Bellicose was fighting against being dragged by his cloak down into the mud pit with both hounds, stabbing the end of the bow into the soft ground for purchase. He snatched the bluemoon from his branchlers with his free hand, and focused a measure of his Essence to empower the gemstone. ‘Burn hot, not bright,’ he mentally urged the blue orb, and smashed the hound upside the head with it. Luckily his gloves protected him from the intensity of the heat as the bluemoon flared to life, superheating in an instant. With a yelp born more of shock than injury, the second hound released its grip on the cloak, dropping to join its brethren once again. The corpse cloak was worse for wear and missing a few more strips. Bellicose resecured the gemstone to his branchlers, though he noted a fresh crack in the orb.

    A blur of movement from the tree line announced Pricker and Macey had arrived as well despite his best attempts at slowing them. At the same time, the faintest trace of burning candle tickled the Bellicose’s nostrils, and he realized he was close to his goal. Time to break another promise.

    Running parallel along the furrow for speed, he leapt sideways across the gap over the heads of leaping hounds trying to claw their way out. A tingling in the air as he landed announced the build up of Essence not his own, and he spun to loosen another red tinged arrow (two) towards the mage. This time Pricker popped further back with a purple flash into the forest proper as the arrow reached him, breaking the invisible link of Essence between him and the missile. Macey leaned into the wind and barreled closer.

    Bellicose hadn’t been quick enough force the retreat. Pricker had evidently been practicing his magicks well, and learned how to make it stretcher further than his peers, quite literally. The balling of pure lightning, a miniature storm unto itself, that formed practically on top of Bellicose should have coalesced from electrical Essence Pricker gathered first unto himself as it always had before, but that was apparently a beginner’s limitation. Caught unawares as he was, the lancer could only mostly grit and bear the pain of a few hundred needles of lightning zeroing in on his body as the ball lightning rolled by towards the river’s edge. Through a combination of instinctive flinching away and involuntary spasms as the electricity played hell on his nervous system, Bellicose discovered a rather interesting trait of the corpse cloak. The burning tongues of Essence that lit the night hurt significantly more where they pierced his mind, his limbs, any exposed stretch of armor or flesh. Spinning away in pain however, the lightning seemed greatly diffused by the cloak on his back and shoulders. It still stung like a nest of bees under his soaked shirt, but it was a mere itch compared to the burning, insidious dance of tiny sprites under his skin wherever the cloak didn’t cover his body. Though it had failed its previous master, Bellicose was immensely grateful to the arcane hands which had weaved the cloak he freed from the corpse.

    He had to blink the shock away from his brain, and the first thing his eyes focused on was the bright light of the the ball lightning rolling across the water’s surface, casting a ghostly illumination over the tossing storm driven waves lapping against the peddled shoreline.

    He wasn’t the only one to notice.

    With a fury and sense of purpose it seemingly lacked earlier, and much to Bellicose’s benefit, the river spirit didn’t emerge so much as explode from the depths. A monolithic appendage of silted sludge grasped the ball lightning, snuffing it from existence.

    Right where he left the elemental, and right on time. It was time to risk his neck in order to save his bacon; risk met reward.

    Essence surged through Bellicose’s legs, and for a moment he was a leaf the wind, a rider on the storm, soaring through the air at an impossible height. His launch carried him into a flip during which he nocked his second to last arrow, and drew back a by now thoroughly soaked, heavy as sin bowstring. Inverted above the elemental, he couldn’t miss even through the fury of the weather. A glowing green arrow holding most of his remaining Essence split the space between them, disappearing into the elemental’s roiling mass of mud and rock (one). His flip completed, Bellicose landed feet first atop the monstrosity, or near enough, upon the solild growth of vine and root that abruptly exploded from every which way within the river terror. The elemental was suddenly as much flora as it was terrestial, and even though the mighty brambly plant growths were in fact restraining the creature, it looked all the more imposing as not so distinct lightning lit its emerging form.

    Right then, best not to push his luck.

    The whole elemental rocked wildly as it fought its restraints, and Bellicose held his ground as best he could, until the swaying was in favor of the river depths. Temporarily exhausted of most his Essence, he relied on his natural elven grace as he launched into a swan dive, bow pointed before him. If he didn’t clear as much of the river center as he would have liked, he could perhaps be forgiven for attempting such a feat in the middle of a storm from atop a living mud flow. Still, his dive itself was clean, and whatever few precious scrapes of skin beneath his clothes that had somehow managed to stay relatively dry during his trek were instantly soaked through as he shot through the muddy river depths. If he thought his attire heavy before, he gained another twenty pounds of water weight as he swam the short but punishing distance to the far shore.

    Gasping for dry air that was not to be found, Bellicose turned back as he crawled ashore, and found Macey, Pricker, and at least one of the hounds approaching the bound river elemental with caution. In the confusion and dark of the thunderstorm, it appeared that they didn’t quite understand what it was until they were practically upon it themselves. Well, it would be rude not to introduce them, wouldn’t it? He released the strain of Essence within himself that connected to the tendrilled snares across the river. The effect was immediate and terrifying. Though it could not roar in the normal sense of the word, the elemental roared to life in its own way, thrashing loosen of its binds to harass the mortals within reach.

    The lancer didn’t stop to admire his handiwork just yet, instead preferring to put just a bit more distance between himself and the group. Luckily, the rise before him was shallow, and short.

    Hand over hand, Bellicose methodically climbed the exposed roots slicked with rain and mud until he rolled over the lip of the bluff. He had to half crawl to the nearest tree, collapsing against it to collect his breath and Essence while he watched events unfold. Though mere dancing shadows lit by the occasion flash of magic or lightning, it was a delicious display of schadenfreude.

    If the andirons hadn’t stumbled upon the elemental, had they still had Axe’em to draw its ire, they might have made a stand. In their blind panic however, they stood no chance. The amalgamation of river terrain seemed unphased by the tickle of lightning or the bite of fang or blade. It even seemed to shrug off the arcane volleys, many of which blasted holes through the creature that simply refilled seconds later. The lumbering elemental simply walked through their attacks as if they didn’t exist, swinging trunk like pseudo arms to bat the attackers away. Macey appeared to be the only fighter having any real effect, her mace removing melon sized globs of mud and silt at a time as she weaved through its legs and attacks. The hounds, now both freed of the furrow, darted in and around, at a loss for what to do. Geoff exhausted his supply of throwing daggers, and equally seemed at a lost as his pets.

    Without warning a blinding light assaulted Bellicose’s eyes for a moment, and he flinched away. Rubbing his eyes and trying to blink away the burning, he almost thought actual lightning had struck the river elemental. The lack of thunderous boom as well as the afterimage in his retinas however told a different story. Pricker doubled over in exertion, having unleashed a truly impressive torrent of what Bellicose assumed to be pure light. In a flash half of the elemental’s chest and one arm were simply… gone.

    “Gods and Goddesses,” Bellicose whispered in disbelief. The prismatic attack had been the single most impressive feat of magic he’d yet witness in Verra, let alone from Pricker. Even so it proved the mage’s undoing. Seemingly enraged, the river elemental fully turned its attention to the caster, ignoring the rest. Though the mage had wisely chosen to attack from as far a way as his spells allowed, it didn’t save him in the end. A hailstorm of gravel and stone erupted from what roughly looked to be its head, solely focused and funneled directly at Pricker. Bellicose imagined as taxed as the mage appeared, the light show must of cost him a great deal of his remaining accumulation of Essence. No arcane ward rose to defend him. No blink of light egressed him to safely. Instead Pricker ceased to exist as a single entity, and more as a gory paste, no more than a splash of red on the green of grass and tree. It was almost enough to cause the elf to feel sorry for the human. Almost.

    What remained of the party broke ranks. Geoff retreated into the darkness of the forest, hounds in hot pursuit. Left alone to face the elemental, Macey tucked and rolled from the remaining pseudo arm whipping side to side as the towering mass closed in on her. Bellicose imagined the hard set faced he’d spied before, screaming defiance into the wind all the while knowing she was doomed. He found no empathy for her in his heart. She was too close, too exposed, and out of time. As the elemental blocked Bellicose’s line of sight to her, he caught his second wind finally and turned his attention to his own needs. He almost missed her last defiant act.

    She must have hurled her mace with such awesome, Essence and fury fueled might for it to explode through its pseudo head in such spectacular fashion. The mace soared through the air towards Bellicose’s bluff such was the feat of strength, and still it was not enough. The river elemental still stood, still raged. It raised its mighty boulder of a fist and like the harbingers themselves cratered the soft, rain saturated ground. It was done.

    Or at least, it should have been.

    As the mace arced towards the ground, the rain about it suddenly exploded outwards with a resounding pop! Disbelief fogging his vision, Bellicose watched Macey apparate into existence, her hand firmly grasping the weapon’s grip. With impossible form she flipped midair, in the raging storm no less, to flawlessly land on her feet with a cat’s grace. She’d avoided every tree limb, navigated surging gusts, and even rain soaked looked fresh and resplendent. It was as if the storm hardly touched her. The chill Bellicose felt had nothing to do with the downpour, even swamped as he was in a late season’s gale.

    FADE!” she roared in an Essence enhanced howl.

    Bellicose stumbled to his feet even as dread threatened to overwhelm him. The way she screamed his name denoted not familiarity, but accusation. It was tone he knew all too well… but not from a human. Not like this. It spoke to an understanding that Fade was not his trueborn name; it was a condemnation.

    “S-show… show your true face witch!” he shouted back, allowing the wind to carry his voice; he suspected he’d need all the Essence he had to spare imminently.

    Her features twisted into a vicious grin. She tossed her mace into the air and removed a silver bangle from her wrist to toss carefree over her shoulder. The hand that caught the mace as it fell was not the same. Gone was the stiff, boiled leather armor of a salamander. In its place, a gold and deep green gambeson that was a much as a work of art as it was functional. Wide panels of fitted leather armor with bands of steel cleverly interwoven sat comfortably over the padded long coat. Tall boots ended in wicked steel tipped points and heels that could slash or smash. A heavily stylized half-helm materialized on her head, though it left ample space for her now long soaked golden locks to flow, her ears to elongate to fine points, and her vicious human grin became the elfin equivalent. Even the mace shifted, no longer a crude and simple affair but sleek and gilded with an octahedron flanged head. Twin silvered hilts even extended from behind her waist where their sheaths crossed.

    In the dark crashing waves of the deluge, she was as coldly determined and powerful as the storm itself. A force of nature. An empyrean paragon. And by the way she cursed his name, a puritan warrior.

    Her sneer turned deadpan.

    “I’m going to !##$ your !#$ with my mace.” Her voice was hunger and utter confidence, a lioness before a lamb.

    He’d have had better odds against what was left of the animated river colossus. He just hoped he was dead before she violated him with her mace.
  • Options
    There was an old elven saying that ‘The Fountain of Fortune Ever Flows.’ Bellicose also knew of the similar yet far less refined human saying, ‘When it rains it pours.’ Humans ever lacked nuisance and wit, and culturally it showed. As the Puritan drew close however, Bellicose thought the human version rather apt for once, rocking as he did in the middle of the storm. He just wished she seemed half as bothered by the raging winds, whereas he was fighting to maintain his footing. Perhaps it was the banded armor she wore, its weight steadying her as she boldly walked into the headwind. Her elegant helm flowed from faux feather point to visor lip, sparing her eyes the worst of the torrential downpour where Bellicose had to shield his eyes with his forearm. With great foreboding, he drew his last arrow.

    Bellicose didn’t even have time to formulate a plan. With a two-handed grip his opponent whirled the mace around her head and sent it flying at him, this time spinning !## over tea kettle. He barely had time to dodge out of the way, leaning into the wind as he stumbled. Time seemed to slow as he watched the mace spin by his head. As the grip reached its zenith, the rain starburst once again, the Puritan apparating upside down as for just a moment she hung in the air. Their eyes locked in a single instant, slightly triggering his vertigo given the orientation. With a resounding thud and crack, she swung the mace into the bow as he barely managed to interpose it between the flanges and his face. The bow fell, shattered in twain from taking the brunt, but not all, of the force behind the blow.

    Red rain rolled off his face, his left eye twitching, as he fell to his knees. By the grace of Essence-tinged adrenaline he kept his senses, but only just.

    The Puritan landed with the same supernatural dexterity she’d displayed before and loomed over Bellicose like the visage of Death Itself. Did the lightning have to flash in the distant sky behind her for effect? If he was paranoid, he’d thought Verra was picking a side.

    Though broken, it was quicker to draw the corpse sword from its sheath than the traitor’s blade from his belt. With one smooth motion, Bellicose drew the now shortened sword as he rose and spun, striking upward towards her throat.

    The Puritan knocked the corpse sword aside with ease, and countered with the butt of her weapon, stepping forward into a lunge and driving it deep into his stomach. She didn’t just knock the wind from him; he puked on her armor as he fell back to his knees. He caught a gauntlet to the good side of his face for his efforts.

    Pathetic.” Each symbol was laced with poison.

    He cried out as a hand grabbed him by the branchlers, swinging him around and face first into a nearby tree. Thankfully his branchlers softened the impact, but he still needed to grab the trunk to keep from face planting on the ground. He held on for dear life as the world spun around him, and he emptied what was left of his stomach contents. The bitterness of King’s Foil burned up his esophagus in into the back of his throat.

    “Pathetic,” she repeated as she held her fouled armor out for the rain to cleanse. “Stand up Fade. Die with dignity, if you have any left.”

    With deep, controlled breaths, Bellicose forced the world to stop spinning. Grabbing the corpse sword from the ground where he hadn’t even realized he’d dropped it, he carefully put his back to the tree and rose. Leaning against the bark gave him much needed stability as his double vision slowly faded. Each flash of lightning overhead caught the slick sheen of her armor bands, as well those on her temporarily merging twin, and his sight was filled with false stars. He was terrified beyond description.

    “Who are you?” He asked hoarsely as he drew the traitor’s blade in his free hand. It might as well had been a wooden training sword for all the concern she showed as she slowly bounced the mace on her shoulder.

    “!##$ you.” She almost sounded bored. She didn’t even fuss with a proper stance.

    His vision returned to normal, but he needed to buy more time. He needed to think, to pool as much Essence as possible… for his hands to stop shaking.

    “Why were you pretending to be an andiron? Are you a spy for the Umbra Queen? A saboteur? What!?” He pushed off from the tree, sidestepping away so he had more space to maneuver. He needed to get her talking, get her to do anything but think about ending him quickly.

    “Bored now.”

    Well so much for buying time.

    She spun on her heel once, this time launching the mace with a hammer throw.

    Bellicose still didn’t have a proper plan yet, but at the very least with his quick wits he was ready to counter her little trick this time. Essence enhanced reflexes and empowered muscles allowed him to react instantly, backflipping over the hammer as it flew by and tucking the swords under his arms. He twisted as he fell, slashing out with both blades to bisect the Puritan as she reappeared. Only, she didn’t; the mace sailed through the trees alone.

    Oh !##$.

    He tucked into a roll as he landed, springing as low and fast as he could into a dive as he rolled out. He could just barely feel a blade slice through the end of his ponytail. Unfortunately, the second blade pierced through cape and leather to tickle a rib. His back spasmed, and he lost control of the dive. Luckily it had been raining for quite some time by that point, and he didn’t brush burn his face sliding through the mud. He slowly pulled himself up on his forearms and knees as he groaned from his steadily growing catalog of injuries.

    The Puritan didn’t press her attack. Instead, she tilted her head at him and smiled. There was no humor in a mock grin that didn’t touch her eyes.

    “On all fours and covered in filth, like the dog you are.” She didn’t raise her voice, but Essence projected it, ringing his ears. “If you beg for a quick death, right this instant, I’ll grant it.”

    He could hear the sickening desire in her voice. It wasn’t a causal offer; she wanted him to beg for it to be over. Tears welled in his eyes as he honestly considered it. He’d lost so much. He was in so much agony. He was clearly, utterly outclassed in a way he’d never felt before. And now… no one would miss him. He could just slip quietly from his mortal coil, truly fade into the night. He almost… he almost did just then beg for a quick and merciful death.

    But he didn’t.

    He slowly stood. Tears that would have been otherwise lost in the rain, if not save for the blood mixed in, rolled down his cheeks. He raised his head to meet her gaze. Not for his own sake. Not because he harbored any doubts that she had been playing with him during the entirety of their short fight. He stood up solely because he didn’t believe her. A hardliner like her would never grant him a merciful death; she just wanted to hear him grovel, hear him break. He chose to live for just a bit longer, because it wasn’t really a choice at all. It wasn’t much as far as motivations went, but he guessed that had to be good enough to go on for now, for however much longer he had left.

    For a moment he thought he heard something on the wind, but if he didn’t imagine it, it was lost to thunder and rain.

    He wasn’t as skilled with two dissimilar swords as he would have been with a single proper elven long blade, but he assumed his best defensive stance, one sword high and one low. It didn’t feel like near enough. This was his struggle against Axe’em writ large; he needed a quick decisive win or he was dead. Worse yet, he knew that time had likely already passed. He was also scrapping the bottom of his bag of tricks. His cracked bluemoon stone was probably good for one last flaring, he still had the potion vial he pulled from Axe’em, and enough essence for maybe one or two solid ploys.

    On the other branchler, the Puritan had not yet begun to fight.

    Time, time! He needed more time!

    “Why are you hunting me!?” He almost screamed through the storm, making no effort to hide his terror. She seemed to enjoy his humiliation; could he bait her somehow?

    Her laugh was cruel, mirthless, and ugly. “Hunt?” She threw the word back at him mockingly, “You? Hunt would imply sport, a challenge. You are less than nothing little Fade. A stain on Verra that I will gladly wipe clean.” She drew the flat of a sword down her arm, cleaning away the last remnants of his lunch.

    Great… his death would be a minor consolation prize to whatever her main objective was here. He was getting nowhere fast. He needed some sort of leverage against her to even entertain the thought of walking away from her hatred.

    The Puritan assumed her own stance finally, one Bellicose recognized, and his heart sunk further still. She twisted to the side, one blade just above eye level pointing forward, the other parallel beneath it near her armpit pointing backwards. With her opposite leg she lunged, putting all her weight forward on her foot. She was almost completely open, with no easy way to smoothly transition into a stance better suited to her needs. She’d completely yielded the initiative to Bellicose. It was an elven anti-stance called The Master Speaks. It looked impressive to an audience, but it was all form and no substance. It was for humbling students who got too cocky, giving the student every advantage because the master was dead certain in their superior skill and experience. Outside of training scenarios, it was also known by a more insulting name. The Master Laughs.

    It was insult to injury, rubbing the proverbial salt in the wound. She was trying to utterly and completely break him before delivering the final blow; he was thankful. It gave him the precious time to think he needed.

    Bellicose slowly circled the Puritan, dragging out his every movement as his mind raced. Attacking her head on was suicide. He needed an opening, or a devastating strike to turn the tables. He wasn’t particularly ambidextrous, but he turned from one side to the other as he circled, swapping the positions of his blades as he did. He hoped it looked convincing, as if he was actively looking for his opening. The Puritan’s form never adjusted, her eyes silently following him between her own blades. He moved to her stronger side intentionally to keep her sight on him as long as possible, fearing he if tried for her blind spot she’d pounce sooner. His thoughts continued to race. Could he cut and run? Her armor was far heavier, even before the gambeson absorbed so much water. Could he somehow hide? Could he find his way back to the den through the dark and cutting rain without her tracking him? Was there a world where the river elemental ignored him to focus her?

    “You’re stalling,” the Puritan correctly observed.

    Fleet as his thoughts were, it was starting to hurt to think so hard. He wasn’t equipped for this fight. He needed… something he didn’t possess. What he wouldn’t give for the spells Pricker had held at his fingertips, the Seven rest his traitorous soul. But Bellicose’s Essence abilities were focused on his own body and the bow, which currently laid in pieces behind the Puritan—

    Lightning flashed again, closer, striking verran firma somewhere in the forest. The thunder was deafening in the storm.

    —alongside his forgotten final arrow, the head of which gleamed in the lightning’s brilliance… just like the Puritan’s swords, just like the bands of steel woven throughout her armor. The beginnings of a truly insane plan formed in Bellicose’s mind.

    It was a shame then that the Puritan tired so quickly of waiting for his opening move. The crack of accompanying thunder served as an impromptu bell ringing in the next round of combat, and the Puritan launched herself towards Bellicose. She spun like a whirlwind of blades through the air towards him, an absolutely insane display of agility and speed he could neither predict nor defend against. So he didn’t try.

    He dashed forward to meet her and at the last second kicked into a power slide, hydroplaning under the assault, blades crossed to shield his body as he leaned back as low as he could. Sparks flew as the windmilling blades chipped away at his defense for the briefest moment the two fighters passed by each other. Then he was clear. He popped up, almost stumbling into a sprint, and for a moment thought he’d actually made it to his goal uncontested.

    A ghostly echo of a blade silently sailed past his head into the night.

    Bellicose dove for the arrow, but he was too slow. Half a dozen points of pain erupted in his back, right shoulder, and both his legs. He crumbled to the ground. A ghostly blade in the back of his thigh turned to mist as a few more sailed around him to join the first over the river. The stabbings in his back wasn’t nearly as bad as his legs and shoulder, the protective nature of the corpse cloak he’d deduced mitigating some of the force behind the magical attack. The rest though… his legs spasmed, and he didn’t trust he could stand. Throw he didn’t drop it, he couldn’t lift the traitor’s blade either.

    “Where are you going little Fade?” The Puritan cooed. “Its far too late to run.” Her steps were unhurried. Though rain poured down her form and wind buffeted her constantly, she was unbothered. “You rejected my mercy. Now I’m going to take my time pulling you part.”

    Something shifted, or more precisely snapped, in Bellicose. It wasn’t a conscious effort; he simply reached a limit he’d otherwise been unaware of until that very moment. Until he couldn’t take the vitriol, the judgment anymore. Until he gritted his teeth so hard one of them cracked, until his tears were more blood than emotion. Through the pain, he grew angry. Through the anger, he grew determined. And when the anger surpassed the pain, the determination became power.

    Bellicose’s rage boiled forth, and his Captain Moss showed. “My name is Bellicose Fade,” he snapped, “keep it out of your !##$holster you !##$%.”

    Her false smile dropped.

    He would be a tiger to her lioness. Essence burned in his blood, and he certainly felt like one suddenly, though he would have been surprised to know of the orange ring of light glowing in the center of his purple irises to match; the Puritan certainly was. His eyes sharpened clearer than ever before. Through the rainfall he studied her form, the power and grace. Perhaps it was the distant lightning, but he thought he could detect a faint nimbus of purple haze about her form as well. More vividly, her eyes practically glowed in the darkness between them, the cold cool eyes of a killer. He could see her all, every detail. He could practically see the blood pumping in her jugular.

    A portion of his remaining Essence slipped into the corpse sword as he swung it as hard as he could, lobbing it directly at that very vein with his remaining good arm. He rolled towards the arrow with his now free hand outstretched. He didn’t see the corpse sword land, but rather felt its strike through his connection to the Essence imparted in the weapon, like the vibrations of a tiger’s claw as it struck.

    Tiger though he suddenly may be the lioness still pounced.

    Just as Bellicose’s hand gripped the arrow, a blinding migraine erupted in his head as the Puritan cleaved part of a branchler off, though thankfully not the one holding the bluemoon. The misery in his head was immediately eclipsed however, by the second blade driving through the cloak, through his back… through his lung. He would have screamed if he could. Instead a soft hiss escaped from his chest. Although less painful by far and yet almost somehow worst than the pierced lung, a steel heel smashed into his hand gripping the ammo.

    “All that effort, for an arrow? You’re more of a fool than I thought.” She pressed her boot down against his hand until the arrow snapped within, and kicked the arrowhead off, striking hard enough to sent it spinning over the edge of the bluff (zero). “Oops. Pity that.

    No. Nonono. All that effort, all the torture… for naught.

    “Not so bold now are you filthspawn?” A knee pressed against his back as the blade sunk deeper through his chest, pinning him to the ground like a bug. “I seem to have lost my mace,” her voice was just behind his ear now as she put her weight behind the hilt. Somehow she smelled more of death then the corpse cloak. There was a pressure to her presence that he vaguely recognized from drawing too near to a corrupted lagoon once. How was she tainted so? The Puritan wove a false silk with her tongue that was equal parts alarming and distracting. “I guess I’ll just have to make do.” With one sword sheathed in his chest, his labored groan hurt as much as the second blade as it sliced a shallower slash down his back towards his waist. “I wonder if this will hurt less… or more….” He’d been right to be alarmed.

    Bellicose did the only thing he could. He didn’t know if the Puritan was familiar with the bluemoon gemstone. Even if she was, he didn’t know for sure if as an empyrean she properly understood that his branchlers were a living part of him, as much as his arms or legs. If she was aware of both facts however, she was a damn fool for getting so close to the back of his head in the dark of night and storm.

    With the last of his gathered Essence, Bellicose reached out to the bluemoon through his branchler, and focused this time on burning bright, not hot.

    The Puritan roared a string of expletives in torment as her exceptionally dilated eyes were flooded with a blinding light, momentarily overwhelming her senses. The pressure on the sword run through him eased slightly as she ripped her helmet off and grabbed her face.

    Feeling have partially returned to his shoulder, Bellicose swung wildly over his back with his remaining weapon, and he thought he caught her head. With a fresh curse questioning his ancestry she rolled away from his body, lifting a great armored weight lifted from his back.

    Bellicose gritted his teeth, furiously struggling to breath through his nose. He needed… he needed to… he tried not to think about what he needed to do. Focusing on keeping as still as possible, with great pain and effort he lifted his chest up along the blade, just far enough to create a blood slicked grip beneath. He dropped the traitor’s blade and instead grasped the elven blade carefully but firm, bracing his other arm against the mud. He lifted with knees and elbow, yanking the blade from the ground. Somewhere in the back of his mind he was glad his whimpers were masked by the storm. Thus freed he rolled to his side, and against the background noise of elven curses and storm fury, he reached awkwardly behind to pry the blade out. He almost dropped unconscious as his nerve endings burned out from excruciating pain too intense to bear. Instead, as the blade cleared his back with a sickening squelch, Bellicose collapsed even as his lung did, laid out flat on the ground. He was morbidly confident that for the second time that very day, he was dying. The Puritan was mere feet away, down on one knee furiously rubbing her eyes. The sight of a bloody slash across her face and ear as well as a shallow wound on her opposite shoulder brought a small, equally bloody smile to his face as he coughed uncontrollably.

    With no other plays left, he pulled the stolen vial from his belt. His vision was beginning to darken at the edges, and he could only half see the cork to rip free with his teeth. The potion splashed across his face and lips as he poured the rest down his throat. Just like that, he was out of options.

    He watched helplessly as the Puritan began to stand, still rubbing her palm against her eyes.

    CONGRATULATIONS YOU FADE !##$%^! You’re going to get that quick death after all!”

    Bellicose focused on the potion as it began to take effect. Without healing, he was done. He tried not to think too hard about the fact that he was probably finished anyway. He willed the potent potable to his chest, his lung.

    But something was wrong.

    The potion tasted not bitter but sweet. A coolness began to spread throughout his body instead of warmth. His eyes shot wide open as a fresh storm raged not without, but within. It was a sensation not unlike what he experienced at the divine gate on Sanctus, though not as intense and overpowering. It wasn’t a potion of healing he realized, but of somehow, impossibly, distilled Essence. A purity of power that spoke to his determination. His luck had finally turned. Abruptly, his desire to live rose from the pit of his stomach, a burning force that met the cool serenity of his overflowing pool of Essence. He really truly wanted to live, and for the first time this fight he saw his way forward.

    He was no healer, but Bellicose urged the Essence to try… he wasn’t sure… but he thought he could use it to speed his natural healing. It wasn’t as instantaneous as the pure magical healing of the earlier potions, but it was something. Feeling, albeit mostly pain, returned to his legs and shoulder. Blood coagulated in his chest, excruciatingly sitting in his lung, but hopefully lifesaving. Most importantly however, it was only a fraction of the Essence the potion bestowed. He was still flush with pure power; maybe he could still make his plan work with one important adjustment.

    The Puritan, eyes bloodshot and properly angry now, either sensed Bellicose was up to something, or was simply ready to murder him; probably both. She leapt forward with a snarling battle yell, slashing down with her singular blade. Though he barely managed to roll out the way as the blade stabbed the mud where’d he just laid, her boot snapped out, catching Bellicose on the chin and slashing it open with a fresh spray of blood. He really couldn’t afford to lose anymore, as he wasn’t sure the Essence accelerated healing could replace it as rapidly as a proper health potion.

    Bellicose grabbed the bloody elven blade he’d pulled from his body. It felt more natural in his good hand that the traitor’s blade, an almost comfortable weight. He forced himself to his feet just in time to parry a wild swing from the Puritan’s matching blade. Her vision still seemed impacted, and wounded though he was Bellicose managed to fight defensively, just well enough to avoid a 3rd impalement in as many hours. He wasn’t fooling himself or the Puritan however; he was barely on his feet. His pierced lung was a burning coal in his chest, and he was barely breathing with the other. He was running more on Essence than he was his own strength, and the exertion would kill him sooner as surely as his enemy would later. His bloody left hand kept a seal over his gaping chest wound as he drunkenly danced away from his superior opponent, and he didn’t dare go on the attack. Not yet.

    The Puritan’s attacks grew wilder. There was still grace and poise to her moments, decades of experience and drills evoked in every motion, but her blade swept wider, her stance lunged further. She was clearly greatly frustrated with how hard a time she was having keeping the pressure on Bellicose. He only actually needed parry every third swing, dodge every fourth. The harder a time she had, the angrier and sloppier her strikes grew. She was actively working against her interests.

    Soaked, weary, and on the verge of passing out, it occurred to Bellicose he might yet simply run, or more aptly, hobble away before her sight returned in full. He tested this theory, stepping away as quickly as he could, and putting a tree between them. If he could catch what little breath he could on one lung, he might be able to push himself to something resembling a sprint… at least compared to a dwarf.

    The Puritan didn’t seem willing to give him the chance. He watched her slam a boot to the ground, and a wave seemed to spread through the grass between them, each blade jumping to stand perfectly straight no matter how much it was weighed down by mud and rain.

    “Come back and fight like an elf!” She screamed over the storm, losing much of her bearing. “You can’t run from me! You can’t run from my blades!”

    Bellicose rather thought he could, at least until the invisible wave speeding through the grass reached his tree. Blades of grass became blades of the enemy, stabbing through his well worn boot soles.

    For !##$s sake,’ he cried, or at least tried to as he wheezed and spit instead, haphazardly dancing away once more as his feet were reduced to bloody messes. She must have been used to chasing down her kills to have that ability ready to throw out. Feet slipping inside his boots from the blood, he took wide crippled steps to disturb his weight as best he could and minimize the pain. He felt the clown he’d always worried others would see. His only reprieve was the drape of blade as the grass fell as quickly as it rose, the damage done. He wasn’t escaping the duel by foot, only death. If it was to be any other than his own, he now had only one way forward… through the Puritan.

    His grip on the hilt tightened. He had exactly one shot. He willed his Essence into the hilt… to no avail. Desperately he tried again and again, his swordsmanship faltering as he put more of his focus into his metaphysical awareness. A particularly vicious swing hit his blade hard enough he almost lost it, and he leapt to the side to put the closest tree on his left for cover. The Puritan, growing angrier with each failed attempt to pierce his guard, simply redoubted her efforts and swapped her weapon to her left hand so that she could strike more easily against him rather than the tree.

    Of course, she was ambidextrous, why wouldn’t she be?

    At least her injured eyes were now also contending with the rain, while he had the wind to his back for now. His arm grew heavy though. The seeming futility of trying to force his Essence into his weapon was affecting his healing, and every step or swing of the sword torn at his wounds. He was bleeding out.

    His mind grew tired. He knew it should be possible to enhance his blade. He’d seen others do it often enough. Even now, it didn’t feel like the weapon so much as flat out denied his Essence as… resisted it. There was a way, he could feel it, but he was equally sure he needed time he didn’t have to find it. His supernatural awareness was drawn to the wound in the Puritans shoulder… to the shattered bow… even vaguely to the long-lost arrow… but it didn’t seem to register the weapon he was literally holding in his hand. With a strained sigh, he released the channeled Essence to flow throughout his body.

    The Puritan feinted. Bellicose stumbled on a root. He reacted too slowly as her blade turned, and though he tried to roll his shoulder back, turn with the blow, it still sliced his sword arm. His arm fell in response, and he found it difficult to bear the weight of even the light blade. He managed to clumsily deflect one last swing, and his arm screamed in protest.

    This was it.

    The Puritan sensed the shift in their dance.

    Bellicose urged his Essence across his injuries. Heal! Faster! We’re dying! He was acutely aware of every wound as they healed and he torn them anew, faster than the healing could hold. He lived in a cycle of constantly renewed anguish that was quickly counting down. The long slash down his back was particularly prone to fresh tearing, unavoidable as he twisted and stumbled away from flashing steel, ducking under the next swing. Her sword caught his bad branchler at an angle, bouncing off even though it elicited a fresh way of anguish. It was but one drop in the bucket however, as the nub where it ended prematurely was awash in agony… huh. It was a different pain. Constant, but not from tearing. His branchler, part horn, part bark, was budding. Growing, faster than it even should, or at least trying to; it ached from growing pains, uneven and unsure. Instinctively he focused Essence in his wounded branchler, urged it on. He could feel a fresh bud immediately rise, and even rapidly extend into a tiny off shoot. It was so much faster than his perpetually tearing flesh wounds, possibly as it wasn’t so fragile and primarily flora in nature. A corner of his mind distantly recalled a bamboo plant he raised as a child that dazzled him with its exceptional growth rate. Wait. WAIT! Could it be so simple… could he…?

    “Stand still and die, rot!”

    Bellicose was done. Done fighting, done dying, done pushing. At the end of his rope, he relied on what he hoped was instinct and not delirium.

    He dropped his weapon and stepped into the Puritan’s next attack. She clearly did not expect his abrupt shift in direction, and twisting his chest allowed the blade to slash across his leather chest armor. The resulting wound was practically trivial compared to the rest of his sorry state. As difficult as it was to raise his right arm, he managed to slip it around her waist, bear hugging her as tightly as he could, and dropping all his weight on her frame. She was forced to half catch him lest he bring them both down into the mud. Too weak for a proper headbutt he pressed his face against hers, though it was as far from intimidate as could be, and tried to overwhelm senses, distract her from his most desperate gamble. With his good arm but bad hand, he reached for his branchler. His broken branchler. His hand was unsteady, shaking in agony, and his fingers didn’t quite bend right. You played with the hand you were dealt.

    Essence was a funny thing. It moved so fast, so freely through his body. It was a much slower ordeal to focus it into a bow, into an arrow. And Essence was so much easier to direct and control internally, a precision he’d yet to come anywhere near matching when extending it beyond his physical form. Bellicose was lancer, not a mage after all. But the way it sung to his soul, the way it flowed through every muscle sinew and nerve! He should be dead several times over by now, but his mastery of internal influence kept his body going, if just barely.

    He exerted that mastery now. He let go of his wounds and his need for his legs to hold him up. He embraced the trauma as his body began to catastrophically fail. Letting go was easy. It was like giving up, but more bittersweet than tragic. Bellicose could give in to the temptation, he could quit the struggle and slip away quietly… because it served a purpose. Because he surged every. Last. Drop. Of Essence into one damaged, sundered branchler.

    His damaged fingers tightened around the tiny shoot, gripped it as firmly and with as much determination as he’d ever drawn anything in his life. And drew he did.

    Like drawing a thread through a needle, Bellicose pulled the shoot from his branchler. Only, the shoot kept coming. And when it finally did end, the end tip was flat, spade, and pointed, closer to horn than bark. It was as rough an approximation of an arrow as he’d ever seen, but he suspected with practice he could refine the shape. For now, it served his purposes (bonus arrow).


    The branchler arrow, or brarrow, was also alight with an electric blue nimbus that seemed to practically be exploding out from its entire length, radiating pure Essence. Because it was, in fact, filled to the brim and beyond with everything drop of inner surging storm he’d inhaled from the potion vial.

    Bellicose gurgled half words into the Puritan’s ear.


    He stabbed the arrow between her armor and neck, wedging it into her collarbone, and coughed up a glob of partially coagulated blood and lung tissue on the side of her face. In her disgust and rage, she finally wrestled him around and threw him into the mud at her feet where he lay dying.

    The Puritan tried to pull the improvised arrow from her neck, but its was as sensitive a location to lodge as any, and she settled for instead raising her blade above him for a final downward thrust to snuff him out.

    “I said,” he rasped hoarsely as he observed the Essential radiance of the brarrow rise, the air above his foe glowing with crackling energy, “the Fountain of Fortune Ever Flows.”

    She didn’t react to his words, if they registered at all. She didn’t sink her blade into his heart, or sneer one last curse at his existence as a Fade. She didn’t do much of anything.

    Except explode.

    The world went unbearably white and quiet, save the oppressive ringing in his brain, as a bolt of lightning tore open the sky on its way down to connect to the brarrow, and by the associative property, the Puritan as well.
  • Options
    There was nothing, and then there was something.

    He was aware of the vibrations of rain drops on his skin first, before the actual sensation of how cold and wet his skin was returned. Next the ringing in his ears died down just enough for the distant sound of raindrops bouncing off his face, splashing on the ground next to his ears. Finally the afterimage of a danger close lightning strike burned on his retina began to fade, and he could see the dark storm above. He spit up rose-tinted water as he began to choke from the pooling rain in the back of his throat, and he turned his head to cough harder, and discovered a grotesque sight.

    Several paces from him, her body charred and broken, the Puritan lay where she landed after the thunderbolt sent her body catapulting up into the air. She looked about as well as he felt in the moment, thought at least his body didn’t crackle and sizzle under the constant barrage of raindrops. An intrusive, morbid thought occurred to him in that moment. He wondered how ruined her face was, did it still sneer and twist with unfounded hatred at not who, but what he was, in death as it had in life. He regretted the thought instantly, not for the horror it conjured, but for the fact it seemed to speak a dark wish into existence. A cursed wish granted. The Puritan’s head turned to, if not meet his gaze, then invoke a fresh wave of nausea. He didn’t think she’d be seeing out of the ruined husks that had once been eyes ever again, not that her ‘ever’ seemed to be much longer. Impossibly, she seemed to sense his presence, and spoke with the voice of death itself.

    I’ll… kill you.” The words were just a whisper, but his finely tuned ears could just barely catch her weak voice over the rain. “This life… or the next… I’ll end you… filth.”

    Bellicose was smart enough not to laugh at the incredible impotency of her words. He didn’t want to see what part he coughed up of his lung next. Instead he focused his trickle of collecting Essence into his lung, urging it to fully seal on both sides. It was slow, and it was pure misery. His many other wounds floundered and bled. It wasn’t a good sign.

    “I think…” Bellicose raspingly observed, “you are as dead as you are ugly.” The empyrean elf flinched as if she’d been slapped, fresh blisters cracking over her facade. The sharp tear in his chest as he spoke was almost worth the sight of the broken elf’s emotional pain play out over the ruins of her face at the thought of what she’d become, as hideous on the outside as she was on the inside. It did his healing no good though, and he decided against pushing his already limited luck further. In fact… the more his awareness of his general well being, or lack thereof, returned, he realized he was fighting a losing battle. From the thousand tiny cuts on his feet to the missing branchler section, he was wrecked throughout his entire body. His chest wound was certainly the worst by far, but every blow added up, and the toll was more than he could pay. He needed… he needed one more miracle.

    Low crawling through high mud, Bellicose set to exhaustedly going through the Puritan’s pouches. He rather thought he was starting to get good at corpse robbing, especially considering she wasn’t quite a corpse just yet. It showed initiative, he thought. He might have a future in grave robbing, if he had a future at all. A gauntleted hand rose to push him away, but there was no strength, no life in the limb as it groped about for purchase on his arms and chest. It wasn’t until her hand slapped weakly against the exit wound on his torso that he doubled over in pain, and chopped her throat with the flat of his hand. That gave the Puritan something to worry about while he looted her belongings. She struggled to breath almost as much as Bellicose did as he rifted through her hip pouch. There was quite a bit of gold of various origins and shape, and silver galore. It was all meaningless without a potion vendor in the boughs above. There were no vials to be found. A gurgle like laugh escaped the Puritan’s fried lips.

    “Ah… looking for something special?” Her face was too much a mask of pain to allude to amusement, her rasps too of the grave for anything more than gallows humor. There was something to her cadence though, her intent. If there was light left in her eyes, he knew there’d be laughter in them.

    “You w-won’t find… any con…venient… relief…” her hand moved to her opposite side. The tone in her dying breaths changed. “…here t-though….”

    Bellicose paused, weary of one last dangerous surprise. When he realized he literally had nothing left to lose except what little time he had, he brushed her hand aside and pulled open a green side pouch to reveal… what he could only assume was a fully stocked potions kit. Crestfallen, a single sob escaped. He didn’t know the first thing about magical potion crafting or alchemy, beyond the basic, mundane first aid of herbs and balms.
    A mirthless laugh, almost more wheeze than anything, answered back.

    “Yes… of course. F-filth like y-you… haa…” her breathing grew more labored and shallow, “haa… you have… n-not… heard the f-Phoenix Song.”

    Light began to build, to gather about the Puritan. With a start, Bellicose realized she was beginning to burn, from the inside out. The tips of what was left of her hair turned to soot as embers raced to her skull. Her armor began smoking from all points, her flesh though already scarred and burned flamed anewed.

    I-aaah-I will survive this death!” She cried, the dying light of flame pouring from her mouth even as her face turned to ash. “Will you Fade!?” A gauntlet snatched his arm as he pulled back in horror from the abrupt funeral pyre. “I-if you do, I’ll hunt… you… w-with… fresh… eyes….”

    Phoenix tits,” he cursed in astonishment. She burned exponentially faster, a limp gauntlet hanging from his arm for a moment as the elbow burned away from her body. When her gear and armor too began to turn to ash, he realized this was more than just a delayed effect of the lightning. With a cry his hand shot out to the component pouch, pulling it away with ease as the straps securing it to her burned easily. By the mercy of the Seven, once removed the pouch stopped burning off like so much fuse, though it was damaged in spots and as like ruined.

    Just like that, the Puritan was no more. A pile of soggy ash almost indistinguishable from the mud and grass. All that was left to mark her existence were the odds and ends separated from her body before burning by magic combustion; some of the gold coins that had spilled from her coin purse in his haste, the silver blade beneath the tree he’d defended himself with, some of the gauntlet that had hung from his arm… and a pouch that in theory might just save his life. It was a mystery amongst several that need wait till much later to contemplate.

    On his knees, sinking into the detritus of an autumn forest floor, Bellicose attempted to make sense of the pouch’s contents by the light of a barely illuminated bluemoon, occasionally aided by the storm light. It would have been difficult under the best of conditions, but his head had been rocked by a mace, backhanded by a steel gauntlet, run into a tree, cleaved by a sword, and sliced open by steel boot; he was starting to well and truly feel the brunt of the injuries now that he wasn’t physically fighting for his life. Either his adrenaline was running dry, or his body didn’t think it would be as helpful for impromptu potion crafting. With a plummeting feeling that was probably equal parts blood loss and frustration, he probed the pouches contents with shaking fingers, taking inventory. The pouch was stiff leather, with multiple sub-compartments filled with an assortment of odds and ends. He was quick to note what looked like a teabag or two of shredded King’s Foil, which he knew to be an integral ingredient of health potions as he’d been trained to collect it in the wild for the AORian healers. Beyond the leaves, he was mostly at a loss. There was a squared off stick of a vaguely swallow gum or wax that was ghoulishly green as he held it up to inspect closer, but he thought he detected tiny flecks of gold not unlike the veins in a health potion. As for the rest… a collection of seeds, herbs, a few minute vials no larger than his thumb, and various tools he was unsure the purpose of, though he pulled the mortar and pestle free.

    Time to take a leap of faith.

    He hunched tightly over his field station as he worked, trying to block as much of the rain as he could. He ground the shreds of King’s Foil as best he could in the mortar, frustrated by how difficult a time his frozen, half broken fingers had in working the pestle. He ripped a quarter of what did, in fact, turn out to be a stick of earthy gum and timber sap compound off of with his teeth, and set to gnashing with his molars to save time. In his condition it was easy to ignore the numbing effect the gum had on his cheek and tongue; it was the only part of his head not throbbing. Once he had a rough paste of leaves, he added a few of the other herbs that looked vaguely similar and one that smelled of jasmine, which he hoped would soften the taste he was already dreading. Next he pulled the vials, which he realized were sealed ampules, and tried to discern their contents by eye. When that failed, he one by one snapped their glass necks off and cautiously tried to whiff the smell towards his nose. Unfortunately all he could smell was his own blood, petrichor, and his nose hairs freezing. In desperation he added a drop of each and all of the honey colored ampule, as it looked the least concerning, to his paste, and spit up the gum into the concoction as well. It was growing harder and harder to mash the pestle against the mortar, and what mash he did have thus far looked fouler than he guessed it should, but who was he to judge? He was too beggared to be choosy. By now both his lungs were burning, his sliced back was locking up, and the blood pounding in his temples and behind his eyes was the only thing keeping him conscious. Dropping the pestle, he brought the mortar to his lips with both shaking hands even as he fully knelt to meet it.

    Prostrated out as he was, the thought that he might offer one final prayer occurred to him. Consciousness fading as delirium grew, he wasn’t sure how much of what he prayed was in his head or a whisper to the storm.

    ‘Resna… have mercy on me Father,’ tears flowed freely into the mortar as he begged, ‘comfort me with the hope of a brighter tomorrow. Voidal Hells, just give me a tomorrow, I’ll take any you have to hand out.’ He was rambling now, be it word or thought. Pleading.

    ‘Mother Norlan… guide me through this night. Shelter m-me beneath your endless s-shawl…’ The mortar almost slipped from his numb hands as they grew weak. Well, no more delay.

    Bellicose pressed the mortar to his lips, slowly draining the too mushy paste that set his mouth on fire. It was difficult to force himself to slurp more down, so he rolled to his side and craned his neck to pour it directly down his throat. Everything the mash touched burned in an itchy, stinging fashion. He had just enough presence of mind to wander if he might be allergic to something he added, or if he’d just hastened his own demise by straight poisoning himself. Time would tell, or it wouldn’t. Dying would end all time from his mortal perspective. He turned his lips to the sky, catching what rainfall he may to sooth this fresh hell, gurgling it about with what mash was left in his gums to swallow.

    With the last of his strength he crawled a few more feet to rest his head on roots in hopes he wouldn’t drown should the healing work, and pulled the corpse cloak close to either be his blanket or grave shroud. He spent his last few minutes of semiconscious in mental prayer, feebly attempting to cover all his bases.

    …Goddess of Love, love me as your own. Haven’t I been a most ardent worshiper? I’ve given so generously in your name….

    …Shol? Are you there Shol? Its me, Bellicose. I uh… would like very much not to dye… or was it die? I’ve already been dyed… Could you declare the Truth to be I cannot die? At least not tonight? Please…?

    He didn’t know if his eyelids were closed or his vision was gone. In a moment it wouldn’t matter. His quickly scattering, quieting thoughts scrambled for any purchase, any hope left to invoke. Well, he was dying wasn’t he? Why not pray to a dead goddess? She was as like to answer his prayers as any of the livings, based on their track record thus far.

    …Great Phoenix… Goddess of Creation… thanks for, um, dying for us… thanks for Sanctus… if you can hear my words, could you save me? I’d really like not to die now, I’m far too young and pret-well-decent looking anyway…. Just hear me out… let me live… I want…to…live….

    Bellicose’s final thoughts, not even fully formed, were an impression of a distant call on the wind. He wanted to answer back, but he knew not the call’s meaning, if it had any at all. I’m here, he thought to no one, come find me… for I cannot come find you.
  • Options
    To say that this had been the worst day of Bellicose’s life felt unfair. For one, it was against all odds, a new day. If he was to count the last 24 hours as a day instead, it still didn’t quite math out, but for the sake of insanity he allowed it. He was vaguely certain he’d died twice this ‘day’, and he suspected this meant he could reasonably parse the day’s events across three lifetimes. Taken another way, while the pain he felt now was surely the worst of his new life, but without being added to the agony experienced dying the first two times it merely amounted to one of his top five most painful experiences overall.

    It was more copper than silver lining, but it was the only lifeline Bellicose had to cling to as his senses, and the excruciating stress and discomfort along with them, returned. And returned they did! Mortally wounded, exposed over night to the storm driven elements, and left for dead in an uncaring world, but by the Seven he persisted.

    Bellicose lived to die another day.

    His body was stiff from morning frost, sleeping on the ground, the beating of a lifetime, and quite possibly accidentally adding a mild paralytic to his improvised healing potion. The walk back to the ruins of Aela was going to be rough. But it was a path he gladly lived to tread.

    He pulled himself up and sat with his back to the tree for sometime. He focused on breathing, blinking, and generally testing if his body still knew its duties. Though he found himself becoming a skilled hand at cheating death, he really needed to stop doing it so often. His body was either one large sore, or a collection of smaller sores innumerable that added up to one entirety altogether. He was starving as well, and didn’t really have a solution for that problem at the moment. Ironically he thought he might have trouble eating anything too solid given how rough his throat and mouth felt. The worst aftertaste of King’s Foil was coated over every taste bud, and the thought of ever bibbing another health potion drove him through a fresh wave of nausea. Instead, he bent to the ground to sip gritty water that had pooled between tree roots. It was terrible. It was amazing. It hurt so good to be alive.

    The foggy reflection of his branchlers in the pool gave him pause, as he noted the tiniest mote of light. Carefully his fingers felt for, and removed the bluemoon. It was cracked now in several places, and was to be commended for maintaining even the barest spark. Useless, save as a bauble. A reminder of better times. He replaced it in the crook of his intact branchler for now. He had an idea for it that would require a jeweler’s touch, once he had the time and coin to spare, but for now it sat at the absolute bottom of his list of objectives.

    Brimming with Essence after a long rest, Bellicose willed his body to move as he set about searching the scene of the fight from the night prior. He pocketed the gold coins he could now see were elven in origin, though not from a mint or age he was familiar with as a son of Sanctus. He stumbled upon the silver bangle the Puritan had hidden her form with amongst the andirons, and as he picked it up with his stiff and scarred left hand considered a few uses for it himself. He was… afraid to see any more scarring for the time being. The corpse sword too he recovered and cleaned, reverently replacing it back in its sheath. Between the weapon and the tattered remains of the cloak, the nameless corpse he had robbed had saved his life. He only wished if he couldn’t return the favor, that he could at least bury the remains; a pointless thought with the river elemental still at large. The traitor’s sword on the other hand he left to rust and ruin where it lay, just as he had its nameless owner. Instead he cleaned his blood from the silver elven blade, inspecting its entire length. It was an elegant sword to be sure, as finely crafted a weapon as Bellicose had ever had the privilege to wield, or the ill luck to be run through with by an opponent. He fit the weapon through his belt, silently promising it as fine a sheath as he could afford once he’d reprovisioned.

    “Well—,” he started to say out loud before pausing at how horrible his voice sounded. As grateful as he was to be alive, he bristled at the never ending injustices of his life. He cleared his throat, tested his raw but healed lung, and tried again.

    Well!” Ah yes, that was better. Bit of honeyed tea and teat and he’d be the better for it, but he would, somehow, impossibly, even absurdly, live for now.

    “I’ve slept the better part of death off,” he observed to the Lion’s Sherwood surrounding him, “and I suppose I better take my leave before you try to take it for me, yet again. Fare thee well you old growthy bastard, I hope you choke on the dead.”


    Salamander House was quiet as the sun dipped below the partially restored walls of old Aela. In the common room, Bellicose found Captain Moss sitting alone at the main table nursing a glass of wine. Upon the table arraigned in neat rows, were the company contracts of four individuals. Bellicose knew without looking they were for the four members of his lancer squad, the last four members yet to renew their service or decline. There was also a newly opened bottle of wine on the table… a bottle he recognized. So things were that bad.
    “Captain Moss,” Bellicose said wearily, “Lancer 1st Class Fade reporting.”

    The captain turned his head, and fixed Bellicose with an unreadable stare. The man could be thinking anything behind those dark eyes. The elf had learned to be wary when human faces went so neutral.

    “Sit down Lancer Fade.” He indicated an adjacent chair and began pouring the wine into a second of his fine crystal ware. If he was alarmed by one of his lancers arriving in such rough condition, beaten and blooded with part of a branchler missing, he hid it well.

    There was a tension in the air that Bellicose didn’t quite grasp, and he knew neither if it was due to his exhaustion or cultural differences. He carefully sat in the offered chair, trying to divine the captain’s intentions.

    “I assume there is a mission report.” It wasn’t a question.

    “Yes sir.” Bellicose attempted to take refuge in formality, suddenly displaying more military bearing than he ever had in his life.

    “And I assume there is a reason you are delivering the mission report and not Sergeant Fletcher.” His tune indicated he knew the answer.

    The Lancer’s chest tightened. Bellicose had very pointedly been trying to disassociate from his squad on the journey back to the city. Hearing the name was jarring.

    “Yes sir.”

    “Very well.” The captain slid the second glass in front of Bellicose, who ignored it.

    “My squad… we…” How did he even start? Why was this so hard, after everything else he’d suffered through? He adopted the formal tone he’d heard sergeants use countless times when addressing officers. “I regret to inform you we discovered the source of poaching in the Lion’s Sherwood. We ourselves were ambushed as we made camp by a full squad of andirons.” When the captain didn’t react, Bellicose added, “All were salamander deserters, sir.” He was surprised when that elicited no response either, but it did make things easier. Bellicose fell into the routine of reporting facts and found he could do it as dispassionately as he needed in the moment. “It was a quick skirmish. We managed to kill four of the traitors in all, but out numbered as we were and caught unawares, it was no small miracle. When the others… fell, I retreated with haste as I was still outnumbered 4-to-1.” As quickly as he considered he might mention the unexpected appearance by the former lieutenant, he dismissed the thought. He was embarrassed to only just now even consider what she was doing in the area, and how she was involved. As for the Puritan’s presence, let alone the manner of her death, Bellicose didn’t know what good it would do to mention, or that the captain would even believe him.

    “How did they die?” Captain Moss asked with all the dispassion of inquiring about the weather.
    It was a surprising question, but Bellicose indulged him.

    “Well, even though they had the drop on us, I was able to distract two of the traitors while our mage conjured—.”

    “—Stone,” Captain Moss interrupted suddenly, emotion for the first time beginning to bleed into his voice, “her name was Lancer Stone.” Bellicose flinched at the name. “How did your squad mates die, Lancer Fade?” The smell of wine on his breath punched like dropping into icy waters.

    Bellicose grew uncomfortable. He was already pushed to his frayed limits, and even Essence failed to steady him. He struggled to maintain his composure.

    “As I stated sir, we were ambushed. The traitors were able to pair off against us and overwhelmed the sergeant almost immedia—.”

    Bellicose was completely unprepared for the captain’s drink as it shattered across his cheek. Without thought he launched himself at his superior officer, hands outstretched for the old man’s throat.

    He didn’t cover half the distance before a wall of light crashed into him. Papers flew as he careened backwards, hip checking his chair and rolling to a stop on the ground. Bellicose was blind with rage, beyond the reason of a rational mind. He didn’t even notice the tiny shards of glass being pushed from his cheek as the network of cuts rapidly stitched themselves closed, or that much of the soreness in his body was washed away. He attempted to kip up from the ground, only to catch a swift boot to the gut, knocking him further back where he collided with the wall. The captain was on top of him in an instant.

    “Fletcher, Stone, Nham!” the human was practically growling, “Say their names!”

    Bellicose fought with everything left in him, but he practically had nothing left to give. He had Essence yes, but not the fight in him. Not today. Captain Moss was a career soldier; underneath his weather lined and rotund exterior was muscle and experience. The human grabbed the elf by what was left of his collar and slammed him against the wall again, pressed his knee to his chest, and batted away Bellicose’s lethargic strikes.

    “Say their names you !##$%^&! You owe them that much!”

    “!##$ you old man!” Bellicose snarled. He caught a front and back hand on return for his troubles.

    “Fletcher! Stone! Nham! SAY IT!” Captain Moss roared in his face, the wine breath stinging the elf’s freshly healed cuts.

    Bellicose wanted to rip the human’s throat out with his bare hands. He wanted burn the building down once and for all, erasing the last traces that the salamanders ever existed. He wanted… he wanted to die, he realized. He wished he’d let the Puritan kill him. He wished the elemental had smashed him into the mud alongside the corpse soldier, or that the traitors had slain him… killed him instead of the others. Spilled his noble elven blood instead of a handful of humans he never cared to truly get to know. Oh yes he had joked with them, shared hearth and flame, fought back-to-back. But never cared for, not until it was too late. Until he couldn’t care for them anymore. It seemed to be a common failing of his as of late. So he did the only thing left to him.

    Bellicose wept.

    Bellicose gnash his teeth, beat his fists against his own chest. He wailed at the injustice of it all, at how helpless he felt. Tears born of self-loathing burned his face. His Essence roiled within, a thunderous maelstrom to rival any terrestrial feat. He wept until the sun set on the horizon, on his contract, on his agony. All the while, Captain Moss knelt over him silently, pinning him to the wall.

    “Sergeant Fletcher,” he finally whispered, “Lancer Stone, Lancer Nham.”

    Only then did Captain Moss release his grip and stand up. When he offered his hand, Bellicose attempted it with total humility.

    In silence they returned to the table, the human pouring a fresh drink while the elf righted his chair and searched the scattered papers for the one inscrolled with his own name.

    “I’ve decided to leave Aela,” Bellicose said suddenly, nearly as the resolution occurred in his mind, his heart. He penned as such on his contract and looked up to the captain. “I won’t be extending my time with the salamanders.”

    Captain Moss nodded. He was causally nursing his fresh glass of wine. An outsider observer would have never guessed he’d just beaten an elf into submission, breaking their spirits and forcing them to face loss properly for, perhaps, the first time in a long elven life.

    “There are no longer any salamanders.” Moss announced, suddenly no longer a captain. “Fletcher squad was the last bit of business to tie up. As of this moment, the lancers under my command are fully absorbed into the new Aela city militia. I’d hoped to send the last few on their way tonight, but….” He didn’t need to finish the thought out loud. “Officially, they’ll help fortify what gains we’ve made in the Riverlands. Unofficially, well, the crown has decided that in light of the emerging threat from Carphin, our losses in the ranks both casualty and traitor, not to mention the greater than expected difficulty in pushing back the wilds… it’s just safer to stay put. Let the guilds and noble houses try their luck at carving out beachheads.” He sipped his wine. “I’m sure the tax collectors will eventually catch up with those settlements that survive by their own merit.”

    That was about as dark and outright disloyal observation Bellicose had ever heard from the man. It was concerning on multiple fronts, not least of which was apparently the barracks rumors about the undead horde from Carphin Tower were true. That the crown was already abandoning reclamation to the guilds was a shocking admission of neglect and ineptitude, but perhaps he shouldn’t be surprised given his own experiences in the ranks.

    It took few moments for the rest of what Moss had said to hit him. “You said, ‘they’ll fortify’,” Bellicose recalled slowly, his voice still a touch raw, “you’re leaving too, aren’t you?” He almost couldn’t imagine it.

    Moss considered his wine. “If nothing else, I’ve !##$ the bed pretty hard with this last command. To have almost a third of my lancers desert, never mind that it’s been a wide spread issue across the reserves… well I haven’t been much of a leader, have I?”

    Bellicose almost corrected him. But this was amnesty hour. There were no half truths or falsehoods between the two of them now.

    “And I was never much of a lancer.” Bellicose raised his glass in mock salute. “Here’s to half-!##ing it.” Moss’s expression suggested he didn’t agree with the sentiment but raised his glass anyway.

    For a while they both sat in silence, while they contemplated the bottom of their drinks. Once they’d both emptied their glasses, Moss struck the conversation back up as he poured them fresh spirits.

    “I’m heading to Winstead in the morning. So far, it’s the most promising of the encampments outside of the crown’s direct control, so they’re as like not to !##$ it up too badly. It as good as any a place to make my fortune.” Bellicose eyed the bottle they were sure to polish off that night, rending liquid gold into copper piss. Moss said fortune but meant something else. Bellicose hoped he’d find it, whatever ‘it’ was in Winstead.
    “Interested in joining me?” Moss offered after a moment.

    “I think I’m done taking orders from humans, no offense.” Bellicose said without hesitation.

    Moss grunted. “From your lips to the Sevens’ ears. No, I’m not interested in following the orders of others again either, not for a while at any rate. I’m suggesting a partnership. Look out for one another, maybe find some work as caravan guards until a trustworthy guild turns up. What do you say?”

    Bellicose debated far longer than it took to make up his mind. When he said he was done with human orders, what he really meant was he was done with humans, or at least human held lands. But Moss was against all odds a good man. His offer was genuine, and Bellicose would be a fool not to accept.

    “I’m afraid not.” Fool it was then. “I’m feeling something of a wanderlust building beneath my feet. And I’ve been to Winstead.” He turned his nose up. “I’ve never seen a more miserable collection of peddler’s tents and unwashed claim jumpers.” He considered his options. He’d seen enough of the Riverlands for one lifetime, he thought. “If you want to join me, I think I’m going to head east. I’ve heard of an expedition to reclaim a holy site near the coast. There are plans for a settlement there focused on the Seven, regardless of your background or from whence you hail. Sounds like a good place to find some peace for a while.”

    Moss erupted in laughter, a full belly endeavor that shook his entire frame. Bellicose had never seen half as much emotion from the man in the past year. “!##$ me sideways! You elf? Become a monk? You realize they take vows of celibacy, don’t you?” He slapped the table a few times as he continued to chuckle. “You’ll be bored inside of a month, or they’ll run you out of town for chasing all the nuns’ skirts.”
    That was on the rude side, but Bellicose decided to be the bigger elf about it.

    “I’ll send you a letter.” Bellicose mimicked writing in the air. “Addressed to one Former Captain Moss, Mud Hovel #4, Plank Road, Winstead.” He paused for dramatic effect. “If you haven’t been overrun by the living dead in six months.”

    “Six months it is then. Sounds like a proper wager to me.” It was… good to see Moss smiling finally, and properly smiling at that. He looked more alive, more whole. It suited him. “Now, that’s enough of the future for tonight.” He topped both their glasses off, and his face grew not so much sober as contemplative. “Until we finish this bottle, let us speak of the past.”

    Bellicose cooled, and Moss clearly saw the hesitation on his face. For Bellicose, the past was always painful, and recently even more so.

    “Let us talk of the fallen. We shall drink to their names and remember them. Always remember them Bellicose.” It was the first time he’d ever used the elf’s given name, and it almost sounded awkward in the old warhorse’s suddenly sentimental voice. “Let us remember those whom the world would soon rather forget. It is the final duty of an old soldier, his final commitment to his comrades. Never forget who they were in life. It’s the least we can do, we who didn’t have the gods’ given graces to lay down our lives besides them.”

    Ah, that was it then. Bellicose recognized in Moss what he had forced Bellicose to see in himself. The guilt of the living. Whereas Bellicose was just coming to grips with it however, Moss seemed to wear the guilt, the shame like an old glove. The salamanders weren’t the only ones he’d lost over his career.

    So they talked. Long into the night, long past the last drop of wine had been pissed away, they talked not of lancers, but of people. What these simple folk had shared of their lives. The hopes, dreams, and plans of those who would never see any come to fruition. For one more night, two old drunks kept their brothers-and-sisters-in-arms alive.
Sign In or Register to comment.