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Diomache Castillo

"Here, put this hat on. You'll feel better."

0 · 938 views · located in Albion

a character in “Avalon's Dawn”, as played by AugustArria

Description

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"Take what you need, then take what they don't."
Short Change Hero - The Heavy


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Name: Diomache Castillo (goes by Dio)
Pronunciation: DEE-oh-mahk cass-TEE-yo
Age: 23
Race: Human
Height: 5'3"
Build: No more muscle than is absolutely necessary, but she stays very fit.
Sexuality: Heterosexual

Appearance: Dio doesn't have a big appearance in any sense of the word. She's relatively short, relatively thin, and dresses in a relatively unremarkable manner. It plays to her advantage. Usually at least some part of her head is covered, either by a simple hat or headscarf, or entirely covered when she is forced to travel the desert or other sandy, windy areas. It covers dark brown hair that typically extends to her shoulders. She isn't the type to go around grinning from ear to ear, but she does smile often, and it is a pleasant thing, accented by the fact that she appears very kind, soft even. Her eyes are a light, warm brown, like milk chocolate. Perhaps surprising given her profession, she does not wear copious amounts of jewelry, and her clothes in general are mostly unassuming, and always comfortable to move in.

Her skin's a slightly exotic color, clearly darkened beyond just a tan, and isn't marked by any tattoos to speak of, though she does have a few piercings; a small nose stud and the occasional earrings. Dio's somewhat fragile appearance helps disguise her physical skills; she's very fast, able to accelerate quickly, and also very agile and acrobatic, able to change directions in the blink of an eye, her dexterity extending to quickness with her hands as well. It's something no thief should go without.


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ImageDemeanor: She has a very wide range of demeanors, typically very influenced by those she is currently around. Dio is very free with her emotions, and has no qualms about laughing with or hugging complete strangers. She isn't naturally over energetic, but finds that the emotions of others are perhaps more infectious to her than they are to the more closed off. She feels very strongly, regardless of whether the feeling is happiness, depression, love or hate. Hate may be a bit of a stretch however, as she tries to avoid developing grudges or vendettas against specific people. In a room full of people, there's a fairly decent chance Dio will be the most empathetic by far.

It carries over into her philosophies on other people. She's an idealist, always willing to strive for the perfect outcome that in many cases will not be possible. She believes if the effort is made, the best possible solution will be achieved, and though it may not end up perfect, the penalties for taking the easy route are unacceptable. Despite her profession, she's as far from greedy as can be, and typically finds great pleasure in delivering the treasures she recovers to those who might put them to better use than she. She takes what she needs, and then she takes what they don't.

Her general inexperience with the southern reaches of Avalon leaves her at a bit of a disadvantage on occasion. It's a lack of familiarity with the harsh and unforgiving ways of the lawless and the corrupt, and she's still getting used to it. She finds Deluge a wee bit overwhelming, in all honesty. A hive of the wretched and wicked isn't the easiest place for a thief to make her living, especially one that refuses to kill in order to uphold her morals. Willing clients are hard to find, but not impossible, and this gives her a good deal of hope.

Quirks: She has an abnormal love of hats and really headwear of any kind, and she revels in thunderstorms of any magnitude, as she insists they make her powers more effective, even though at this point it's probably just the coincidence of being more confident in her abilities during their duration.

Fears: She doesn't really fear much, as her curiosity usually overpowers it, but she feels very uncomfortable with the thought of being in any way stranded in the desert.

Opinions:
Artorias- She's never really thought of him as a tyrant before. It seemed like he had good intentions, but lately she's seen some things that prove otherwise. She doesn't think herself nearly so important as to be a concern of his, but if removing him from power is the right thing to do, she'll help do it.
Myrddin- She hasn't met him, though she's heard of him.
Gwen- The adorable captain of her new group of friends. Dio likes her, and absolutely loves what she does with her hair. She sees them being pretty good friends.
Percy- He's rather brave to stick up for his books and his history in a group of fighters and mercenaries. It doesn't bother her in the slightest that he's Mutatio, and seems like a nice guy. They haven't really spoken to one another, though.
Kethyrian- Now here's one she's curious about. Somehow she knows about Dio's near death in the desert, but she doesn't remember her as being one of the Favisae that rescued her. As closed off as she seems to be, Dio is intent on getting some answers from her, if only to thank her if she helped.
Mordecai- She feels guilty at the suggestion of using him to replace the number eight her family owned, as essentially a wall to talk to, as he seems to be more than that. To say she's curious about him would be an understatement.
Theon- Her attempt to say hello did not go well. He doesn't seem interested in speaking with her, or anyone really, and honestly seems like a rather low sort of person.
Vivian- Dio also didn't get much of a chance to speak with the other Zeona, though she hopes she might be more open than her brother.
Sven- Even at a glance, he seems like he's been through a lot. She gets a good vibe from him. A good guy to have around.
Lohengrin- Who? Oh, him. Yeah, he's not real social, is he?


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ImageRole: Traditional rogue, for the most part. Excellent at getting around traps and passing beneath the notice of enemies. She strikes to sabotage and undermine the enemy, not to kill.
Weapons of Choice: Xeo, a blunted, dull-edged scimitar, and Leo, an ornate flintlock pistol with no powder and no shot. Useless weapons to anyone other than her. They're named after a pair of dogs she raised with Bru.

Magic School: Natural
Primary Specialization: Combat (electricity channeling)
Secondary Specialization: Alteration (lock-picking)

Armor/Apparel: She has an aversion to anything that creaks, and as such, avoids leather, preferring cloth trousers and tops, with the aforementioned head covering, either full face or a hat, with sandals of some kind tied around most of her lower legs for stability. Though she's been known to go barefoot on occasion, the habit was dropped after spending a few weeks in Deluge.

Fighting Style: The moral code she has placed upon herself prevents her from killing an enemy, and as such her fighting style is designed around disabling and stunning the enemy rather than outright killing. To this end she uses her combat magic, channeling electricity into her dulled blade, to send concentrated shocks into enemies upon making hits. Normally, this would just be to get away from guards, but she can increase the intensity enough stun or knock unconscious without killing, though repeated uses of this power without rest will cause her to tire out quicker than normal.

Aside from her magical ability, Dio is a trained swordsman, and her combat style revolves around fleetness of foot and counterattacks, smooth parries and dodges followed by precise strikes to debilitate and stun.


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Credit
Place of Birth: Xantus, in the North.
Social Status: Freelance thief and do-gooder.

Personal History: The Castillo family is quite steeped in magic, its most prominent members going back generations all sorcerers and sorceresses of great power, but more importantly, great nobility. The family has always been a force for good in the northern city of Xantus. They're well known, the leaders of an organization called the Shield of Xantus, a collective of mages performing mainly charitable and beneficial works for the city and nearby towns. Into this family Diomache Castillo was born, the sixth of seven children in her immediate branch, and the fifth daughter. Right from the get-go it was a competition for attention, and Dio was never very good at that. Her immediate magical talent was sparse at best. She showed a decent affinity for electricity, but that was about it. It wasn't much of a surprise when her more talented siblings received the majority of their parents' attention.

This allowed Dio to explore the city more on occasions than the others, and gave her a slightly wider view of the world. Sometimes she wandered into the less savory portions of Xantus, and while they certainly couldn't compare to the slums of Deluge, they weren't exactly soft. It was here she met a boy her age who was called Bru. His full name was a lot longer and a lot harder to say, so they stuck with Bru. He was an orphan, a street rat, and through him Dio experienced the darker side of the city, the side her siblings would never see. They grew up together, and became best of friends. She was enrolled in the family curriculum at the time as well, entered as an initiate into the Shield of Xantus. The group's good morals were driven into her early on, and they stuck, even if the lifestyle wouldn't take hold.

Dio came of age split between two worlds, and sought to fuse them, bringing the values taught to her by her family into the crime-ridden lifestyle of the truly poor and desolate. However Bru could think to get them in trouble, Dio played the conscience, getting them back out again. Eventually, as many street rats did, Bru turned to thievery, and dragged Dio along with him, first into pickpocketing, and soon after into cat burglary and slightly more elaborate heists. Her knowledge of many of the wealthy estates in Xantus proved invaluable, and though she was typically stealing from people she knew personally, she felt little guilt over it, as they all hoarded excess, despite their affiliations with the Shield of Xantus.

Seeing the true dark side of the city made Dio begin to see how her family's organization could better aid the city in which they lived, but as ever, she was overlooked, ignored even. Her antics hadn't given her the best of reputations among her peers, and into her late teens she began to truly rebel against the wealthy lifestyle, taking her thievery more seriously. A talent in Alteration magic had developed, and she found herself with the ability to open most locks, making many heists significantly easier. Eventually Bru came up with the idea of robbing her own family's estate, the richest in the city. Brash and rebellious at 18 as she was, she agreed. After all, she and Bru had naturally developed into more than friends.

The break-in to the vaults wasn't hard, the family apparently wasn't expecting a break-in from one of their own. With Bru, she infiltrated the lowest levels of the estate, slipped into the vaults... but didn't find what she was expecting. In place of riches and gold, she found people of all races, caged like animals beneath where she had been living her whole life. She had the opportunity to speak with a few of them, and managed to discern that her family had been using them as test subjects, trying to find better ways to cure maladies, reverse mutations, among other things. She managed to learn that they'd been bought off one Argus Hooktooth before everything fell apart.

Family guards stormed in, and a fight ensued. Bru managed to escape, while Dio was not so fortunate. After they quickly determined she was a problem that could not be silenced, she was delivered out into the sand ocean, and left to die. It's unlikely she remains in any of the Castillo family records at this point, but she doesn't really care. Abandoned and cut off from any civilization, or Bru, Dio wandered aimlessly for as long as her legs could carry her, with no end in sight. With her last remaining strength she managed to stumble underground before she collapsed from exhaustion.

She woke in the care of the Zar'Thrak, the smallest of the main clans of Favisae. They had found her collapsed at the entrance to their tunnels, and saved her life. She actually remained with the clan for just under a year as something of a guest, though not all were exactly friendly to her. However, she was even so lucky as to receive some amount of training in swordplay and climbing from one of them that became rather fond of her. She then laid out something of a plan for herself: she would go south, use her skills to improve the lot of the needy where she could, and use the opportunities to train her skills, for the eventual task of bringing down the Shield of Xantus.

The Favisae helped guide her from the tunnels when she was prepared, directing her towards the nearest settlement they could. From there, she spent the next four years as planned, stealing from those who had no need, and giving to those that did, developing a minor reputation for herself. She's currently in Deluge for the second time, hired to break into the estate of a familiar name: Hooktooth. Her task is to free any enslaved there, and it's one she's more than happy to carry out. Her family will receive no more subjects from him if she is successful.

So begins...

Diomache Castillo's Story

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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It had taken perhaps thirty seconds from the time Argus was certain that the others were gone before he had his enforcers strong-arm the two of them into a smallish room with no furniture and lock the door. Kethyrian didn't waste the energy pretending this was a surprise, but nor did she resist. Either he'd let them out when the others returned, or he'd have a fight on his hands. It wasn't like she really cared either way. In fact, the opportunity to rupture the scumbag's intestines was beginning to look rather attractive, all things considered. Of course, the downside to this situation was that she was now locked in a nearly featureless room with the Lieutenant. It wasn't that she disliked him, necessarily, it was simply clear that the two of them would never really have anything to do with each other unless they had to, and he wasn't exactly built for her preferred method of escape (nor she his, if she were being perfectly fair).

Selecting a corner of the room (near the window, which was locked, as she'd suspected it would be), Kethyrian lowered herself into a crosslegged repose, draping her arms over her knees, straight-backed and haughty even still. It took much more than a disgusting goblin and a few guards to bring her off the sand-built pedestal she'd constructed for herself. By all rights, it should not stand, but she was holding it up with a mixture of magic and sheer force of will, with a healthy amount of self-deception to boot. Since it was all she had left, she'd continue to do so, for as long as it took to find something else to live for.

Seeing as there was nothing else to really do, she decided that a question to the room's sole other occupant might not go astray. Besides, she was curious, something that didn't happen all that often anymore. "Why stay?" she asked him. "It doesn't make any sense. If necessary, I could escape by climbing, something which I doubt you can do as well. Your loyalty to your captain is obvious, and in leaving, you've deprived them of a strongarm they might need for whatever they find underground." Her voice was largely flat, the words blunt. It was not her intention to offend, but she wasn't going to waste time softening them, either. As a creature of practicality, the choice seemed nearly incomprehensible to her, and she wished to understand it.

The Lieutenant hadn't seemed to put up much of a fight either, but neither had the two burly men put their hands on him. He'd simply raised his hands, opening his palms wide, before nodding his head and stippling his arms over his chest in a defiant gesture that indicated they better lead him along or he'd make this endeavour a little less pleasant then they'd hoped. He understood well enough that he'd have to obey for the time being – at least, until Gwendolyn came back and gave him further orders. If the order to strangle that disgusting goblin was offered, then he'd gladly take it. He'd never been fond of over-privileged fat-cats and their self-righteous attitudes. Unexpectedly docile, the Lieutenant stepped into the empty room, glancing quickly around the quaint chamber before taking residence in the opposing corner. It wasn't as if he was going to offer anything in the means of conversation, either. What would he have to say to her, anyway? Nothing that needed saying. She seemed clever enough to figure out how things were going to carried out and how things would unfold.

He did not look at her, but stared at the door they'd come through instead. Fastidiously inspecting the bolts, the fastenings holding the bolts together, the material the door was crafted from and whether or not the locks were at all possible to pick given the right tools. It wasn't likely that Argus would place them into a room that could be easy to escape from – most likely, the locks were impenetrable to all but those who remained outside of it. Fair enough, then. Though most would have immediately taken him for being stupid, he'd been in several situations in the past, while serving with Gwendolyn's father, that involved breaking out of locked rooms, prisons, ships. The Lieutenant did not unbind his arms from his chest, merely flit his murky gaze over the doorway, then the ceiling tiles. He studied everything, committed each detail to his memory. Willingly submitting himself as a prisoner never felt right, even if it was for Gwendolyn's sake.

It came to him as a surprise when Kethyrian broke the silence. His eyes traveled across the small expanse of the cramped chamber, towards the other side where Kethyrian sat, cross-legged and astonishingly unruffled. Had he been trapped with anyone else, possibly one of the louder ones, then he might've been ill-tempered. He arched an eyebrow, levelling her with a stare. Somehow, it struck him as strange. His reputation amongst the guild members, and it's subsequent affiliates, had grown over the years – dark and legitimate alike. He'd been ruthless, and his name had been whispered with fear and awe. Maybe, he didn't look as young as he used to, or maybe Gwendolyn had ruined every ounce of fear with her horrible nicknames. He frowned. Hadn't the reason been plain enough? “Bad knees.” The Lieutenant offered lamely, gesturing with his hand. His gaze lifted skyward, then settled back on her, or rather a few feet over her head. “Vhy? Stronger than she looks, da' fraulein. Vertrauen. Er, no trust in Guild, or on ship, then no good to anyone.” The explanation might've not made sense to anyone who didn't know him well, but it was accompanied by a shrug of his shoulders. If she chose to climb, then they'd eventually have to open up the chamber to see where she'd gone. He'd take whatever opportunity to clobber them and escape – that was his way of doing things.

“Hoping I can kill goblin vith pipewrench. After, probably.”

Kethyrian's lips twisted, the resulting smile not at all friendly, but the half-snicker, half-harrumph that accompanied the gesture was at least a clue that any bitterness here was not directed towards him. "Now there's a mission I could get behind," she muttered dryly, leaning her head back so that the crown of it touched the wall behind her. The Favisae exhaled slowly, letting her eyes fall almost-closed, until little was left but aureate slits and her vision was obscured by her eyelashes. She was tired of this place already, tired of Deluge and of crime lords and of the surface. But where else was there for her to go? She had nowhere, and nobody, really. Vivian was the closest thing she'd had to a friend in years, and as much as she liked to think otherwise, Kethyrian still needed people from time to time, as everyone did.

"I think I get it," she said at length. He might be a bit more like her, practical where other people were about ideals. He just had the long view of it, something which was admirable, she supposed. She didn't exactly know whose trust was supposed to be bolstered by this act, though. The captain clearly trusted him with all her too-bright little heart, and she wasn't arrogant enough to assume that most of the rest of the Guild really cared about what happened to her. Vivi hadn't been there, so it wasn't for her benefit. If it was Kethyrian's own trust he was after, he was looking for something that didn't really exist, at least not in any way resembling anyone else's. Or if it still did, it was half-rotted and insubstantial, like a ghost where a person should be. Hollow, was the word. She was hollow. And lonely, maybe, but far too wilful to ever admit it, even to herself, and so she cast the thought away.

Maybe he was more than she'd guessed, after all. Without any real need or desire to say anything else, she fell silent, content to simply wait, either for her deliverance or her death, whichever came first. She would not be made anyone's servant; that humility was not in her, and she truly would rather die, rather stop her own heart, than submit to anything of the sort. Of course, she'd rather just stop Argus's heart instead. The thought quirked the corner of her mouth, but she kept it to herself, already aware that he was of like mind in that much, at least.

Outside the mansion, or rather on the outside of the mansion, a young woman was busy trying to keep a bead of sweat from rolling down into her right eye. Irksome thing. Her crimson desert headscarf was wound tightly about her forehead, only her eyes exposed to the world, but this annoying little bead had formed right on her eyebrow. Thankfully, the tilt her head currently had allowed it to roll off to the side. Perhaps it was a sign that she needed to get moving. She could only hang on a ledge for so long, after all.

Dio had known this job would have complications. Everything that had ever been important to her always managed to complicate itself if she waited long enough. This was no exception. She'd been looking forward to coming into direct conflict with Argus Hooktooth for some time, the despicable goblin who sold flesh to her family. Of course it wouldn't be easy. These things never were. If there was one thing the exiled Castillo had learned by now, it was that a lack of difficulty meant you were walking into a trap. Doubly so in Deluge.

She'd heard the majority of the conversation that had taken place between Argus and this group of outsiders, perched outside a window she'd cracked just slightly ajar on the second floor, steady hands gripping firm stone of a rather interesting statue of a merfolk adorning the outer wall. Guards patrolled beneath her occasionally, but they rarely thought to look up. She took no chances when they did, calling on a bit of alteration to blend in with the surroundings somewhat, and hide her from notice. Concealed, she'd listened in as the Favisae among the group was forced to stay behind, the large man electing to stay with her. She frowned. A woman of lesser morals might have been pleased with the development, as this would actually work in her favor if she were not interested in the well-being of the two captives. For what she had planned, these two would no doubt take the blame, and the reaction, drawing attention away from her. But that was not Dio's way. No one deserved to suffer at Argus' hands, and certainly these two were no exception.

And so the thief found herself scuttling along the outside of the mansion along the second floor, nimbly hopping from handhold to handhold, soft sandals finding purchase in the smallest of places, her weight evenly displaced across supports so as to not overly stress any of her grips. She stopped at the windows to watch their progress, determining that they were being led to the second floor "guest" room. From her initial scoutings, she'd suspected the large empty room would be used for such a purpose. This would be difficult... the guest room was a long, awkward way from where she wanted to be, especially if they were in the company of one who could not climb as she and the Favisae woman could. She briefly considered the possibility of helping them escape, and doing the rest of her job tomorrow... but no, it needed to be today. The representative from her family could arrive early, after all. Dio wasn't rilling to risk the lives of the captives like that. No, she'd have to adapt.

She came to a halt outside a high window of the guest room, carefully peeking through to see if they were alone. They were, and so she waved a brief bit of alteration magic upon the window, unlocking it with a small click, before she pushed it open enough for her to slip through. She threw herself over, rolling horizontally to squeeze through the small area, catching the inner ledge of the windowsill and planting sandals on the wall to stop herself, before dropping lightly to the ground, catching her weight gently with bent knees, dropping low enough to touch a hand to the floor.

Dio's first action was to pull her cloth mask away from her face so that they might see her better, and to put a finger over her lips, asking for silence. She did not want to seem threatening at all, since there were no doubt guards stationed right outside the door. She was armed, a scimitar sheathed across her back, and an ornate flintlock pistol at her hip, and for the moment there was no way for them to know that these weapons were quite harmless to them. Glad to finally be given a break from climbing and vaulting for a moment, Dio took the opportunity to rest an arm on her knee, while the other knee bent to touch the ground. She spoke in a low voice, a little more than a whisper, but still very quiet. "Sorry to intrude," she began, "but I'm afraid you're both about to take the blame for something you had no part in planning. I hope you weren't planning on staying here long." She had noticed that the Favisae had striped hair, which was rather interesting to her, but there was no time to think on it.

An imperceptible scrunch of his nose overtook his normally dispassionate, enduring expression. He thought he might've understood small pieces of this woman sitting coolly in the opposing corner – how she thought, how she worked, how little she wanted to trust or even like anyone else aboard their merry crew. Had he known anyone else with the same temperament? A few individuals stuck out like sore thumbs, glumly offering him hazy images he'd rather bury underneath his heels. Dead friends, dead teammates; corpses rotting in the ground somewhere. Maybe, they weren't so different, after all. His eyes dropped a few centimetres, surveying the Favisae's dampened demeanour, clearly tired of being in this place, then fell back on the door he'd been previously assessing for weaknesses. It struck him as odd that he didn't really know anyone in Avalon's Dawn – not anymore, anyway, because he was getting older and those he'd known had already passed away or they'd went along with him and joined Gwendolyn on her steamship. Did these kids still sleep in cramped bunks, pressed tightly together, surrounded by Myrddin's books and crumpled posters hanging over their beds?

His heavy eyebrows remained overcast, tossing shadows over his eyes until he looked up at her. The Lieutenant shifted his weight, tilted his head a little to the side and remained mute save for the brief flicks of his pupils. His practicality stemmed from a lengthy period of time pushing his life, however nonchalantly, however carelessly and deliberately into other people's evasive hands, plopping it on their shoulders. He did not fear death. He did not fear punishment – not in the physical sense, at least. Death was an every-present companion, hardly interested in an old soldier. It was hard to fathom a clean break of his duty to Gwendolyn. But, what he'd initially meant was that trust begot trust. There were enough swarthy, dependable people accompanying her that he didn't need to worry whether or not she was in any danger, or whether his brawn was actually needed. She wasn't a bad shot, either. She'd wriggled herself out of more horrible situations then he'd care to count. It might've been admirable if it weren't for the fact that she found it amusing how close she could dance with death, knocking elbows and scurrying away with little more than cuts and bruises. She was not clumsy but careless, and careless to a degree that astonished him. Hopefully, they'd keep her in line while he was away.

In the end, whether or not he thought it was best, the Lieutenant would form decisions based on his years of experience, based on his grisly intuition. Old geezers tended to take things slowly, rather than headbutting their way through unfavourable situations. He was no different, even though he'd wanted to throttle Argus the moment he'd opened his mouth. He let the thought fall away from him, knowing that it was better left unexamined, for now. Affording any ill-intentions now would only bring those travelling underground trouble. There was nothing else that needed to be said, so the Lieutenant merely bobbed his head accordingly and leaned against the wall. There was such a cold cast to his eyes, as if he were an icicle that had finally melted to reveal the core of it; entirely set-in-stone. In between the lulls, in the threads of silence, Sven thought of her. Before his thoughts had begun – they were interrupted by a peculiar person slipping soundlessly from the window, kneeling lightly in front of it. He read into threats more so than most, and his shoulders automatically slackened, loosening their initial tension.

Woman, he reflected. The Lieutenant's eyes narrowed critically, taking note of the weapons she carried. Questions flung themselves haphazardly through his mind with no readily apparent answers, though they remained unvoiced. “Schwierigkeiten, Fraulein,” He grumbled sourly, curling his lip. His expression softened a bit. Her eyes were familiar – warm, brown, inherently kind. It was difficult to scrounge up any further annoyance at such a ridiculous statement. Certainly, it didn't help that she looked younger than Gwendolyn. “Vhat planning?” His arms were thrown wide, as if to indicate their predicament. He wondered whether or not this was some sort of shoddy rescue effort. Was she going to bust them out?

They might have passed the remainder of their time thus—each to their own contemplative silence, and she wouldn’t have thought it ill-spent, as far as such things went, but ‘twas not to be, if the muted click that signaled the window mechanism opening was anything to go by. Kethyrian watched with dull interest as a slender figure slipped in through the opening, landing quite noiselessly. Impressive, for a human. Sven’s question was the only pertinent one, and so the Favisae kept her silence. Something about this woman’s face… it was familiar, only in that way in which things tug, long-forgotten, at the back of one’s mind. She could not place the sensation, however, and frowned.

Questions were good. Well, relatively. A lot better than punching and raucus noises and overreacting. Dio was going to explain to them anyway, it was just safe to wait until she knew they wouldn't try to attack her or anything first. Her posture loosened somewhat, but her legs stayed coiled, ready to send bounding back up the wall and out the window if she needed to. After all, there were armed men nearby, and they certainly meant business. "You probably already know this," she explained, "but our goblin friend has no intention of giving you up. You in particular," she said, nodding to the Favisae. "That's just his... taste, I guess. He deals in flesh often, and I don't doubt he thinks the pair of you would make good additions to his collection."

Her eyes darted to the door for a moment, certain she'd heard movement outside, but as soon as it came it passed. "I'm not here for you. At least, I wasn't. I'm here for the cargo of flesh he's keeping in the basement, on behalf of an interested party in the city, and myself. They're going to be sold tomorrow, to a group of people they really don't want to meet. I'm not going to let that happen."

There was no separate reaction from the Favisae to being addressed; the woman told her nothing she didn’t already know. A rusted tin soldier and a night-skinned harpy? Argus’s standards were not particularly high if they were worthy collection pieces. She’d been counting on either the others making it back in enough time to secure their escape, or else attempting to fight her way out alongside the wall of muscle on the other side of the room. Probably, she should have darted for the opening first chance she got and never looked back on any of it, but she couldn’t bring herself to leave him behind when it was her fault he was here in the first place. Trust, was it? Foolish, she called it, but even she was not so low as to flee while another remained.

Still, that didn’t mean they had to help this thief, whatever her reasons might be. Attempting to get down to the basement, free a bunch of hostages, and then somehow get them out safely was not an easy prospect, not considering the amount of guards the goblin employed. Still… golden eyes flicked from Sven back to the woman, still faintly familiar. ”Interesting,” she hummed flatly. ”There are two guards directly outside this door, which happens to be locked. If you can do to it what you managed with the window, I am sure myself and my… ally here would be able to deal with at least that much.”

She wasn’t sure she wanted to commit to helping this woman in her endeavor, especially not without knowing what Sven thought of it, given that he was bound to be a much better combatant than she, but she could not deny that either way, they’d have to take out the guards, and she wouldn’t mind putting down a few of these enforcers on her way to Argus, if at all possible. Vengeance wasn’t really Kethyrian’s thing, but her displeasure at being treated like saleable goods was rankling, and she would at least prefer to be out of this room.

"I'm sure you can," Dio agreed. They looked capable, after all. "It's just that... I have a distraction of sorts on the way. Something that will probably get the attention of every thug on this estate. I had originally thought to draw them all towards the commotion, but considering the circumstances, it seems more likely that they'll suspect some kind of foul play on your part. It doesn't change much for me, the guards should still be drawn away from where I need to be, I just would prefer to avoid sacrificing the pair of you. I'm not asking for your help in freeing the captives... I guess I'm asking if you'll accept my help in escaping."

She didn't doubt that she was coming across as a bit of a strange thief to them, willingly turning down a significant advantage in order to help two people she had never met. She shrugged. "You can call me Dio, by the way. If you want."

Kethyrian raised one white eyebrow, rising fluidly from her spot on the ground. Lovely. It seemed that they were being deprived of their options at an alarming rate, not that they'd had many to begin with. It would make far more sense for this woman to help them out of this room and then set them on their way-- the more places enforcers could be directed, the more mayhem Argus had to divide his men between, the better. That she was instead concerned with foisting her assistance upon them was a fairly solid clue that the amount of actual assistance involved was going to be dubious at best. Even so, Kethyrian wasn't sure that she wanted to be part of the distraction, and it was likely strategicaly advantageous to take what was offered.

"Exactly what kind of distraction are we speaking of?" she asked, voice sharp with suspicion. Exhaling and letting her arms drop, she realized it probably didn't matter; they were going to be implicated anyway. Shaking her head, she turned to Sven. "What do you think?"

"It's a pair of gunpowder barrels situated on the far side of the mansion from the door down to the basement. Should be big enough to blow a decent hole in the wall." She left out that she'd specifically picked a spot where a thug wasn't posted on the other side, so as to avoid any casualties, but they probably didn't care to know that.

"The people I'm working with are going to blow them in a few minutes. This isn't a one-woman operation, nor did we come up with this yesterday. I know this place inside and out by now, and I know Argus' thugs like I knew my own sisters. What I don't know is whether I need to help you escape, or if I can count on some backup." She glanced to the big man. "Best decide quick, mhm?"

Having his options so brusquely stripped away did not sit well with him, though it didn't seem like he was going to have a say in the matter, regardless. If they didn't act quickly, then this woman's plan – as she promptly introduced as Dio – would unfurl without their say-so, and they'd be forced to bully their way out of Argus' headquarters in a much more personal, unorganized fashion. All of the goblin's intentions were rotten. He'd done business with him in the past, even if the drudger didn't recognize him. Certainly, Argus' hadn't planned on willingly, easily giving up his original prize, but he'd been certain that if Gwendolyn and the other's returned, that he'd settle for what the deal had entailed. With this woman's assurance, and her knowledge of his dealings, everything was promptly screwed already. His lips formed a straight line, clearly weighing his options. If Dio's urgency, and caution, were anything to go by, then they didn't have much time.

If Gwendolyn were here, or even if she was here (under the unlikeliest situations), then they would've gladly elected their aid in helping the sorry cases in the basement, terrified bludgers awaiting their horrible fates in the morning. They had nothing to do with their current predicament, nor did it involve their current mission. His heart was not warm, not so easily swayed – not anymore, not ever. Kethyrian seemed nonplussed by these new change of events, clearly fluid in whatever decision was made. It was likely that she just wanted to get the hell out of this place; which, he reflected stolidly, matched his own desires to vacate this area as quickly as possible. His vertebral spine, muddled together with bits and pieces of metal, protested as if to disagree. In younger days, filled with possibilities and options and friends who'd always choose the right path, Sven's heart would've already been pounding in his chest, ready and willing to take up her offer. It was noble, wasn't it?

“Ja. Be doing this quick. Better then staying put.” The Lieutenant added in, glancing in Kethyrian's direction. If they stayed inside the chamber, they'd be forcefully roughhoused into another cell, anyway. They'd be implicated for the explosions, and possibly cut off from the group for a longer period of time. It would be best if they just went along with Dio's plan, escaped themselves and caught up with everyone else in a safer location. She was the incessant chirping in his ears, knocking elbows with him and insisting that walking away was the wrong thing to do. He didn't care. A small exhale from his nostrils was the only indication to his displeasure. He always looked sullen, so it was difficult to tell. This woman's vitality was familiar, blinding, and a little irritating. “Kus vola – never any sense. Ve vhill help, only little. To get out.” The Lieutenant gestured with his hands, bringing them together. Implications aside, if they met up with Argus, then there'd be a strict penalty to be paid. He would die. “No deal anymore.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Dio screwed up her face a little at the big man, trying to make sense of the words. "That was... a yes? I'm sorry, it was hard to tell. I've got an exit planned for the slaves that isn't the front door, if you were--" She was cut off by the sound, and the force, of an explosion from the far side of the mansion, the sound of a crumbling wall, shouting voices. Dio quickly got to her feet, quick small steps taking her silently over to the door, a wave of her hand unlocking it. She moved her mask back in position over her faces until nothing but her eyes remained visible to them.

"Okay, that was our cue. Listen carefully. We're going to wait for them to gather around the door, they won't come in without strength knowing a guy as big as you is in here. Leave them to me. I'll give us an opening to get through, and we make a run for it. There's a ledge straight ahead, vault over it and fall down to the first floor, immediately turn around, and take out the two guards that will be keeping watch over the door to the basement. We get in, we bar the door behind us, and the rest is easy. Got it?"

Assuming everything went according to plan, this wouldn't be so bad. Of course, very little had gone according to plan so far, but she was nothing if not an optimist. This would work out. "Oh! And I need names, otherwise I have to come up with nicknames, and you'd probably hate them, I'm terrible at it. Quickly, please." She then moved to grab something at her belt, some kind of metallic cube with sides of about three inches, plated a dark bronze color. This she idly tossed up and down in her right hand while she listened at the wall for the thugs to gather on the other side.

"Kethyrian," the Favisae supplied, though her attention was elsewhere, more specifically, on the door. "And that's Sven." She could just catch the first hints of footsteps headed in their direction, likely to reinforce the two already outside the thing. Unless that cube contained some kind of magic or explosive, she was skeptical of the woman's ability to handle all of the guards on her own, but said nothing of it, simply drawing her poniard from its place at her hip. Argus hadn't even bothered to disarm her before throwing them in here, likely (correctly) assuming that her more relevant talent was not one that could be taken from her. Still, every little bit helped, and she'd ensure that someone paid for that mistake, eventually.

The plan was good enough, as far as such things went, and she had confidence in Sven's ability to manage a ten-foot drop without breaking anything. The man gave the impression of being built of stone and mortar, even more than the actual golem did, so there was that. She was still far from pleased that it was essentially being foisted on them; the choice between help free a bunch of future slaves and wait around to be blamed for an explosion was hardly a choice, after all. That didn't mean she'd half-ass her efforts towards it, of course. It might be their only chance to get out, and that warranted everything she could give it.

It was at this point that the footsteps became more thunderous and obviously clearer, meaning that they were drawing close. Low words were exchanged, and then someone barked an order at them. "Oi, you lot. Stand aside, we're coming in!" Well, that was nice of them, broadcasting their intentions like that. Kethyrian's grip tightened on her dagger, but she otherwise did nothing, already off to one side as per Dio's instructions.

Kethyrian. Sven. Simple enough. Well, Kethyrian might need to be shortened into something, but she'd have to worry about that later, as it was currently show time. "Right, we'll have a few seconds," she said, and then decided to add, "No one needs to die." Their weapons looked very much the lethal sort. Dio was going to do her best to ensure that they didn't need to use them lethally, but she would certainly not be surprised if they did so anyway. Without further ado, she pulled the door open just enough to toss the little cube outside, the sound of metal sliding along the floor the only thing for a brief moment.

Dio had never been the best at magic, and as a matter of fact, everyone in her family had managed to outdo her in that regard. Her primary failing was that she was simply poor at conjuring things out of thin air... it just didn't make sense for her mentally for some reason. And while that had more or less crippled her in the majority of her formal lessons, she learned on her own that she was much more capable of creating magic when she had a visual aid to call upon, something to envision the magic coming from. Otherwise useless objects served as conduits for her power, and though it was still not as impressive as others, it was nothing to be trifled with.

On this occasion she had employed the little metal box, a multi-purpose tool, but in this case, acting as a bomb. Her open right hand clenched suddenly into a tight fist, a short sound of static all that preceded the explosion of magical lightning outside the room. A chorus of surprised shouts erupted from the thugs as they were stunned by the energy now coursing through their veins. Dio shoved the door open all the way now. "Go!" she called, leading them out into the hallway, head and body low, her right hand near the handle of her scimitar in case it was needed, her left hand scooping up the cube as she passed it.

By her count there were ten or twelve of them in the immediate area, armed with a variety of weapons, though she didn't see any firearms on them. No doubt they were supposed to contain the situation and keep the captives alive if possible. All of them were stunned and in pain, but it would last a few seconds at best. The energy required to blast them all into unconsciousness would have taken a toll on her that she wasn't willing to give at this point. She already felt like she'd been sprinting across the mansion as it was, as that was one of her most advanced tricks. Her course of action was clear: flee.

Dio darted forward, sidestepping one thug as he struggled to breathe. She leaped towards the ledge, catching it as she flew over and twisting herself around to plant her sandals on the outside of it, halting her for a brief moment before she let herself fall to the first floor, bending her legs and rolling forward to absorb the fall. The two guards were outside the door, just as she thought, trying to figure out what was going on above them. Her scimitar was out in a flash and a ring of dulled steel against the sheath. She parried the first downstroke of a club, spinning left and bringing the blade into the back of his knee, the hit combined with the shock she sent into him taking him to his knees. With her off hand she snatched her flintlock from the holster, aiming the empty weapon at the second thug. When she pulled the trigger a concentrated pulse of electricity slammed into his chest, and he spasmed for a brief moment before falling unconscious, at which point Dio flipped the pistol around and smacked it into the first thug's head to knock him out the old fashioned way.

Muscles were already tensing across the Lieutenant's hulking shoulders, hunched as if awaiting an impending crash through the door, and if he weren't so bearish-looking then his defensive stance might've appeared as elegant, as graceful as one belonging to the feline variety. His breathing was levelled, controlled. Kethyrian was no ribcaged china doll, too fragile to fight her own battles, so he didn't really worry about whether or not she could hold her own – it was in the way she stood now, as unruffled by the explosion and approaching footsteps as he was. They were both ready. Fear stopped crackling his bones long ago. He didn't welcome death, but he certainly didn't shy away from it, either. However, the Lieutenant faltered slightly, nearly imperceptible by all but those perceptive enough to catch it, when Dio mentioned, as an aside, that no one needed to die. Thick eyebrows screwed up, and he glanced at Kethyrian. Had he heard her wrong? The question remained implicitly wordless, though it'd clearly crossed through his somber gaze. Whoever this woman was; thief, burglar, merciful vendetta-maker, she didn't spit into fires when she saw them.

He'd never been asked to hold back before. The odd requisition was alien, but still positively sterling. She wouldn't have mentioned it if it didn't mean something to her. The Lieutenant cracked his knuckles in his opposing palms, glancing towards the door before moving off to the side as instructed. If it meant escaping from this place, from these backstabbing bludgers, then he would (normally) incite no mercy, no honour-filled actions that would promise only bruises. No mercy for the soulless, he might've said. He was inclined to believe that Kethyrian would agree. He opened his eyes (which he hadn't noticed he'd been closing), too blue, that crackled with the memory of his brother and, more importantly, her. He'd been merciful back then, he'd hesitated and it'd cost him everything. Now wasn't the time to question Dio's motives, her tender hearted statement. But, it all came down to it, if he had to, he would, he'd do it again, and again. If she had the means of moving them safely aside, and they could go in the opposite direction without confronting the Argus' footmen, there'd be less bodies littering the hallways. Simple as that.

As soon as Dio signalled them into the hallway, preceding an impressive display with whatever she'd had clasped in her palm – a little box, from the looks of it, the Lieutenant pushed through the door, thundering close to the woman's heels and a little off to the side in case anyone decided to steer away from whatever explosion that had erupted from her contraption. Quickly head-counting the guards, Sven pushed his way past them, bowling over three disoriented guards with his broad shoulders. His knees, and his plated spine, protested against his brusque actions. If he did break anything in this fall, then he hoped he'd land on one of the guards in the process. Surprisingly nimble for one so large (but still not as graceful as Dio, and probably not as skilled as Kethyrian, either), the Lieutenant reached the straight ledge, planted one hand down and vaulted himself over. His landing was not so great, but he recovered quickly, rolling onto his shoulder and punching himself quickly to his feet. By the time he swung around, the two thugs had already been dealt with; unconscious. He wondered, idly, whether or not she'd intended to jump first for that reason only.

No one needed to die, was it? The thought was almost laughable. Technically true, maybe. But practically irrelevant, and likely to get someone killed, ironic as it may be. Kethyrian let it slide without comment; she didn't take orders from this woman, at least not past what was required to get out of here, and this one was more a request, anyway. Everyone died. It was only a matter of how long it took and what brought it about. She, who'd spent so much time trying to gain mastery over the very forces of life and death, knew that better than anyone.

The Favisae blinked aureate eyes and waited the few extra heartbeats for whatever magic Dio was working to take effect, then for both the woman and Sven to precede her out the door, and she followed, treading lightly and unheard over the din of their passing. She might well have been the big man's unusually-diminutive shadow, but her knife did not leave her hand, regardless. Her delay in leaving meant that the one closest to the outside of the knot of them recovered as she breezed past him, with enough surety of mind to make a grab for her arm. Kethy's forward progress was halted, and by the looks of things, the others were not far from regaining control of themselves either. She glanced haughtily at the sausage-fingers wrapped around her thin wrist and sneered. Making actual contact with her was the most foolish thing he could have done.

The ripple of magic was easy, called forth from somewhere in her sould or blackened heart, she knew not where. It locked on to the murmur of his heartbeat, the steady sursurration of his life, and it smothered. The man gasped for air, his hand sliding from her arm as his blood failed to move in his body, and she released it even as he released her. The heart attack was not exactly deadly; she would have had to hold it for far longer than that, but it was effective, and he fell unconscious. Not that she was around to watch it; her fleet feet carried her quickly back to the others, and she leapt the ledge, sailing over it and landing lightly on the floor beneath. She turned with Sven, but did not stop to figure out how or why the thugs were down. Instead, she threw up a temporary barrier, preventing any of the recovering thugs on the upper level from following them down by the same route, then darted past Dio to haul open the door to the basement.

As the second man fell Dio looked up to ensure her two charges were safely down to the first floor. Indeed they were, and Kethyrian was already moving past her to open the door. That was good. She flipped her pistol back into its holster and turned, jogging through the open portal. "Sven! Inside, please! Quickly." Once all three of them were inside, she ensured the heavy wooden door was shut behind them. "Okay, now we need to--" but of course there were more. Four in fact, beatsticks in hand, responding to the noises at the door. Well, this would hopefully mean less guards near the prisoners themselves. "Shit. Sven, hold the door!" It was almost a certainty that the other thugs would try to bash their way through. If anyone was capable of holding the door shut among them, it was the big guy. They could get something to brace it, but after these were dealt with.

They split two and two, going after Dio and Kethyrian. The thief huffed a breath, raising her scimitar to block the first swipe, before bringing her sandaled foot up between his legs, hard. He doubled over as he screwed up his face, and she pulled him to her, using him as a shield to block the second thug's first attack, the club bludgeoning across his ally's face. She sent a sideways slash into his ribs, a jolt of electricity shocking him for a moment while she dumped the first thug aside, sending him tumbling to the ground. Dio stepped towards the first, sending a well placed flat-handed swipe into his throat, before winding up a little more, slashing down at his chest with her scimitar, sending a concentrated pulse of electricity into him, knocking him out and leaving him twitching on the ground.

Dio had been about take a deep breath to recuperate when a club whacked her in the lower back, sending a jolt of pain up her spine and catching her quite off guard. She hadn't expected him to get up so soon, or at all, after taking such a nasty shot to the head from the other thug. She barely managed to twist and get her blade in position to block the guard's next horizontal blow, but he closed the gap entirely and rammed her with his shoulder, sending her sliding on her rear away from him. Though it took the remainder of her wind, it gave her the space and time she needed to pull her pistol and fire a blast of lightning forking into his chest, taking him down. Her arm shook slightly as she pushed herself back to a knee, checking to see how the others were faring.

Kethyrian frowned when she was suddenly faced with two well-armed men, apparently intent on killing her rather than capturing her alive. The first lunged quickly, swiping at her with a sword. That was easy, a textbook maneuver, really: she raised her parrying dagger and caught the blade, sliding the rest of herself underneath his guard and close enough to grab his face with her free hand, claws digging uncomfrtably into his skin. Frankly, she didn't like it any more than he did, but the difference was it meant she'd already won. "Sleep," she hissed, pulling his waking energy from his body in much the same way as she pushed it inward when she was rousing someone. Every process had a counterpart, and this one took comparitively little effort to start.

The guard buckled at the knees and thudded to the floor, exhausted and unconscious before his head hit the stairs. It'd probably add a nasty concussion, but Kethyrian didn't regret that in the slightest. She'd have properly killed him, if she thought it would be any more useful, but this took less magic and happened more quickly. They'd be long gone from here by the time that one woke up, even if one of his fellows kicked him.

The second fellow took the opportunity to hack at her with a rather large axe, and his two-handed grip was a good guarantee that she was far too weak to block this one as she had the other. Sidestepping, the Favisae pushed herself up against the wall, narrowly avoiding the whistling axehead as it sliced a vertical arc through the space she'd occupied moments ago. She'd never been particularly attentive to her shape, but she was glad at this point that she wasn't any fleshier, or that would have caught something for sure. Gripping her knife between her teeth, the woman hooked her claws into the mortar-line of the stone wall and pulled, skittering her way up the surface like some kind of cave-spider. It wasn't much of an advantage-- the highest point of the ceiling here was maybe eight feet in height, which was nothing to a six-foot-something enforcer, but it would be enough.

From the corner where wall met ceiling, Kethyrian pushed off, aiming squarely for axe-man's back, which just so happened to be presented to her since he was currently trying to swipe at her. She landed about as heavily as someone so slight could on his shoulders, tipping him well off-balance as she wrapped her legs around his torso and her arms about his neck. Skin-to-skin contact worked best, and that was a rather unfortunate limitation when your opponents probably didn't bathe as often as you'd prefer. Nevertheless, she didn't hesitate, and this time, she created a tiny barrier in his windpipe, blocking off his air supply. He flailed violently, slamming his back and consequently her into the stone behind him. Kethyrian felt the breath leave her body in a rush, but fortunately, he ran out of steam shortly thereafter, slumping forward when he could no longer support her weight.

Panting slightly, she unblocked his airway when she was sure he was out, then picked herself up off him, scowling. Should've just ruptured his artery.

The Lieutenant's initial reaction had been to move forward, half a step ahead of Kethyrian, with the intent of bull-rushing the four guards squaring off to meet them, but with Dio's instructions (which seemed sounder than allowing more guards through the door), he'd merely grunted his reply and stood in front of the door, pressing his shoulder against the frame, the wall and the doorknob. If he'd been a paperweight made for doors, then he might've fared better. Idling suited him less than mercifully, tenderly bashing his opponents heads in just enough to render them unconscious. He was an anchor, a bodyguard, a frightening man who stood in people's shadows, a mass of weight holding doors promptly closed. Heavy eyebrows settled unpleasantly across his forehead, throwing up worry wrinkles and indicative notes of displeasure. He was not so immature, not so childish to admit that he'd rather be in the fray, throwing his fists, grappling and subduing his enemies, but even still, there was an inch of him that wanted to abandon his post.

Alas, the Lieutenant's shoulder jarred away from the door, which snapped open a sliver, then abruptly closed when he shoved his weight resolutely against the door frame. A high-pitched shriek filtered through the doorway, which he rightly assumed to belong to the person whose fingers were still waggling in the door, trapped and twitching where he'd slammed it. Each and every slam became more desperate, more insistent, as if the number of shoulders or feet pounding against the entryway multiplied, quadrupled. Even still, Sven held onto the door. It would break before he let it swing open. Occasionally, the man glanced in Kethyrian's direction, glimpsing Dio, as well, in his peripherals. Just to be sure that they were doing fine – though he still did not doubt their abilities, given what he'd seen already. Nimble as tigers, they were. It was something to be admired, for certain. He imagined his spine sprouting vines, digging deep into the ground in which he stood. It was easier that way, because he felt as if it'd snap into two clean pieces, shattering whatever bone structure surrounded it.

A light smile tugged at the corner of his lips, quickly slaying itself back into its usual frown. The four thugs were down, now, and unconscious, not dead, from the looks of it; chests rising and falling with their laboured breaths, however Kethyrian had managed to deal with things without outright killing them. So, even she had listened to Dio's request. He was not so sure if he'd comply, given the chance. The door jolted him awake, reminding him that they'd better vacate the area before the entryway completely splintered around him. He grunted in response, digging his heels into the floor. “Good idea is to be leaving,” He began, cut off sharply with another barrage of kicks, “Jetzt!”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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That would hopefully be all the fighting Dio would have to do today. It certainly wasn't her favorite activity, nor her best, especially after weeks of intense planning and preparation, hours of climbing and jumping and sneaking and tense moments, not to mention copious amounts of magic use. It was safe to say that she was glad that was through. Sven had even managed to hold the door, which was very good, considering that they would otherwise currently have about a dozen more thugs dogpiling them if he'd failed. A nearby table looked like it would help, solid and heavy and long enough to seat a large number. If propped against the door correctly, it would no doubt be able to hold them for the time they needed.

"Help me with this!" she called to the Favisae, jogging over to one end of the table and getting as good a grip on it as she could. Kethyrian nodded curtly and grasped the other side. Together they were able to move it up against the door, tilting its weight downwards to hold it shut. There were other things about they could use to brace it further, but frankly Dio preferred the idea of just getting the rest of this done and getting the hell out of here. "That should hold them, at least until they get a battering ram or some explosives. Come on."

She didn't know the exact layout of the estate's basement, considering that it had been impossible to scout out from above, but she knew the relative size of it, judging by the reports the diggers had brought back. Dio led her pair of helpers away from this first hallway, to the nearest set of stairs she could find, and then it was down, down, down, a spiral leading away from the surface, darkness prevented from overcoming the place by a few scant torches that gave the whole place a very medieval feel. It wasn't the first time she had descended into a pit full of slaves, but it was the first time she did so knowingly.

At last the stairs ended and they came out into an open area, or rather, one that would have been open if not for the walls of criss-crossed iron bars on either side of them, forming a hallway with cells on either side. Dio slowed to a walk and pulled her mask away from her face, surveying their condition. How many cells were there... she counted ten on each side, all identical in size, all filled with slaves. There were at least four to a cell, but some had as many as seven or eight peering at the new visitors, all different races, and none treated well. They were thin and barely clothed, pitiful things, but at least none of them appeared crippled or otherwise unable to move. Dio didn't doubt the slavers simply did away with those that couldn't keep up. The feeling she had now was nothing when she discovered her own family had been involved in the trade of flesh, but still... seeing these people treated like this, the poor and lost of Deluge with no one looking out for them... sadness and anger danced with each other in her chest.

A few were calling out to them, and no doubt they had heard the explosion from above, or at least the rumbling of it. "Let's get these people out of here," she said rather softly, before moving to the nearest cell on her left and crouching down, taking a hold of the thick padlock and using her magic to will it open. They probably only had a few minutes to empty these cells, and hope their exit came on time.

The Lieutenant clopped down the spiralling stairway, dutifully bringing the rear. He occasionally glanced over his shoulders, wary of any distant sound. He strained his ears for incoming footfalls, but heard nothing but the outlying din of nearby moans, growing louder and louder as they neared the end of the staircase. He paused briefly, tipping his head back. Recollections of other dirty, musty basements collectively invaded his memories, colouring his eyelids with murky smudges and sharp ribcages, knobby knees, hooked elbows and skeletal fingers waggling towards him, bleating for freedom, barely breathing. He'd seen things like this before, in wide scales, in smaller scales, but they'd always felt the same. Iron bars blockaded the malnourished denizens huddled within the cages, open-spaced and tightly packed against the long hallway (where he assumed Argus' men walked down to check on their products). Lost souls who'd been captured, kidnapped, or left for dead in the streets of Deluge. His frown deepened, forehead creasing.

It stank down here, the fetid odor of unwashed flesh and disease just on the cusp of manifesting. She recognized from not extraordinary olfactory capacity but simply from familiarity. One didn't become a healer without spending too much time in places with this smell, not if one wanted to be good at it. If you wanted to keep being good at it, you eventually learned to accept what you saw without letting your guts twist up too badly. Pity was for people who had the time, and didn't need their heads clear for more important things, but even she was not quite so hard-hearted that the predicament these people were in made her feel nothing at all. It was just... understated, easily-ignored, jaded, perhaps.

She had not the elegance of alteration magics at her disposal, and was left with something a tad more brute. "Stand back," she said flatly to the prisoners in the cage nearest her. They obliged, whether from the seriousness of her tone or the sheer dumb hope that she actually meant well, she could not say. It hardly mattered, because the actual act was all she required. Taking a pace backwards herself, she eyed the rusty lock with derision, manifesting a hand-sized barrier and concentrating on its density, packing as much strength as she could into the slightly-shimmering surface area and then hurling it, guiding it to smash into the lock.

And smash it did, the sound ringing hollowly throughout the cell block, buckling the metal surface of the lock until it cracked and broke with a decisive snap, dropping with a muted clink to the stone floor beneath. She repeated the process on another two cages before she swapped tactics, approaching those who seemed to be moving a little sluggishly and tapping them on the temples, imparting small, temproary bursts of energy, enough that they'd be able to run relatively quickly if that was what the situation required. If Kethyrian Tor was going to do something, she was going to do it right, after all.

Instead of trudging past Kethyrian with the intentions of manhandling the locks with his bare-hands (which would've ended badly, either way he looked at it), the Lieutenant patiently waited for her to make her way over, while she paused in front of each barred cage, idly touching the locks until they snapped open like metallic clams. He had no powers to exploit, though he did have experience dealing with frightened, doe-eyed victims who wanted nothing more but to get the hell outta here, but weren't entirely sure where they were in the first place, so he moved from one person to another, employing a kindness that seemed ill-suited for someone so intimidating. His whispers were soft, and measured, assuring their safety. As if he'd done this before, under happier circumstances, the Lieutenant's hand rested easily on their shoulders, brushing back thick clumps of hair and pulling them back up to their feet. He'd act as their immovable rock, their heavy-browed pillar, until their jelly legs found themselves again. This was better then trying to attempt any long-winded speeches of why they were there, what their intentions were, or how, exactly, they were going to manage to smuggle them away from this horrible place. He offered no such things, alternating between offering his shoulder for balance and catching someone who hadn't quite managed to catch their breath – caught between disbelief, and desperation.

When everyone seemed to be on their feet, encouraged by whatever forces Kethyrian proffered by touching their temples, the Lieutenant shifted his position, holding a smaller woman by the elbow, and faced Dio. What plans did she have next? Would there be more explosions? The soundless, unvoiced question reflected in his eyes. It was unlikely that they'd backtrack up the staircase unless Dio knew of an alternate course, circling around the thugs and guards who were presumably pounding their fists, feet and shoulders on the door – or, as Dio had sensibly quipped, a battering ram. Again, the Lieutenant's gaze swings over to Dio, though he only adjusts his grip on the woman, muttering under his breath.

Dio double checked and triple checked the rows of cells, making sure they hadn't missed anyone, hadn't missed some hidden stock of the especially valuable or especially troublesome. No, they were thorough, and all the would-be slaves and test subjects (she shuddered at the thought) were up on their feet and very ready to leave. So was she, to be honest, this mission had been far more complicated than she'd originally anticipated, but of course she should have expected that given the people she was trying to undermine here.

"Okay, okay, I just need everyone to stand back away from the far wall," she explained, moving to put herself between the masses she'd just liberated and the mentioned wall, slate gray and smooth and utterly unremarkable. Fighting had unfortunately scrambled her mental clock a little, to the point where she didn't know exactly how much time they had left. Hopefully not much, since they were ready to go right now.

"That's it, just stay calm. My friends are going to be creating a way out of here, we just have to wait for--" she was cut off by a series of four booms in quick succession, accompanied by the sound of cracking stone and crumbling wall. "for that," she finished, turning to see their exit. A hole had been opened up in the wall, perhaps six feet tall, certainly small enough that Sven would have to duck into it to avoid hitting his head, and probably four feet wide. It was about a half foot off the ground, so they'd have to step up into it to get out, but in all, Dio was impressed. This would do.

A young man with sandy blond hair and a prosthetic lower right leg came out of the newly created hole in the wall, kicking aside the stray rubble that blocked the path, shoving his goggles up onto his forehead. "Hope I'm not late," he said rather cheerily. Dio would have quipped back, but they were short of time. "Right on time. This is our way out, everyone. We don't really have time to explain right now, you're just going to have to trust me. We'll clear everything up once we get to safety. Let's go!"

When the other option was a dark cell in a dark dungeon, they didn't need much convincing, and very quickly the first slaves began working their way into the tunnel behind the man with the goggles. Dio made sure to wait until the last of them had entered the tunnel before she followed, passing a woman with the same color blonde hair, attaching small explosive devices to the roof of the little tunnel they'd created. "That going to take long?" Dio asked, and the girl smiled as she shook her head. "Nope! We'll have this collapsed in no time. No one's following us this way." Dio nodded in approval. "Good." She picked up the pace to catch up with the rest of the group, falling in beside Sven and Kethyrian.

"Like I said," she explained, "a lot of work went into this. These tunnels will lead the captives back to a safe place, and we'll help them on their way from there. I don't suppose you know where you can find the others from your group? They'll probably be worried sick when they see the state Argus' mansion is in."

"I imagine they'll be eager to find us when they notice the giant smoking holes in the building," Kethyrian pointed out flatly. Otherwise, she had a feeling Sven would probably know where Captain Skybound was most likely to look and head there. She'd simply follow if that turned out to be the case.

Letting the escaped prisoners clamber up ahead of her, Kethyrian stepped up and into the passage without trouble, as her size meant that her head came nowhere near brushing the ceiling. Presumably, their way out would be caving in on them shortly, and she had no intention of still being down here when that happened. It wasn't like tunnels were exactly unfamiliar, besides... and then it clicked. For some strange reason, the thought of tunnels was enough to link her to the memory of the woman's face, though at the time it had looked considerably worse for wear, sunburned and scraped, though that had hardly been the worst of it. She'd been half-dead, and it had taken a good few hours and Kethyrian's last deed as a denizen of those tunnels to bring the stranded human back up to functionality. It was enough to bring the Favisae pause, and she glanced back over her shoulder at Dio. "Come a long way from a dehydrated, dying foundling, haven't you?" she murmured, caught somewhere between her usual blunt acidity and marginally gentler amusement.

Of course, now was hardly the time to discuss it, and she disappeared up the tunnel's incline thereafter, headed back for the surface, which would hopefully smell better.

Dio almost stopped entirely, her confusion momentarily stunning her. "How did you..." but the words didn't really come after that, and before she knew it the Favisae was putting distance between them. How did she know about that? Dio was very certain she would have remembered a woman with hair the likes of hers. It would certainly require further questioning, but now was probably not the best time. She could hear the rumbling of their exit collapsing behind them, and the demolitionist jogging back their way shortly after. A successful operation if she had ever seen one.




Gwendolyn's feet were crossing the threshold that invisibly marked Argus's estate grounds off from the rest of Deluge when the last explosion produced a rumbling beneath them, which might have even thrown her off-balance, had she not spent the majority of her life on a ship. The moderately-sized plume of debris and smoke that rose into the skyline to join two fading comrades was... somewhat discouraging, even to her. "Well, that's certainly not what I was expecting," she noted lightly, turning back to glance over her shoulder at the rest of the group. "Gonna go out on a limb here and say that someone's not too happy with Toady, which means Toady's probably not very happy with the world in general. Keep a hold on those weapons, okay?"

That said, she wasn't exactly sure where to go. The property was relatively large, and they were looking for only two people. She was pretty sure neither of them had either the magic or the equipment to create an explosion like that, so the smoking holes in the building probably weren't that helpful, really. "Um..." To the side, Vivi couldn't contain the dangerous glare that haunted her eyes. If Kethy was hurt, then it would all be on her head. For her sake, she had better hope that Kethy was the one causing the damage. However, her sharp tongue was held at bay by an interruption from Theon.

Theon jumped into action, well aware that this was a situation in which he was most useful. "Give me a minute, I'll find them. Somebody shake me if we need to move." If they were on the goblin's turf now, that meant they were in danger. The green-skinned asshole had already tried to have his peons take care of him and his sister, so he definitely was willing to try, and if he suspected their involvement in whatever attack had just occurred on his base, the scryer could foresee how their presence here might become a problem. Positioning himself up against the nearest wall, he sank to the ground and draped his arms loosely over his knees, letting his head fall forward and closing his eyes.

There were a lot more people here than he expected. A good deal of activity, heartbeats elevated and temperatures high. The area immediately around the estate was a mess, mostly thugs trying to restore some sense of order. He found Argus quickly enough, absolutely livid and shouting at some of his henchmen. Other than that, most of them were clustered below ground, working extremely hard on something, a sense of futility hanging over them.

Seeing beneath the surface brought... complications, but it wasn't anything that couldn't be worked around. It became more like fumbling around in the dark, reaching out and using touch along the walls to guide himself. The thugs beneath the estate were blocked by something, and they couldn't move forward. Theon could, passing right through and flying forward, at least until he sensed a large amount of people, pushing through dim light, some clutching each other, the stink of fear hanging on them, but also an overwhelming joy. There were a few among the group that weren't possessed of such emotions, and it was these he focused on. The one in the back was... very ecstatic about something. Reveling in her work. Theon got the sense she was a little too pleased with herself. Strange.

The one in front of her was also female, but this one was confused by something, accompanied by a relief that didn't match the rest, relief that came after months of hard work. In front of her were two, side by side, and Theon picked up on slight levels of... well, grumpiness. Surely that was them? If Theon had to guess, he'd say all these people had just left Argus' estate, given that they were walking directly away from it, at the negative elevation of the thugs trying to dig through some kind of barrier.

"They're underground," Theon said, raising his head to look at the rest of the group. "With a large group, mostly terrified people, heading north. Should be easy to follow." he stood, pleased with himself. Very few people could hide from him. "Shall we?"

"... What?" Vivi managed, tilting her head. Underground? Large group of people? The hell did they get themselves into if they were traveling underground-- well, Kethy, she understood. Favisae did tend to like underground carvens. But that wasn't the point. She managed a look at the ground at her feet before she shook her head, disregarding her own question a moment ago. "Yeah.. Right. North. Let's... go give them a hearty welcome?" she asked in a confusion laced tone. Still, there was a chance Kethy was among them, and she never doubted Theon's power. It was better than walking into the hornet's nest that was Argus's manor-- well... As much fun as that sounded, she'd rather find Kethy first.

Mordecai, in accordance with what seemed to be the expressed will of the group, found north and headed in that direction, choosing to largely walk the perimeter of Argus's estate rather than simply go through it. There seemed to be a good deal of confrontation happening already, but he wasn't sure if there was actual combat involved, or if someone had simply decided to deconstruct the house with incendiaries. Either way, it would perhaps provide them an opportunity to escape the area without needing to undergo what was sure to be a rather unpleasant encounter with the goblin.

By the time they'd reached the area some distance behind the manor, several people in poor conditioning were already making what appeared to be a run for the jungle beyond the property, and a few others emerged behind them, at a somewhat-more controlled pacing. "Visual confirmation," Mordecai intoned. "Master Sven, Mistress Kethyrian, and others." He pointed in the appropriate direction, the movement catching Kethyrian's attention.

The Favisae peered over the distance, her eyes a good deal poorer than the Automaton's, especially in such direct sunlight. Still, it was hard to miss a group with a composition like theirs. "Sven, they're here. We should go."

Had it been the Lieutenant squinting his tired eyes into the horizon, then he might not have spotted the small dots freckling the stretch before them. His eyesight wasn't horrible, but he'd suffered old injuries on his eyes – cataracts that often caused lights to appear darker, and darkness to become an obstacle he couldn't navigate himself out of. So, it was by Kethyrian's superior vision that he learned of their arrival. He paused momentarily, swinging his steady gaze back to Dio. A thought occurred to him, but sifted away as quickly as it'd come. If he thought she'd join them, given the abilities and fore-planning he'd seen her display back in the manor, then he would have offered the position, but it didn't seem as if she would be interested. She had her own rules, her own way of doing things. Sometimes, they killed people, if they stepped in their way, if they stopped them from doing something important. Worse yet, they didn't feel bad for doing it. They didn't think about their families, or friends, or their lives being prematurely cut off. Would she accept being a part of something like that?

The thought trailed off, replaced by a low rumble bellying from his chest. The Lieutenant stepped forward, offering Dio a rare smile that still looked a little glum on his face and placed a hand on her head, barely ruffling her hair, “You did some good, Fraulein. Sie haben meinen Respekt. If you are needing help, someday.” He retracted his hand, and thumped his chest to finish his broken sentence. The indication, he hoped, was clear enough. There weren't enough good people in the world, so if he could be a part of something like that, then he'd gladly offer his hands, his shoulders, his strength, to any cause that made someone's life a little better. He'd almost forgotten what that felt like. Helping someone without rhyme or reason, because it was the right thing to do, after all. Gwendolyn would like her. He took another step past her, and ponderously glanced over his shoulder. “I'm thinking. You should be meeting Gwendolyn.” The offer was there, if she so chose to take it. He nodded again, flashed a look at Kethyrian and began tromping in the direction she'd pointed in. The Favisae offered Dio a nod and followed after.

As the group emerged from the tunnels and into daylight once more, Dio's job was complete, and with it, the weight gone from her shoulders. She sighed happily with the relief it brought. None of these people would be shipped to Xantus or wherever else her family was doing their work. The others would give whatever help they needed, if they wanted it, and then get them all on their way as best they could. Their power to help was not limitless, of course, but their drive to was, and Dio found that willpower could do incredible things when given the right direction.

But now that she was finished here, she supposed that meant she was free to go where she wished. She was half-curious who, if anyone, from her family, would have been making the transaction and acquiring the slaves tomorrow, escorting them back to Xantus. It really wasn't worth thinking about, as that line of thought only led to trouble. Her family did not yet know of her survival, and it was much better that way. Easier to subvert them. On top of that, there really wasn't anyone from her family she wanted to see again.

Maybe it was one of her older sisters, finally risen in the ranks enough to be included in their games, having earned enough trust, or brainwashed enough, to cooperate. Hmph. Hopefully coming back empty handed would earn her a good glare from mother. The thought made her smile a little.

Dio was pulled back to the present by Kethyrian's mention of their companions being here. Dio frowned a little. That was odd, that they'd be able to find them so easily. Suspicious, too, but Dio was willing to believe there was a good reason behind it. At Sven's compliment and offer of assistance, she smiled genuinely, a rather broad, shining thing that she wore well. "Some good is all I ever hope to do, Sven. I'm glad I was able to help you." She had thought they'd simply leave, but then he suggested she meet someone named Gwendolyn. Probably their leader, the one she'd spied talking with Argus before the split had been made. If this was for the purpose of rewarding her or something, it wasn't necessary. Of course, she was rather interested in meeting them, given that they certainly didn't look like an average group of travelers. A rather odd assortment. She nodded her acquiescence and followed.

At the sight of the black and white hair dancing in the distance, a squealing "Kethy!" was heard, followed by the sound of feet stamping the ground. Next came the loud thump of a rough hug as Vivi took Kethy in an possibly unwarranted embrace. Kethyrian endured it with a long-suffering sigh, though for all that, she did reach up a bit and tousle Vivian's hair.

"I almost can't believe it," she intoned dryly, "but it looks like I managed to find more trouble than you, this time."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Though an immediate departure may have been preferable, Gwendolyn knew it was going to take Argus a while to figure out what had happened, and when he did, she suspected the chances of him suspecting their involvement would go down, not up. Personally, she wouldn't have minded being associated with whatever stunt Kethyrian, Sven, and their new friend had pulled off, seeing as how it involved freeing a number of future slaves, but it was probably better for all involved if the culprits remained unknown. So instead of fleeing immediately for the ship, she led thr group back into Deluge proper, along the winding, dusty dirt roads, the little clouds kicked into the air by passage of cart, carriage, and feet illuminated in hazy haloes by the buzzing xenon lights in a fair panoply of colors and shadow.

The day had drawn late, and evening was in its infancy when the bombastic captain flung open the doors to a small, out-of-the way building, striding inside with a swagger in her step that suggested she owned the place. She may well have done, for all eyes swung to her and the motley assortment behind her, suspicious expressions melting into knowing smiles when wary eyes landed on the youthful face and shell-strung braids. Her visage was clearly well-known here, and welcomed. "The sky-bird seeks refuge!" she sang, and several grins broke out around the room.

"Go down, you blood-red roses, go down!" came the response, much less melodious but in a mix of voices, from the raspy and masculine to the airily girlish, that from the bar-maid.

Gwen's smile was bright to match as she gestured behind her to her companions, bidding them enter behind her. "But it's mighty draughty in damn Deluge!" A chorus of laughs met the second line, and that was as much custom as anything.

"Go down you blood-red roses, go down!" The little ritual completed and the identity of their guests verified (as if anyone hadn't known who the sprightly blonde lady was), most turned back to their business. The barmaid, however, left her job polishing a dark wooden table and approached the group, a broad smile gracing her wrinkled features. She looked to be in her late fifites or so, but for all that there was something about her that bespoke authority and ease both. She was flanked by a man of considerable height and girth, and from the odd similarity in their rough features and dark hair, it was perhaps surmisable that they were realted. He was no older than thirty-five, clad in rough linens with leather in spots more prone to wear. A pistol hung at one hip, and his mother carried a slender rapier.

Wiping her hands on her apron, the woman held her arms out, and Gwen stepped without hesitation into the embrace, careful with her metal limb but otherwise clearly pleased to be there. "Auntie George! You're as lovely as ever!" That drew a chuckle from the elder woman, and earned the captain a swat on her flesh-made limb.

"Aye, and you're still a scrawny wench, Gwendolyn Skybound! Look like you'll blow away in a storm, you do. Keep sleeping up in that rigging and you'll fall right off your ship one day," she replied knowingly, then turned to Sven, clapping the Lieutentant on the shoulder. "Now you on the other hand look like you still have that appetite, m'boy. There's a mince pie in the oven with your name on it." She made a gesture with her hand, and the man behind her nodded curtly, disappearing behind a door set into the opposite wall. From the rolling gait he possessed, it was obvious to an airship sailor that he'd been one, too, once, though he tread with a pronounced limp. "As soon as you tell me what's going on, that is. You're not dragging trouble to my doorstep again, are you?" she asked suspiciously, sharp blue eyes flitting over the rest of the group, lingering perhaps a tad longer on Lohengrin and Theon than the rest.

Gwen bit her lip in an exaggerated motion, swinging her own gaze to the ceiling in a parody of innocence, rocking back and forth from her toes to her heels. "Weeeellll..." she drew out, "Not if you don't want to know about it. Really, we just need a good meal and a place to lay low for a few hours, I promise. There most likely won't be any armed guards this time." The woman gave a disbelieving snort, but if she was truly disturbed by the news, she didn't give any indication of it. Gwen threw a glance back at the others. "Everybody, this is Astrid George, better known as Auntie George, and former cook aboard the Elysium. The quiet one from earlier is her son Daniel, the best damn rigger we ever had. Nowadays, she runs this place, and we're safe as can be as long as we're here."

In short order, the group was led to a long table and seated, and it was mere minutes before they all had heaping plates of hot food laid in front of them, and mulled wine besides, bread and cheese and butter occupying the middle of the wooden planks that served as their dining surface. One of the small miracles that was Auntie George, as far as Gwen was concerned. Everything was delicious as she remembered it, and for his part, Lohengrin agreed, occupying himself with eating while Gwen turned to the newcomer seated across from her. "So," she said, largely without preamble, "Sunshine tells me you helped him and Thistle escape that place, and a bunch of other people besides. Sorry for dragging you here, but I didn't think sticking around Toady and the minions with the angry-faces would be all that conducive to talking, you know?"

Dio nodded enthusiastically, unable to speak for the moment due to being caught with a mouth full of delicious food. She'd been a little put off by the group at first, mostly by the one with the big axe, but if this group was actively trying to get her to lower her guard, they were doing a damn good job. This place, and the people that worked, were about as homey as anything she'd ever seen. Her stomach had been rumbling after a hard day's work, the smells of the cooking proving a little too powerful for her to overcome. Thus she found herself literally biting off a little more than she could chew, and half-giggling when she attempted to recover.

When she was at last able to speak, she smiled apologetically. "Certainly not. I'm very grateful for the hospitality, this was just what I needed, I think. I stretched myself a little thin these last few months, to be honest." It wasn't the first time she'd allowed herself to be swept away by winds that came her way, so to speak, and it wouldn't be the last, certainly not when it led to things like this. "My name's Dio, by the way. I hope you'll forgive me for asking, but... I'm curious what I've stumbled into here. You seem... a rather odd collection." Her eyes lingered on the automaton in particular. She thought she might have seen something similar once in Xantus. "Are you a crew, or mercenaries?"

"Gwen," the engineer replied, then cocked her head to one side, producing a faint jangling sound, and considered the question, chewing over a mouthful of potatoes. "A little of both, mostly neither, I think. Ever heard of Avalon's Dawn? It's an adventurer's guild, based up north. That's where most of these kids are from. I work for them, too, as an airship captain." There was a pause, and the usually sort of happy daze that existed over Gwen's eyes cleared, and she studied the other woman with something resembling astuteness. It lasted for only a moment, though, and then she shrugged, receding into something a bit more congenial if less... sharp-looking.

"You've managed to trip right over a quest to save the world, if you'd believe it." The pilot's tone suggested that it didn't much ruffle her feathers if Dio chose not to, but she did think a statement like that merited some explanation. "Captured mentor-figure, obscure prophesy, implication of great trial and disaster, the whole box and dice, actually. Started with a troop of Vipers attacking the Guild Tower, it'll end... well, who knows? Wouldn't be obscure if I knew where we were going to end up, now would it?" She flashed a smile and popped another slice of potato into her mouth, looking at Dio rather expectantly, though what she was waiting for was anyone's guess. She wasn't all that certain she knew, herself.

Saving the world, huh? Dio wasn't quite sure she wanted to ask from what. She wasn't aware that the world was in any particular danger, apart from the evils of many individuals that were seemingly a part of daily life. She had heard of Avalon's Dawn, though she'd never given them much thought. For most of her life she'd had the mindset that the only organization she was bound to join was her own family's, the group that she could now only see as more of a cult. She remembered that her mother had not spoken of them fondly on any occasion, for whatever reason. That actually won them quite a few points, now.

"Wow," she said, honestly a little dumbfounded by the response. "That... sounds a little overwhelming, actually." She didn't really know what other words to come up with. She'd been more prepared to tell the woman how much she adored everything she'd done with her hair, with the beads and bandannas and braids, but suddenly everything seemed so irrelevant now that the subject had been moved to saving the world. "I'm... a little more small time myself, I'm afraid. I'm from Xantus originally, but I've been in the south a while now. I work as a freelance thief and saboteur, though I seem to have a habit of doing good deeds."

There was really no point being coy about what she did, considering that she was dining with an adventurer's guild after they'd seen what she'd done to the estate of a major criminal lord here in Deluge. And maybe she was a little crazy for thinking this, but she currently had no employment and the freedom to choose wherever she went next. The idea of joining a guild was certainly tempting. It presented an opportunity to improve herself helping in ways she could, to prepare for her return to Xantus, and if these people were actually trying to save the world from something... wouldn't she be an awful person to avoid trying to help?

Gwen's indomitable smile returned, and she swapped from holding her fork in her left hand to her right to knuckle the other woman on the shoulder, nothing more than a gentle shove. "You're only small-time for as long as you don't think big enough. I'd know, so trust me on that." The metal implement was crossed with an odd sort of daintiness over the ceramic plate, and Gwen propped an elbow on the table and her chin upon that. "So how 'bout it?" she asked, half reading Dio's thoughts from her face and body language, half guessing and going ahead with asking a question that might have been too presumptuous for anyone else to dare. The captain didn't have many reservations, though; she'd long since left them in the dust. "The way I see it, we could use all the help we can get, and what grander good deed could there be?" She raised a brow, inviting an answer, but pushed no further than that.

It seemed her life would only ever take her places she never expected to go. Dio's quiet life helping the people in Xantus seemed like a future dreamed by another person, and maybe it was. So much had happened since then. Maybe it was unwise of her to continue as she did, thinking so little and simply acting on feeling, but despite all that had happened to her, she didn't regret where it had led her. She always judged her options as best she was able, and then did what she could with the choices she had. And she was quite certain this was not an adventure she could opt to join in on later, when she'd had more time to think. As ever, she could try to clutch at rocks and hold herself stationary, or she could let herself be swept away in the storm, navigating it as best she was able on the fly. The choice was clear.

"I don't know how much help I'll be, or what exactly is involved in saving the world, but I'm in. I don't suppose we know where we're headed next, or what we're doing? Oh, and names real quick, just throw them at me, I'm really good with them." It was true. So long as she made some attempt at pointing out which name belonged to which body, Dio probably wouldn't forget.

Gwen laughed, a light sound infused with mirth and faint traces of something else, though it was hard to say what. "We're not exactly sure what we're doing either, though once we get back to the ship, we should have a better idea, I think. None of us were exactly expecting this to happen, I'm pretty sure." She glanced speculatively some distance to her left, at Theon, then shook her head. He'd said something about foresight being tricky, hadn't he? It seemed unlikely even the scryer had known it was coming.

"Mm... Sven, Percy, Kethyrian, Vivian, Theon, Lohengrin, Mordecai, and myself," she fired off rapidly, following a circle around the table, more or less. "Or as I'd say it: Sunshine, Spikey, Thistle, Rosy, Daisy, Strawberry, Gadget, and, well, I suppose I don't get to nickname myself, do I?" She managed this in a single breath and seemed quite unperturbed aferwards, the rapidity of her speech ensuring that it didn't steal all the air from her lungs to manage it. Shrugging, she stuck out her right arm for Dio to shake. "Welcome to the club. Glad to have you along."

With a throaty laugh that seemed misplaced in such an imposing figure, the Lieutenant drummed his fingers against the table, furrowing his eyebrows. “Bumble – like little bee,” He indicated wryly, gesturing with his forefinger and index. He'd used to call Gwendolyn that when her father was still alive, sweeping her up into the air like the insect he'd so aptly nicknamed her after, swinging her in the air while making buzzing noises. Too big for that now. Sometimes, in his gloomy dispositions, he wondered how she grew up so fast. Now, she was the captain of a prestigious ship, a member of a renowned guild and friend to many unsavoury characters. If Leo were here, what expression would he make at such news? He could only imagine. He nodded briskly, glancing at the opposing tables. He was glad of the recent events, of how things had panned out – he certainly approved of Dio and Gwendolyn's effortless alliance, and so he crossed his arms over his chest, offering a slight smile that told Dio that he, too, was glad she'd agreed to join their merry little crew.

Dio took the names, and all the nicknames, down in her mind, and though she hadn't expected to have to remember two names for everybody, but she didn't mind the challenge. She took the metallic hand easily. "Glad to be along."




Seated relatively far away from the locus of conversation that was the captain and Dio, Kethyrian busied herself ignoring their conversation and picking at her food. It wasn't that it didn't taste good; she'd just never been much of an eater. Meals underground were small and economical, the flavors bland and generally not all that varied, and as a result eating had always been more of a necessity than a pleasure. Actually, she was glad she'd managed to retain her portion habits, else upon coming to the surface she might well have gorged herself at every opportunity and become incredibly fat. Instead, she tended to savor as much as possible, and this food certainly warranted it. What they recieved on the ship now was not bad at all, but it was obvious the crew had suffered genuine loss when Astrid George had left it to start her business in Deluge. At least there was something to like about the place.

Of course, now that she was settled and no longer running for her life, Kethyrian had to admit to some level of curiosity as to what had transpired while she and Sven were elsewhere. Vivian was perhaps not the best person to ask for detailed or technical explanations of anything, but then, as far as Kethy knew, that wasn't the kind of thing she needed. Turning to the overly-energetic warrior, she posed the question in the same blunt way she said everything else. "So what happened underground?"

"Thunnels," Vivi answered with a wad of half chewed food in her mouth. Unlike the Favisae, she was barely visible over the mound of food she had collected. Blessed as she was, the girl had a metabolism on her that could rival even the biggest of men. The hyperactivity displayed came to no surprise after a viewing of her portions and eating manners-- which is to say none. Vivi had to answer Kethy between mouthfuls of whatever she had shoveled on to her plate in order to avoid spraying everyone within ten yard radius. But, when Kethy spoke, she had calmed herself to about the rate of a normal person. She then smiled, and nodded, knowing that such a simple answer wouldn't do with the Favisae. Their last conversation told her that much.

"Anthient thunnels." Still wasn't getting it, but she was getting there. She finally swallowed and began to really elaborate. "Ancient Favisae tunnels, from what Deer-boy said. They took what felt like hours to walk through. They went from ugly to pretty really fast-- something something digging, uncovered Deer-boy said," She said, illustrating the scene with her fork. Of course, it wasn't the tunnels themselves that was the the interesting part, but what lay at the end of the tunnels. "There was a door at the end, a huge one. You could stack Muscles and Mordy on top of each other and just barely touch the top. It was locked though, so don't know what was on the other side. There was also some writing on it, but I only have the gist of what it said. If you want the fully translated bit, ask Mister Mechanical Mordy with his steel trap of a mind."

"Also, there were some rats that attacked us. Huge things, like dogs really. Didn't stand much of a chance in all honesty. Deer-boy got his antlers in a twist when Theon killed one of them. Then we left and more stuff happened. Etc, etc,"
She finished, digging back into her food.

Theon chuckled a bit to himself beside her as he continued working on a leg of chicken. Antlers in a twist. He'd have to remember that one.

At the words 'Mister Mechanical Mordy,' Modecai glanced over at the Favisae and the energetic young human, nodding in a slightly awkward movement that he seemed to need to think about for a moment. Body language didn't always come most naturally to him. He was the only person without a plate of some size in front of himself, given his lack of a digestive system, so the burgeoning conversation would give him something to do, which was welcome as far as he was concerned. He obliged Vivian's suggestion, reciting the verse in a vice low enough that nobody not at the table would accidentally hear. Kethyrian listened intently, then shook her head. "Lady's sodden garters," she replied, apparently unaware of the fact that she'd even uttered the oath. "I knew this would be trouble. I suppose we're just going with it, aren't we?" There was no way they weren't, not with the captain in charge and a crew consisting of people like Vivian. She was surprised that a few of them didn't look more sullen at the news, though. Except maybe Lohengrin, but he always looked sullen, so it was hard to tell.

Mordecai nodded, assuming that she question actually needed an answer. "So it is," he offered mildly. "And what of the two of you? This unit did not expect to find you already outside the house upon our arrival." He included Sven in the question, and Kethyrian huffed a sigh through her nose, waving a hand to defer the question to the large man.

The larger man had already ambled over to their table, plopping down ungracefully and forcing the table to jump while he eased himself into a more comfortable position. It wasn't his fault that his knees knocked against the underbelly of the boards, lifting them momentarily before settling back down when he stretched his legs out. There was no indication that he noticed the beverages hop-skipping across the surface, reposing noisily when their owners scooped them up, or tentatively wrapped their hands around them. His own goblet was clutched tightly in his hand, occasionally brought to his lips. He'd left Gwendolyn chatting with Dio, though he kept his good eye on her – out of habit, more than anything. The duty of caring for Leo Skybound's only daughter was something he'd never been lax on. Never had he taken such a thing lightly, despite how capable she'd proven herself to be. He still pictured curly pigtails flying behind her head, whipping about in the wind. A little girl with a penchant for getting herself into trouble, finding it wherever it might've been.

In infrequent internals, the Lieutenant's heavy eyebrows rose, attesting that he was paying attention to what Vivian was saying, of what they'd found down there, after all. He hadn't had the chance to ask Gwendolyn about it, but he wagered he'd hear differing recounts of the tale by the time he reached the ship. Of course, it didn't surprise him in the least when Mordecai easily translated what had been on the door, nor was he surprised at what they'd eventually decide to do. They were pirates, after all. When Kethyrian brusquely gestured with his hand, designating him as the one who should tell the tale, Sven couldn't help but laugh – though, it sounded more like a bark than anything else. His broken English would do little to convey what they went through, but he thought he'd try, anyway. He released his goblet, upturned his hand, and unfurling his palm. “Vhe vas in little cell vhen she,” the Lieutenant hooked his thumb towards Dio, then nodded, “Jumped through vhindow. Vhanted help to be freeing slaves, vhe left. Riesegexplosionen – boom, vhe are seeing you.” To any normal person, the explanation was rotten. He looked at them expectantly, as if he'd just filled in all the obvious gaps.

Vivi's eyes drooped a bit at the poor explanation and turned to Kethy, hoping she'd provide a better picture of what had happened. If this was how Kethy felt when Vivi tried to explain something, then she'd have to keep a mind about doing a better job at it.

The Favisae sniffed slightly, shrugging thin shoulders. "It's as he says, more or less," she said, though even she wasn't sure exactly how or why she'd apparently understood most of what Sven was saying. Maybe it was just because her language had been similarly broken upon her first time aboveground. Who knew? "We were locked in a room, at which point Dio broke in through a window. She was there with the intent of freeing some other captives from the basement beneath the toad's home. Our options were go along with it or get blamed for it anyway." She paused to take a bite of food and chew, and Mordecai took the opportunity to reenter the conversation.

"And so you made your way out from the subterranean section of the house. This unit comprehends." The explosions had likely been for that reason, hence the coils of smoke stil issuing from the area when they arrived, and the people disappearing into the jungle. The Favisae's reply was to nod. "And yet this unit did not percieve any deceased security personnel. Were the fatalities truly null?" It was something that struck him as odd; the most efficient way to win the freedom of the captives would surely have involved the deaths of several such persons, but perhaps all the necessary killing had taken place inside.

"Fatalities, yes, casualties no. You'll want to take that one up with her," she jerked her chin in Dio's direction. "Bit of a bleeding heart, that one," there was a faint hint of disapproval in her tone, but she said nothing further about it. "But... Ifsn't phathalithies and casualthies the same phing?" Vivi pondered between bits of food. Growing up in Deluge certainly left the girl bereft of manners. But finally she managed to choke down what food she had in her mouth, and her next sentence was much more clear. "So I guess we're adding another birdy to the flock, are we?," She said, throwing a curious glance Dio's way. "Eh, bleeding heart or no, she's another body between us and a bullet," Vivi added rather darkly. She wasn't entirely fond of the good ones. Honor, tolerance and the like were foriegn concepts, that killed just as many as they saved. "So, what's next?" Vivi asked, shoveling more food into her mouth. The Lieutenant made a deep noise that might've sounded half like a dog locked in his belly, and half like a disgruntled animal clawing up his throat, at the suggestion that Dio would act as a meatshield for the sole reason that she was kind (perhaps, a little too kind). It was true that he'd struggled to keep himself from merely disposing of the toad's henchmen, but if Dio could effectively dance around doing the deed, then she was useful, if not entirely vital for such a group as theirs. They needed bleeding hearts, as much as they needed cold-hearted killers willing to dirty their hands. Honor could be salvaged with a sound mind, and those particular traits could be found in people like Percy, Dio, Gwendolyn. His heavy eyebrows raised once more, surveying Vivian's table manners. He'd seen much worse, though he still felt it neccessary to add, "Klein Bär," under his breath. Little bear was a suiting nickname.

"Casualties include mere injuries as well," Kethyrian informed her friend simply, but she had no idea how to answer the next question, as she hadn't even been there underground. Vivian's morbid comment didn't even faze her, but neither did she agree with it verbally. It just sat there, at least until Sven half-responded. The Favisae only shrugged in response. It all hardly mattered. They would do what they needed to do to survive, or they would die. That was the only fact that really had any bearing on the situtation. The rest was just subjective dressings on that fact.

"This unit suspects we will follow the clues," Mordecai put in from his spot. He wasn't sure what had Sven making that kind of sound; he'd not particularly heard it before, but he was aware that the human vocal apparatus could do a number of strange things that his could not. "They seem to lead presently to the desert. Are you ill?" he asked of the Lieutenant, deciding that it was probably best to make sure. Ah, but social subtlety was entirely lost upon the golem.

The Lieutenant didn't exactly wish to voice his squeamish, softhearted thoughts aloud, for it'd ruin the nasty reputation he'd built. He scratched idly at the back of his neck, rolling his eyes towards the ceiling. “I am fine.” He rubbed his stomach absently, waving his free hand in front of him as if he were refusing a platter of passing finger foods. “Indigestion. Ja, ja.” He didn't like deserts. The sand in his boots, in his trousers, down his neck and back – it was almost as bad as throwing him in a large body of water and expecting him to float. He couldn't say that he was surprised. They always ended up in one desert, or another.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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After enjoying the hospitality of Astrid and Daniel George, the group left the pub as soon as they were able, ducking and meandering in their route back to the ship so as to avoid drawing suspicion for going with too much haste. A daunting fellow Argus Hooktooth may be, but in the end, he was but a small-time player in the grand scheme of things, and once they were beyond his territory, there was precious little he could do to reach them, so the extra measures were simple precautions. Or so at least Gwendolyn had thought. This proposition was thrown into doubt when they reached the Elysuim, only to be greeted by a thickset man wearing the garb of one of Argus's enforcers. Though several weapons were drawn on him, the captain held up her hand for restraint.

The man carried no visible arms, and indeed seemed unconcerned with their show of force. Upon closer inspection, it was easy to see that this was not a man at all, but rather an Automaton. His carapace was relatively well-constructed, but the proportions of his arms and legs were off, giving him a vaguely simian appearance, and his synthetic skin lacked the craftsmanship of Mordecai's, appearing more a steel grey than anything, too light to belong to a feydusk, but in the wrong spectrum to count as anything else. It was, she knew, one of Morgause's #7 line, which were mass-produced but expensive. She didn't think that someone of Argus's status could afford one, even, as to her knowledge they were retained almost exclusively as menial servants for the highest of noble houses in the North, only rarely making it this far beyond the capital.

When Gwen inquired, the Automaton simply presented her with the following message: "This is your last chance to give up, Dawnsmen. Go no further, return to whatever holes you crawled out of. The king's reach is far, his influence extends even into this cesspool. All who oppose him will suffer and die."

After this perhaps needlessly dramatic pronouncement, the golem simply walked away, allowing the Guild members to board the ship once more. From the sounds of things, Argus, or at least some of his men, had been in the employ of the king, but Gwen wasn't so sure she was willing to believe that. What she knew of Artorias told her that he'd sooner cut off his own hand than dirty it by associating with someone like Hooktooth. Had he really changed so much?





Once everyone was back on the ship and it was safely in the air once more, Mordecai had made his way to the prow of the boat, looking out upon the seemingly-endless horizon. It was finite, of course, like everything else, and he knew if he chose to devote his capacitites to the calculation, he could determine the distances involved via mathematics. But... for some reason, he didn't really want to. He'd always had an insatiable desire for new knowledge, but he found himself perpetually unsatisfied even when he obtained it. He was beginning to suspect that it was not enough to know, or that maybe, just sometimes, knowing might be somehow counterproductive. It was an odd feeling, one that he neither liked nor understood, but he could not shake it.

There was a .03 per cent probability that some freak wind or movement of the ship could lurch it with sufficient force to send him over the prow and possibly to his death. Even a being constructed as sturdily as he could not survive a fall that long. His terminal velocity was considerably higher than a human's, due mostly to his density. He could probably catch the railing in such an event-- given his reflexes and reaction speed, as well as his current orientation, that was a conditional probablity of .972. But were words like 'death' and 'survive' even the right ones? The question vexed him more than it had any right to.

The #7 that delivered them the message would never think to ask any such questions. It would never be tormented by these thoughts, nor indeed by any thoughts at all. It was logic and pure calculation and simplicity. It was as an automaton should be. It was as they were designed and created and built to be. What did that make him? For once, his mouth turned down into a small frown without him needing to think about it. Indeed, he did not even notice.

Dio was not frowning, nor did she believe anything would be capable of making her do so at the moment. The scryer had come close, though, what with the way he'd brushed her off after the briefest of introductions. She was just trying to make the rounds and introduce herself. Regardless, she wasn't really bothered. Maybe he would come around eventually.

She was currently making her way up to the... top? Deck? Highest floor, whatever, part of the ship. She'd never been on a flying airship before, though most of her sisters had. Occasionally some members of the family would get to fly up to the capital, but Dio was never invited along for these trips. Instead, she stayed in Xantus, very much enjoying the time she was given, reveling in the occasional moments of solitude she could get. Usually she spent a good portion of that time talking with the family's automaton, a number eight model. It never made for the most enlightening conversation, but it was utterly refreshing to be able to speak with someone that would not judge or even care at all for what she thought. When Bru wasn't around, she spoke with Aden, as he was named.

It came as no surprise then when the thief quickly made her way to speak with the Dawn's automaton, who she only recognized as such when she noted that he hadn't touched any of the food at the feast. She didn't recognize his model, but he looked much better than Aden did, and if this group was as capable as she expected (enough to warrant the king's ire, apparently), then he was probably useful for far more than simple housecleaning and domestic servitude.

With a hop in her step Dio made her way up to the prow where the automaton stood, stopping about five or so feet from him, taking a moment to take in the view before speaking. "Hello," she offered gently. "I thought I'd take the time to introduce myself to everyone, since I'm accompanying you for a while. My name's Diomache Castillo, but I prefer just Dio." She let that hang for a moment to get his response, curious how one-sided (or not) this conversation would be.

At the light footsteps of an approaching person, Mordecai glanced sideways, though he did not turn until he was spoken to. After all, the crew moved about all the time, and he had no desire to disturb them any further than he already had. When he did move so as to make eye contact with the human speaking to him, he was a bit surprised to find that it was the new member of the group, the one who had assisted with the release of Lieutenant Sven and Mistress Kethyrian alongside the captives held in Hooktooth's basement. She introduced herself, and the golem smiled pleasantly, dipping his head in acknowledgement. "A pleasure, just Dio," he replied, though in truth, it was a tad tongue-in-cheek. He knew what the expression meant, but he was not often expected to, and from time to time, calling attention to the odd little tics of human language amused him.

"This unit is #9, though it is given to understand that names are preferred. 'Mordecai' is its appellation, if you wish." He was unsure if she was simply doing as she had stated and introducing herself, or if she wished to linger and speak, so he decided to fall silent, and let the decision be hers. It was only polite, and if nothing else, he was most certainly programmed for that.

"Ah, my mistake," Dio said. "There's no 'just.' Call me Dio." She definitely hadn't caught it if the automaton had referred to her as such even despite understanding that her name was not 'just Dio'. Aden had never willingly deceived her, and so she was not expecting this one to, either. "Mordecai, huh? I like that name." She didn't know if it was supposed to mean something, but it sounded nice.

She studied him for a moment. Her seeming comfortability at being around and in conversation with an automaton may have given away the fact that she was quite familiar with them. "You're very beautiful," she said, not shyly at all, perhaps sadly her tone seeming more fitting for judging a piece of art than giving another person a compliment. It made sense, given her experience. Aden had never had any value assigned to receiving compliments, so telling him that he was well-made was rather meaningless. It was more of a statement than a compliment.

"Are you... one of Morgause's models?" Dio asked, cocking her head slightly to one side. "My family has one of her number eight's. I actually miss him more than any of the other Castillos. You seem... different, though, if you don't mind me saying."

"This unit thanks you," he replied simply. He was not unaccustomed to such judgements on his workmanship, and he knew them for what they were; compliments directed at his maker rather than him. So strange, that the same thing given to another human was about they rather than their parents. Perhaps because the creation of a human was indirect and random to an extent? But it still surely had nothing to do with the person themselves, as they'd had no more say in their genetic material than their ancestors-- less, actually. For this reason, it might actually be the case that such commentary made more sense when directed at golems.

"This unit is #9," he repeated with a small smile, "The last of Mistress Morgause's creations. It was created for the personal service of Mistress Morgause, and never replicated. It is unsure why it was given such extensive combative functions, but supposes that the Mistress found a single mechanical bodyguard preferable to several organic ones. She was never the most sociable of humans, and tended to limit her company when it came to other flesh-beings." There was a slight delay, and then he moved his shoulders up and down, as he'd seen several of the others do in similar situations. "Unfortunately, it seems that even this unit was deemed inadequate for the Mistress's purposes."

Another pause, as he tried to detemine the best way to answer the implied question in the last part of the statement. That he could even pick up on things like implied questions was something of an answer in itself, really. "This unit's construction was... imperfect. Its protocols have a tendency to slip, and its emotional capacitors now function independently of its probability calculations and facial recognition systems." Most automata of similar complexity were programmed to "feel" either as the situation seemed to logically demand according to specific algorythms or empathetically, based on the emotional reactions of the humans surrounding them. A crying face might provoke sympathy and trigger investigations into the best methods of comfort, or at least he had initially been so designed. Now, such a thing would cause him to recognize distress, but he was not automatically pulled to feel the same way, nor to act in any certain fashion. The choices, such as they were, were his.

A number nine... wow. Her curiosity caused Dio to slowly reach out and gently grab a few strands of Mordecai's hair, figuring he wouldn't mind, as she just wanted to feel it. Honestly, it felt much better than her own hair did. It was... silky, and soft, whereas hers often felt coarse and heavy, a nuisance more than anything. She released it, studying him for a moment. He was clearly far more complex than any automata she had encountered before. Hell, just the way she'd found him staring at the horizon confirmed that. She suddenly felt rather awkward for treating him like as much of a machine as Aden had been. He was still a machine, of course, but Dio had never encountered a machine that wondered about things, and that seemed like a very human thing to do.

"Do you... think we could talk some more, in the future?" she offered, almost cautiously. A small gust of wind caused her hands to rise to her head and adjust her beanie. "It's just... back in Xantus, I used to be able to tell Aden, our eight, whatever I wanted to, and he would never judge me for it. I don't mean to force my company on you or anything, but I guess I kind of miss that. I'm not saying you're on the level of an eight, though, I didn't mean that." She raised her hands slightly as if to apologize for what she was saying.

"My friend... Bru, always used to say I was born with two hearts and no brains." She smiled a little at the thought. "I'd be very interested in getting to know you better, I guess is what I'm trying to say." Sheesh, was that so hard? She shook her head to herself. "Oh! And if you ever need to be charged, just let me know. I did that for Aden most of the time."

Mordecai remained perfectly still as he was examined, which in itself was not particularly unusual. He supposed he should feel some measure of pride in his uniqueness; humans seemed to do so with regularity. But even if he was different, it was not of his doing, and so connecting the trait with any particular judgment at all was difficult. Perhaps it was enough that he would rather be what he was than an eight or a seven.

He considered the human's words for a moment, rotating his head a few degrees to one side. "This unit cannot promise that it will not make judgments. Such abilities to render opinions are part of its operating procedures. However... it can guarantee the proper engagement of secrecy protocols, if that is what you wish." A pause, then: "Having two heart-organs would be beneficial for physiological purposes, but this unit finds the lack of 'brains' to be unlikely." He smiled slightly, to convey that he did not actually believe she was under either abnormal condition, but the metaphorical meaning of the words was lost on him, at least for now. The next bit was something of a mystery, though, and he blinked.

"That would not require any particular interval of time," he pointed out. "This unit can recite the majority of its relevant and non-confidential specifications within a matter of minutes. Nevertheless, if you believe time gaps of some nature would be helpful, it shall comply. It offers gratitude, and a question: with which sub-class of magic do you work? It is programmed to differentiate."

"I'm a combat mage," Dio said. "Not the best one around, but I manage. I channel electricity, mainly. And if you run out of things you want to tell me, you'll just have to do the listening instead. I could go on for days about the places I've been." She didn't feel it necessary to try and explain the hearts and brains metaphor, as she really hadn't expected him to get it in the fist place. Honestly, most of what she said seemed to be more for herself, as whatever she needed from Mordecai she could probably just ask him, without all the explanation.

It was a little awkward, she'd always treated Aden as more of a... diary, a journal or something, a human-shaped wall to talk to, to vent about what she felt and what bothered her and all the things she had no control over. It didn't really seem right to try and use something that formed opinions of its own as a personal logbook. Diaries never talked back, they just listened.

"I think... if we're friends, that making a few judgments won't hurt. Friends always mean to help each other, after all, even if they disagree. We could ask or tell each other anything we want, and just be honest about it. Does that sound alright?"

Mordecai had only heard of friendship in the abstract, and so he wasn't entirely sure what she was asking. That said, he decided that now was perhaps not the optimum time to ask, and as at the very least he seemed to be contracting himself to further conversations with Dio, he reasoned that he could bring it up at some other point. Still, it sounded like nothing overly taxing, and he could see no reason to object. "As you wish," he said simply. "This unit agrees to the terms it comprehends."

"Good," she replied, pleased. "I'll see you around, then, Mordecai." And with that, she waved a goodbye and wandered off to find someone else she hadn't met yet.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Part Two: Shifting Sands



Working with the antlered academic to pinpoint the most likely location of the ruins they sought, it wasn't long before Gwen had set a course, and within another day or so, the Elysuim was flying low over the sand, a large portion of her crew standing about the vessel, spyglasses in hand. They'd been told to look for anything that didn't belong, with special emphasis to old stone structures, and after about half a day of searching, the lookout, Ducky, at last called down that he'd spotted what they were looking for. Well, a large collection of fallen stones, anyway.

Without a proper port to land in, the ship simply descended, the engine keeping it aloft for long enough that the mages among the crew could set a more permanent levitation charm on it, which would allow it to hover in place. A few others ventured to suggest a concealment glamour, which was also readily applied. Indeed, the moment the captain stepped off the gangplank, it disappeared behind her, leaving only her companions and the desolation of open desert visible to their eyes, though perhaps the automaton was still able to see what those with organic eyes could not.



Squinting against the brightness of the suns on the pale sand, Gwendolyn wrinkled her nose and grimaced. "You weren't lying about the heat," she told Theon, tossing him a scrap of light fabric. She had about a dozen scarves; might as well pass them out to people who could use them for something, and keeping the sand out of their faces seemed like a worthy cause. Dio, she noted, was already prepared, but most of the others were not. As soon as what she had was distributed, though, she glanced around. This was actually a pretty large ruin, from what she could tell amidst the blowing sands. Based on the looks of things, she'd guess this place had been a full-blown city, once upon a time.

"So... where are we going?" she asked, adjusting the strap that held her rifle at her back. Never hurt to go prepared into the unknown, right?

Theon caught the scarf, regarding it for a moment like it had the potential to strangle him or something, but he tied it around his face anyway, pulling his hood up afterwards, leaving only his eyes exposed to the world. He glanced around at the ruins. It looked, and felt, about right, though this certainly wasn't the exact place. He'd remember if he saw it. Dreams that vivid didn't go away quickly, after all. Unfortunately, he wasn't likely to recognize it from above, so his farsight wasn't likely to be all that useful, but it never hurt to scout the area.

"I love sand," he murmured sarcastically, finding the nearest chunk of ruin he could and putting his back to it, sliding to the ground. The wind had blown the sand around too much recently for his farsight to be of much use while on the ship, but it had died down enough that he might be able to see something useful now. He let his head fall into his hands, closed his eyes, and left his body.

It was about what he'd expected. Scattered dots that he knew to be ruins all around, but no real way to determine which was the one they needed. Not from up here, anyway. Moving in a little closer, however, he spied some things that didn't fit in with the rest. "Someone beat us here," he said, with a faint hint of annoyance. "There's signs of a camp nearby. They didn't do the best job of cleaning up." There was little else to see, however, so he returned to his body fully, rising to his feet.

"Not sure why else anyone would want to come out here," Dio muttered from nearby, sounding in an uncharacteristically poor mood. She had not an inch of skin showing other than a slit for her eyes, but her body language spoke volumes. She was as uncomfortable as could be out here in the hottest part of the world, away from any kind of civilization. Bad memories. Still, this was obviously an important place, so she'd deal with it. As long as that airship stayed intact... and they didn't lose their way in a sandstorm.

The local academic had sprouted horns once again, and that was perhaps the only thing that was recognizable about Percy. He had a scarf pulled up above his nose and he had traded in his finer clothes for something more rugged. A loosefitting tan shirt tied off with a length of rope, and likewise loose fitting breeches. Part animal that he may be, but he liked to breathe. He wasn't covered in fur yet after all. In his hand stood the druidic summoned staff he'd obtained from Deluge. If only he was a bit more attuned to the weather, then he could summon a cloud, alas, his druidic profession had yet to stretch that far. Damn if he wasn't trying right now though.

"Maybe they just wanted some sun. There's plenty around," Percy deadpanned. The joke was nearly as dry as the desert around them, if not drier. He enjoyed the heat just about as much as everyone else-- which was to say that he did not. If only he was born into a lizard or snake species, then he'd love this sun. Sighing at the thought, and the misfortune of being a creature of the forest in the hottest part of the desert, he shrugged. "They're not the only ones we have to watch for. Sand trolls tend to gather in environments such as these. Less people to deal with, most likely," because that's exactly what he wanted in this heat. To fight lumbering sand trolls.

Vivi's eyes lit up at the mention of the creatures. It was the only part of her that was visible, she had the scarf around her throat hiked up all the way to her eyes. Even so, she seemed to be fairing a lot better than she had any right to. Far be it for a little sun and heat to dry the adventurous spirit out of the girl. "Sand trolls!? Sounds like fun," She said. Even if her mouth was covered, it was obvious there was a smile hiding under her scarf. Returning to the desert reminded her of the time she spent with Theon-- perhaps not as sweltering as it was currently, but still. Those were the best times of her life, and Vivi was the kind of girl that adapted to anything, provided that she could have fun. Still, Theon didn't see any of the trolls, so instead she focused on this camp he talked about. "Someone beat us? I didn't know this was a race... Raiders maybe?" she said, looking to Theon.

Either the dumbest raiders, or the bravest. Neither she nor Theon ever ventured this far into the equator, much let had the gall to set up camp in the blistering heat.

In contrast to the soft-skinned beings that surrounded him, Lohengrin was quite comfortable, even in conditions this hot. That said, this body couldn't take it for any longer than any of the rest of them, and so he'd obligingly wrapped the lower half of his face with a dark blue scarf, since the crazy captain was handing them out anyway. He didn't really want to inhale sand, though he didn't bother covering the top of his head. It would actually be kind of nice to bask, if it weren't so damn gritty with the wind moving the shredded particles of stone around as it was. His boots, he'd left in the ship, and he stood lightly atop the sand, toes spread to protect his altitude from the risk of sinking. "Maybe, maybe orcs. There's tunnels under here, too, so anything could be in them. We're best off moving quickly. Don't suppose the old man programmed you with any more directions, did he?" The man asked of the machine standing next to him.

Mordecai, not particularly needful of any extra measures to protect himself (the synthetic skin he was coated with being quite sufficient for keeping sand out of his mechanisms), had retained the clothing he wore on-board the ship, which meant that his relative formality stuck out like a sore thumb here. He didn't really notice of course, programmed as he was to tend towards such selections even in the absence of direct requests one way or another. Balance on the sand took him a few moments to get used to, during which he teetered precariously as he gained his footing. Now, however, he was standing on the sand as easily as Lohengrin, having made the necessary adaptations in calculations for movement.

The mercenary's question prompted an examination of the area, his visual cortex processing the layout of the immediate vicinity and running it past all similar data he possessed. To his surprise, it produced a vague sense of rightness, but nothing more specific, leading him to believe that the data must be part of something he could not access, a piece of information that required a specific perceptual cue to initialize. That cue was not here. "Negative," he replied, a hint of bewilderment in the tones. "This unit suggests that we move in deeper, and discern whether its own or Master Theon's perceptual apparatuses pick up on anything more utile." As ever, he implemented the logical suggestion, taking the lead deeper into the sand-bathed ruins. The air in front of them shimmered with the heat rising off the sand, grains of the stuff dancing about their heads as they walked. Despite the evidence of the presence of other sentient beings, the surface seemed entirely deserted.

Kethyrian, completely ignoring the lizard (as she chose to categorize Lohengrin now), looked after the automaton for a moment, her jaw tightening. She was not made for this, and though her light weight and balance would keep her atop the scorching sand, she already felt like she was baking, and the white scarf covering her entire head and face (minus the smallest slit for her eyes) wasn't helping that much. She had to squint until she was almost blind just to stop the intrusive light from wreaking its havoc on her photosensitive eyes. Fantastic for seeing in the dark-- absolutely horrible for navigating in bright light conditions. She actually filed herself in behind Sven, seeking to use the man's large shadow to keep track of where she was supposed to be, as well as as a shield for her beleagured oculars.

The Lieutenant's discomfort was irrelevant. The journey in the wastelands would only last momentarily, only until they managed to find whatever they were looking for and return to the comfortable, steely confines of the ship. He'd been given a scarf as well, but instead of wrapping it around his face, he'd wrapped it around his left bicep. And instead of wearing the Lieutenant's commonplace, thick-plated set of armor, with its dents and scars and stories, he'd opted for loose fitting attire that properly suited the dusty environment; selecting a thickly-woven white shirt, sleeves rolled to his elbows, with khaki pants and leather holsters settled under his armpits. The array of weapons strapped to his body were plenteous, though unsurprising. Knives were tucked into his boots, strapped to his thighs, his right bicep, and wherever else he'd managed to tuck them away. The largest weapon he'd brought along with him was his steam-powered shotgun, fastened to his back. He wasn't sure what they were expecting to find, but this was the desert, and anything could happen in the desert.

Like a hulking beast manoeuvring through the sandy dunes, the Lieutenant trailed behind them, squinting beneath heavy eyebrows. The sun was unforgiving. It bore down on their faces, offering no refuge or shade. He'd noticed Kethyrian moving behind him, so he offered a slight inclination of his head, before continuing on his way. He did not understand the Favisae genealogy, nor their habits or ways, but understood well enough that she was not keen to the direct sunlight. How could anyone who'd dwelt below the ground be used to something so tawdry, so dazzling? The heat did not differentiate between races, nor was it kind to anyone who'd forgotten to bring water. Hydration was key to survival, so the Lieutenant carried more than one canteen, swinging and sloshing in a bag tied around his waist, for whoever was foolish enough not to bring their own. If he had to act the mule, then he'd do so gladly. It would do no one any good if someone passed out while travelling to their location.

Well, as they were more or less moving anyway, Gwen decided to follow. Lohengrin's warning about tunnels was a bit... foreboding, but then if they were going to save the world or some such business as that, she could hardly expect to be easy. In fact, she might not mind a little mortal danger here and there, come to think of it. Added a little of that zesty flavor to her days.

The group advanced into the ruins behind the automaton, which was probably solid strategy considering how durable he was compared to any of them. Most of what they found was exactly as Theon had warned them to expect: hot, dry, and empty. It seemed they were going in the right direction, however, because the frequency with which they encountered piles of fallen stone and whatnot seemed to be increasing with time, the shifting sands blowing back to reveal the remnant bones of old civilization, older than the likes of her had any right to conceptualize. It was like walking with ghosts, almost, to move about the ruins like this, because it was almost as though something moved with them, pausing at each collapsed building and brushing its ephemeral fingers along the stones, adding evermore to its crushing sense of loss.

If she'd been a mystic instead of a scientist, she would have thought the grounds haunted, even, so pervasive was the general uneasiness she felt. As it was, she put the feeling down to magic, that stuff which she could sometimes but not always see, and never truly grasp. It was a gift she had not been given, but she almost knew enough to miss it. Almost.

Lohengrin, on the other hand, was facing the superimposition of an old image over a new one. Once, this place had been called Galthvega, the city of Green Earth. He had walked its mossy paths in bare human feet, but also flown the skies above it on carmine leather-wings, inhaling deeply of the rain-soaked air, the scent of things in bloom almost overwhelming to the senses. He could just about conceptualize its former denizens, the flickering forms of the Inflectori, though that memory was ancestral and not his own. When he had seen it, the city had been inhabited only by humans, and already on its way to the desert it was now, the last holdout in a world without the full measure of its water. Even that was so long ago. When in the innumerable years had it fallen to ruin? He could not recall, and for this he felt older even than he was, old enough that he creaked at the joints, though they worked as well as they ever had.

After about half an hour of walking, the group seemed to arrive somewhere new. The city-center, it had once been, where the domed Earth-Temple had stood, the being within fueling the verdant things without. He could still sense its presence, but it was weak, half-dead and useless, it seemed. Withered would be a good word. "Might want to try looking again," he suggested to the scryer. They were close.

"One second," Theon said, finding the nearest hunk of stone big enough for him to stand against and putting his back to it. Scrying without any kind of physical support while standing up was a risky proposition at best, as he was liable to simply fall over. His control over his own body was tenuous when he left it to see things from above, something that had embarrassed him on countless occasions when he was a child. He was better at it now; he had learned to speak while farseeing a few years ago, but accidents like falling on his face were still quite possible, especially after a hard trek through the hottest part of the world.

The scryer's head fell back against the rock and he rose above the group, surveying their surroundings. It was immediately recognizeable from his dream, though not in the same way. The dream had been distorted but vivid in its own way, and this scene was blurry due to the sand, but clear due to the relative normalcy that farsight had become for Theon. "Yeah, I see it. Dead ahead. Let's... wait. Is that... ?" There were figures coming out of the tunnels in large numbers, big figures, whose silhouettes Theon had learned to recognize instantly. He stayed only long enough to see where the first of them would come into view.

"Greenskins, lots of 'em, headed our way," he muttered in warning, wholly displeased with this new development. Now he would have to reload his duckfoot again. He snatched the pistol from his belt and jogged over towards the base of a low dune that separated the two groups, where the first of the orcs would appear. Visibility was poor, and they were staying low to try and avoid detection, but they were orcs, and couldn't hide from farsight, not at this range.

Theon caught the slightest glimpse of blue eyes in the first orc's head before he pulled the trigger, and at this range the duckfoot's blast was enough to blow the orc's head quite nearly clean off. The pistol slipped from Theon's hand from the recoil, to thud heavily into the sand. He cared about that about as much as the fact that orcs never had blue eyes, that was to say not at all. He was more intent on giving them a taste of their own medicine, and by medicine he meant axe.

A roar sounded above Theon's head, followed by a hulking body that leapt, with surprisingly alcricity, over the rocky outcrops. Instead of bearing down on the group of orcs with his shotgun blazing, he'd opted for his longest blade. They would use equally primitive weapon, so it seemed appropriate. The blade itself was nearly the length of his mechanical arm, thick and double-edged - something he'd acquired, and kept from serving in the 236th Battalion. The scarf wrapped around his arm flapped behind him like feathered-tendrils. His muscles tensed like retracted coils, springing into action with each wild swipe of his blade, and his mechanical arm immediately shot out to grab the nearest assailants wrinkled face, steam-billowing mechanized fingers crossing over its nose and eyes. He slammed his blade into its chest, bearing upwards. The orc let out a long-drawn wail, lifting off the ground a few feet, before being tossed to the side like a sack of potatoes. The welcome sounds of battle coursed thick as blood through his veins. It sang songbird noises through his skull, resolute and justified. It was almost like vengeance was being fulfilled again and again, as if every enemy, every assailer's face was his brothers. Occasionally, they even shared his blue eyes. It hadn't occured to him that this was unusual.

A dirty axe, wrapped in leathers and bead decorations, slammed into his mechanical arm, causing him to reel backwards and slash out with his blade. He did not stop, did not falter, did not slow his movements. The Lieutenant struck forward again, swinging his twitching prosthetic like a club. It struck the side of the orcs head, and he took the opportunity to step closer, jamming his blade into the creature's vulnerable ribs. He allowed the orc to slump forward, breath wheezing out as if its lungs were emptying, thick head across his shoulder, then stepped away, pushing him off. He exhaled sharply, and charged into another orc, shoulder down like a football player slamming into his opponent. In some sick sense, it reminded him of his childhood, of attending school, of her, of playing in the yard with him. The guttural growls added to the deserts muted ambience of whisking winds and sifting sands. The occasional explosion of bullets tearing through the air sounded off, rocketing past him into different targets. Bits and pieces splattered his cheek, his forehead. He was not like Dio - he was a soldier, and he would not mourn the enemy.

Adrenaline surged through him, electrifying his tendons, and sizzling into his fingertips. He spun on his heels, flicking his blade through the air. He did not pause to see whether or not it had thunked into the orcs forehead. The Lieutenant reached over his shoulder, fingers clasping around the shotguns handle, just in time to push it into an orcs oncoming face, jaw slackened and brilliantly blue eyes snapped wide. He pulled the trigger. If they wanted to survice, if they wanted to live, then they would have to fight for it. He would shoulder their burdens. He'd bloody his hands, and wash them off afterwards.

Violence was not his way. He was a scholar first and wizard second. Percy did not possess the raw savagery that Sven did, nor did he have the cold violence of Theon. His eyes did not shimmer in anticipation of the fight like Vivi's. Percy was calm, audibly sighing at the approach of the orcs. He was a druid, a student of the world, of both past and present. He didn't wield blades, and the one flintlock he owned was for personal defense. He was more subtle than that. He wished it didn't have to end this way, but there were no dissuading the orcs from their present course. May the Old Kings have mercy on their souls. So be it. He fought with his mind, and a mind can be a dangerous thing.

He spun his staff over his head in a circular arc before bringing it down deep into the sand. He would need the support. Percy bent his knee, kneeling in the blistering sand. His hand drifted over the tiny dunes, feeling the grit between his fingers. There was death in the sand, blood would be spilled, blood had been spelled, and would be spilled again before this world was over. Scorching suns had bleached the bones of lesser and greater creatures than himself. Everything was a cycle, what once came from the sand, would return in due time. But, even in death, there was life. They wouldn't return to that sand, they still had a job to do. Percy jammed his hand into the sand, bringing it up to his elbow. He ignored the heat coarsing through his skin, it was only temporary.

He closed his eyes and did what he did best. He listened and learned. He could feel the heartbeat of the desert in his fingers. It was still alive. It would outlive all of them, with the ruins around them as evidence. Vivi only spared the antlered boy a passing glance as she rushed by him. If he wanted to miss the fun in lieu of petting the sand, fine by her. Man, that was a weird one. Vivi paused beside Theon for a moment to get a passing shot off with her revolver, but the sand must have obscured her view. Nothing fell. Her eyes narrowed as she looked toward her brother. "Looks like we're doing this the old fashioned way, like the old times," she said, scarf obscuring her ear to ear smile. Ah, how she missed those times.

Pufts of sand rose from Vivi's heels as she darted into the fray directly behind Sven. She ducked under a swipe from a blue-eyed orc's bone-sword. Funny, did they always have blue eyes? Still, it didn't matter as she slid on her knees, lopping off a leg out from under a orc, bloodying the sand beneath them. Vivi finished the move by laying on her back and raising and then bringing her heel down on the immobile orc's throat. She was not in the best position to fend off the next orc though-- an easily rectified issue. An axe buried into the sand where she was, as she flipped her legs back and over her, bringing her to a standing position. Her spatial awareness was a godsend, as out of the corner of her eye, she saw an orc readying a roughly made rifle. An elegant spin brought her inside the axe carrying orc's guard, and a hook of her arm, brought him around to bare the gunshot for her. It echoed through the sandstorm and she felt the impact on her meatshield. Saved her the bullet. She then peaked out from behind the orc and returned fire with her own pistol. More blood for the sand, as that orc too fell to Vivi.

Mordecai, on a slight time delay due to the activation of Sentinel Mode, leaped forward next, a few degrees slower than he was in Berserk, and this time lit from under his skin with something faintly blueish in hue, quite misplaced against the tan sands. It proved to be the correct decision, however, when he intercepted the orcish axe swinging for his shoulder, catching it with one hand and twisting, ripping it from the grip of its holder and rotating it in a whirling arc over his arm to slam it right into the warrior's exposed neck. The orcs were large and strong, but only lightly-armored. Besides, however strong a flesh-being could be was not as strong as one made from metal. The strike decapitated, and though he could have retained his hold on the axe, the automaton felt no need to do so, instead hurling it with unnatural force, as though it were designed as a projectile rather than a two-handed instrument of execution.

It whipped end-over-end and embedded itself in the chest cavity of another, clearing a path for Kethyrian to duck forward, poniard in one hand, the other lit with magic already. The machine-man was drawing most of the aggression in her estimation, which probably made sense. Weren't orcs supposed to be really religious about their violence? More challenging kills were better, that sort of thing? She didn't presume to know or care, and there were plenty of foes to go around. Slamming the axed one with a barrier so that he toppled over not on top of her, she moved to intercept the next one on light feet, ducking in under his guard before he could swing. She held no illusions that she'd be able to parry a blow with such force, much less one-handed, and so she simply tapped his chest, discharging the measured burst of magic to interrupt his heart rhythms, and opening up a slash in his throat when he stumbled backwards, stunned.

"Ooh," Gwen huffed with irritation, puffing out her cheeks in what was probably a childish manner. This wasn't any fun at all. They were supposed to be exploring ancient cities and then someone just had to go and ruin it (oh, that was awful, how fun). Bandits, no less. For her part, she needed vantage to be any kind of help at all, and so she immediately peeled off to the side, clambering up an outcropping of fallen stones with a wire's-edge dexterity that nearly pitched her forward onto her face several times but never actually did. Unslinging her rifle from its place at her back, she reached into one of the pouches on her bandolier, withdrawing several extra lead balls and depositing them into a small divot in one of the stones nearest her. There was no room to lay flat on her belly, so she went down to one knee instead, sighting down the twin barrels of the gun at an orc trying to make for Spikey, who appeared to be just standing there.

She assumed it was a magic thing. A loud crack, and Gwen was thrown back a bit, though she took most of the recoil on her back leg, holding steady enough to fire again a few seconds later. She was slow as molasses with this thing, but every time she shot, another orc kissed the sand, so there was something to be said for it, perhaps.

Lohengrin, sword in hand, waded into the fray only with utmost reluctance, throwing the blade up to block an incoming swing with one arm. He wasn't so lucky with his second assailant, however, and that machete blade bit deep into his palm when he caught it. Gritting his teeth, he reached for his magic, and in this desert, super-heating the metal beyond the warrior's ability to hold was a matter of seconds. The smell of burnt flesh assailed his nose, and for once he was glad that his senses were only human-- he'd not have liked to taste it on his tongue, really. Orcs were for the desperate, or maybe some fool crazy enough to want to eat that spicy hide of theirs. He personally found the thought disgusting. The man bellowed as he lost his grip on his weapon, and in those precious moments he'd bought himself, the mercenary kicked the other one hard in the groin. There were no forbidden moves as far as he was concerned.

That staggered the axe-holder, and in a flash, his human-looking opponent had driven a solid length of steel into his chest. The other one was coming back with nothing more than his hands, and his first punch caught Lohengrin right in the jaw, dislocating it with an unsavory pop. With a gutteral sound aproaching a snarl, he wrenched it back into place, ignoring the black spots at the corner of his vision, and leapt in, attempting to pull the same maneuver on this one that he had on his friend. He was not so lucky the second time, however, as the warrior slapped the blade aside with a bracer on his forearm, and suddenly, their momentum had carried them in too close for the sword to make much sense. Dropping it, the mercenary reached up, swiping across the other guy's eyes with his bloodied hand, obstructing his vision, then ducked low, smearing what remained of the liquid in quick strokes over his chestplate, forearms, and the backs of his knees, tucking into a roll to get out of the way.

Hissing a word in a language that sounded quite like large stones grinding together, he watched with satisfaction as all the blood-marks lit on fire, cherry-red but much hotter than flames of that color would be without magic, reducing the massive fighter to a charred corpse.

"I love this dance!" Vivian yelled, looking for her next target. However, a sudden tremor caused her to pause. An earthquake? In the desert? It seemed to be centered away from her, near a grouping of orcs. They too paused as confusion wracked their face. Had they been paying attention, they would have noticed the sand beneath them sinking ever so slighty. By the time they did notice however, it was too late. They were already caught in the sand whirlpool dragging them toward the center. And in the center of the whirlpool?

"An antlion?" Vivi questioned as the sand creature began its extravagant feast. She tossed a glance back at Percy, who was gripping his staff tightly, clearly tired from the effort. Even so, she could make out the grin wrapped around his face. Huh, imagine that. Antler's animal whispering was more impressive than she first thought.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Being something of a learned woman from the north, Dio was perhaps the only one among them to actually give pause to the fact that these orcs all possessed strikingly blue eyes. Given the fact that she didn't immediately leap into the fray, she noticed relatively quickly the bright hue of their eyes. The Castillo girl had always had a certain amount of interest in all the races of Albion, her genuinely curious nature leading her to learn a great deal about all of the less common races, orcs among them. Unfortunately, that meant she also knew that groups of orcs regularly attacked travelers through the desert, leaving no way to tell if whatever was plagueing them was forcing them into this aggression or not.

"There's something wrong with them!" she called, to anyone who cared to hear. No doubt it would be next to impossible to discuss in the middle of a fight, but she felt that it needed to be said. Indeed, she herself had no more time for speech, as she was forced to dart backwards in a quick hop to get out of the way of a falling axehead, which slammed into the sand where her feet had been, kicking up a small plume of sand between them. Seeing an opportunity, she charged forward, planting one sandal on the haft of the axe and rising, her next step landing solidly on the orc's shoulder. Dio then stepped right on the orc's head and leapt off, flipping neatly to land behind him. Noticing his strong hand on the way up, she preemptively rolled right and forward to dodge the orc's second swing before even he knew he was going to make it. The axe whooshed through nothing but air as the orc turned around, growling for a brief moment in frustration before five fingers of a small hand touched up against the back of his head, crackling electricity flowing into his skull. The overload of impulses in his mind would be enough to put him face first in the sand for a few hours at least.

Theon, however, was too lost in violence to notice much of anything, blue eyes and antlions included. His axe was buried so far in the skull of an orc he'd come across he hadn't been able to rip it out in time, and had since switched to a mix of his fists and a dagger he'd pulled off one of the dead. There was a nasty cut over his right eye, the blood seeping down to blind him on that side, and he was more or less covered in sand, brawling from one orc to the next, leaving the sand behind him red as he went.

The world beneath the Lieutenant shook and trembled, kicking up thick clouds of sand, and where the sandy dunes had once been, there now scrambled a great antlion who'd clawed from the earth's belly. Several of its clacking limbs skittered and kicked, flicking over orcs as if they were mere insects. It took him a few moments to realize that it'd been their resident mage, Percy, who'd called the thing from whatever gritty tomb it had come from – which meant it was their ally, for the time being. He didn't understand how one could control a creature so large, but he took care to move out of its way all the same. Those inconsequential moments, unhampered by the battles' ripping roars, clashing of blades, axes and booming gunshots alike, the Lieutenant heard Dio's call above the clamber. A statement, rather, that something was amiss. He had no time to ponder what she'd meant, as he hurtled forward to meet another orc, who'd ducked beneath the antlion's swinging carapace and switched directions. The orc swung his great battleaxe and nearly cleaved off the Lieutenant's arm, hadn't he smashed his mechanical arm into the orcs forearm and grappled onto the creature's shoulder. He gripped onto his wrist to prevent him from swinging wildly with the axe, and smashed his forehead into the orcs flat nose, spurting blood onto the sand, his own face, and his shirt-front.

Had he been able to reach his shotgun, the Lieutenant would've ended it quickly, but he couldn't risk letting go of its thick wrist. Orc's, if given the chance to hit their target, could hack them clean in half. Their strength was monumental, and terrifying. The headbutt did little to stun the orc, who bellowed loudly in his face, spit flying. It was then that he noticed – two peculiar-looking blue eyes staring at him, electrically coloured. That wasn't right. Orcs didn't have blue eyes, ever. The man's momentary hesitation cost him a full-hand of grubby-green knuckles straight to his jaw, throwing him backwards. Though he refused to let go of the orc's wrist, and pulled him along for the ride, crashing into the ground and kicking up sand as they struggled. Thankfully, the great axe had been knocked away. The Lieutenant grabbed onto the orcs face, trying to push his assailant off, while earning several lollops to the face. Blue orbs, wild and ferocious, menaced from between his fingers. With effort, Sven hooked his leg between the orc's torso and flipped them over so that he was on top, connecting with liberal overhands.

The flow of battle was interrupted by a great bellow, loud enough that Gwen was forced to drop her gun and clutch her head, lucky not to fall off the precipice on which she was crouched. Clapping her hands over her ears, she glanced around quickly, trying to assess the direction the noise was coming from, but it was just too loud to tell. It could have been from anywhe-- oh. Well, that sort of narrowed things down. An enormous club, made of what appeared to be wood with metal spikes driven through it from all angles, arced downwards to meet the antlion, and the impact was massive, causing a shudder felt even through the sand, as antlion parts issues in all directions with a wet splat.

The captain's ever-widening stare travelled upwards, flicking over the contours of an equally-gigantic arm and up, to look with unnerving directness into the face of a sand troll. Not just any sand troll, though-- this one was absolutely monstrous in proportions, at least twenty five feet tall and almost as broad, really, it walked somewhat hunched-over. Its squashed face resembled some of the apes one could see in the southern jungles, but that was where the similarity ended. It was covered in coarse tan hide, thick enough that she'd be unsurprised if it stopped most blades or bullets. Its feet were wide, with eight toes each, to help it balance in the sand. Its eyes (all three of them) were like burning coals, dark black shot through with lines of heated orange that seemed to glow from within.

It fixed on her, alone of everyone unmolested by orcs, and she swallowed past the brand-new lump in her throat. "Uh-oh," she trilled, grabbing her rifle and making a jump for it, hitting the sand and rolling into a ball to protect herself from the falling debris that had once been her perch as the mighty club knocked over the old masonry like so many pebbles.

Once he'd dealt with the fallen orc, bloodied from the pummelling it'd received, the Lieutenant grunted and pushed himself away. He had not been spared from the tousle, either; blood ran thickly from his forehead, where he'd headbutted the green-skinned creature's thick skull. He'd been hit several times thereafter, as well. Thankfully, his nose looked nothing like theirs; piggish, squished and excruciatingly flat. Nothing had been broken that he could tell. His face was in order, so he spun on his heels and only took a few steps forward when he was suddenly knocked on his rear, whipping around to face an unseen foe, an oncoming orc coming from behind him – though, his gaze drifted upward, and he sat staring up at a more horrifying sight then the antlion who'd been summoned by Percy's hand. This creature definitely didn't look like it was here to lend its aid, it's nostrils flaring and caustic eyes picking out its prey. A sand troll. A fucking sand troll. Honestly, he'd only read about them in books, whispered about them to his squad mates. Never had he been face-to-face with the ugly things. Their skin was nearly impenetrable, for God's sake!

Still, the Lieutenant scooted back onto his feet, lunging beneath the sand troll's pillar-for-legs. He was headed for Gwendolyn, and even though he knew he didn't stand a chance if the troll got close enough, he'd at least try to distract the damn thing so someone who had something a little more substantial could sneak up behind and fry it. He took a deep breath, deep in his chest and swivelled the shotgun in his thick mitts, finger poised on the trigger until he was directly beneath him. “Kethyrian!” The Lieutenant bellowed, followed by the shotgun's explosive discharge, firing straight into the sand troll's nether regions. More likely than not, it'd just piss the thing off, but at least it wouldn't focus so much on one target, and attack clumsily, out of anger. He wasn't sure why he called her name, exactly. Wasn't even sure whether or not her abilities would work on a target so large, but it had to have a heart and where there was a heart, Kethyrian could, hopefully, bring it to its knees. He wheeled back under its legs, hoping it didn't choose to squash him by sitting down.

When the antlion was smashed by their newly minted foe, a weight lifted from Percy's brow as the strain of keeping the creature under his control abruptly vanished. He winced, as disconnecting so violently and quickly came through the bond Percy had established. The effort made him drop his staff into the sand and brought him to all fours in the blistering sand. Even over the sandstorm, his single curse echoed. "Dammit!" It happened again, some idiot brute had destroyed another one of his creatures! He looked up, glaring at the Sand Troll and grimaced. He couldn't bewitch that creature. It was too large, too willful, too sapient. He'd break before the creature did. He beat his hand against the dunes of the sand, feeling utterly useless... But perhaps not too useless. He shifted focus from the Troll to Gwen, protecting herself from the falling debris. The Troll had been on his way to finish what he started.

Maybe he didn't have to fight it. His guildmates were hardier than he was, and Sven was currently doing his best against the creature. He'd only get in the way with his antlers and his staff, and though the realization stung, there was nothing he could do about it. But he wasn't going to just sit by and watch. His new position suited him well, it had been a while since he'd be on all four legs. Though his fat fingers and thick legs were ungangly for this. That could be remedied. His arms and legs began to shift, thinning and enlongating. Four sets of fingers and toes shifted into cleft hooves, heavy bones became lighter. His pale skin recieved a new sheath of tan fur, and his nose stretched into a snout. His eyes totally darkened until nothing of Percy remained but the antlers, and in his place stood a stag.

The fullshift took a lot out of the boy, a pink tongue hung freely from the side of the deer's mouth. Perhaps changing into something with fur while in the hottest part of the desert wasn't the wisest decision, but he had a plan. Tufts of sand flew upward from where the deer stood, the creature shooting off toward Gwen. He was faster than the busy troll-- he'd be faster than the dumb brute even if Sven wasn't dealing with him. No one could outrun him in this form. Tired as he may have been, he could never forget the exhiliration that came from running freely in this form. If he was able, he'd be laughing. He danced around what was left of the falling debris and came to a halt beside Gwen, issuing a loud grunt, and shook his antlers at his back. Knowing the girl, she'd take him up for the thrills alone.

Who wouldn't want to ride a deer?

Vivi had managed to cut down her last orc before the Sand Troll appeared. A quick spin to the side of the orc, a swift kick to the side of the knee, buckling it, and the coup de grâce of decapitation-- she loved this dance. She was a wild dervish amid a whirlwind, a bandit princess with joy of the fight pressed upon her lips. There was no better place to be than inside a good tussle, and the tussle only went from good to great when the sand troll appeared. The sand muffled the gleeful squee, though it could do nothing to hide the sparkle in her eyes. She reversed the grip on her sword and sped off to meet steel with beast-- though Sven beat her to it. With his shotgun. Well, if there was a grander way to garner a beast's attention, she'd yet to recognize it. Kethyrian's name was something she recoginized. She tossed her gaze around trying to locate the Feydusk-- she'd be damned if her friend was the only one to have fun.

Bricks and mortar pelted against her back and sides, but the curl she’d tucked herself into protected her from the worst of it, though she was going to be a mottled canvas of splotchy purple bruises tomorrow. If she made it to tomorrow, anyway. The scarf still around her nose and mouth prevented her from inhaling too much of the stone dust, which was now clouding the area and making it hard to see. The sounds of the sand troll doing battle with someone were at once a relief and a worry—it meant she got to live a little longer, but possibly at someone else’s expense, and that would never do.

Pushing herself up onto her hands and knees, she ignored the fact that her hand was bleeding, as was the rest of her in a few spots where jagged rock had torn through her clothes. It could be worse. She’d been shot before, and had her arm incinerated and mangled by a rogue automaton. None of that had killed her, so she had this. Right? Right.

And she was pleasantly surprised to discover she wasn’t alone. A large deer of all things stood next to each other. She knew she recognized that rack—all puns fully intentional, misplaced as they were. [color=#C12283]”Nice timing, Spikey,”
she said, her voice a bit scratchy but otherwise fine. Reaching up, she used his antlers to leverage her swing onto his back. Her size was pretty negligible, so she hopefully wouldn’t slow him down too much. Her rifle, despite her best efforts, was currently in the sand somewhere, and she didn’t have the time to go looking. That in mind, she unholstered her clockwork pistol from its place on her thigh and cocked the hammer back.

”Right. Bring us in close, Spikey. I’m gonna show that troll why I get to be captain, and you’re gonna show everyone just how fast you can run, okay?” A devious grin spread its way over her fey features, and she held on tight with her legs. Hopefully she wouldn’t fall off. That would rather ruin the whole cavalry rescue thing they had going on here.

Kethy heard her name just as her latest opponent dropped. She was breathing heavily, lungs belabored by the dry heat of the air, something she was not at all used to. The sun's heat was unmistakably pradatory to someone like her, and it was taking its toll even now. Still, she straightened, ducking out of the way of another incoming swing. She knew who had summoned her, and she could guess at his intentions, but that didn't change the fact that there were at least thirty orc-populated yards in between them, and she couldn't make it over there in good time without some help.

Fortunately, help was not long in coming. Mordecai, running tactical analysis, understood what was going on, and with Sven acting to distract the sand troll, the automaton was free to plow through the orcish lines with brutal, graceless efficiency. "This unit advises haste, Mistress Kethyrian. It will clear the way forward." If there was something to be said for machines over flesh and blood people, it was that they knew how to make a point without all the double-meanings and deception, and she simply nodded, skirting the edges of his wake to come around behind the lieutenant. The troll was enormous, though thankfully rather slow, and it swung clumsily for them. Kethyrian tucked into a roll, coming up just on the other side of a large fist. She might have scrambled aboard, but it moved again, and though she might have caught on, its arms were long, and they needed to end this more directly.

"Don't think I have enough steam left to kill something this big," she informed Sven in clipped tones. "But I can sure as hell stun it. Throw me; I need to reach its head." She assumed those mechanical limbs of his could handle hurling someone of her negligible weight, after all, or else he could swap places with the automaton, who would definitely be able to. Granted, the plan put her at more than a little risk, but of that grand distraction brewing in the back had any sucess, she should be able to manage it.

To be fair, she also wasn't leaving him much room to argue, backing up a few yards to get a running start. If he could catapult her jump far enough, they might just survive this yet.

"Mother fucker," Theon huffed, rising to one knee after putting down yet another orc. He'd seen sand trolls before, mostly from a distance, and mostly from farsight. They weren't exactly something you went looking for if you had any regard for your life. It looked like something of a plan was shaping up. Well, if you could call the captain riding the deer boy while aiming a rifle combined with the wall crawler getting ready to be launched at the thing's head a plan. Still, it was better than nothing, and Theon was beginning to see a way he might be able to contribute.

He needed his duckfoot back. It had fallen out of his hand when he'd fired it into the nearest orc at the start of the fight, but if anything was going to be able to do damage to the sand troll, it was that. A four barreled hand cannon unloading into the roof of its mouth was bound to seriously fuck up the thing's head, right? Although, that idea depended on him being able to reach the damn pistol, reload it, and also being able to somehow get the troll on its back, or otherwise reach a position to shoot it in the mouth. He suspected his companions were already working on that.

The pistol had fallen near the base of a little sandy hill, now firmly occupied by the remaining orcs. He'd never get there in good time in his current condition. He was bleeding in several places, and probably several more he didn't know about. But the little lightning devil here looked to be in good shape. A quick little thing. She had just rolled smoothly away from a swinging axe and smacked the dull edge of her useless sword against an orc's skull when Theon whistled at her.

"Hey, new girl! Could use a hand!" His tone was not particularly polite, but she came anyway, sinking to a kneel in front of him so as to be at the same level, her chocolate eyes not hard at all beneath her mask. "What do you need?"

Honestly, it put him on edge that she was so willing to help someone who'd been nothing but a dick to her since they'd met. "My pistol," Theon said, pointing to where it lay. She probably expected him to want some kind of medical help, since the request to retrieve his pistol for him got a slightly harder stare from her. "Listen," Theon explained, getting impatient, "I don't know if you've been in one of these before, but they don't have happy endings. I'm just trying to make sure the ending doesn't involve all of our corpses baking in the sun, or that thing's belly."

Dio could see the logic in that. She didn't often take a liking to cold logic, but he was right. There was no pretty way for them to get out of this. She held no favor for the kill or be killed mentality, but at the very least, she wouldn't do the killing. Maybe there was no real difference, but maybe there was no real choice, either. She sheathed her scimitar across her back and took off towards the fallen weapon. She'd run faster with it put away.

A swift feint and a rapid change of direction got her around the first orc in her path, a forward leap and roll getting her over the sweeping blow of the second. Her sandals kicked up a small plume of dust and sand as she went, planting her right foot hard and sidestepping a great axe that thudded into the sand at her side. A knife flashed upwards from her left, and she spun opposite from it, leaning backwards to avoid the slash and pushing onwards. The next was directly in her path and too close to dodge, so her hand darted to her thigh and pulled the empty pistol, raising and sending a weak blast into his chest. It stunned him enough for her to slide between his legs, right to where the duckfoot pistol lay.

She snatched it up, surprised by how heavy it was, before turning and immediately vaulting onto the orc's back, the one she had just stunned. She pushed off his shoulder hard, flying over the next two, landing softly with a forward roll, and immediately colliding with a running orc she hadn't seen. The pair of them went down in a tangle, and with Dio's right arm occupied by the weight of the pistol, she was defenseless to the orc's left hook. The entire world seemed to spin in a circle, but she used the weight of the orc's body, the hot, sweaty feel of his skin, as an anchor, and when she found the shape of a head, she released all the lightning she could muster, frying him enough so that she could stumble away.

She did just that, staggering the short ways needed to be clear of the orcs. She then tossed the duckfoot forward to Theon's feet before falling forward on hands and knees, sucking in breaths. Theon scooped up the sandy hand cannon, popping all four barrels open and beginning the tedious process of reloading each one.

"Not bad, new girl."

The Lieutenant had only seen a brief glimpse of tawny legs and brownish-hooves kicking up clouds of dust. Perhaps, a tufted tail, as well. Had the Lieutenant had time, he'd of given it a second glance – no time for that, though, as he ducked underneath the sand troll again, keeping himself just a few steps ahead of the creature to avoid becoming one with the desert. The ugly-thing bellowed loudly, trumpeting wildly. The sound itself cut straight through to his eardrums, nearly causing him to clasp his hands to his ears to drown out the noise. Instead, the Lieutenant fired straight into his back, hoping to incapacitate it by injuring its craggy spine. No such luck. The creature merely trumpeted again, banging its colossal fists against the ground like a child suffering a tantrum. Things needed to progress much quickly if they needed to deal with this thing and slaughter the remaining orcs, or at least get their ranks under control and figure out what was going on. They couldn't deal with one, without having dealt with the other first.

He spotted Kethyrian making her way over, tucking into a crisp roll so that she was beside him. If she couldn't directly kill it, then stunning it for whatever length of time – maybe, bringing it to its knees in order to reach fleshier, more vulnerable parts, was the only option they had. It was the only thing that made sense, anyway. He didn't hesitate, didn't even stop to wonder whether or not it was a bad idea. Launching one of his companions through the air onto a bulky behemoth? Sure. He believed that she could do it without getting herself killed. Her competence was not something he'd come to doubt thus far, and he'd seen her perform far greater acrobatic feats. Thick fingers pressed a couple buttons behind his mechanical kneecap and the small of his inner elbow. They hissed sharply, releasing steam from their vents. The man stooped down on one knee, watching the creature beat its chest.

As soon as Kethyrian's foot touched his shoulder, as light as a feather, the Lieutenant straightened with alarming force, hands barely touching her midsection as he bodily threw her. Just as if he'd released a predatory bird from a gilded cage, effortlessly twisting his arm so that she could sail through the air. He'd never done something like that before. He'd have to commend her later.

Well, seeing the favisae go flying was as much a signal as they were probably going to get, and Gwen put Operation: Big Distraction into effect, pausing for just a moment with the absurd thought how do I steer this thing? before she remembered that it was Spikey and she could just tell him what she wanted. "Okay, two things: don't stop moving; I can shoot from nearly anywhere. And... go!" Spikey complied in a big way, applying a burst of speed that had her holding on with her knees as tightly as she could, aiming her pistol one-handed, the other gripping a backward-facing prong to keep herself more or less steady. The gun went off with a crack and a small puff of smoke, the lead ball inside headed right for the troll's face. Her aim had been to get it in the eye, and she succeeded, grinning like a madwoman when it let out a pained howl, though it soon turned to a wince. That thing had a set of pipes, didn't it?

Not a violent person by nature, she was able to set that aside and conceptualize this situation as shooting at a target. That might not be a good thing, but seeing as how she might be several times dead without it, she didn't trouble herself over it too much. Well, it was half-blind now, though she'd have to be careful with her next shot and avoid hitting Kethyrian, who was going to be up there shortly, in all likelihood. That was all right; she had faith in her shot. She could do it if she had to, and right now, it was looking like she might have to. If it was totally blind, and Thistle did whatever she was planning, they might be able to bring it down somehow for the others to get a better chance at.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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With a surge of power on the Lieutenant's part and an accompanying shot of gunfore from somewhere, Kethyrian found herself flying, or as close to it as a humanoid could achieve. Though perhaps the temptation was to flail her arms or panic at the sheer weightlessness of the sensation, she did neither, instead tucking her limbs in beside herself to streamline her passage. The launch was quick, and brought her to the sand troll's arm, onto which she latched without much difficulty, finding easy purchase in the masses of its coarse fur. It smelled like rot and ill-cleaned offal from previous kills (perhaps unwary orcs), but what nearly lost her her grip was the roar it produced. Gritting her teeth and resisting the urge to cover her ears, she felt herself lose hearing in one of them, a small trickle of blood seeping out of it and onto her neck. This, she ignored for the moment; it could be healed later.

The creature was far to preoccupied with a newly-useless eye to do much about her, and she set about a swift climb, scrambling up its bicep and onto its shoulder. Only then did the creature take note of her, catching sight of the climbing favisae out of the corner of the remaining ocular. She hissed, darting around onto its back as it swung a massive hand for where she'd been a moment before, smacking his own shoulder with jarring force. With the dexterity of a spider, she moved again, coming to perch, crouched, on his head. She wondered if he was stupid enough to try and hit that.

"Shoot again!" she shouted to whomever currently had the gun and the skill at aiming to take out an eye. If this thing was distracted by pain, she might have long enough to render it stunned without having to constantly scramble out of the way of its swatting.

You got it!" Gwen yelled in reply, taking aim a second time. With Thistle on the troll's head, it was going to be harder to hit without risking her, but on the other hand, it might not move as much, either. Pursing her lips carefully, she let go of Spikey's antlers. "Steady as she goes," she said, loud enough to be heard over the din. It was her way of saying that she'd prefer no distruptions like abrupt turns if possible. Her newly-freed hand moved up to reinforce her grip on the pistol, and in a smooth movement, she cocked the hammer and fired, a blooming red spot on the troll's face confirming the hit. "Ha! Yesss!" she allowed herself a moment of celebration, pumping her fist and then using the hand to pat Spikey's neck. Was that condescending? She didn't care; it was what he got for turning himself into a cute deer.

Lohengrin, catching on to where this was going, glanced around, spotting three people relatively close to him. Two of them even looked useful for what he was planning. It would do, anyway. "Hey tin man! You and the crazy chick head for that knee and hit it with all you've got! Big guy, you're with me-- if we can knock out both, someone besides the elf might be able to get a good hit in!" At least he'd follow his own advice; gripping the hot steel of his hand and a half in both palms, he charged forward, ducking elastically under a random swing from the blind troll and heading for the back of the troll's right knee. His blade, swung with all his strength, rebounded off the thick clumps of fur shielding the creature, and Lohengrin snarled, tossing the sword aside. Blunt damage would work better than trying to cut it.

But he was also willing to bet that it was flammable. He'd let the Lieutenant get a few good hits in first; no point burning the guy's hands.

The Lieutenant nearly crashed into the troll's tree-trunk leg as someone called his name (sort of, if big guy could be counted), slipping beneath the creature's legs just in time to avoid a wild swing full of craggy knuckles. He veered sharply to the right, sidling beside Lohengrin, whilst chambering his shotgun, one-handed. Knock out the knees? It seemed like a sound enough plan. He didn't care whether or not he “got a good hit in,” just as long as the damned thing slumped on its face and died – and soon, because the wouldn't be able to last forever battling such a relentless foe. Too stupid to rattle its thick skull, turn tail and walk back from wherever it came from. He followed Lohengrin, hurtling around the clumsy swing instead as the surprisingly limber man slipped underneath. He met him on the other side, curling around the troll's knobby knee. The Lieutenant's eyebrows furrowed in question when Lohengrin tossed his weapons aside, but he still took the opportunity to fire scattered rounds into the vulnerable flesh of what he assumed to be the knee-pit, though it was difficult to tell with all those folds. Clumps of flesh, sizzling hair and who-knows-what shlepped off in shreds. Once the steaming rounds puddled around his feet, the Lieutenant stepped backwards, eyeing Daisy (or was it another humiliating flower) enquiringly.

The other eye exploded into an indesciperable pile of gunk, and Kethyrian took her opportunity when she had it, sliding down a bit so she sat upon the troll's shoulder, reaching around its massive head with both arms in what looked a bit like some kind of grotesque hug. Really though, she was reaching for its temples, and once her fingers found these, she sucked in a deep breath, seeking out its vital signs and her own, dipping deep into the wellspring of magic that for some reason existed in some people and not others. Channelling it out her hands, she shoved with as abrupt a force as she could muster, attempting to interrupt whatever processes kept this thing conscious and in control of its own movements.

Something caught, like a thorn snagging silk, and the troll staggerd massively, barely remaining upright. Its grip on its club weapon slackened, and it sort of slumped at the shoulders, many of its muscles losing tension and weakening. She'd overdone it, though, she could tell: she was currently bleeding from the nose as well as her ear, and when she remembered to jump backwards off the beast, it was gracelessly. Perhaps fortunately for her rather delicate ego, she'd never know-- she lost consciousness halfway down. Well enough, her last thought went, she could survive an impact with mere sand.

The troll was faring almost as badly, unable to move its body as it commanded and reduced to exerting all the effort it could still muster to keep its knees locked and its body upright, it could do no more than make ineffectual, barehanded half-swings otherwise. These were unlikely to hit, even, blind as it had become.

Vivi never was good at listening. She watched as everyone but her converged on the Sand Troll and gave it everything they got. She turned to follow Redhead's advice scanning the desert for Mordy, but being useful didn't lessen the sting of having to aid another and not playing a pivotal role in the downfall of the Troll. Because of that, her facial expression shifted from giddy to sour. She raised her pistol and fired a volley into the creatures chest-- nothing, at least not compared to the Lieutenant's shotgun. A snarl snuck in to her lips, but her gait never slowed. If that couldn't get through then what in the hell was she supposed to do with Mordy?

That expression changed quickly Kethy wavered. The snarl turned into a worried frown and her gait quickened into an outright sprint. She put all of her power into her legs as the Feydusk's hands came loose from the Troll head, and then she dropped her blade and her pistol when she began to fall. She appeared under the Feydusk just in time to catch her. If it could even be called a catch. She didn't account for the physics, so when Kethy fell into her arms, she fell to the ground as well and slid back across the sand. Still, her objective was completed, and Redhead could go screw himself with his orders. She had her own.

"Dammit Kethy, you should have let me help," she cursed, ripping the scarf off of her face. Underneath it revealed a worried expression, as she tried her best to scramble back and away with Kethy. It would do no good if the damned thing fell on top of them after all that. Neither the impact nor the words were sufficient to snatch the feydusk from underneath the heavy shroud of unconsciousness, and it was perhaps a small blessing that her species were built so slight, as even someone of Vivian's size could drag her with enough effort.

Mordecai, on the other hand, was very good at listening, at least in this mode. The Sentinel function was designed with coordination in mind, and he recognized the logic in the order and thus followed it, peeling away in the opposite direction from Lohengrin and making for the troll's left leg. The blind flailing had weakened until it was little but a series of token movements, and it took no substantial effort to avoid the one swing that was even in his general direction and reach his destination. Drawing back, Mordecai gave himself a few steps worth of running start, probably unncessary but tactically sound all the same. He knew not exactly how much force would be required to break bones belonging to a sand troll, for he knew not their size or density. Clasping both of his fists together, he angled himself slightly, drawing his joined arms back to the level of his head.

As he blew past the troll, he brought his hands down like a hammer. The impact combined with his velocity would have dislocated both his shoulders and probably shattered his forearms and hands had he been made of ordinary flesh and bone, but as things stood, he was only slowed. The thud was loud, and he could discern a crack beneath it, though in all likelihood what he'd managed was only a hairline fracture. His aim had presumed a skeleton proportionally like a human's, but it seemed a few things were located a tad differently. No matter. Returning, he forewent the sprint this time, instead choosing several blows over one. Standing resolutely behind and to the inside of the leg, the automaton sought the small crack he had produced and raised another hand, though this time, he cracked down with his elbow. His other followed, a repetitive motion that gained speed. Like a fault line exposed to an earthquake, the fissure in the bone grew, a multitude of associated cracks spiderwebbing from the original break until at last, with one last well-placed hit, the troll's leg shattered. Thirty-seven seconds. Suboptimal, but acceptable.

Without the strength and mathematics necessary to replicate the automaton's maneuvers, Lohengrin would have to settle for something a little more... conventional. The shotgun rounds had been damaging, and with a little more, they might well be able to devastate. Stepping back a few feet, he eyed his surroundings to be sure that everyone who needed to be out of his radius was. Despite his uncaring attitude, he did not much care to incinerate anybody but this troll. Finding that he was clear for attack, the mercenary let a ruby-red flame in each of his hands, these smattered with the occasional tongue of gold or white, then brought his wrists together. The flames melded, his fingers forming a narrowed passage through which he directed the torrent, the cannon effect acting much like the barrel of a gun to increase the concentration of the attack, aimed right for the troll’s kneecaps.

Adding to Sven’s considerable damage, the fire burned away at hair and flesh, the charred scent of living meat filling the air and Lohengrin’s nasal passages. He kept his mouth shut, from a poignant desire not to taste it as well, as the crackling of the fire grew ever louder. Fortunately, burning the entire limb off was not what was required, as that would have taken quite a bit of time.

With both of its legs entirely useless, the sand troll teetered for a moment, then began a fall that, given its size, seemed rather slow, as gravity gradually overtook it, sending it first to its ruined knees, and then tipping forward and left, given that that leg was weaker, being entirely shattered. Assuming the golem was on the alert, he wouldn’t be crushed into the sand. The troll landed with a muted boom, the impact absorbed largely with the sand, a large cloud of which was stirred up at its collapse. Lohengrin tightened the scarf around his face, glad now for its presence. Nobody wanted a mouthful of that.

Though the troll was down, it was still alive, and tried, despite its obvious weakness, to push itself up once again, using only its arms.

Theon walked rather calmly, all things considered, into the vicinity of the sand troll, his duckfoot pistol shutting with a loud snap. Not that anyone heard it, though, as they'd all need a day or two for their hearing to return to normal. The others had done a number on it, blinding it entirely and preventing it from standing, not for lack of trying. It was panting pretty heavily when Theon got under it, moving slowly enough such that he could hope to avoid drawing attention to himself. The creature's disgusting mouth breathing was dripping blood and saliva about, but Theon managed to get himself to a position near its chest that granted him an angle on the roof of its mouth without getting covered in slime. Slowly, he raised four barrels and leveled them at the troll.

"Is what it is, buddy," he said, pulling the trigger. The shots tore up into the roof of the mouth, making a mess of things internally, and while they didn't burst out the top of the skull or anything, it was as though a bucket of brain matter and other gore was emptied out the thing's mouth. It teetered slowly for a moment on the arm it had put its weight on, a moment in which Theon hastily moved away. It fell flat down on its face seconds after, kicking up another thick plume of dust behind the scryer. He picked up his axe on the way back to the rest of the group.

"In hindsight, I probably could've warned you guys about that. Loudmouth behind me made an appearance in my vision, though I had no idea what the fuck it was at the time." He shrugged. "Doesn't really matter now, though."

“Not sure it would have helped anyway,” Lohengrin pointed out, poking the troll’s arm with the end of his sword. It was one thing to know there was a troll around, and another thing altogether to be prepared to fight it. Regardless, it was dead now, so he had to admit he didn’t care much either way. Glancing around, he checked to make sure everyone was still alive (looked like it, but the elf bitch was out cold, which surprisingly brought him no joy whatsoever), and then replaced the weapon on his back.

Gwen, who had dismounted Percy after giving him a pat on the neck, shook the sand from her newly-recovered rifle and grinned broadly. “Well, now that that’s all taken care of, follow me. I think I know where we’re going now.” Her time atop the ruined wall had given her a broader view of the surrounding area, and she’d seen a lot more stonework in one direction specifically. As soon as Kethyrian had been returned to consciousness and everyone more or less patched up for the moment, the captain led them over the scorching sands, bypassing a few smaller stone ruins and hauling themselves over a few dunes until they came at last to a small valley between heaps of sand. There, laid out before them, was a series of small ruins, at the center of which lay an archway that would look quite familiar to Theon.

Passing under it would bring them all within sight of a flat stone surface. Roughly circular, it appeared to contain rings within rings: on the outside, nine plain, black circles of slate edged the pattern, each perhaps two feet in diameter. Inside that were five more circles, their centers occupied by massive gemstones, lined in mother-of-pearl, the same colors as the ones had been on the door—ruby, sapphire, emerald, citrine, and pale opal, at least six inches per gem. The emerald was lit as though from within, visible even in the stark sunlight. These were arranged around a center circle, this one a large five feet across and a dimly-shifting, smokey off-white.

“Well,” Gwen said matter-of-factly, placing her hands on her hips, “That looks important.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Walking through a dream was a strange experience.

It was one thing to go to a place in his mind by will, look around, and then actually visit that place, but this place had come to him. It had called in his sleep, shown him things he'd never seen before, and he had come running, the promise of whatever great purpose awaited him pushing his feet onwards. And there was certainly no other reason he'd willingly drag himself out into this hellhole, to fight orcs and sand trolls with a bunch of people he still didn't particularly like. At least they could pull their own weight.

Dio had temporarily forgotten she was in the middle of a desert that could easily kill her, her attention snared instead by the massive gemstones on this stone surface. "How much do you think these are worth?" she wondered idly. It didn't really matter, there probably wasn't any way they could get them out, apart from blowing up the entire table, if any of them had any kind of explosives on them. Even then, she didn't think she'd want to; this thing was beautiful, like nothing she'd ever seen. Her mother would have sold her into slavery to have it on display. Although, perhaps she would just want the gemstones, the rest looked rather archaic. Percy didn't say anything, as he couldn't in his current form. Buck grunts made for poor communication, though he made his displeasure known nonetheless. He leveled his animilistic black eyes on the girl and just stared. She was not selling these, not while he still drew breath. They were priceless artifacts, and they belonged in a museum at worst, not on some black market. He'd much rather just leave them alone and study them from afar.

"Something's up with the green one," Theon said, before hauling himself on top of the surface. His dream had shown him this, too, that the emerald gemstone would be glowing, but all that had really done had prepared him for the sight of these ridiculous gemstones, which meant he wasn't drooling over them like the bleeding heart thief was. He crouched down over it, trying to see if there was anything inside it. "The dream didn't bother showing me what to do with this thing," he said, scowling.

Gwen hopped up onto the raised surface, ogling the gems with obvious interest, though honestly it had more to do with how the whole thing was laid out than how much it was probably worth. Not that she was going to let on, of course. “Probably more than the Elysium, all together and intact." It really was amazing, even if she didn’t particularly know what to do with it. She headed for the big circle in the center, passing over one of the smaller outside ones as she went. She missed what this produced, but Lohengrin didn’t.

“Hold up, tiny—” he blurted, reaching up and over to grab Gwen by the trailing end of her scarf. At the resistance, she stopped, looking down at him with a raised brow. He used his free hand to point at the plainer circle she’d just passed over. “Step on that again.” He tugged, and she sighed, backtracking to do as he’d insisted, only to find that, when she trod on the outer circle, it lit up as though from beneath, the shifting light echoing what Theon was no doubt seeing staring deep into the emerald. Gwen removed her foot, and the glow died. Crouching, she tried her hand—more light.

“Wow, that’s really neat. Does the big shiny green one do anything when you poke it?” she asked of the Scryer.

"It's reacting to what you're doing," Theon said, watching the innards of the emerald swirl about with a shifting light. He rapped on it a few times with his knuckles, and the emerald responded to that too, the light rippling away from his touch like he was disturbing water. "Huh," he said. "Well... is this a puzzle or something? I've never seen anything like this before, but I'm not sure what the point is yet." Vivi leaned over Theon's shoulder as he tapped the emerald, then she shrugged. She was absolutely horrid at puzzles, but she did have a suggestion... "Start pressing stuff until something happens?" Ah, the wisdom pouring off of that one.

And now everyone was trampling on them. Thankfully, shifted as he was, he couldn't admonish the party and sit them down for a speech on the caution and care needed when dealing with such artifacts. If bucks could sigh, Percy tried his best to do so. Using his powerful limbs, he too vaulted up to the surface and watched as his compatriots fumbled around and touched everything with their fat hands. He slowly paced around the circumference of the platform, examining it and trying to ascertain-- as the brute said-- the point of this puzzle. He felt... Invigorated by this room. A piece of ancient history it was, something that a soul hadn't stepped in centuries, if not more. He'd never heard anything about it, but the planet the lived on was rife with such mysteries. It made him all but forget the incident with sandtroll outside.

Kethyrian was not so quick to forget the sand troll. Thankfully, it hadn't taken her long to regain consciousness, though the more she thought about it, the more it seemed that being knocked out would be infinitely preferable to walking around in this damn desert. She could practically feel her skin cracking, and she was nearly blind under the harsh light. The shade of the chamber they'd just opened was actually a welcome relief, and she slumped against a wall, watching the others all marvel over the stone circle. She could admit that it was pretty, after a fashion, and she knew probably better than most how much skill it would have taken to cut gems of that size and lustre, but unlike Percy, any academic curiosity she might have had was drained away by the heat, and unlike Vivian, she didn't have much of a sense of adventure.

"If the green one's lighting up, why not the rest?" she put in from her corner, vaguely curious despite herself.

Mordecai, meanwhile, had refrained from actually stepping up onto the platform, but he did observe it from where he was standing. Given his height, it hit about the middle of his chest, which allowed him some vantage, anyway. Something that Mistress Kethyrian said struck him, and he glanced at the overall spread. "What if the rings are not isolated? Positioned so, this unit believes it makes much more sense to treat everything as an integrated system. If contact with the outer circles produces change in the inner crystal, perhaps contact with more than one at once would increase the reaction." As if to test his own hypothesis, Mordecai placed a hand at the center of a different slate circle. It may not work, as he was not organic matter, but even that would tell them something useful.

The circle Mordecai touched responded just as surely as Gwen’s did to her, and the emerald in front of Theon brightened when both dark grey circles lit simultaneously. “Well, that’s promising,” the captain said, moving herself around to try touching two at once. No luck. The one she’d lit first still glowed, but the second was unreactive. Relinquishing her contact with the first, she watched the second one light beneath her metal hand. “I guess… they need to be touched by different people? Hey Spikey, step on this other one here, next to me. Strawberry, you try that one.” She indicated a couple spaces over with a grin. “I wanna see just how many we can light up at once. Good thinking, Gadget!” she praised Mordecai, beaming over at the automaton.

“Whatever,” Lohengrin grumbled, pulling himself indelicately up onto the platform. Sometimes he really hated this damn body. It was so awkward. With a put-upon sigh, he stepped on the circle the blonde pilot had indicated, a bit but not very surprised when it, too, lit. That meant three were currently illuminated, and—sure enough—the green one was getting brighter. He did a quick count, and his eyes narrowed to suspicious slits. “There are exactly nine. How convenient.” He might have said something else, but it appeared his tongue wasn’t going to let him, sticking resolutely to the roof of his mouth until he abandoned the effort to say what he was thinking. Fuck.

Still too exhausted to shift back into his humanoid form, Percy nodded his antlered head and trotted toward one of the unoccupied circles, whereby his contact lit it up like a firework. Perhaps it was fortunate he was still in his shifted form. If he had a tongue that could speak, no doubt it would consist of fawning over the ancient technology beneath their feet. However just because he did not have a tongue to voice his admiration, that was all he could think about. No answers were given by this room, only questions, and what curious questions they were. Who built the device, where did they go, why in the middle of the desert? All questions he was afraid to go unanswered, though he was not sad. He was happy for the mere opportunity of witnessing.

As if Theon needed anymore assurance that he was a very, very important person meant to do very, very important things. He stood back from the big emerald gemstone, picking one of the currently unoccupied rings to stand in. "Do you think it matters which one we stand in?" he asked. They all looked to be the same size. Theon's own ring began to glow, and it looked to be the same as the others. He frowned slightly, but couldn't be all that disappointed. He would have to settle for being one of the pretty damn important people, instead of being the most important person.

"One for all of us, and all the same," Dio said, nimbly hopping up and into her own ring, smiling a bit when it too lit up like the others. "I like it. Come on, everybody up." Mordecai, wearing an ingenue's smile at the fact that he seemed to have done something correctly, was only too inclined to comply, and hopped properly up to stand on the platform, careful not to chip the edges of the stone. He weighed a fair bit more than a human of comparable size would, after all. Stepping fully onto his circle, his participation meant a full six were lit, as Kethyrian had elected to remove herself from her shaded corner and take up one of the empty spots as well.

"You too, Sunshine," Gwen singsonged in Sven's general direction.

Important, non-important. Hero, villain. One who paved through history or one who was left forgotten, marooned out of bard-like tales and cheated of his accomplishments. Honestly, the Lieutenant couldn't have cared less about any of it. He did not know the future, but believed stolidly that he didn't take any personal interest in it either. Adventure, wealth, curiosity and history were all well and fine—but, when you were older, things always seemed less appealing. He stood a few feet away from the group, thick arms crossed over his chest. Thankfully, the blistering heat hadn't been able to infiltrate their location. Lidded eyes regarded the lifted platforms, and the luminescent green orb. If anyone figured it out, it would probably be Percy (or Mordecai for that matter), but if they wanted to press buttons until the thing responded, they were free to do so. Waiting quietly and unobtrusively suited him just fine. It was only when Dio suggested that they should occupy all of the pedestals, as well as Gwendolyn's invitation, that Sven made to move. He stepped forward, climbing onto an unoccupied space. The mossy light, in turn, seemed to glow brighter.

Vivi skipped her way over to the last remaining circle.

As soon as Vivian’s foot touched her circle, the emerald flared so brightly that Gwen was forced to shut her eyes against its radiance, and the room they were in began to tremble. At first, it was only a subtle thing, a small vibration that served to clear a little of the remaining sand from the platform, but then the high-pitched keening sound began, and it and the vibrations seemed to enter into a kind of sensory-overloading feedback loop: as the whine grew louder, the tremors grew more violent, until there was no space in between them at all. The sound altered, a cascade of notes forming at great volume, and the large circle at the center of the entire arrangement lit up.

At first, it was still the smoky, pearlescent sheen it had had before, but as the melody began to form, the light from the emerald seemed to bleed outwards, tracing in a very definite pattern cut into the stone shelf they stood upon. As though it were liquid rather than light, the bright green illumination ran in tracks, cut into the stone and heretofore covered by sand, spreading outwards until crisscrossing lines of marvelous complexity had reached each of the circles upon which the none were standing (or not standing, as the case may be). At this point, however, it no longer mattered.

So, too, did the light spread to the middle, and it bled into the center stone, tinting the radiance there with viridian hue. The light rose, into a peridot-colored column that looked almost solid, and something began to take shape within, the darker shadows moving over the surface receding inward and coalescing into a single mass. That conglomeration shifted, amalgamated, and those with care to look would note that it seemed to gain texture in its forming. As the keening reached a crescendo, the column of light exploded outwards with a sound like stone on steel, washing over each of those present and bathing them in the warmth of sunned rock, the smell of verdant forestry, and for a halcyon moment, they could see this place as it had once been—a city, built into the mosses and trees and stone of a lush forest, lacking the wetness of Deluge but none of its vibrancy. At the edges of their shared vision flickered indistinct humanoid shapes, and above them soared the unmistakable silhouettes of dragons, as free and beautiful as they had surely been in long-forgotten days of glory.

But then it was gone, and when their eyes adjusted once again to what actually lay before them, they found that, at the center where the light had been, was a squat figure. It appeared to be made entirely of stone or petrified wood, but its color was hardly so dull as to be describable as merely brown. Veins of green, red, blue, silver, gold, and even royal purple striated the creature seemingly at random, all the colors deep and lovely. The being itself was not more than four feet tall, though vaguely humanoid in that it seemed to be comprised of stones shaped after arms, legs, a torso, and a head. The head was elongated though, protruding a bit behind it and tapering to a rounded point. Where eyes would have been on another creature, it had emeralds, almond-shaped and aglow with the same light that still infused the green gemstone on the platform.

When it spoke, its voice was like the grinding of the stone that comprised it: low, raspy, and, if one could put a gender to such a being, masculine. “Greetings, Chosen,” it said, ponderously, as though each syllable had to be chewed over several times before it was spat out. “You have been long in coming.”

"Bullshit," Theon said, quirking an eyebrow. "We came as soon as we knew to. I've been waiting for you for twenty-seven years. Maybe it was your message that was long in coming." His words were perhaps not a true reflection of how he felt at the moment, which was extremely impressed, and slightly overwhelmed. Whatever he had just seen must have been powerful magic, to have survived this long and to perform something like that. Still, he hardly knew what to think, as he stared at this... thing, that was in front of them all.

"Do you mind if I ask what you are?" Dio asked significantly more politely, pulling her mask down away from her face when she spoke to him. If he could be called a him. He sounded manly enough.

"And why we're here," Theon finished for her. He crossed his arms, studying the thing that had deigned to call him Chosen. He was all for the idea of being chosen among the masses, and certainly didn't mind the thought that he was superior to them all, but some sort of confirmation of this couldn't hurt. What made this thing special enough as to know who the Chosen were, and to tell them what to do with their lives, assuming that was what this was all about? "Why us?" Theon thought differently of himself, of course, but some of the others were frankly somewhat unremarkable. Were they plucked at random? The term "chosen" seemed to imply otherwise.

The being shook its head, or what would pass for its head were it human. The grinding sound was faint, but still present. “Nay, Chosen. I have waited eons for you, in slumber.” Theon shook his head slowly. "Sorry I took so long to be born, then," he murmured, under his breath. The being appeared to focus on Dio for a moment, as though deciding how to answer her question. This took longer than one might have expected, especially for what seemed a relatively simple question. Still, Gwen thought, if the answer was true, it was quite impressive. “I am stone. I am forests and soil and growing green things. And I am old, dying.” The sheer weight of the words slumped even her shoulders, tireless enthusiasm muted for the grief in what he said.

“You’re a Guardian.” That came from Lohengrin, and though it was spoken more as a statement than anything, there was a note of inquiry on the end of it. The mercenary looked solemn, but for once his demeanor bore no haughtiness or anger. Indeed, he was contemplating bowing, prostrating himself on the stone, because he understood what this creature was, but even his battered pride would not quite allow something like that. This thing was important to them, and he was no longer as they were.

“I am. Or was. There is precious little left to guard.” The stone-man straightened a bit, turning about slowly so as to look at them all in sequence. What he thought of what he saw, it was impossible to say, as he had no obvious features with which to express any such emotions, and he did not pass any judgement aloud. “You saw… what I showed you. Once, all of the world was like it. Now, the encroaching sand covers much, and the Lady’s blood runs dry. I wither, and I rot, as do the others. This is why you are here. This is why you were chosen. Your world loses vitality, and the only way to save it is to save Her.” Another pause.

“I know not why She chose you, but the choices you make will save Her, or they will end us all.”

Kethyrian blinked at the mention of the Lady. She’d never been all that religious, but it was quite difficult to get something so engrained out of one’s system, and the mention of the ancestral goddess of her people was enough to draw her attention. She thought back to what this creature had shown them… those figures in the sky had been dragons, and the ones at the edges… Inflectori, perhaps? If so, it had been eons in truth. If that place was now this one… it was hard to imagine such massive change, from forest to desert, even over such a great span of years. “This whole Chosen business is one thing, but what does it have to do with Myrddin and the king? If I’d just been captured by some pompous noble, I wouldn’t send my only chance at escape to save the world from something else.” And how would the old man have known, anyway? She wasn’t seeing the connection.

Personally, Mordecai thought this was the kind of thing that humans and favisae and dwarves and so on got chosen to do. Automata were not the stuff of legends and heroes’ tales. He would know—he had knowledge of a great many of them. In none were things like him even featured. But… if this being was made of stone and was so important as it seemed, perhaps he, made of metal and wires and false skin, could be important, too? He’d never felt important before. He wasn’t even sure what that was supposed to feel like. Yet here he was, standing on a lit circle just like the rest, and his was no less aglow than any of the others.

“This unit requests clarification,” he put in politely. “Why did the script on the wall lead it and the others here? Does it pertain to the mention of keys?” It seemed the most logical conclusion, and Mordecai was nothing if he was not logical.

“Then it was Myrddin who sent you,” the creature mused. “That is good; he has long been an ally of the Guardians. I know nothing of human kings any longer, dark one. If there is a connection, it is not one I can make. This task needs to be completed, and he has set you on the path. For this, I owe him a debt.”

At Mordecai, the Guardian seemed to stare for a long time. It made little indication of why—perhaps it sensed his internal structure and was interested by it. Whatever the case, the gravel-voice answered this query with more certainty. “I am the first. To all of us you must go, and retrieve the keys to the door. Behind it, you will find what you need, what the Lady needs.” Waving a hand in front of him, the Guardian seemed to conjure something from nowhere. Upon inspection, it was a stone object about the length of Gwen’s forearm, cut from what must have been a truly massive emerald. Nearly translucent, it was the expected deep green color, and shaped so as to have a triangular handle at one end and jagged “teeth” at the other. It wasn’t exactly a conventional key, but it looked like it would fit the massive subterranean door well enough.

“Reaching here and defeating the Sand Troll that nested nearby required cunning and intelligence. Each further test will require it as well, but each will also ask of you something else. Reaching the end will not be easy. If there is anything else you would ask of me, ask now, before my strength fades.” A large, stony digit moved, and the key hovered in the air, floating until it came to rest in front of Percy. “Keep it well, earth-child. If it is lost, then so are you.”

Well, that was as good a cue as any to ask the obvious question, and without anything in the way of pride or shame to speak of, Gwen felt perfectly fine asking it. "So, Mister Rocky, sir... where exactly are we supposed to go now?" She wasn't sure humor worked on rocks, but she flashed a dazzling grin all the same. Stone Guardians were people, too, right? Well, she was just going to go ahead and assume they were. She already counted Gadget as a person, how different could this be? She ignored the slightly-wiser segment of her personality, which was busy informing her that it was probably quite different.

It was unclear whether the Guardian approved of her attempt to lighten the mood or not, but at least he answered. "You must go north, to the Source of the World. The next of my kind awaits you there, with the Ice Key."

Sometime between now and when the Guardian first appeared, Percy had shifted back into his halfshift, though he was too enthralled by the being to say anything. It was... a creature, born from the light. Made from stone, it was unlike anything Percy had even heard of, let alone seen. When it spoke, Percy listened with awed attention. Enough that he almost couldn't hear Theon's rude comments. And every word it spoke opened new doors. They were chosen. This had been a test. There were others, mention of the Lady. It was magnificent. There were so many questions, there wasn't nearly enough time left ifor the for him to ask all he wanted. He couldn't even think of his first question, and such the others asked for him. Then the being summoned the key, where it hovered in front of him. Percy hesitated for a moment before carefully plucking it out of the air. There he turned the magnificent emerald over in his hand before he nodded graciously.

"Th-thank you," Percy stammered out. "What... what test awaits us there?" He added.

Vivi had since grown bored of the creature and had approached closer in order to better inspect him. She silently hovered behind it, picking out the variety of pretty colors running through him and just seemed rather unenthused about everything else.

If the creature was perturbed by Vivian's presence, it made no obvious signs of it. Instead, it seemed to cock its head to one side, and then answered Percy's inquiry in the same gravelly tones. "That, I may not say. It is not for me to disrupt the domain of another of my kind. You must depart now, Chosen. Your time, as mine, grows short."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Well. This entire operation grew more complicated by the hour, didn’t it? Kethyrian was not one to indulge overmuch in the deeply-rooted superstitions of her people, but her mother had been an ardent believer in the Lady, and perhaps something subconscious about the whole affair had stuck in her mind. Whatever the case, hearing what was at stake had made everything they were doing seem so much more… purposive. The favisae was quite sure she’d given up her personal ambitions a long time ago, and the promise of glory, of being a hero, didn’t entice her… much. It would certainly be nice to have something to throw in the faces of certain relatives, even if she never actually took the chance to do it.

Surprisingly more compelling was the entreaty to save Her. It was initially a strange and jarring concept, she decided, forking another bite of whatever the cook was serving into her mouth and chewing pensively. She was too absorbed in her thinking to really taste it, though as a rule, it wasn’t as bad as she’d expected of airship fare. The Lady was accorded such a level of reverence that it was hard to imagine anything being able to threaten Her, let alone to the point that She needed saving. The Guardian had spoken so casually, taking her existence as simple fact, no question about it. She might have been skeptical of that, but after what she’d seen, what she’d been shown, she wasn’t sure skepticism was the smart response here.

Was a fallible goddess still a goddess, or something else? Kethyrian frowned, the question making her discontent, partly because she didn’t know the answer, and partly because it was not the kind of thing that she really desired to be relevant to her life. Appealing or not, the notion of grand adventure and heroic action produced more disdain in her than anything. It wasn’t something she really wanted anything to do with… right?

Dio was not really interested in the rewards of heroic action, but rather the heroic action itself. The way she'd joined this group had been almost on a whim, as it had been an opportunity that had just seemingly randomly been presented to her, and she took it up because nothing else was required of her, and because it seemed like a worthy cause, saving the world and all that. But after venturing into the heart of the desert, and standing on a platform with her eight companions, where there had clearly been nine spaces laid out for them, she couldn't help but feel strangely right, sitting at the bow of the airship as she was. She was supposed to be here now, she didn't just want to be here now. She didn't particularly like the idea that her course had somehow already been set for her, but the Guardian implied that there were choices ahead. Whatever they were, Dio would strive to make sure she made the right ones. She wondered if she'd have to sway any of her companions on that front.

Her stomach rumbling reminded her of what she was supposed to be doing, and that was eating. The fight back down on the surface hadn't been the easiest she'd ever been through, and the use of her powers had left her a little drained. A hot meal would do her good, no doubt. To that end, she cheerily got up and made her way down to the mess hall, saying hello to a few of the crew as she passed. Most of them didn't say much back, but that was okay.

Dio had traded combat gear for loose fitting garb, and her sandals flapped against the soles of her feet as she strode into the mess hall. The hat she wore over her hair was a dark, royal purple, but the simple fashion in which it had been crocheted implied anything but royalty. She went and poured herself a bowl of beef stew before taking a look around and searching for somewhere to sit. A good meal was never eaten alone, and some of the best friends the thief had around the world were made over breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

She spied Kethyrian, the quiet Favisae woman, sitting all by her lonesome, seemingly deep in thought, and Dio certainly couldn't blame her, what with the revelations of the day. She was no follower of the Lady herself, though she was as close to that religion as any other. Spending a year underground, she had learned much about the Favisae people, and the idea that they were to save such a revered being was no doubt hard for her to wrap her head around. It occurred to Dio, as friendly as she was, that she might want to talk about it to someone, because talking about things that bothered her seemed to be a good way to figure out a way around them.

"It's good to be back in the air, don't you think?" she asked pleasantly, with a warm smile to match, as she took a seat across from Kethyrian. "I've never really been comfortable with the desert, even less so recently." That brought up that other thing Dio meant to ask her about. She'd been hoping the Favisae woman would explain how she knew about the Zar'Thrak saving her life, but so far she'd said nothing. She was certain she'd have remembered her if Kethyrian had been there. With that hair of hers...

Kethyrian looked up from her meal with the faintest hint of surprise upon being talked to. She’d rather thought she’d successfully convinced everyone but Vivian that she wasn’t at all pleasant to speak with, but… ah. The girl. That explained it. There were people in the world who could take hints, and there were those who could not. The question that remained was whether Dio was here because she could, and had picked up on the fact that they were previously acquainted (after a fashion), or because she couldn’t, and was like Vivian too energetic and friendly to care that Kethy would rather not partake in conversation.

“I would expect you are not,” she confirmed bluntly, then took another bite before continuing. “Nor am I. It is bright, it is dry, and it is hot. Caves are much the opposite.” And it was rather obvious that Kethyrian had been made for caves. Photosensitivity and skin that dried out in miserable heat were not a comfortable combination, and she had not been oblivious to the fact that she fared worse than most of them out there, going so far as to stand in Sven’s shadow in an attempt to stave off the worst of it. Something humiliating enough that she would not have normally contemplated it.

"On the bright side," Dio said, after taking a spoonful of soup, "I do believe it'll be much cooler where we're going. No sand at all." Leave it to Dio to find the bright side in that. They were likely to freeze their tails off at the Source of the World, she expected. Perhaps it would be a nice change of pace.

"I've actually been curious... how you knew me, and how you knew what I'd gone through," she said, preferring just to cut to it. She suspected that was how Kethyrian preferred to converse by now, judging by what she'd heard her say (or how little she'd heard her say) previously. She lowered her voice, as she did consider this somewhat a private matter. The Favisae were private people, and did not have all that much contact with the other species. The Zar'Thrak's choosing to not only save her life but allow her to stay for an entire year was not usual.

"The Zar'Thrak let me stay for a year after I woke," she said, scratching at the back of her neck. "I'm certain I would have at least met you in that time, and that I'd have remembered you. None of the others had hair like yours..." She spoke the last sentence more quietly than the others, as she had learned enough of the Favisae to know what Kethyrian being striped meant. Until she knew the woman's opinion on her own birth, she'd try to tread lightly around it.

There was a silence from the favisae for a while after that, the downturn of her mouth growing slightly more pronounced at the delicate mention of her rather obvious bastard status, but then she shrugged. “I’m the reason the Zar’Thrak were there in the first place,” she said, meeting the other woman’s eyes for the first time during the conversation. “As I am sure you learned, they are the most accomplished scouts among our people. An exit was required, one that led out into the desert. For you, it became an entrance.”

She had no intention of giving the reason the exit had been sought for her, but she figured that Dio had as much right to her own story as anyone else, and Kethyrian happened to have a part of it that the thief would not remember. “You were dehydrated and unconscious when they found you. Zar’Thraki scouts do not often travel with healers.” She raised a clawed hand, folding in every finger but the index, and used it to point to herself.

“They let me stick around long enough to make sure you didn’t die. After that, it was off to the surface for me. I expect they wanted to make sure you weren’t a spy before they released you, but a year is irregular, yes.” She shook her head dismissively. Whatever reasons they’d had were none of her concern, anyway.

So she saved her life? Dio probably should have been expecting that, considering that the woman was a skilled healer and all, but... this changed everything, didn't it? Didn't it? It seemed like it should. She truly remembered nothing of that day beyond a few hours of stumbling in the desert. Heatstroke and dehydration had taken care of the rest. She couldn't help but wonder why they had never told her of Kethyrian, but if she'd had to leave, it was probably for good reason.

"You saved my life," Dio said after swallowing, as though Kethyrian hadn't just made that obvious. "I-- thank you, you certainly didn't have to do that, you had no reason to trust me. I'll make this up to you. I don't know if anything I could do would be sufficient, but I will definitely try. I'm good at making hats, I suppose. If you want one, I could make one, it'll get cold up north, a hat would keep your ears warm..." She was rambling a bit, but it wasn't every day that someone saved her life out of the goodness of their hearts, and Dio did her best to reward goodness in hearts when she could.

Kethyrian blinked, fixing Dio with a flat golden stare. Cocking her head to one side, she scrutinized the younger woman, as though trying to figure something out. When she had concluded her examination, however, she shook her head. “That will not be necessary,” she said brusquely. The thief’s intentions seemed honest enough, but suspicion was not the reason she was refusing anything in return. “I do not accept payment for healing. Even what the guild pays me is for the other applications of my magic.” Namely, the ones that involved killing with it.

She wasn’t sure how best to explain that, or even if she should, but something told her that unless the reasons were sufficiently clear, Dio wouldn’t simply let the matter drop and abide by her wishes. Humans were like that, sometimes, unable to see the practical around their notions of things like reciprocity and honor. Useless, all of them, but then perhaps not fatally so in a society where excess was possible. So Kethyrian sighed through her nose and gave it her best shot. “Healing is done because it is necessary. Death is a waste, and favisae waste nothing. We cannot afford to kill even our criminals. These labor, or, if their crimes are grave enough, are sent away, for even then there is a chance that they might contribute something, somewhere. That I healed you was only proof that they are correct.” After all, if they’d killed her, Dio probably would have died as well, another waste that need not have been.

“Unless you would repay a fish for swimming or a river for flowing, do not repay me for healing. It is what I am, not what I do.”

"What's your favorite color, Kethyrian?" she asked, smiling expectantly.

The favisae’s lips compressed into a thin line. It would appear that she had been thoroughly ignored. This was a road she had tread many a time with Vivian, however, and she had learned that relenting was the best way to make it stop. “…purple,” she replied in a monotone. “But I swear before the Lady, if the hat has bells or puffy anything, I’ll undo everything I did to help you.”

"Oh, if only I had bells..." Dio sighed wistfully, before realizing something. "Oh! You know who would have bells? Gwen. I bet Gwen would give me some. You'd jingle with every step!" She looked to be struggling to keep a straight face, and soon failed altogether, snickering a little to herself. "I kid, I kid. How's this one?" she flicked her eyes up, to the hat currently on her head, of plain design and a rich, dark purple in color. "I could make one just like it for you. We could match. Think of it as a gift, not payment. I like giving gifts. I do it all the time."

Really, she understood where Kethyrian was coming from, and she wholly approved of the ideal. It was one of the things she'd found so compelling about the people, that they were willing to give even their criminals a chance to make use of themselves, to contribute in some way. If people weren't allowed to show the best in themselves, there really wasn't a point. And honestly, this had really become more just about her wanting to make a hat for someone than anything. She had dozens for herself already, and really hadn't had cause to make any more lately. But she'd really have to make a neat one with some of Gwen's accessories sometime...

Rolling her eyes, Kethyrian leaned forwards and propped her chin on the heel of a hand. “I doubt very much I could stop you,” she said bluntly, raising a snow colored brow. “So do what you like. The color is quite… satisfactory.” It was, actually, being rather a favorite shade of hers, right after the slightly lighter, redder amethyst. She doubted very much that yarn came in quite that color, besides. A thought struck her, then, and she almost smiled.

“I suggest, however, that if you ever make one for our resident scholar, you include holes for the antlers.” The mental image lit a spark of amusement somewhere behind her eyes, present enough to even be observable. It seemed she was feeling rather personable today, at least compared to her usual self. Dio laughed once, imagining how that would look. "I'll keep that in mind."

She found herself quite pleased with how that had gone. Great things were often begun over breakfast, lunch, and dinner indeed.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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It was surprising the amount of books the stringy changeling could carry when his mind was set to it. He had another stack up to his eyes, which he dumped on the desk in the study along with two other stacks of the same size. Loose leaf paper and quills were scattered across the desk as well like some sort of academic tornado blew through the room. In the middle of the desk sat the key he had recently been trusted with. The emerald still shone in the light, and it was almost as brilliant as the light that shone in his eyes. This... artifact was unlike anything he'd ever seen. The thing had to be ancient, almost as old as the planet itself if he had his guess about it. The mere prospect of holding a literal key to the past was thrilling.

Once he managed to hoard all the needed materials (and maybe some that weren't) he sat down at the desk, cracked the nearest book open and began to throw himself into his work. Now he was in his real element. He was not a warrior, nor was he much of an adventurer. He was a scholar at heart, and with a mountain of books around him he was in his natural habitat. Within moments, quill ink was flying as he made detailed notes on the key that sat in front of him. They mostly consisted of what it looked like, the shape, the heft, and even a couple of sketches occupied it. He'd made mention of taking it to Mordecai to get a better print of the key.

So involved in his work, he hardly noticed anything else in the room.

Dio loved a good book herself, but she was really more of an escapist than a historian. She was seated comfortable in the most inviting looking chair she could find, little bare feet propped up on one of the less inviting chairs, her sandals sitting unoccupied on the floor beneath her. She'd found one of her favorite romance novels here in the study, and had eagerly gotten back into it, having sadly little to occupy some of her days on the airship. Her happy ending hadn't worked out quite right just yet, but she knew how this one ended, so she was more than content to lose herself in it for a while.

She watched Percy with some amusement as he gathered everything he needed and set to work. The look in his eyes was really not all that different from the one she usually had when on a job, when she was right in the moment. She knew that was because these different things were their respective callings, what they loved to do most with their time. She certainly had nothing against a historian; in fact, they often went hand in hand with thieves and adventurers. Someone had to do the acquiring of the artifacts, after all, and though she didn't doubt Percy's capability, based on what she'd already seen, very few had the dexterity that she had honed.

But they already had their artifact this time, and now Percy needed to figure out what it would do, and how it was relevant to them, something which Dio was quite curious about, given that she had been officially inducted as one of the group selected by fate, on those nine circular plates. She flipped the book down on the chair in front of her and stood, padding along on quiet feet to where Percy was working. "Any luck with the research?" she asked in her friendly manner, eyes taking in the magnificent sight of the emerald key. She wondered how the Guardian had known which one of them to entrust it to... or maybe it had simply guessed.

The study’s third occupant was the automaton, who, at the encouragement of Mistress Gwendolyn, was spending his spare time around other members of the group when possible. She seemed to believe that he would have exposure to a wise range of human behavior this way, and so far, she was quite correct. For the most part, Master Percy and Mistress—well, just Dio—hadn’t really done much of anything except read, and so he had taken up the occupation as well. Actually, given the rate he was capable of scanning such information at, it was more like he picked up a new book every few minutes, memorized it, then spent another few minutes sorting and categorizing the data he came across for later re-access. It was slower than having such things directly uploaded into his memory, but he found it… enjoyable, as well, allowing his own mind to separate the pieces of information and see how and where they seemed to connect with other things that he knew.

He made an equal attempt at ‘reading’ fiction as well as informational texts, because the former seemed to be what Dio was doing, and the latter what occupied Master Percy. He was broken from his ruminations, however, by Dio’s voice, though her inquiry into the progress of the young mutatio’s research seemed to go unheard, and silence reigned for another few seconds. Seeing an opportunity to benefit a social situation, Mordecai approached the desk and mildly poked Percy in the shoulder, attempting to replicate with less… enthusiasm a mannerism of Gwendolyn’s that he’d seen her use with Sven, someone he had been assured met the requirements of friendship to her, making this what he would describe as a ‘friendly’ way of gaining attention.

“Master Percy,” he said, blinking when he remembered he should. “Dio indicated curiosity as to the state of your research. This unit echoes the sentiment and offers its assistance. It has information processing capabilities that may prove of aid to you.”

Percy was torn from his work as he stared at Mordecai for a second. It was difficult for him to shift the gears in his head so rapidly and by the time Percy managed to comprehend his words, he had already finished speaking. Like a deer in a spotlight, Percy first looked to Mordecai and then to Dio and back to Mordecai before trying to answer. "Uh..." He worked his mouth trying to find a satisfactory answer. He paused long enough to close his mouth and gather his thoughts from paper and put voice to it. "Well, it's old. As if that wasn't glaringly obvious. If I was to guess, it's probably as old as the Wellsprings." He said, setting the quill down and leaning back.

"It's also obvious that this goes into one of the keyholes in the door we saw under Deluge-- you.. weren't there for that, were you?" Percy asked rhetorically for Dio's sake. He was quiet for a moment before rifling through the stacks of papers and withdrew a blank page, where he hoved over for a moment with a quill before pausing again. He looked up at Mordecai and an idea came to him. He held out both quill and paper for the automaton. The construct surely had perfect memory, and could recreate the door far better than he could. "If you would be so kind as to draw the door for her? I'd also like to have one for my own notes," he explained before continuing.

He then picked up the key gingerly and held it for every one to see. "From the looks of it, it's just one big emerald. 'Course I've never seen an emerald in this form before. That being said, you can't even see the marks from where it was created. It looks like it was found like that. I might... Experiment on it, eventually," Percy said, setting it back down.

Mordecai took up the paper and writing implement and nodded, leaning over a small corner of the desk and studying the blank parchment for a moment as though trying to find something on it. The image of the door called up in his mind, he scaled it, fitted it to the dimensions he had available, then raised the quill. Every line was sure, and none superfluous, which was perhaps a good thing, considering that he had been given ink with which to accomplish the task and not charcoal. Unlike most artists, who started with basic shapes and then gradually filled in details, Mordecai’s work was detail-perfect from the start, and he simply moved himself back and forth across the parchment, filling perhaps a vertical inch with every pass.

Though his strokes were quick and certain, it still took time, as he was rendering it in realistic detail, occasionally using one of his fingers to smudge the ink for a shadow. Even the text above the frame was exact, and in perhaps some minutes, Mordecai straightened, placing the quill back into the inkwell and presenting the result to both Percy and Dio. “This is the door. The original text is Draconian, a dialect which is no longer spoken or taught outside of particularly-clandestine academic circles. This unit has a translation algorithm available for use.”

Dio had gone from being wholly absorbed by the sight of the key, to being wholly absorbed by watching Mordecai draw. She stood close beside him and watched him work, though not close enough to risk getting in his way. "Wow. Wish I could have seen that." Not that she wasn't doing something at the time she thought just as important, but still, it looked like quite the find. Though, he said under Deluge. Even being above Deluge wasn't a very nice place, so she imagined whatever lay beneath would probably have been gut-turning. The smell at the very least.

"So there must be more of these things to get, perhaps one at each of these sites these Guardians are sending us to. That would leave four more of them." She lost herself in the emerald again, before making a rather childish look of longing at Percy. "Can I hold it? Just for a moment?"

Again, Percy was hesitant, though this time more out of the fact that he was about to hand an insanely valuable artifact to a thief over some misunderstanding. It was finally when he decided she had nowhere to run aboard the airship and no place to pawn it off that he gingerly picked it up and held it out stretched for her to take. Perhaps he was being overly careful with it. Chances were, if the airship was to go down in flames, then the huge key shaped precious gem would be the one thing that would survive. It sure felt solid enough.

Seeing how carefully he offered it to her, she took it just as gently, as though it was some kind emerald baby, and indeed, she sort of cradled the thing in her arms, looking down on it with a half smile, blinking a few times. Her family's home in Xantus had a few artifacts worth a small fortune, but nothing like this, certainly. She supposed they wouldn't be interested in artifacts meant for saving the world, but giant green emeralds would certainly do the trick.

"This thing must weigh ten pounds," she speculated. "I wonder what all of the others are made of..." The possibilities were rather exciting, weren't they? Not that they could really do anything with them other than get an extremely cool collection going. "Want a turn?" she asked Mordecai, offering the key up to him.

Mordecai accepted the object, gauging the weight in one hand, then tapping it with a digit. “Nine point eight three six pounds,” he contributed mildly, “Though this unit believes the hardness of the object to be disproportionate to its material, perhaps as a side effect of the arcane nature of it. If it may offer advice, perhaps experimentation could be initiated now?” He was actually quite curious about the object, given to them by a being that he could not classify. It had called itself a ‘guardian,’ but what was it guarding? Just this object? If so, it had parted with its duty quite easily, all things considered. “It suspects the deck would be an optimal location, in case of error.”

Percy mulled the idea over in his mind for a bit before nodding. Just staring at it and taking notes would only get him so far. They needed physical research on the artifact, and he'd already jotted down the physical attributes of the thing-- scrawling the weight of the item at the top of his notes as Mordecai suggested experiments. Once his mind was made up, he flipped closed his journal and stoppered an inkwell. He slipped the quill over on of his ears and stood, motioning for Mordecai to lead the way. "Do you have any ideas on how to begin?" Percy asked, curious as to the Automaton's methods. He had his own methods of course, but a fresh mind-- even if it was artifical-- made this process all the more rewarding. He found himself more excited than he'd been in quite some time, perhaps the last time was on the last official job for the guild. He did love lecturing on the history of Albion, after all.

“This unit recommends exposing the object to a wide range of environmental stimuli and cataloging the results,” Mordecai replied simply, leading the way up to the deck. The library was large enough for a room in a ship, but there was much more room out here, and the crew knew quite well to give the guests a bit of berth, so they were also less likely to damage something with a misaimed spell or if the key reacted oddly to whatever they chose to do to it. Picking the location with the fewest and furthest other life-forms, the automaton ended up leading them to the stern of the ship, which happened to be a bit raised above the rest, and thus ideal for what they were attempting. As it happened, however, Lohengrin was nearby, and when he saw the small group with the key, he raised a brow and did not clear the stern deck, choosing to remain where he was and observe. This ought to be interesting. He wondered if they knew what they were doing.

Percy followed alongside the Automaton nodding his agreement, "My thoughts exactly. I was planning on testing the effects of my druidic magic on it first. Perhaps if the Guardian gave it to me to care for, I might hold something to reveal its secrets-- for there are secrets in it," Percy explained. There was nothing hard to explain this feeling, only the gut instinct of a scientist and researcher. Once on the deck, Mordecai led them to an open air, in which Percy sat down his journel and inkwell, taking a seat as well. He motioned for Mordecai to hand him the key, and he flipped open his notes.

With the key sitting in his lap, held both ends with his hands and concentrated. He didn't want to use to much magic and risk breaking it, but not too little and not produce a reaction. He needed to focus for this, and be as exact as he possibly could. A moment or two passed with nothing happening, before Percy's vines began to stretch out from under his sleeves, and wrap around the corners of the key. A faint green aura resonated around his hands, but the key stood resolute and refused to do anything but sit there. Percy noticed this, and eased his magic off, rescending the vines back into his sleeve. Once they were clear, he made note of the nonexistant effects in his journal, and handed the Key to Dio. "Perhaps lightning will produce a result?" he mused.

Dio took the key rather gingerly again and took a step back away from the others. "Okay..." she said, twisting her lips sideways and frowning at the key like it had given her directions she hadn't understood. She held it out firmly in both hands and let a small amount of lightning magic escape from her hands. She was horribly poor at containing her magic when she didn't have anything to channel it through, so a few arcs jumped around a little further than she would have liked, but that was why she'd stepped back in the first place. Apart from a few residual arcs of electricity that floated around the key shortly before dispersing, nothing really happened. She looked up at Percy, shrugging before she handed it back to him. "Sorry, nothing."

Ah, so they had no idea then. He probably should have expected as much—it was not as if these things came with user manuals or convenient instructions. Come to think of it, that might be what he was actually here for, since from here on out, the Guardians would probably tell them where they needed to go. There was one specific location that they’d need him to reach, but beyond that, he might as well have been a ton of bricks for all his utility.

This, though, this he might be able to help with. Unfortunately, just saying it produced an awkward, strangled sound that had him frowning and covering it with a cough, which should hopefully draw someone’s attention. “The key was given to the deer-boy,” he pointed out. “And a Guardian does nothing without a purpose. Perhaps he should retain possession of it during these experiments of yours?” It seemed that this was all he was allowed to give them, though, and he fell silent thereafter, returning his attention to the receding landscape.

"But..." Dio said, uncertainty in her tone, "I shouldn't shock it while Percy's holding it. I'll shock him, too." Obviously the idea of accidentally attacking her teammate wasn't one that sat well with her.

The mercenary’s eyes fell shut, and what might have been a sigh escaped somewhere into the wind. If she wasn’t going to do it, he was the only choice, since the machine couldn’t use magic as far as he was aware. He wondered if it would, even if it could. Pushing back from the rail, Lohengrin eyed the other two and shook his head. “I take it none of you ever learned the adage ‘no risk, no reward,’ then…” he muttered, more to himself than any of the three of them. Percy's eyes widened at the remark of risk versus reward. He'd heard the adage, of course, but certainly didn't like what it implied, and definitely not the spark glittering in Lohengrin's eyes. He absolutely didn't like where this was going. "Can... We talk about this first?"

He, on the other hand, had no reason to hesitate. An altruist he was not, and besides that, he knew exactly what the result of his actions was going to be. He supposed that was two advantages over the girl. Well, fine… if direct intervention was necessary, direct intervention it would be. Casually, he lit a cherry-red flame over the palm of one hand, and shot it directly for the key-holding Percy. “Risk..." Fortunately, the fact that the youth was holding it was sufficient for its activation, and the key produced a transparent bubble, akin to what a barrier spell looked like, and the flame washed over it harmlessly, dispersing. Lohengrin smiled wickedly, looking rather pleased with himself. “Reward. Now you know what it does."

Percy had thrown up his arms in anticipation of Lohengrin's spell, a layer of vines wrapping around his arms under his sleeves. Obviously, vines were no match for fire, and he waited for an intense burning sensation that never came. When he opened his eyes, he witnessed a barrier of some sort wrapping around him and all thoughts of his immediate danger evaporated. He watched as the bubble dissipated before throwing himself at his journal and quickly jotting something down. Lohengrin's attempt to immolate the boy forgotten in an instant, the mechanisms in the Changling's head whirring like never before. "Need to be in... Personal Danger.. For it to activate. I need to know how strong the barrier is. How long it can sustain itself. I need more experiments, I need more data. Mordecai," Percy said, tearing his head away from the journal, "We need to find out a way to test this without putting myself in immediate, or reduced risk." And just like that, Percy felt the intellectual surge once again.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Part Three: The Green Knight



As the Elysium approached the northern quarter of Albion, her captain elected to have the navigator plot a course that would swing them well away from any major population centers. The more of Artorias’s troops they could avoid, the better—but there was no mistake that venturing this far into civilized territory was dangerous, no matter what precautions were in place.

As if to emphasize this point, it was late one night when the emergency alert systems aboard the ship began to blare a signal—all hands on deck. An Imperial cruiser had been sighted, and unfortunately, it looked like the Elysium had not gone unnoticed, either. Though Gwen had considered flying the parley flag and trying to talk her way out of the situation, the resounding boom of cannon-fire ended all such inclinations on her part, especially when the cannonball itself smashed into the hull of her precious ship, causing it to tremble and crack as some of the reinforced boards it was made of splintered. It was a glancing blow at best, but nobody messed with her baby and got away with it. Not even Artorias.

Lohengrin was awoken rudely by the clarion call of alarms, a rather grating sound that managed to serve its purpose quite well: he was awake and armed within moments. While he wouldn’t normally have considered a shirt a very important item to have at such a point, he did have a rather telltale line of red scales along his spine, and so he threw one on anyway, grabbing his sword and running to the deck, bare feet slapping noisily on the wooden stairs up from the crew quarters. Throwing open the door, he emerged to a star-spattered sky and a lot of halogen lights, illuminating the deck for those on it, which at this point, appeared to be slightly more than half the crew.

He’d expected complete chaos, but the crew were moving about efficiently, shouting commands or requests when necessary but otherwise remaining quiet. The rhythmic pounding of feet over planks was the loudest thing—well, that and the roar of the other ship’s engine, which could be heard from over here. Were they that close? He’d have expected the captain to be in the cockpit, but she was at the prow instead, staring straight ahead with a hard look to her eye that he recognized, but would not have expected to see from her. Her rifle was slung across her thin shoulder, her mouth tugged down into a scowl that probably would have done Sven proud. She was studying something in the distance, and part of him wasn’t sure he wanted to interrupt that, but in the end he did anyway.

“What are we dealing with?” he asked, his profession for once obvious in his demeanor. The breeze of their passage played with her hair, his shirt, and he realized it was actually getting a bit cold. Fuck, he hated the cold. But neither of them commented on it, and he peered into the darkness, trying to discern anything useful of that shape he could make out ahead.

“Imperial cruiser, Class A, from the hull design and that awful engine. A war machine. We could outrun her, but she’d probably cripple our engines, and where we’re going, they aren’t allowed to follow.” It was far too soon to let anyone get an inkling of what they were doing. The mission was still in its early stages, and the team far from stable. Gwen knew this the same way she knew many things she’d never say—from observations she pretended not to make.

Lohengrin’s brows drew together. He didn’t know much about airships, but he knew enough. “We’re outgunned,” he contributed flatly. Class A ships were the biggest, baddest things in Artorias’s impressive arsenal, and while slow, they would have enough ammo to hit the Elysium somewhere important before she could get clear. The angle was wrong for an escape.

Gwendolyn smiled then, a predatory flash of teeth. “Doesn’t matter,” she said with a shake of her head. “Because we’re going to board her.”

Sleep deprived or not, the alarms did their job of waking Percy up. Face first on the desk he had repurposed for himself, the vicious sirens assaulted him, throwing him to the floor with a start. Taking a moment to realize what exactly was going on, he looked up to the flashing light and tilted his head curiously. Whatever it mean, it was obviously not good. Percy made his way back to his feet, pulling the paper that was still adhered to his forehead and slamming it on the desk. Maybe the cervine was a little cranky, but considering the lack of sleep and a rude awakening maybe it could be excused. Checking the key to make sure he didn't throw it on the floor in his fit, he grabbed his staff by the door and made his way to the upper deck.

The glancing blow made Percy stumble on his ascent up the stairs, but he recovered quite nicely and pushed ahead to the deck. It was eerily quiet. Sure, effort noises and the banging of machinery was still present, but every breath had a purpose and was not wasted. There were no shanties to keep the graveyard crew awake for now. One of the crew pointed Percy in the right direction, toward Gwen. Lohengrin seemed to have been the first to arrive, and Percy didn't seem to be that far behind him, catching most of their conversation.

He stood by the railing on the other side of Lohengrin, staff planted firmly in the boards at his feet leaving him staring sagely in the open skies. Sagely or not, Gwen's response forced Percy's head against his staff. "Of course we are..." Most of the enthusiam in his voice had been sucked out long ago. It was unlikely it was a joke, so Percy closed his eyes and began to concentrate. There were no antlions in the sky, after all. He needed to know what kind of aid he could expect.

"Damn right we are!" Came the perky voice somewhere to their right. Admist the nearby netting stood Vivi, face positively alight with anticipation. She hung dangerously over the prow with one hand holding onto the netting, the other carrying her naked sword. She itched for a fight and wished that she could jump onto the ship from there. Unfortunately, she'd have to wait a couple of minutes for them to get closer. But that was fine. She'd spend those minutes savoring the moment they board an Imperial ship.

Mordecai was not a being that had a need for sleep, but sometimes, when there was nothing else to do and the seldom-restful captain was busy, he would power most of his systems down for a little while. Everyone else slept at night, anyway, and though he still enjoyed lending a hand with the operations of the ship, he did not desire to do so all the time. Occasionally, a lack of activity was not such a bad thing. It was in this half-aware state that he was instantly roused by the sound of alarms, the tones leading him to believe that it was a call for all hands. As a being with hands, it seemed only appropriate that he answer it.

In the hallway of the crew quarters, he stepped aside so as not to accidentally run into Mistress Kethyrian, who was looking somewhat upset, her hair unbound and askew, who was just belting her knife into place at her waist. “Mordecai,” she said, voice still a bit sleep-dampened, and he returned the greeting politely. Together, they advanced up the stairs, Kethyrian blinking against the harsh lights on the deck. She’d see better against pure darkness than this, but not everyone grew up in a cave, and she couldn’t really be too upset about that.

It was easy enough for the both of them to locate their allies, and though the healer knew naught of airships, the automaton seemed interested in the specifications. They approached, both looking out over the prow at the oncoming ship. Kethy could make out figures dressed on the deck, and they appeared to be dressed in green uniforms. “Vipers?” she demanded of nobody in particular, clearly irritated. “I thought those were infantry units?” Gritting her teeth, she shook her head; it probably didn’t matter. The fact that they were boarding proved in and of itself why infantry units could be useful on a ship, she supposed.

“This unit detects cannons on the deck being loaded,” Mordecai informed them tranquilly, and Kethyrian swore under her breath in her birth tongue. They seemed to be getting closer to this other ship, which seemed like the opposite of a good idea if the lizard was right about them being outgunned. Then again… what else could they do but get in close and try to punch through the soldiers actually manning the cannons? She still sympathized with the scholar the most.

Theon found the last of the caravan's guards coughing up blood on the side of the road, coming out in red rivulets to run down his cheek and onto his neck. He'd been hit low, judging by the steadily blooming red splotch on his shirt. "Grayson, your pistol," Theon commanded, pulling his hood back and his mask down from his face. They were near the rolling dunes of the true desert now, and likely wouldn't want to go much farther north after this. It would be slim pickings up that way anyway. They cut back east, dipping south enough to avoid the majority of the orcish warbands. They could stop in Deluge and sell of their loot. The men could fuck all the whores they wanted, piss away their hard earned cash, and come begging to him to deliver them more. Maybe he'd indulge them.

A tall, lanky man handed Theon his pistol, for which the scryer did not thank him. It was expected of lessers to follow the order of their betters. He thanked them went they went out of their way for him, not before. Theon liked Grayson's pistol the most, apart from his duckfoot. The barrel was longer than most, and it fired a large shot, typically used for rifles. While the duckfoot was certainly overkill to use on one unarmed, dying man, this pistol was only slight overkill. Theon knelt down in front of the guard, wondering how much he'd been hired for. Too little, whatever it was.

"You don't have to kill me," he said, pleading with his eyes as Theon pushed the barrel up under his chin. "Just take the valuables and go. Please, I have a--" A loud bang rang out, and the shot exploded out the top of the man's skull, silencing him. "Don't tell me what to do," Theon grumbled, standing and flipping around the still smoking pistol to hand back to Grayson. "Take everything you can carry," he told his men. "We're headed back to Deluge, to see what this buys us." A cheer went up from his band of highwaymen, but it was immediately followed by a shot from a cannon, the ball landing with a heavy thud against a small dune of sand. None of the men seemed to notice it at all, which made Theon frown. He only noticed it because it had never happened in this dream before. This dream was supposed to be almost over. He walked over to inspect it, kneeling down. When he lowered his head to it, he noticed a slight hissing sound.

He hadn't taken two steps away from it by the time it exploded.


Theon woke to the sound of sirens blaring, and he cursed loudly at them. When he heard the booming in the distance beyond the walls of his quarters, however, he knew that his dream had been trying to tell him something. He threw himself back down on the bed, trying to make himself as small as possible. The cannonball exploded through one wall and out the other, the force of it passing enough to throw his bed on its side, taking Theon down to the floor with it. Thanking his dream, he scrambled into his armor and geared up, wondering why these assholes always attacked at night.

He didn't even know who they were yet, but the cannon fire told him something. He was wary enough about flying on this thing, getting into a battle with another wasn't exactly on his to-do list. Nevertheless, he made his way up to the deck, where he found Dio climbing up into the rigging to get a better look at the enemy. Gwen and the others were gathered at the prow, and Theon got his first look at the warship poking holes in them, just in time to hear the captain say they were going to board them. "How does that work? We're not just going to... jump onto it, are we?"

Gwen laughed, a sound altogether too cheery for the situation they were in, but anything about her that might have been soft was gone now. “Not quite,” she replied with a grin over her shoulder, but then she lowered her rifle from its spot at her shoulder and strode through a gap in the group to the edge of the upper deck. Her next words were shouted for all to hear.

“Listen up, lovelies! That’s a class A we’re looking at, which means the king in all his splendiferous glory has decided to pay attention to little old us!” There was a general chorus of disgruntlement to meet this statement, but it died off quickly. “That big ugly cow of a warship and her crew,”— she thrust her metal hand in the general direction of the vessel and people in question— “Think they can just fly over here, mess with our favorite lady and us, and get away with that! If the king wants a show, we’re going to give him a show!” Maybe the righteous indignation was a little much, but she was in a bad mood and she was going to roll with it.

The cheering was worth it. Damn, she loved these people. Half of them were almost as crazy as she was, and the others were just bloody loyal, and both of these things were completely okay with her. They didn’t look like much, but these were her people, and dammit all if they were going to lose to a bunch of poncy Vipers with some fancy cannons. “So get to work! Sprocket, you’re in charge of the bombardment line—set up the catapults. Ducky, bring the torches from below—I want two people to each catapult, and another two on all the starboard cannons. This is gonna get nice and ugly before we’re done. Maul, Buddy, Ragdoll, and Babyface, you’re with me!”

She turned to the more or less assembled members of Avalon’s Dawn, setting her hands on her hips. “And so are you lot.” Grinning, she waved up at Dio so the woman would know to come down and join them. Once everyone was in a group, she spoke quickly. “Soon as I give the order, Froggy’s gonna fly us in close, then a couple of the bigger guys are going to lay planks between the Elysium and the cow. Heavies first, rangers behind. If you’re more comfortable shooting things from in-between two of my cannons, do that, but don’t get in the way of reloading, please. There will be two planks, so that means two groups. I’m gonna be at the fore, and Sunshine’s in charge of the one downship. I’ll let you sort yourselves out, but try to be smart about it, mmkay?” A pause. “We accept surrenders here, but not before we knock 'em cold so they can't get us in the back. Don't kill anyone who isn't a soldier, please-- someone's gotta get the cow outta the sky when we're done. Artorias is going to get himself a nice message out of this."




In short order, the groups had taken their places, and though the crew worked fervently around them, they were for the most part, still. The approach had been steady, but, seeing that everyone was lined up where they should be, Gwen raised her rifle, bracing the butt against her shoulder, and lowered her goggles onto her face. Everything was filtered orange now, but it was much easier to see, and she picked her target with care, exhaling and holding her breath as she squeezed the trigger of the gun. It went off with a riotous boom that cut over the drone of the opposing engine, and a sailor on the other deck dropped, clutching a wound in her shoulder. That should put that particular cannon out of commission for a little while, but more importantly, it acted as a signal to Gorlak, currently engaged in the tricky business of piloting the Elysium up alongside the cow.

With the sound of the shot, the speed suddenly increased, smoothly enough so as not to jar any of those working, and they were approaching rapidly. Gwen stood back to allow Tiny and Kerosine, two of the bulkier members of her crew, to ready the boarding planks, knowing that Grizzly and Mouse were doing the same on Sunshine’s end of things.

The plan, such as it was, was relatively simple. She and her team would clear the upper deck and make a rather large distraction while Sven and his ran for belowdecks, where they would need to work as fast as possible to take out the line of cannoneers manning the bigger guns that were just now emerging from sliding wooden panels in the side of the cow. At such close range, they wouldn’t do much to her baby, but there was still a chance that a lucky shot or two could hit something important, and she didn’t want that.

Smooth as butter, the Elysium drew parallel to the cow, and the boarding planks were down before the other fools could even load their guns. Sprocket’s raspy, but feminine voice, called for the first round of catapult fire, and it was quick in coming—the arms launched large skins filled with a gooey, tarlike substance that would seriously hamper the movement of and over anything it hit. She’d already told the guild members not to step in it if they could avoid doing so. Gwen didn’t have time to make sure they heeded her though—she was already reloading, letting Gadget, Daisy, and Rosy head into the fray before her, as all of them were more disposed to getting up-close and personal than she was.

Mordecai was the first across on his end, deciding that “provide a distraction” translated in his terms to “throw lots of things and people around to draw attention to yourself.” This was, therefore, his plan, insofar as he chose one. For the moment, he held off on activating one of his combat modes, as he was unsure which would be more needed, and switching between them was quite difficult at the best of times. So as soon as he’d spotted the first wave of assailants making for himself and the others, he half-shrugged, and allowed one of them, clearly mistaking him for human, to approach, then stepped into the man’s guard and picked him up, by the bicep and then one of his legs, pivoted around a few times for momentum, and then effortlessly launched him into a knot of his comrades, taking them all to the deck.

It had certainly succeeded in drawing attention.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Kethyrian was not exactly pleased about being on the same squad as the lizard, but she would cope, she supposed. She didn’t mind Sven, and though Dio was far too… something, she was also tolerable, and all they really had to do was fight, anyway. Their job was to find some stairs as quickly as possible, apparently to make sure that their floating hunk of wood and steel did not become a falling hunk of wood and steel. Well, that was probably for the best. As the ship swooped in and the two enormous humans (not quite the size of Sven, perhaps, but close enough to her), lowered a broad piece of wood that was to serve as a bridge between ships, Kethyrian drew her dagger, rising onto the balls of her feet and dipping into the magic that rested with the ease of a calm body of water beneath her skin. She need only shape it with the vessel of her will.

For now, she did not, simply maintaining the connection for the sake of ease later. It was also, she would never admit, a measure of comfort. Her eyes were perfectly adapted for the dark, so the nighttime conditions did not bother her. For once, she could actually see better than the people around her, unlike when she was usually half-blind in the harsh glare of the suns. This, she found quite satisfactory.

The favisae followed Sven across the gangplank, dipping into the line by cutting off the lizard’s path, fleet and entirely balanced over the suspended board. They were met almost immediately by a complement of ten soldiers, men and women of varying ages but uniform humanity. She wondered if humans ever noticed things like that. She hadn’t, really, living among her own people, but here on the surface, such things were far more obvious. Picking the opposite direction from Sven, Kethy launched a shield, knocking about four of them to the ground, then darted aside so that Dio and the lizard could hit with whatever they had. One man engaged her, swinging a curved saber something like Vivian’s, but Kethyrian parried with her poniard, ducking quickly to the side and laying a hand on his unprotected face. The magic came as easily as it always had, and he dropped heavily, slave to the whims of gravity.

Gwen's warning not to kill anyone that wasn't a soldier went wasted on Dio, as she wasn't planning on killing anyone at all. The others would kill people, no doubt, some or most of them, but Dio would always seek to avoid it, soldiers or no. These were the king's men, meaning their efforts had apparently drawn quite a bit of attention. She supposed that meant they were making a difference, but if it was going to continuously force them into battles like this, it was bad news. Dio wasn't exactly the best choice in an all out battle between crews, after all. She'd take down a few of them easily enough, but it was more than a little tiring, and she was better at running, climbing and hiding than she was at fighting. Maybe there would be some way for her to be more useful here.

To start, they needed to find stairs to take them down to the lower levels, so they could avoid having holes punched in the side of their ship. She didn't know just how good their armor was, but big ships belonging to the king would have really big cannons, and they weren't shooting spitballs, as much as Dio wished otherwise. The thought actually gave her an idea. She could make them shoot spitballs of a sort, except of the variety that knocked out their own men. It would... probably put a strain on her limits, but the idea of knocking out an entire floor of enemy soldiers without killing any of them was too tempting to ignore.

The others were more than capable of engaging the soldiers who presented themselves to the group on the upper deck, so Dio darted off to the side as soon as she was able to, climbing up this ship's rigging to get a height advantage. She used this to make an impressive leap over their heads and behind them. The next soldier attempting to make a strike at Kethyrian got a blast of electricity in the back from her pistol, but Dio was sure to keep her distance as best she could from the actual fighting, knowing she'd need most of her strength for what she had planned. The stairs were just out of sight around the nearest corner, and she could hear the crews loading the first round of shots at the Elysium, no doubt almost ready. "The stairs are right here!" she called, when the others were able to move on. "Sven, I'll need your help with something. We need to secure one of the cannons below, and turn it on the soldiers, but leave it unloaded. I've got an idea." She'd never be able to turn one of those cannons on her own. Sven was undoubtedly the best choice for a task like that. Of course, they'd have to take care of one of the crews first. Quietly, if possible. She didn't want to be rushed by everyone down there.

Lohengrin snorted when the elf cut in front of him, but he wasn’t going to get miffed about it. Her petty vengeance, if indeed that was the intention, amused him greatly. Instead, he willingly filed in behind her, slicing deep into the throat of one of those she felled with her barrier-magic. The ribbons of red spilled out onto the deck, staining it darker than it was, but he had no time for the poetry of death. There were still too many enemies alive for his taste. The thief had already located the stairs, and he started to back slowly in that direction, still fending off and delivering hits as he was able, but he and Kethyrian and the chirpy one’s crewmen were about to take a lot more heat since the big guy was being called off already for some plan the girl had hatched.

He hoped it was worth it, because missing two of their little party already left them even more outnumbered than they had been to start with. Two came for him at once, the left one slashing with a broad-bladed scimitar, which he parried with enough strength to send the other blade flying. Doing so sent him a bit off-balance, however, and he was not able to take full advantage of that. Still, even as his sword dragged a line into the wood of the deck, his free hand lit up with red fire, and the ball of it smote the fighter on the right, who was trying to capitalize on his awkward position by smashing her mace into his side. That hit, he took, but not as brutally as he would have, and though he felt the splinter and crack of a rib, it wasn’t broken all the way through, he didn’t think.

The man with the scimitar came back in for a second try, and this time, Lohengrin was better, blocking with the right about of force and snaking his bastardsword around to skewer the fellow in the center of his chest, the bloodied end emerging six inches or so out the other side. It wasn’t the most elegant of kills, but it did the job, and that was two more down, at least.

The Lieutenant was not acclimatized to darkness, though there was an unusual sheen to his eyes, glimmering slightly whenever lantern-lights swayed in their direction. He made a harrumphing sound in the back of his throat, patiently waiting for the gangplank to be put into place. He knew what he had to do, and would carry it out cleanly—less from necessity or habits, and more because of Gwendolyn's precise orders. None, save for the soldiers, would die by his hand. He only had to trust that Kethyrian and Lohengrin would do the same, for he did not doubt that Dio's morals had remained unchanged since meeting her in that underground dungeon. First into battle, and first to touch feet onto the second ship, the Lieutenant stepped off the gangplank and briskly swung his right fist into an oncoming soldier's gawking face. Young man of tender age, eyebrows knit, mouth twisted, willing to confront the largest foe; formidable, but stupid. He was the first to keel backwards, unconscious. Sven shook out his meaty-hand, eyeing his companions as they engaged with their own enemies.

He may have been like that, once. Reckless, courageous, fool-hardy enough not to think about who he was fighting. Where they were from, or why, exactly, they fought. It hadn't mattered back then, and it certainly didn't matter now. The Lieutenant moved through the ranks with experienced grace, blocking with a mechanical, hissing limb and switching around to snap the butt of his shotgun into vulnerable places. Things needed to happen quickly before more damage was done to the ship. The cannons needed to be taken care of; disabled or destroyed. While the Lieutenant may have thought of a more inordinate approach, he hadn't noticed Dio darting off by herself. He could see the stairway in the distance, past the soldiers bobbing heads. Steam whirred from his joints as he spun on his heels, hurtling his forearm like a steel crowbar, and catching an older man straight in the chest—which sent him tumbling backwards into three others, who desperately tried to disentangle themselves from the mess.

The shotgun spun in his grip, finally straightening so the threatening bit pointed towards the group of soldiers, clambering over themselves to get out of the way, fumbling with swords and pistols—but they weren't quick enough and he pulled the trigger, plugging several of them with scattered buckshot. By the sounds of it, a couple of them were not entirely dead. Crushed under the weight of their fellows and yowling in pain. Probably clutching their wounded parts, but Sven hadn't had the chance to finish them off because Dio was calling his name. He took a step back and motioned towards Lohengrin, flashing a sign that might have meant keep them off of us. There was no doubt that Lohengrin's brutality, and sheer stubbornness, would keep him alive and well. Too stubborn to die, he was. Not by the likes of these men, anyway. Kethyrian, too, would hold her ground until it was forcefully pulled out beneath her. He did not doubt them.

Like the great bear he wished he was, Sven bullied himself closer to the stairs, shouldering soldiers aside and utilizing his mechanical limbs to savagely beat them away, occasionally turning his forearm over to block incoming blades. They clattered against it uselessly, and were forced backwards when Sven continued plowing towards them. The other soldiers seemed to turn on the other two still remaining on the deck. Soon enough, the Lieutenant reached the stairway, and Dio, before inclining his head. “Is good. Tell me what is to be doing.”

"Follow me, and let me go first." Sven was perhaps the least ideal choice for a sneak attack, but she would need him afterwards. The two of them started down the stairs to the lower level. Upon reaching it, Dio poked her head out, glancing around. They were at the far end of a row of cannon crews, working quickly to put holes in Gwen's ship. That wouldn't do, but they need not kill them all, or even kill any of them, if Dio could pull this off. She had to time this right...

Watching one of the cannons nearby, she leveled her pistol at the back of one of the crewmen manning the nearest gun, the one at the end of the line. In unison with the boom of the other cannon she fired a burst of electricity into the soldier's back, taking him down. She immediately darted out and gave the next a smack to the back of the skull as hard as she could, knocking him unconscious. The third had turned to face her, but there wasn't time for him to draw a weapon before Dio bonked him on the head with the dulled blade, the following shock of combat magic coursing through his system and bringing him to the ground.

"Quickly now, turn it on the crew," she said, helping Sven push, though she didn't think she helped that much. She hadn't seen the cannon loaded, so they didn't have to worry about that. All that was left to do was fire the thing. By her logic, she should be able to use the cannon as a conduit for her magic much like she used her pistol or her sword. On her own, it would be unfocused and likely ineffective, but with a tool like this to harness it for her, she would be capable of much more. "Stand back," she warned, crouching down and laying both arms across the cold barrel of the massive gun. Just as the others began to notice and turn on them, she fired.

With a boom as loud as a bolt of lightning cracking down right in front of the them the cannon fired magical energy, in the form of a cannonball sized sphere of combat magic, arcs of electricity raking through the entire room and hitting every soldier in front of them as it went. The magic was contained to this room, so the others topside or on their own ship would not be in danger, but everyone in this room was instantly taken to the ground, unconscious. The ball exploded on the far wall, give the people down there an extra zap, but after that, it grew quiet.

Dio had been able to watch it all before she grew immediately woozy. Upon trying to stand, she instead slumped heavily into Sven, her eyelids drooping down. "I... I got 'em, Sv... Sve..." But the sentence wouldn't be completed, as she passed out entirely, slumbering rather peacefully against the big man's chest.

That woman was insane, bounding ahead just so she could take out the buccaneers and soldiers in a manner that was a little less violent. Or at least, not fatal and permanent. Either way, Dio managed to knock out every man burgeoning around the now unmanned cannon before Sven even touched foot to the lower level. He could only shake his head. Agility, and a well-thought out plan, did indeed go a long way. Percy would have been proud to witness the feat—wisdom over strength, he'd said. Thankfully, he'd managed to remain relatively quiet, dogging her steps like a great mountain. The steam hissing from his mechanical limbs were receptive enough, obediently clamping down on their usual ruckus. He was close on her heels, stepping around the unconscious heaps.

But, he still wasn't entirely sure what Dio was planning until she motioned towards the cannon, throwing her shoulder into it. It hadn't been loaded from what he'd seen, either. Why did she want to use it? Eyebrows drew together briefly, before his expression smoothed out. No point arguing because the massive weapon wasn't budging. The Lieutenant instinctively grappled with its metal belly, heaving his weight into it and pushing until it pointed out across the deck. Soldiers still scuffled about, shouting to one another. Once it settled, Sven was advised to step back a few paces, which he obligingly carried out. He watched as Dio placed her hands down the barrel, readying herself for some sort of... he couldn't quite figure it out, until the thundering boom rattled through his steel legs. The hair on the nape of his neck stood on end. Electricity crackled around them, surging through the air and somehow creating a large ball of matter, knocking over soldiers like living-dominoes, before finally shattering on the wall.

His mouth worked for a response. After all he'd seen in his service, in the military and on Gwendolyn's crew, the Lieutenant shouldn't have been so surprised, but he swore up and down, in German, that everyone on the crew had an affinity for a carnal, magical element. Lightning surges, fiery fireballs, and the like. Antlers, not included. He was about to comment on her brilliant strategy when he felt something bump into his chest. His arms automatically snapped outwards, settling around the mumbling woman with a hiss—completely spent from her wild idea. He laughed, loudly. Had it been anyone else, he might have swung them over his shoulder and carried them like a wayward sack of potatoes. Instead, Sven simply drew her up in his arms, as if he were holding a child and carefully steered them back towards the upper decks.

“Ja, ja. You did good, fraulein.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Gwen had deemed it safer to make only necessary repairs as they were traveling—landing anywhere this far north was just too damn dangerous for the moment, and they couldn’t afford to be spotted again, perhaps by larger numbers of warships. So they bypassed the forest-line of the hemisphere, everything under them turning green for at least a day before they had to land. Beyond this point, the forest grew so thick and dense that there would be nowhere to put the ship, and the rest of the trek would be the journey of a couple of days on foot. To this end, everyone had been advised to pack what they’d need, and she’d ask-forced Gadget to be burdened down with the rest—food, cookware, spare weapons, and the like. She felt kind of bad about making him the glorified packhorse of the group, but despite her flighty mannerisms, Gwen was at heart a practical woman, and he would not suffer to carry what other people could not.

The Guild in its entirety disembarked from the ship in a large clearing. The grass was vaguely wet, some combination of residual morning dew and perhaps rain from yesterday. It would rain today, too—Lohengrin could smell it on the air, though when he looked up into the circle of sky outlined by the canopies of the trees, there was not yet a cloud to be seen. Perhaps the trees would be dense enough to shield them from the worst of it—he was not at his best when wet and cold, and he grumbled slightly to himself when the chill in the air pricked his human skin with gooseflesh. Ratcheting his internal temperature up a few degrees, he resolved to ignore it as best he could. It wasn’t like he had much of a choice but to take this damned two-day hike, and more’s the pity for the fact that he had to take it with company.

The captain, adjusting the straps on the pack that held her supplies, swung the thing over her back and grimaced a bit at the weight. It wasn’t that she had that much stuff, really, but… it was better to bring too much and not need all of it than forget something vital. She wouldn’t make anyone carry her things, though—Gadget had enough on his hands with the general supplies, and she had a little too much pride to ask anyone else, like Sven. He’d do it, for her, like he’d always done anything she needed and quite a few things she hadn’t, but she didn’t want him to. She was captain now, like Daddy had been, and that meant shouldering her own burdens without complaint, and making room for anyone else’s, too. “All right, everyone; let’s get a move on while the day’s still young, hm?”

The Lieutenant welcomed the change in temperature. It was cool enough not to wear excessively-bulky outfits, and still warm enough that his mechanical joints didn't seize up like an old woman with rickety, arthritis-riddled bones, notwithstanding the occasional puffs of steam hissing from them each time he took a step. He burdened a slightly larger backpack, filled to the brim with essentials and nonessentials—things that they might have wanted, but were too stingy to pack for fear of travelling long distances and fatiguing themselves. Secreting away luxuries would keep their morals from plummeting too low, and he did not mind the extra labour. Gruntwork and drudgery kept his mind free from troublesome thoughts, chased them neatly away with the growing beads of sweat fringing his hairline. He followed along near the rear, silent as ever, but still keeping a watchful eye. Theon's warning had bothered him enough to warrant extra caution. He didn't like being surprised.

Kethyrian was a bit cold, but she was also not as badly-off as she thought she’d be, perhaps partially due to the dark purple hat covering the ends of her sensitive ears, wool and perhaps a bit ridiculous, but then, with enough haughtiness, one could learn to wear anything like a crown, and her consummate dignity did not quite allow her to look like anyone that somebody could safely laugh at. The ponytail had been taken down into a braid, and she’d fashioned it so that the white bits were only traces, and what mostly showed was black. She’d learned to do that, once—it had been the only way she felt comfortable wearing it. Not that she hadn’t contemplated dyeing it or chopping it all off, but what would the use have been? She’d still have known. Everyone would still have known. This was better, though she couldn’t say exactly how.

Her own pack was light—her people were at their very core survivors, and she no less than any caveborn. She never needed much, never would need much—and the excess of indulgence was not the poison by which she would die. Her feet were tucked into leather boots with a thick wool lining, waterproofed by a spot of alteration magic not her own. Into them, she’d tucked her masculine breeches, though her white shirt draped loosely, halfway down her thighs. She was not, thankfully, a vain woman—it might have been the only subspecies of pride that she did not possess in great spades. She lingered in the back of the group, near Sven, though she did not need his shadow this time. The light was not so bright here, and under the verdant canopies of the forest, it would be even less. She wondered if this place should spark some ancestral memory, of what her people had once been. The Inflectori supposedly had an affinity for forests, but she felt none. She could doubtless climb a tree as well as a cave wall, but the smell of leaves and dark earth did not feel like coming home.

Nothing ever would, again.

Some distance in front of her, Mordecai looked the same as ever, perfectly content with the extra supplies slung over his shoulders and affixed to his back with a system of leather straps and metal buckles. He was dressed just the same as ever—though in some aesthetic sense, had dressed for the environment, primarily in dark green and brown. It was an odd contrast with his native coloration, which was much more slanted towards the urban—black, white, red, yellow. He was obviously out-of-place, but gave no evidence of being aware of this. Though it made sense for Gwendolyn or perhaps Theon to lead, he stayed towards the front as well, calculating that any potential threat was more likely to be encountered in this direction than from behind. At the captain’s word, he set off, trailing behind her a bit like a puppy loath to leave its mother—and perhaps of everyone present, Gwen reminded him most of Morgause. Not that he thought her similarly unstable, but her odd mannerisms and cheerful, open demeanor were reminiscent of the first few years of his life, and he sought that out without quite understanding why.

Even one of her hats couldn't quite make Kethyrian look friendly. Dio was a little disappointed in herself. Maybe from behind... no, she still didn't seem particularly approachable. But it certainly helped. Dio was of course wearing one of her own, this time a light yellow wool with baby blue zig-zagged stripes stitched in a ring around the edge. They were some way from Xantus, here, but the weather was still much more familiar to her than anything near the desert or the deep south would ever be. It was the first time she'd come back to the north since her exile and supposed death. She couldn't help but wonder how much longer she could go on before her family realized she was still kicking. Knowing them, they already knew.

Theon was up near the lead, pretending like he knew where to go. His dreams were never so kind as to give him an exact location and show him where it was on a map, but people didn't need to know that. They were headed towards a big lake with water clear enough to see to the bottom of, and singing merpeople swimming around below. He assumed once they started hearing the voices, they'd all know where to go. Apparently that was supposed to be a few days from now. He'd done his fair share of walking and hiking with his bandits, so this would be no great challenge. Avoiding speaking with any of the others might be slightly more difficult. He was still in a foul mood from the air battle earlier.

He'd nearly forgotten that he was only a man with a loud gun and an inability to get a good night's sleep. It was annoying to be reminded.

Trotting alongside the party, weaving in and out of the trees, was Percy. He walked among the foliage and greenery, undeterred by the moist groud or chilly air like he was born in the forest. He might as well have been, as comfortable as he was among the trees and grass. He now sported a ten point rack of antlers, a chestnut colored coat and big wide brown eyes. What was off about Percy in his fullshift form however, were the-- well, mildly put, saddlebags weighing down on his shoulders. Provisions, a book or two, the key, and a number of other items, essential or not, ladened him down, but it didn't bother him one bit. Ironically, out of the entire party, the bookish kid was best suited for the two day hike-- if he was by himself it wouldn't have even taken that long for him.

Vivi on the other hand was not so cheerful. A dark raincloud had settled on her shoulder and she lagged far behind the rest of the party. She was in a foul mood, easily. The hurt and betrayal she had felt on the airship had quickly morphed and manifested itself into full on anger and rage. Annoyance flickered across her face and she walked with heavy steps. She carried little hardly a pack on her back, filled with the bare essentials. She had lived in the desert for a good chunk of her life, she was not so fragile as that. She was better than that.

The first day of hiking was a little more productive than Gwen had dared expect—while the group was not exactly fresh, given the excitement of the previous day, they all seemed quite inclined to get this over with as quickly as possible. For some of them, this was just garden-variety grumpiness or eagerness or what-have-you, but she noted Rosy’s sullenness and stubborn refusal to walk with anybody else, and supposed that it might be connected to whatever ants were in Daisy’s pants, so to speak. Still, she doubted it was anything she could fix, even if she wanted to, so for the moment, she just left it be. If it persisted, then she would start asking questions, but she liked to think that, all evidence to the contrary, she knew when to back off or stay out of other people’s business. It was one of those essential skills for a captain to have, after all.

She’d actually brought a map, so she was perhaps more orientated than most, except Gadget, who she suspected had one in his head and could probably read it better than she could, anyway. Gwen was actually pretty bad with directions, as that was what navigators were for, and pilots just focused on actually flying things. Not that there was anything to fly, at the moment, but the principle was more or less the same, wasn’t it? Honestly, she wasn’t used to long hikes or anything like that, but she put up with the pace without complaining, which would have been rather unbecoming of her.

A few hours in, though, and she began to get the strangest sense that she was being watched. At first, she assumed that it had to be someone in the group, but when she looked back at them, she only occasionally made accidental eye contact, not the kind of thing that indicated that anyone had been staring. And that probably wouldn’t have bothered her anyway. Not like this… her skin prickled, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up, and she took to glancing around furtively, almost certain she could see things out of the corners of her eyes, little shimmers or shadows that would disappear as soon as she turned her glance towards them. It made what might have otherwise been an uneventful walk tenser than it really needed to be.

As it turned out, it was even worse for the members of the party attuned to magic, for not only would they spy the occasional phantom image out of the corner of their eye, but also feel a strange pressure on the part of them that was magical, as though something were prodding at the very core of their being. The feeling set Lohengrin’s teeth on edge, his fingers flexing unconsciously into clawlike shapes. It felt like it was pushing him closer to the threshold over which he’d transform, with the goading persistence of a lingering itch. He hadn’t noticed, but he was giving off far more heat than he’d intended to, and standing next to him was rather like standing five feet in front of a campfire—quite comfortable given the chill in the air, but definitely perceptible.

At last, Gwen couldn’t take it anymore. “Can you see anything?” she asked Daisy, referring of course to his other ways of seeing.

Lots of trees, bushes, plants, and people I don't want to talk to," Theon grumbled from beside her, with his very grumpy brand of humor. On top of it all, now this place was closing in around him, like it was pressing on his chest, and watching him, which was bullshit, of course. Theon did the watching, and anyone else that wanted to could go fuck themselves, because they couldn't do it as well as he could. "Give me a second," he said, finding a tree and settling himself down beneath it, resting his arms on his knees and letting his head fall back against the trunk, his mind leaving his body to go explore their surroundings.

He didn't notice anything unusual, but that only made him angrier, because he knew something was there. Even now, looking down on the trees like he was some bird flying above, he could feel those eyes, that sensation that something was just on the corner of his vision, but when he turned to look, there was nothing unnatural to see. The corners of his mouth curled in disgust, eyebrows narrowing, and he continued searching, go so far as to peer around the bushes and the trees near where they had stopped to wait for him. There were animals, things that would normally live in a place like this, but nothing that could make them feel so unnatural. He stayed this way at least a full two minutes, determined to find something, but every time he thought he caught a glimpse of his quarry, it vanished before he could really see it. No one hid from him like this, right under his nose. Something was demanding to be killed here.

Returning to his body, he opened his eyes and pushed himself back to his feet, continuing on past Gwen in the direction they'd been going before. "There's nothing here," he said. "Let's keep going."

Though she’d snickered at the initial response, the actual answer was troubling. Nothing? She didn’t know much about this magic, but that was just abnormal. But if there was nothing there, there was nothing there, and there wasn’t anything she could do about it. Suppressing a groan of frustration, she resigned herself to another few hours hiking with edgy friends and no answers. Even her boundless enthusiasm was dampened a bit by that. Maybe they’d get lucky and it would just go away soon. Right. And then the next guardian will appear, hand us all the keys, and we’ll all be able to fly back to the ship like bird mutatio! Shaking her head, Gwen followed. Either way, they had to keep moving forward.

The Lieutenant was not unaffected by the eerie feeling of being watched. He occasionally looked over his broad shoulders, scanning the looming trees for something or someone, though he left his concerns unspoken. There was nothing out of the ordinary. No fleeting shadows or silhouettes playing in the canopies. He couldn't hear anything snap underfoot. No sticks, leaves, or scuffle of metal rubbing against metal. There were no visible threats, at all. It bothered him more than he'd care to admit. It was an oppressive feeling that weighed down on him, urging him to look back one more time. Had he been able to wrestle the sentiment down, drown it out in all the logical voices that told him it was nothing, Sven would have been glad to do so. Unfortunately, experience reminded him that his gut feelings were hardly wrong—and he wasn't the only one who felt off by whatever preyed in the trees. Everyone looked as if they were ready to bolt or whip out their weapons.

It was Gwendolyn who spoke of his worries first. She questioned Theon's direction, and he watched as the boy plopped down by a tree, closing his eyes to venture into whatever dream-walking land he spoke of. Either way, Theon awoke and dismissed their fears, saying that there was nothing. He couldn't believe it. There had to be something out there, stalking them. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end, bristling with tempered adrenaline. Ready to sizzle through his veins with the slightest sign of danger; with the first glimpse of an enemy. The mechanical gears whirring in his forearm tensed and seized. He clamped his hand across its wrist and attempted to stifle the jolting pain clinching where the metal ended and his shoulder began. For whatever reason, Sven's legs seemed to be acting up, as well. Biting into his torso, thundering into his spinal chord. It was enough to give him pause. Heavy eyebrows knit together, concerned and slightly irritated at his frailties.

Where the air was making everyone else uncomfortable, it was wreaking havoc on the fullshifted Percy. He'd began to drift further and further from the party, and every minute was a fight to keep the feral instincts out of his mind. He wanted to change back into his humanoid appearence, but found himself loath to leave this form. He was so comfortable, he felt like he belonged here, in the forest as a deer, and not as a boy. Fortunately, he was not a man who ran on instinct, but on cold hard facts. He knew better than to give in to the cervine inside. Avalon's Dawn needed him, didn't they? Notwithstanding that, he also had the key in a saddlebag. If he was to give in and give up and escape into the woods, so too would all their hopes of toppling Artorias. He had to be strong. He forced himself to walk within sight of the rest of the party.

While at the tail end of the party, the oppressive feeling was pissing Vivi off to no end. If she could, she'd beat the air's ass into submission, but the feeling wasn't anything tangible. She couldn't lay hands upon it so she just accepted it with some irritation. And if she ever found out who was watching them, she'd shove her metallic boot up their ass too. She was in no mood for games, much less from a forest. As she walked, her hand gripped the handle of her pistol, teasing the trigger as she went. Still, the shadows danced and unseen eyes stared a hole in her. It got so bad that at one point she stopped on a dime and whipped her pistol out, emptying all three barrels into the forest, yelling "Fuck! You!" for good measure.

Whatever grasp Percy had on himself was shattered on the resounding blasts and he leapt into the forest at a breakneck pace, vanishing from sight for a time.

Dio jumped violently at the sudden gunshots from the rear of the group, ducking down for cover, but she soon saw it was just Vivian shooting into the forest. After suppressing the temporary moment of frustration she had, she spoke, trying to be the level-headed one here. "Everyone..." Dio tried tentatively, though she had a feeling it wouldn't go over well. "Can we please just try to stay calm? I know whatever's up with this place has us on edge, but obviously getting angry at it isn't going to help anything right now." She looked around, noticing that one of them was missing. "Percy? Where did Percy go? Percy, come back!"

But it was no use, and she didn't hear him nearby either, though for a moment she thought she saw him out of the corner of her eye, only when she turned, there was of course nothing there. The forest's effects were starting to take hold on her as well. The ends of her hair were standing up rather impressively, held down only by her hat, and she was finding it immensely difficult to control the electricity. She'd already shocked several random things on accident in passing, recoiling each time and shaking out her hand. In all, it had her quite jittery, but there was nothing for it but to press on, and get to the bottom of this.

Kethyrian had kept her customary silence the entire time, but she was no happier than Vivi who was shooting or Vivi’s brother, who seemed to be doing enough complaining for the whole lot of them. Her magic… well, it was somewhat out of control, in what was perhaps the most embarrassing way possible. Namely, she seemed to be filtering the ambient stuff in the air and then letting it out as healing and life energies, which in this case meant that every time she took a new step, the ground beneath her feet altered, prodigious shoots of new-green grass sprouting as if out of nowhere, long enough to curl around on themselves, and usually accompanied by brightly-colored, calf-high flowers. As if to make matters worse, it seemed that she was allergic—her eyes were watering, and every minute or so, she’d have another sneezing fit. She was, to put it lightly, done with this fucking forest.

Unfortunately, Mordecai’s issues seemed to be even worse. Though not a mage himself, he was at any time storing a great deal of magic, and presently it was causing a number of small malfunctions that were proving difficult to cope with. It had started when he’d attempted to offer a hypothesis on what was causing the perceptual illusions—the phrases had come out in ancient Draconian, which he took it that nobody here was able to understand, as it was the same language he’d had to translate on the wall. The next thing he’d said had been in Dwarvish, and after one attempt that managed only garbled fragments of Old Elvish, he’d given up on speaking.

As if that weren’t bad enough, he was actually in Berserk Mode—the activation sequence had been the Dwarvish sentences, much to his chagrin. He was trying very hard not to make this obvious, as it wasn’t something he wanted to trouble them about, but there was no mistaking the slight reddish light beneath his synthetic skin, nor the fact that his eyes had taken on that color, also. As he had no target at the moment, he wasn’t exactly dangerous, but he dearly hoped that nobody tried to touch him just now. Of course, he would have told them as much for their own safety, if he could communicate intelligibly.

The gunshots had a notable effect on him, as he concluded logically that someone had found a target he could lock onto, but when it turned out that there was nothing there, Mordecai froze for several seconds, trying to overwrite his own naturally-programmed inclinations to pick one. His metal limbs shook faintly with the effort, though little sign of his struggle was evident on his face, which was at present set into the hard expression the Automata’s foes saw. When Dio spoke, his head snapped in her direction, not because she seemed a likely target, but because the calm tones she used were a welcome stimulus in the opposite direction of gunshots—they implied that there was no fighting to be had, and as soon as this was processed and weighed against the other evidence, he fortunately came to the determination that it was safe for him to move again, and did so—as far away from Vivian as possible.

As soon as Vivi discharged her first bullet, the Lieutenant nearly snatched the thing out of her hands while snarling, “Setzen Sie einen feuchten Dreck an, was weg!” And he would have if it weren't for the fact that Percy bolted off into the woods, kicking up dirt. He slowly dropped his mechanical hand, which had been held aloft, steaming and hissing. The flick of a white tail and the snap of hooves quickly disappeared. “Put away, now,” He added in a more level tone, stepping away from her and back towards where he'd seen Percy last. The sound of snapping branches receded—as if the forest was wilfully swallowing all of the noises he was straining to hear. He absently caught the tail-end of Dio trying to calm everyone down. It didn't seem to be helping. Mordecai, from the looks of it, had not been spared from whatever-the-hell was spooking them, either; curtly snapping his head towards the gunshots as if ready to attack something. The luminous glow beneath his skin was as clear as sign as any. They needed to get the hell out of here.

“Needing to find Percy, then out of woods.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Matters only grew worse after the shooting incident, and though no more sign of Percy was seen, Lohengrin almost wouldn’t have put it past a few of the others to go bounding off into the woods as well. Maybe the machine—there was no mistaking that it was malfunctioning spectacularly. Maybe Vivian, since she was fucking crazy anyway. He was getting a bit of a kick out of the way Dio’s hair was standing on end, though—that and the way the bitch seemed to be leaving a trail of delicate-smelling flowers behind her. If there was anything conducive to ruining the front she tried to put up, it was probably that. Next thing he knew, she would be followed around by small and furry animals. There was no mistaking it though—things were only growing more irritating the further they went in, and the mages were getting the worst of it.

It was almost sunset when he caught the first whispers. A low, droning hum that he could not quite discern played over the back of his mind more like a memory than a sound, and he found himself unable to cease his thoughts about things he’d rather not dwell upon. Those morons he’d used to run with. His parents, met at last after long years of searching—a meeting which had not gone exactly the way he was planning. The drone eventually took on a more musical pitch, like a chorus of voices humming in a stunningly-complex harmony, notes dropping into the silence like the last fragments of rain dripped from the subtle curve of a leaf. Unable to stop it, he countered the sound with a low hiss, signifying more than anything his agitation.

He directed his question to Dio, since the captain was too far ahead, Sven too far behind, and everyone else probably too angry to answer rationally, if he had his guess. “You hear that?” It wasn’t just buffeting his thoughts around against his will, it was making his magic itch, and the sense that his skin was far too small to contain all of him intensified until he was almost certain he must be splitting at the seams. Indeed, under his clothing, he was starting to look a bit reptilian, and though he didn’t feel it as such, there was a faint suggestion of glittering red scales around the outsides of his eyes and over his forehead and cheekbones. Nothing definitive, but certainly noticeable.

Dio had begun twitching rather severely a while back, and upon being asked a question by Lohengrin, she struggled mightily to stop her right eye from constantly spasming, or her arms from jolting this way and that. She had only moderate success. In addition, she was fairly certain this was elevating her heart rate to a level that wasn't exactly healthy. Her breathing was quickening, and she'd begun to sweat a good deal, even though it wasn't particularly hot at all.

“What?" she asked, initially quite surprised that the man would speak to her at all, considering how he’d avoided her on the ship. And she knew he’d been avoiding her, as she’d made a conscious effort to speak to everyone. She had assumed he was simply not a people person, and let it be. She twitched slightly, accidentally shocking a thick bush on her right, causing her to jump. “Ow! Uh. Yeah. I guess so. Sorry. Don’t get too close to me. I don’t want to shock you.” Halting her rambling, she twitched away from Lohengrin, trying to keep her arms to herself to prevent any more shocks. She ended up wrapping them around herself in a tight hug. It stopped her from zapping every plant within three feet of her all the time, but made the twitching worse.

Why this place was reminding her of home was beyond her. Xantus looked nothing like this. She had the sudden and troubling thought that it was simply because she didn’t belong here. She didn’t belong at home, either. She had no home. Her own would kill her if she ever showed her face. Shaking her head, several little lightning bolts cracked between the ends of strands of her hair. Dio tried to push the thoughts aside, but they were persistent.

Things were not going quite as planned. He hadn't expected to run into this type of trouble. Theon's dream-vision had only told them of one potential enemy. A green-warrior creature. Perhaps, this was his doing. He still hadn't seen anyone himself, and he trusted Theon's judgment enough to know that he'd mention something if he'd seen someone stalking them. Far too proud a person not to. How could they combat something they couldn't smell, touch, or see? Explaining it was difficult enough. Without a sound plan, they'd end up unintentionally tearing each others heads off. Even now, after he'd calmed down and retreated away from that verrückt fraulein, he could feel his blood boiling; keening to spill over. Normally, it was he who remained calm, unaffected by anyone's behavior. It felt strange to behave in such a way—childish, even. The Lieutenant clenched his hands into tight, white-knuckled fists, scanning the trees and bushes for any signs of Percy. No such luck; no cloven hooves, no white tail flagging them down. Hopefully, he'd regain his senses and calm down. Either that, or take his human form and cut back through the trees.

They couldn't continue without him or stay put.

He glanced over his shoulder, noting Kethyrian's train of flowers, sprouting stubbornly at her feet. Her sneezes would have raised one of his heavy eyebrows, or split the frown from his lips, if it weren't for the bristling adrenaline still coursing thickly through his veins, threatening to overcome his sensibilities. He hadn't even noticed that he'd trampled several patches of them. The Lieutenant hadn't noticed much, it seemed. Dio's hair was snapping on end, as if invisible currents ran through what was not stuffed beneath her cap. He bleakly wondered if Gwen's mechanized limbs were acting up as well. The uncomfortable pulses in his arms and legs seemed to grow more frequent, issuing tremors down his fingers. If he hadn't known better, then he would've said that they felt real. Like ghostly appendages, prickling back to life; no longer just stumps and useless gams. Several times, Sven found himself compelled to look at his arm, flexing the synthetic tendons and touching the crook of his elbow with his real hand only to find himself oddly disappointed.

It was also then that he noticed the whispers, briefly brushing against his ears. Hushed tones that seemed as if they didn't quite want to be heard, forcing him to pause and listen. He could have been imagining it for all he knew. The forest was playing tricks on them, stirring up their emotions and preying on their weaknesses. Was he imagining it? There, he heard it again. His gaze swung away from the others and back towards the forest. It was less like a memory, and more like vivid images painted onto a screen, shifting like a phonograph that was impossible to stop. His breath hitched, held. Meeting her for the first time; with that ugly flannel shirt, ripped jeans. Cooing words he couldn't understand. Beautiful sounds that slipped from her lips as soft as poetry, tickling him embarrassed when he tried to repeat them. Gwendolyn's father, as well—making him promise that he'd watch his little girl, because that was all that was important to him. The heavy expectancy. Those eyes, alight and fiery, practically drawing out his blood; a contract of sorts, made entirely out of friendship. He'd been there in his darkest days, after all. And his brother. Whispering feverishly do you see, now do you see, see, see? Taking everything away from him in a burst of light. There was so much blood.

The Lieutenant's meaty hand pressed against his forehead, hiding the right side of his face beneath his palm. He squashed it there, willing the memories to just fucking stop. If he just pressed hard enough, he could push them out. The whispers developed into an unusual din, or a convoluted hymn. Thousands of murmurs caroling all at once, like a horde of musical crickets; some familiar, some alien. The sound he made was strangled. He kept his hand held there, pushing. So that his memories wouldn't flood out? So that he wouldn't hear her voice again? He wasn't sure. It was too close, too local. Too personal. Instead, Sven tore his eyes away from the forest and looked back at his... what? Friends, companions—whatever, they kept him grounded. This was what was real. His eyes caught on Lohengrin and Dio, paused. His face was different, glinting this way and that. Catching at the retreating plumes of sunlight. Thin, small things. Red scales. He meant to approach them, but another spasm shot up his legs.

Of what does a machine think? Can its thoughts even be turned to darker places? Perhaps, Modecai reflected, he was more human than he’d thought—the magic of this place seemed to work on him no less, and his thoughts were jumbled swirls of language and color, and most of them were of her. Creator, mother, something like a goddess, if indeed such things existed. What else did you call the being that brought you to life from nothing but pieces of metal and wires? Emotional pain was more or less foreign to him on most days—he could not be affronted or insulted in the same way that many humans could, but he had known it very acutely the days she’d sent him away. His entire world she had been, for she’d shut him out from the rest of it, and all of a sudden he was inadequate to the only purpose for which he’d been created: to serve her.

Strangely, though she was not here, the exact feeling was resurfacing, seemingly without cause, and the pain with it. It must be a small benefit that he’d run out of energy and was not longer able to sustain Berserk Mode—but the wear was telling. His perfectly-fitted joints seemed suddenly to slide together in unfamiliar ways, producing faint creaking noises that hurt his meager pride more than his function. Mordecai had always known himself to be well-crafted, and maintained himself to the exacting specifications he’d been built. That something as odd as a place could undo that effort was disconcerting in its own right. His brows knitted together over the straight line of his nose, but he dare not say anything; he could still not seem to speak in a way the others would understand.

Kethyrian wanted to scream. What had started as a mere annoyance was getting worse—the environment was now doing more than just skimming the top of her magic to keep the plants growing at her feet. It was outright draining her, making her sway with uncomfortable fatigue, and the damned humming was doing nothing to help her. She couldn’t breathe, almost, for the heavy atmosphere pressing in over her nose and mouth. This place was nothing like the caverns that were once her home, but she was somehow reminded of them all the same. Mind-magic, but of a kind she was helpless to resist, given the constant sap effect she was under. If it didn't stop soon, she was going to collapse, and she might even die—not, of course, that she planned on telling anyone this.

And the lizard was turning red again, the memory mocking her as surely as the rest. As surely as the sneering faces of her so-called kin. As surely as her every failure ever had. Pride was a thin shield, indeed, and she could feel it wearing at the edges. Glass, slicing into her fingers. She was cutting glass and thorns. The captain had the right of it—too much the right, calling her Thistle. Prickly, but so easily crushed underfoot, as Sven was crushing her endless train of flowers. She would too, if she could.

Fuck everything.

Teeth ground against one another as Vivi marched foward. Her pistol had been traded in for her saber, now resting in her hand. The blade would be faster than reloading the barrels, though the worrying thought was what would it be faster for? It sat in a reverse grip as the tip of the blade dragged along the ground behind her, marking the trail that she followed. Even Vivi didn't know what she was going to use it for, she couldn't cut the voices out of her head after all. Hopefully she wasn't too far gone to use it on her companions either. It just felt nice to have something heavy and dangerous in her hand. It made her feel in control, even if that control was just an illusion.

She found the eye of her mind turned toward things she'd rather keep buried. Shadows and silhouttes danced in the corners of her visions, vanishing as soon as she turned her head. Her face, a stranger to any emotion other than a blissful ignorant smile, did not wear the hardened scowl well. She was being forced back into her memories, whispers of her past threatening to engulf and drown her. Normally, she'd be too hard-headed, too willful, or just too damn energetic to allow such thoughts creep back into her imagination. But with her mood and attitude already dreadfully sour, the colorful shield erected around her was torn down, allowing all the ghosts and specters free reign.

One such spector walked beside her. She walked, her head listing to the side as she stared into the vast expanses of nothing that retreated into the forests. But where there was nothing for everyone else, Vivi saw something. She watched the specter, taking every step she did, striding beside her. It was like looking into a foggy mirror. An indistinct reflection stared back at her-- no. It didn't stare back. It stared past her, like she wasn't there. Like whatever was behind her was far more interesting that the girl that stood in front of it. That's what pissed her the most. Being overlooked.

Anger was an odd property for Vivi, and one she didn't feel often. Where some would lose themselves in their anger, personified by fire and heat, Vivi's was a cold and calculating thing. She was wild when she was happy, but she was efficent when she was mad. Her eyes narrowed at the uninterested specter and she spat. There was a metaphor about her personal demons here, but she was so over it it didn't matter. Yeah, she had a problem with being ignored and being overlooked, she knew this. She didn't need a damn ghost telling her that. She tore her head away from the specter. Instead, her eyes buried into the back of Theon, unflinching and unmoving. Vivi walked with her eyes glued to him.

He was real, he was here, and they had a problem.

And yet, for all they thought and all they felt, there still seemed to be nothing there. The music was nothing more than a dull thrum, regardless of how discordant the echoes seemed in her mind. Gwen knew she probably had far from the worst of it. She could think only of her father, and those memories were so steeped in love and happiness that even the dull ache at the center of her chest could not bring her down. He’d been her hero and her protector, and she’d never outgrown things like heroes and protectors. Her smile was bittersweet, but it was a smile all the same. She could recall most clearly the nights she spent as a child on his knee, watching as he flipped through thick engineering tomes, pointing at the diagrams and asking a thousand questions. He’d never tired of them, and she’d learned to read when she ran out of queries about diagrams. My little scientist, he’d said, will build ships faster and lovelier and more efficient than these.

He’d had nothing but pride and affection for her, and she’d drunk that in like a desert pilgrim come upon an oasis. The world was a hard, cruel place—she’d always known this in the abstract. He’d not spared her the stories, but he’d spared her the reality, making their home warm and open and inviting. Even when his friends from the army days had come by, even when he’d set his skills back to work making machines for Artorias, breaking his vow against inventing weapons, even then, there had been nothing in her world but love. It was perhaps hardly a wonder that it was still all she saw.

She wanted to be just like him. To lead people through the troubled times and the trials of mind and body, to create a shield against all the bad things to be found out there, but she could not. This, more than anything, was what troubled Gwendolyn. She had ideas—ideas about what a captain should be, about who she should be, what she should be able to do, and these ideas were modeled on who her father was. But she couldn’t live up to them, no matter how she tried. She was still just a child, playing at being an adult, or so it felt to her. To most people, twenty-seven was hardly a childlike age, but Gwen had never lost her innocent fascination with the world, nor the naïve desire that it should all be as it had been in her youth; a permanent springtime of life, for whom the only trials were the occasional spell of autumn. Winter did not exist in her heart, not ever.

But she was helpless to chase it away from anyone else, just like one ray of sunlight wasn’t enough to cut through the chill of this place.

She couldn’t warm them or soothe them, but she could sure as hell make sure they didn’t run themselves into the ground. “All right,” she said, firmly enough to hopefully stave off the worst of the arguments, but gently enough that she hopefully wouldn’t snap any of the tense threads here. “We have to camp sometime, and I’d rather set it while we still have a bit of light. That clearing there should do.” They still had another day’s walking, by the initial calculation, but who knew how much worse all this could get tomorrow? It was at least best not to add fatigue to the list of their problems.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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There was fruit here, and a lot of it, but picking it was easier said than done, especially in Dio's current circumstances. She'd actually found a way to contain the constant shocking, but it took a good deal of concentration, and fell apart whenever she was even mildly startled. The end result was a removal of the constant sparking and zapping, in exchange for a rather violent shaking that dominated the majority of her body, but particularly the hands and arms, all the way up to the shoulders. It could have passed as shivering, given how cold it was, but no one else was shaking quite so forcefully, and she was dressed for the cold. In fact, the effort had her sweating a good deal. Screwing up now would mean a rather large and random discharge of electric energy all around her, and she wanted to avoid that if she could help it.

In any case, picking the fruit on the trees was quite difficult. Climbing them was out of the question in her current state, as a single lapse in concentration would send her tumbling to the ground, and she wasn't willing to risk a broken neck for a few extra... whatever the hell these things were. She had never seen fruit quite like this. They were colorful and did not lack for variety, and they were both sweet and refreshing to eat. They probably had some magical qualities that were just going to make all of her issues worse, but Dio had quite the appetite, and she wanted to think on the bright side here.

With a bag mostly full of the various fruits she returned to the camp, carefully setting it down where the others could get at it before taking a seat in front of the fire, some distance away from the fruit. The shaking was getting worse the longer she kept it in, but she really didn't want to discharge and hurt anyone, so she kept at it. Maybe if she could fall asleep... but it wasn't late enough, and she wouldn't be able to. Not as jittery as she felt right now.

The opportunity to get away from the others for a while had been more than welcome to Lohengrin, who was starting to fray a bit at the seams trying not to transform. The part where he crushed most of them and their stuff under his massive haunches would have been kind of difficult to explain, when it came down to it, and it certainly wasn’t a conversation he ever wanted to have. He was about the furthest thing from a hunter, but his angry stomping through the forest did tend to scare small animals into fleeing, and though he doubted most people liked their rabbit charred, he did at least try to use small balls of fire to shoot them.

In the end, he had a brace of mostly-undamaged carcasses, and that was better than nothing. He’d returned to the camp and started a fire with wood that someone had collected, fishing the large pot out of one of the bags the machine had been carrying, but beyond that, he was a little lost. He didn’t usually cook for other people, and as far as he was concerned, meat was just as good entirely charred or nearly raw, which he suspected would make most of the others sick. He honestly didn’t care if they didn't like the taste of it, but he’d prefer not to be dealing with a collection of grumpy, malfunctioning, ill idiots tomorrow morning. He wasn’t free of his damn obligations until they’d done everything the old man wanted, and he couldn't go collecting the keys by himself to save the trouble, so here he was.

It was at about this point that Dio wandered back into camp, fruit in tow. Fine, if you wanted to eat like a damned rabbit, but he frankly preferred to eat the rabbits themselves. Still… he sighed. The last time—the only time—he’d said anything to her, she’d hardly responded and looked vaguely surprised that he had a working tongue. His own fault, really, but not something he wanted to deal with again. But there was nobody else around, and he wasn't going to stand here and stare at his empty pot and skinned rabbits as though the answer would magically come to him in a dream. He wasn’t the scryer, for crying out loud.

“Not to make you believe that I’m anything other than a taciturn, misanthropic asshole,” he drawled by way of preface, “but predictably, I don’t know what I’m doing here. Thoughts?” He was aware that she couldn't touch anything for fear of killing it or at least causing it to pass out, but he could still follow directions, if he must.

"W-what?" Dio stammered, her eye twitching quite a bit as she looked across the fire at Lohengrin. She was a bit out of it, and was not immediately sure what he was talking about. Then she saw the skinned rabbits he had in his possession. Now, Dio was not a vegetarian, and indeed she ate meat on a regular basis, but she was also no huntress. Rabbits weren't exactly plentiful in cities, and she was a city girl to the bone. Sure, she'd spent a little while in a desert, but she'd done more starving than surviving there.

"Um." she pulled her knees to her chest and wrapped her arms around them, just as her entire body seemed to vibrate side to side. "I d-don't really know, either. Maybe someone else c-can help." She looked around for someone nearby, her eyes settling on Sven. He would have these kinds of survival skills, right? "Hey, Sven? Can you help us c-cook some rabbit?" Finished speaking, another shudder went through her. She was really going to have to let it out sooner rather than later, but she could probably hold the magic in a little while more. Maybe until she could sleep...

To say that Sven's attempts at performing any campfire chores were going well would've been a massive overstatement. When he removed several skillets from his bulging knapsack, he'd accidentally crushed one of the handles and severely damaged the second. His mechanical arm disobeyed his nerves, tensing up and curling over whatever he held like a vise. Strangling his wrist and forearm, as he usually did with his working hand, proved futile. He cursed in German, kicking the skillets away. Into the woods—they were useless now, anyway. He'd wanted to cook something to raise their spirits, kindle their morale into something a little less like lukewarm-grump. None of them felt like talking; neither did he, really. Every time he glanced around, he imagined her face. Imagined that he'd glimpsed her hair tossing in the wind, flashing behind the trees. Calling him away from his companions, away from everything that made his knees buckle. He was tempted to follow whatever he'd seen. Stumble into the woods, and get lost in his memories. He was a fool.

Instead of trying to rifle through his knapsack again, the Lieutenant took turns patrolling their meagre campsite. To be closer to the woods in hopes of spotting—... Percy, he was still gone. The little lie made him feel better. His knees squealed in protest with each footstep, threatening to spill him on the ground. This he dutifully ignored. His mouth formed a straight line, twitching into a frown whenever his gaze stretched back over the looming trees. There were no enemies, no unforeseen ambushes, but he still felt as if something would happen at any moment. Every noise made him jump, causing his prosthetic-limbs to misbehave; jerking this way and that. He'd never been a paranoid soldier. Never the sort to assume that danger was around every corner. He was a cautious man. Experience had taught him more than he'd ever have to know about the sort of tricks that his enemies may employ, but this was different. With no information or prior knowledge to call upon, Sven felt lost. Incapable of doing anything but pace around like a disgruntled bear.

The Lieutenant noticed Lohengrin returning from the woods, carrying several skinned rabbits across his shoulder like trophies. He also noted Dio carrying a load of fruit. Carefully, gingerly; as if she were afraid that she'd torch her collected bounty. He wouldn't have been surprised. Her control was admirable. He watched them for a moment and turned away just as Dio called his name—turned back towards her, eyebrows knit. The grunt might've been a yes, for Sven made his way over, towing his knapsack and hunkering down by Lohengrin's rabbits and the large pot. He kept his metal-hand planted firmly on the ground and fished out a couple of flasks, dumping its contents in the pot. Then, he retrieved a small bundle; wrapped butter. Placing it at Lohengrin's feet, Sven fished out several small vials; spices. He could cook quite well, but couldn't juggle the ingredients with one hand. Scooting closer to the fire, Sven held the pot over the crackling logs, adding a strained, “Putting in half butter, and uh, hand of spices. Vaitin' to boil, tear rabbits and be putting them in pot.”

Lohengrin was less-than-thrilled by the idea of having to do all of this himself, but apparently it was that or nobody else ate. Well, at least later, when things inevitably went to shit and someone accused him of never thinking of anyone but himself, he could point to this incident. Not that he thought it would make much of a difference. He also didn’t care, so where the fuck that thought was going was entirely beyond him. Whatever. He was just going to do it because there was nothing better to do and he was in serious need of a distraction. It was definitely true that his visible skin was obviously scaling, now, and however much he might insist to the contrary, he didn’t really look like any obvious species of lizard. Not when they had a closer appearance to—particularly shiny—scale armor than anything else.

So he didn’t complain, setting his jaw and throwing in half the butter, measuring out a hand of spice, and then adding another half, because it was Sven who’d said a ‘hand’ and his were much larger than even Lohengrin’s. The mercenary sank into a crouch next to the pot and finished preparing the rabbits, gutting them and throwing the entrails out into the forest to decompose. He’d honestly have eaten them, himself, but that was probably on the list of clues he did not need to be giving people. Idly shifting his weight from one foot to the other, listing sideways slightly in his spot, propping an elbow on a knee and his chin on that.

This was probably the spot where he should try to make conversation, but he honestly didn’t care to. He was, socially, much more reactive than proactive, and he had no desire to put himself out there to make anyone feel more comfortable. Raking his free hand through his shaggy hair, he waited until the pot appeared to be boiling, then started tearing up rabbits, generally setting the bones to the side, though he did idly crack a few with his teeth and pry out the marrow. “Any vegetable matter in your collection, Sparky?” he asked Dio, arching a brow. They could just eat meat and spices, but he somehow doubted most of them would prefer that. The Lieutenant nodded in accordance. Taters would've been nice.

At the mention of the nickname Sparky, Dio's brow actually narrowed in something that looked a little like anger. The emotion didn't sit on her face too well, and she looked more like she was having disgestive issues than anything. "Hey," she said, temper rising, "I'm t-trying, okay? I haven't sh-shocked anything for a while now. I'm k-keeping it in. I could c-c-call you Scaly if I wanted to. You're not p-perfect." She wouldn't call him Scaly, though, because Dio didn't really believe in derogatory nicknames, and while Lohengrin obviously did, she happened to think he needed to look in a mirror. She had no idea what was happening to him, but he was obviously having trouble too. So there was no need for him to go and call her that. Did he even know her name?

It was a stupid comparison, but she was starting to see him like one of her big sisters. They weren't big, hideous lizard-looking people, but they were as ugly on the inside, and they'd judged her too, for her inability to keep up with them in classes, for her tendency to run away from home and spend time with Bru on the poor side of Xantus. Who were they to tell her she wasn't good enough for the family? Why wasn't it okay for her to find her own way? They were evil, rotten people, profiting on lies and the suffering of others. She wasn't great at everything she did, but at least Dio tried to be a good person.

"I'm s-sorry," she said suddenly, finding herself wholly unable to be angry at anyone for all that long. Only her own family could get that out of her. Lohengrin hadn't done anything to deserve it. Well, he hadn't done much. "This place is... not g-good for us. I've got some vegetables. D-don't know what they are, but they look tasty." The forest was full of weird things, and Dio had plucked a few of the green ones and brought them back. Rising, she took a handful of them around to where Lohengrin had the pot, bending over to put pieces of them in with the meat.

“Indeed not,” he replied, the low rasp of his chuckle accompanying the words. Perfect, him? Oh no, not by a long shot, human child. The comment about his scales specifically caused him to tap one of his cheekbones idly with a finger, producing an oddly crystalline sound. “I’ll admit, the atmosphere’s drying me right out—I should probably exfoliate.” His smile was wicked, and he flicked his tongue, forked and snakelike, outwards to taste the air, though he had no particular need to do so. “Have to say, though, I wouldn’t have picked you for the one to go insulting a man on the basis of his unfortunate genetics, hm? Do deer-boy’s antlers bother you so, or is it a particular dislike for the cold-blooded?”

Despite the fact that he was more-or-less accusing her of racism, he didn’t much seem to mind, and in fact looked quite amused with the whole situation. This was almost as much fun as teasing the elf—and might actually work out better for him in the long run. The Favisae wench was much more likely to cold-shoulder him, but he would be rather surprised if this one didn’t come to her own defense, or at least try to justify her words as something other than a problem with Mutatio, which he already knew it wasn’t. That didn’t mean he was going to make his knowledge obvious, of course. Prodding at people was one of the few spare forms of entertainment he still occasionally got to indulge in.

The Lieutenant had already grown used to Lohengrin's unpleasantness, as well as his grumpy attitude, but he still didn't appreciate it directed towards someone like Dio, even if he was only trying to get a rise out of her for whatever reason. He probably hadn't meant to be malicious. Either way, Sven cleared his throat and eyed him over the high ridge of his forehead, eyebrows drawing together. It was a look he'd often anchored onto anyone who bothered Gwendolyn. Particularly men who tried hitting on her. It's venom was a little lacking. There were few in their midst's that Sven actually respected, and Lohengrin, for whatever reason, was one of them. Flustered women, however, still tended to be a sore spot. “Is paying to be nice,” He commented dryly, adjusting the pot, “or no stew for you.” His tone was mild-tempered and humorous—but his eyes said differently. He, too, had noticed the subtle scaling speckling the man's face, though he'd said nothing of this. To each their own; they each had their own stories.

"What?" Dio asked, a little dumbfounded by the fact that she'd just been called racist. "No, there's nothing wrong with Percy! I like him. I don't care why you have scales on your skin. I just don't think we need to be rude to each other, is all. We're a team, aren't we? Shouldn't we be trying to help each other? We all have faults. It doesn't have anything to do with..." Her words trailed off, and she looked vaguely confused. She hadn't stuttered at all throughout those sentences, had she? Did that mean...

She realized it just before it happened, but Dio could still do nothing as she doubled over dangerously close to the fire, and a torrent of zapping sparks burst from all over her body, a number of them hitting both Lohengrin and Sven, while Dio made a noise that sounded vaguely like an unnnngghh, though it was hard to hear over the constant cracking of the sparks of lightning magic. It wouldn't be enough to knock either of them out cold, but that just meant that each of the individual zaps would sting quite a bit.

When it was all done, Dio realized she'd probably made a large mistake in holding all her magic inside. She looked between the two of them, quite horrified. "Are you alright? I'm... so sorry, I didn't mean to, I just... I screwed up. You're okay, right?" She wrapped her arms tightly around her middle, to try and lessen the chance of shocking anything else, and backed away slowly, several paces from anyone nearby. The majority of the vegetables, sadly, had dropped into the dirt.

It happened so quickly that Sven hadn't had time to react properly. Her lack of stuttering hadn't sent off any warning bells, either. The jolt of electricity sizzled through his rigged spinal chord, straight through his meaty fingers and across his skin like a pealing serpent. His mechanical limbs jerked straight out from under him, and he almost sent the logs skittering across the campfire if he hadn't of convulsed backwards. And instead of unintentionally tossing the boiling pot, Sven's hand seized and clamped down across the handle, impairing his ability to open his fingers. He managed to keep his arm from completely emptying the pot, if only because his entire arm refused to budge. Though, some of scalding water careened through the air, showering the left side of his torso and over towards Scaly. He remained still, breathing heavy. Leaning heavily on his elbow, and awkwardly trying to lower his stiff metal-arm, Sven looked up at Dio.

“K-kräftig.” Strong lass, indeed. That is how it must've felt to all of those soldiers she rendered unconscious.

Lohengrin only raised an eyebrow at Sven. He really didn’t think of himself as being unnecessarily hostile—granted, he was an ass on the best of days, and this was definitely not the best of days, but he wasn’t really feeling any particular degree of anger or vindictiveness. This was honestly about as mild as he got. He wasn’t very good at switching off the snark, and frankly, he didn’t desire to be. That was just the way of things. He hadn’t changed much in the last century and a half, and he didn’t plan on doing so now. Old lizards were worse than old dogs, probably.

He did notice when Dio managed to get through an entire thought without stuttering—mostly because he’d probably stopped listening after the word team. Actually, that was rather longer than he would have listened to most sentiments of the kind—maybe he was more bored than he thought. Of course, he discovered exactly what the absence of the stuttering meant when several bolts of electricity flew at him, shocking him in quick succession. As before, when the magic threatened to harm him, he body responded by changing itself to resist the damage—and this time, with his control already on shaky ground, it was considerably worse. His eyes turned red, his pupils narrowing to vertical slits, and what had been a suggestion of scales quickly became obvious, the sides and back of his neck up to his jaw scaled over completely, the pattern spearing up and onto his cheeks jaggedly, and the ridges around his eyebrows grew thicker, replacing the hair with smooth, somewhat reflective natural armor.

Worse than that were his hands, which had lost the semblance of humanity and turned just as scarlet as the rest of him, his fingers gaining an extra joint and wickedly-hooked dark claws. That was going to make things difficult—he didn’t have thumbs that were quite as functional as those of humanoid creatures, and not shredding fabric was going to be almost impossible. As if to add to his problems, some of the soup base from the pot Sven was holding flew from it when the man’s metal limbs locked up, half-dousing Lohengrin’s right shoulder and the corresponding side of his face.

That had done it—the electricity may have knocked him on his ass, quite literally, but it was being half-drenched in what should have been dinner that was perhaps really the cause in the end. Almost gradually, Lohengrin’s shoulders began to shake, silently for a few moments, but then accompanied by rumbling laughter. At a lower register than he usually had. Not, of course, that he often had cause to laugh, not as wholeheartedly as he was doing now. Surprisingly, there’s wasn’t much in it that could be called mean-spirited, though perhaps it retained more than a little of the sardonic nature that he generally displayed. It didn’t even stop when he noted that his feet were in much the same condition of his hands and his toes had successfully speared through the leather of his boots—he just kicked them off and laughed all the harder. He really didn’t care if any of the rest found it as funny as he did, though he did make some effort to explain. “J-just… the looks on your faces…” he lost it again for a few seconds, shaking his head vigorously. “The old man swore me to secrecy, but you’re going to find out completely by accident—just—I can’t believe you people.” Unbeknownst to himself, a faint jet of smoke coiled out of his nose, though given the nearby fire, it might not be noticeable.

His mirth tapered off, perhaps tempered by the knowledge that these were the people that were supposed to save the world. If they did it, he was fairly certain it would be dumb luck and coincidence, but if it was all this entertaining to watch, well… perhaps sticking around wouldn’t be so bad after all. Of course, now he needed a new shirt and lacked the dexterity to do much about it, but there were worse things than smelling like spice, he supposed.

Dio had no idea what he was talking about. By the looks of it, Lohengrin was some kind of Mutatio, though he didn't seem to be changing into any species of lizard she was familiar with. Honestly, she didn't really care what he was. Sven seemed okay, and for that, she was relieved. Apart from that, she'd had just about enough of today. She felt immensely tired after the rush of magic leaving her, and she figured it was best to go lie down before more of it came back. Apologizing to Sven again, she took her leave without any supper. Her stomach wouldn't thank her in the morning, but if she could avoid shocking anyone else, it would be worth it.

The Lieutenant did not understand why Lohengrin was laughing. Only sat there, staring at him. Wondering if he'd missed some kind of joke or whether Dio's shock had gone straight to his skull—though, he had a hard time wrestling a grin off of his face. Laughter was contagious, even to burly, grumpy bears like him. The situation was ridiculous enough without Lohengrin's lizard-toes destroying his boots, which he casually kicked away; hardly missing a beat. He teased the whirring knots out of his mechanical limb, coaxing it to release the death-grip on the pot. Thankfully, he hadn't dropped all of it on himself, nor Lohengrin. None of the rabbit pieces had fallen out, either. He set it on the ground and wiped his hands on his trousers, smearing spice and broth alike. His mouth opened, working for an apology, but paused when Lohengrin spoke instead. Questions bubbled to the surface. He'd already interrogated him aboard the ship, and barely brushed over some of the man's secrets; nothing solid came up. Certainly nothing that he could puzzle out himself, with what little he'd already seen. All that he knew was that he wasn't allowed to share it with them, still sworn to some oath he made with Myrrdin.

This was a little different. Speckled scales seemed to burst across his flesh, exploding into fine patterns. It reminded him of webworks, appearing far too quickly for him to discern where it began. Crimson eyes, slit pupils, hooked claws and wisps of something frothing away from his mouth. Perhaps, it had been the campfire's smoke. Or his dodgy eyesight. He wanted to utter the word lizard, but somehow thought it would have been insulting. Had he even guessed correctly, Sven did not know the word in English. He chuckled softly, low in his chest. For whatever reason, he'd forgotten why he'd been cross in the first place. “Sorry,” he finally said, fishing out a square piece of cloth from his rucksack and tossing it over to him. Given the man's reaction to being electrocuted and doused with hot soup, the apology might not have been necessary, but he still saw fit to say something—after all, he'd lost control of his arm. He smiled wryly, shrugging his shoulders. All of the clothes he owned would have been far too large, and he doubted that Lohengrin would tolerate being swaddled in anything that did not fit.

Drachen. The word puzzled him. Sat idly on his lips, unspoken. He motioned towards the lizard-man, about to vocalize the word until Dio abruptly stood, backing away from them. He turned to her, waving away the apology in an attempt to call her back. It was fine. They were fine. But, she was obviously upset. Far too upset to sit back down with them. He watched her go and rubbed the back of his neck. Finally snatching up the pot and setting it back over the flames, Sven's grin simpered.

“Metal bear and lizard. Sounding like beginning of bad story.”

Lohengrin caught the rag, daubing with some effort at his loose tunic, which was now maybe not so loose, but it still fit. He hadn’t grown that much larger, which was good. He shook his head in Sven’s general direction, waving off the apology. He’d needed that, honestly. Most of the time, he knew he was a completely insufferable asshole, and that didn’t tend to bother him. He preferred things that way. It did not mean, however, that he shouldn’t suffer the repercussions of being so every once in a while. If he’d been a better man, he might have even tried to apologize to Dio, to explain that he wasn’t laughing at her as such, but he wasn’t a better man, and they’d all just have to get used to that. Sven seemed to accept it well enough.

“Hmph. Maybe,” he said, still sounding a bit like someone was running a whetstone over a blade. Certainly not him—he rarely bothered with the upkeep on his own. “But I’m willing to bet it would be an interesting story.” It was certainly turning out that way from where he was standing. It was almost liberating, not to be the type to seek happy endings or heroic narratives. It certainly let him appreciate works in absurdity and futility—appreciations he was going to need if he was to survive this with his already-shaky sanity intact.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Whether or not any of them got that much sleep overnight, the sun rose at the same time it usually did the next morning, and from the sounds of the captain breaking camp, they were rather expected to rise with it. If anything, the conditions had grown worse over the dark hours, the murmur of the voices in song growing louder, though perhaps in their heads rather than their ears. To Gwendolyn, they sang of years past, happiness she’d forgotten, almost as if beckoning her forward to receive it once again. It was a strange feeling—she knew, logically, that there was no getting it back. Her father was dead, Sven was still with her, the crew were on the ship, and Artorias… he was somebody else now. What she was able to keep of those times was still with her, and the rest was lost to her forever. She was trying to be mature enough to accept that, though it wasn’t always easy, and her little display on the army cruiser earlier might have made the point elegantly enough.

So she wanted it all back. Her friends and her family the way they were. Who didn’t occasionally wish to regain what they’d lost? But there was no use pining, so why did those voices tempt her so much even so? It was hard to say, exactly. She didn’t like it a bit, but among the other trials of this forest, that sort of just figured. She glanced over the camp, noting that Lohengrin, having risen with the sun as she had, was looking rather the worse for wear. He hadn’t been forced all the way into his animal shape (whatever it was) as Percy had, but he wasn’t looking swell, either. She couldn’t decide, personally, if it was grotesque or strangely beautiful, the way the scales blended with his skin like that. Then again, she’d always had a strange aesthetic sense, so there it was.

He caught her glance, and raised the ridge of skin that had used to be his eyebrow, as if in challenge. She grinned and shrugged, and he rolled his eyes. Well, that was more or less normal. Maybe they’d make it out of this without any horribly-lingering trauma, after all. She supposed that, for the moment, all she could do was hope. Scientists were not as a rule very religious people, and Gwen couldn’t say she believed in any gods, but if she did, she’d be praying, too.

Sven had awoken, perhaps, earliest of all. He wasn't sure what had been worse; sleeping with all of those whispers or suffering them while awake. He'd been quiet enough not to wake anyone, busying himself with his pack. Checking the contents, zipping up what needed to be put away and counting off the spices and preserves he'd used last night while cooking. The pot had already been cleaned and put away, tucked under a rough blanket at the bottom of his knapsack (he hadn't expected there to be leftovers, after all). After counting them for the umpteenth time, the Lieutenant rocked back on his heels and pulled the straps tighter. Faith is all we need, she'd said. Like it really meant something. What had that gotten her? Nowhere good. No amount of well-wishing could bring her back—nothing he could do about it, so why did he feel so guilty?

The forest was to blame. Every single memory seemed to drag itself out of the underbrush, painting unpleasant pictures behind his eyelids. He wanted to rub them away, but every sorry attempt to brush them off only brightened the colors; composed so vividly, so impossibly bright.

He almost missed the desert. There was an emptiness there, and a comfortable silence that drowned out his thoughts. He'd only been thinking of the sweltering heat back then, and the fact that there were blue-eyed orcs and a large, slavering troll advancing on them. This place, with whatever stinking magic it held, was far too silent. Quiet enough for his memories to intrude on him, as if it were an unwelcome guest kicking up dirty shoes through his kitchen. The siren-song drumming through his ears (or his heart, perhaps) had grown louder and far more persistent. Of course he wanted her back. Of course he wanted to rip through time, and somehow know what his brother had been planning in order to stop him dead in his tracks. It was painful enough remembering how they'd played as boys, with wooden sticks, whooping and hollering. Pretending to be big goddamn heroes. He pressed his hand to his chest, willing it to stop. No amount of brute strength could salve those wounds.

Breathing deeply through his nose, Sven dropped his hand and looked out over the campsite. They were already beginning to stir, gathering up their things. Gwendolyn was awake, seemingly lost in thought. Despite the temptation to go to her and ask what was wrong—what was on her mind, Sven knew better. He knew that look well enough. It was the same one she wore when visiting his gravestone. He rubbed his eyes, and glanced over his meaty fist. Lohengrin was awake, as well. Still looking mighty serpentine. He had to admit... it suited him.

It was sudden, one moment spent quietly as the morning suns rose above the horizon, the next filled with the laborious breath of a stranger on the edge of camp. It was unclear on when he arrived, whether or not the ones who stirred overlooked him, or he had just arrived. He had appeared without a sound, and even then his tongue worked as if trying to conjure some forgotten words. Nothing came out of his mouth but breath as speech was slow to return. Everything was sluggish, painted in hues of black and white splashed with colors. He was confused, frustrated, and most poignantly, afraid. His mouth worked faster and faster, trying to force the words to his tongue. He had been good at them days ago, but now the most simple of actions eluded him. It took all the willpower he had left to not go bounding back into the forest.

"Mer... Mercy," He whispered before dropping to his knees in a heap. What was left of Percy had returned. He still wore the antlers of a stag, yet that was not the only thing. His face was more angular and shallow than before, his nose had a darker discoloration giving it a snout like appearance. Where his two ears should have been protuded two furry deer ears, pushed back against his head and twitching in fear. But the most unsettling feature was his eyes. One contained a blue-green iris, subtly different from its default color but the other was larger in scale and completely brown like a deer's. Most of the clothing he wore was ripped and shredded, and the flesh underneath scratched.

He huddled himself clutching at his knees for fear of letting go, afraid to move even an inch. It took all of his humanity to not give into the forest's song and shift back into a stag and leave, this time perhaps forever. The whispering forest played havoc on his mind, toyed with his insecurities, and baited the animal that lay under the surface. He could try to close his large ears but he could still hear the murmur of the forest. He wanted to go to someone, but he couldn't find the strength. He couldn't fight this alone, he needed someone, he needed an anchor to keep him from losing himself to the forest. He needed someone to guide him back.

"H-help," he grunted.

Dio had woken that morning one of the more well-rested of the group. She'd collapsed into a relatively peaceful slumber after her large burst of magic the night before, sleeping through the night without interruption. The price she paid for this was waking with a growling stomach, which grumpily reminded her every fifteen seconds or so that she had chosen not to eat any dinner the night before. To appease it, she had begun munching on the fruit she'd brought back to camp, whatever was left that the others hadn't wanted. It wasn't a very well rounded breakfast, but it gave her stomach something to do, at least.

She had just started in on another of the peach-like fruits when Percy made his return, and Dio certainly did not overlook this. Dropping the food, she rose quickly and walked quickly over to where he had chosen to sit, resisting the urge to jog or run. She wanted to help, of course, but he was obviously a bit skittish while in the forest, and any number of things could probably set him off. Shocking him would no doubt be one of those, so Dio resisted the urge to give him a squeeze on the shoulder, or an outright hug, because that would end badly for everyone.

"Percy?" she tried tentatively, wondering what he needed when he said help. "It's Dio. It's good to see you. We were worried. We thought you might have left for good." Maybe the others hadn't thought that, but Dio had, and it had worried her. She mirrored the way he was sitting somewhat, though she didn't seem as tense. The idea was to keep herself from shocking him, and that meant making herself small, and keeping her hands to herself.

"Get him up," Theon said from the edge of camp. Judging by the state of his eyes, he hadn't slept very peacefully at all through the night. The scryer was geared up and ready to leave, and obviously not in a good mood. When was he ever in a good mood? "Whatever's fucking with our heads isn't going to stop until it gets an axe in the skull, so let's stop wasting time and go kill the fucking thing." There was a look in his eye that Dio did not like at all, but she couldn't place it. He looked violent this morning. More violent than usual, that was.

"Percy needs help," Dio protested, not moving an inch. "We can't move right now. Not until he's better. Just look at him." Theon looked at Percy, huddled and terrified on the ground, and appeared unmoved.

The Lieutenant, too, had moved away from his somber perch, abandoning his knapsack. He tried mirroring Dio's soft footsteps as best he could, teetering at an uncomfortable lumber. She could not touch him, for fear of replaying what had happened the other night, but Sven had at least one arm capable of gentility. Compared to Dio, he knew he was a poor substitute for tender-spoken words and comfort, but he would try his best. Putting aside Theon's heightened aggressiveness, and clear annoyance—he was correct, as well. They needed to leave this place, or find the cause and destroy it. However, Sven ignored his brusque demand, leveling him with slanted eyes. Now was not the time.

He wrapped his meaty arm around the boy's slender shoulders, blinking uncertainly. He would not let him go. If there was something he did know about, it was frightened animals. Cornered things that were too afraid, too jumpy, too predatory in nature, to do anything but flee or lash out. Animals were far easier to understand than humans. He hummed low in his throat, and called out to him, “Percy.” He repeated his name again. “You found us, ya. Safe, Percy. Safe here. Old King Alsont, you were saying about. You never told Dio that story.” Familiarity, it seemed, always worked with animals, so why couldn't it work with Percy?

"Dio..." Percy repeated, pushing a palm into his shifted eye. He tried to force the shift back through brute strength, but it wasn't budging. His ears twitched in frustration but he didn't remove his hand from his face. He didn't want the others to see that, nor did he want to see them through it. He shuddered and twitched heavily before putting on a weak smile and a hesitant nod. "Not... Gone yet," Percy stumbled over his words, but still spoke. He had to speak, anything to keep the wild animal at bay. He had to do anything and everything he could to not allow the animal free reign over his mind again. It had wrested control days ago, when he bolted from the group. Ever since then, he wasn't Percy, not so much as he was a wild animal. He'd never had trouble shifting between forms, not before coming to the forest. Here, the song didn't sing to him, but the feral nature that waited beneath the surface.

Theon spoke, Percy's one human eye darted toward him and glared. He did not like the tone in his voice, and whatever part of the animal remained caught wind of the man's unspoken feelings. Whatever the animal would have done was moot, because it did nothing but irritate Percy. It caused him to fight all that much harder. He'd show the man, he'd show him. He was stronger than that. Percy shook his head violently at Dio's next words. "Told you... Not gone," The words still fumbled out of his mouth, and they felt heavy on his tongue. Unfamiliar even, and that hurt him. He knew he used to be good at words, he could talk with the best of him, but now he could barely force a coherent sentence together. Old Kings above, he hated this forest.

The touch on his shoulders caused him to tense, but he let pass without any other action. It was Sven, and out of everyone he trusted the man the most to never let go. He wouldn't allow Percy to escape without a fight, and that remembrance settled Percy's wild soul. He was... Safe. They wouldn't let him run away again. The knowledge that he didn't have enough strength to fight it himself stung, but there was nothing he could do about it. He was still intelligent enough to understand that he needed these people, else risk grazing out in the forest for the rest of his life. "Alsont. Young. Intelligent. Strong. An iron will," Percy said, remembering the tale he had told Sven on the deck of the Elysium. As he spoke, his natural green coloration began to return to his shifted eye. Even so, Percy wished he has some of that will he spoke of.

"Maybe... The whole story. Later," Percy promised with another forced smile.

“That’s the spirit,” Gwen said, moving to Percy’s other side and helping Sven lift him up and set him back on his feet. Not that Sven needed help doing any such thing, but she figured it might at least ground Percy a little more. She wasn’t really a nature girl—she didn’t know a whole lot about animals. But Percy was a person, not just an animal, so she figured she could at least try and help out the person-bit. Those, she did know a thing or two about. “There now—those eyes, I do recognize,” she said, her grin a little more wan than usual, but definitely still present. She pressed one of the fruits from the previous night into his palm.

“Eat. I’ll carry your stuff for a while.” He seemed to have retained the majority of his belongings from his run off into the forest, and she was most relieved to note that the key was still present. Sliding his pack off his back, she hoisted it onto her own, staggering a bit under the extra weight, but waving it off as funny rather than troubling. She could handle it for long enough for him to get his bearing. That was what captains did. It was what friends did, too, and she liked to think she was capable of being both.

“Kethyrian, can you do anything for him? We really can’t afford to stay here much longer.” Though he’d put it, typically, in a ruder-than-necessary fashion, Theon was right. They had to get to the bottom of this—before it got to the bottom of them and scraped out all the guts worth having.

Kethy, who thus far had kept mostly to herself during this rather awkward spectacle of… whatever on Albion was going on, cocked her head to the side at the question. Normally, the answer would be obvious enough—what did they keep her around for, if not doing something about situations like this one? It certainly wasn’t her charming personality. Like the scryer, she was here because she was useful, not because she would be winning any awards for congeniality. But a day and a night in the forest had mostly drained her; she was running on the dregs of her own magic. Even so… she approached, picking her way carefully over the plant life she was still generating at alarming rates, and placed the back of her hand against Percy’s forehead.

She wasn’t really the kind of person to bother asking permission for such a thing, and frankly if it bothered him, he was too touchy and needed to learn to deal with things of this nature anyway. Perhaps there was some irony in the fact that she thought so, perhaps not. He looked ill, but did not appear to be running a fever, nor did a simple diagnostic check reveal that he was doing as poorly as she was in terms of allergic reaction. Actually, his vitals were quite hale, but like the rest of them, his magic was going haywire. “Doctor’s advice?” she asked rhetorically. “Get him the hell out of the forest before he goes feral or something. Barring that…” she paused a moment, dredging up the resources for at least a bit of a boost, though more than anything, she was trying to apply bits of her magic to block his, so that maybe it wouldn’t eat at him quite so badly. Since they were from opposite schools, she had a feeling it might work at least a little, but it was all she could do at any rate.

Straightening, she shook her head. “That’s all I have. Our best option right now is to keep moving. The sooner we find whatever’s here for us to find, the sooner we can be done with it.” And she was really looking forward to that part. "I agree," Percy added quickly. He then turned toward Sven and asked, "Can I... Borrow this?" He asked, tugging on the man's arm. Percy didn't trust himself to walk straight.

The Lieutenant stood like a tower, immovable. He appreciated Gwendolyn's help, gathering up Percy between them. Perhaps, more from a fatherly standpoint then anything else, though it no longer surprised him. If anyone was in need of anything or was in any sort of danger: she would be there, bearing down on them with an affection that tethered them into her own circle. To be surrounded by so many kindred spirits, while he simply was not, made him feel awkward. All things considered, he wasn't a bad guy, but he'd done things in his life that kept him apart. Had he acted out on the unpleasantness he felt inside, much like Theon and Lohengrin seemed to do, things may have been easier for him. Suffering quietly, she liked to tell him, was the suckers way out of things. Funny lady with a sailors mouth. Surrounding himself with these types of people, and acting the silent guardian, was the least he could do, and performing any kind of duty, it seemed, had become his purpose.

He watched as daffodils and tulips curled up from beneath Kethyrian's feet. Wondered absently if the forest was a means of showing what kind of people they really were. With him; an angry beast, prone to bouts he could barely control. Truly, a feeble metal-man who clung to ghosts, unwilling to live for himself. Gwendolyn with her longing, desperately missing what she could not bring back and Percy, struggling and somewhat broken. A mess of nerves and curiosity, seconds away from disappearing into the woods that plagued them. Theon and Vivian exploding like fireworks, clashing against themselves, and everyone else, too. Lohengrin—scaled, not-so-cold and getting closer still to his truth. Electric, and fearful of herself. Dio's moral compass was admirable, as was her selflessness, but still afraid of what she might do. Mordecai with all of his whirring gears, barely holding himself together to keep himself from hurting anyone. The act in itself was the most telling of his nature, his kindness. Lastly, Kethyrian with her brusque, slender fingers, pressed to Percy's forehead. A healer who did not really like people, but chose such a position anyway. Maybe the flowers signified something as well.

He bobbed his head in agreement. They were right. The only thing they could do now was press on, now that Percy was able to walk. Get the hell out of the woods, kill whatever was sinking its teeth into them, or find what they were looking for and leave the damn place. No need for anymore words. Gwendolyn and Theon would lead them, and he would follow. Percy's voice pulled his attention back towards the ground, accompanied by a light tug on his arm. Borrow this—Sven's furrowed brows softened, as did his solemn expression. It was all he could offer, always. “Of course.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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At the top of the world, where the Genesis began, all was deathly silent save for the song of the siren's. Genesis, as her name implied, was the lifegiver for this part of Albion, her waters nourishing what would otherwise by a uninhabitable desert. From her shores, trees sprung to life, grass rose from the ground, and she gave life to all the creatures that inhabited the forests. The wellspring stretched out as far as the eye could see, the other shore sitting somewhere far over the horizon beyond sight. Everywhere she touched, she gave life-- everywhere but here.

Here silence ruled. There were no chirping birds, no whistling winds, and no footfalls of creatures either big or small. The only sound that remained was the haunting siren song. This shore was completely empty. Completely empty save for one resolute entity. He stood atop the water where he faced the shore in a silent vigil. His armor was a cloak of brilliant greens, from forest, to sage, to even accents of lime. Engravings of roots and vines etched deep into his arm, dancing across the metal organically as if they too were alive. Impressions of leaves rested upon his shoulders and his breastplate. Atop his crested helmet sat a pair of intertwining antlers.

In his hands rested a massive greatsword, as wide as a small child. Its tip dipped into the water only slightly, and every breath he took caused the water around it to ripple ever so slightly, breaking the illusion of stillness. Here he waited, without word or without movement. Here there was only him and the siren song that draped over his shoulders. His silent vigil was broken by the sounds of life. Echoes of footsteps drifted toward him, labored breathing followed closely behind. His lonesome watch became not so lonesome anymore. He made no movement, nor acknowledgement. He simply waited.

Well. This was just charming, wasn’t it? Kethyrian was getting really sick of the music, frankly, because she didn’t like being jerked around like a dog on a leash, and, mentally at least, that’s exactly what it felt like. Collar her with old thoughts she didn’t want, tether her to some damn temptation, and pull. It was honestly a wonder she hadn’t gone off by herself towards it yet—or may the greater surprise was that she hadn’t turned and fled from it. She wasn’t stupid, after all: this was a spiderweb, and they were flies, one and all.

She shouldn’t have been surprised to see some idiot bedecked head-to-toe in green metal standing on the surface of the water, but if this was what that song had been trying to tempt her to, either she or whatever was singing was more confused than she had imagined, because she was entirely nonplussed by whomever this was. She was pretty sure none of her deepest desires involved knights in shining armor, thank you very much. “Well,” she supplied bluntly, “I’m guessing we don’t just get to mosey on through, do we? Is there a ‘you shall not pass’ in here somewhere, or do we just have to infer that from all the silent ominous standing around you’re doing?”

Well, the elf was even less patient than usual today. Not that he blamed her for that, exactly—most of them were. Still, pissing off someone whose status as ally or enemy you did not know seemed like a rather counterproductive approach. Lohengrin almost wondered why it was that he stood by so much water when the song had been promising him the freedom of endless sky. Perhaps he was simply destined to be forever disappointed as well as forever disappointing. There was a certain kind of symmetry to the thought, at any rate. “Gonna go out on a limb here and suppose that he’s not going to speak with us. Anything supposed to happen now?” This, he asked of Theon, given that nobody else around here dealt in prophetic dreams.

"Fuck if I know," Theon said, shrugging. "Everything I saw in the dream's already happened. The singing bullshit, the lake, this asshole in the green not saying anything to me. I even shot him in the dream, but it just bounced off him. All he did was open his visor, but I didn't see anything inside." He'd have shot the floating knight now, too, but he didn't want to bother with reloading, and also didn't want to drop the duckfoot in the water.

"You sh-shot him?" Dio asked, notably standing out of the water. It might have looked quite refreshing to her, but she wasn't going to risk another electrical burst going off while she was in it. "W-why? Did he d-do something to you?"

"He wouldn't let me go in," Theon explained. "Oh come on, it was just a dream, it's not like I actually shot him. Fuck off." Dio narrowed her eyes at him instead. "Well, m-maybe he knows you attacked him in the dream. We don't kn-know that he's an enemy. You don't have to go and m-make him one."

"We don't know he's a friend, either," Theon said, rubbing at his temples. The little girl wasn't helping with his headache any.

The Lieutenant readjusted himself, keeping his arm steady as a pillar. Green knight, indeed. His gaze raked across the vibrant cloak nestled over the thing's shoulders, hardly flapping like it should have been. A general unease settled over his own, weighing heavy on his neck. As if someone were pressing down on him with great, unyielding hands. Bigger than his own, and volatile in nature. He had trouble differentiating whether or not this green knight was human or some sort of creature, or neither—perhaps, a God. Not that he believed in anything that he couldn't see with his own eyes, but days before, Sven never believed in age-old guardians either. His mouth tugged into a rueful smile. A goddamn good fight was going to happen. He could feel it in his bones, gathering in all the tight spaces of his muscles, screaming for release. Bent, twisted, angry. All of the temperance he'd cultivated over the years was slowly going to waste, trickling through a sieve, growing larger and larger, the longer he listened to that fucking song.

Now that they were close enough to see him with their own eyes, Sven could see her as well. Beckoning him to leave the group and drop the boy, come to the woods with her and leave everything behind—because they would be all right they would always be fine without him but I need you I do. She peeked behind branches, only long enough for him to blink her away like a mirage. Like an ill-imagined vision. Her voice, however, did not leave him. It lingered, whispering how this was his only chance to set things straight and do the right thing. His mechanical arm twitched and rose from his side. He settled the rubber pads of his fingers against his forehead, rubbing small circles against his temples. Half measures. He was always taking half measures, half steps, half decisions, especially when all he really needed was action. Kethyrian's collar may have been an annoyance, of things long past, but his collar felt like an anchor, dragging him down. Sweat beaded his forehead, slick against his palm. He felt like he was fading.

"We could sit here and continue to bitch," Vivi spoke up, airy tone evaporated. The siren's song had wrung every drop of animation out of her very soul, and what was left was only the bitter rind. If only she could find the source of the song, she'd make whoever was singing it suffer until she got tired. Unfortunately, no such sirens were found, only a jackass in green armor. "Or we can get on to whatever it is we were supposed to be doing here. Don't know about you, but I want to leave," She hissed out. Then her arm swung wide and pointed at the green jackass. "If what we need is past him, then we go past him. There are nine of us and one of him-- I mean, what the hell?" She said already going for the sword on her back.

Percy on the other hand was much more quiet and much more thoughtful-- as thoughtful as he could be with his scattered brains. Speech had become more and more difficult to come by, and once instead words a buck's grunt left his lips instead. He had since resigned himself to one word responses when he needed to speak, and nothing more. He had Sven's arm clutched in a hard grip. He fought the urge to drop to all fours and walk that way valiantly, and if the large man wasn't around Percy wasn't so sure he could have stopped himself. On the lakeside, he did an admirable job of tuning all the other voices out, instead keeping this "Green Knight" in focus.

Was he a man? Or was it a constuct? Perhaps whatever it was, it was of the same type of thing the guardian was? Surely it wasn't a guardian itself-- these creatures did not seem the type to simply appear and wait. Percy's antlered head tilted in curiousity as he took everything in and processed it. Perhaps more slowly than usual thanks to his current state-of-being, but Percy was still Percy, the animal couldn't change the man. What caused it to stand on the water? Some kind of magic? He squinted and then noticed that it wasn't standing on the water at all. The knight stood on top of a shallow sandbar, obscured by the reflectiveness of the water.

That answered one question, but many still remained. Who, or what was this knight for instance.

Perhaps ordinarily, proud Kethyrian would have simply ignored the presence of the knight and marched right past him, or at least been willing to try her luck and see how he reacted, but she was having a problem. A very large, wellspring-sized problem. She stood at the very back of the group currently, eyeing the water with more than a little trepidation evident on her sharp features. Her scowl looked less angry than usual and more… apprehensive. She’d never gone so far as to tell anyone, but Kethyrian had nearly drowned as a child, and had feared sufficiently-large bodies of water ever since. It was something so banal, so ordinary and weak of her, that she couldn’t stand it about herself, and seldom chose to give it any thought. This situation, however, was giving her no choice, and she shifted from one foot to the other with discomfort, her long-fingered, claw-tipped hands wrapped around her biceps and crossed protectively over her chest.

#9 was having its own issues. At some point during the walk, it had lost its ability not only to communicate in the common tongue or dialects of it, but even to understand spoken words. It knew that it was not to harm these people, it knew that they needed to get past the being wearing green. It did not have any protocols suggesting that it was to respect the ground that the knight was clearly guarding, and so its reasoning process, stripped to bare logic and probability, free of any of the more cumbersome attachments such as feeling and rightness, presented it with the obvious conclusion. Without anything blocking the way mentally, it immediately acted in accordance with the conclusion of its calculations, and went to cross the water. It was, of course, built to resist damage from such things, and it felt none of the Favisae’s reservations, simply moving through the water briskly until it alighted on the sand bar the green-clad creature occupied and then continued walking forward.

Mordecai would find the way forward wasn't so simple as taking a step, at least not without stepping through the Knight. The tip of the greatsword lifted out of the water and turned, the knight taking a step to the side to put him in the direct path of Mordecai. He had been tasked to protect this place from all those who dared approach, no one was going to pass while he still stood.

Mordy's steps though paved the way for others. Vivi in particular was the next to follow. In fact, as soon as the Automaton took the first steps into the water she followed close behind, wading into the Wellspring. She watched as the knight moved to stand in Mordecai's way, leaving the path she took wide open. At least, for the time being. As she drew closer to the invisible threshold, her progress was blocked by the knight's greatsword. Held out with a single hand, he barred her passage further into the spring.

Glaring at the knight, though his eyes were locked on the automaton, Vivi then tried to duck under the sword, only for him to lower it. Then she rose to try and step over it, only to find it rising with her. Hate filled her eyes as she tried to step further around the sword to find that blocked as well. The knight angled his sword and corraled her back to her initial position, like a mother would a child. That managed to draw hostility. In a moment Vivi's pistol found it's way to her hand and in another a crack echoed through the forest. The ringing of metal filled the area as the knight's head ripped back grotesquely. He stood like that, head ripped back and staring at the sky above before it slowly fell, unseen eyes drifting down and finally toward Vivi where they stayed.

The shot was then replaced by Vivi's defeated scream.

Gwen rubbed a hand down her face, murmuring something probably unflattering and colorful, though the slight tremor in her shoulders made it just as likely that she was laughing, as absurd as that would have been in a situation such as this. So much for getting on with it, as Vivi had so inelegantly phrased her suggestion. Well. Either they fought the knight, or they talked him down. Considering he’d taken a point-blank gunshot both in dream and reality without appearing at all fazed, she was really hoping that talking was going to get them somewhere.

“Ahem,” she started, drawing some attention to herself and waving sardonically at the… being in armor. “Hi there, ser knight. I don’t suppose there’s some nonhostile way to get past you, is there? It’s a bit of a matter of life and death, fate of the world and all that, so we can’t really just leave. I’d also really rather not die, so. Well, you see where I’m going with this. I don’t suppose there’s some kind of fetch-quest option? Some object to retrieve, a riddle to answer, maybe? Anything at all?”

Theon probably should have been angrier at the knight for threatening his sister, but so far he hadn't seen the guy do anything more hostile than stand in their way. He was tempted to smirk, but kept a relatively straight face. "Really, sis? I told you that wouldn't work." Dio, meanwhile, had distanced herself even further from the water, a good ten or fifteen feet from any of the other party members, at which point she crouched down slightly and let off a large discharge of electricity, arcing through the air around her for a second or two before it dissipated. Sighing when it was done, she wearily pushed herself back to her feet and stepped with trepidation into the water. She didn't have Kethyrian's fear of it, but she had no desire to accidentally hurt anyone. "Please," she said to the green-clad warrior, "We really need to get by you. Can't we work something out? We don't want to fight you." Her statement came in direct contradiction to some of the others' actions, but she said it anyway.

The knight's response was a predictable empty silence. There was no quest, there was no riddle, there was no passage. He had only one task, one duty, and that was to protect the Wellspring from all comers. He made no indication that he'd even heard the women's plea, and made no move other than to deny this passage past him.

The answer was simple then—it knew that they would not get past unless they moved the obstacle in the way. It knew itself to be capable of this—no matter the being’s seeming invulnerability to damage, it could still lift and hold, and this it calculated it must do. #9 moved with surprising speed, locking one of its arms around the Green Knight’s own left one and another around the corresponding leg, and then it turned several circles on the spot about the sandbar, gaining considerable momentum, before it released the being much as an athlete would a discus—sending the mysterious armored entity flying for several yards. It opened its mouth to speak, but all that issued were strange mechanical sounds—it did not remember how.

Kethyrian watched the knight go flying with wide eyes and a tight jaw. “This… isn’t going to end well,” she muttered, still eyeing the water with evident discomfort. Maybe the rest of them could go while he was down, and she could run in the opposite direction? Maybe she’d take Dio with her—water conducted, after all, and that seemed like a bad idea just waiting to happen.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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A heavy splash later and the knight had been forcibly removed from his vigil by an inhuman toss from a certainly inhuman construct. The knight, still visible underneath the crystalline surface, only stayed submerged for a moment. Like a ghost rising from its grave, the Knight broke the surface and stood knee deep in the water, his armor shimmering in the moisture. It was obvious that the only way to keep them from breaching the wellspring was by force. So it was with a great heft that the Green Knight lifted his sword out of the water and swung it menacingly in front of him, dancing across the surface of the water. Displaying immense strength he held his greatsword out by one hand before lifting it up and resting it on his shoulder. He then began his slow march forward to meet his foes.

Something resembling a growl erupted from Percy's throat, figuring this was how it was going to end once Vivi let the first shot ring out. He wouldn't just sit by this time and watch everyone else as they fought. He'd do something this time. Glancing up at Sven, Percy nodded curtly and pointed toward the Knight, uttering a single word, "Go." He'd be better off helping them than keeping him on his feet. As if to further encourage him, Percy let go of his arm and stumbled forward to the edge of the water.

There he fell to his knees and stared into the water. An antlered boy with twitching deer ears stared back, even despite the ripples caused by the Knight and his companions. He sighed deeply and simply thrust his hands into the water, letting the cool water cascade over his hands. He dipped into his druidic powers, and perhaps strangely, he found that the effort usually required to commune with nature wasn't present. Still, there were no time to ponder that shift, and instead focused on what he decided to do. He could nearly feel every creature swimming in the water, their heart beats. He could feel the life swimming in the Wellspring, invigorating him. It was old and ancient, with numerous secrets squirreled away. Sadly, neither did he have the time to wrap himself in those secrets. Quietly, he began searching for the largest lifeform he could possibly find, and began to ask for its help.

Sweat beaded his forehead, dripped down his cheeks. He stood and watched. What else could he do? Vivian had shown, in a great show of self-control and intelligence, that they couldn't shoot their goddamn way through the Green Knight and expect him to step aside or even die. Nor did he really expect any kind words to sway him, so when Dio and Gwendolyn stepped forward, Sven's breath caught in his throat. It was obvious that he was a guardian of something—that he was the source of his bleeding headache and horrible visions and Kethyrian's erratic garden blooming from her heels like a wedding-trail. Besides, Sven was watching over Percy. Using his good arm as a walking stick, because his other one was a creature of its own, reacting badly whenever he tried to settle it down. Go. He blinked in surprise and looked down at the boy. So resolute, stubborn. He may have felt Percy let go of him, had he weighed that much to begin with. Go. Like it was an easy task.

Standing stupid wouldn't help anyone. He bowed his head, breathed in deep and stepped forward, splashing into the water. The Green Knight would not let them pass, so they would plow through him. Make him kneel, destroy him, rip him to shreds, devour him, spit him out. World-weary eyes stared past their shoulders, past Gwendolyn's head of blonde hair and finally, settling on the incoming enemy, blazing with a determination reserved for brick walls and impregnable gates. What was he protecting with this much vigilance? It didn't matter. They needed entry. They needed to clamp the siren's mouth shut for good, clear their heads and give themselves a good shake. He'd try to pave them a path. He'd try to buy them time. If he couldn't even do that, then what kind of lieutenant was he? “Time for talking is done,” he grunted as he stomped past them, so sick of wading through water and woods and moist terrain. But, warfare ran hot through his veins. This, he knew best. Sven stretched out his mechanical arm, flexing its fingers experimentally. Good enough, then. Hopefully, it'd hold up against that laughably large sword of his.

He might as well start this, then. Quickening his pace, Sven's legs hissed and steamed with the exertion of pushing himself faster, frothing bubbles around his ankles. His other hand drifted towards his back and closed around the wrapped-butt of his shotgun, swinging it out in front of him. He aimed for the Green Knight's chest and fired, sidestepping to his left, while bringing up his arm should he prove to be surprisingly fast.

Dio let slip a heavily dissapointed sigh. Mordecai probably hadn't meant to do what he did, or at least, she wanted to think that. Regardless, what was done was done, and now they needed to destroy this thing in order to move on. It felt wrong, but Dio supposed there was nothing she could do about it now. Sven was charging forward, Percy was at the water's edge doing something... and there was really no way for Dio to help, at least none that she saw. Her magic would undoubtedly hurt her allies far more than the enemy here, and she was almost glad for the convenience of it, because she really had no desire to fight this thing anyway. Tiredly, she slogged out of the water and back to the shore, keeping her sword in its sheath across her back, and her pistol in its holster. The others would have to tear this thing down without her.

Theon, meanwhile, figured they weren't going to talk their way by this guy, and while he didn't really care if they murdered him or not (he actually preferred it this way, as the green bastard was beginning to annoy him with the stone wall of silence), he didn't see a way to go about the actual killing. Bullets didn't seem to have any effect at all, and he didn't enjoy the thought of trying to take this thing hand-to-hand, with movement restricted by the water, and that greatsword to contend with. Maybe the toaster would be able to pull him apart limb from limb. The scryer drew his axe, wondering if the armor had any weak spots he could cleave through, if given the right opportunity.

The Knight displayed surprising agility in an attempt to dodge the shotgun blast. However, the armor was just as heavy as it looked and he took an entire side's worth of buckshot for his trouble. The kick was immense and forced the Knight back a couple of places, but had enough awareness to spin with the shot. Using the momentum of the spin, he stretched out his sword and skimmed the surface of the water, kicking up a rooster tail of water. While seemingly childish at first, there was an intended tactic to be had. The water was eye height in attempt to momentarily blind his attackers. His sword came to rest in below the water at his back, the Knight still holding it with a single hand. A series of dents laid into the armor where the shot had connected, but the Knight seemed otherwise unharmed.

Once more bearing that surprising agility, the Knight regained the lost steps and then some behind the splash, pushing himself through the knee deep water with simple force of will. The blow that came next didn't fall from above but instead rose from below. The knight grabbed the hilt with both hands and using strength that would match Sven's own, whipped the blade upward. Curiously, instead of attacking with the edge of the blade, the flat was used instead.

The Green Knight's reflexes were admirable, given the fact that he wore heavy armor in moggy-water. Never in his years of serving had he seen such a thing. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting but it certainly wasn't that. He may have overcompensated or assumed too much, strategically. An arc of water jettisoned into his eyes, momentarily blinding him. Instinctively, Sven took a staggering step backwards, rubbing at his eyes with his sleeve. One glimpse between fabric, metal and the Knight told him volumes. There were some dents, yes—but it hardly slowed the Knight, who gained his steps back quicker than he thought and repositioned himself so that his blade was hidden beneath the water. It did not come from above, as he figured it would. He didn't have time to adjust himself, push away, or sidestep out of range. The flat of the blade, large as it was, struck him underneath his armpit, across the chest and lifted him.

Impossible, he would have thought prior to this. The Lieutenant's feet left the sand, kicking up his own trail of water. The world spun backwards, upside down and quickly became a blur of speed and blurred foliage. Strong had been an understatement. The weight of the Green Knight's swing had knocked the breath clear from his lungs, like they'd been squished together in his gauntlet. He splashed several feet back, dipping under water. Had it not been for his mechanical limbs, he may have stayed under the surface, staring up at the sky through milky, wavy eyes. The place where he'd landed sizzled, bubbled and frothed until he resurfaced, breathing heavily. This wouldn't be easy.He placed his hands on his knees, searching for his lost shotgun. Thankfully, it sat on one of the slivers of sand, relatively unharmed.

Vivi had slipped in from behind Sven, and darted through the water. Unlike the Knight or Sven, strength wasn't her mainstay-- she couldn't just force her way through the water. It had the effect of considerably slowing her down, but in no way did it cool her fury. She had a lot of aggression she still needed to work out, and if the knight wanted to die, then she'd happily give him that. Having used Sven as a distraction, Vivi slid through the water and ended up behind the knight, where she went to work. Having the same thought at Theon, she sought to find the weak points of this so-called knight. First she drew her pistol and aimed it at joint behind the knee. There was a resulting boom, and Vivi quickly switched to her blade, holding it in a reverse grip. She came in hard and fast at the same spot, but the blade rang out futilely as the armor did its job and protected its wearer.

While most of the damage was warded off, that said nothing about the ferocity of the attack. The combination pushed his knee in and the Knight collapsed behind it. He was far from defenseless as Vivi quickly found out. An elbow struck her in the gut, doubling her over. This gave the Knight a moment to regain his footing as he turned. His gauntlet shot forward and grabbed Vivi by the throat. With the girl in his hand, he pulled her in and then cast her away instead of simply snapping her neck like a twig. Vivi dipped under the water near Theon for a moment before rising out of the water with a big gasp. Not only was she pissed, but now she was sopping wet.

"Fuck! You!" She screamed.

Try as she might, Kethyrian could not bring herself to step into the water. Not that it made much of a difference—without her magic, she was a mediocre knife fighter who knew how to parry and step into guards. That was about it. What had come after was never a matter of steel, but of sorcery, and that was lost to her, at the moment, expelled constantly into a damn chain of daisies and lilies instead of anywhere useful. She had not the stamina even for a basic shield, and if any of these people got themselves injured, they’d have to hope that someone knew first aid, because the healer wasn’t going to be much help. It was ironic, really: a mage usually prided him or herself on having talent and dealiness that could not simply be taken away. A sword could be disarmed, a hand dismembered, but magic was supposed to be intrinsic to the very nature of a person. It wasn’t supposed to fail. But it had.

#9, on the other hand, suffered from no such deficiency. It was true that the automaton was incapable of activating either of its more utile modes of combat, but it was difficult to tell whether it would have had the cognitive function to do so even if it had the magical energies required. It was obviously little more than a basic machine at this point, perhaps comparable to one of the worker-drones that bent metal and smelted ore in one of the numerous factories of the industry-cities. It differed only in size, construction, and efficiency. Well, and purpose. It, after all, was designed to kill. Lowering its shoulder, it charged right for the Knight, apparently unconcerned by the fact that it was thigh-deep in cold water.

Not even the Green Knight could withstand the full brunt of the automaton’s attack, and in fact, he was carried from his feet and back into the water. This time, however, he wasn’t going to get back up so easily. Lohengrin was no druid, but he had a feeling he knew what the deer-boy was trying to do, and for once he figured it’d be best if he put in some effort to assist. Not that he really wanted to, given what he risked exposing, but they couldn’t leave until they’d killed this bastard and found the guardian, so it was obviously better to achieve this faster. With a motion of both clawed hands, Lohengrin manipulated the water in the wellspring, forming some of it into two large tendrils that wrapped around the knight, lifting him slightly from the rest of it. With an exhaled breath, the mercenary froze what he’d assumed control of, essentially trapping the knight in a block of ice. Water was not an easy matter for him to control, and he knew that in his present state, it would not remain solid for long, but it should be long enough for Percy’s plan to come to fruition.

As the bony spines erupted from his vertebrae, he had the thought that this had better be worth the effort he was going to.

The fruit of Percy's labor began as a small shadow off of the Wellspring's shore, an omen for what was about to unfold. The strain danced acrossed Percy's face, his eyes closed in absolute concentration and his mouth working with unspoken words. Neither did he sit still for what he did. His hands paced up and down the sand beneath the water, kneading it between his fingers. The sweat dripped off of his forehead and added to the ripples playing across the surface of the water. He was totally and completely oblivious to the fight happening only a few yards away from him, so concentrated he was in his effort. The shadow slowly began to grow in size and diameter, until what was rising from the depths of the Wellspring broke the surface.

And break it did. A long armed tentacle ripped through the water tension, snaking toward the Knight and wrapping around him. Another followed suit, and another after that. The water then erupted in a geyser, throwing rainbows with the gently floating mist. The beast hiding behind the mist bore eight legs, an elongated head, and two very wide, very dangerous eyes. Percy's creature had arrived. Upon the octopus's appearance, the Druid finally wavered, all of his energy sapped from calling for aid from the beast. He found himself face first in water, completely and utterly exhausted. It was with pure survival instinct that Percy rolled himself over on his back, else risk drowning himself. When he opened his eyes, the sclera had turned dark, much as they had before, giving him the eyes of the deer. His work was done.

The octopus's, however, was just beginning. A fourth tentacle joined the last three, snapping the block of ice under the force. With the Knight now in the creature's unrelenting grasp, it forced the man back to the ground hard enough that the Knight's solid knees buckled, pushing him into a kneeling position. Tentacles continued to wrap around the Knight until he was immobile, and that's when the fifth came into place. This one wrapped around the horns of the knight's helmet and yanked, revealing the man's face.

For a man it was. Underneath the concealed helmet sat a handsome face. Messy blonde hair sat atop his head, the sideburns reaching out from either side and meeting in the middle of a chinstrap beard. A tanned skin tone graced his cheeks, along with a number of bruises resulting from the previous fight. Dark blue irises weighted heavily in tired eyes. The man's gaze darted about confused, until it finally focused on something. The gun barrel shoved into his forehead. Vivi's gun barrel. The girl had taken to opportunity to get in close and, it wasn't one she was about to waste. However, if the man displayed any notion of fear, it was hidden deep behind defiant eyes, daring her to pull the trigger.

Granting the man's desire, Vivi did pull but it lacked the explosion. There wasn't a shot, nor a bang, not even a pop. Another dull click followed another until she grunted under her breath. "Your head still rolls," Vivi demanded, raising her blade instead. A simple slice, and then all of their problems would be solved.

“No!” The shout was on a bit of a delay, as it had taken Gwen a moment to properly process what she was looking at. Once she had, though, she thanked her teachers for giving her lessons that honed her reflexes, because if she’d been one moment later in colliding with Vivian at the highest speed she could manage in water, the saber would indeed have likely severed the knight’s head. She staggered backwards a bit as she picked herself up out of the tackle, sloshing around in the water with half her usual grace, but she was standing in front of the man immediately thereafter, as if to protect him from further assault. She was glad that the only command Percy seemed to have given the octopus was to hold him, else she might have been out of luck even so.

“Don’t... kill him,” she said, breathing heavily from the sudden exertion and the panic that had gripped her upon recognizing this person. What he was doing here, instead of where they all had believed him to be, who they had all believed him to be, was a very complicated question, and she supposed the answer would be no simpler. Regardless, they needed to be able to ask it of him. She would not let him become a corpse. Even if they weren’t now the friends they had been once, she owed him much, including the chance to explain himself if he was even able.

“Something’s wrong… we’ve been hoodwinked. This is… this is Artorias, king of Albion.”

There was a silence short silence before the king finally looked up at each of the members of Avalon's Dawn. His eyes then once again fell to the water in front of him, Vivi's pistol still visible even as it was submerged.

"Fate is full of surprises."

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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"I'll admit it," Theon said, shrugging and seeming to take the revelation quite well, "I did not see that coming."

It didn't really make any sense. Shouldn't this guy have been off somewhere else, ruling a kingdom and oppressing some people or something? He really had the time to come stand in some fancy-ass suit of armor in a pool at the top of the world and wait for them, just to fuck with them and fight them when they tried to move forward? What the fuck? If he was here... Theon looked around back into the forest, expecting to see Vipers or worse. There were probably gunships coming over the horizon to blast them to bits as they spoke, weren't there? This was all some kind of fucked up, overly complicated trap.

"We shouldn't stay here," Theon said, hooking the axe back onto his belt, "it's too exposed, there could be soldiers nearby. Let's get this prick somewhere better for us, pry off his fingernails until he tells us what we want, and then blow his brains out." That seemed like the logical plan, as far as Theon was concerned. This guy was the enemy, right? And not just any enemy, he was the enemy, the one who had arrayed everything in his power to hunt them down and kill them. He'd made their job easier for them, so why would they not take the chance they had to kill him now?

"You're an asshole, you know that?" Dio said from the shoreline, arms crossed and weapons still sheathed. She was as surprised as anyone to see the King of Albion under the green armor, but they needed to understand the situation better before making any decisions, and even then... no death would be necessary. There had to be a better way. Theon shrugged as if to say her opinion mattered little to him, and she didn't doubt that, but the words needed to be said, at least. They were all tired and frustrated by the forest, but they needed to avoid letting it cloud their judgment. Some civility would be a nice change.

"What are you doing here?" she asked. She gave a moment's pause to how exactly it was best to address a king, but after considering the strained relationship between him and their group, it didn't seem necessary or wise to give him any kind of reverence. He was clearly just a man, like them.

This had not been part of the plan. Or rather, perhaps it was best to assume that it had been part of the plan, and what he had been told was not the plan. Lohengrin watched with a wary interest as the frown, weary and sad, crossed the captain’s face for an instant so brief he might have missed it had he not been looking right at her. She glanced to the side, at the scryer, and shook her head. “Nobody needs to pull out anyone’s fingernails. If I’m right, our questions will have voluntary answers.” She sounded faintly uncertain, and shot a look at the man who was apparently king. He wondered what their history was, that she seemed to know him not just as a subject might occasionally know the face of a monarch, but as one friend knows another. She didn’t seem like the good Samaritan type, who’d defend him just to avoid death. That was more Dio’s style.

Gwen was more likely to plaster a bright smile on her face and pretend that everything was sunshine and roses. Sure enough, she managed at least half of one, and poked a gentle elbow into the king’s arm. “So, Artillery… how long have you been in the green can?” There was a note of actual worry to the question, but it was well-buried beneath the affected brilliance. Lohengrin didn’t much care how she was actually feeling, but he was interested to hear the answer himself. Assuming there was one… the guy looked a bit bent out of shape, honestly. He wondered if they’d all forgotten that they still had to find the guardian here and retrieve the next key. Well, he couldn’t be arsed if they did.

He could feel the magic of the place beginning to recede, and with it, so did his more obviously-reptilian qualities. Their surroundings were still quite clearly magically charged, but all the same, it no longer felt hostile, just ambient—the feeling of something ancient and unconcerned with the fate of mere mortals. This forest had existed before any of them, and with the possible exception of himself, it would outlive them all. Well… maybe machines didn’t age, either. Who knew?

Artorias simply sighed and shook his head. Even after all this time, Gwen had yet to change one bit. Not that he expected her to much, and there was a whisper of a smile in the corner of his lips as he shook his head. Whatever it had been, it was soon quashed and replaced by the usual stern lipped countance that was to be expected of him. He considered the question asked of him and racked his brain from the answer. "The last coherent memory I have it was... The air was crisp with a bite to it. Winter I believe it was." He paused for a moment, struggling against the octopus's tentacles. The appendages proved to be far stronger than he, so he quit his squirm and just allowed it. If the places were reversed, he would do the same thing.

Next he noticed the hair dangling in his eyes. It was certainly longer than he had remembered it. Following that revelation was a scratch at his chin. Looking down at the crystalline water, he caught his reflection staring back at him. A beard? He took the information without complaint and only offered it as further proof. "I was also clean shaven. Far too long, I'm afraid," He said, giving Gwen a glance. The man with the mouth only recieved a hard glare for his words, but soon Artorias even answered him. "I wouldn't worry about the soldiers and gunships boy, I wouldn't be here if I still had that kind of power. And I'm keeping my fingernails," He said evenly.

In all honesty, he didn't know much. Perhaps even less than these people. He had questions of his own, but was intelligent enough to know that his questions weren't a priotity. They weren't the ones tied up after all. The best he could do was glean enough information from their own responses. His eyes then turned to the other woman, the one who still stood on the shore. Perhaps the only other sane one who had open their mouth. For her, he couldn't find a suitable answer, so he just said what he could, "Wish that I knew. As I said, it was winter the last I remember. Standing in the castle and coordinating the daily routine, taxes, patrols, the like."

He paused for a moment and began to stare holes into the assembled group, one after another, before ending with Gwen, herself recieving a notably less stern look. "Now it's your turn. Where is here and what's happened?" He asked, hoping to find some answers of his own. "And when can I expect to be set free of this beast?" Artorias asked, talking about the obvious cepholopod still holding him in a death grip.

From her position on the bank, Kethyrian pushed a sigh through her nose. Indubitably, the revelation as to the identity of the human wall only made her feel like there was even more tedious work to be done, and this like so many other things irritated her. She was unimpressed by the man dangling from the tentacles of an octopus, but then again, she was unimpressed by just about everything, so it wasn't much of a count against him in the long run. She could feel her magic starting to return to her, whatever spell had been placed on this forest receding almost as soon as it was established that they were apparently not going to kill him, though from the noises Vivi’s brother was making, torture was still on the table. Far be it from her to say otherwise, even if she did find the notion distasteful.

“Mordecai,” she said, assuming that the automaton would have by now regained enough function to take a simple order. “Bring me the boy.” She was not going to go into the water after Percy. Arguably, she might not have done so if he was actually drowning, but fortunately for both of them, she need not find out today. The machine, looking somewhat perplexed by where he found himself, nevertheless latched onto the task as something solid and comprehensible that he could do, and with some care, lifted the mutatio into his arms, sloshing his way through the water and laying the scholar out on the bank. Kethyrian sighed again, well aware that this was going to put a dent in her recovering magic, but nevertheless she knelt beside the youth and placed two clawed fingertips at either of his temples, focusing her attention on bringing him back to consciousness. If his own magic was recovering as hers was, he’d be able to do the rest.

“Percy,” she said, sternly enough to be heard through any half-conscious haze he might drift through on his way to wakefulness. “If you desire that the creature should live, you must dismiss it now—the man must be freed.” And that was exactly what she was going to contribute to this situation. Nothing more.

Inelegant blubbering was her immediate response, but the message rang through loud and clear. His eyelids fluttered open, flickering as he did. Every blink brought his eyes back to their usual color, slowly draining the deer out of his eyes. The cloud that had settled into his head was slowly beginning to fade. His thoughts were clearer than before and he was beginning to actually think. The ambient magic in the area soon presented itself as a vague itch in the base of his skull; annoying, but he could deal with it.

Percy applied pressure to his temple with the palm of his hand and set about concentrating on a single suggestion. He then raised and a hand and waved her off. The octopus, understanding the druid, accepted the order with gusto, dropping the King uncermoniously into the water. Percy could do nothing but wince through the resulting splash and offer a single apology. "Sorry," he squeaked. Artorias rose out of the water and to his full height. He spared a glance for the antlered boy in the Favisae's hand, before he looked down at the droplets beading up on his own armor... His armor? "... This is not my uniform," Artorias said simply, gazing upon the brilliant green suit. Looking back up, his blonde brow furrowed.

"I'll ask again, what's happened?"

“Considering it’s early autumn right now, I’d say you’ve been out of it for a while,” Gwen said with a grimace. Funny; the unnatural anxiety had lifted from this place, but it still felt like she would rather be almost anywhere else. How did you explain having been so wrong about something? Not just anything… wrong about a friend. “Funny thing, though… because Albion’s operating exactly like someone’s still in charge. You never employed a body double, did you?” She remembered the description of Theon’s first dream, after all, and it had sounded like Artorias, harsh attitude and all. The physical description had matched closely enough, but then she hadn’t been the one doing the looking, and Theon had of course never actually seen him before. How many others could be fooled in a similar way? Unless…

“Daisy? Just how much like him did the man in your dream look?”

"Take away the beard, and it might as well be him," Theon said, shrugging. He had the simultaneous gift and curse of remembering all of his dreams with clarity long after having them, and the man before him was the clearly the one he had seen with the wizard. Or rather, he had the same appearance. Now there was some kind of talk of body doubles. "So... what? Are we saying this isn't the guy we're trying to overthrow? We're just going to assume he means us no harm? You got some reason to trust him or something?" He picked up on the fact that Gwen and Artorias weren't new acquaintances, but didn't really want to try and think about it now. The forest's effects might have gone away, but headaches didn't disappear in an instant, and Theon was getting pretty tired of this place.

"I dare you to try, boy. You wouldn't be the first to fail," Artorias said, apparently displeased with the talk of him being overthrown. He might have had his head hidden by that green helmet for nearly a year, but that didn't mean wasn't still King. They'd fought too hard, and too much blood was shed for him to be replaced so easily. However, if he felt any anger toward any of these revelations, it failed to show on his face. He hardly showed any emotion, much less anger. He turned away and bent low, dipping his hand into the crystalline water at his feet. When he withdrew it, out too came the green greatsword. He gave the blade a quick once over and grimaced. It was not his sword, but it would do. He hefted it over his shoulder and turned back.

"Says the man who woke up in a pond with no recollection of the past few months of his life. Sounds like I wouldn't be the first to succeed, either." If all was as it seemed, then this King currently had no control over his kingdom.

"It's not you have I have issue with. That would be the doppelganger who wears my face. You have nothing to fear from me, so long as you stay out of my way," He warned. He had a throne to recapture for the second time in his life. With his words with the boy concluded, he turned toward Gwen and nodded. While he stood straight and proud in front of everyone else, there was a slight hunch in his shoulders when he spoke to her. Mostly due to the fact she was tiny compared to him, and he didn't like shouting down at her. "I have not, I don't hide behind others." She should have known that by now.

What a revelation it was. Artorias was not on the list of people he liked, at all. Anyone who posed any threat to Gwendolyn, and even those who did not, immediately went on his shit-list—and he knew him besides, when he was a fair bit younger. Blonde tresses, big-eyed blues. Friends, or acquaintances, with Leo Skybound. He showed a brief interest in Gwen when she lost her arm in the gullet of an automaton, and from that day forward, Sven had kept a vigilant eye on her, keeping tabs on her by means of shady characters skulking in the shadows. He'd always taken questionable measures to keep her safe, and far, far away from people like him. Once everything settled down, and Kethyrian had Percy safe in her arms, the Lieutenant waded through the waters to stand at Gwendolyn's side, steaming arms coming to cross over his chest. He would always be an angry blade, sheathed unless commanded otherwise. Though, none of his knowledge as a tactician prepared him for this outcome. He wasn't entirely sure how to react, either, what with Gwen's obvious hesitance.

Gwen shook her head. They were going to mix about as well as oil and water, and that was really the long and short of it. Probably best to keep them from talking to each other as much as possible. “Yes, well… we can all not like each other later. Right now, there are problems to solve.” She smiled, so clearly a deflection it even felt unnatural to her. “If you don't have a body double or some twin you’ve never told us about, then I have no idea who’s sitting on the throne, Artillery, but he looks just like you. If Theon says he does, he does. And that’s a very interesting problem. But not our most pressing one at the moment.”

The captain rocked back on her heels, looking back and forth over the group. Honestly, it was probably best to go back to the ship, make sure everyone had time to rest and recover from the torturous journey up here, but… she could feel the ill atmosphere receding, even if she wasn’t the least bit sensitive to magic. This was probably an opportunity to get what they’d come for, and she didn’t know when they’d get another. “First, we need to find the guardian and get the key. I guess you’re with us until then. We were, ah… kind of planning on venturing to the capital anyway. It’s a long story, but whomever’s wearing your face took the guildmaster, and then there was a door, and we need the keys. Spikey or Gadget will catch you up on it, later, if you’re interested.”

As it happened, she did have a reason to trust Artorias. It was hiding somewhere between his honor and her missing arm. But that, too, was a story for another time. She did not doubt that someone would be suspicious enough to ask. If not Daisy, then Thistle or Strawberry. She’d answer, after they had the key. “So Strawberry… where are we going?”

The man so called blinked for a moment. He’d almost managed to forget that stupid nickname. Rolling his eyes, he pointed to the sandbar Artorias had stood on as the Green Knight. “There should be a path made up of those. I’m guessing his majesty here would know it, if he thinks about it hard enough.”

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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There was something akin to a memory about the path behind them. However memory implied conscious understanding, what Artorias felt was a gut instinct that only standing at the water's edge for near about a year supplied. Sure enough when Artorias turned and looked for it, he recognized the lighter shade of water, signifying the sand that lay just beneath the surface. He then hefted his sword off of his shoulder and pointed in the direction the sandbar led, uttering, "That way," In a sure manner that betrayed no mention that he was working off of bare instinct alone. A man like him couldn't afford to appear unsure, and that skill had managed to bleed into his normal usage, along with a number of others.

Like his understanding of the importance of time. He rested his sword against the opposite shoulder and looked back to Gwen, shrugging as he did. "I won't pretend to know all of the details of your quest, but I will wait until we return to your ship before I ask my questions. I wish to wash my hands of this place more than you do," He said, taking the first steps toward the hidden path. While the magic of the Wellspring may have played with their senses, the place had held him prisoner. He wanted nothing more than to leave as soon as possible, and if that meant leading Gwen's group to whatever they were searching for then so be it.

"Careful," Percy croaked through half-closed eyes. "There's a drop off on either side of the sandbars. Very deep," He explained. He'd seen just how deep the Wellspring went when he contacted the giant octopus. In fact, it was deeper than he could fathom, he never did feel the bottom of the wellspring-- if even there was one.

Vivi though, kept quiet, silently retrieving her pistol from the cold water and examining its barrel. It never jammed on her like that before, but then again, she'd never had it submerged completely in water. There was very little water to dip it in in the desert after all. Due to that fact, she heeded Percy's warning and kept firmly in the middle of the sandbars. Life in the desert meant never having to swim, though there were occasions where she had in the swamps around Deluge in her childhood. Though it was better to not test her rusty skills if she could help it.

Returned more or less to normal functionality, Mordecai took note of Percy’s condition, as well as all the walking that still needed to be done, and approached the young mutatio. “Please allow this unit to assist you,” he said calmly, lifting the scholar with as much delicacy as he could, which was actually a rather surprising amount, and helping him get settled against the machine’s back. He held Percy under his knees, leaving the druid free to wrap his arms around the automaton’s neck. It wasn’t as though he had to worry about choking him or cutting off his air supply, though…

“Just Dio, may this unit request a small amount of magical charge? It does not know if it will be required to enter into combat functionality soon, and it would prefer to be prepared if this is the case. If this is inconvenient, it should not trouble you.” He knew enough to understand that they were all tired and perhaps not in the best shape to be defending themselves, but that was precisely why he had asked. His conversion rates would make even a little bit of magic somewhat effective, and he felt… something… about the fact that he had been computing below standard for the last day and a half. He suspected it might be called guilt.

Either way, he was following after the king and the others shortly thereafter, sloshing though the sandbars with no sign of fatigue whatsoever. He received most of his energy from the sun, and however incapacitated he had been, he had still been able to intake the solar power.

Kethyrian, on the other hand, shuffled somewhat awkwardly from foot to foot on the shore, arms crossed over her chest mostly because she didn’t know what else to do with them. She knew they needed to move, to go follow the human king to the key, and if it was anything like the last one, it would require their presence for activation, but… even with all that knowledge, she couldn’t make herself move. She was just… the sandbars, shallow as they made the water, were not wide enough to assuage her fear, and she wasn’t… she just couldn’t bring herself to step in. Her face twisted into a scowl, but the look in her eye, the way she stayed just far enough on shore that her toes wouldn’t touch the water, betrayed her.

Dio was quite certain the automaton was using her name incorrectly on purpose at this point, but she didn't bother correcting him. For one, if he was doing it on purpose, it was likely as a sign of affection, or... whatever automatons felt that was most similar to that. And secondly, the nature of his request made her a little nervous. She had been none too keen on following the group into the water, but now that their surroundings were no longer actively terrorizing them, Dio figured she could keep a handle on things going forward. She hadn't planned on casting any magic, though. The risk of accidentally shocking the entire group was present, of course, but... perhaps if she kept it at a very small current, there wouldn't be any threat.

She pulled up beside Mordecai. Seeing as his hands were occupied with carrying Percy, she slid her left arm through his right, settling her other hand on his forearm. She was relieved when her magic did not spasm throughout the entire pool, but instead did exactly what she willed it to, and slowly began to charge Mordecai. "One of these days," she said quietly, "you're going to slip up, and then I'll have a funny literal name to call you by." She thought it somewhat strange for a machine to have developed a sense of humor, but Mordecai was remarkable in many ways, this one being perhaps the least surprising of them.

Theon, meanwhile, had no desire to walk at the front of the group with the King of the Pond, so he held up, allowing the rest of the group to go ahead. All of them did save for Kethyrian, the wall-crawler to whom he had spoken hardly a word. He watched with some amusement at how she was kept at bay by the slightest touch of the water. Even Dio had gone in willingly enough, despite her magical issues with it, so this was clearly something else. He slogged a few steps back in her direction, crossing his arms.

"Never figured you were a cowardly sort, but I've been proven wrong before. If you want me to look into the future and see if you drown in a few minutes, just say the word." It didn't actually work that way, of course. He was not so gifted in the art that he could simply call up her future at will. What he could do, however, was see if anger was capable of overcoming fear. He seemed to be pretty good at drawing that particular emotion out of people.

"As far as I know, this is a team game we're playing, which means you're going to have to come along, like it or not. If you don't feel like pulling yourself together and keeping up, I can always carry you on my back the way the toaster's carrying deer boy. Or if you prefer, I could hold you in my arms. I'll keep you safe, I promise." It was a little silly, him harassing her for her fears, when he had so many that he hid, but she needed something to hate right now. Theon found he was often the best candidate.

Kethyrian’s lip curled, and if looks alone could kill, Theon would perhaps be dead several times over in increasingly-gruesome ways. It rankled more than anything because he was right. He knew it, she knew it, and he knew that she knew it, presumably. She crossed her arms, encircling her biceps with her fingers and squeezing slightly, as if the sensation were some kind of grounding. The problem was, as correct as she knew him to be, fear like hers was not rational. It did not respond to reasons. There was no convincing or cajoling it to subside for a little while because they were walking on sandbars or because there were plenty of people with the strength to pull her up should she fall in and start drowning. Whether many of them would was a separate question, but she figured there were at least three.

Her pride, however, was affronted, and that, too, was something with a force beyond reason. What did this man understand of her fear? How dare he presume the reason was mere cowardice! Her eyes narrowed, and she raised her chin, stilling her breath for a moment and clenching her jaw. It loosened only enough for her to speak from behind gritted teeth. “I hope that some day, you are made to confront everything that you fear,” she said, the words something between speech and a snarl. Swallowing thickly, Kethyrian edged into the water, quite slowly, but steadily all the same. By the time it was knee-high, her heart was practically in her throat, and she was quite clearly shaking, like a leaf, as the expression might go. Kethyrian, having grown up in caves entirely bereft of trees, would not have understood the comparison.

It would be an exaggeration to say that things got any better when she reached the sandbar. Though the water lapped only at her ankles then, it was deeper on either side of her, and that was the real concern. Though it cost her dearly and probably wouldn’t even save her if she did fall, she kept a shield at one of her hands, which she held out to the side where the deep water was closest. Memory played over the backs of her eyelids like that screen in the cockpit of the ship, and she tried very hard not to think about it. She’d convinced herself long ago that it no longer mattered, but even she knew it wasn’t true, apparently. It was, after all, the reason for the fear.

She managed a decent pace, and though she did still trail behind the rest, it was never more than a few yards, the unwilling tail to a parade of absurdity she wasn’t so sure she wanted to be in anymore.

The trail of sandbars was far from direct, but it was continuous, and the water never went deeper than Artorias’s knees, which admittedly meant that it was slightly less than halfway up Gwen’s thighs at points. It wasn’t she who had the problem with water, however, though she was glad there were no mishaps along the way. Given what Spikey had managed to pull out of the water earlier, things could have been a lot worse. As indirectly as they were going, her sense of navigation still informed her that they were heading towards the very center of the wellspring, the origin of all water for the northern half the world.

It was, she would readily admit, very beautiful. Though they were no longer able to make out the bottom, the water was clear for a very long way, before there was simply no longer enough light penetration to see, marking it as very, very deep. She could see fish in all kinds of bright colors swimming around on either side of the ground they tread, she managing with some dogged persistence to match Artillery’s speed—when she didn’t get caught up staring at something in the water. Even the clouds reflected here, as did the marching figures of their own party, from the proud-if-bedraggled king at the front to the equally-proud, even more bedraggled Favisae in the rear.

After about an hour or so, they at last found what they sought: another platform. But this time, the jewels had been set into a floating cap of ice, which managed to be just as perfectly circular as the stone one had been. Eerily, the number of pale circles on the outside was this time ten. The atmosphere was quiet, almost as still as death, as though expectant of something.

"Is this what you've been searching for?" Artorias said, stepping up onto the pedestal so as to be free of the water. He'd spent the last hour ankle deep within the water, and if there was chance he could escape it, even for a little while, then he would take it. He knew not of the platform's nature, nor it's origin, and in condradiction against his expression and his words, he was curious about the thing. He knew the path-- or rather, he knew of a path. Finding it and following it was the easy part. If not provoked by the group's guide, he may have never even thought about it. Standing atop the pedestal, he finally noted the ten circles inlaid in it.

Another pair of legs could be heard slogging through the water, and Percy became the second to stand upon the pedestal. Over the last hour, he'd been silent, regaining his strength and throwing his mind out of its stupor. In honesty, he'd regained enough to walk on his own over thirty minutes ago, but since it didn't seem like Mordecai was bothered by his weight, and Percy really didn't want to walk unless he had to, he said nothing. But now, he spoke as only Percy could, with an intelligent dialect, a keen eye for detail, and of course a steady stream of information. "This pedestal, we found another exactly like it in the Sand Ocean," He told Artorias. Then he paused, and looked up at the King. The King. Percy had finally registered just who exactly he was standing next to.

He hesitated and stammered, his mouth working fruitlessly in it's socket. It took an urging from Artorias himself to set him back on track. The man proved curious himself. "Well, not exactly. It wasn't made of ice... And the Emerald wasn't lit yet," Percy said, crossing the disk and examining it. At least they were on the right track. "There're nine circles around the outer edge, corresponding to each person in the Dawn. As everyone steps on them then that," Percy said, taking it eye off the emerald and pointing toward the Sapphire, "Should light up." He kept a tight lip on the guardian that should appear afterward. Some things could only be believed through sight, and that was one such instance.

Artorias kept his own counsel as he listened to the Mutatio's words. They boy hadn't even shifted out of his antlers yet. But as he was winding down, Artorias did have something to add. "There are ten." His words drew the boy's questioning eyes, and he met them with his own sure ones. "The circles. There are ten circles. Not nine," Artorias repeated. On cue, the boy's head whipped around with enough force, that had Artorias been close enough, would have raked his face pretty badly. Once his count was done, his eyes returned to Artorias, this time, a gaze that Artorias knew. One that a scientist would give his newest specimen. "What?" He asked firmly.

"Best get used to it, antler-man," Theon said in a resigned drawl. "Looks like we're stuck with him now." Any grounds he'd had for getting rid of the kingly asshole vanished when he spied the ten circles on the pedestal. Apparently fate had planned this one out to the letter, predicting their pickup of the thief in Deluge, and now the King in the Pond here at the top of the world. "If it's any consolation, though, that means the bastard's also stuck with us!" Feeling that the rest of his life was sure to be a miserable experience now, Theon hopped up onto the pedestal and took his place in one of the circles.

Dio did the same near the other, happy that she had avoided electrocuting anyone on the way over here. She wasn't sure what to make of the whole King situation. On the one hand, she was a thief and a bit of a law breaker, but on the other, he certainly seemed like a good sort of man, so perhaps he would see that her end goals justified her transgressions? Of course, there was always the chance he was that sort of hard man, the kind that refused to allow laws to be broken for any reason. That would be problematic. Regardless, she was not distraught with the new addition, and waited eagerly to see what would happen here.

She really should have expected this by now, honestly. Far too cranky to say anything, Kethyrian simply jumped onto the ice, relieved by its solidity, and skated over to a circle relatively close to Dio’s, stopping on it by turning into her motion. It was quite slick, but at least she had balance going for her. It was small comfort, but basically the only thing she could think of that was actually to her advantage right now. She’d take it when the alternative was nothing. Mordecai, much less disturbed by the current flow of events than basically anyone else, stood immediately to Dio’s left. Some part of him was curiously happy that the circle even reacted to him at all. He wondered if any machine would be sufficient, but then… perhaps not. Perhaps there was something in his specifications that made him different.

It was not a thought he disliked, exactly. This thing, these guardians, treated him as if he were as human as any of the rest, or Favisae or Mutatio or what-have-one, but certainly not as a mere mechanical construction. It was… it was… he did not know the right word, but he didn’t have to. The feeling itself as adequate, and he wanted to experience it, just a little, without categorizing it. That was the human thing to do, was it not?

"I will have questions," Artorias told Percy, but he didn't elaborate. He was certain that in the next couple of moments, he'd have even more. So he'd have to wait until he gathered what questions to ask, and when the time was better conducive for them to be answered. He did make an effort to ignore the boy-- but if he was right, then he'd have plenty of time to have his questions answered. So without any more words, Artorias followed suit and backed up into his own circle, watching as it lit up under him. A breath was forcibly exhaled through his nose, and he set the tip of his against the ice at his feet, but did nothing else and waited patiently.

Percy too had nothing else to say, but his eyes were glued to the King. Did the guardians really expect him to join the Dawn on their task? Just like it expected Dio? How far ahead did they see? What else should they expect? and the perhaps the most important question was how. It was these questions that occupied his mind as he found his way to his own circle on the other side of Mordecai, his jaw working in its joints as if he was talking to himself. Vivi, completely uncaring at these unfolding events, found her way to another circle-- pointedly one far away from the so-called "King". She had just tried to kill the man not too long ago-- not the best of first impressions.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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As perhaps all but one of them would have been able to guess, the air around them changed as soon as the ten of them each stepped onto a circle. The massive blank spot in the center of the ice shelf began to glow a smoky color, quite akin to that of the smaller discs they stood upon. This time, rather than a high-pitched whine which eventually translated into music, the soundscape that wove around them was mersong, similar but not the same in character from that which they had heard before. Where they was temptation and reminder, this was nothing short of exaltation, from the low-humming harmony to the soaring aria of a single voice threading with thin silver notes through the melody.

As before, the light leaked from beneath them into channeled paths cut in the ice, forming a different set of glowing lines, all leading towards not the already-lit green gem, but the still-dim blue one, the massive sapphire. When this was lit from within, the blue light of it filtered towards the very center, and the shimmering column of light once gain erupted from the ground, too bright to be stared at for long, and around them, the water swirled and rose, twisting around itself and forming into nonsense shapes, joining and separating with the underlying throb of a heartbeat. Over their minds flickered more images, these of rich underwarter cities, buildings constructed of coral encouraged to grow in specific ways, light pinks and whites, green and blur predominating. Fish swam in and out of buildings, and among them also moved the mer.

They were not as much humanoid as fishlike, most of them having human features to their torsos, but fish tails, gills on their neck, triangular, pointed teeth, and ears that resembled the Favisae more than anything, tapered to thin points an inch or two behind the end of their heads. Their eyes were uniformly black, no discernible iris or sclera to be seen, and even on their arms rested fins of varying sharpness and color. Their fins and scales came in all kinds of colors, and the underwater was filled with the low crooning of song, a conversation of sorts.

But this vision, like the last, faded, and when the light receded, what stood before them was a vaguely feminine shape, save that she was composed entirely of water, her surface covered everywhere but the joints in a thin layer of ice. The sunlight overhead reflected through her, throwing prismatic rainbows onto the surface of the ground, and she raised herself into a stand, looking about herself at them. The contour of her face that had the suggestion of a mouth curved upwards slightly, and her arms fell to rest loosely at her sides. “So, you have come, Chosen. But do you yet know why?”

"I came because I wanted to," Dio answered, shrugging. She happened to think the being standing before her was exquisitely beautiful, and rather more magical than anything she had ever laid eyes on, but there was no reason she couldn't just talk to her as though she were just a normal person, right? "Before, I was always just helping in whatever small ways that I could, but now it seems like there's a really big way for me to contribute, so I'm taking it. I guess I was just raised that way, even if my teachers didn't exactly practice what they preached..." She supposed it was her own little way of getting back at them, by living up to the standards that they only feigned.

Theon, on the other hand, was a little annoyed, which was of course unsurprising. He'd thought he had a clear handle on things. They were going to take down the King, and somehow doing that would save the world. Or something. But now the bloody King was standing right alongside them, apparently having misplaced himself for the past couple of months. He was used to being the one with the advantage in terms of knowledge, always choosing what he wanted others to know, what he wanted others to think he knew. Now he was on the wrong side of that arrangement. Fate had apparently decided to spoon feed them their destiny one mouthful at a time, probably worried they'd choke on it if they were given too much at once.

"I'm here because I'm a person of above average importance, and whatever force directs you happens to recognize that, and respect it. It's a nice change of pace from the last twenty seven years."

What a bizarre reception, this was. The Lieutenant stole blatant glances at the King. Stared holes through his skull, mutely wishing that his glares could do what Vivian's pistol could not. He'd been an enemy only moments before, and now he was an impromptu Chosen-one standing alongside them like he'd been there this entire time. It was difficult to sift through his anger and find a more tolerant measure of his personality. It was even more difficult to wrap his mind around the fact that this situation was far more complex than he'd originally concluded. There was an evil doppelganger running the country and sending automatons after them, hounding their steps wherever they went and the real King was on this accursed spit-of-land, bound to a casing of green armour that had apparently whittled away his memory. He rubbed at his temples, summoning enough composure to focus on the task at hand. Here they were again—standing on pedestals, speaking to another guardian who was showing them peculiar visions. Of mer-folk? Living, breathing mer-folk.

He suddenly felt very old. Like a father who's children had disappointed him by walking down terrible paths and never visited him, even once. Or maybe, it was just his creaky limbs protesting all of the water they'd just slogged through to get here. The Lieutenant rested his weight on the pedestal and released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding in, ripping his gaze away from the King and onto the silhouette-of-a-creature forming in front of them. Beautiful, indeed. Far different from the rock-like thing they'd encountered on that other planet. Her voice felt like water ripples, tranquil and serene in nature. The question seemed rhetorical, but some of them were answering anyway. He wondered whether or not saying anything was necessary at all. Heavy eyebrows raised briefly. There was a brief flash of his youth spent in the military academy—of standing at attention, belting out his identification number and name and squadron over and over again.

Unlike Dio and Theon, Sven did not know why he was here. It was his duty. His duty to follow and fight and gnash his teeth on command. His duty to Gwendolyn, he supposed. To him, as well. Was he more than that? No.

Percy stole a glance at the King, searching for some sort of reaction from what was unfolding before him, and he wasn't disappointed. To a duller mind, it would have been easy to miss-- Artorias guarded his emotions well, but Percy caught the singular moment where the stoic facade wore off and the king displayed something. The shifting of his hands on the pommel of his sword, the slight hitch to his breath, but it was in his eyes, mostly. The widening of eyelids, the intent staring, and the sparkle of wonderment. Percy simply smiled and turned back to the Guardian.

Why had they come? It was a queer question, and one that was difficult to answer-- for himself, it seemed. Theon and Dio both answered relatively quickly. But the answers they gave weren't good enough he felt, and neither were the ones he could come up with. Because Myrddin told us to or because the last guardian led us here left a sour taste in his mouth. It made them sound as if they possessed no free will of their own, hopping around the planet to the beat of their drum. He trusted Myrddin's judgement, just as he trusted the guardian's judgement, but the answers weren't good enough.

The man they thought they were fighting against now stood next to them-- one of the chosen as well. In his place, an unknown doppelganger stood. Who knew what that man's plan were? They had no answers, only questions, and one cannot hope to answer a question with another question. Or... Could he? "I... No, I do not." He was a poor scholar-- he was supposed to be the one to know all the answers. However, it was in asking that knowledge grew, and in their knowledge was power. "Do you?" He didn't care much for the answers they gave, but rather, the answer she was expecting. Perhaps that answer could guide them better than their own.

Artorias kept his own counsel, and remained silent-- more than content to just wait and watch. The only sound he managed was a scoff at Theon's answer, but kept his eyes locked upon the... creature in front of him.

The Guardian was beautiful, she supposed. Not that most Favisae had much of an aesthetic sense. If it wasn’t useful, it had no place in the underground. And particularly elegant or exotic facial or bodily features counted there as well. Still, presumably she was precisely as she needed to be to do what she did, and Kethyrian could appreciate that much, anyway. The vision of the underwater world struck her not unlike the previous one had, of the forest-city with the flickering people. Only… it was a bit less impactful, because she was not looking at her own progenitors this time, rather something entirely alien to her. Whatever the case, her answer to the question was nothing worth saying, at least not the parts of it that had not already been said. She was just ready to be done, with all of it.

Mordecai was just as fascinated with this as he had been with the rest of it, but Automata were not the kinds of creatures that were naturally disposed to ask why. Generally, they were given a command, and that was all the why they needed. He was a little different, and more inquisitive, but even so the questions he knew how to ask were mostly of the how variety, because these were the kinds with physical answers that were comprehensible to him. Even so, there was something, some part of his programming that he could not quite reach, that stirred in response to the question. Did he know why? If so, why could he not call the information to the fore of his processing?

The Guardian did not seem to take any of the answers one way or another, varied though they were, but she did turn her head to regard Percy when he questioned her in return. At least, Gwen was going to assume it was a her—she wasn’t really sure if the creatures had genders, but her voice sounded feminine and her shape seemed to suggest it, at least. “That is a question with many layers, many answers,” she said, and then she seemed to frown, shaking her head and producing literal ripples in the parts of her that resembled strands of hair. “Unfortunately, there are some things that can only be known, and never said.” She turned slightly, so that she was looking at Lohengrin when she pointed that out, and if he didn’t need her to be free of his damned obligations, he might have cursed her for it. He did anyway, just not out loud, feigning obliviousness regarding her motive for addressing him when she said it.

“What I can tell you is this: She is in peril. This was once Her home, but compared to the place it used to be… the spring runs dry. In time, it will cease to produce any water at all. This planet was not meant to be banded by desert. Once, by Her grace, it was lush and prosperous, and there was no need for any of its denizens to live always in the dark. But then they sealed Her, and claimed the surface for themselves. If you are here, it means that the Wizard, Her old companion, has deemed it time to save Her.” Her chin tilted downward, as if pensively. “Even I do not know his mind, but there must be a reason he waited until now. Waited until you.”

Her sigh was a gentle sea breeze, though she lamented that none of these children knew what a sea was. Even their ships sailed only on air. It had not always been so, but the time of oceans and forests was long past them now. Perhaps it could come to be again, if the Wizard was right. He must be right—there would be no more chances. “He deemed you worthy, and I can see that Earth has done so as well. I follow, for the mercy you showed one who had lost his way.” She paused, her attention flickering to Artorias, and frankly Lohengrin thought she overestimated their mercy—no few of these people had wanted to kill him. Then again… maybe it was enough that they as some kind of dissociated whole had managed not to fuck it up too badly.

As the previous Guardian had, this one manifested a key. From the way clouds of steam rose off of it against the air, it was quite chilly to the touch, and seemed to be made out of sapphire. “Conquering one’s fear is more admirable than fearing nothing,” the Guardian said with a hint of amusement, and the object moved to hover in front of Kethyrian. “Take heart, deep-child. All is not lost.” The Guardian’s form began to waver, the ice that comprised her outer layer cracking. “I have done all I can do for you, Chosen. Your next destination lies deep in the Skyteeth mountains. You would do well to learn one another—for you will need the knowledge in the times to come.”

And then she was gone.

Theon had some lofty notions of his own importance, and placed a rather large value on getting to be the hero that saved the day, but rescuing damsels he tended to leave out of that equation. It was never as glamorous as it was made out to be. Whoever this Lady was, it was likely not going to be a matter of swooping in aboard their mighty vessel and making off with her before the evil ones could get at her. No, if he were to use that metaphor, they'd likely have to wade through all the evil ones with axes and guns, and they'd be covered in blood and filth by the time they got to Her. She'd probably be a little less grateful to see them then, and likely not understand what they were even doing for Her. Deciding that he had taken the metaphor a little too far, Theon sighed. They still had only as much as they needed to go on: a location. Theon figured they should be off, before his boundless mercy was put to the test.

Kethyrian knew exactly who the She was being referred to, but this was not to say that she quite believed it. She was a natural skeptic, and disinclined to take strange water-constructs at their word. She would not deny that the words of the last one had gotten them this far, but she had yet to see any actual evidence of the Lady’s involvement. Indeed, if anything, she was beginning to suspect that someone was just yanking their chain. For what reason, she had no idea, but in her experiences, people didn’t really need reasons to be assholes.

The key hovered in front of her, and honestly for a moment, she contemplated not taking it. Screw these people and what they thought they knew about her—they had no damn idea who she was. While she lacked Theon’s inflated sense of his own importance, she did not simply accept that these people had all the answers, especially not when it came to her. How could they, when she didn’t even have the questions? Nevertheless, she reached out and grasped the large sapphire object. It was cool to the touch, but more than that… it felt restorative, like it as replenishing the magic that had to normally restore itself via sleep—of which she had lately had but little. She was loath to admit it, but that would be useful to have around.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Generally speaking, when Mordecai was not in the cockpit of the ship with its captain and taciturn first mate, nor in the library of it assisting the resident scholar with his research, he could be found on the deck, mostly staring off into the horizon, perhaps calculating the science of the dizzying expanse of land and sky before and beneath them. He had not the emotional capacity for the sense of wonder and awe that the sunset vista might have inspired in another, and he could not fear what would happen should he fall. Fear itself was a curious phenomenon, one that he had difficulty comprehending. Why should he fear anything? At bottom, he was fairly certain that fear boiled down to a fear of death, a fear of the cessation of being. What was there to fear about that? It was just as it was called, a cessation. If he ended, he would not suffer, he would not even be aware he had ended. He could not understand how that was something people seemed to dread.

He must be missing something. He was always missing something, bits and pieces of things that meant he was not and could not be human. Gwendolyn seemed to disagree, but he could not follow her reasoning, and his led him always back to this conclusion. So what else was there for him to be? He might not be a man, but he was hardly a machine, at least, not if that meant that he had to be like other machines. And it seemed to. The automaton drummed his fingers absently on the bar of the railing, save that nothing he really did was absent at all, and it was hardly a random sequence of taps. It corresponded to the rhythm of an old composition. Morgause would play it in her workshop, whenever she needed to concentrate particularly intently on what she was doing. He had been taught to play it, on several instruments, with the same unerring precision he did everything else, but like his art, his playing lacked something. He’d not discovered what until he’d long left her service.

Dio never really thought she was the type to get cabin fever, but then again, she had never really been confined to one place for very long. Growing up she'd always been running off all around the city, getting her hands and her nice clothes dirty, and after getting kicked out of Xantus, she always moved from place to place, once she left the caves, of course. In that particular time, she hadn't felt like going anywhere for a while, and the Favisae had been kind enough to let her linger, which she knew was not common. She'd needed some time to collect her thoughts, anyway.

But here, up in the sky... it wasn't that she wanted to leave. Perhaps it was just the opposite. But she was so used to always having a next place to move on to, for when work got dry or the local authorities started to catch on, and she inevitably pissed off someone without enough money to do something about her. There was some good she was supposed to do here, she was certain of it, and she was involved in something important. The King's presence here confirmed that, if nothing else. She wished she could understand it a little better, was all. She was used to having more concrete goals.

Dio imagined that Mordy was, too, and went to go find him when she inevitably became a little tired of sitting about. She had more than rested up since the tiring debacle at their last stop, and energetically moved about the ship in search of the automaton, eventually finding him on the deck, near the railing and staring off into the horizon. She adjusted the beanie on her head (a dark green color, today, with thin white stripes circling her skull), watching him drum his fingers for a moment. "Need any charge?" she asked in greeting, coming to stand beside him. While not really comfortable with the idea of falling to her death, Dio was at least confident in her ability to not be clumsy, and avoid falling overboard. "Things were a little rough for you down there. Everything working alright?" She was certain that if anything was broken, Gwen would have already seen to it, but the point was for her to check in. That was what friends did.

The tapping on the railing ceased, and Mordecai withdrew his hand from it, folding it and his other behind his back. He was not always utterly conscious of his own habits, because many of them were subtle pieces of programming that he wasn’t meant to notice, but there was something almost servile about the posture, as one might expect a valet or a butler to await some kind of instruction. Perhaps a natural reaction from being spoken to. Dio did share some physical characteristics with Morgause, primarily the dark hair and stature. Still, that he was given any choice in the matter of what was done to him was enough to make all the difference to the automaton, and he shook his head in the negative.

“This unit is currently fully operational and adequately charged,” he informed her mildly. Had it been especially difficult for him? The memories were odd, as though they hadn’t quite processed correctly. He remembered some things very vividly, and others as though he’d only seen and heard them through a very thick fog. Maybe it was that which made her say so in the first place. Even so… “This unit believes it was not easy on anyone, though it understands that those with magic were particularly aversely affected. Has Just Dio likewise recovered?” He wasn’t sure exactly why he still called her that. He’d since figured out the idiom involved. But he found it… something to continue to use it anyway. The proper adjective eluded him.

Dio only managed a hint of a dissatisfied huff at the way Mordecai referred to her. It was possible that she was starting to get used to the nickname, but she was still a little intrigued by the fact that an automaton had come up with a nickname at all. Mordecai was obviously something special.

"I'm feeling alright, yeah," she said, answering his question. "I just needed to get some food in me and some actual sleep, I think. It's nice to not be shocking everything I touch again." She imagined Kethyrian was happy to not be spreading flowers everywhere, and Theon and Lohengrin were probably happy to... well, no, they probably weren't happy. "I think Percy had the worst of it," she said with some amount of worry, biting her lip softly. "I hope he's okay. I think he might still be sleeping."

As if summoned, two pairs of cloven hooves came trotting up behind them. Percy was in his fullchange form, and a ten-point buck looked at both Mordecai and Dio. Sage eyes stared at Dio for a moment, as if to answer no, no, I’m awake now. Lacking the vocal cords of his human shift, however, it was the best way he could communicate, at least until he began the process of half-shifting back. The messenger bag that was wrapped around the buck’s midsection jostled around until it was sitting back in place at Percy’s lower back, while the antlers remained rooted to his scalp. He stood in front of the pair, and yawned heavily forcing what was left of the lingering effects of his long sleep. Popping the bones in his neck, he finally answered with his voice. “Hibernation of sorts—but I’m fine now,” he said with a light smile.

As if to refute his earlier claim, a loud grumbling escaped his belly, a sound he first tried to ignore before frowning, “Just a little… Hungry. Eating grass and acorns for a full day may be fine for a deer alone, but I’m human too,” He said. Still, he was happy he was in control of his facilities again, and could control himself once fullshifted. However, there was an adverse effect of him desiring to sleep while in his fullshift. “I still want to make sure that there aren’t any lingering effects on myself, but that could wait for another time. For now, I just want to be lazy,” He revealed as he sighed. Percy was always a workaholic, and was never satisfied unless there was something to occupy his mind. His own admission revealed just how tired he was.

“You two are well I hope? No lasting effects? No static build-up?” He asked, the question directed to Dio. “No strange system glitches?” This one for Mordecai.

Mordecai blinked inhuman eyes at the deer-that-was-Percy, having not actually been in much of a state of mind to notice anything last time he’d seen it, and watched with some interest as it shifted back into a man with antlers. Magic had a strange kind of fascination for the machine, because it was something vital to his function, but also something fundamentally alien to him in the way he supposed it must be alien to anyone who could not use it at will. “If you wish, this unit is equipped to perform certain diagnostic checks. It can discern resting heart rate, blood pressure, and otherwise determine if your body is running within ordinary parameters.” He actually had baseline data for the other members of the party, some of which had been in his systems from before, and others which he had collected via simple observation. Some were missing, as Lohengrin, for example, had not consented to the additional procedures necessary to measure body temperature and heart rate, but for the most part, he had an idea of how they all worked.

“This unit’s system never glitched,” He sounded just the faintest bit offended when he said it. “It did, however, fail to maintain higher-order functions, and as such, lower-order programming compensated and ensured full system function.” He paused, attempting to think of how best to explain it. “This unit’s conversational modules and ‘personality’ are peripheral functions, unimportant to central systematic success. The industrial term is ‘flavor programming.’ This unit was designed and engineered to be a combat tool, a purpose which, lacking the usual magical energy supplement, it performed to regulation standard.” Mordecai sounded almost uncertain about that somehow, but he did not understand why the words were uncomfortable to him. They were, after all, the truth.

Dio twisted around a couple of her facial features as Mordecai explained how he had never glitched. There were a lot of very big words used there, and the thief had failed to understand quite a few of them. "That... means everything is okay, I think," she said, smiling somewhat awkardly at the antlered form of Percy, suddenly having an uncontrollable urge to make a hat with holes in it for the antlers, and how absolutely perfect it would be. "And I'm fine, yep. Haven't shocked anything in hours."

Her eyebrows quickly shot up as she seemed to jump on an opportunity. "Oh, and if you're getting something to eat soon, do you mind if I come with? I'm always up for a snack, and friendly company on this ship is... surprisingly difficult to come by sometimes." The crew was nice, though they tended to mind their own business, and some of the other members of their little adventuring group were... difficult to approach. "We could talk about where you went when you got all deery on us back in the woods." She backpedaled a bit, wondering if that had been inappropriate. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by that. I think the whole shapeshifting thing is very cool, actually." Most of her family was of the discriminatory sort when it came to Mutatio, but as with many other things, Dio split off from her family on that particular issue.

Instead of the offense that Dio feared, she was met with Percy’s laugh. Deery? That’s a new one. I like to call it a fullshift but to each their own,” Percy said with a lingering smile. “No I don’t mind. It’s my fault for not being strong enough to fight it,” He said, taking a step backward and extending a hand toward the door that led below deck. “Coming along Mordecai? Your company would be welcomed as well,” He added, taking a contemplative look at the Automaton as he did. Percy assumed that he didn’t have the need for food like they did, but still he wished to speak with the man some more.

However, before they started Percy took a pause and turned toward Mordecai and shook his head disappointedly. “You speak as if that’s all you are, Mordecai, A combat unit. Your personality and your mind makes you you, no matter their order in your systems. It’s the difference between Model Number Nine, and the Mordecai we know,” At this, Percy gave the man a warm smile, the warmest he could manage, “You’re a part of the team, Mordecai, and I’d much rather have you with your flavor programming than that brute,” He said, pointing out Theon.

With that, they began to take the walk toward the mess. Percy allowed a respectable time to elapse before he answered Dio’s curiosity. “Even I’m not completely sure where I went, everything’s a jumble of feral memories, and even those are hazy. I had control, and then there was a loud noise, and suddenly I didn’t. It’s… Hard to explain,” He said thoughtfully. He spent another moment reorganizing his mental word bank in an attempt to gather the needed words and then he continued. “I was in control, it wasn’t like deer and I were fighting for dominance of my mind or anything, but… I was feral. I ran on base instinct, and nothing more—all my human sense stripped by the song we all heard,” He said, biting his lip as he spoke. He’d really have to write down his experiences in a journal after lunch. Then he turned back to Dio with a look that was a mix between apologetic and surprised.

“Sorry, that’s not what you wanted. I did…deer things,” He said as simply as he could. “I grazed, I rubbed trees with my antlers, and I uh…” Percy then turned bright red and a look of embarrassment crossed his face. "I, uh… Looked for a mate, It had been rutting season for ordinary deer as it turned out. “Fortunately, I didn’t find one,” He added quickly.

Mordecai didn’t really understand the difference. His understanding of himself, insofar as he had a self, was a series of system specifications. He just was Morgause’s Model #9. Even the flavor programming had been designed by the mistress. His personality details were as they were because she had wanted them to be that way, not because he had developed from a series of life experiences, or however the humans he associated with would explain it. Still, he saw no real point in making this any more obvious than it already was, and so he simply nodded his response to Percy’s statements and followed the other two down to the dining area. He, of course, did not intake food, but he would not mind keeping company with them while they did so.

Dio laughed lightly when Percy simplified things for her, though she found his earlier explanation interesting enough. She couldn't really imagine what it would be like, to have one person expressed through two different forms like that. She supposed it was as simple as breathing to him, given that he had been born that way. She may have reddened slightly when he mentioned looking for a mate, but she doubted he would notice, considering the shade Percy had turned. Her skin was a little darker, besides; the red didn't show up as well.

"Fortunate for you, maybe," she said, grinning slightly. "I'll bet there were plenty of ladies out in that forest that would fawn over a stag like yourself." She reached over to elbow at him playfully, clearly quite proud of herself for the witticism.

Percy spent a moment just looking at her with mouth agape, before breaking down in laughter. As the laughs winded down, he shook his head and rubbed his face, feeling the slightest bit embarrassed that he had just laughed at such a terrible joke. "Oh... I think that one physically hurt me," he said, rubbing his chin, chuckling again. Once he finally composed himself again, Percy realized they had arrived at the mess hall. His nose wrinkled and sniffed the air, though he hesitated afterward and looked at his nose.

"Ah... the lingering effects I mentioned earlier," Percy explained. "They have a bunch of fruit here," He added with an awkward smile. Raising his eyebrows, he continued to explain why he pointed out the fruit of all things, "Ah, I'm vegetarian, my whole family is. For obvious reasons," Because what kind of shapeshifter ate the shapes he shifted into? "My favorite are apples," He added, slowly slipping into a rambling explanation.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Stepping over the threshold that led to the Elysium's lower decks, Artorias immediately felt the warm wind rushing through his hair. It had been a long time since he last rode atop the clouds in an airship, as royal business on land saw to it that he was bereft of free time. He stood still for a moment, allowing the familiar winds to work their way over his skin and into his clothes. Clothing that was explicitly military in nature. Underneath the thick sheath of green armor he found himself wearing standard military fare, something he had taken to when not dressed up in finery for public appearances. A light blue coat laid flat against an even lighter blue tunic, a red neckerchief that hid his collar rested around his throat. His tunic was tucked into ordinary breeches and looped with a regular leather belt. While the dress was military, it was subtle and ensured that the king didn't stand out in a crowd. Even so, there was an impeccable quality there, as his suit was excellently prim and proper.

Free of his large green sword, and having yet to choose his firearm from Gwen's armory, Artorias was also unarmed, though it did nothing to diminish the intensity the man carried on his broad shoulders. As he walked toward the nearby port railing, there was a purpose to every step, and his back never bent nor did his steps stagger. The deck crew avoided his passing and quicked their gait to get out of his path, but he seemed to not notice. He reached the railing and leaned forward, taking a deep breath of the sky around them and letting a smile seep into his lips. How he missed this, the flying, the feeling of utter and absolute freedom.

Regrettably, the smile didn't last for long, dropping into his usual even lipped gaze. Gently tapping a palm on the railing he rose and turned. His blue eyes scanned the deck in search of a particular person, a particular person that was in no way easy to miss, as colorful and energetic as she was. Unsurprisingly he didn't spend much time searching, and began his march toward her.

"Gwen? There are the matter of my questions, if you're so inclined to answer," and the questions he had...

Where Artorias had never left the military behind, Gwendolyn had shed all of its vestiges with such ardent fervor that it was basically impossible to believe she’d ever been a part of it. That was wholly intentional. She wore her magpie’s assortment, her baubles and her free-floating privateer’s vestments, like a kind of armor all her own, hoping, perhaps, that it would protect her from all the things that no amount of steel and leather could. Maybe, she had allowed herself to believe, that if she woke up enough times to see this woman in the mirror, this bright-eyed woman-child-pixie-sister-Captain with a large, bleeding heart sewn right onto her sleeve and a smile sunnier than midafternoon in Sevenmonth, she might begin to be her.

Or at least believe that she was.

Funny, how seeing a face from the past made it all seem so much closer. Maybe she hadn’t run far or fast enough, after all. Maybe there was no outrunning what had been. Such things were probably only for the knowing of people much wiser than she. Not smarter—she knew she was very much that—but wiser. Maybe she’d have to ask Sunshine, someday. Someday when it wouldn’t hurt so much to try.

For now, though, she whirled in a symphony of clinks and chimes and clatter, grinning one of her best for an old friend, leaning back against the railing on both forearms and crossing one leg over the other. Nobody wore ease an confidence quite like Gwendoyln Skybound—though that was not her name. Not to him. Not the last part, anyhow. “Artillery! I was wondering when they’d eat a hole through your guts. The questions that is, not the others. Though I’d be careful with Thistle, were I you—I have this theory that she’s actually the most dangerous. At least the others would tell you if they wanted to kill you… I think.” If not, she might be in a lot more trouble than she figured.

Shrugging it off as though it were unimportant—and it probably was, in all honesty—she tipped her head to the side. “Fire away then,” she said, punning on her nickname for him. “The explanation will probably be more useful if you ask the questions, after all. Otherwise, you’ll just get a lot of tangents about how much fun it is to tinker with Gadget or how sad Daisy’s eyes are, and I doubt you’re half as interested as I am.” She closed one eye and shifted her arms so that metal fingers laced with flesh-and-bone ones behind her head, the smile inching just a little wider.

"They wouldn't be the first to try," Artorias answered with a sigh. Even before beginning the revolution, he knew he'd face his share of would-be assassins, and he was not dissappointed. He'd survived many attempts, clearly, because a dead man can't become king. Though he had to admit, he was impressed by some of the more creative attempts to take his life. Impressed, but not enthused. Now he had to worry about his back even on Gwen's ship? It put a fold into his brow that wasn't there before. Not even a week removed from his near-year stint on the shores of Genesis and he was already on the look out. He shook his head and tried to purge such thoughts out of his mind, and replaced them with a mental list of all the questions he wished to asked. Rubbing his chinstrap beard, he realized that it was not an insubstantial list.

"Perhaps we should find a place to sit first? I do not doubt that this will take a good amount of time, time that I'd prefer not to spend standing," He repled. Artorias had enough of standing for one life time. That wasn't the only thing either, as he felt a pang spring from his stomach. "And... maybe a bite of food would not be out of the question," He added before his stomach could voice it for him itself.

Gwen sighed. She’d forgotten how hard it was to actually tell Artorias a joke—the man took everything far too seriously. Then again… there were a lot of people who seriously wanted to kill him, so perhaps he wasn’t entirely unjustified in his solemnity. Still, it was her—very scientific, mind—opinion that the guy needed to loosen up a little, or the stick up his ass would eventually get a stick up its own, and that would just be unbearable. Outwardly, she rolled her single open eye playfully and pulled herself into standing straighter. “You know… given how long you were in the can, I’m surprised you aren’t actually starving.” She supposed it was just one of those magic things that made no sense to her.

“To the galley it is, then!” The sky-pirate swept past the King, no easy feet when she was that much smaller than him, and cavorted her way down to the room in question, securing them both some food that was definitely not road rations and turning to survey the room. She grinned upon spotting Spikey, Tammy—her trial appellation for Dio, since she might still change her mind—and Gadget at one of the long tables. With nothing even approaching reverence or even respect, she shifted her tray to one hand, balancing it on the splayed tips of her fingers, and used the other to tug the king’s sleeve at the elbow. “Come on, Artillery, time to make some friends. They can help answer the questions, too!” She insistently pulled him over to where the other three were sitting, plonking herself onto the bench with too much enthusiasm and a cheshire grin.

“Hope you don’t mind, but me and His Majesty here would love to join you.”

Dio was simultaneously put at ease by Gwen's voice and put on edge by Artorias' bearing. It was one thing to meet the King of Albion when he was stranded in the middle of a pond at the top of the world, and another for him to sit down across from her at a table. She smiled at Gwen, and smiled nervously at the king. "Not at all!" she said. Her body language implied, only slightly, that she feared the King might smite her where she sat, as soon as it inevitably came out what profession she practiced. She heard he wasn't a big fan of criminals.

But hey, she'd gone from picking pockets of big shots in Deluge to having lunch with the king in a few days. Not bad.

Mordecai was not so perturbed. It was hard for things like authority to bother him as such. He was basically programed to follow most reasonable commands from anyone, but he had the same level of autonomy in his decision-making whether the commander was a king or a thief, and so there wasn’t really any room in his conceptual structure for differentiated levels of deference, at least not to anyone but his maker. And he was no longer so sure about that, either. Put simply, as far as his thinking went, the king was a man as any other, and that was neither here nor there. Offering a nod to both, he spoke.

“This unit overheard a statement regarding queries from Master Artorias?” the machine inquired mildly.

"A few," Artorias answered mildly. He'd almost forgotten how flighty Leomaris's little bird was, but a few moments with her was all it took to remind him. Despite her antics, he followed close behind making for perhaps the oddest pair aboard the Elysium. The stern soldier and the chipper captain, it'd been a while indeed. Still, he was unsure anyone ever pulled him around by the shirt sleeves. He made a point of straightening the crease in his elbow before speaking more on the matter. And when he did speak, he didn't immediately launch into questions.

"But first, none of this Master or Majesty nonsense. There's no crown atop my head here," Artorias said, chiding both Gwen and the Automaton. Here, he was not a king, only a simple soldier. It could be said he was always a soldier, and the title of "King" only came afterward, a product of believing and doing what he thought a good soldier should do. Sticking a fork into the plate he'd acquired he began to think on the very questions wanted to ask. Across from the table, their resident scholar had conspiciously said nothing, instead spending his time trading glances between his plate and the king who sat in front of him. It was safe to say that Percy felt a bit intmidated.

Back in the forest, once they realized who exactly lurked underneath the green helmet, Percy was still far too distraught and distracted to actually process that information. It wasn't until he found himself sitting in front of the man did the weight of it all crash down on his head. Artorias broke the awkward silence Percy was exuding by finally asking his first question, with plenty more to follow. "There is no better place to start than the beginning. What set you upon this task?" He asked, before taking a bite.

"Myrddin he... Saw what was coming," Percy blurted out. Collecting himself, he began to speak better on the subject. "He had planned for you... For someone like you to send your soldiers against us one day. He made preparations, but that day came sooner than expected. Still, he allowed us to escape to this ship and let us make our retreat," Percy said, trying his mightiest to not insult the king.

Artorias however took the information without a sound, merely burrowing a hole into the young boy with his eyes. "The Wizard. Yes, he would have seen it coming, but I wonder just how much he saw," He said, more to himself than anything. "How.. How do you know Myrddin?" Percy asked, his head turning from the curiosity. The way Artorias spoke of the Wizard made it sound like he knew him, and not only just in passing. Fortunately, his curiosity wasn't so much as end with him poking Mordecai with his antlers.

Gwen drummed her fingers lightly on the table, producing a series of clicks that sounded normal to her but were probably a bit odd to anyone without a metal limb. She’d not really even noticed it, though, too preoccupied with her own thoughts. For all her showiness and brightly-colored plumage, she was a sharp individual, and her conclusions, though far from certain, were also far from pleasant. Myrddin was being held prisoner by someone impersonating Artorias? Or perhaps… her lips pursed into a moue of disappointment—there were just too many possibilities, and so few of them were even as bad as she expected, since most of them were busy being somewhere between worse and catastrophically worse. She exhaled a sharp, short sigh from her nose and shook her head, flicking a green-eyed glance at Percy.

“Didn’t you know, Spikey? Mr. Wizard was part of the Rebellion ten years ago. He’s part of the reason Artillery here is king in the first place.” She tilted her head sideways as though to indicate the man being referenced. Of course, the gesture was entirely superfluous, given how obvious it was whom she was speaking of. “Back then, it was those two, Morgause the golem engineer, and my dad—they were the four at the front of everything.” She shrugged; it wasn’t exactly public information, perhaps, because the other three had wanted Artorias to be the public face and the king when all was said and done, and the best way to make sure he had no competition was to make it look like he had as little help as possible. It would prevent any troublemakers from trying to advance someone else’s claim on the whole throne thing—even if that someone else didn’t want it. New governments needed stability, after all. Still, she’d thought the old man would at least tell his apprentice about it at some point.

Percy's eyes then flicked from Gwen to Artorias, expecting a few words from the man's mouth as well. Instead of being met with simple words however, he met a pair of hard crystalline blue eyes . Direct eye contact lasted for only a moment before the King's presence pushed Percy's own gaze down to his plate of green. Artorias then took that as the cue to answer the unasked questions himself. Dropping his gaze too, he stabbed a knife into a slice of meat on his own plate. "I saw the corruption bleeding from the old kingdom, and I saw how the privileged led lives of comfort and ease on top of those who suffered and toiled, sweat and bled for what they could earn. I wanted to change that. I had the youth and idealism to rebuild a kingdom on, and they the resources. Morgause, Myrrdin, and Leomaris, they were my council, and it was them that made sure that the revolution didn't end with my head on a pike. They were also the best of friends, each one of them," He added, giving Gwen a glance as he did.

Artorias then paused his eating and held Percy in another one of his gazes. A moment passed with his gaze weighing on the boy's shoulders, watching as he kept his eyes pointed not to his face, but rather his chest. Still, if Artorias felt offended or even awkward, he did not show it, instead marching ahead with his words. "The Wizard, he was your master, yes? And you didn't know this?" Artorias asked, answered in long sweeping shakes of the boy's antlered head. "Myrddin kept many secrets, even from me. It's not entirely surprising he didn't tell you. He probably felt that it did not pertain to your studies," He said with a shrug as Percy nodded in agreement.

"And we will get him back," Artorias added, "I counted him among my closest friends once, and nothing has changed since." Finally, Percy's eyes rose above chest level and met his. He nodded his understanding and Artorias continued with his questions.

"So, after your escape, what did you do then?"

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Gorlak used his free hand to scratch the back of his head as he ran over the inventory list. He really needed to find someone else willing to do the job—the Captain tended to leave doodles on the margins of his inventory sheets. Highly detailed, technical doodles, but doodles all the same. It made them hard to read. It also seemed she’d gotten distracted about three-quarters of the way through the job, and the numbers at the bottom were all but incomprehensible. Since the last Quartermaster had retired, they had yet to give anyone else the job. He wondered if she’d forgotten. It was either that or a misplaced sense of loyalty for the last fellow, neither of which he’d put beyond her. Sighing, the goblin jogged up the stairs anyway, feeling the telltale swoop in his stomach as Gwen brought the thing in for a smooth—if slightly overdramatic—docking. These things didn’t land, exactly, but they were fitted nicely into the one docking point this particular settlement had, and the gangplank lowered.

Though most of them were doubtless eager to be on land for a while, not a one of the crew moved until they had their assignments, their pay, and leave to go, but they’d used up so many of their supplies that there was still more to get than the crew alone would be able to manage in one go, so the guild members had been conscripted into it, the promise of a meal not cooked on board the only incentive they could really offer. Hopefully, it was enough that they weren’t too put-out by the chores. It wasn’t exactly as glamorous as saving the world after all.

Hopping up onto a nearby crate, Gorlak settled himself on a barrel a foot or so higher, making himself easily visible over everyone but Sven. “Right,” he said, glancing back down at the clipboard. The same handwriting as the inventory sheets had split up the group to various small but vital tasks, and he really hoped she knew what she was doing, because he got to be the messenger here. “so we still need dry goods, ammo, cheese, and water. The captain, Vivian, and Mordecai are in charge of the dry goods—” probably because they’d need the automaton to carry the crates—“and if we could get ammo for… pretty much every caliber, looks like, that would be good. I’ve got the Lieutenant and Theon on that one. I’m told that Lohengrin knows where the cheese trader is, so that’s him and Dio, and so that’s Kethyrian and, uh…” He looked slightly unsure of himself about how to address the King, considering the man was supposed to be incognito. “Artorias… to go down to the river and fill the barrels. Percy, if you’d stay here, I’d like to ask a favor. Should be it though—you’re all good to go.”

Mordecai bobbed his head pleasantly. It was not difficult to infer that he would be doing some lifting—there were no other automata on the ship, and he’d seen the size of the crates they stored goods in within the Elysium’s hold. He certainly didn’t mind being volunteered for labor. Even if he wouldn’t exactly be able to eat the promised reward. Perhaps that had been counted on. He found it not so unpleasant, to be relied upon—despite his capacities, it was not something that happened to him often. Morgause hadn’t really needed him for anything, and he supposed that the one time she had needed help, it had been something he was entirely unable to provide. It had never bothered him, but then, he had never thought about it in those terms before. He didn’t know what to make of that, so he shifted the thought further back in his processes for now and let it sit. Something to consider later.

A flicker of open skepticism passed over Kethyrian’s face. Someone was screwing with her, sending her to the river. It seemed incredibly unlikely that someone had missed the way she hesitated on the banks of the wellspring, and if this was some kind of misdirected attempt to help, she was going to—the Favisae sighed. She wasn’t going to do anything, really, and she knew that well enough. Admitting it was difficult, but for the foreseeable future, she seemed to be stuck with these people. She couldn’t fathom why—by all counts, she should have used this opportunity to take her leave permanently. Perhaps she would, but somehow she knew she’d be getting them water first. And fetching supplies with the king of all Albion. Wonderful.

Dio was used to drawing the short stick, and she couldn't help but wonder if that was an appropriate metaphor for being paired with Lohengrin. She supposed being stuck with the scryer would be just as bad, if not worse. Still, she remained ever the optimist, wondering if she might crack through the redhead's scaly exterior and make another friend. Cheese was delightful, too. She very much enjoyed cheese.

Theon had not been expecting to get paired with a buddy for their little supply run, considering his current lack of buddies, but he figured he should have expected getting matched up with the big soldier of the group, considering that they were going off to get ammunition. He wondered who had the worse impression of him between Sven and the King in the Pond. Probably Sven, considering that he'd been around him long enough to get more of a sense of who he was. That, and he seemed a bit overprotective of the captain, who was more than capable of looking out for herself. "Come on, big guy, let's get this over with."

A deep sigh escaped through Artorias' nostrils, signifying that while he wasn't entirely opposed to the job hand to him, it didn't please him as well. It had nothing to do with the company, though to be fair he knew almost next to nothing about the feydusk to form any sort of an opinion. It wasn't even the job itself, he wasn't the type of man to believe any sort of menial labor was below him. No, it was the idea of water. Much like what went on within the Favisae's head, he thought the whole thing was too convenient to be a simple coincidence. He had spent the better part of the year ankle deep in water, only to be sent to fetch more on their first landing. To say the least, he wasn't amused, but he kept it all to himself. He'd do what he was told, but he that didn't mean he'd have to like it.

"A quest!" Vivi chirped not from the floor, but from a perch on Mordecai's shoulders. At some point between the little green guy assigning chores to the group to them actually moving out to accomplish said chores, she'd mysteriously gone from somewhere on deck to suddenly clinging to the Automaton's back. It was almost impressive, how she managed to just appear on his shoulders. It was sudden enough that Percy actually took a moment to look around to try and figure where she came from. "Maybe not as exciting as saving the world, but a quest nonetheless. Hey Mordey, didja see the dwarves? I think I saw one riding a goat. Think I could ride a goat?" While she loved flying, a little time on the ground wasn't necessarily a bad thing either.

Percy figured it was best to not ask any questions on the matter, as it was a high likelihood that the answer would be equally as nonsensical. Instead he slipped away from the group and made his way toward Gorlak, brows raised expectantly. While he'd rather visit the city and explore it, maybe check out the local landmarks, duty called first. He'd accomplish the favor first then he could play. He was nothing if not the diligent child.

With that, the group descended the gangplank in a more-or-less orderly fashion, though Gwen being Gwen felt the need to jump off the side of the thing less than halfway down and then prompt Mordecai to do the same thing, Vivian still affixed to his upper half. It made for an amusing sight, certainly.

The settlement was more like a small town, as it was one of those few that boasted actual permanent residents, dwarves that had forgone the ancestral system of nomadic herd-following in favor of acting as merchants and dockworkers, mostly. Trade by river barge was still common, if not as prosperous as it had been in the time before airships were commercially available. Zarkol, as this town was called, sat largely on the banks of the river Fandorian, the second-largest in Albion. Here, it was surrounded mostly with short, tough grasses and mosses grown into the crevices of rocks and hard earth, with the stone of the surrounding steppes being primarily shades of grey in hue. By the river, the gradations in topography were rather mild, but it took only a look out at the horizon to understand that the surrounding area, both east towards the mountains and south towards the deserts, was hard going.

Vivian had been correct in her observation about dwarves riding goats, though these were hardly the domestic variety to be found on Albion farms. Indeed, they resembled something of a cross between those and hardy mountain sheep, curled horns erupting from above their temples and curving back over and around their slate-colored ears. Many of the riders wore helms or other headwear evocative of this trait. A dwarf astride such a creature reached about five feet in height, the low center of gravity ideal for rough climbs, as any would point out. Other than that, they went afoot and wore a mixture of hide, leather, and wool, no few bearing bows and arrows, though the occasional gun could be seen as well, especially among those who carried a more town-like aspect. The buildings were squat as a rule, but not so much so that most people would be especially uncomfortable entering and moving around in one. Perhaps the especially tall would have to watch their heads, but this settlement at least had been built with humans at least somewhat in mind.

“Bit busy this time of year.” Gwen’s comment was directed at anyone who cared to listen, really. “The Green Season, it’s called. The herds can stay close to town before moving out, so there’s a lot of people around. Mind your purses—the dwarves are honest people, mostly, but their culture is based on sharing, so they don't always ask before helping themselves to your stuff.” She sounded a little delighted by this fact, but nevertheless her own pouch of coins vanished somewhere into her clothing with a sleight-of-hand trick. Lifting a hand at the rest in temporary farewell, she gestured for the Vivian-bearing Mordecai to follow her and peeled off to the left.




This was a lovely little place, wasn't it?

Dio was more used to Albion's biggest cities, Galatea, Xantus, Deluge and the like. They had their charms, of course (Deluge not so much), but she couldn't say she'd seen a town like this one. Her esteemed family had certainly never had cause to visit such a place, and it was too far out of the way, and too difficult to get to, for her to have traveled here since her rather abrupt departure from home. She wasn't fond of mountains any more than she was of deserts. But this little peaceful slice in between? This seemed a nice place to be for a little while. Dwarven culture seemed like something she'd fit rather well into.

She tucked a pesky strand of dark hair back behind her ear and under her hat, turning to look at Lohengrin. He wasn't the cheeriest of sorts, but she usually didn't have much trouble dealing with that. It took more than a bristly exterior to get under her skin. "This is a nice town to stop in, don't you think? Oh, hello there!" She waved to a passing dwarf mounted atop an impressive-looking goat, and to her pleasant surprise, he waved back, earning him a large smile from the thief. She looked back to Lohengrin. "Gorlak said you know where the cheese trader is. Have you been here before?"

“Been most places at least once.” Lohengrin’s tone of voice was perhaps not what anyone would describe as friendly, but as he was presently lacking in much of a reason to be especially grumpy, he wasn’t. He actually kind of liked dwarves—somehow, they had a tendency to piss him off less than other people. Maybe it was that sort of consummate practicality of theirs—they didn’t waste time or words or things, but they also weren’t as damn tight about everything as the elves were. Or as xenophobic. “But I don’t know which specific storefront is for the cheese guy, no. Only where it should be.” There was a defined corridor of shop-fronts towards the center of town, and it was in this direction that he steered them, walking unhurriedly and for once with shoes.

They weren’t exactly comfortable, but even he wouldn’t want to risk his soft flesh-feet on rocks the like of which one was likely to tread upon around here. The roads were mostly packed dirt, but he’d learned to stop expecting that the beaten path was the only one these people would take. Bit of an advantage, some of the knowledge floating around in his head. Too bad he couldn’t share much of it—might make things a little less…laborious.

A quick fishing trip into his pocket produced his pipe, and after checking that the bowl was properly loaded and packed, he lit it from his hand. Actually, another reason he liked dwarves was that they produced the world’s best pipe-weed, and he was of a mind to get his hands on some of it while they were here. After the cheese, though. Ancestors forbid the captain go without cheese.

“Not something they offer on the highlight tours of Albion, is it?” She had the look of a northerner about her, city-dweller probably. Bit too soft for anyone’s farm-daughter, and definitely not a sand rat, if he had his guess. “Not much to see, I guess, but if you can forgive the architecture, they make up for it with the food and drink.”

"Is that an actual thing?" she asked, genuinely curious. A highlight tour of Albion sounded very much like something she would want to do. She supposed she was getting one right now, traveling on the Elysium, but what she had in mind had slightly more good-natured company, and less violence at all the stops in between. "Architecture's overrated, really. Xantus is pretty to look at, but I bet this place has way fewer problems to deal with."

There was no obvious disparity in wealth here, while in Xantus there were streets where one side was clearly the subject of a constant flow of wealth, while the other was left to pick at the scraps left for it. The worst thing was that the wealth seemed always to be a matter of inheritance, kept in the grip of powerful families like the one she had come from, rather than being any measure of worth or effort. She knew merchantmen that had worked their whole lives to support their families, and while they struggled just as mightily, or perhaps more, than her own parents did, they were left with seemingly nothing other than their existences.

She supposed it would have been wiser for her to just accept her role as a cog in the Castillo machine, but then, Dio had never really considered herself a wise person.

"This looks promising," she said as they rounded a corner, bringing some shops into sight. "Did you grow up anywhere in particular before doing all of your traveling?" She couldn't place an accent or a look about him, if he even had one. She didn't think he was a product of Deluge, though he was perhaps rough enough to be.

Having spent a considerable amount of time in Xantus himself, prior to the old man tracking him down, he couldn't say she was wrong. The question, however, prompted him to cast his thoughts back over a span of years that was perhaps too long, and he exhaled smoke into the air, imagining for a moment that he could see familiar figures in the swirling shape of it. He wondered what the spell would let him say, and tried for something vague, but true. “That was a long time ago.” He just wasn’t sure he’d ever actually grown up, in some of the ways that people were usually trying to get at when they spoke of such things. He hadn’t ever accepted what he was or was supposed to become. He hadn’t fallen in line, nor had he passed the rite of passage of his people. He had never really even come to consider them his people, as such. They were just them. The Others, because somehow the ‘o’ was a capital. It couldn’t really be anything else.

“Don’t suppose there was really any one place. Born in Deluge, several years in the desert, then… well, everywhere else.” There was a large chunk in there that he couldn’t talk about, though that might not have been the spell. “Still, here I am now. Miserable and wretched bastard I may be, but not as miserable and wretched as I used to be.” A pause.

“Just as much a bastard though.”

He shrugged—it would seem they’d come upon the correct storefront, of the assortment of white and yellow wheels of cheese in the front window was anything to go by. Oddly, he could smell it even out here, and his olfaction was not particularly extraordinary. He frowned, hoping the captain did not have a preference for the stinky varieties. “Don’t suppose the pixie gave you a list or anything, did she?” He honestly wasn’t even sure what they were here to get.

"Nope," Dio replied, though she didn't seem too bothered by it. "Let's just get a little of everything, then! Who doesn't like trying out new kinds of cheese?" Probably lots of people, but Dio was not one of them.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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As night fell over the plains, the dwarves, all dressed colorfully in bright, fluttering fabrics, descended from the settlement on the steppes to the flat land below this one, hauling with them wood for the fire pits, which were dug earlier in the day by workmen with a variety of spades and shovels, then lined with stones. The wood was piled in neat, geometrical fashion, tinder added, and the sparks thrown into the mix by striking flint. Within half an hour, everything was colored deep red and gold by the sunset, and the pyres had roared to life, flickering and crackling and casting long, dancing shadows from every object or person that came within their vicinity.

It was another hour into the festivities, when the sky had receded to violet, indigo, and the beginnings of nighttime navy, that Gwendolyn unilaterally declared that it was time for the crew to go join the festivities. If this just so happened to coincide with the last of the necessary work being finished for the day, well, who was paying that much attention, anyhow? She had dressed herself for the occasion as well, a boatnecked blue blouse with billowed sleeves and a green vest falling into several waist-sashes in varying shades of blue and purple, draped over an emerald-hued skirt. Her feet were bare, but her ankles sported several jangling bracelets. She’d let anyone who could fit her clothes have free run of them as well, because in her humble opinion, everyone should go as the locals went—bright and festive.

She’d somehow managed to convince even Lohengrin to throw on a green scarf, though he didn’t look especially well-pleased by it. Then again, his usual facial expression hadn’t gotten any worse, so perhaps he’d decided to take it all on the nose. She’d attempted to foist various pieces of vibrant fabric on just about everyone, actually, though he wasn’t sure how well it had worked, and he didn’t much care.

The trek down to the site of the festival was pleasant enough, the weather a bit balmy but cooling off quickly as night fell. The festival was, after all, a celebration of the coming of summer, something that was not here quite yet. What might have otherwise been too crowded and claustrophobic was spread out over the plain, several bonfires going at once. Musicians played flutes, harps, and lyres, mostly, with these collectively almost doubled by the number of hand-drums present. The homebrewed alcohol, however, was what Lohengrin was most interested in, and it was free-flowing.

There was no issue whatsoever with the presence of tallfolk at the party, and indeed, they were not even the only ones, a couple of river-barge traders mixed in with the crowd here and there, and everyone seemed to be mingling without a particular concern for height or race. Most anyone looked like fun after enough to drink, anyway, and Lohengrin soon found himself at one of the copious number of portable tavern setups, a tankard in his hand. Dwarven brew really was about as good as it got when it came to beer. Not like that mushroom shit the elves had underground.

Theon was dragged to the festivities by no one other than himself, and indeed, it did feel remarkably like being dragged, each step towards the happily celebrating dwarves and guests feeling like lead weights attached to his ankles. Try as she might with the sad-eyes, Gwendolyn had been unable to force anything remotely festive on the scryer, despite how annoyingly effective he found the eyes to be. Theon had always been a man to dress simply, and he would not change that tonight, arriving in a sleeveless shirt that was at least clean, and an equally bland pair of pants, a loose pair of sandals flapping under his feet. It was enough of a victory that he was coming to this damn thing at all, he could hardly be expected to do much more.

The beer was where the scryer directed himself to as well, knowing the quality quite fully by now. He taken several kegs of the stuff in a few separate raids that he had no intention of telling the locals about. During those periods, the bandits he'd led around had never been as docile. Sadly, they drank through them at alarming speeds, and grumpiness usually followed the last drop. Tonight, though, there seemed to be an endless supply, and Theon meant to take a good chunk of it. "Think you can drink enough to make this enjoyable?" he asked Lohengrin, when they arrived at the same place.

"Maybe if I start now and don't stop until we leave." A wry twist to Lohengrin's lips appeared for just a second before it vanished behind the rim of the tankard.

Dio, however, didn't need a drop of anything to put a smile on her face, and immediately took to dancing about the bonfires, mostly with the dwarves that crossed her path, not caring a bit if the difference in heights made the movements even the least bit awkward. Where the scryer had refused color altogether, Dio had more or less pilfered the captain's wardrobe when given permission. The two had even spent an hour or so wreaking havoc on her hair, applying all manner of braids, beads, and other things that would jingle when she moved. She had no intention of stealing Gwen's look, of course, but a party demanded a little more than just a hat, even if it was one of her best, so Dio had elected a headband instead. For clothes, yellow was her color of choice for the night. The blouse was modest in the neckline but cut off for her stomach, while the skirt was long enough to nearly brush the ground when she walked. She threw on several belts just for the fun of it.

In typical Vivi style, she was a dervish of color. In the end she got her dress from Gwen's closet, a low cut spring dress with yellow-orange-red gradient which cut off right below her thigh and a blue sash. Ribbons were tied into her coffee hair of the same color palette as her dress. A few were tied into bows, others were simply tied to locks of hair and allowed to trail freely behind her as she walked. The pair of boots she usually wore clashed with the outfit, but in her credit, she did polish them to a shine and tie ribbons into the gaps in the armor so the disconnect wasn't terribly bad. On her hands she'd found a pair of elbow length gloves.

Her first stop, of course, was one of the tavern setups. The same one that Lohengrin and Theon went to. She ordered a drink and then turned toward the pair, the smile on her face the widest she could make it, "Or, and stay with me on this one, you two could stop being so damn depressing and have fun. It's not as painful you'd think," she said, downing her first tankard in one long gulp. She ordered another and as she waited for it, spoke again, "Find yourselves a nice dwarf lady, they're about the right size. Or dwarf man. I don't judge. Whatever floats your airboat," She said in a chuckling fit as she took her leave, tankard in hand. It wasn't long before she was amid a dancing circle, still drinking from her tankard.

Percy didn't have to dive into Gwen's vast stores of clothes to look particularly festive. His own outfit was simple in design. A dark green vest over a collared white shirt with a pair of brown slacks. In addition, Percy also managed to find a bow tie among the other crewmates and had that tied around his collar. While his dress was simple in comparison, the accessories that he wore were not. In a usual sight as of late Percy had antlers sprouting from the top of his skull, but what was unusual about it, however, were that every other point ended in a flowering bloom. Flowers of blues, reds, greens, and yellows sat upon not only upon his antlers, but also scattered through out his persons. Flowers were stuck in his vest buttons and his pockets, as well as a pair of tiny bulbs that were used as cuff links. It all made him look more like a walking bouquet than a Mutatio. A wreath of wild-flowers that sat on the crown of his head didn't do much to dissuade the similarities either.

A smile was pressed against his lips as he descended the ship, happy to be done with taking inventory and making lists of things they had and how much of it. The cheer from the other crew, including those of the Dawn, was infectious, and he couldn't help be feel excited at the prospect of taking a moment to just relax instead of running over the whole of Albion looking for the clues of the mystery they were embroiled in. A break would do them all some good.

Near one of the bonfires that littered the plains, Artorias stood and listened to one band of musicians ply their trade on their instruments. In contrast to a few of the Dawn that he travelled with, he was not a hodge podge of assembled colors and random assortment of clothes. He still wore his blue coat, however to fit the occasion it was buttoned up to the neck and ironed immaculately. His trousers were likewise ironed and creased down the front, with the legs tucked into polished boots. He did however, make off with one of Gwen's scarves, a bright red that contrasted with his primarily blue outfit. His hair was slicked back with an oil of some kind, and his beard was trimmed. He painted a regal picture, though if he was worried about being seen as the King it didn't show it. Why would he be worried? The dwarves, they didn't care about the matters of his Kingdom, and besides, why would the King mingle amongst them of all places? He took comfortable refuge in the audacity.

Dress for the occasion? No. Wear silly colours and dance around the fire? No. Enjoy the festivities, quietly and calmly? Maybe. Actively avoiding Gwendolyn's robing charades, Sven had successfully escaped having her bear down on him with that imploring expression of hers—all wide-eyed monkey, and no care for anyone's discomfort. Hiding around the corners of the ship, and the small mechanical alcoves, wasn't easy for a man of his girth, but manage he did, and only once had he seen Gwendolyn throwing a bright scarf around Lohengrin's neck. Like trying to stuff a grumpy cat into an itchy sweater, he looked no worse for wear. Not that anyone could tell any differently. While everyone prepared themselves in various rooms, particularly Gwendolyn's, he excused himself to check over all of the manifests, paperwork and documents. It was a sensible alibi. And disappearing where he'd be out of their way and clear of all the rainbow-accessories being strewn about was far better than skulking in the corner with flowers and ribbons tied in his hair. What little he had, anyway.

When he could no longer pretend to check over the inventory, and he supposed it was safe to surface, Sven cleaned himself up and stomped up to the main deck. The festivities were already underway, and everyone had already disembarked. Which meant it was safe to subtly merge into whichever crowd of Dwarves he wished to hardly talk with and begin drinking as much beer as he could. Thankfully, Dwarves were as content to be grumbled at, then to have actual conversations. Drunk or not, as long as they had open ears to talk into; rudeness did not exist. Fine with him. He smoothed his hands over the front of his olive tank-top and scratched the back of his neck. There was no need to blend in here, so wearing vibrant colours was little more than an indulgence he didn't want to involve himself in. Besides, he didn't own much of anything besides plain shirts and pants, military clothes, and his dress uniform. None of which were for any sort of celebration. He wore one of his army tank-tops with a pair of black, many-pocketed slacks, tucked neatly into a pair of heavy boots. The shiniest things on his person was his mechanical arms and miscellaneous shiny things that he had no choice but to wear—from meticulous cleaning and polishing, but certainly not for this occasion.

He scouted the area. To his right stood Lohengrin and Theon lounging rigidly at one of the beer-stands, two dark clouds of sourness and general gloom. He supposed he'd fit right in if he joined them. And to his left was the great bonfire, licking in the air like a beacon of light. Dio was dancing like she'd been born to be there, fitted with what she assumed were Gwendolyn's outrageous duds. It did suit her, however. Joining her was Vivian, tankard in hand, and Percy coming down the hill, smiling. Sven sighed and squinted, focusing in on a lone caravan toting tankards of ale. A few Dwarves stood around, cracking jokes and clanking tankards and goblets together. Fine, it would do. Making his way down and around the bonfire and all of its flailing arms and legs, Sven spotted the small stools, decided it'd be best to salvage his pride and stood beside it. Grumbling to the Dwarf, he received his first tankard accompanied by a bearded grin, and guzzled it down while turning towards the fire. Dwarves made damn good beer. For that he was glad.

Lacking any of the preexisting notions of what was appropriately masculine or even just appropriately standoffish, Mordecai had seen no issue with allowing the others to throw various articles of clothing at him and tell him to wear them, nor had it perturbed him to be subjected to several rounds of adjustment and accessorizing thereafter. It seemed to be a source of amusement to the other parties involved, and though perhaps there was a level upon which that should be taken with a bit of a sour taste, if there was, he could not claim to feel its force, nor to be aware of it at all. There were no objections that he was not simply a large mechanical doll, but a being with his own thoughts and preferences, because he did not think that anyone had misunderstood this fact, and furthermore his preferences were in fact few. He found little to object to in the fact that he now wore red and gold and dark purple the way he had once worn mere black and white. That his hair was braided in several places and woven with various strings of beads or bells or thread was similarly not something he at all minded.

The gentle susurrations he produced when walking were swiftly lost in the general noise of celebrations, and he found himself rather unsure what to do with himself first. Drink of course held no appeal to him, nor would it affect anything. Consuming food was only an inconvenience, as he could not digest it, only burn it in his internal systems or else bring it right back up the way it came, which was hardly an appealing thought. So it was really only the activity and the company that he could appreciate, though who would appreciate him as company was still not something he was sure he could answer. Not with more than a list of a few people, anyway.

So, lacking much of an idea of what he should be doing, he selected from among the methods displayed by the others more or less at random, and wound up standing beside the king. He was uncertain if Artorias would be amenable to conversation, but the worst thing that could happen was being told to go elsewhere or mind his own business, and that had happened enough times in the past that he was more or less inured to it by this point. So he spoke. “Is there something you are watching for?”

Kethyrian, surprisingly, had not had to be very strongly persuaded to attend, nor to at least make a small effort at attending in the traditional fashion. While certainly not as ostentatiously-dressed as most of the others, she had forgone her usual neutral palette for similar items in different colors. Her shirt was deep green, her trousers light tan, and her sash kingfisher blue. She had braided her hair around the crown of her head, the stripes ill-concealed but, she was willing to concede, likely irrelevant to anyone but her. She blinked over at the dancing, which she was not especially eager to partake in, then the drinking, which she wouldn’t last very long at. Still… better perhaps than doing nothing, and she chose to join Sven, on rationale that the other group included Lohengrin, and she didn’t like him.

“Whatever he’s having,” she told the tap-tender, gesturing with a thumb in the large man’s general direction. She didn’t exactly have the expertise to differentiate between one drink and another, nor the experience to know her own preferences and ask for them.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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Gwendolyn had, perhaps predictably, thrown herself right into the whirling mess of dancers arrayed around the nearest bonfire, though in all fairness, it wasn’t really all that messy at all, just… free, maybe. Most of the forms weren’t those that required a partner specifically, and seemed to focus on making patterns around the bonfires with everyone moving in unison, something that would grow less and less effective—but arguably more and more fun—as the night wore on and more of the participants became increasingly inebriated. Gwen did not require libations to act in incredibly outrageous ways, and this was rather tame compared to some of the shenanigans she’d gotten into in Deluge bars—usually when Sven wasn't around to cluck at her disapprovingly, mother hen that he was.

So she was happily picking up the beat of several unified sets of drums, her bare feet hitting the ground and springing off it again in something equal parts rhythmic and almost manic in pacing, turning circles like a pinwheel in a gale, when she caught sight of someone familiar out of the corner of her eye. Adjusting her trajectory so as to meet with Dio’s, she hooked the other woman’s elbow with her own and spun them both around in a circle, grinning all the while.

“I like the way you think, Tammy. Dance with me?” The glint in her eye was pure mischief, though thankfully the benign kind.

Dio wasn't really dancing with anyone, just sort of floating around in whatever way the wind and her feet chose to push her. A couple of the dwarves did seem more interested in following her than others, though, even more so when Gwen joined in. Dio had no idea if there was a specific way that dwarves danced, or if anything in particular was expected of her, but for the most part, she seemed to generate positive reactions, so she kept doing what she was doing.

Her experience in dancing in general came from seemingly countless nights running away to the more vibrant and lively sides of Xantus, mixing and mingling among the locals. They threw much more exciting parties, she found, and soon enough she found she had a rather natural talent for movement, which was unsurprising given the profession at which she excelled. She had a certain way with her hips, and a skirt rarely flowed about as much as when Dio was in it.

"We should stay here a while," she suggested. "I could get used to this."

Gwen’s grin inched wider as she reversed their direction, by disengaging, spinning, and linking their opposite arms instead. “But where’s the fun if you’re used to it?” The rejoinder seemed half-serious at best. Perhaps it was those oh-so-obvious magpie tendencies, but Gwen didn’t seem like the kind of person to do any one thing for a great length of time. “Stop in once or twice a year, and it never loses the sense of excitement. Day-to-day life here isn’t really like this at all.” That was a true-enough assessment. While never really what anyone would call staid, the dwarves were a hard-working people, and their lifestyle often involved a certain amount of monotony and routine, words that were more or less anathema to the flighty Captain. She suspected someone like Artillery would like it just fine, but she thought that maybe Tammy was a bit different.

“I’ve found that a little bit of everything keeps it all fun, you know? See everything you can, do whatever you like, seek the new like other people seek the familiar.” Then again, maybe that was only her. “Ever been to the Rainwaters in Galatea? Or an orcish revel? Seen goblin firecrackers? Don’t settle yourself down before you know what you’re missing, Tammy.” Prescriptive as it seemed, the advice was lighthearted, given in the spirit of the whirling, laughter-laden mood hanging thick on the air with the heat from the fires and the smell of crushed flowers and alfalfa underfoot.

“What’s the most fun you’ve ever had in a day?” She was genuinely curious.

Dio didn't know a great deal about dwarven culture, but she wasn't so naive as to think they held festivities like this year round. The comment had been more of a remark of how nice it was to spend an evening with no threat, dancing around bonfires in good company. It was a very pleasant change of pace from slogging through magical forests that obliterated her ability to control her own magic, or battling hosts of marauding orcs in the worst parts of the desert. She was more or less of a mind with Gwen, though; staying in one place for too long wasn't her style. It was a large part of the reason she'd felt so strong a need to get out of the house growing up. She would prefer to keep an emphasis on doing things that were beneficial rather than just traveling around sightseeing, but there didn't seem to be anything stopping them from doing both at once.

"No, I have never seen goblin firecrackers, or an orcish revel. That sounds kinda scary, actually. I have been to Galatea a couple times, when my family took me. That was a long time ago, though, and they always made me stay somewhere boring while they were about their business." She'd been so young at the time that she doubted the city would look anything like she remembered it. Not that she saw a great deal of it, though. She'd have run off, but she was still just a child, and a city that big would have just swallowed her whole, never to make it home again. "They stopped bringing me along altogether once I became a nuisance for them."

She spun nimbly around a dwarf that passed by her, skirt flaring out for a moment. "The most fun I've ever had in a day, though... well, let's call it two days. The day before the Xantus Carnival when I was seventeen, and the day of the Carnival itself." The Carnival was a holiday celebrated largely by the common folk of Xantus during the spring, and while it formerly had some more poignant meaning, the modern incarnation involved mostly parades in the streets, costumes, music, dancing, and a general lack of work. It was a much needed break from the city's daily grind.

"My friend Bru and I were pretty ambitious thieves by then, and I convinced him to help me do something special for Carnival that year. We broke into the house, or manor, of this Baroness who was absolutely notorious for her collection of these gorgeous masks. She just so happened to be on business with my parents in Galatea at the time. We cleaned the place, snagged a few bottles of her best wine on the way out, and headed back to our hideout." Perhaps her seventeen year old self simply hadn't been exposed to a wide variety of quality vintages yet, but she remembered those bottles as being particularly delightful.

"We fenced a couple of other items we took, but the masks we handed out to as many lovely ladies as we could the next night, for the dances. That was brilliant. I think most of them were probably smashed to bits the next day for the gemstones. The Baroness was furious when she returned, but all the masks were long gone by then." It was, of course, more than just the theft and the Carnival that made that time so enjoyable for her. She hadn't been home in at least a month, then, hadn't been forced to subject herself to the judgments of her sisters and her parents, instead just living in the moment with people who were able to truly value her for who she was.

She missed that part of Xantus, and hoped she might be able to see it again someday.

"What about you? Regale me with a tale, O Captain."

Gwen thought about it for the space of a few measures, making an exaggerated show of a thoughtful expression, then grinned like a fox. “An orcish revel is actually not that different from Carnival, though there’s a lot more violence. Usually no dying, though, which is nice. At least the one I went to didn’t have any—some tribes are a little different, I’m guessing.” The orcs she’d known were those on the very edge of the desert, and while they still held to the cult of the War-Mother like the rest of them, revels were a bit different. “The revel season celebrates the War-Mother under her aspect as, well… mother, mostly. And also spoils-giver. So there’s a lot of sport and drinking and dancing—it’s a bit like this only… different.” More orcish, was really the only way to describe it.

Lifting herself up onto the toes of one foot, Gwen spun a full circle, then hopped back into the rhythm she’d been using before. “So one of the rules is that every revel, someone has to be mistress of ceremonies—they wear this big fancy headdress and basically play Avatar of the War-Mother for the night. It involves leading a dance and a bunch of other stuff, and they believe that the spirit of the War-Mother possesses the Avatar, kind of like a prophet or something, but only for a night.” The stuff that they threw into the fire probably helped make believing that a little easier, given what it did to the senses.

“Now, I don’t actually remember this, but Ragesh told me the next morning that I stole the headdress at some point before the Avatar was chosen and wore it myself, apparently telling everyone that I was the War-Mother and making a big stink about it when some other lady called me on it. So the usual way to resolve this sort of thing is with the Trial of Long Knives… which is really kind of unfortunate, because it involves cutting yourself on the arm until you pass out from the pain or blood loss. Guess which arm it is?” Gwen waved her metal hand. “Orcs don’t really have prosthetics, so I guess I convinced them that my arm was protected by the War-Mother or something, because I was definitely Avatar that night. Woke up covered in war paint and still seeing lots of bright and shiny colors. I must have done a lot of prophesying, though, because I was asked at least half a dozen times the next day to marry some nice orc man or another, which I'm told happens sometimes. And that’s the one time that my inability to keep my mouth shut has done me some good. Those orcs still like me, and I drop in to see them sometimes.”

She paused. “I think I almost gave Sven a heart attack."

Dio was actually having trouble continuing with the dancing by the end of the story, as she was more or less doubled over with laughter. It was at once extremely unbelievable and also unsurprising, that such a thing would happen to Gwen. She was tempted to point out the one flaw where Gwen didn't actually get to remember that night, which always had a way of dampening one's ability to actually experience something, but she supposed the captain was one to do that sort of thing all the time. Personally, Dio figured she would have had a heart attack, surrounded by boisterous orc warriors. It sounded terrifying.

"Was the king there to witness this, by chance?" she asked, somewhat teasingly, once she'd collected herself. "You two go back a ways, don't you?" It wasn't too hard to tell, since Gwen wasn't exactly keeping it a secret. She wasn't opening up much about it, either. Personally knowing King Artorias was another thing that seemed likely to give Dio a heart attack, but apparently this was more or less standard fare for Gwendolyn.

Gwen winked. “I do prefer to remember these things, but that stuff they were burning in the fire was more than little much for my fragile human constitution.” She snorted softly at the question about the King, grinning widely and shaking her head. “Artillery? Oh, don’t I wish. I’d love to see him try to get through a revel with that stick still up his—well, you know.” Gwen rolled her eyes. She didn’t really have a problem actually completing the phrase, but it was a little ungenerous of her, she supposed. They were very different people, it was true, but she owed him a lot, and she supposed that the fact that they were still friends was testament to the fact that he wasn’t nearly so intolerant as he believed himself to be.

“We go back as far as the war, actually.” Judging by Dio’s apparent age, she would have only been a small child then, maybe ten or so. Not at all a given based on Gwen’s apparent age, she’d been a more aware sixteen. “My dad was an engineer in Galatea, and joined up with the rebellion pretty early. I was old enough to be in a pair of cover-alls with a wrench in my hand, putting together Artillery’s… ah… artillery, so we ran in the same circle, more or less.” The captain shrugged. “'Course, then he was king and I became a privateer, so there’s that. Life takes you funny places, doesn’t it?”

"You're not kidding," Dio said, thinking of just a few of the places she'd been to since getting booted out of Xantus. It took everyone funny places, but she figured she just had to try and make the best of it, wherever she found herself.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo

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It took some time, but eventually Dio needed a break from the dancing. It took some more time, and a couple of attempts, to break away from the crowds. They seemed to like her, and more than once she gave in and allowed herself to be pulled back towards the bonfires for a bit more. At last, though, she tore herself away, having worked up a bit of a sweat from all that movement near the heat.

She found Percy watching the dancing from afar, and went to retrieve a blanket she'd brought along with her, laying it out near him and plopping down on her back, her head jingling as she did so, to look up at the stars. She sighed contentedly, letting her arms and legs flap out in something of a spread eagle.

"This is nice, isn't it?" she said, glancing over at Percy. "Reminds me of some nights in Xantus. Good to find people who know how to let loose, you know?"

Initially, Percy had found himself on the outskirts of the mass of dancing bodies looking in. He was more of an old soul, the type that enjoyed a bit of organization to his dancing. He'd been to his share of balls and galas, and even the odd party that the Guild had thrown. He'd not had much occasion to find himself in some of the more unrestrained variety of parties, so he found himself on the outside looking in. Not that it was an entirely terrible thing. He was not off to the side in she shadows like an awkward child in the corner. He'd found a group of dwarves and held a conversation. While they were starting on their second tankards, Percy had refrained from the alcohol. He never did enjoy the way it wreaked havoc on his system and despite being part animal was really a light weight in that department.

The group Percy found swapped stories, simple things such as humorous anecdotes involving goats or falling into the nearby river while fishing. It was quaint, but that didn't stop it from bringing a smile to his face. After all they recently went through, a little normalcy was akin to a cool breeze amid the Sand Ocean. It made him realize how much he missed the ordinary, now that they had time to stop and think. Percy had just thought of an anecdote to relay himself when the dwarves hushed and looked past him. When he turned, he saw Dio approaching with a blanket and when he turned back, the dwarves had slunk off, one of them flashing him a toothy grin before disappearing into the masses.

With nothing else to hold his attention, he gave it all to Dio. "It is," he agreed as he took a seat beside her. Unlike her, he didn't roll backward and lay his head on the ground-- he doubted his antlers would allow him to do that. Instead he sat up with his elbows on his knees and one hand propping his chin up. "Though, I'll be honest," he said with humorous tone. "A little wilder than I'm used to, but comparably? I'll take this over everything else we've been through." Anything was better than losing his mind in a singing forest or fighting a bunch of orcs and trolls in the middle of the Sand Ocean.

"I do, especially when half our group are taciturn all the time," He said, trying to find Sven amongst the short bodies of dwarves. It didn't take him long to find him at one of the portable tavern stalls. "A lot of parties in Xantus, then?" He asked curiously. He knew next to nothing about to Dio, aside from the fact that she was originally from the city. While there was a lull in their adventure, he thought it a worthy mistake to attempt to correct.

"There can be, if you know where to look." It was a big enough city that certain swaths of it were fairly dull, fairly downtrodden, or just otherwise unremarkable in terms of liveliness, but when Dio had worked her way into the right crowd, every night was a new adventure. "There are two kinds, really. You've got the well-to-do nobility hosting balls and extravagent events so they can flash their pretty smiles and play their little games, and then you've got the other side of the city. They didn't get any bonfires going, most of the time; a fire would have burned down half the city before anyone thought to stop it, but those people were just an honest good time. It's like one party is made to build the tension, and the other is there to cut it loose."

She figured he was probably wondering how exactly she would know about both of these kinds of events, as she didn't exactly exude an upper-class attitude. She rolled her head sideways to look at him, tapping her fingers on her stomach in time to the drum beats. "Have you heard of the Castillos? My family's pretty well known in the north, though I think they liked to exaggerate that sometimes."

"The Castillos?" He echoed, "The heads of the Shield of Xantus, right? That's... Old magic." As a scholar of ancient history, Percy was more acquainted with the Castillos of old, their line bathed in magic. From what he had read, the Castillos produced more than a few mages of a great power and renown and as a reward they were now considered one of the pillars of Xantus. He raised a brow for a moment as he looked her up and down.

He wouldn't ever have considered that the woman who was sat beside him came from magical royalty. Everything he knew about Dio ran counter to the idea of the noble sorcerer the Castillos' painted themselves as. For one, he didn't think they had any self-proclaimed thieves in their family, second-- and this one he'd keep to himself-- her magical prowess didn't really give him the impression of belonging to a powerful family line.

"They're nobles," He said, like he was telling her something she didn't know. He caught it and rolled his eyes to spite himself, "But that... You probably already know." The turn of his head to look at her had the inadvertent effect of causing the flowers blooming from his antlers to swing. "How does a Castillo find herself on the... other side of the city?" He asked.

"By running away, of course!" Dio sat up halfway, leaning back on her elbows. "Well, it was more curiosity at first. I've always been an explorer. You could also say I was the runt of the litter. Six siblings, five of them sisters, and all but one of them older than me. Better looking, too, those girls are gorgeous, and better at magic. And that was just my branch of the family. I have more cousins that I can count." She shrugged.

"Anyway, it lent itself well to exploring the city, and instead of getting mugged and stabbed like most clueless nobles apparently would be when they wandered into the rough parts, I ran across mostly nice people. People who didn't think me any less because all I could do was zap people a little. Who'da thought, right?"

She rolled over onto her side and propped her head up on a hand. "The whole story of how I got from there to here is a little more complicated and a lot more depressing, though, but if you want to hear it, I will tell you later. Some time when we're not supposed to be enjoying ourselves or something." She hadn't told many people, certainly, but it wasn't exactly guarded knowledge of hers... just fairly personal. Even if she had never been very fond of her family, it was always a shock to find out they weren't remotely the people they claimed to be.

Instead of continuing with the thoughts, Dio peered inquisitvely at Percy, making note of how awesome his antler setup was tonight. "And what about you? What's the story of our illustrious scholar and kind friend?"

"Inordinately plain, I'm afraid," Percy replied with a chuckle. "The Galath's. My sister and I were born in capitol, Galatea, firmly inside the middle class. Our parents are both scribes for the Capitol Library. We used to run up and down rows upon rows of old tomes and books-- when we weren't reading them, of course," He said as he leaned back on his arms. He looked up into the sky as he reminisced. "Her name is Elaine, she's rangifer genus while I am odocoileus-- Oh uh. Reindeer and whitetail, respectively. Our father was a billy goat though. We used to tug on his beard as children." A laugh escaped as he let his head loll backward.

When the laugh tapered off, a fierce pang of homesickness struck and caused him to wince. He hadn't had time to dwell on it, but he'd never had the chance to tell them goodbye before they were swept off on this adventure. He hadn't even be able to get a missive off informing them that he was alright. They had no idea how he was doing or if he was okay. He closed his eyes and sighed before continuing. Talking about it helped a little. "After the revolution, my parents returned to their jobs, and my sister found work as a courier in the King's Messengers while I devoted myself to my studies. Eventually, I joined the guild in order ply the history I'd learned and to further hone my magic." In demonstration Percy moved his hand to the grass beside the blanket and waited. It was slow at first, but soon a bulb appeared and before long it bloomed into a yellow rose.

"Kids used to make fun of me for this as a child, but the girls loved it," He said with a chuckle. He picked and held it for a moment, inspecting the petals before returning his attention back to Dio, where they remained only for a short while. He glanced between the flower and her once more before offering to her with an awkward smile and a nervous laugh.

A delighted grin spread across Dio's face as she carefully snatched the offered flower, rolling on again onto her back and holding it above her, twirling it deftly in her fingers. "Ooh, I'll bet they did." She held it beneath her nostrils for a moment, closing her eyes.

Opening them again, she rolled her head to the side with a jingle to look at him. "Any of these girls missing you somewhere out there?" she asked slyly, unashamed to be prying. "I wonder if they know that you're now an intellectual and a daring adventurer. Best of both worlds."

"You mean apart from my mother and sister? Unless there was a secret admirer I was unaware of, I doubt it." It was difficult to cultivate a love life when one's face was always pressed between the pages of a book or turned toward the next archaeological find. "As for the daring, that's too generous. I'm about as daring as that flower," Percy said tilting his antlers toward the rose.

"I've been told I'm too generous quite a bit. Respectfully, I disagree." She twirled the rose a couple more times in her fingers, smiling to herself.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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The morning after the festival, the crew and guild, in greater and lesser degrees of hungover from the previous evening’s activities, got themselves back onto the ship by whatever means necessary, and they set a course for the south. They didn’t really have a direction to go in, for the moment, but they did need to stay on the move to prevent the false king’s people from finding them before they were ready to be found, and they didn’t exactly blend with dwarves and river-traders, to be entirely frank about it.

It was on the second day of this that the captain noticed something irregular. Ahead of them loomed what appeared to be a rather large hill. They were flying at a somewhat lower altitude than usual, due to the desire to stay hidden from the imperial ships that may or may not be in standard airspace above them—there was a nice layer of clouds today perfect for that sort of concealment. But the topographical charts she had of this area indicated that it was supposed to be mostly flat; there wasn’t supposed to be anything in need of flying around for miles.

“Did I read the charts wrong?” Gwen’s question, directed mostly at herself, though she supposed Sven was right there and could answer if he wanted to, carried a touch of incredulity, and she thought that much was justified. She’d been navigating for years, but she supposed everyone made mistakes sometimes. “Hey Froggy, take the controls for a bit; try to steer us around real nice and gentle-like. I’m gonna go find those charts.” They were just in her cabin, which wasn’t far away—in fact, it was situated right above the engine room. She liked to hear the hum of it underneath her when she slept… if in fact she chose to sleep in a bed at all.

The Lieutenant pinched the bridge of his nose briefly before squinting through the window. No, she wasn't wrong. The hill that was steadily approaching wasn't supposed to be there. He remembered the charts clearly. He supposed he'd seen stranger things, but it didn't mean this was any less odd. He nodded and watched as Gwendolyn went off to fetch the charts and hunkered beside Frog.

Her progress to the cabin was, however, interrupted when she caught something out of the corner of her eye. Almost walking right past it, she registered it a moment later and did a double-take, leaning backwards to look out the porthole window at the hill. Only… could you call it a hill if it was growing bigger? This one looked as though it were swelling up, like some kind of rock-and-dirt pustule on the earth. Blinking several times, Gwen rubbed at her eyes. She’d slept in the last week, right? This wasn’t a dream or some kind of crazy hallucination?

She supposed, in the end, that she couldn’t be sure, so she turned right back around and ran for the top deck, booking it over to the rail and catching herself on it with both hands. “Uhh… does it look to anyone else like that hill is moving?”

"It... is moving," Percy answered. He was on deck, reading one of Gwen's books that she kept on board when the hill came into view. He'd seen it initially and thought nothing of it, at least not until they began to approach. It was something nagging him in the back of his head, like an itch he wasn't quite able to scratch. Another glance at the hill revealed a different view. It was almost like something was rising up from the ground, and that caught his attention. He'd pressed himself against the railing to get a better look when Gwen joined him. He spared her a single glance before returning gaze toward it.

His eyes remained on it only for a short while as he closed them and reached out with his druidic magic. He threw his consciousness all around him like a net, and he could feel every creature with a life force around him. He searched for anything that was near enough to tap into its consciousness to get a better understanding at what was happening. At least, that was his initial plan. As he reached further and further, closer to the hill, he felt a resistance grow. A bead of sweat formed at the corner of his temple as he focused. But there was no amount of focus that could've prepared him for what happened.

He felt a life force greater than anything before it, and nearly as ancient as the guardians. The immense amount of life radiating from it kicked him back into his own body hard enough to physically push him backward. His hands went to his face as a splitting headache racked his head. "Whatever it is..." he said slowly, "It's alive."

Mordecai, who had been on the other side of the deck, moved over to the port side as the commotion stirred, scanning over his memory for anything at all resembling this phenomenon. He came up with nothing at all. Percy seemed to think it was alive, something which seemed a decent conclusion from the fact that it was moving. “This unit has no data of relevance.” Given his general inability to understand fear, there was no trace of it in his tone.

Kethyrian was feeling a little more urgency. “How about we stop speculating about what it is and get the fuck out of its way?”

Theon came up from below the top deck, while Dio had been hanging out near the automaton, and both turned to examine the bulging hill that wasn't a hill. Theon wondered if there was anything farsight would be able to quickly do here, but decided there wasn't time, and he wouldn't be able to concentrate enough regardless. Dio didn't say anything, but she was silently agreeing with Kethyrian's line of thought.

“Okay… not a bad plan.” Gwen could admit that she didn’t exactly like the idea of flying right into the thing, after all, but it was huge, and seemed to be growing larger, and she wasn’t exactly sure they’d be able to avoid it.

No sooner had she taken several steps towards the cockpit door than a large hand came down on her shoulder. Lohengrin, looking unusually sober, shook his head. “It’s not going to help. It knows we’re here; that’s why it moved at all.” He dropped his hand back to his side, a frown etched deeply into his features. He stared at the creature—for indeed, it was beginning to dig itself out of the ground, showing a construction that resembled some kind of quadrupedal… thing—with what looked like a mixture of anger, revulsion, and, Gwen could swear, fear. Maybe not an unwise reaction, considering.

But it was not a fear of the unknown at all, but rather quite the opposite. “You’re looking at a colossus. It’s alive, but only in a sense. Animated by very old magic, and usually inactive. Deer-boy can look it up later. All you need to know is that the spell holding it together and letting it move is physically grounded in a sigil somewhere in its surface… and that unless it’s given a bigger, more interesting target, it will probably smash this tin trap right out of the sky.”

Apprehension twisted his features as he moved to the place on the railing Gwen had occupied just a moment before. “Find the sigil, and then destroy it. Or turn tail, I guess.” Gwen watched with evident confusion as Lohengrin jumped up onto the rail of the ship, bracing himself with hands and bare feet in a crouch, tilting his head as though he were gauging a distance.

“So, pardon the silly question, Strawberry, but while we’re doing that, what exactly will you be doing?” Flippancy was the best antidote to hysteria, at least as far as Gwen was concerned. It was, after all, a hill with legs that liked to kill people. It was one or the other here.

“I told you. Bigger, more interesting target.” There was a wry twist to his lips, and then he removed one hand from the railing to snap a lazy salute, before tipping forward and propelling himself away from the ship. Gwen, wide-eyed, ran to the edge and looked down to where, limbs spread, Lohengrin was falling… until he wasn’t.

He disappeared for a moment under the ship, and then, even over the rush of the wind as Gorlak tried to pilot them to safety and the rumbling, grinding sound of the colossus’s movement, an earsplitting sound, halfway between a roar and a shriek, rent the air, and she was forced to clap her hands against her ears. “What the…?” Was that the colossus?

The question was answered most effectively by the sudden change in her visual field. Still looking down, Gwen was most definitely surprised to note the appearance of a very large, reptilian head, followed shortly thereafter by a spiked neck, pair of leathery wings, and a long, rudderlike tail. The beast glimmered an almost incandescent red, individual scales catching the sunlight beating down on them and reflecting it back. The Elysium was not the largest class of ship Albion had to offer, but the dragon—what else could it be?—had to be the size of an imperial dreadnought at least, which made him half again the size of her airship, and he made a beeline for the colossus, which was still considerably bigger again.

“Strawberry?”

Theon needed a moment just to remember how to function again, and when he did, he blinked several times at the red dragon flying off in the direction of the colossus. Two things he never expected to see in his lifetime, and two things he had entirely too little understanding of. Currently, he felt as though he was about to witness a battle of two titans, which was not inaccurate. Both combatants easily dwarfed the size of their entire ship.

"What sigil?" he asked, feeling the need to shout from the sudden roar of the dragon. "What does it look like? Where is it? How big is it? Asshole couldn't have told us any of this before jumping ship?" Obviously they'd all been lied to the whole time, as he could tell by the looks of surprise all around. Still, he didn't feel inclined to just abandon him and run away. The guy was a dragon. For once, the scryer found himself intellectually intrigued. There was a healthy fear of the giant mountain monster, of course, but Lohengrin wouldn't have attacked it if he didn't think they could kill it. He wasn't the suicidal type, at least from what Theon could tell.

Dio, on the other hand, was largely overwhelmed by all of this, and felt entirely out of her element. Her own powers were no doubt worthless against such a massive thing, and the battle itself seemed enormously foolish to her. "We should run. All of us! It can't be that fast... can it?" It was a mountain, for goodness' sake. Couldn't they all just get away without a fight through the air?

This was some kind of cosmic fucking joke.

The worst part of all was, it kind of made sense. The scales, the vaguely-smoky breath… that asshole was a goddamn dragon. No wonder she couldn’t kill him. Actually, scratch that. The worst part was definitely that he was actually doing all of this shit to save their sorry hides, and he’d talked about it like he expected them to just abandon him, which was indeed her immediate thought. She could see how it would have been difficult to bypass a creature of that size, this close to the ground, if it was focused on them. But it wasn’t, anymore, and if they started swinging wide now, they should be able to go around without a scrape, assuming it ignored them in favor of the giant fucking dragon that was flying right towards it.

That moron. They were doing such a bang-up job of hating each others’ rotten guts and then he had to pull some stupid sacrificial bullshit and make her feel like an even worse person for having the instinct to leave him behind. Well, what the hell did she care? Moral superiority was not something Kethyrian had ever claimed for herself, and in this instance, tucking tail and running was the thing most likely to keep them alive.

But…

Her eyes flickered over the others, resting last of all on Vivi, whose response to the whole thing was so obvious Kethy need not even observe it to know how it would go. Is it really living if all you’re doing is staying alive? The more generalized point that underscored her friend’s every action. And damn her if she wasn’t starting to wonder the same thing. In the end, she could muster nothing to say. If they tried to do as Lohengrin suggested, they had little chance of survival; she was a pragmatist and she knew that. On the other hand… if they just ran from this… could she just turn her back on someone taking this big a risk for their sake? Sure, he was a massive flying lizard, but that colossus was even bigger. She didn’t like his chances, either.

And what the hell was so precious about her damn life that she’d sink so low just to keep it?

“Magical sigils are usually proportionally sized to the thing they animate,” Mordecai contributed. This, at least, was something he knew about, though never in this context. “Accurate estimates of this being’s size are difficult, but this unit suspects it would be at least seven feet in diameter, and likely at least faintly luminous. Perhaps Master Theon could ascertain its location?” He didn’t seem to be considering the possibility of a tactical retreat, though whether that was just a function of his programming or something else, Kethyrian was certainly in no position to be speculating on.

"Seven feet, huh?" Theon echoed, eyeing the toaster skeptically. "Well, that should be easy to find." It was only a mountain, after all. As much as he wished it were otherwise, his farsight wasn't exactly set up for quickly locating very specific objects in a very large space. It required time, and a place to focus, where he wouldn't be disturbed. Neither of which seemed all that available to him. Still, it was better than anything his arms and weapons could do to the thing, and no one else could do what he could.

"I'll be below deck until I can find it. I need to focus." If shooting and smashing started, that didn't seem likely, but he would try all the same. "Try not to let anything explode while I'm out. It'll only take longer." Not that Gwen or any of the others needed encouragement to keep them from getting smashed by a mountain-creature. With the point made, the scryer turned and disappeared below deck, to find somewhere quiet.

Sven still hadn't moved from Gorlak's side. He'd witnessed everything from his hunched vantage point. Lips pulled into a tight, incredulous line. From the mountain slowly unfurling into some type of horrible, craggy beast pulling its limbs out from the ground as if they'd stepped on a cats tail—to the swooping hell-of-a-breeze shaking the entire ship, only to a reveal a damn dragon spiraling towards the death-mountain-creature. Never in all of his days had he expected to see any of those things in the span of one day. He'd never seen a dragon; nor talking statues, or per-destined pedestals. Never been a part of a crew that made him twist with duty and responsibility and maternal annoyances. Might as well add this to a growing list of things he wouldn't believe if he hadn't seen it with his own eyes.

Lizard—it was strange to recognize someone without having ever seen him transform. Or however he managed to magic himself into a dragon. Who else could it be? Unless a dragon coincidentally swooped in to attack the only thing that stood between them and their destination. He never believed in coincidences, anyhow. Pinching the bridge of his nose again, in a half-hearted attempt to dissuade the ale-inflicted headache from thundering as loudly as the dragon's roar, Sven's meaty mitt fell onto Gorlak's shoulder. No words needed to be said, in his opinion. The ship was in his care, as well as all of its inhabitants. He hardly trusted anyone else to steer them out of harms way.

Resurfacing onto the decks where everyone was gathered, Sven stomped closer to the railing and twisted his gaze back to the others; almost as if accusing that they'd been the ones who had poked the monster awake. Either that, or his face was perpetually stuck like that. From his peripherals, he spotted Theon slipping away below-decks. His eyebrows settled back down. Deducing what was going on, when bewilderment danced in equal measures on each of their faces, seemed pointless. “There is plan,” he prompted gruffly, flicking his hand towards the phenomenal battle down below, “vhile Vunderboy is gone?” Standing idle was against every fibre of his being—but if something could be done against such a large foe, he too was at a loss of strategy.

While Artorias would much prefer to have a fleet of dreadnoughts come in and bombard the massive... Thing with as much firepower as they could muster, they were only one ship, and even then, no where near big enough to take it on directly. He'd also seen how Lohengrin turned out to be a dragon of all things, but there was little time for him to stare on in slack-jawed awe, they were in danger, and they needed to act. "A tactical retreat is the most logical one, but we can't leave him," He said, gesturing toward the crimson dragon, "Behind." Though he knew nothing about the man, maybe even less than nothing, since that man turned out to be a dragon, Artorias was loath to leave a man behind, even if he wasn't one of his soldiers.

Running a hand through his hair, his brows furrowed in thought before turning to Gwen, "Go to the cockpit and get as far away from that thing as possible. We have no idea what it can do, and I'd rather not find out. But keep up close enough so that the scryer can find whatever the hell we're looking for. Prepare for--" He was interrupted by a shattering gunshot next to him. He quickly turned with his hands balled into a fist in case the shot was hostile. It was not, as it turned out, as Vivi stood beside him with a smoking rifle pointed toward the colossus. "What?" She asked innocently, "We have to do something."

A knot formed in between Artorias's brows as he glared at her, before snatching the rifle out of her hand and turning back to Gwen. "Prepare for evasive maneuvers. When the scryer finds the sigil, we'll get in close and destroy it with the cannons. Everyone understand?" It was a fine line between far away and close enough, but if anyone can straddle it in an airship, it'd be Gwen.

"I'll help... With the search. The birds in the sky and the animals on its back can help look for this sigil," Percy said, pushing himself backward toward the mast, where he closed his eyes again.

Gwen wasn’t so sure this would work, but it was definitely better than the plan she had, which was to say no plan at all, so with a terse nod and a quick scan of the horizon—it seemed Lohengrin had reached the colossus and the two behemoths were now focused solely on one another—she ducked belowdecks. Her aim had to be twofold—fly tricky to prevent them from being hit by any afterthought attack, and fly smooth so that Theon could actually have a chance at seeing what was going on with the sigil or whatever it was.

“I don’t feel good about this.” She muttered it only to herself, though, because there was enough raging skepticism to go around without her contribution to it. Reaching the cockpit, she told Gorlak to jump into the copilot spot and keep an eye on all the readouts and instruments—this was going to be one hell of a ride. Securing herself into the pilot seat, she took firm hold of the controls and set course… right for the giant living hunk of stone.

She really didn’t feel good about this.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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From where they were aboard the Elysium the colossus had the vague form of a mountain, but from a bird's eye view appeared to be more mammalian than initially thought. A condor flew above the creature or construct, or whatever it was. Percy intended to figure it out, after they defeated it. But for now, he was locked in communication with the bird above, seeing what it saw through its eyes. it proved to be much easier than he remembered, and had been ever since the stint in the forests surrounding the Genesis wellspring. It was another thing he wished to research, but never found the time. Instead he took the gift as is, and used it wisely.

The colossus was a quadruped of some kind with a tail. The closest animal Percy could think of was a turtle, but much larger and much more dangerous. It was composed entirely of earth and stone nearly a quarter mile in size, and trees grew freely from its back. Percy urged the condor to dive in closer to get a better sense of where the sigil might be, or if he could feel any other animals that may be able to help. They started near the head, or what he construed as the head of the creature, before switching consciousness to another animal. Another bird, a bluebird. Though not able to fly as high as the condor, it was quicker and easier to search with.

Percy urged the little bird to fly up and down the creature's head searching for the sigil. Eventually, he felt something. The trees were too thick to get a closer look, but Percy sensed something filled with magic near where its neck would be. He didn't want to waste time searching manually by himself, so he cracked an eyelid and spoke to the first person he saw.

"Vivian, tell your brother to look around its neck."

"Say please," was her response.

"What? Say-- Please? Please hurry!" He demanded. Satisfied with it, Vivi turned and darted toward the door that led to Theon. It didn't take long for her to find him, and when she did, she relayed the information she was politely asked to pass along. "Deerboy said look around its neck."

"Fuck off, I'm trying to concentrate!" Theon snapped, eyes flaring angrily towards his sister. He then rolled them back at himself. "And thanks."

When she was gone, he closed his eyes once more, sitting in a crosslegged position on his bed and sinking into it, back placed up against the wall. He could feel the ship moving around him as it was put through its maneuvers, and his farsight didn't immediately come to him. With the door closed and the sounds of shouted commands and roars of men and monsters all muted, however, it was secure enough for Theon to force himself from his body, and up into the sky.

He nearly lost his focus as soon as he could see all that was around him, drifting up and away from the ship. Resisting the urge to be yanked back into his own head, Theon watched the Elysium get closer to the massive quadruped of earth and stone they were headed for, watched as a dragon, small in comparison to the colossus, flew around it and struggled to keep it busy. That didn't look like a fun task. The dragon revelation would obviously need addressing, but that could wait until they knew they had survived this.

Around its neck, deerboy had said. Theon floated himself down and closer to the thing, until it almost just looked like he was staring at the ground of a normal place, not a moving hill-beast. He headed for the direction it seemed to be facing, judging by the way it was moving and reacting to the dragon. There was an outcropping of rock near the base of the neck, on the thing's back, that caught his eye. It couldn't be called a cave, but it had to be important, as it was sealed off with a sort of translucent barrier of magic. He tried to pass through, to see or at least sense what was on the other side, but it blocked him entirely. If that wasn't indication of protecting something important, he didn't know what was.

Pulling his consciousness back into himself, Theon's eyes shot open, and he returned to his feet, heading back outside and up on deck, making sure to keep a hold on something at all times. "The sigil has to be on the back of its neck, but it's protected by rock and some kind of magical barrier. We can try to blast it from here, but it's a tiny target, and well protected." Still, he didn't know much of anything about airship-based combat, so maybe there was some way to bring it down from afar. His gut told him he wouldn't be so lucky.

Vivi reared back and unleashed the hardest punch her tiny frame could manage squarely into Theon's shoulder after he returned to the deck. She pointed a finger in his face and her eyebrows were drawn dangerously close together. "You tell me to fuck off again, and I'm throwing you the fuck off this boat, understand?" He was family, yes, but that was the only reason she gave him a warning first.

Theon waved a hand dismissively. "Yeah, yeah, whatever." Vivi struck his shoulder again, but left it at that.

Artorias shook his head, ignoring the outburst and mulled over the information brought to him. He quickly ran through many plans through his head, trying to think of some way to destroy the barrier and the sigil without having to set foot on the creature, but no matter how hard he tried he only saw one certain way to destroy it. He grunted as he shook his head, he didn't like the plan. "Unless anyone has a better idea, we're going to have to do this by hand." Had the Elysium been a dreadnought or a destroyer, then a volley from the cannons would do the job, no matter how protected the sigil was. But the ship was neither, and they had to make do with what they had.

Mordecai could tell the direction this was going in, and while he was not assured of its soundness, he knew there were ways in which he could contribute, and fortunately enough, fear was not in his limited emotional repertoire. At least not at present. “This unit shall inform the captain.” Gwen would need to know what they planned and where to go if she was to get them in close enough for a landing party.

When the automaton headed belowdecks, Kethyrian sighed, though arguably, the sound was inaudible over the general chaos. Well, chaos may have been too strong a word—the crew was remarkably efficient, even in circumstances like this, and the rest of the guild seems to be taking this about as well in stride as one could be expected to. “Not to… dampen the enthusiasm here,” she said, shooting a look at Vivian. “But even if she can fly us in relatively close, it’s not like we can just land on this thing, right? How are we supposed to get down? Unless someone else is secretly a dragon, the jump would probably kill us.”

“Oh, don’t worry about that bit.” The voice was Gwen’s but it was tiny, a sure indication that she was using the ship’s communication systems to amplify her voice. How she’d heard Kethyrian in the first place was anyone’s guess. In the cockpit, she glanced up at Mordecai and grinned, before depressing the button to broadcast her voice again.

“I hope you guys like climbing ropes, because I think the best thing to do is dangle them over the side, and get you in close enough that it’s safe to let go.” The deckhands set about gathering the requisite lengths of rope right away, securing the ends tightly to solid pieces of the ship’s architecture.

“Of course, I can’t go with you if I’m doing that, so… try not to die without me, okay? I’ll distract the grumpy one with a little cannon-fire, but the rest is you guys.” With haste, the ropes were dropped over the side of the ship, tested for their strength, and then the three crewmen doing the testing nodded over at Artorias, perhaps simply because he seemed to be the one with the plan.

“They’re ready to go.” That was the one Gwen called Sprocket, though if he had a different name, nobody else ever used it. There were five ropes in total, each thick enough to rein in a sail, so load-bearing wasn’t the issue. Small mercies, perhaps, considering all the other ways in which what was suggested could go wrong.

"We'll try," Artorias answered Gwen's voice. He slipped the sling on the rifle that he snatched from Vivi onto his shoulder and tightened the belt that crossed his chest that held the great green sword on his back. With no more hesitation, he marched forward and took a hold of one of the ropes and turned back to the rest of the Dawn assembled on the deck. "Let's make this quick, I don't want to be on that thing's back any longer than necessary. When we get down there, we follow him," he said, pointing a finger at Theon, "To wherever he saw the sigil. We break the barrier, then we kill the thing and leave." Artorias's tone left little room for questioning, and immediately after he planted a foot on the railing.

"Wait," A Percy called, emerging from the lower decks. "You'll want this," He said, passing what was in his hand to Artorias. It was a leather bound bag, and pulling its lip back revealed it to be filled with gunpowder. "I'll stay up here and support you with the animals still on the creature's back. So try not to shoot any of them," The last part was accompanied by a particularly nasty look toward Theon. He wished the rest of the Dawn good luck and also made his way to Gwen's cockpit.

"Well? What are we waiting for?! Let's Gooooo!" Vivi's said, her voice trailing behind her as she repelled quickly from the rope beside Artorias. He watched her, or where she once stood for a beat, before turning to Theon.

"Your sister's going to get herself killed." It was all he said before mounting the railing and following behind.

"Only if we're lucky, your Highness," Theon mumbled largely to himself as the king departed. Apparently he would need to be guiding them to this barrier. Theon hadn't thought about that. Grimacing, he took hold of the rope and followed suit.

There seemed to be climbing involved. But of course. Had this been one of those many things that Kethyrian was no better at than anyone else, she could perhaps have done the rational thing and remained aboard, as it seemed at least some of them were choosing to do, and the captain would have to. As fate would have it however—and damn her again, the fickle bitch—climbing and magic were two of the things she was actually good at, and so it seemed wrong to choose to remain in relative safety. It would seem she was now officially in the recklessly stupid half of the crew. Her father would be so disappointed, but unsurprised.

A tiny, almost imperceptible, smile quirked her lip bitterly for just a moment, and then she took hold of one of the ropes and swung herself over the edge with familiar ease. Beside her, Mordecai did the same. She doubted he even knew what fear really was, let alone felt it, and the tactical benefit of his presence was hard to overestimate. “Is this us, then?” she asked, as if to inquire if any of the others would be joining them. “Tell the captain to bring us in, I suppose.” If she couldn’t hear them already, through that communication system of hers.

Sven did little else but nod his burly head--a sound plan, even though the likelihood of something going terribly wrong was just as likely to happen, far more likely than pulling this off successfully. No other plans were offered, so it was the only plan. Scaling down the ship with only a rope to keep himself from splattering on the ground below sounded just as pleasant as jumping off without one. He fiddled with the rope, suspicion wheedling his eyes into slits, even as the others retreated over the sturdy railing.

He, too, pulled himself up on the railing as gracefully as possible, which meant with none at all, and leaned backwards, allowing his weight to carry him down, though his hands gripped like two meaty vices, white-knuckled. The expression on his face only betrayed a flicker of panic by means of a deepening frown and widening eyes, eyebrows flagged as he descended along with the others, hanging freely until Kethyrian called up that they were ready to be brought closer, in order to jump down without breaking their legs. His shoulders and arms ached with the effort of holding himself aloft, tensed as they were.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Percy Galath Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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It was not more than ten seconds after they’d started running that the gunpowder exploded, and in this case, the overhang that had made the sigil so hard to see was to their advantage—it held enough to prevent them from being pelted by any shrapnel, at least, though a wave of heat still washed over their backs. It was impossible to see if the sigil had been destroyed, but it was not a terrible guess, considering what happened next.

It began with a rumbling, different in character from the coordinated movement that had been slowly lurching them around before. This was something much less stable, and it grew in magnitude, the ground beneath them shaking. Bits and pieces of the colossus started to break off, tumbling the great distance to the ground below the creature. The rumbling grew to a roar, and the creature started to thrash with what coherence it had left, seemingly at random. The long, tail-like appendage whipped through the air, dangerously close to the Elysium—but the ship’s pilot was evidently taking care to stay out of range, and the arc of the great stone limb seemed like it would come up short of actually hitting anything.

Until it detached from the creature, effectively flinging a large string of boulders right for the ship.

If any of those on the colossus had the ability and inclination to look up for even a moment, it would be obvious that the second, tinnier sound over the rumbling was the noise those boulders made when they hit the side and underbelly of the airship at high velocity, the impact knocking the vessel from its course, and worse, leaving large rends and dents in its body. A plume of smoke poured forth from the largest of these—an unlucky direct hit to the engine block.

Aboard the ship, an alarm was blaring, and Gwen’s voice could be heard between the bursts of cacophony. “Everyone remain calm. Get to the back of the ship and don your parachutes for emergency exit. Crew, help anyone who doesn’t know how to use one. I repeat: put on a parachute and jump.” There was a pause. “The ship’s not going to make it, but the crew has to.” Her voice was level, but tight with obvious tension.

Like the well-oiled machinery they so resembled, the crew members did exactly as the captain ordered, a few slowing to explain the necessary details to Dio and Percy while leading them towards the back of the ship, which was still plenty high enough to make a jump safe, but wouldn’t stay that way forever.

Dio had been unfortunate enough to be at the front of the vessel when it took the hit, the impact knocking her flat onto her back as the ship lurched off of its course. It immediately became clear that they'd suffered some kind of critical damage. She was no expert on air vehicles, but the thick black smoke and the terrible sounds from below were as sure a sign as any that the ship was dying.

Surefooted even in an intense moment like this, Dio darted her way to the back of the ship. There was no time to collect anything. She wondered for a moment at the tone of Gwen's voice. She thought perhaps to go find her, make sure she wasn't planning on going down with the ship... but in the end decided to trust her to make her own decision on that. In the meantime, there was the matter of finding someone who could help her get to the ground in one piece.

“Do you know how to use one of these?” The question came from one of the ship’s gunners, a slightly older man with a salt-and-pepper goatee, affectionately nicknamed Sprocket. He was holding a parachute bag in his hand, another pile of them next to his feet. Apparently he’d volunteered to distribute them. “Because you can jump with one of us, if you don’t.” Like everyone else, he was fighting to stay calm over the adrenaline of the situation, but he like most of the crew was doing pretty well at it.

"Not really, no," was Dio's answer, eyeing the parachutes nervously. "I can help, though. And then I can go with you." She scooped up one of the parachutes at their feet, tossing it to the nearest person who needed one. The faster this got done, the faster everyone could jump to safety.

"True enough. Thanks."

Below the deck, in the little room Percy had converted into his personal study, he was busy frantically running around the room, stuffing everything that may possess even a semblance of import into a large satchel. He stuffed his notes hand over fist into the bag, some inkwells, a few quills, and even a few books even as the cabin began to fill with smoke. When the first of the boulders pierced the hull, he'd bolted from the cockpit and made a dash for his study. There were many notes on both the keys they had collected, not to mention recollections of what they had learned while searching for them and numerous hypotheses. He did not want to leave thing behind that might prove worthwhile later.

Perhaps a minute and a half into Percy’s frantic packing, another of the crew members, performing a sweep of the ship, chanced upon him in the study. Pushing his dark hair back from his forehead, he stared incredulously at the Mutatio for a moment, before finding his voice. “What the hell? Kid, you’ve got to get out of here! The ship’s going down, and you don’t want to be on her when she does!”

Percy gave the man a moment of his time before returning to stuffing the pack. "I've got to get everything I can!" He replied, stuffing one of his journals into the satchel, "These notes might save our lives one day, I won't let them burn."

“One day won’t have a chance to get here if you don’t move now.” The crewman, an older fellow, and large enough to have earned the moniker Tiny from his captain, even when stood next to Sven of all people, reached over and grabbed Percy by the back of the collar of his shirt, quite literally dragging him out of the room. “Don’t fight me on this, lad—I will sling you over my shoulders if I have to.”

He had just enough time to snatch one more sheaf of notes and stuff it in his pack before she was dragged out of the room. Cinching the satchel tightly as he could, he threw it over his shoulders and acquiesced. "Fine! Fine, let's go," He said, turning around and letting Tiny escort him away from the study-- on the off chance that he might return to it if left it his own devices, Percy figured.




Here they were again. Tumbling around like grass in the wind, heedless of their roiling stomachs, and rattling skulls. If the ground ever stopped shaking underneath them, Sven would count himself a lucky man. While knowing nothing of beasts large enough to pass as mountains, he had not expected that much of a violent reaction—had it even been able to trash around this quickly before, and if it had been, they would have fallen off sooner, he was sure. He ground his molars together to try and steady something in his body, because he felt like everything was sloshing around dangerously. Brief flashes of sky bounced through his peripherals, and flying pieces of boulders, and maybe, the tail of the ship. It was hard enough to tell with his head knocking around like a drum; sky, ground, hands, legs, and sky, again.

Embarrassing. The thought gurgled out as soon as Sven bounced into the air as if he didn't weigh hundreds-of-pounds, weighed down by metal and girth and whatever-else he had in him. Bounced around like some baby on someone's knee. The imaginary was laughable, and almost accurate. The colossal beast shook like an earthquake, tipping his world upside down. Death by horrifically long fall would've been too embarrassing to mention—if their mission failed because they all fell to their deaths, after being harassed by some insanely large mountain-beast... he didn't know what they would say about them in any of Percy's books. Would anyone mention them? Probably not.

The shaking of the ground beneath her feet was beginning to affect even Kethyrian’s preternatural balance, and she found herself having to compensate for unpredictable lurching by falling and rolling as often as she could maintain her footing. It was rapidly becoming obvious that, sans perhaps Mordecai, they were all going to die. There was no way the ship could be of any help to them now, and it was a long way down off the colossus—a long way they would soon be forced to take when what remained crumbled away from beneath them.

As though the thought prompted the circumstance, the next foot she laid down was stolen from under her when the ground on which she trod fell away, at about the same time as the beast beneath her lurched again. With a startled yelp, Kethyrian was tossed off what was now the side of the colossus.

Kethy's long fall was postponed for at least a couple more seconds. Vivi had been both close enough and fast enough throw herself at the falling woman, dashing her chest against ragged stones around the edge as she wrapped her hands around one of Kethy's wrists. A split second of freefall was followed by an intense weight threatening to jerk Vivi's arms out of their sockets. Despite herself she yowled out in pain but still refused to let go, as it was with everything she took a liking to. "Don't look down," she advised Kethy, her own eyes closed so that she could focus on not tipping over the edge herself.

Vivi attempted to wiggle herself back onto the solid part of the ground, but for every inch she gained, two more were lost until she too slowly began to slip over the edge.

Thankfully, Theon was there, albeit a bit slowly, as he hadn't had any more luck keeping his balance than most of them. He kept it when it counted, though, stooping over the prone figure of his sister, still clutching the arm of the wall crawler. "Hang on, I'm pulling you back," he said, sliding one arm under her midsection, the other reaching out to help pull Kethyrian in as well.

With a growl of effort, he dug his boots into the steadily decaying earth beneath them and tugged, forcefully dragging both women up and away from the edge until they could get their own footing, and scramble away. Collapsing back onto the rock, the scryer searched the sky for a moment for the ship, but a greater tremor beneath him took his attention away all too quickly. This rock monster wasn't going to hold up much longer.

Fortunately, it turned out that they wouldn’t need it to. Barely audible over the grinding and rumbling of collapsing stone was the heavy, rhythmic thrum of air being displaced in large gusts by leathery wings. With some difficulty, Lohengrin was gaining altitude and heading in their direction. As the ground beneath Theon’s feet began to fissure and crack, the great red creature dipped in low, snatching up all three in one massive set of claws, along with a fair chunk of loose earth. Mordecai was powerful enough to simply jump on, and did so, catching hold of one of the spikes at the base of his neck. Sven, he caught in his other forelimb, but his dive had been at an awkward angle to reach the precariously-located trio in time, and as a result, he had to do something different to reach Artorias.

Sven couldn't see anyone else, as he tumbled down what he presumed was the colossus's back. Its hip? Its arm? Hard to tell with all the scrabbling rock chipping off like dust and dirt. Sven tried slamming down his mechanical arm for leverage but it only crumbled in his hands, too weak to grapple onto. He continued falling and swore he heard someone scream to his left—his right, maybe? Dead. Dead and gone. And then, free fall. He supposed his life should've been flashing before his eyes, but he saw nothing but a clutch of sky and trembling rocks. His fall jerked to a halt when something wrapped around him, knocking the breath from his chest—not dead. His body flopped forward like a dead-fish being man-handled by... a dragon. He hoped the others were safe. Were alive, at least.

Lohengrin's massive head lashed forward quickly, catching the king in his jaws. It was perhaps as delicate as he could make such a maneuver, but his teeth were made for ripping things apart, and he had little doubt that they would puncture the overcoat the man was wearing with minimal effort. Still, he didn’t taste blood, which meant it shouldn’t be worse than discomfort. His back legs skimmed the surface of the colossus, and he used them to push himself back upwards as well as he could, wings straining in an effort to clear the terrain features still standing and get away from the crumbling mess. Painstakingly, they gained altitude, but it was clearly costing Lohengrin great effort. The reason would be evident enough to Sven, who was occasionally splashed with a fair dose of dragon blood issuing from a wound in Lohengrin’s left wing, near the part where it connected to his shoulderblade. Or perhaps to Artorias, who given his positioning held in the front part of the dragon’s mouth, would be able to note the belabored nature of his breathing.

Don’t let go. The words echoed in their minds rather than their ears, but there was no further instruction, just this whistle of the wind, and the distinct sound of collapse behind them.

Sven raised his head. Lohengrin. Swooped in to save them just in time. He'd have to thank him later. Get him some beer. Good beer. Sven blinked around him, eyebrows scrunched. His shoulders felt warm. It was only until he slicked his fingers across the metal of his arm that he realized that it was not his blood. How long? His mechanical hand gripped around one of the dragon's toes, willing him to land. Somewhere, anywhere. They couldn't afford to lose anyone; crew members were indispensable.

Artorias had to suppress the instinct to draw his weapon and fire upon the creature that currently had him within his jaws. It wasn't entirely a painless affair, with Lohengrin's razor sharp teeth quickly digging into his quilted overcoat and threatening to pierce the soft skin underneath. He tried to alleviate the issue by holding on tight to a scales on his face, but the jarring motion of flight made it all moot. They would need to land and soon. Artorias indicated as much with his hand, urging Lohengrin to try and descend as soon as possible.

He need not have even made the request. Lohengrin was in no less pain than Artorias, albeit for completely different reasons. He only needed to get clear of the collapse zone, which took another few moments, after which he began to descend, perhaps a little too rapidly, but his wingbeats were becoming slower and more lethargic as he went. It wouldn’t be long now. In the end, he coasted the rest of the way to the ground, landing harder on his back legs than he would have liked, but able to place the others down in a minimally-awkward fashion, including the king.

He took several steps back thereafter, swaying dangerously back and forth for a while before slowly tipping over onto his side. The ground shook slightly when he collapsed, but it was nothing so jarring as the disintegrating colossus had been—and that creature was now little more than a pile of rubble and a massive cloud of dust. His eyes rolled up in his head, and if it weren’t for the steady up-and-down of his flanks, he might have been dead.

Perhaps more urgent was the fact that, perhaps a few hundred yards off, the first crewman’s feet had just hit the ground, her parachute drifting to the ground behind her. There was a bleeding cut over one of her eyes, but she otherwise appeared unharmed, if shaken.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Kethyrian Tor Character Portrait: Sven Diederich Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Part Five: The Impasse



With some assistance from the crew, the wreckage was picked through in short order, everyone saving as many supplies as they could carry and moving again, because help was needed to transport the injured. Nobody seemed to have come away with more than incidental injury, save of course Gwen and Lohengrin. Undoubtedly, the party’s healer was beyond exhausted, but she at least had remained conscious.

It was decided that the sooner they moved, the better—for anyone who happened to find them where they were would have a series of sitting ducks to shoot at and little else. The closest settlement on any map was a hard day’s march to the east, a small river-trading town on the Ysar River, called nothing more complicated than Post. The population, perhaps some hundred people or so, was mostly human, though a few dwarves and goblins were interspersed as well, the latter explained by the fact that there was a mine nearby that provided much of the ore that could be later refined and used in the mechanist’s trade.

There were two inns in the town, due to the comparatively high volume of temporary residents it housed, and the group chose the one furthest from the river, so as to draw less attention. It was likely a futile move, considering that they were coming from the
plains direction with no obvious transport, and carried two unconscious, unresponsive people with them. It was, of course, also fairly unusual that there was even one favisae among them, setting aside the oddity of the humans. However strange they might have seemed, their money was plenty good enough for the innkeeper, and they were given the building’s third floor to themselves, which wasn’t quite enough beds for everyone, but close.

Two days later, and Gwen stirred occasionally, but Lohengrin showed no signs of waking at all. Had it not been for the steady rise and fall of his chest, it would have been easy to think him dead, so still was he. But for all that healing magic could tell, he was simply very persistently
asleep, and there was nothing to be done for either of them until they recovered on their own.




For ease of treatment, Kethyrian had kept both of her patients in the same room—not that there was much by way of treatment to actually do. At this point, whether they ever woke up again was mostly up to them. The captain looked like she’d recover in short order, at least physically. Kethy preferred not to make guesses about other people’s mental states. The lizard on the other hand was much more a mystery to her than she’d ever taken him to be, and in that sense, she hadn’t the faintest idea what would become of him.

Having just checked in on both of them, she returned now to her own lodging, padding down the carpet runner in the hallway and selecting the second door on the left. Slumping into a chair at the small circular table in the corner near the window, she was halfway through running a hand through her hair before she realized that it was interfering with her braid to do so and stopped, frowning slightly. In case present company wanted to know, she prefaced with an update. “Not much to report. She’s moving a bit more. If I had to guess, she’ll be up within a couple of days.” Glancing out the window from the corner of her eye, she caught sight of something and exhaled through her nose, her frown deepening.

“We need a plan before then, unless we want the Vipers on our doorsteps… again.”

In terms of the report, anything was better than that stern-lipped, furrowed silence Sven was used to seeing when things weren't going so well for said patients. Soldiers, civilians, casualties. He was used to the shrill sounds of moaning, gasping men and women, crumpled in dirty beds. And the moment doctors slipped back to the able, shutting curtains. Closing doors. Solemn shakes of the head tended to carry a far heftier weight than words, in those cases. Fortunately, it was Kethyrian who was tending both patients and he did not doubt that she could do far better with her abilities. Initially, he'd perched in the room like an immovable gargoyle; a statue, watching from one of the corners, until he was shooed away. Forgoing sleep would not speed their recovery.

Now, he awaited Kethyrian in her room. Looking all-too-large for her chambers, with his arms crossed over his barrel chest and mouth poised in a thin line. “Couple of days. Good,” Sven mumbled under his breath. Some of the tension eased from his shoulders. His arms slackened their death-grip across his forearms, and he slouched in the laughably small chair he occupied. Here they were, stuck in a small, lazy riverside town, with two comatose people yet to awaken, and furious enemies were snuffling down their necks. If they weren't scouting out areas where they might have been, or if they were already frantically tailing them now, then it wouldn't be long. The blazing wreckage of the ship, and the clattering racket the mountain-creature had caused would not go ignored.

How long did they have? Without a vessel to carry them, and being stranded in the middle of nowhere; their options were slim. Sven scratched at the stubble already sprouting from his jawline, and rolled his eyes back towards the ceiling. “You are not able to magic up new ship?” it might have been a joke, but he gave no indication that he was, “Small boats, for fishing. No good.” If they had the means to contact someone in Artorias' circle, it would do them great merit. But he doubted that it was a possibility. They had to work with what they had, quickly.

“This unit believes that we would be less likely to be noticed were our surroundings more populous,” Mordecai mused, folding his hands neatly behind him. He stood now at something of a rest, his body language designed to be nonthreatening and also not alarming, but it seemed to be quite impossible for him to maintain any posture less than perfect, for the moment he forgot to mind himself, he was impeccably upright again. “Perhaps the wisest course is to seek passage to a city and conceal ourselves before we continue any further?”

“Why continue further at all?” Kethyrian asked, her tone reverted to its customary acid, though of course it was probably impossible for such a thing to offend Mordecai. “I don’t know about the rest of you, but I can say with something damn near certainty that it was dumb luck that saved us back there. Or maybe it was partly the captain, but then it’s dumb luck that she’s still alive. Same problem, and I for one have no wish to die.” What they had seen, what they had done—that kind of thing was just too big. There was no way a fragment of an old guild and a crew of airship privateers without an airship could hope to get through another encounter like that. And if colossi were real and dragons were, too… whatever was to come was bound to be way too far over their heads to bother.

Just going to try and break the old man out of his prison was suicide, but at least it was suicide against humans and weapons and battle-programmed automata, not fucking moving hills and flying, firebreathing lizards. Their chances of doing either successfully were near nil, as far as Kethyrian’s evaluation could calculate. She wasn’t a fool, and she was tired of doing the errands of one.

Vivi had entered the room as Kethy began to speak, holding an armful of fruits and bread. She paused looking a little surprised at all the faces stuffed in the room before shrugging and shutting the door behind her with a foot. She waited until Kethy was done talking before she began handing out the fruit. She threw an apple at Sven and a pear at Kethy before setting the load of bread down on the table. The remaining orange she'd taken for herself. "At least it's not the stuff we scavenged from the wreck. This has got taste," she said, setting about peeling the orange.

"Teo's doing that farsight thing he does, looking out for anything that might look like trouble," she said for anyone who might have wanted to know. She was quiet as she peeled, chewing over their options and what all had happened to them in only a span of a few days. "She's got a point," Vivi admitted, flicking away spiralled orange peel. "What do we even do? I'm not throwing myself at the next moving mountain-- that shit's not even fair." Shaking her head, she popped the first orange wedge in her mouth and began to chew.

"It's whatever you guys decide, I suppose," she said between chews.

The frown on Sven's face deepened, as if he were sucking on a lemon. Give up? Surrender? Throw up their hands because things were getting too hard? He didn't have the liberty. As soon as Gwendolyn woke up, as he knew she would, he'd be moving forward with this insane mission. He doubted that she would give up so easily, even if they'd just faced down a moving-mountain beast and realized Lohengrin's true form. And barely survived. What they'd been through, if anything... proved that they should continue. He might've been one of the most sceptical of them all; questioning why statues had chosen their specific number and allotted them runes. Destiny was the furthest word from his mind, but it had to be done. If not them, then who? Nothing would solve itself.

He caught the apple in his meaty paw, sniffed at it, and took a big bite. He grunted his thanks while wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, eyeing everyone in the room. Could they even continue if some of the others backed out? He doubted it. These plans were extensive, and the mission went far beyond anything they've ever done in the past. He had no experience to reflect on, and he doubted they did either. “We continue vith plan. Like alvays. We find a way.” He'd nearly died several times, and figured everyone else had, too. The circumstances might have been different, but the danger remained. He saw no difference. Tumbling from a colossal beast or having your heart chewed up by shrapnel. It made no difference.

Sven swung his gaze back at Vivi and set the apple away from lips. “Theon's farsight,” he repeated, rolling the word around his head, “how does it work? Can it help us move?” He motioned with his hand. Could it locate something useful? Walking was out of the question. Commandeering many river-ships, without drawing notice, would be difficult.

Vivi sputtered in response and shrugged. "I dunno, he doesn't let me in his head very often," she said between orange wedges. The next one she put in her mouth and sucked the juice out, using the time to put what she knew into something coherent. It took more time than was comfortable, with only the suction from the orange wedge filling the silence. Finally, she'd drained all the juice she could from it and spat it out to the side, and finally began to speak again.

"Well, it's like... I guess it's like seeing something, without actually... Seeing it?" She said, her nose scrunched up in confusion. It appeared the time it took to gather the words together weren't nearly long enough. "I mean, he can see stuff that's far away-- which is probably why it's called farsight," she added with a shrug. "But yeah, it can totally help us move. Teo used it all the time when we were out in the desert, and we never ran into anyone we didn't want to. Unless, you know... He was asleep and they got the jump on us... But then they ran into us," She said candidly, popping another orange wedge in her mouth.

Kethyrian sighed. Idiots, all of them, and she a bigger idiot for not putting up more of a fight when she alone seemed to know how badly this was all going to end. But really, what else was she going to do? It wasn’t like she had any other place to be. Idiots or not, they amounted to all she had in the world. Quite literally now, as her meager material possessions had gone down with the ship. Ugh—that almost sounded sentimental.

Perhaps driven to sound even crankier than usual by the thought, she lopped the stem off the pear with a claw and scowled. “Farsight or not, twenty people trying to get anywhere is going to be noticed by someone. Either here in the middle of nowhere because we’re outsiders or in the middle of a city because we’re wanted. ‘We’ll find a way’ is all well and good, but I’m pretty sure the only thing we’ll be finding a way to is a prison cell or the executioner’s block if we don’t do this the smart way.” She didn’t say it, but she was a little skeptical of their ability to do anything the smart way.

Sven's lips peeled back into something that appeared like a smile. All teeth and lines and scowling. “Point is. Vhe go, no matter vhat.” There would be no further discussion about giving up this fool's errand, unless said complainant planned to walk away by themselves. He would force no one to continue, but even he knew that they there was a greater importance to whatever they were doing. Too many things were far from coincidental. He was a sceptic, but if things like farsight could exist, then what did he know?

He arched his eyebrows and straightened his shoulders. Theon's abilities would come in handy if they wanted to navigate anywhere without the airship's advantageous vantage points. Maybe he could see far enough into the future to guide them where they needed to be going—or where they should be avoiding. “We vhill need him before we make any decisions, further.” His gaze swivelled back to Kethyrian, “You are having any smart ideas?”

She shrugged. “We split up. Smaller groups are less noticeable, no matter how weird they are." It wasn't like she was in charge of this operation, however, and she didn't even bother to pretend there was anything more than a suggestion behind the words.

Finally, the door knob leading into the room rattled before slowly opening to reveal Artorias, and an armful of rolled papers. He stood at the doorway for a moment, looking at those gathered and gave a satisfactory nod. "Good, most of us are here," he explained, kicking the door shut behind him. "Bring that table to the center," he ordered, gesturing toward the table sitting at the back wall.

When the table was dragged away from the wall, he began the process of unrolling the papers and setting them up so that the others could see them as well. The man looked tired as he went about this. His eye sockets were sunken into his cheeks with bags beginning to form underneath them. A hint as to why this might've been was present on the papers. They were maps of both the surrounding areas and the cities that were closest to them. Not only that, but lines and arrows were drawn on it as well, with various sets of pointing toward various cities. Some were crossed out, some where underlined, but only one city was circled... Jherico.

Rubbing his eyes, Artorias took a seat in one of the chairs and reclined back. "Percy got these maps for us and he helped me plan out our movement last night... He should be asleep now." Leaning forward, Artorias grabbed the bread on the nearby table and took a huge bite out of it. It seemed that he'd also forgone food as well as sleep. "If you still want to continue, then this should be our course of action..." Artorias said, taking another bite out of the bread and tapping the maps.

"Jherico is the largest city on the fringe of the Kingdom's sphere of influence. We should be able to lay low and... Rebuild there." Artorias said, pausing from eating and staring at the map. A moment passed before he looked up at the others again, "We need to reestablish a base of operations, and this is the safest location. We will blend in among the crowds and it's far enough away from Galatea that we will not be hounded by the Crown."

He paused again, looking at those gathered before looking back at the map. Another moment passed before he spoke again "You are not my soldiers. You should not be expected to fight like them. I cannot force you or anyone else to continue if they do not wish to. The same goes for Gwen's crew too," Artorias added, looking at Sven. "They should be allowed to leave if they wish. I, however, will see this through. It is too important to not..." Artorias said, leaning back into his chair, feeling far more tired than he was.

Kethyrian’s sigh was heavy, perhaps as much exhaustion as exasperation. The last few days had been somewhat taxing on her, to say the least, help or no help. And it looked like respite was still a ways off. Glancing down at Artorias’s maps through narrowed golden eyes, she reached down with a claw-tipped finger and traced a path lightly. “We’ll want the group transporting the injured to go the most direct way. The less they’re moved, the better, but I’m not sure we can wait for them both to wake up. I should go with them in case something unexpected happens.” She glanced back up, cocking an eyebrow at Artorias.

“The other groups can approach from different directions, but we’ll need a reliable way to find each other once we get there. Either a meeting location or a contact. Given the destination you’ve chosen, river barge is the most logical option for those going the fast way. Do we have enough between us for the fare, and then some to shut the ferryman up if we need to?” Bribery was not at all an uncommon practice where she came from, and as it turned out, it tended to be remarkably effective.

Artorias chewed on the question for moment, clearly displeased that they would have to resort to bribery, but otherwise said nothing against it. "We can barter with some of the supplies we took from the Elysium, but do not be surprised if you are asked to help out," he said, before mulling over the first issue-- how to reorganize once they reached the city.

His contacts in the city were made unreliable, since for the rest of the planet, the King was still sat upon his throne in Galatea. However, he couldn't have been the only one who had cultivated contacts over the years, and his gaze shifted to Sven. "I would assume that Gwen would've made friends in a city like Jherico, Sven and the crew can get a hold of someone we can trust and we can have them set up a meeting point for us. The faster we move, the better. We risk a lot by lingering for too long."

Dio had entered the room a few moments earlier, quietly as she did, and caught just the tail end of the conversation, enough to know that they would indeed be moving out again soon, to try and relocate somewhere for the time being. That was all well and good with her; she still didn't know if she was actually an official member of this group, but she'd certainly been through enough with them by now to not want to leave, nor did she really have any reason to. The idea of avoiding further danger of getting squashed by giant rock monsters wasn't occurring to her at the moment.

For now, though, she had important news to deliver. "Erm... Lohengrin is awake now, and he's trying to move around. Failing pretty miserably at it, but... trying. I thought I'd come get you." She delivered the last sentence at Kethyrian, though how much medical expertise the woman had on dragons was likely not much. Dio had certainly never seen anything like it.

Setting

Characters Present

Character Portrait: Gwendolyn Skybound Character Portrait: Mordecai Character Portrait: Lohengrin Character Portrait: Theon Zeona Character Portrait: Vivian Zeona Character Portrait: Diomache Castillo Character Portrait: Artorias Pendragon

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Lohengrin was indeed awake, and with a few more hours, seemed to remember how to move around in a human shape, apparently suffering no further ill effects from his injuries and period of unconsciousness. Dark circles remained under his eyes, and he appeared to flinch slightly at any noise above a certain decibel level, but otherwise, complications were nonexistent to the eye.

Gwen, however, was still not conscious, and little seemed to change. She still thrashed occasionally in her sleep, but she could not be woken from it. After a little more discussion, the group eventually decided to split into three smaller parties: one would be the airship crew, led by Gorlak. They were the largest group, but the least conspicuous in other ways, most of them able to pass for average tradesmen or laborers with little wardrobe adjustment. Avalon’s Dawn was another matter.

The group that had elected to take the fastest, most direct route into Jherico consisted of the injured Gwen, Kethyrian, Percy, Sven for his contacts, and Theon for his ability to perceive potential problems before anyone else. The other group consisted of the rest of the guild, and would be taking a somewhat less-direct route, partly to lay a false trail for any pursuit and partly to keep a lower profile, considering the celebrity among them, so to speak.

The first group reached Jherico within four days overland, and Sven’s contact was able to hide them away in an unused storage facility while they waited for their compatriots.





Artorias ran a hand through his flaxen hair looking ahead over the dirt road cutting through the grassy steppes ahead. Adjusting the pack he carried on his shoulders, he continued forward along the path. He had chosen a more roundabout path for them to take to Jherico, in order draw out any possible pursuit they had garnered and if any issues were to arise, they could handle them out in the open instead of in the city itself. Perhaps it was needless and unnecessary paranoia, but he was not going to risk it either way. It was the second day on the road, and they were only now just beginning to angle their path toward their intended destination.

"Are we there yet?" Vivi said. She'd spent as much of the trip on the ground as she had on Mordecai's shoulders, on which she was presently located. The trip was excrutiatingly boring to her, with nothing but rolling hills and endless grass for as far as the eye could see, with only the odd merchant passing by to break up the monotony. Had it been possible to die from boredom, she would've been dead long ago. Maybe it still was possible, they still had a ways to go from what she had seen in the King in the Pond's maps.

Artorias did not even entertain the question, simply giving her a sidelong glare before returning his gaze forward. He'd changed clothing, to help mark him as decidely less kingly. Since Vivi had taken it upon herself to ruin his coat by using it as gauze to try and help Lohengrin, he wore nothing but a loose light blue shirt half tucked into darker blue breeches, held together by a belt. Speaking of the dragon, he spared the man a glance.

"You weren't going to tell us, were you?" He not so much as asked, but rather stated.

“No.” There wasn’t even a bit of hesitation in the reply. Lohengrin, walking barefoot and dressed in a loose white shirt and dark trousers, shrugged his shoulders with an apparent lack of concern. His boots were still with him, tied together and slung over his left shoulder, but he carried little else, considering what little he owned had been lost in the wreck. He’d replaced a few bare essentials, but to his annoyance, he’d not yet come across anyone selling a suitable replacement for his pipe. “Even if I’d wanted to, I couldn’t. The old man had a spell on me, so I wouldn’t go blabbing things too soon. I wasn’t even able to change unless it was an emergency.” Obviously, running into a colossus had been exactly that. He supposed the other partial instances were involuntary and caused by outside magical influence anyway, probably weakening the spell. He didn’t know a lot about that type of magic, and he also didn’t care, so his hypotheses remained unvocalized.

“Don’t see how it matters—there wasn’t any way it could have helped before it did, regardless.” He wasn’t sure he would have told them even if he could have, really. The reason he’d tried to get Deerboy and even the elf to figure it out was because he couldn’t help but be suspicious of enforced secrets. It seemed like something that they might want to know, only because he’d been made not to reveal it. Who hid things they didn’t care about?

Mordecai, at least, seemed to accept this reasoning with equanimity. “This unit also has command sequences that it may not reveal. It does not even know what they are.” He was aware that there were some ghost protocols in his systems that would not activate or even be known to him until the right environmental triggers occurred, and even then, they may never do so. He wasn’t sure if he was right to see the analogy there, but it made sense to him at least. At any rate, it meant that he believed he understood the position Lohengrin had been in.

“But it wonders why Master Myrddin would believe this information needed to be concealed from us.”

"If it makes anyone feel better," Dio offered, somewhat timidly, "I don't have any huge secrets I'm hiding from you. At least... none that I know of." She found the idea of Mordecai's situation a little unnerving, that he contained knowledge that even he was unaware of, and that certain conditions in the world might activate those, and suddenly change him. Knowledge had a way of changing one's outlook on things, after all. Dio knew that quite well at this point.

"... You're not just gonna toss me if I say accidentally say a code word, are you?" Vivi said, leaning over Mordecai's head to look him in the eyes, albeit upside down. She squinted her eyes suspiciously before gently patting either side of his face, returning to the neutral seating on his shoulders. "Sure, I ain't got any either," she said, holding up a hand and beginning to count down on her fingers, "I am not some kind of princess, I am not an heir to some sort of fortune. Not a spy, not much of anything really. What you see is what you get," she finished.

Artorias couldn't help but roll his eyes, despite himself. Ignoring Vivi for the most part, he muttered "Wizards," under his breath. "I consider Myrddin a close friend and confidant of mine, but even I can't say that I know what the wizard is thinking most of the time. I believe he had his reasons, whatever they may be." Even though he trusted Myrddin's methods, that did not mean he wasn't curious either.

Turning back to Lohengrin, he asked. "Is there anything else you're able to say now?"

“That wasn’t the only colossus. I know where the next key is. You need me to open the door under Deluge. I think that’s about all I have. Oh yeah, and we’re pretty well fucked. I hope you weren’t expecting good news.” Despite the rather acidic content of his statement, Lohengrin sounded more fatigued than anything, his tone lacking the bite it so often had.

"Mm," Artorias hummed, "I can not say that I am surprised. It's always something, without fail." Shaking his head, Artorias ran a hand through his hair and sighed. Nothing was ever easy and it was always some problem or another on the horizon that needed to be vanquished. What he wouldn't give for the chance to become bored at least for once in his life.

Sighing, he turned back to Lohengrin and asked, "The next key then. Where is it?" Somewhere suitably far away where they currently were and hard to get to no doubt.

"It wouldn't happen to be on our way to wherever it is we're going, right? Oh, of course not. That wouldn't be as much fun," Vivi said with a chuckle, though there still remained a hint of sarcasm in her voice.

Lohengrin sucked in a breath, muttering something in a tone too low to hear before releasing the rest in a gust of air. “The dragons have it. So… that’s a no on the convenient and easy to obtain.” He let that sink in for a moment, then shook his head, a sour expression crossing his face. “and if you think I’m an incorrigible asshole… you haven’t seen anything yet.”

Artorias stared at him silently for a moment before he finally spoke, and when he did, it was only one word. "Dammit."




More or less according to plan, the group was able to stagger their arrivals in Jherico, and with help from contacts from Sven and Artorias, they were put up in a network of tunnels underneath the warehouse district of the city. It wasn’t the most pleasant of accommodation, but it was well-hidden, and the tunnels had been carved out to include numerous rooms and doors, each equipped to some purpose or another. It was livable, even if it wasn’t ideal.

For the first three days or so, they simply laid low.

But on the third day, the captain awoke.


Gwen stirred, whole parts of her body strangely numb. She felt like she’d been hit by an automata, and for whatever strange reason, she couldn’t seem to move or even really feel her right arm at all. It was quite strange, really, but she didn’t have much time to think about it, because the next thing that she was aware of was that she was ravenously hungry, like she hadn’t had a decent meal in a week, maybe more. Cracking her eyes open, she found herself looking up at a brownish ceiling, wooden beams braced against what looked like it might be sandstone, or maybe limestone? She found that she couldn’t recall the difference just yet.

It wouldn’t be the first time she’d woken up somewhere she didn’t remember going to sleep, but something about this was more disconcerting than usual. What had she been doing before she went to sleep? She searched her memory for the answer, but drew up blank. Well—she hadn’t been that drunk in a very long time.

Her unease building, she forced herself to sit up with a groan, another stabbing sensation shooting through her stomach, and made to reach out for the bedside table… only to find that there was nothing to reach with. The hand that was supporting her was the only one she had. In place of her right arm was the metal socket she’d fixed over her shoulder-stump after the amputation, but there was nothing whatsoever connected to it. Now she knew something was wrong.

Rather than panic or call for help, however, she assessed the room she’d been placed in. Mostly bare, aside from the bed, the little wooden table next to it, and what looked to be a trunk at the foot. Rolling sideways off the bed, she alighted on her feet, surprised by the wave of nausea that passed over her. She felt so weak—her body was slow and unresponsive to her commands. Had she been drugged, maybe with something that was still wearing off? Taking a deep breath, she waited for her vision to stop spinning and moved to the trunk, throwing it open and searching it.

That was strange—there was nothing in it at all. Well, it wasn’t like she was expecting anything that helpful anyhow. Chewing her lip, she used her arm to tip over the nightstand without a crash, then held the rest of it in place with one of her feet whilst she tore off a leg. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it was better than nothing. She had to get out of this place, wherever she was. Because she definitely didn’t recall coming here of her own free will, and the last thing she remembered clearly was… danger. Feeling desperate, and in terrible danger.

A slight noise outside her door froze her in place, her breathing going still, and when she saw the knob on the door begin to turn, she darted behind it for cover, her improvised club in one hand. If she could get the drop on whoever was coming in, she might be able to figure out what was going on here…

As it turned out, the entrant was someone she recognized, though given the angle of the door, she didn’t know that until he’d stepped fully inside and she was about halfway through the swing that would have clocked him on the head with the table leg. “Shit!” The word was more hissed than properly spoken, and she pulled herself up short, overbalancing in the process and falling straight onto her ass. Her equilibrium was definitely off without the arm that was supposed to be there, to say nothing of the fact that she wasn’t really in much shape to be doing this kind of thing.

“Daisy? What’s—where are we?” She breathed a heavy sigh of relief, to see a friend rather than a stranger, but that only solved one of her problems, and not the other. She was sure she looked a right mess, hair disheveled and lank, out of all its braids and ornaments, one sleeve conspicuously empty, and most of all not quite strong enough to stand up again, though she thought she was doing a fairly good job of playing that off as a lack of concern rather than ability.

Theon had jumped in surprise when he noticed Gwen behind the door, and not in the bed where he’d expected her. He supposed he should have stopped for farsight to see what she was doing before going in, but he’d learned that way that she was awake, and that had been all he needed to know. Naturally, he wasn’t quite as disheveled as she was, and looked more or less his normal self, save for his eyes, which gave evidence to the fact that he’d been sleeping even less than usual of late.

“We’re safe,” he said, knowing that would be her first concern. “Everyone’s safe. We’re in Jherico. Under the city. We just needed a place to… catch our breath, you know?” He supposed she didn’t, judging by the nearly wild look in her eyes. She was confused, disoriented. Taking a step towards her, Theon sat himself down on the floor to be at her level, seeing how she wasn’t really trying to get up yet, and he didn’t really want her to.

“Do you remember what happened? The colossus, the fight… the ship.” He tried to deliver the news carefully, but it was not something he was practiced in. “It went down, remember. You… went down with it.”

“What?” The ship… for several seconds, Gwen tried to make sense of what he was saying. The ship… going down? And her with it. She had to admit, it sounded like the kind of stupid thing she would do, but… how on earth was it that she couldn’t remember it? “I don’t—um. I remember being in danger, something… something coming at us from the air, maybe?” Her eyes went wide as the rest of it dawned on her in quick succession after that. Something flying towards them, and something else, big and red, flying away? But then the engine was compromised, and so she’d given the crew an order to evacuate. She’d argued with Gorlak about who would stay to guide the Elysium down, well away from where the crew would land, to keep them safe.

She’d turned back to the controls, and braced herself for impact, and then… nothing.

“Oh gods. I… I thought I was going to die.” Her eyes darted up to his. “But what happened? Why am I—why am I alive? Not that I’m not grateful, I just—” She cut herself off with a shake of the head, leaning heavily back against the wall as another wave of nausea passed. For a second, she focused only on her breathing, trying to push down the lightheaded feeling so that she could think more clearly. Process rationally. “I knew. I knew that was it for me and I…” She faltered, unable to find a way to finish the sentence.

"I saved you," he said, with a level of certainty that felt almost strange to him. But he was certain of it. Of course he knew the others had played a role, but they wouldn't have succeeded without him. That piece of knowledge had kept him functioning since the crash. That, and little else. "We boarded the colossus, left you behind on the ship. Right before we killed it, I... had a vision. I saw you on the ship, saw you give the order. I crashed on that ship with you, and then I watched you crash from the ground with my own eyes." It was something that had never happened to him before, a vision like that. It had to mean something. It had to.

"And then I felt for you," he explained, gently pushing the door a little more closed, but not all the way. "Farsight. I found you, knew you were alive. Same way I knew you woke up just now. I led the others to you, dug you out. Gave Kethyrian magic when she had none so she could heal you.” There was more to the story, but this was what he’d wanted to tell her for days. Because he’d done something he was proud of.

"You’re not dead because I didn’t let you die. I don’t give a shit about visions that say otherwise. You’re not dying before I say so.”

Gwen thought about that for some time, her eyes on the ground in front of her, her mouth turned down contemplatively. It was a lot to handle. Her ship—her father’s ship, and everything she had left of him—was gone. That alone was a heavy knowledge. But… the crew was alive, the guild was alive. And she knew something about herself that she hadn’t thought was true. She knew what she would do, when it came down to preserving her own life or preserving the lives of the people she cared about the most. Knowing that felt… like both freedom and imprisonment at once. Perhaps it was just a tether that she would wear with pride.

She closed her eyes for several breaths, and when she opened them again, she was smiling. Just a little, but enough to recall what her face usually looked like. “Oh yeah? I think I can live with that.” Her eyes softened. “So I know this isn’t really our thing, but I’m going to hug you now. Please don’t tell me if you mind, because I’m doing it anyway.” She could really use one just now, and conveniently he was right there, still un-thanked.

True to her word, she shuffled herself over until she was close enough, then used her singular arm to sort of pull herself into his side, which was about the best she could do with her present state accounted for. She spoke more into his shoulder than anything. “Thanks, Theon. For saving my life. Turns out you’re actually really good at this ‘being a friend’ thing.” She was going to need that in the near future, as much if not more than she’d needed it not a few days past. She was alive, after all, but that wasn’t the same as being fine. That part might take a while, yet.

Theon wasn’t typically fond of touching, but in this case, he was glad to, wrapping his arm around her from his seat. "Anytime.”

He smiled to himself.