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User ImageNero trudged down the steep hill, gently pushing branches out of his way where he could, and ducking under the taller ones. The multitude of trees made the ground treacherous with roots and logs, but Nero navigated the forested floor with an experienced air. His eyes roamed, observing the beauty of the land around him; but they always returned to his destination, growing closer with every passing minute. Zanithis. Nero liked to return here at regular intervals, to see if he could find news of his Mother. In such a huge city, the chances were slim, but Nero had his hopes that eventually someone could tell him where she might be. Smiling to himself, he walked on, barely disturbing the peaceful forest around him.

Despite his aversion to cities (and this was the biggest of all those he had been to) Nero looked forward to his visits to Zanithis. Here, he went unnoticed by almost all citizens. In smaller towns, his height and appearance always caused him to stand out, and he was often sought out by the denizens. They had no ill intent, but such things made Nero uncomfortable. However, no matter how tall or wild he looked, the big city folk had far less interest in him. Perhaps they had seen it all in the huge amount of traffic that passed through; perhaps they simply were busy with their lives. Whatever it was, Zanithis to Nero always seemed like another part of the wilds, where as long as you knew the risks and territory, no one bothered you, and you could go about your business as you pleased. Mostly. Nero grimaced slightly, remembering the time someone had tried to rob him. The city guard had called him a hero afterward, but he still would rather have not garnered all that attention when he threw the skinny man into the wall across the street. He would be more careful this time. He shifted the heavy Bowgun on his back. Her name was Diu Sagitta
, and she was his most treasured possession. He prided himself on her creation, and on his mastery of her.

Reaching the bottom of the hill, the trees thinned out, and as he approached the road, they disappeared altogether. The sky was blue, and the rolling plains stretched for miles. The mountains behind him reached up to scrape the bottom of the heavens, and the sun strained higher to avoid brushing their snowy peaks. Nero smiled again. He walked on, wondering at the alien feel of cobbled roads under his feet. The walls of Zanithis rose slowly grew larger, intimidating and uncompromising. Nero approved. He slowed, matching his pace to that of the flow of travelers entering the city. The proximity to others was stifling. Nero held himself awkwardly, trying not to stand out. His 6'8" stature made this unnecessarily difficult. Nero cursed his height...again. The guards at the gate looked over the crowd attentively, one's eyes resting on Nero, and then on Diu for just a moment before moving on. Nero laughed inwardly at his previous analogy of the city to the wilds. He was not cut out for this, no matter what he told himself. It was better inside, at least. Passing through the gates, the crowd thinned enough for Nero to push his way out of it. Ignoring irritated shouts, he walked quickly until the people were spread out enough that he could breathe properly again. The claustrophobia was very present when he was so packed in. Calming himself, he felt a bit ashamed and embarrassed about his weakness. Nero walked on towards his favourite inn- The Wistful Woman. The owner was always informative and kind.

Entering the inn, Nero sat down at his usual table- mercifully empty. The common room was fairly deserted, with only one other table occupied by a pair of merchants nursing drinks. Nero judged them as having only arrived a few hours earlier than himself, by the wear on their clothes. The serving girl approached him as he sat.

"Can I get you anything?" She asked, a bit of wariness in her voice for the large man dressed in leather and fur. Diu also drew a slightly frightened look. She must be new, Nero thought. He shook his head to indicate he did not need anything. As she turned to leave he spoke quickly.

"Ann?" Nero asked.

She jumped at his sudden voice, deep and carrying. "Oh! Uh, M-mistress Ann? She's in the back. Do you...want me to get her?" Nero nodded, relieved he hadn't needed to say more. He was so bad at this. He leaned back in his chair and tried to relax. He had noticed that there were even more people than usual in the city. Maybe there was an event that he didn't know about, or a custom. Holiday? Nero hadn't been into those even when he had lived in the city, although some of the festivals had been fun when he was younger. He wondered what now was going on.

"Nero! "

He looked up and grinned. Mistress Ann rolled across the common room, somehow slipping between chairs that she had no right to fit between. The huge woman reached him and grabbed his hand. He usually wasn't comfortable with this close of interaction, but she was a kind woman, and one of few people he considered his friend. He wouldn't want to see what would happen to her outside of her comfortable city, but she was a good woman for that. She had been a friend of his Mother's, which was why he always went to her first.

"Ann." He said happily. She chuckled.

"Quiet as ever, I see. That's why I can stand having a big ruffian like you around here. Well, I know what you're after. I'm sorry Nero, but I haven't seen nor heard a thing of Sarah since last time you asked." Her reply was delivered in a light joking tone at first, but was coloured with sadness as it went on. She had known his mother when they were young, and often when Sarah had left her husband and son for a while she would go to visit Ann. However, Ann hadn't seen her since the last visit, well before her disappearance. Nero smiled. He had hoped, but he had been at this for some time. He wouldn't give up now, or ever.

"Thanks." He stood to leave.

"Hang on there, wild-man. I've got something to show you." Ann took the hand she had grabbed originally and pulled him towards her room behind the front bar. Well, she pulled the hand, and Nero acquiesced to go along with her. Letting him go when it was clear he wouldn't run away, she rummaged through a few sheets of paper until she found the one she wanted. "Here!" she crowed triumphantly. She shoved the paper at him until he took it, and then motioned for him to read it. Nero grimaced. He was not a fast reader. His eyebrow arched incredulously as he reached the bottom of the flyer. He looked at her questioningly. She rolled her eyes, a movement that seemed to involve her whole body, causing her to sway alarmingly.

"I know you don't need money, but with the reward promised here, you could hire who knows how many people to find your mother! Or, you could ask the Prince to help you find her as your reward." Her brow furrowed. "Not only that.. I think this could be big. You know my instincts are good, and this 'quest'... I think they'll need you."

Nero was dubious. "Who?"

"I don't know! Whoever else goes on this. Please, Nero. Think about it." Her pleading tone and gestures spoke to him of sincerity and worry. Nero was doubtful, but if she was right, this was his duty to his country. Nero decided he would meet with this Jhandel, for his own sake if nothing else.

Lord Scottacus's avatar

Interesting Citizen

Denre Rispit

User ImageUpon hearing of the job request by Jhandel, Denre was intrigued. Denre grew tired of chasing bandits and escorting caravans and went in search of a bigger job. Sometimes these jobs would be high priority assassinations of newly risen corrupt dictators, sometimes they’d be downright outrageous such as searching for the best apple pie recipe in the entire Tourmaline Empire. Whatever the job, it was always a change of pace. While seeming on the surface to be a normal treasure hunting mission Denre had a gut feeling that this one would be something more.

He had packed his possessions together again. Several changes of clothes, a nice painting depicting a mountain range he had never heard of, a chair that he quite liked, and his collection of about fifty books- ranging back all the way to when he had first come into existence. Those books were quite weathered by now, despite his best efforts to preserve them. Once he had packed his things he went loaded them into the back of the plain carriage he had hired. He instructed the driver, a friend he had known for a few years, to take him to the city of Zanithis.

While he rode in the back of the carriage he fell into his thoughts. He was trying to decide which form of his he should show up in, it always made an impact on people who they first saw him as. Even years after learning about his shapeshifting his former guild mates still couldn’t wrap their heads around him having no true form, instead viewing the form they had first seen him in as his “base” form. He settled on a man in his mid twenties, well muscled and lean. This form had long white hair that he tied back behind his head.

He knew the journey there would only take a few days and he had pretty much the whole month to establish himself before the party would be leaving. He would have to find a new residence to keep his things and find a job to make a bit more money. He was a little tight right now, especially considering the cost of moving again. Well, the city was sure to be busy so he shouldn’t too much trouble finding someone who needed something done. He wasn’t too worried about it.

On the second day of the trip his cart was stopped on the road by a highwayman blockade. The sky was blue, without a single cloud and the forests stopped one from seeing too far to either side. His friend Rothel yelled into the back.

“What do you want to do, they’re only asking for ten gold.”

“I'll handle it.”

He changed his form to that of the one he was known for in the region. It was about forty and had one feature that made it memorable. It had a huge ragged scar across the face, it was the body of a bandit leader he had killed years back. The leader had escaped from him the first time they met, but not before getting the scar he had now. The bandits of this region knew this form for the notoriety it had for massacring those that wouldn’t leave without resistance, eventually all he had to do was be seen by the scouts and by the time he reached the camp they’d be packing up and running of to the hills. He really wasn’t up for a fight right now, but certainly wouldn’t hesitate if they didn’t clear the road. He opened the door to the carriage and hopped out. Upon seeing him the bandits became instantly nervous and jumpy. He heard a few mutter curses.

“Hello Gentlemen, what seems to be the matter? Our carriage has stopped.”

The leader was a big man and didn’t seem to be intimidated by him.

“Road tax, gotta pay it to get through.”

“I'm in a giving mood. We’re going to give you the option to leave peacefully. Leave now and you can keep your life.”

"That's not one of the options I gave you."

"Well sir," Denre started as he grabbed a pouch of coins "If you insist!"

Denre tossed the pouch to the highwayman, as the man caught it he whipped a dagger out from his cloak and tossed it; it pierced the pouch and lodged into the man’s chest. The leader drew a sword while the remainder of his cadre ran for the hills deciding that ten gold was not worth the risk to their lives. Denre pulled out another two knives and held them wide indicating he would give the leader the first real strike of the fight. The bandit ripped the dagger from his chest, not the smartest idea as it started bleeding profusely. The bandit took Denre’s inviting posture as opening to strike, he swung hard with an overhead strike. Denre side stepped the attack and stabbed the mans forearm with his knife. The man retaliated with a relentless flurry of swings and stabs. Denre parried and dodged easily but that was all he could manage against the man, there was simply too many attacks for him to make an offensive maneuver. After a minute both men were showing signs of fatigue, the bandit noticeably wincing from the stab wounds to his chest and arm. The man’s attacks faltered for just a second and Denre took the opportunity to duck low under a swing and come back up with the man’s arms. Dropping a knife, he caught the man’s sword arm and planted his other dagger firmly into the man’s back. Denre’s arm lost to the man’s sword arm and felt the blade slice his back. He struggled to break free of the bear hug he was in but failed, in a last ditch effort he brought his knee into the man’s groin. The grip loosened and he broke free. To the man’s credit, he was still standing. Denre took a couple of quick hops back and pulled another pair of knives from his cloak. He threw these at the man to finish him off. The man was simply bleeding from too many places to continue fighting. The man collapsed in the dirt and Denre left him there after retrieving his knives. He might live– Denre didn’t really care.

Denre got back in the carriage and told the driver to head off again, he wanted to make the city before dark. The rest of the journey went by uneventfully, he saw many abandoned blockades, apparently the local bandits had been taking advantage of the increased traffic. Word must have gotten out that he was coming through and the highwaymen probably didn’t want to take their chances trying to confront him. By the time he arrived near the city he could see the bustling crowds trying to get through the gates. Hopping from the carriage he told his friend that he would book an inn and meet up afterwards. The foot traffic was getting through the gates a lot faster and within little time he had made his way into the city. Once in it took him nearly two hours to find an inn that wasn’t full or below his standards. The one he did find was a bit more expensive than he would like, but he didn’t have much for options. Once he had booked two rooms and an overnight space for the carriage he set out again. It took him another half hour to find his friend. He told him how to get to the inn and said he had the remainder of the day to himself. Upon finishing with his friend Denre set out to find the man named Jhandel for details on this mission he had put out.

              Xanthia Vetyz

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              The scroll of papyrus yielded reluctantly as the pen streaked across its blistered surface. Guided by Xanthia’s perceptive green eyes and skillful hand it danced gracefully across the paper, leaving the outline of a mountain amidst dull thuds against the wooden table beneath. It was noon already and Xanthia had spent most of the morning transcribing maps of the wilderness around Zanithis to be sold to the patrons of her mother’s tool shop; countless travelers who crammed the city during this time of year. It was a quiet task that only added to the monotony of life around the shop since her younger brother had gone back to school just the week before.

              There was no shortage of things to do around the shop these days. Merchant caravans and adventures on visit from the furthest corners of Tourmaline were preparing to depart for home and they often required the finest navigational tools for their journeys. The massive surge in business meant the family business had to prioritize quantity over quality and it was this strategy that plagued Xanthia with such tedious tasks.

              What made the work even more droning was the thought that soon Xanthia would be leaving on her first royal cartographical expedition. With the climate easing into autumn and the day of departure steadily approaching it was near impossible to keep the excitement off her mind. As optimistic as Xanthia was however, the first storms that signaled the beginning of the trek before the closing of the Grey Horizon were still at least two weeks away and she would probably be stuck copying dry maps until then, her curiosity incarcerated. That was unless she could find something new and interesting to spark her enthusiasm and keep the wait off her mind.

              With lunch came a flicker of relief. Xanthia’s mother had been assembling and fine-tuning a sextant for delivery to one of the merchant houses situated across the city. With all of the business around the shop to tend to, she asked Xanthia to be the courier. It wasn’t the most exciting job but at least Xanthia would have a chance to get outside and enjoy the last of the year’s pleasant weather.

              Cloth wrapped sextant in hand, Xanthia pounced on to the cobblestone street outside the shop. The sky was of a purest blue and the modest breeze smelt of musty autumn leaves. It took a moment before she adjusted to the obstinate daylight but Xanthia promptly sprung forward to begin weaving through the crowds. Even for an experienced city-goer the masses of people could be difficult to navigate. Nonetheless the experience was always invigorating this time of year. People were about from all corners of Tourmaline and the uncustomary, sometimes alien dress of foreigners proved more than capable of distracting Xanthia’s eye from the route. Trying hard to suppress the need to inquire further she was able to wrangle her curiosity and maneuver her way to the market square where an unusual conglomeration of people snatched the attention of her keen eye.

              Xanthia approached to the sound of a wondrous tune, the origins of which were so unidentifiable that it defied even the diversity of Zanthis’ streets. She had to investigate! Forcing her way through the crowd in a rather rude fashion, Xanthia could begin to make out the members of a small band playing out of the back of their exotic dust blasted caravan. The composition continued with a synergy between the lofty hymn of winds and the crisp intensity of strings that seemed divine. Alas the peculiar instrument danced across its final euphoric notes in a solo that captivated the audience and constricted the path to the front. Xanthia was torn between the frustration of her curiosity and the exhilaration of the melody. Relentlessly she attempted to squeeze through until finally, after much applause, the crowd began to disperse. The clearing path to the caravan allowed Xanthia a glimpse of the harmony’s inexplicable origins.

              Sitting on the lap of a sturdy dark skinned man in white robes was the masterpiece: a finely crafted tubular body, inscribed with runes, spanning a bow from which strings originated and passed through the central piece. The instrument was as much of a beautiful work of art as the organic tunes it produced and as the man gently caressed its form Xanthia noticed that the group was already beginning to pack up.

              “Sir! You must tell me what land this magnificence hails from!”
              , she proclaimed with a sudden sense of urgency.

              The man looked up with a grin, squinting at first in response to the onslaught of the sun.

              “Ah, my lady, I bring it from the sands of the Ihavo”

              The man’s voice was as smooth as a desert dune and he spoke with an air equaled only by the instrument he played.

              “It is there my people know this as a Hynamo. It means ‘Wind Caller’ in our native tongue.”

              Xanthia stared intensely at the exotic shape of the object, lifting her eyes only at the sound of the man’s next sentence:

              “But this is no ordinary Hynamo…”

              By now the other three men had stopped packing up their instruments to smile at the conversation, their thick arms leading confidently to their waists. They snickered amongst themselves.

              “Wha…what is different about it?”
              . Xanthia was already kneeling on the ground, now she was the one looking upwards.

              “In ancient times sacred instruments such as these earned their name because they could be used to call on the magic of Tourmaline and bring rains to even the driest dunes in the desert. See these inscriptions?”

              The man held out his instrument towards Xanthia and without a second thought she reached out to run her fingers across the strange runes. With a smile the man fostered her curiosity for a moment before continuing:

              “This is one of those instruments…”

              Xanthia leapt quickly to the implication.

              “So you’re saying that you can control the weather with this?”

              , the man replied, “But not just me. Perhaps you could learn too if you are willing to make a trade.”

              The other men burst into laughter. They tried desperately to regain their composure before one finally blurted, “Don’t listen to him ma’am. Lho here is just an old fool, that thing has never done us any good.”

              The man Xanthia now knew as ‘Lho’ shared a chuckle with his band before turning to her with a raised eyebrow and a grin.

              “Maybe I’m just not good enough.”
              , he said. “Who knows, you might just be more talented than I.”

              Amidst the backdrop of sounds resonating across the marketplace a sudden silence came over the group. The band returned to loading up their caravan an even Lho participated this time as he proceeded to pack away the hynamo. Haunted by the thought that she may never hear or see the beauty of the instrument again, Xanthia sprung to make a deal.

              “If you have half an hour I could run and get a few coins from my house”
              , she offered. “Would that be okay?”

              The man who mocked Lho’s story turned around to face Xanthia, a look of seriousness smeared across his face. With contrast to his earlier tone he began respectfully:

              “I am afraid not, my dear. The Ihavo is very distant and we must leave now if we are to reach our homeland or risk being snowed in. In fact, I fear we have already overstayed our due.”

              Lho turned again to Xanthia and nodded in agreement. She was beginning to sweat from the stress. The men went back to packing their caravan and Xanthia cringed as the case containing the hynamo was tucked neatly under one of the seats. It was a sight that induced thoughts that proved too much. Holding her breath she held out the only thing left to offer – the sextant. Intrigued by the gesture, Lho gently unraveled the cloth and his eyes lit up as he peered over its fine workmanship.

              “This would certainly be very useful to us.”, he remarked. “But are you sure you want to trade such an expensive piece?”

              Xanthia stood silent and frozen, her face nearly blue from the lack of breathing. She nodded in a rapid burst and Lho smiled. Returning to the caravan, he plucked the case from beneath the seat and handed it to her. She breathed again. Sextant in hand, Lho and the other men mounted up. With a snap of the whip the driver pressed the two horses into action and the caravan rolled forth. Resting on the back with one leg hanging off the end, Lho brushed his fingers over the newly acquired navigational instrument. With his face receding down the street he turned once more to Xanthia and winked before the caravan disappeared around a corner.

              Xanthia stood motionless in the market square with the hynamo case braced tightly against her chest. She tried to contemplate the full extent of what had just happened, and what was going to happen. As a chill creeped up her spine she burst into a sprint, running back up the street the way she came towards the family shop. The store’s bell rang as she opened the door.

              “How did it go?”
              , her mother asked.

              , Xanthia replied in the shortest manner possible so as to not reveal the shakiness of her voice.

              “What is that?”

              “Ah…just something I found at the market.”

              Fortunately Xanthia’s mother didn’t show much interest. She made for her room at a brisk pace and sat the Hynamo down on the bed once there. After opening the case and admiring the contents for a while she attempted to get back to her work transcribing maps. It was an utterly futile endeavour. Even if she could ward of the shivering Xanthia still found herself leaning over every ten seconds to peer at the instrument. It wasn’t long before a familiar client entered the shop to inquire about his sextant. Sick with shame she fought hard to suppress childish impulses to run away or hide under the bed. Eventually the client left and her mother’s penetrating voice pierced the walls of the shop:

Cassandra Voorhees's avatar

Gracious General

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                                                        FROM BEHIND the bazaar where dozens of merchants had set their brightly coloured caravans, Jhandel looked on with more than a passing curiosity. In front of him, draped over a Tourmaline flag and a standard he recognized belonged to a tribe of wanderers in the south, lay a brilliant array of fabrics. The reds, he found, were in season for women's dresses and the purples were always in high demand amongst the mountain folk of Zenithis. Jhandel spent some time conversing with the peddler on other trends he hadn't managed to pick up before he finally settled on a simple scarf in white. It wasn't as spectacular as the vibrant greens like jungle depths, or the deep ultramarine of the ocean, but he supposed it suited its purpose well enough. Where they were going, it was probably best he wasn't too memorable.

                                                        "Pleasure doing business with you, Master Koven. Please send my regards to your family if you meet with them," the peddler, a man with a greying beard and two missing front teeth, said between bites of a particularly fragrant leaf. Jhandel smiled in return. While the nomadic clans around the edges of the Tourmaline empire were very isolated from one another, they all shared a common purpose. Through the land they were connected and so he found himself calling complete strangers "brother" from time to time.

                                                        Jhandel paid with the appropriate coinage, taking his leave as the crowd breathed around him. There was an uncomfortable amount of people milling about on the streets though they gave him a sufficiently wide berth upon seeing his sword and the uniform it was attached to. All the same, he was mindful of the space he took up. He found himself suddenly craving the cool comforts of the Royal Archives despite disliking the smell of musky old books. Jhandel sighed. But alas, he still had a lot of work to do and unlike a certain prince, he was not allowed to barricade himself behind a mound of official documents.

                                                        Navigating into a quieter part of the city, near the darker side of the main ridge, Jhandel pinpointed a small grey building with a wooden sign that read "Eagle's Den: For the Spirited Traveller." Built practically into the wall of the mountain, the interior of the inn sported a multitude of nooks where birds of prey roosted. Jhandel waved to the innkeeper and a dozen eyes followed the movement.

                                                        "Chosen this place for your interviews, eh? I can't imagine why," the innkeeper gave a hearty laugh, directing Jhandel to a table facing the entrance. He handed him a glass of clear glacial water, busying himself with the birds when one of them squawked impatiently for food.

                                                        "I'm going to need tough people for this trip, Master Tharef. The birds scare away the weakest of heart," Jhandel leaned back in his seat, an imperious smirk dancing across his face. As if in approval, a large falcon behind him with a scar running down the side of its beak ruffled its feathers. "Jokes aside, I know you have ears beyond the borders. I'll want to make sure this expedition goes without the people, especially the prince, forgetting about us." Jhandel fished out a bundle of papers with names running down them in two columns. From the list he had crossed off more than three-quarters --applicants he had rejected at the first screening.

                                                        Knowing Master Tharef was listening over the calls of the birds, Jhandel spoke into his papers,
                                                        "It would be incredibly easy for a small band to just disappear."
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Nero stared apprehensively at the inn before him. It almost looked like home, built into the mountain as it was. He looked back to the flyer, then at the inn again. This was the place, without a doubt. Nero had been surprised to find the location for the meeting was not some fancy hall or frilly palace, but instead at a gritty inn that he was familiar with, although not in a good way. He had almost gotten into trouble the last time he was here attempting to free the majestic birds held within. Grimacing for both his rash actions and the still-caged predators that he would have to face, Nero wondered if this was the right idea after all. Did the unconventional location speak further of the necessity of this- for lack of a better word- interview, or, did it simply prove that this was a frivolous waste of Nero's time? Nero grinned at himself slightly. Alright, so maybe he wasn't doing anything productive anyway. Shrugging, Nero resigned himself to whatever was to come. Squaring his shoulders, he walked inside, ducking under the somewhat low door.

As his eyes adjusted, Nero flinched away from the accusing glares of five or more powerful birds. Their wings, to his eyes, hung limp at their sides, and their feathers were ragged and dusty. To his shame, he could not look a single one in the eye. Trying his best to ignore them, Nero looked at the innkeeper. The man was glaring at him with no less anger than the birds, remembering well the last time Nero had paid a visit to his establishment. Nero stared back stoically, hiding his revulsion and contempt for a man who could own a place like this in good conscience. Here, he felt no shame. He had only tried to do the right thing, even if was against the law. The innkeeper looked away first, his anger tempered somewhat by Nero's unblinking gaze. Ignoring him as well, Nero cast his gaze about for the man he had come to meet. Jhandel... a name for a nomad. Nero found his man directly in front of him, at a table facing the door.

Jhandel had his face behind a sheaf of important-looking papers. Nero noted the sigil on the shield propped up on the table's edge, and the slightly curved sword that was a trademark of the sand-people. Nero snorted softly at the bow the man carried at his side. Inaccurate, weak things. He wondered how the knight would receive a mountain man answering his call to arms. Without further hesitation, Nero sat down without comment and waited to be acknowledged.
Cassandra Voorhees's avatar

Gracious General

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                                                        JHANDEL BUSIED himself with his lists of names, recalling indistinct faces from an ocean of people. Throughout his travels he had met many individuals, some of which had left permanent marks on him, though he never had a chance to know them for more than a brief instant. It was a product of the kind of lifestyle he lived, always on the road if not solving problems then searching for them. Perhaps he had developed his inability to remember characters because of this; of the thousands he had come across, the memories were overwhelming at the best of times.

                                                        He frowned into his glass of water, setting it aside gently when a breeze from beyond the door ruffled his papers. Almost at once there was a slight shift in the atmosphere; the birds, including his favourite one with the beak-scar, shuffled disapprovingly in their roosts. One that rested in a deeply shadowed corner clucked angrily. Jhandel rested his gaze on the innkeeper, silently inquiring an explanation for the abrupt change of mood. He didn't get one however, the innkeeper--as hawk like in his stance as the birds he owned --being too preoccupied with glaring at the new arrival. Now that was curious. Master Tharef was not the type to anger easily, more prone to laughing at things that annoyed him than becoming outwardly upset.

                                                        Jhandel lifted his eyes to the door, expecting to see some malignant looking figure with a burly presence that so disturbed the birds. What he found instead was a confident man that towered over the tables in the room. To Jhandel's experience, he seemed well put together with an indomitable air around him that suggested a mountain heritage. Was this man from around here? If so, he was surprised he hadn't heard about such an individual. The foreign weapon, a massive contraption he could only begin to fathom its operation, strapped to his back aside, there was a wildness in him that reminded Jhandel of great hunters he had encountered in the past.

                                                        Intriguing. Jhandel was about to offer the man a seat but he had already pulled a chair out. Straight to business? Well, he was alright with this. A place like the Eagle's Den wasn't for regular Zanithis social customs anyway.

                                                        "Greetings, traveller," Jhandel started, placing the papers face up on the table. "Have you come for the quest?" He knew the question was rather unnecessary, seeing as how the man was very certain about sitting at his table when there were plenty others that were open. Nonetheless he asked anyway, prompting a response from the silent individual. Usually by this time Jhandel would be assaulted with boastful claims of previous accomplishments, claims which were tinted with a tangible ambition that sometimes twisted around him like thick coils of snakes.

                                                        "I see the wind has brought in more than a mere simpleton. Can you tell me about your interest in the matters of this royal treasure hunt?" Jhandel liked to mockingly call the sanctioned expedition a "treasure hunt" in the presence of some of the applicants, if only as a way to gauge personal greed. Something told him, however, that this man was hardly interested in material gains.
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Nero listened to Jhandel's spiel impassively. The sands of the desert had not left the man's tongue during his stay in 'civilization.' Nero had always appreciated their language and accent- it made for quick and efficient bartering, not to mention beautiful songs. He had learned their customs a few years back, while exploring the deserts of Tourmaline in his travels. It was a culture he respected. Self-sufficient and performing a duty necessary to the well-being of the empire, they were a resilient people who never gave up. Nero had even lived among them for a time, wishing to learn from their way of life. He eventually left, desiring to see more of the empire he loved, but the desert held a special place in his memories. Except the sun. Spirits, how he hated the heat. Even the baggy cloth that the nomads wore could not help him.

"Have you come for the quest?"

Nero arched an eyebrow. No, he had come for the sandman's company and the birds. If Diu wasn't a giveaway, he didn't know what was. Nero listened on.

"...more than a mere simpleton."

He wondered if the man was mocking him. Most people assumed Nero was in fact a simpleton of the most severe kind. As Jhandel mentioned a treasure hunt, Nero's eyebrows drew together in a thick line. He had not come to this...cage...for gold. Nero leaned forward angrily.

"I would serve."

He exhaled loudly. This was a waste of his time, and that was saying something. He searched Jhandel's face. Surely this was a joke? Nero could hardly believe that a Knight of the empire would jest about its defense. Regardless, Nero was here to serve and defend the land he loved, not to get 'rich.' He had left behind the trappings of wealth long since. Nero stood suddenly, his chair sliding back a few feet. He turned, intending to leave.

"Keep your gold."
Cassandra Voorhees's avatar

Gracious General

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                                                        THE SLIGHT smile which had adorned Jhandel's face disappeared. In its place was a mask of quiet contemplation, his pale green eyes seeking reconciliation. This was unexpected; of all the times (and there were quite a number of them) he had made a mistake in judgment, none had had him on the edge of his seat like the one now. He wished to apologize to this man --he could see now he was obviously unlike those individuals he had dealt with earlier that only cared for material possessions --but first a better explanation was in order.

                                                        "Master Hunter, please sit. You will have to forgive me for my crude behaviour. It has been some time since I've met another who finds the thought of excessive wealth unappealing," Jhandel said, inclining his head in deference. "Most of the men and women with skills I will need for this task, people who desire to protect the Empire, are diligently attending to their duties. Such work I would not ask them to leave." He looked up then and met the hunter's eyes, dropping all pretense he had held moments ago. "I am having to resort to employing sellswords and it shames me."

                                                        In his time as a Knight of Tourmaline Jhandel had encountered many things which had frightened him. Those fears which he could not slay with his sword lingered the longest, and his mother would always be in his mind reminding him that noble men did not lie to honest people. He was embarrassed.

                                                        "Please accept my apology, Master Hunter. I have not given you the respect that is due." Jhandel stood from his seat, bowing at the waist in a manner that was proper for his offence. When he raised his head he clasped his hands behind his back, waiting to see how the man would receive him. "I would like to speak with you further, if I may."

                                                        Master Tharef was blessedly not nearby to witness his blunder, having apparently rushed off to attend to other business away from the hunter that stood before him. Jhandel meanwhile thanked his good fortune and prayed that this man could offer his services. Should the strange weapon and powerful stance attest to the hunter's skill, he would be more than pleased to have the man accompany him. Spirits knew that finding someone so offended by an offer of riches for such an important task was a remarkable find indeed.
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Nero stopped at the door. He had hardly expected that such a seemingly cocksure Knight could sound so humble. Heartened by this, and the man's profession that he also found material wealth unattractive, Nero turned around with crossed arms. An apology he accepted easily; however, more was required before he signed himself up for this quest.

As Jhandel explained that he could not take patriots for his task as they were already occupied, Nero's respect- and his embarrassment at having so rashly stood up- grew. It was true. There was trouble everywhere, and few could be spared for basic tasks, let alone monumental ones. If this was where Nero could help, he was more than willing. He understood hiring sellswords. It was necessary, if never glorious. Nero had encountered many mercenaries in his travels, often helping them protect merchant caravans they were hired for; sometimes stopping them from attacking such travelers.

"I have not given you the respect that is due."

Nero shook his head, embarrassed further. He knew all about letting emotions or stress cause him to act rashly, and say or do things he regretted later. It was all too familiar. Jhandel's plea struck Nero as more than sincere. Nero smiled apologetically at Jhandel's invitation to sit again.

"I will listen."

Nero sat down and gave Jhandel his full attention. No more running.

              Xanthia Vetyz

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              slouched at the breakfast table, her frustration finally coming to surface as a sulky mood this morning. She had spent the last three days trying to learn even the basics of playing the hynamo but without the slightest sign of progress. Her novice conglomerations of notes made a mockery of its elegant shape and were likely reducing local business to the family shop. Xanthia’s mother soon forgave her of the way she had tarnished their business’ reputation as she was used to these sorts of antics, but it was these irritating tunes that forced Xanthia to find somewhere else to play. It didn’t help the fact that she never actually witnessed the Ihavo man play the instrument, she merely saw it on his lap after the crowd began to disperse. Was she holding it properly? Was she plucking the strings too hard or too soft? Are you even supposed to pluck the strings? These questions beleaguered Xanthia as she sat upon dusty cobblestone streets with the hynamo, fantasizing about using the instrument to manipulate the weather and make the autumn storms come sooner. She had been uncharacteristically careful with it; such a rare acquisition was simply irreplaceable. Even so, there were some things that no amount of experimentation could yield the answer to. The hynamo was like a safe and its harmonic rhythms remained locked inside.

              With her mother gone to walk their youngest to school, Xanthia’s father finally endeavored to break the unusual silence. “What are you planning on doing today, Xanthia?”, he inquired.

              , she replied whilst avoiding eye-contact.

              “Perhaps you should meet Lord Koven.”
              , her father suggested, “You know, get to know him before your expedition embarks. I heard he was conducting some interviews over at the Eagle’s Den today”

              “We will have plenty of time for that on our travels”
              , Xanthia mumbled as she haphazardly picked apart a loaf of bread.

              “What if you don’t like him? Best to find that out before isn’t it?”
              , her father sounded in a tone that seemed almost wishful that this would be the case.


              After a couple seconds of awkward silence her father continued, “I hear he is from the Ihavo”

              Xanthia lifted her head instantly at the mention. Suddenly uplifted, “The Ihavo?”, she asked.

              “Yes. Isn’t that where that new instrument of yours is from?”

              Xanthia was already miles ahead of her father. If the knight hailed from the Ihavo then maybe he knew how a hynamo was played. She munched down the last of her breakfast and marched to her room where she swiftly pulled the instrument and its case out from beneath the bed. Nothing more needed to be said. As Xanthia strode towards the door her mother walked in blocking the way like a determined goalie. She tried desperately to dodge past but her mother had long known her every move.

              “Where are you going?”
              , Her mother asked, instituting a new hallway toll with the question.

              “To meet the Lord Koven!”
              , Xanthia exclaimed as part of a new attempt to squeeze past.

              “In that?!”
              , Her mother mocked as she brought attention to the ravaged work linens Xanthia was draped in. “I don’t think so, you look like a peasant. Go and put on that new dress I bought you for your birthday.”

              As much as she loathed the time lost dressing up, Xanthia could do little to protest. Jhandel would likely be at the inn all day so there was no need to rush and after all she had already done enough against her mother this week. With a sigh of defeat Xanthia proceeded under the watchful eye of her mother to freshen up and adorn herself in the red garment, wishing her father an envious farewell as he strode out confidently into the street.

              It wasn’t the most garlanded piece of fashion she owned, but the loosely hooded red dress wasn’t far from it either. Simple, yet elegant it was a staple of the noble woman’s wardrobe and the red was currently in fashion. Atop a white gown whose sleeves surfaced at the elbow, the dress was laced across the breast by a black thread until a wide ornamented belt of cloth encircling the abdomen. From the waist proliferated two nested layers that stretched all the way to Xanthia’s boots, spreading apart at the centre to once again expose the underlying white dress. Gold earrings shaped like autumn leaves dangled behind the thick tails of black hair that flanked each brow and at the back her hair was bound into a ponytail. The attire was resplendent and all was throne to an intricate silver necklace centered by an emerald, the same color as Xanthia’s ever-perceptive eyes.

              Jhandel was not a member of the royal court but he did represent their will. With her husband working directly with the aristocracy it was imperative to Xanthia’s mother that her daughter leave the best impression possible. If nothing else the exquisite dress would counter-balance some of her more discourteous habits. Behavior on which Xanthia was lectured throughout the entire ritual of dressing up.

              At last, after nothing less than an hour and a mother’s kiss, Xanthia set out from the shop towards the Eagle’s Den. She had never been there before but the issue was no matter for she boasted a collection of her favorite maps to show Jhandel, including one of Zanthis. The scrolls of map were rolled into a stalk that stuck out of a small cloth bag slung over Xanthia’s shoulder. This freed both of her hands to securely clasp the case containing the hynamo. Radiating an air of excitement she made out onto the cobblestone streets with haste, oddly undistracted as she purposefully strode towards the inn.

Cassandra Voorhees's avatar

Gracious General

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                                                        JHANDEL BREATHED a sigh of relief. He had never been very good at speaking to solitary figures, always respecting their wishes for privacy and quiet. Hunters who had spent years in the wild made him especially nervous, their disposition intimidating to someone like him who, despite working alone, was constantly surrounded by other human beings. This one in particular was rather... laconic and some small part of him wondered if he sounded like a fool in comparison with all his babbling. An unfortunate image, though he had more important matters to keep his mind occupied.

                                                        Jhandel returned to his seat, gesturing for the hunter to do the same. Clearing his throat, he waited until they were both settled before addressing the topic at hand.
                                                        "You'll have notice that on the flyers I've left throughout town I had mentioned this would be a dangerous journey," Jhandel said, folding his arms neatly over the table. "This is something I must stress; the places we will be visiting are notoriously treacherous. Along with navigating the land, there will be times where we will have to fight with individuals who wish to see our mission incomplete." He hadn't meant his words to threaten or tease; his conscience would never allow him to lead people into a situation they were not prepared for.

                                                        Jhandel flipped through his sheets of paper, settling on one with rough sketches drawn in pencil. He shifted the page around so that the hunter could see what he was referring to.
                                                        "This is a preliminary route suggested to me by those of the Cartographers Guild." Beneath his fingers lay scribbles that designated terrain, smooth lines that belied the true nature of the land. At a cursory glance, Jhandel would have the party travel through the Threshaldil Forest that made up the bulk of Empire country in order to enter the Higatan Swamp from the north. The path he traced with his hand stopped at the southern Tourmaline border where the rough map ended abruptly. There was a small X pencilled in where he hovered and on closer inspection it appeared to be a symbol of two crossed swords.

                                                        "Foreign activity has been most aggressive around this area," Jhandel said, eyebrows knit together in thought. The hunter's proclamation that he would serve the Empire had made him wonder just how much this man had seen. Did he perhaps understand what a precarious precipice their people were situated on? "I need a guide to take the party through these places. I would have chosen to stick to roads that I am familiar with through here--" he gestured to the eastern side of the Empire where the desert sands dominated, "--but this would delay us and we cannot afford to lose any time." At last he stared into the hunter's eyes, relaying in a moment how important this job was to be.

                                                        "Can I count on you to find a safe path for us?"
METRO SKiiES's avatar

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witchNEKAYRI wendin
thisiswhereibelongw e a t h e r w i t c h


                                                  widow While the food was fairly good, the young widow thought from her seat in a semidark inn, the large birds hanging over her and the few other patrons present rather ruined her appetite.

                                                  widow Not to say that she had a large appetite in the first place. For the most part, she cooked for herself and she cooked on a road, and only indulged when making a meal for others. It had been a years since she'd really cared about what she made; to drop her heart in the cooking pot, as her mother used to say. So she found herself slowly picking the food on her plate apart. The meat, tender and with none of the salty taste of winter preserves, went down a morsel at a time, silently chewed, although it began to turn cold as she ate. Mountain berries picked apart segment by segment; a cup of goat's milk downed in sips, not gulps.

                                                  widow She was so slow, perhaps, because she wasn't really there for the meal. Even the lodging was a bit of a second thought. If she hadn't had something important to do here today, she might well have made camp outside the city walls like she was accustomed to in the mountains. But Nekayri stared across the room at her reason for braving the capitol city.

                                                  widow Nekayri had been watching the knight ever since he arrived at the inn. She was very aware that he was her ticket out of the mountains and beyond the borders of the Tourmaline empire. Still, she waited, watching him converse with another hopeful adventurer, a deep-woods type who never seemed to speak more than two.... make that three words together. Will they all be like that? Nekayri wondered, chewing on the crust of a hunk of bread. If they were, maybe she should consider turning around and going back to the mountains. Surely she'd find a caravan headed towards the Ihavo Desert when the fall storms rolled in. And maybe there were more distant mountains beyond it, a place where people had different superstitions and different customs. A place where they would take in a mild weather witch, widowed at a young age without children.

                                                  widow That was the entire point of joining this expedition, though. No caravan out of Zanithis leaves the empire, she reminded herself. A knight's errand and a treasure-hungry band of mercenaries will take me far away, and pay me for it too, no matter how eccentric they look.

                                                  widow A bird perched on a rafter a little too close for comfort. Nekayri gave it a hard glare, silently cursing the creature that looked just as ill-natured as it did well-fed. A predator like a mountain raptor was exactly the kind of danger she had grown up watching, one of the things she watched while never realizing that the real threat to her brand-new family lay underground where she couldn't see it coming. Suddenly, Nekayri shook her head, and made a sharp movement to shoo the bird away.

                                                  widow With a hint of a shudder, she went back to watching the knight and the woodsman. Nekayri had heard many criticisms in her years guiding outsiders through the mountains, all the people who had said her people were hesitant and slow of thought for waiting so long to speak up. But her family had taught her well. As she watched patiently, running scenarios and dialogue through her head, she was waiting for the opportune moment to say the right thing. Never in her life had she spoken to a stranger unprepared, which made the time spent in thought worth every minute. Sooner or later, she would know what to say.

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