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"People, STOP!"

XANTHIA'S SUDDEN outburst had caught Abel by surprise. He turned his head slightly to his young friend, whose expression had gone from one of anger and spite like the one he had held moments ago to one of... excitement? Was that really the proper word to describe what he was seeing on her face? She was grinning from ear to ear as she began to rant and rave about her new sudden outlook on this mission. Just last night, she had been worried about what this trip could entail. Now, it was like someone had flipped a switch in her brain. How could her view on the subject just switch? Just like that?

"What are they made of? We could build towers and bridges out of it!”

"Or weapons," he quickly threw in; an obvious mistake by the look Xanthia had given him.

Continuing on, she mentioned something briefly about "the Sleeper and the Writer". That was not something he was completely familiar with. He had done his studies, sure, but not nearly as much as she had. At a point, he had been tempted to tune her out to avoid the inevitable headache that was bound to hit him. The excitement and energy she was displaying was a bit too much for him to handle, especially so early in the morning. But he was unable to simply tune her out. Everything she was saying was catching his attention, and fueling the rage that was storming through his mind. What bothered him more than anything was the fact that she was suddenly agreeing with Jhandel simply because he had mentioned Talbrelon'alim. He knew she was a scholar, but was the possibility that such a mythical place actually existing really worth such a change? He didn't think so. She obviously did.

Abel's heart sank at Xanthia's next set of words to catch his attention. "We're not talking about Nostras' ascension here; this is about the ascension of the entire human race." For the second time in that short meeting, the chair shifted audibly as he refrained from rising abruptly. Was he the only one in this group that had a leveled head on his shoulders? His eyes skimmed through the group. Xanthia still stood, now shaking the knight's hand and thanking him for bringing her along. Denre sat in her...his... chair as still as she...he... could manage. He really would have to ask which one the Denre preferred being referred to as. Becky also sat in her chair, staring up at Xanthia with a blush. A blush? Abel turned his gaze back to Xanthia, whose cheeks were flushed as the Prince pulled his lips from her hand. A twinge of jealousy rose in his heart for a moment. He pushed it aside; now was not the time to let such a thing grow into more than a slight twinge.

"'Fear not the boundary between gods and men, for knowledge is the bridge that spans across it.'" Jhandel said after Xanthia had returned to her seat. The knight avoided him completely, glancing around at anyone but Abel. But it was all too obvious to him. Those words were aimed directly at him for blatantly disagreeing with the point of the mission. His fingers twitched slightly. "This concludes the material I wished to cover in this meeting at Rhakovan's Hall. If there are any more questions, please ask them now or hold them until we are beyond the city's walls."

With nothing further to ask, he rose from his seat. Jhandel began to mention about when they would depart, and what to bring. He had already figured as much, and chose to instead excuse himself the moment the knight had finished speaking. He took a polite bow to the Prince, thanking him for his presence in the meeting and for the opportunity to be on the expedition. He then turned to Jhandel and stared at him for a long moment, then nodded his head and turned to leave. The boundary between gods and men is one that is not meant to be crossed. Tread carefully, Jhandel Koven. Once crossed, you cannot ever return. The thought surprised him, bringing him to a halt for a moment with a slight jump. Where had that come from? He took a quick glance around and then continued walking so not to draw attention to him. As he approached Xanthia, he stopped by her side and lightly grasped her elbow. He then voiced, in a slightly different wording, the very thought that had just crossed his mind. "I know you're excited, Xanthia, but please... Think rationally for a moment. The span between us and the gods is not meant to be crossed. We won't be bringing about a new age; we'll be ending it. Permanently. He knew she would not agree, though, and before he would give her the chance to vocally disagree with him, he left the Hall.

Silently, he strolled down the street back to his restaurant, Quixote. All the while, he could not get Xanthia's words out of his mind. "... this is about the ascension of the entire human race." And his reaction to it still surprised him. Though they traveled every now and again, his parents were citizens of Tourmaline. They shared the same views that most others shared. They were not scholars, so to speak, but they still believed that the man was capable of one day ascending to something closer to the gods. So why were his beliefs to different? Why was he so against it? Would bridging that gap really be so bad? A sharp pain shot through his chest, like some invisible hand was clenching around his heart. Each time he asked himself that question, his heart began to ache. No. He was not wrong in his beliefs. The boundary between god and man was not meant to be erased. Abel knew in his heart and mind what this meant, then. The expedition was not to reach Talbrelon'alim, which meant that at some point during the trip, he would have to inconspicuously eliminate Jhandel Koven. And perhaps even whoever it was that was to act as their guide should Jhandel not survive. Xanthia would be making maps the whole way. If they lost their guide and Jhandel, they would have no choice but to turn back -- and her maps would suffice for the return journey.

Upon his arrival at the restaurant, Abel noticed a letter had been laid At the small box that served as a mailbox of sorts for the restaurant. He unlocked the door and entered, grabbing the letter as he did so. Glancing at the envelope, he saw his name neatly written on it. Curiosity had now struck him. Ever since he could remember, he could only recall receiving two different types of letters -- invitations to the royal banquets he cooked for and letters of gratitude for the feasts he prepared for said banquets. He missed the one last night, so there was no need for either. He grabbed a small letter opener by the front counter and sliced the envelope open. Retrieving the letter, he skimmed it briefly, then reread it in its entirety.

It was an invitation to a family picnic with Xanthia's family. His heart jumped a bit. Adelle had always forewarned him about the day he had a meal with his eventual future-wife's family. The whole man-to-man talk with her father. Foolishly, Abel thought that this was exactly what that was. For a moment, anyhow. He and Xanthia were nothing more than friends, at least as far as her parents were concerned. Right? Unless she had told them about their moment in the courtyard at the festival. And if that was the case... "Well, damn. Can't avoid that one." Abel laughed and placed the envelope on the counter and made his way back to the kitchen and office where he always kept a spare change of clothes for himself. He changed and prepared the restaurant for another new day, the whole time thinking about the picnic he would be having with Xanthia's family the next day.

- - - The Next Day - - -

Abel had dressed himself in a similar manner as he did for his work, except a bit more relaxed. Actually, looking at him, you would never have been able to tell that he worked in the kitchen day in and day out. Aside from his black trousers, he wore a white shirt woven of silk and over it, a tunic of fiery orange colour that made one think of a setting sun. Satisfied with his appearance, he left the sanctuary of his home for to the place designated in the letter. Just outside of the city gates, his eyes fell upon Xanthia and her family. Her father, Yanry Vetyz, called out a greeting and rose from where he sat to meet him.

"Counselor Vetyz, good morning to you." Abel responded as he took the Counselor's hand into his with a firm grip. Yanry patted Abel's shoulder with one hand and gestured to the picnic with the other as he led him to the Vetyz family. "I would not have missed it, Counselor." The Counselor and Abel had not gotten along quite well in the past due to Abel's clear defiance of Xanthia's father on a few occasions. He had snuck her out once to go see a play, though her family did not know about that. But there had been tension between the two ever since Abel interrupt the Counselor and encouraged Xanthia to join the Royal Cartographer's guild. Perhaps this was a time to remedy that tension.

Abel greeted Xanthia's mother, a beautiful woman from whom Xanthia had received her looks. He took her hand and placed a gentle kiss on the top of her hand, as he had always done in the past. Those brown eyes were the only difference between she had her daughter, as Xanthia owned a pair of beautiful green eyes. He turned his attention to Kai and, much like he had with the Counselor, shook his hand. With a grin, he simply said, "You've got quite a grip now, Mister Kaiyan." Then, he turned to Xanthia. A look of apology came across his face instantaneously as he recalled his clear disagreement with her at the meeting the previous day. He would not take back what he had said, but still, he wished her to know that he was sorry for the manner it happened nonetheless. As he had to her mother, he took her hand and kissed it (much as the Prince had done), but he held it to his lips for a moment longer. When he released her hand, he took a seat next to her on the blanket and allowed the family to start their picnic.
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AS KAIYAN devotedly unloaded offerings of dusty leaves onto the pile, Xanthia was flooded with a compulsion to dive in a ruin it prematurely. She did and laughed. ”Stop it, Xan.”, he let out with annoyance. Obviously he didn’t think it was as funny as she did so Xanthia apologized with an adorable grimace. ”You shall be imprisoned for your crimes…” Kaiyan persevered and without hesitation continued to the build the pile ever higher, dumping armfuls of leaves on top like she wasn’t even there. A few trips later, Xanthia was completely buried inside the small mound. It was relaxing, sort of, soft and comfortable so long as you didn’t mind the dirt blasted crisps of leaves in your face. The next delivery of material delayed to come.

“Greetings Mr. Brynhildr!”

The instant she her heard her father’s call, Xanthia popped her head out of the golden sanctuary to look. The fiery orange of Abel’s tunic perfectly matched the colors of the season and, as he trod over the leaf-strewn ground towards them from the city gates, made him appear autumn’s king. Somewhat less elegantly for her, a ring of damp leaves stuck themselves to Xanthia’s hair forming a wreath. The queen? Delighted to see Abel approaching, she pushed herself over and out of the pile of leaves, falling to her front beside it with her legs still amply covered. She sent a flirty wave Abel’s way and this time her father seemed to ignore it. In fact, it was interesting how friendly he was being towards the cook. His hearty handshake and welcoming pat revealed a mood unbound by the tensions of their past opposition. Indeed, the excitement was intoxicating and as the two made their way towards the picnic, a smile beamed from her father’s face and Abel’s alike.

Xanthia rolled further out of the mound and leapt to the blanket as Abel took a seat. With characteristic charm, he lifted her mother’s hand and kissed it gently before turning to Kaiyan and shaking his hand. The kid was barely taller than Abel as he knelt. ”You’ve got quite a grip now, Mister Kaiyan.”, he grinned. ”Oh you ain’t seen nothing yet, boy! HRRRMMPHHH!”. Determined to impress, her brother faced a tough-guy expression and squeezed Abel’s hand with the immense strength of his imagination. The whole group laughed as he pretended to be crushed.

Then it was her turn. Just as he had greeted her mother, Abel took Xanthia’s hand and touched his lips gently to its back, but not before looking deeply and apologetically into her eyes. Xanthia tilted her head sideways in confusion. What did he mean? She was overcome with brief concern. There hadn’t been any hard feelings between the two of them, had there? Come to think of it, she had something of an apology to make herself and she had already started working on it. With the family shop closed early for the festival yesterday, Xanthia had found herself in possession of a few extra hours which she spent sketching the draft of a portrait. It was of her and Abel underneath the magnificent magnolia in the garden of the palace, romancing in the kiss they never had. What a shame she couldn’t have had it ready by today but there was no way Xanthia was going to rush this. She knew how romantic Abel was and knew this would be the perfect gift for him to show her appreciation. Perhaps she would just need to finish it over the course of the expedition. After all it would be a nice ongoing project and a good way to keep her artistic drawing up to speed. Oh how she loved to draw.

As her mother began to pass around the first of the feast, the concern for the feeling of tension between them evaporated as quickly as the damn imprint of Abel’s lips did against the cool autumn air. All was silent save for the wind and the distant sounds of the city as the group enjoyed their first few bites of the feast. Xanthia began with some ale-flavored bread but was already eyeing the fruits and pastries lined up for desert. Her mother put a flat hand over her lips to cover the food in her mouth before asking Abel in that thick foreign accent,

“Abel, how are things at Quixote these days? Are the customers treating you as they should?”

And so the conversation was ignited. It was a perfect day and though Xanthia said very little, she sat close to Abel and smiled earnestly the entire time. Besides, it was always a bit awkward talking with Abel in front of her father. As he requested a private conversation with the man, however, she was left to wonder if things had changed and why.
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                                                        GRATEFUL FOR Xanthia's explanation of the autumn storms, Jhandel wondered how he would have gone about describing the phenomenon of the seasonal shift in Zenithis. Sometimes he forgot that not everyone he spoke to had experienced as wide a scope of Tourmaline as he had, and it made things all the more difficult to convey when he himself remembered by way of feeling. Though Becky was a warrior, so perhaps she would understand what he meant.

                                                        "The very air darkens as clouds gather over the Horizon. There is no thunder, but the anticipation exists, filling space with a pressure so great it feels as if it will burst at the slightest aggravation. You cannot mistake the storms that usher in another long year of winter." Jhandel held his palms towards the ceiling, as if demonstrating how one might go about testing the weight of the heavens. The storms grew like an itch; for any traveller, man or woman afflicted with wanderlust, or those who did not call Zenithis home, it manifested as a powerful urge to leave the city. After all, once the storms blew over it would become far too treacherous to leave --and what once was a sanctuary would turn into a prison.

                                                        Jhandel nodded smoothly at Xanthia's assumption that they would be meeting here, at the palace, before they depart. While the knight had widely publicized the fact that there would be a state-sanctioned mission --his fliers which had attracted the attention of dozens of adventurers seemed a bit counter-intuitive for such a clandestine endeavour, but he had accounted for that --he also knew that news like that never lasted long. They would vanish from the city before anyone could question them and that was exactly how Jhandel liked it. He smiled thinly. For once he was glad for the Highborns purposeful omission of his name in all the stories they told. It certainly made his job easier when he didn't have to chase down rumours.

                                                        "Mounts will be provided, yes. They are waiting for us in the village at the base of the Horizon where traffic flows between here and the rest of Tourmaline." Jhandel ended that line of questioning there. If his audience was as engaged in the conversation as he hoped, they would understand that the first stretch of their journey would be done on foot. Zenithis wasn't particularly deep into the Grey Horizon, but it lay far enough in the mountain chain that looking out the windows of the highest tower of the Archives would only show an endless sea of stone.

                                                        Of course, he had said that the purpose of leaving before the storms was to ensure their passage through the mountains was the least difficult and unobstructed, but when did he ever say something that didn't hide another truth? They wouldn't even be using the main roads, if he could help it.

                                                        Jhandel hid his flinch at the mention of his journal.
                                                        She does not mean it, his rational mind said, repeating a mantra of calm over and over again to still his restless hands. She does not mean to harm you. She does not mean to ruin you. Surprisingly it was Becky's presence that reminded him of his unsightly behaviour whenever he allowed the taint to colour his actions. Jhandel returned Xanthia's question, though not without a biting edge that signalled the end of his willingness to participate in any further conversation.

                                                        "What route? That was merely a sketch of a direction. And we will be gone as long as it takes for our scholar to be satisfied with what we are to bring back." Jhandel stood with the rest of them, gently gesturing towards the doors to the throne room. He followed behind the crowd at a reasonable distance, handing Xanthia's journal back with hardly a second thought. Perhaps he was a bit cruel to not give a time, and likely it would be another cause for worry with her family, but Jhandel was not about to make any promises he could not keep. Weeks, months, years... it was the one thing he could never predict on all of his missions --how long would he have to be away from his prince?

                                                        Jhandel sighed heavily, bracing a hand against the dead wood of the closed door. Twice he counted the breath leaving him, twice more he waited for the comfortable silence that settled when he was no longer in a room filled with strangers. He turned around, blinked, and returned to his seat. The sight of the Westrion he had met earlier today, leaning down beside the prince to exchange words barely audible to even the most trained ear, hardly surprised him. No Rhakovan hall would be complete without one of these soldiers standing behind the throne.

                                                        The knight let the two of them discuss freely, lost in his own musings. There were so many things that could ruin this mission, so many situations that hinged on variables he needed to predict. The number of ways he could fail was astounding though, he thought humourlessly,
                                                        when have I ever let that stop me?

                                                        Almost as an afterthought, Jhandel turned curiously towards the Westrion. The grey guard, seeming to understand when he was being addressed before any words were spoken, uncoiled like a snake from Notras' side and pinned him with a gaze from beneath his cowl. The knight could only make out the line of his jaw from the way his cloak obscured his face, but it was enough for him to recognize who it was. Needing an outlet for what lingering malice remained from his frustrating meeting, he asked the Westrion, "Does the Guard not have more pressing matters to fill this idleness? I shall hope your preparations for tomorrow are adequate."
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                                            YANRY stood proudly over his family as Abel greeted the group. Kaiyan, the kid had the heart of a warrior. As Abel made his way to Xanthia, Yanry forced his smile not to falter in much the way he had ignored Xanthia’s flirty wave. There would be no friction, not this day. The cook touched his lips to her hand and held them there a while longer than expected in what must have been an expression of the specialness of the occasion. Yanry nodded and his beam widened as Abel finished. ”Friends, may the gods smile upon us this day.”, he declared as he eased himself to a seat atop the soft blanket. The coverings were unraveled and the feast was revealed, more magnificent than any previous year he could remember. With the Sous Chef of Quixote making their acquaintance, Yanry could not have possibly ignored the itch to make an impression. The large amount that he and his wife hadn’t cooked themselves was the bounty of the palace’s banquet chefs and having been worked sweatless over the last few days, it wasn’t exactly cheap. ”I know it’s not quite Quixote material but perhaps the view will add to the taste.” , Yanry laughed as the group began to pass around the food.

                                            Perhaps the feast was too good, Yanry thought as he went for seconds of the smoked roast. The taste was so delicious that it discouraged conversation and he felt rude for not realizing this until now. The group was evidently hungry but as their stomachs filled, the real meat of the picnic began to take hold. “Abel, how are things at Quixote these days? Are the customers treating you as they should?”. Yanry passed a napkin across his mouth before adding. ”Why yes. I’m sure you’ve collected a new volume of stories over the festival. Tell us how you’ve been.". Out of both politeness and interest, he asked more questions to follow. Xanthia didn’t seem to engage herself much in the conversation but appeared more than happy to listen to the stories she had probably heard before.

                                            The talking continued long after the feast was consumed and the custard pie had been devoured. Yanry was humble in his own answers to Abel’s questions and never let down the delighted mood the day had bestowed upon him. They even sung from fond memory one of Quixote’s happiest tunes before they had dug into the deserts. It was perfect. For a moment the Counselor forgot every trouble on his mind and in that moment this small patch of hill beneath a dead tree on the outskirts of east Zenithis could have been heaven. Beneath the wind he whispered a prayer of peaceful thanks to Taltherion and the Rhakovans for letting this all be.

                                            Laying down to relax on top of the soft blanket, Yanry felt the cold touch of a vile against his skin and was reminded that joy and celebration wasn’t the only reason for this occasion. He waited for the conversation to lull before moving on to business. ”Alright Zenisithians, me and Abel here need to talk about some things. I want that leaf pile flat by the time we get back. Xanthia’s it.” The kids sprang into action and, communicating first through a look of understanding, their mother joined them. Yanry declined Abel’s hand as he rose to his feet. They walked some distance from the tree before he began.
                                            ”First off, Abel, I’d like to sincerely congratulate you on being accepted onto this expedition. It is a real honor to accompany the respectable Lord Koven on a state sanctioned quest.” Yanry offered another handshake. ”Now I know I’ve been a little hard on you over the years,” he spoke, circling his hand in a gesturing motion as he continued their casual walk. ”…but I think you probably know how vulnerable Xanthia can be.” The counselor nodded and smiled at Abel, hoping to grow their mutual understanding. ”That girl has a tendency to be a little bit … “

                                            There were so many things he could have said and Abel beat him to just one of the words that was vying for the spot. ”Well yes.”, Yanry laughed as he looked straight ahead. This is why they needed that bit of distance from the rest of the group. ”Scholastically, she is brilliant; smarter than any of us. But she is easily taken advantage of. It’s ironic in a sense.”, the man ended in a tone of disappointment. He pointed to an arbitrary mountain in the distance and breathed with amusement. ”She could eyeball the distance to that peak over there and get it right to within a kilometer. But if you walked back there and asked Xanthia for 500 silver because Quixote wasn’t getting any business, I can almost guarantee she’d give it to you.“ The two were almost near the road coming out of from the gates now. As they approached, Yanry burdened the waist high stone wall lining the road with his weight. ”I don’t know where she gets it from.” He nodded in disbelief before looking back and watching the tornado of leaves exploding from the mound.

                                            ”She just has no sense of when she is being exploited. It’s why I have always been a bit nervous about her." The counselor lifted himself from leaning against the stone and looked into Abel’s face once again. ”Please forgive me for not trusting you more in the past. I simply have to be cautious for her because she doesn’t seem to have an ounce of it herse-”.


                                            Instinctively, Yanry’s head snapped to the direction of his family over by the dead tree. His heart rate jumped but there was nothing to worry about. The kids were still playing while their mother refereed.

                                            ”Kai, don’t dump water on your sister. You’re wasting it."

                                            “Wasting it because I’m immune! Rawr!”

                                            ”…which brings me to another thing”, the Counselor sighed. ”Once something has caught her interest, she becomes fixated. In fact, maybe that’s the root of all of this.” The two paused for a long moment to watch the family frolic happily. ”Anyway. I know this probably isn’t news to you. I just wanted to make some amendments for our past tensions and let you hear my side of the story." , Yanry gestured heavily with a pained chuckle. ”You may not believe me now but honest to Aoes, I felt nothing but joy when Xanthia told me you would be going on the expedition with her. You’re a good man, Abel. You stand up for her where she can’t and though we have had our disagreements in some of those situations in the past, I respect you for it.” A gust of wind picked up the leaves near their feet and scattered them. As if by signal, Yanry started to lead their slow stroll back to the tree. He patted Abel with gratitude. ”Sir Koven is a respectable knight. Experienced, loyal, dependable, and most of all, humble. He’s been around, that man. Between you and him I know Xanthia will be in good hands. Heck, I don’t think Notras could not have chosen a better partner to help guide us through these tumultuous times.” Yanry stopped in his tracks and searched around for the vile that he stored beneath his heavy robes. ”Which, ah, reminds me … I have something for you. A token of my trust and appreciation if you will.”
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ABEL COULDN'T help but smile as the feast was revealed. He recognized many of the dishes as those that the banquet chefs from the palace made for such events. The first thing that had caught his eye was the seasoned noodles sitting almost dead center. It was a simple dish that was often accompanied by a unique white sauce that sat in a separate dish off to the side, but it tasted amazing. He believed the man whose recipe that was was named... Meriwether? Yes, that was it. Abel often made fun of the poor man, asking him if his parents hated him for such a name. Nice man, though.

”I know it’s not quite Quixote material but perhaps the view will add to the taste," Yanry said with a laugh as the food had started being passed around. Abel laughed with him and reassured him that the food was just fine. As the group dug in, it became apparent that everyone was hungry. Abel carefully watched how much he ate, choosing to not go for seconds until someone else had first. Minutes had gone by without so much as a word having been said. It was Xanthia's mother that had started the conversation up once again. “Abel, how are things at Quixote these days? Are the customers treating you as they should?” Her mother had a thick accent foreign to the empire. Where exactly it was from, he wasn't sure. He had never thought to ask. It was a beautiful accent though. A shame Xanthia had not inherited such a thing.

Abel nodded as he finished chewing into a small piece of the bread that had been marinated in an ale-flavoured sauce. "Yes, they have been treating me just fine; though perhaps that is more due to fear than respect? My team has always been respectful of me, even when I was a child. I had one customer the other day that threw my soup on the ground. He doesn't come by anymore." He didn't need to explain that he had thrown the customer out, literally. The family had witnessed him assault someone in his restaurant before. Actually, Yanry had requested the family leave immediately at his display of violence. But during that event, someone had grabbed his sister's rear. She did slap him, hard, but that wasn't enough. So Abel threw him out. After smashing his face into the table. It was a Quixote tradition that had been there since before he was born.

And on the conversations went. Xanthia had remained silent for the most part and simply sat at his side. After everyone had finished eating, the group sat back in a more comfortable series of positions and talked the morning into afternoon. A few times, he and Xanthia had started sitting close enough that their hands would touch or shoulders bumped. They simply smiled at one another and didn't say a word. Best not to give Yanry a reason to ruin this day. Abel had asked Yanry and his wife a number of questions as well, earnestly enjoying their stories. He had never had such an opportunity in the past. He wasn't going to pass it up now.

”Alright Zenisithians, me and Abel here need to talk about some things. I want that leaf pile flat by the time we get back. Xanthia’s it.” Yanry's words caught his attention once the conversation had died down. Abel had been laying on the blanket and staring at the sky when the man had spoken. He lifted himself into a sitting position and raised a curious eyebrow at the Counselor. They had some things to discuss? Oh dear... Was this what Adelle had told him about? Was this really about to happen? With a silent sigh, Abel rose to his feet and offered his hand to the man, who declined his offer. They walked off away from the group, Abel staying only a pace behind him to follow his lead. Once they had been out of earshot, Counselor Vetyz finally spoke up. He had first congratulated Abel on being able to join the expedition. Accepting his handshake, he couldn't help but wonder exactly how much Yanry knew. Did he think what Xanthia had originally thought? That this was just some expedition to cover unknown grounds? Did he know the full purpose of this journey? "Now I know I’ve been a little hard on you over the years, but I think you probably know how vulnerable Xanthia can be.” With a slight laugh, Abel nodded his agreement. He knew all too well. ”That girl has a tendency to be a little bit…“

"Gullible? Abel asked, finishing the man's sentence. It was an unfortunate thing that he knew all too well about Xanthia, and he did what he could to try and fix that over the years. It has helped, but only a little bit. Not nearly as much as he had wished. Yanry nodded and continued on, explaining her brilliance and whatnot. He stared off at the mountain that the Counselor had pointed to in thought, though he did listen to every word the man said. They had finally come to a standstill, which brought his attention back completely. Yanry positioned himself against the waist-high stone wall that lined the road. Abel stood slightly off to the side in front of him so their conversation would be face to face. "I understand your concern, Counselor. Xanthia is, as I mentioned, gullible. It's a sad and unfortunate thing. Which is why I have done what I have over the years to watch over her.

The Counselor nodded and continued on, up until he and Abel both quickly turned at Xanthia's shriek. It was nothing to be concerned about, though. Kaiyan dumped some water on his sister, which seemed to only add to her playful mood. It was quite adorable, really. He turned his attention back to Yanry, who continued on yet again. This man could talk. ”Once something has caught her interest, she becomes fixated. In fact, maybe that’s the root of all of this.” Abel had to bite his tongue so not to laugh. In his mind, though, he thought You have no idea... He continued to watch Xanthia specifically as Yanry spoke, which no doubt caught the man's attention. Between the visits to Quixote and Xanthia's flirty wave when he had first arrived, the man was probably able to put two and two together to actually get four. He was surprised that he hadn't said anything yet about it. That just didn't seem like him, at least from his past experience. Was it because it was a special event today that he refused to? Perhaps.

As they walked back to the group, it was finally Abel's turn to speak. "I appreciate hearing all this from you, Counselor. It's good to know you don't actually hate me like I was convinced you did." Abel couldn't help but smile at his own comment. He and Xanthia often joked about whether or not Yanry did hate him or not. "The fact is, Xanthia is an incredible woman and has been my friend for many years now. At the festival, she asked me if I would go with her. Her question made me realize that she had every intention on going, and there was no way I was going to let her go alone. Jhandel and the rest of the group may protect her because she is their cartographer and navigator home, but I knew that wasn't going to be enough to keep her alive out there." He took a pause to let Yanry speak, and of course, he brought up Jhandel. A respectable knight, he called him. While Abel did not question where he stood in his knighthood and loyalty, he still did not trust him -- though that was a fact that he didn't dare mention to the Counselor. As they came to a stop, Abel took the opportunity to speak. "Counselor Vetyz, I swear to you, Xanthia will be in good hands so long as I am still breathing. I will protect her with my life and make sure she gets home to her family safely." While the Counselor fumbled through his robes for something, Abel stared at Xanthia once more and added, "Even if it kills me."

”Which, ah, reminds me … I have something for you. A token of my trust and appreciation if you will.” From his robes, Yanry brought out a vile and handed it over to Abel. With a curious raise of his eyebrow, he took the vile and examined it for but a moment before lifting his head to look at the Counselor, wordlessly asking what it was.
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Dapper Dabbler

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                            THE TROUBLE began innocently enough late in that morning. Becky had started for the palace when she found what was becoming her usual route blocked on one side. A building she'd passed many times without another look and once thought was empty had apparently been a used bookstore where business was doing poorly. So poorly in fact that the elderly shopkeeper resorted to bringing his wares outside to advertise to passerby. The old man was deaf to any complaints from the pedestrians whose way he blocked, squatting stubbornly on his stool by a haphazard display of books. One in particular caught Becky's eye for having the name of her teacher emblazoned across the cover. She wasn't in any particular hurry, so she veered off course and gently took the book off display while another man haggled over the unfair price of his desired tome.

                            Though she had not the slightest idea what an 'anthology' was, Becky soon figured out the meaning of the book's title once she had it open in her hands. It was a collection of famous and obscure tales from her teacher's golden days, including Astato Tierson and the Catastrophe in Bhava-Agra; Astato Tierson and the Doll Maker of Bucuresti and of course, Astato Tierson and the Star Slayer. Though there were no illustrations, she could read and understand the written words with little of her usual difficulty, much to her delight. A novel for adolescents it may have been but it was the pinnacle of literature to Becky just for being easy to read about a topic she was heavily invested in. "That'll be two silver if yer gonna keep yer nose innit all day."

                            "What? Y'didn' think it be free, didja?" said the aged shopkeeper, narrowing his eyes at Becky from under the folded skin of his eyelids when she flinched at his price. She moved to drop the book back into the streetside bin, to forget all about it and continue on her way. She had to save her money just to afford a meal, not to mention the rations she'd yet to stock up on. Still, Becky couldn't bring herself to completely abandon the thought of having that book as her own. It had been so long ago when she last heard tales of her teacher's feats for enjoyment, not studying and there was never any bringing up the Star Slayer in Master Tierson's presence if one knew best. After much hesitation, Becky finally slipped a pair of silver coins from the pouch she meant to keep sealed right up until she handed it over to the guards at the castle. She reasoned that she would go back and pawn the rest of her unnecessary trinkets to make it up and if she couldn't, perhaps the clearly rich owner of the purse wouldn't notice a coin or two missing...

                            Then everything went downhill from there. It wasn't cheap to stock up on the rations, nor was it to buy the brunch she had to fill her stomach. It was also necessary for her to purchase more armour maintaining supplies (and Becky couldn't settle for anything short of the best of the best, given how old her equipment truly was) as well as a new travelling cloak while she was at it; after all, the season was getting chillier by the day. Then there just had to be that gorget on display, perfectly fit for her neck and begging to be added to her equipment. Every coin spent was just another one that the original owner wouldn't notice, or so Becky told herself.

                            By the time she'd made it halfway out of Lowtown to Rhakovan's Castle, Becky had her arms full with brand new supplies and a sadly deflated coinpurse that did not even belong to her. Not even the poorest beggar could overlook the amount of money that was obviously missing, judging by how the pouch sagged around the few coins left inside.

                            Now she's gone and done it, Becky thought as she slouched on the edge of the great fountain set up in the central plaza of Hightown. First the time it took her to get to Zenithis, then the stunt up at the castle during the Summit and now this. If anyone ever found out about this theft and got word of it to Master Koven or even anyone else involved with the quest, she was sure to be sent home with nothing, not even her ill-gotten goods.

                            Wait, that was it. No one's put out any missing notices or anything of the like, nor had she caught wind of any authorities going around searching for it. Technically speaking, she couldn't be in trouble if no one knew that she was! Not one person knew of Becky's theft and she swore that it would stay that way. Yes, that was what she had to do. No one could ever know of this, not that anyone did know of it at the moment but even if they didn't, Becky couldn't let them find out.

                            With that settled, Becky decided that now would be a good time to tackle the book detailing Master Tierson's exploits. She settled down in her seat on the fountain, wrapping her new cloak around her to keep the autumn chill from nipping at her skin. Nothing could stop her conscience from nagging her though and eventually she abandoned reading to mentally justifying her actions instead. If they were truly rich, then the real owner of the coinpurse would hardly miss it. They might have even forgotten all about by now! Besides, the money was going to a worthwhile cause by supporting her first steps on this journey; it wasn't as if she had anything of her own to spend. Yet even repeating those supposed truths to herself did nothing to assuage Becky's guilt.

                            RAAARARRAAUUUAAAAUUAGHGHGGHGGGGHHGH ~ fin.
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                                            ”My brother Davice was, for a number of years, the Captain of the Starlance patrol.” Abel examined the vile of runny red liquid in his hands then looked upwards with a curious raise of his eyebrow. “He gave this to me many years back”, Yanry said. But he hadn’t answered the question. ”He called it bloodwyne.” Yanry tugged his beard and let something of a subtle laugh release itself from the bottom of his sea of memories. ”You’d have to ask him about the details but, like all of his stories, half of it is probably bogus.” As the smile expired against the cool breeze, Abel seemed ever more intrigued. He still hadn’t answered the question. Yanry stared off towards the south.

                                            ”He told me it was gifted to him by the chieftain of a deep forest jungle people he met beyond the southern border of Tourmaline, probably in Corbalich somewhere." A quick laugh sputtered from within. ”I can’t imagine why.” In those days his brother had a habit of taking a few steps too far and accidentally crossing the border to “remind” some group of foreigners that they were ruled by some king a few hundred kilometers away. Needless to say, they rarely took kindly to the insult. ”At any rate, Davice told of how they used this ingredient in an annual ritual to rid their populace of the taint. But it has to prepared right.” Yanry hoped the implication was clear. He knew how strong the taint would be near Talbrelon’alim. In fact, his senseless daughter had told him everything about their meeting at the palace. He wished he hadn’t heard and knowing that Xanthia probably just ignored the part about not speaking to anyone, he felt stripped of his innocence. But by Manetherik this was just an illusion. Yanry knew he had already lost that innocence the day he accepted Notras’ invitation to join his interim war council.

                                            Looking slightly troubled for a moment, Yanry shook off the thoughts and turned to Abel again with a smile. ”I never trusted myself to cook it up properly so I’m giving it to you. If anyone in Zenithis has what it takes, you’re the one.” The counselor nodded with approval and good faith. Then, holding out his hand he sought to cement the closure, respect, and understanding he now felt strongly for Abel. ”I know it hasn’t been easy, Mr. Brynhildr, but you’ve earned my trust. I am glad you and Xanthia will be going together. Thank you.” But was it true? Had Yanry changed so much so easily? He wondered himself because, despite the handshake and their talk together, there was still something scratching at the edge of his consciousness. Their mother called the children back to the blanket when she saw the two approaching. Before they got too close, however, Yanry leaned closer to Abel and implied a final concern. ”Oh and before I forget, just a word of advice: pregnant women can’t run very fast.” He laughed but the humor died quickly, probably because there wasn’t any to begin with.

                                            But of course there was a gift for Xanthia too, hiding at the bottom of the oversized picnic basket his wife sat beside. The thought reminded Yanry again of the war council which he was so desperately trying to avoid thinking about. At the onset when he had accepted Notras’ invitation, he was offered a sizable sum of bonus pay, which he declined. It was just days after Xanthia was notified of her own appointment to Jhandel’s expedition and Yanry knew that no amount of money would lessen the dangers of their quest. Instead, he asked Notras for a single favor which he granted generously – sanction for a flintlock firearm.

                                            Rare and potent, the experimental weapons were a forbidden import whose inventors desired nothing less then to embody the destructive power of Erenil’s fiery wrath. In Tourmaline they were considered blasphemy by some but frowned upon by all. They were slow to reload, complicated, useless when wet, and anything but subtle. But by the gods were they lethal – firing a round lead ball about three quarters of an inch in diameter far too fast to see. Nor did they require much skill. Indeed, aside from the finicky process of reloading, all one needed to do was point and squeeze; perfect for Xanthia who could hardly wield a dinner knife.

                                            Yanry had been lucky. The royal armory possessed only a single schematic for a pistol once confiscated from the hands of a cold trade broker. But the head of the royal weapon forge refused to have his underlings manufacture such an obnoxious device. Fire was too unpredictable and besides Erenil was the god of fire and the enemy of Tourmaline. If you were fighting fire the last thing you’d want to do was add fire. Fortunately, his wife was one of the most renowned toolmakers in the city and once allowed access to the schematic, had no problems grinding and fitting the dozens of interlocking and moving parts. Having been raised outside the empire, she also had no qualms about its design.

                                            So there it was inside that box, signed by Notras as a symbol of sanction and crafted specially for Xanthia with the love of her mother. The group gathered around as the gift was presented. She blushed as her mother began with how the gift was inspired by her “talent” for swordplay. Never patient and ever curious, Xanthia pulled the paper wrapped box onto her lap and prepared to tear off the covering. The only person closer to it was Kaiyan who leaned just as anxiously over the gift, restlessly holding back his hands. Noticing this, Xanthia stopped and handed the box to Kaiyan who somehow drew immense joy from tearing apart the paper wrapping to reveal the plain wooden crate only slightly larger than a lunch bucket. Looking disappointed, he handed it back to Xanthia whose smiley gasp of surprise seemed to erupt even before she opened the box.

                                            “It’s a flintlock pistol”
                                            , her mother announced as Xanthia passed her fingers in disbelief over the wooden frame in which Notras’ signature was carved. On the other side in a similar position on the forestock was inscribed his personal insignia – a dragon’s eye superimposed over an open left hand. It was an undisputable symbol of his personal sanction.

                                            “…but…but how?”
                                            Xanthia lifted the master crafted piece of technology from its cushioning with a delicate hand. There was no doubt she understood the novelty of such a weapon, let alone one sanctioned personally by prince Notras. ”Your mother built it”, Yanry said, careful not to draw attention to his own efforts. The girl looked with astonishment at her mother then quickly leapt for a humungous hug, allowing Kaiyan a closer look as the gun was nearly dropped into the box. Yanry surged forward instinctively as he saw the thing fall but fortunately it landed softly in the cushioning…barely. ”This thing must be worth a fortune”, Xanthia remarked after leaving her mother’s embrace. The words were the Counselor’s thoughts exactly. In fact, Yanry wished he had spent a little bit more time thinking about whether the gift was entirely appropriate given his daughter’s reckless propensity to break things.

                                            ”Still hardly as much as you, my dear”, Yanry assured as he eased his way down onto the blanket beside her. He then had his turn for a loving hug. ”Aww thanks daddy.” The two embraced each other tightly and the counselor savored every moment of it. When the two parted, Xanthia’s mother returned to a more serious tone. ”But yes, it is worth quite a sum.”

                                            ”Indeed, so you know what you’re not going to do? Take it apart.” There was a look of disappointment on Xanthia’s face. She looked down at the pistol in her lap for a few seconds before promising she wouldn’t. Feeling slightly guilty for reprimanding the girl for something she had yet to do (but certainly would without intervention), Yanry made amends. ”Treat it as a challenge. Maybe you can reverse engineer it just by looking at it from the outside. It’s what you did with the Lacedon isn’t it?” The thought made the counselor cringe and remember just how appreciative he ultimately was for Abel and Jhandel’s presence on this trip. He rose from the blanket and stood beside Abel.

                                            “Do you want to give it a try?”
                                            , her mother asked. Xanthia nodded with excitement and Kaiyan did too. ”Here, let me show you how to load it. Kai?”, she called. Their mother took an extra apple from the picnic basket and pointed towards the decaying fragment of a fence off in the distance, away from everything else. “Go and place this apple over on that fence there and come back to me.” The boy ran quickly and did what he was told, returning just in time for the lesson to start. Yanry smiled at Abel. I hope he doesn’t mind wasting an apple. The group gathered around to watch as Xanthia was shown the fundamentals of using the device by her mother. She was slow at first but asked questions and learned quickly. Within a few minutes the first shot was ready.

                                            “Now remember, Xanthia, you can’t use this to hunt. The bullets are made of lead and they might poison you.”
                                            Xanthia turned to look at him, visibly a little bit upset. She opened her mouth but failed to say anything before returning to the tutorial. Yanry understood. If she couldn’t use it to hunt then the implication was that the weapon was intended solely for the purpose of slaying of people in the loudest, most lethal manner possible, which was true. But it had to be that way. It was cleaner and easier than a sword and perhaps enough to keep her alive should someone or something try to touch her. It was a gruesome thought but Yanry knew well of the dangers ahead. Tortuously too much so.

                                            Finally it was time to shoot and much anticipation filled the air as Xanthia and her mother headed out in front of the rest of them. Yanry held Kaiyan close and watched as the two made their final preparations. Her mother took a few steps back and behind and then covered her ears. Taking the cue, Yanry recommended Abel do the same before covering Kaiyan’s ears instead of his own. His hearing was starting to drop off anyways, he thought to himself. What more would a single -





                                            A cloud of white smoke and sparks exploded from the barrel and the flintlock mechanism alike as Xanthia’s arm jerked from the recoil. The entire city seemed to stop at the thunderous sound whose echoes bounced back from the mountains around them for many seconds afterwards. The gentle breeze dispersed the smoke and revealed Xanthia standing paralyzed with a look of disgust on her face. Yanry laughed. The apple was untouched. How crude she must have thought it was.

                                            “How am I even supposed to know if I hit anything?! I can’t hear, I can’t see, I … ”
                                            , Xanthia exclaimed as her mother strode forwards to meet her dismay. Within moments the two were laughing with the rest of them. On their return to the old dead tree, Yanry could see there was determination in his daughter’s eyes. She wouldn’t be beaten by this novel technology. As her mother supervised the laborious process of reloading, Xanthia showcased just how much she had retained from the tutorial and was quickly ready for another shot. She jetted out to the firing point once again but this time alone. Holding the pistol in two hands this time, she lined up and aimed for another attempt. Yanry took a moment to reflect on how perfect the day had been. No matter how tragic fate could be, no matter how much suffering the world could have him in for, he would always have this moment and as long as he was breathing he could always think back to it and smile. For Xanthia it would be the same. Regardless of what hardships they faced it was this, not the gun, that would keep her alive.

Cassandra Voorhees's avatar

Gracious General

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                                                        THE MORNING did not bring Jhandel any more peace than the night had. He rose early, with the sun as he always had since he roamed the Ihavo as a child of the desert, and washed his face in the bronze basin set near his bed. He was tired, yes, but a pressing anxiety stole any chance of getting true rest. Even sleeping with his prized dagger underneath his pillow did nothing to mitigate the nausea. Jhandel sighed, caring not how he sounded more and more like an old man each day, dressing himself in the Knights' uniform out of habit than any real thought. Today was a day he dreaded since bearing witness to Rothaelim's Wall.

                                                        Because today was when the Knights would leave the city, having stayed in Zenithis long enough to be polite but never desiring the company of each other for more than what was necessary. The city guards too --the ones who had not joined the festivities as they were charged with protecting the citizens and guests --would be resting this day, a fact that went widely unnoticed. But Jhandel had noticed, his paranoia with regards to the prince's safety a prime motivator in such inquiries of Zenithis security, and when he asked Notras about it the short response was more than enough to confirm his suspicions. To be certain he had asked the Lady Lor about it as well, though she was hardly a better source of information, leading him in circles about topics that barely related to what he wanted to know.

                                                        With a seething curse burning behind his lips, Jhandel lowered himself onto the ground between the door and his desk. He folded his legs beneath him, hands already unravelling the cloth that covered the one possession he owned and never carried --a longsword of no significant appearance nor mark of its creator. It had been a gift from Notras, something to go along with his new set of Rhakovan Greens he had said. Compared with the extravagant clothes, the weapon seemed hardly worthy as a gift but Notras had stopped his thoughts there when he told Jhandel to hold it. It was jarring at first, to look at such a sturdy and simple looking sword yet feel as if he held a blade half its size. Notras had laughed at his expression, explained to him that it was a trick revered in Trito'Kran to be able to mask the true nature of objects. Nonetheless, it was still unsettling and as a result Jhandel had never used it.

                                                        There was irony in that, of course. Not two years later he was in the City Where Gods Lie wielding much the same sword doing things only a weapon like that could be forged for.

                                                        Jhandel lay the blade down in front of him above the scimitar he was known to carry, having placed it on the floor earlier in the night when he couldn't sleep. As a final step, he reached under the folds of his tunic and retrieved the dagger he hid habitually, lowering it with both hands to the spot furthest from him so that the words IN SILENCE WE TRUST engraved down its center could be read from his seat. Satisfied, Jhandel began his methodical dissection of all that he learned recently.

                                                        Yesterday's meeting went well enough. It hadn't turned out quite as he had planned, but it was useful to discover such habits of those that would be following him, even if said habits threw ever more randomness into his equations. In any case, he had worried obsessively over the points regarding Xanthia's wildness, and Abel's wildness, through the whole day following the meeting. It was not what bothered him now. Jhandel frowned in concentration. No, what bothered him now was the approaching storm and the shapeshifter called Denre.

                                                        It had been easy for the knight to accept such a cause that Denre had presented to him --the hunger for knowledge was something he was well acquainted with. What was more, the shapeshifter had asked him whether he understood the meaning of his evidently arcane tattoos, all of which undoubtedly tied him to some planned origin. It was a secret begging to be told, a riddle yearning to be solved. Jhandel did not care for the man, yet even he was roused with curiosity.

                                                        And that made Denre's choice a cause of great suspicion. In the end, the shapeshifter had declined to join the mission, stating health as his reason to stay behind. He had willingly submitted to Jhandel's terms of indefinite house arrest, but while that should have been a relief it only added to his anxiety.
                                                        Why? Why would someone so eager to learn, to explore, to live be satisfied with imprisonment? Jhandel could list a hundred reasons why, though until he knew more about Denre there was no telling which of his explanations was true. For that, he simply did not have the time. It frustrated him.

                                                        He could have sat here on the floor in his room at the Palace Rhakovan, mulling over chances he didn't have enough information to pin down but Jhandel knew a waste of time when he saw one. He slapped his hands to his face, hoping to shock himself into a new train of thought. There were other things to think about, other more pressing things. Such as the significant void left behind by the missing Westrions. They were an elusive legion, of that everyone in Tourmaline was sure, but Jhandel had grown accustomed to their quiet presence in Zenithis. Now that they were gone, he couldn't help but to think of just what they might be doing.

                                                        "Pressing matters," he had said. How he wished he could hate himself for what he said! Gone was the Jhandel who knew only of the honour told in storybooks and campfire songs. He had known what the Westrions would be doing today, and despite that he had made light of it. He had made light of systematic execution of traitors to Tourmaline. For that was the only plausible explanation for the silence of the Grey Guard on a day such as this, when the city lay vulnerable as the people rested from an eventful week of celebration. They were cleaning out their ranks of the trash that had accumulated, and Jhandel had joked.

                                                        The knight glared heatedly at the dagger lying just at the edge of his reach. That weapon had changed him more than he would have liked to admit, and for similar reasons he still refused to arm himself with Notras' gifted sword. It would have been beneficial, yes. Jhandel was markedly better with a longsword in one hand and a dagger in the other, as opposed to his heavier scimitar and shield he bore from his training. However he would not shame his master, and especially not his prince, by further ruining his already tarnished image with evidence of his unsightly affinity for killing as the assassins killed.

                                                        It was disgraceful, unbecoming of a knight, and everything the people expected from a kalison banished from his own clan of Ihavoan slaves. Jhandel shuddered, swallowing the whimper that threatened to escape. He hated how stress could reduce him to this snivelling wreck these days, how every unhappy thought disturbed the taint within him, beckoning him with thoughts on nothing but destruction. Jhandel forced his hands to still, laying them on top of his knees. There really were only two things that brought him peace he realized. The more he thought of the chaos to come, the more desperately he clung to things that were certain.

                                                        Notras. His mind supplied. And the Wall.

                                                        Seeing as how the prince was not beside him, and would not be beside him during his journey, Jhandel set on familiarizing himself with what would likely be the only way to maintain his sanity as they drew near Corbalich and Talbrelon'alim. He shut his eyes. With a command his thoughts left him, and with effort he quieted the voices in his head so that not even the sound of his breathing or the beating of his heart disturbed his self-induced silence.

                                                        Jhandel waited and when Rothaelim's Wall appeared glittering before him at last he threw himself at it, mind, body, and soul.
Cassandra Voorhees's avatar

Gracious General

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ςгเtเςคl єשєภt

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                          BEFORE LONG evening descended upon Zenithis, covering the city in a darkness known only to those who inhabit the Grey Horizon. It was a pitch blackness that lay heavily over rooftops, uniting the endless sky with the sea of stone on which his people thrived. Notras, for one, cherished times like this when he could relax in the comfort and privacy of his Archives, bathing in the shadows left by the pale light of the moon. He was alone, that much he was certain, though when he looked out through the windows down onto his city below he could imagine the thousands of voices breathing in their sleep.

                          Breathing and screaming his name.

                          He folded his hands atop his lap, leaning back in his chair as he neglected his books to witness his hours of planning come to fruition. Notras could not see from where he was, deep in the heart of Zenithis far from her walls, but he hadn't needed to. They only had so many options and he had accounted for them all. The only thing that was left was to feign ignorance and let the night run its course.

                          An hour had passed since the Gates had closed. Notras would have given them an extra hour of slack, but tonight was a beautiful night and the longer they waited the more their chances of success slipped away. He smiled, vicious and predatory. No, that was incorrect. There was never a chance to begin with, no matter what the circumstances appeared like. The moment they had chosen him to be their enemy was the moment they surrendered their anonymity. He had known, long ago, what they had wanted.

                          Rebels, they were, anarchists in every sense of the word. Notras hadn't minded their free thinking ways --often he would listen to the causes of even the most unruly of social scum and take from them knowledge of the world beyond his orderly facade --however, as with all the thorns in his side, if left alone they festered. He would have liked to entertain them for some time more, but that required sacrifices unacceptable with Corbalich flexing her military might at her borders. It was one thing to play into false preconceptions, to pretend to be weaker than what was true. Allowing the world to witness how divided Tourmaline was regarding the issue of allegiance to the Rhakovan's throne was something else entirely.

                          If he was to fight a war, he would begin at home. Trito'Kran's failed coup was already a warning. It was hard enough to stand against the colossus that was Corbalich; battling on two fronts was out of the question. Tourmaline only had so many resources and Notras was not about to waste any on purging his own people of the weakness that threatened the solidarity he painstakingly crafted.

                          It was because of this that he allowed the rebels their little raid. Too long had they stayed in the shadows, eating away at his stores. Erenil liked to fashion himself the shining paragon of creation, but the prince knew better. Even without Taltherion at his side he was capable of employing such underhanded tactics as poisoning the minds of his people. Notras laughed then, breaking the silence of his sanctuary. Indeed, Erenil was no better than him and yet look where they stood! He clutched at his head, peals of laughter, pained and drenched in an agony of such immeasurable depths it sounded like a thousand voices, ripping from his throat as he tried to contain the absolute hate threading through his very being.

                          Oh sweet, merciful Aoes how he hated fire!

                          By the time the madness subsided into a controllable hum, Notras heaving with the effort to just breathe, the city was already ablaze. He couldn't hear it, so high up as he was, ensconced by the shadows that never tried to hurt him, but he imagined the people would be screaming. He imagined as well what the dragon above looked like, whether it was red like the uniform of Tourmaline soldiers, red like the weak flames of Erenil's lowliest mages, or red like the blood being spilt across the stones of his city. He supposed it didn't matter as a deafening roar shook the mountainside.

                          The prince sighed. The taint had tired him and there was not much he could draw on for strength. He was not afraid. Why would he be? It was senseless to believe the rebels wanted to raze Zenithis to the ground. Where would they build their new throne if they brought the entire city to oblivion? And the dragon? Notras snorted.
                          Please, he mocked, gathering a grey sceptre in hand. Fire may be Erenil's domain, but the dragons belong to Rhakovan.

                          Even if I cannot control them, their fear is more than enough.
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Dapper Dabbler

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                              BEING ONE to rise just a couple of hours past dawn, Becky retired early in the evening after draining the coinpurse she found during the Summit of what little was left to pay for her dinner. She read over half of the anthology on Master Tierson before that and only abandoned the effort because her neck started to cramp from leaning over for too long. Hailing from a village sprung from the efforts of colliers, Becky thought nothing of the acrid smell of smoke at first even when it roused her from sleep. Her dreams had taken her back to Threshaldil, where her mind remained as she rose out of bed, ready to tackle another day of guarding her hometown. The sound of voices rising drew her attention and she wondered which one of her neighbours was making a fuss so early in the morning.

                              It was when she stretched and didn't feel her toes bump the edge of her child-sized bed that Becky realized that she wasn't at home anymore, that she was in Zenithis where signs of fire were far from an everyday occurrence. The smell of smoke grew stronger in the air then screaming joined it, filling Becky's room through its only window which clearly hadn't been cleaned within the month. Not much of the streets could be seen, as the window only looked out to an alleyway that ran between the Lowtown inn and another dismal looking building. It was dark outside but that fact alone was no indication of the current time, given how the season made the days grow shorter.

                              Becky tightened her threadbare sheets around her, hoping that the shrieks and burning would just go away. Her wish was quickly rejected by whichever deity heard it, evident by the sounds of more people wailing and the crackling of flames erupting from the same area as the bookstore she visited today, much closer to the inn that the earlier arson. Staying here would leave her a sitting duck but where else was Becky to go to? Oh, if only Master Tierson was here, he would know what to do!

                              Wait. There was still her higher-up for the time-being, Master Koven. Surely he would have a plan just as good as any Master Tierson could come up with. But he was all the way up at the castle and was it really safe to go outside now? But what if the authorities didn't know of the fires? Even worse, what if the palace was burning down right this minute? Oh no, oh no, now Becky definitely couldn't stay here, Master Koven could be in trouble and she needed his guidance!

                              She sprang out of bed, kicking away the sheets to pull her boots onto her feet and her blue dress over her plain shift. The armour came on easily after that, buckles tightening and snapping to fit her body almost like a second skin. Her buckler and shortsword were the obvious choices after that, while the rest of her possessions were to stay behind the Blue Dragon Inn and Tavern. Becky didn't like the thought of leaving them to burn but rations and a novel would do little to defend her against whoever was out there.

                              The people mulling about in the tavern below paid less attention to Becky than one would think, despite the loud clanging of her armour. They seemed to have more important things on their minds, perhaps preparing to defend the inn itself judging by the one blonde woman readying bow arrow. A smarter person would have taken a less direct route to the castle but Becky knew of no other path. Thankfully, she was hardly bothered and really had no need to ready her shield every three steps.

                              Once she stumbled across a group of three guarding one person spreading fire with his (or her? Becky couldn't tell) bare hands while another darted here and there, like a dog trying to catch a scent. The cloaked figure who noticed her drew the attention of the other four with a shout as she turned on her heel and fled into a narrow lane. Though she ran, Becky hardly dared to hope that she could ever lose her pursuers what with her noisy armour weighing her down. Much to her despair, the alley led right to a dead end and she quickly backed up, muscles coiled and tensed as she prepared to fight her way out of this latest predicament. She cowered in that corner for a good while, hearing a few more apparent fires spark in other buildings. Several nervous peeks around the corner later and Becky found that the group had apparently abandoned the effort.


                              That incident left her jumpy and as such, it took Becky far longer than her past visits to reach Castle Rhakovan after other scares and numerous attempts at backtracking only to get lost in this foreign city. Unlike the other times she came up to the palace, there were no guards at the gate to scrutinize her meek appearance. In fact, there seemed to be no one else at the main entrance which was left open for some reason, not even the sounds of couriers going here and there. Becky looked back at the rest of the city in flames and noted how quiet it was here, that not even the screaming reached this place.

                              Becky caught movement in the corner of her eye and turned to see a row of six figures. All were cloaked like the group she ran into before and were obviously not guards, which begged the question why they were there in the first place. They certainly patrolled like guards, as some moved down to the far corner of the wall while others stood around idly at different intervals, shifting their weight from foot to foot. None of them had noticed her standing a ways away from the main gate yet.

                              Not until one turned around and noticed Becky thinking hard over what she was to do on the road leading up to the castle. By the speed they advanced at and the flames burning at the hands of a few, the group of six were not friendly at all. Becky's flight or fight notion kicked in and while she readied her weapons, she wasn't at all confident that she could take on a battle in such numbers. Instead, she made a mad dash for the open gate, moving at the same pace as a jog thanks to her armour which raised its usual cacophony. Through the sound of blood pumping in her ears, Becky hardly heard the shouts of her pursuers, nor her own voice as she called out for somebody, Master Koven, anyone at all!

                              RAAARARRAAUUUAAAAUUAGHGHGGHGGGGHHGH ~ fin.
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The two of them jumped at the sound of the shop’s front door being kicked in. Neither Xanthia nor her mother had seen the person approach. Most of the windows were boarded up, the sky was filling with smoke, and all sound hailed to the screams of the people and the terrifying dragon looming above. Before Xanthia could even take her hands off the wooden plank she pressed over the window, her mother expertly pumped in the last few nails and shot immediately to the adjacent room where Kaiyan was told to hide. Unspoken was the command to follow. But she didn’t.

“Vetyz you supine mongrel! Where are those war documents?”

The grumbling voice was ferocious and angry like the aggressive utterings of a drunken miner. It struck Xanthia deeply and tenderized her core. Just a few steps away she could hear her mother comforting Kaiyan, quieting his soft whimpers and doing her best to conceal him. Buried in clothes he hid inside a cabinet whose shelves had been explicated and used to cover the windows. The man below made an effort in tossing something or pulling something over and a loud crash followed. It was only then that Xanthia’s mother looked back and saw her daughter had not obeyed.

”Xanthia!”, she called in a sharp whisper. Xanthia ignored the call to her right and took a long slow step towards the stairway. Who were these people? Was this war? Corbalich? Was it civil unrest? A rebellion? What was their plan? Was the dragon theirs? Were those really mages she’d heard about? If only she could see a uniform or something! At that Xanthia took a leap towards the corner before the stairway and plotted herself down beside it to hide. Her heart was pounding furiously but this was only the beginning. More crashes, smashing, and the sounds of breaking merchandise bellowed from the bottom floor. Whoever it was down there was nearing the beginning of the stairway. Xanthia moved closer to the corner until her left shoulder nearly poked into view.

”I ain’t here to screw around, Yanry!”

She inched ever closer until she was holding her hair back so it didn’t droop into view. Just one peek. The man’s accent seemed local but sounds could be deceiving, especially when as much anger fumed from his voice as it did. Her mother grabbed a small wooden sword, one of Kai’s favorite toys, and placed it in his hands, holding it there for a second with both of hers in a comforting gesture. Then, outside the room at the corner by the top of the stairwell, Xanthia popped her head out for a glance and retracted it immediately.

It was a roughly shaven dark haired man with a brawny mountain build. He wore workman’s slacks and a cheap vest but no helmet. Indeed, no uniform at all. A narrow headed axe hung low from his right arm and she glimpsed the thick hair on his arm exposed by his rolled up sleeves. This was a tool shop she lived in and there was no mistaking the motivation behind the design. With such a narrow head the blade was useless for chopping wood or driving stakes but it was perfectly adapted for putting lethal force on a fine edge. Slaughter was on the man’s mind and it shone with every bit of the disgusted look splattered across his smoke blasted face. The last thing she saw before her head retreated again behind the safety of the corner was that same face snapping towards her.

His heavy footsteps immediately began to pound their way up the stairs and for a moment, Xanthia sat in panic staring at the opposite wall. Her muscles energized, her blood ran hot, and the surge of adrenaline seemed to weaken her all at once. She exploded to her feet and tried to run but a powerful hand clenched her bicep and slammed her painfully into the other wall flanking the stairs. It hurt, yes, but Xanthia had almost flowed with it like she was overreacting and making the man seem more violent. There was an urge to call foul play but that ended as she came to the realization that there weren’t any rules. This wasn’t a game.


The man barked in a loud grim voice. His strength was immense and pinned her to the wall with such force that she could hardly breathe, let alone talk. It wasn’t fair. He shook her violently and released her from his crushing push against the wall only to throw her into it again. If her bladder had been full Xanthia was sure she would have wet herself. Despite his fury, the man stayed quiet for a second but still didn’t release his powerful grasp. It finally became possible to discern how much of the shaking had actually been her own fearful shivers. Alas, Xanthia could only tremble in those precious few seconds and disappointed and impatient, the man raised the back of his hand and slapped it across her cheek.

She shrieked out at the pain but she couldn’t cry. Merciful Taltherion she was far too scared to cry. The numbness of her cheek was perfectly akin to the numbness of emotion. Xanthia could couldn’t even feel her heartbeat anymore. She couldn’t think. She couldn’t fight back. What was this man to do next?


The brawny man forced her against the wall even harder and Xanthia was beginning to choke. She couldn’t even feel the floor beneath her feet anymore. Her eyes had been closed ever since the slap and when Xanthia opened them finally, she saw her mother approaching from behind carrying the heavy weighted sword her father kept as a furnishing.

”What’s wrong with me?”


The sword carved deep into the back of the man’s skull and sent his head flying forward. If she hadn’t somehow tilted through the struggle it would have hit Xanthia but thankfully he merely crumpled forward against the wall and fell to the ground. Part of his body landed on top of her and Xanthia forced it away immediately. Her mother dropped the sword to the ground and knelt down to help her to her feet. It was a caring, comforting touch that oddly ended with the words, ”Are you stupid?” Now it was her mother who was shaking her and asking for an answer. Just as she failed to respond to the man, Xanthia found it impossible to speak and merely looked idly at the fallen form of the figure that seemed indomitable only moments ago. Viscous gore oozed down his neck from the crevasse buried beneath his dark hair. It was red, a very dark red; something wholly different from the blood that flowed from trivial wounds. Even with her mother there, however, this wasn’t over.

More steps pounded on stairway and her mother immediately retrieved the sword from the floor and turned to face the threat. There was two more, one man, one woman dressed and armed in a similar fashion to their slain subordinate. They ascended the stairs with cold aggression in their eyes. Her mother stepped back and with one hand forced Xanthia behind her. It was annoying being pushed around but this was no time to complain.

“Stay back! Jeg skal drepe deg!”
, her mother shouted in the half remembered tongue of her youth. There was fear in her voice. Xanthia wasn’t a swordsman and neither was she. Unsurprisingly the threat did nothing to slow their approach. She felt so helpless. But then, as if commanded by Kol himself, a miracle.

It happened in an instant, almost too fast to comprehend. The grey cloth of a Westrion detached itself from a shadow amongst the smashed debris at the bottom of the stairs and let loose an arrow which plunged into the back of the male assailant. Without pause the savoir called to hand a blade and cut across the Achilles tendon of the female in a single fluid motion. She screamed hysterically. Xanthia looked away squinting as if she herself could feel the pain and knowing full well of the injury’s severity. The man wasn’t finished. He moved but before he complete the motion they would never see, was stabbed through the chest by the swift action of the Westrion. A brief jet of blood followed the blade as it left the wound and ended the scream of the man’s companion with a slash across the neck. It was everything Xanthia hated to see but the grace of the Westrion’s dance brought beauty to the gruesome scene.

His face caught some light as he sheathed his weapon and turned towards them and bowed. It was smirky, calm and unfazed. Xanthia let go of her mother’s blouse which she realized she had been clenching. She tried to comprehend the sheer absurdity of what had just happened but for once there wasn’t a question she could phrase. Instinctively she and her mother stepped subtly backwards as the Westrion topped the stairway. He stopped briefly before continuing to the living room and Xanthia caught a grin of amusement as he noticed their movement.

”You needn’t worry Mrs. Vetyz. You are under the protection of the Westrion now.”

He continued to the window the two had finished boarding shut just before the incident and one by one began to casually pry the planks from the wall; levering them with a sturdy knife. Xanthia and her mother stepped a bit closer behind him and the Westrion sensed their questions. ”Yanry is at the castle. It’s pretty quiet up there so he sent me here instead.” Prying the last plank from the window he knelt and surveyed the area. Xanthia and her mother knelt the same to stay out of sight. The Westrion looked back and a smile flickered across his half hidden face in response. ”Why don’t you have a seat? They won’t be able to see you in the living room.” The man looked around the room and frowned in a playful manner. ”At least not with boards up everywhere. Where’s your son, Mrs. Vetyz?”

Xanthia’s mother looked towards the bedroom but didn’t even have to move to see Kaiyan peeking around the doorway. A blanket was wrapped around him and he still held the wooden sword close. She pointed, still not entirely comfortable with the gravity of the Westrion’s presence. ”Ah”, he said as he beckoned Kaiyan to join the girls in the living room. Xanthia moved slowly behind her mother, tracing her every step before taking a seat on the floor beside the chair her mother sat in. She had no idea what to do or what to say, but slowly some questions about what was going on seemed to formulate themselves.

”It’ll be over in a few hours, no more. Just stay away from the windows and I will, ah”, the Westrion said as he looked towards the widening pool of gore near the stairs. ”…clean up.” Then he looked at Xanthia. Even though his eyes were hidden by the shadow of his hood she could still feel the weight of his gaze. ”I’ll be staying a while. I’m sure there is much you wish to know.”

She would need a bit of a breather first, of course, but prompted by the Westrion, Xanthia wouldn’t pass the opportunity to learn what she could.
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Versatile Streaker

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AS DAY faded to night, Quixote had become far more lively than he had been used to. There were rarely slow days at his famed restaurant, but by the amounts of people that had been coming and going all day, you would have thought this was their last meal. Earlier on during the mid afternoon, a large group of lowly workers had come to eat and work on some sort of plan that Abel had found himself too busy to eavesdrop upon. Ordinarily, he never put himself on a social level with other people, but he was far too busy on this day to deal with commoners. Or the rich, for that matter. He couldn't actually recall stepping out of the kitchen more than twice the whole day.

Throughout the course of the day, he would occasionally reach down to his side and touch the small vile that still rested within his uniform. He had kept the Bloodwyne on his person, though he still wondered why. He could have left it at home with the rest of his gear he was going to be bringing with him. But every time he reached down to touch it, his mind began to play games with him. Images would flicker in his head -- of strangers sitting around a large bonfire of sorts that burned within a large pit while they lifted their glasses (or rather, what they used for glasses) and praises to their god, Eneril. Other images would flicker through his mind, too, though most of them were insignificant. One had popped into his head as the evening had begun to come around, which brought him to the second time he had to step out of the kitchen to take a break, and eat for the first time that day. The image was of a group of men and women clothed in black robes moving amongst the bonfire group, each armed with some sort of ornate kris. He wasn't sure why, though. The image stopped there. But he kept seeing them, over and over. Never specific faces, of course. They wore large hoods over their heads, and their faces were hidden by masks. Masks that screamed power and death.

Marx had come to his side at one point to ask if he was alright, but what could Abel tell his father? That he was having visions of some weird origin? That was sure to go over well. Yes, father. I'm doing fine. Just losing my mind and going insane. Nothing to worry about. He nodded his head, though, and explained that he would be back to cooking shortly. He drank a small glass of water before returning to his duties halfheartedly, his mind still plagued by those men and women.

As the later evening came, though, horror struck Zenithis. Abel picked up the undeniable scent of smoke. Instinctively, his head whirled around from his work station to survey the kitchen. Who caught something on fire? His eyes scanned each station thoroughly, though he knew it was pointless. The scent was not coming from Quixote. From where, then? He glanced to the back window, where several other cooks had obviously caught onto the scent as well and turned their attention to the window as well. Not too far from their location, smoke was rising and obscuring the moonlight. Was someone's home on fire? Abel had actually been tempted to leave and go help when Marx walked into the kitchen.

"Clean it up and lock this place down. Now." At Marx's command, people pulled pans away from their stations onto the counters and each moved around the restaurant to seal it up. He had never seen them act in such a manner before. Abel, on the other hand, did not join them in boarding the restaurant up, which is exactly what they had done. Glancing out the door that separated the kitchen from the dining area, he could see them moving tables away from people in the middle of eating and flipping them sideways to barricade the doors and windows. Emilia, the Entremetier, walked back into the kitchen and grabbed several of the wooden knife holders from the kitchen and brought them back out. Each cook took at least one and remained near the barricade, occasionally glancing outside into whatever was happening outside. Their knives were not military issued weapons, but they could get the job done just the same.

Abel raised an eyebrow to his father. It was obvious that he was confused, and Marx took the time to indulge him as they moved to the office. "It's complete chaos out there. There's been some sort of attack on Zenithis.

"An attack? ...Is it Corbalich? Abel couldn't help but wonder now. After all, they had just had their meeting not a day ago. And now, the city was being set ablaze? He didn't believe in coincidences. As they made their way into the office, he watched his father make his way to one of the back corners. After searching for a quick moment, he pushed the wall in slightly enough for it to give way. As he pulled the panel off, Abel could see what he was reaching for -- a long, curved sword.

"I don't know. They have mages, though. And worse, a dragon. As he pulled the sword from the hidden cache in the wall, Abel opened his mouth to make a mocking comment about the possibility of their being a dragon when a deafening roar that seemed to shake the whole city forced Abel to cover his ears. He dropped into a crouch against the desk and looked to his father, who remained standing as he glanced towards the ceiling. "Told you. Here." He tossed his son a small, curved dagger and nodded his head towards the door. "Go stay with your sister. She needs you right now."

Abel could do nothing but nod and left his father in the office to join Erionelle and their mother outside. The patrons had all been moved to the back wall where several cooks had remained nearby to make them feel more secure. This was the first time he had ever seen his fellow coworkers -- his lively, singing, and fun-loving group of friends and misfits -- act in such a manner. Looking at them now, he wondered if the stories they had all told him were true. After locking the back door, Marx joined them, sword in hand. And there, their restaurant turned into a fortified base of sorts, they waited.

The screams that Abel hadn't heard until after the dragon roared had begun to bother him almost as much as it did Erionelle, though for completely different reasons. Erionelle could hold her own in a fight most of the time, but she wasn't a fighter. She was terrified. Abel would be lying if he said he wasn't, but he was also curious and he wanted to go out and help. There were people dying out there and he couldn't do anything where he was. All he could do was continuously stare around to his armed friends and father and get lost in his own thoughts. Why was this happening? What exactly was happening? And why did this group of rebels have mages? And a dragon? He sure wasn't getting any answers in here. There was only one way to get them.

Almost as if on queue with his thoughts, the first attack on his restaurant came. At first, it was only rocks being thrown through the windows. They hadn't done more than scare the guests and irritate Abel that the coloured windows that had been hand-painted by his mother were being so carelessly broken. But after another deafening roar from the dragon above, the lock on the back door had been broken. Marx reacted first, quickly turning to the kitchen doorway. Two men, armed with short swords, came through quickly and made a quick glance around. Abel had never before seen such a cold, bloodthirsty look in someone's eyes. Marx reacted quickly, dispatching the first individual with ease. Before the man had a chance to lift his sword more than three inches from his side, Marx rose and brought his sword up at a diagonal, slashing the man's stomach and chest wide open. The second man, now completely alert, sidestepped around his fallen comrade and engaged in a duel with Marx. A rather short duel. After a couple parries, Marx disarmed the man and plunged his blade through the man's heart, killing him instantly.

As he pulled his blade from the limp corpse, two more men came rushing through the door. This time, Abel was the one who reacted. He quickly put the dagger in his mother's hands and rose, He engaged the armed individual barehanded. It was the only way he knew how to fight. But what Abel had on his side was dexterity and speed. The man he engaged swung his sword, a blow that Abel blocked with his arm by raising it and stepping forward. His arm caught the man just below his wrist, effectively blocking the blow without taking any damage. He swung with his free hand, his fist meeting the man's jaw with a nice pop. Dislocated jaw. As he staggered back, though, the second man took a swing to Abel that the cook could not avoid. The pommel of his sword collided with Abel's face, forcing him to fall to the ground. His hand rose to his face instinctively, which he regretted when the contact forced him to wince. He pulled his hand away and found it stained red with blood. His blood. Even his vision in his left eye had gone a bit red as blood ran down his face.

He could hear Marx dispatch his attacker and engaged in a quick duel with the last man that Abel had injured. He stared at the blood for another moment before standing back up and helped his father take down the last individual. Or rather, interrupted his father so that he could do it himself. After being pushed back by one of Marx's swings, Abel stepped forward and placed his blood-covered hand against the man's face, pushing hard enough to shove him to the ground. His foot rose and dropped, his heel smashing into the man's face. He wasn't dead, but he was unconscious and going to be in a lot of pain.

Marx lifted his blade and prepared to end the unconscious attacker's life when Abel interrupted. "Wait." Marx stilled his sword for a moment. "Bind him and find out what he knows. We need to find out exactly what is happening. He paused for a moment as he looked to his father. "They were looking for someone. Find out who." It was obvious that Marx was conflicted, but he complied and lowered his blade to his side. Antoinette and Rugar moved away from the patrons and joined the father and son. Antoinette gathered the swords while Rugar pulled the sash he wore from his waist and flipped the man over, binding his hands behind his back.

Abel looked to the exposed backdoor as he wiped the blood from his face onto his white sleeve. He blinked a few times, trying with no avail to get the red away from his vision. He was going to have to wash it out -- and that was going to have to wait. He needed to know what was going on, and having caught a glimpse of what these rebels were willing to do, he was worried about Xanthia. She had that flintlock pistol, but it would only protect her from one individual. If two came rushing at her, she was as good as dead.

As if reading his mind, Marx put his hand on his son's shoulder. "We'll be fine here. Get going." This was why he loved his father. He was understanding. Amongst other things, of course. Which reminded him, he was going to have to ask him later about where he learned his fancy swordplay. Without another word, Abel took off out the backdoor and into the chaotic streets towards Xanthia's home.
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Gracious General

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                                                        JHANDEL HAD not intended for so much time to pass since he first fell into his meditations. Certainly it was not uncommon for him --even the castle hands knew of his habits and had left his meals on the desk beside him --but to have become so immersed, drowning in the endless knowledge of Rothaelim's Wall... He had awakened with a gasp, trembling as he reached for his sword without even thinking of who might have intruded upon his privacy. The servant, poor boy, had reeled back from the shock of suddenly finding himself at the end of a sword. He stared, wide-eyed and shaking almost as much as the knight, until Jhandel breathed a pained apology.

                                                        "You should know better than to surprise an armed man," Jhandel admonished gently. He lowered his scimitar to his lap, hoping the motion would calm the boy down enough for him to deliver whatever message he was likely to have supposed to deliver. What time was it? Panic bubbled uneasily in his chest as he finally noticed how dark it was in his room. He hadn't lit any of the candles and the natural light from beyond the window had disappeared entirely with the setting of the sun.

                                                        "The prince --he asked for me to wake you, Lord Jhandelis," the servant, having indeed not forgotten his purpose here, managed to say before breaking eye contact with a submissive bow of his head. If it was possible, the boy seemed to shrink further into the floor as Jhandel rose, picking up his three blades without a sound. The knight took one look at the cowering form at his feet and a rush of guilt flooded him. Just what had the highborns said about him in his absence? Surely this reaction was not entirely due to his own faults.

                                                        Jhandel couldn't prevent the sigh from escaping his lips. Merciful Taltherion, he wasn't trained for this. He contemplated placing a reassuring hand on the boy's shoulder, but the flinch that surfaced as he moved his feet made him think twice about that. Frustrated, Jhandel knew the only thing that he had time for right now would be to just let the boy go. He hadn't wanted more rumours to be spread about him but --he sighed again, deep and despairing --he supposed he hadn't wanted a lot of things that happened beyond his control.
                                                        "Go find the other workers. Hide with them. It isn't safe here." Jhandel watched with a humourless smile. The boy was gone before he could say another word.

                                                        He stretched slowly, loosening his body after having stayed in the same position for the good portion of the day. The three blades felt comfortable in his hands and in the dark he was tempted to forgive the appearance of the longsword that mocked him and the dagger that was like a forbidden lover. He knew he should have left them here, in his room, where he wouldn't accidentally use them, though the Wall had shown him glimpses of future battles and he couldn't deny how the weapons set him at ease. Jhandel took all three.

                                                        The shield was an afterthought, remembered only because he propped it against the wall beside the door. In his haste he left his room unlocked, though if his intuition was correct it was unlikely the mistake would cost him anything. The rebels were not after him today. It should have given him some peace, this knowing, but knowledge had only served to show him just how much he didn't understand. There was no conclusion Jhandel could come up with to explain the silence in the castle, nothing to account for the significant lack of guards anywhere. Oh how he wanted to see his prince!

                                                        Jhandel shook those thoughts from his head. Notras wouldn't be in any danger tonight, no more danger than he. It was odd walking through the front halls of the palace and not meeting a single person, but for tonight the knight preferred it this way. He found a spot along the handrails of the winding twin staircases that opened at the back of the main foyer. The opulence of the hall with its polished white stone floors, gilded marble supports, and thick Tourmaline red carpets would have set him off on any other day. Right now however, as Jhandel casually folded his arms over his chest so that his hand rested easily near the hilt of his scimitar, he could appreciate the purpose of this seeming extravagance. Intimidation, he noted, was something the Rhakovans could claim mastery in.

                                                        The hall was lit by dozens of small flames hanging from the ceiling's many bronze chandeliers. There were no shadows to hide in, he knew, so he settled where the light would catch the glint of his armour and peered imperiously out one of the many windows overlooking the front courtyard. He wasn't surprised by what he saw --rebels, for they were no ordinary civilians, patrolling the length of the gates as if to keep people on the inside from coming out for there were no others he could see near these grounds. One of them, dressed in tight leathers from what the knight could tell, turned and regarded him across the empty expanse of the courtyard. Jhandel returned with a mock salute, waving him back to his duties with a flippant hand.

                                                        It was surreal. Not for the first time, Jhandel thanked Rothaelim for preparing him to witness the bizarre and unreal.

                                                        The silence didn't last long however as a familiar figure burst through the calm with a mad clattering. Jhandel moved without thinking, crossing the large foyer with his long strides in a matter of moments. He pried open one of the double doors of the palace's main entrance with relative ease --they were not heavy, as they appeared to be, and were never locked --curling around the wood to get a better view of who had disturbed the false peace. Jhandel almost did a double take as Becky called his name, barrelling down the courtyard as if the hounds of the abyss chased her heels.

                                                        What in the Greater Realms is she doing here?!

                                                        Jhandel bared his teeth, the first and most obvious piece of body language he could conjure in an effort to make the rebels outside stand down. He didn't care if it made him look like a wild animal; he had little desire to spill blood tonight, and he would put off the event for as long as he could. Whatever it was about his posture --the way he gripped his sword so that a fraction of the blade eased from the belt at his side, or the way his other hand clenched as if readying to hold another weapon and not the shield on his back --the rebels took notice and slowed their pursuit. It wasn't their place to interfere. This was his domain. Jhandel prayed they understood that much, at the very least.

                                                        When the calm returned to the hall, Jhandel appraised the woman before him, wondering how angry he should be.
                                                        You are not supposed to be here! There is danger in these walls; more danger than out there in the fire. He had wanted to say that out loud, but he had seen one person cower before him today and one was more than enough. The panic of earlier having subsided, Jhandel rubbed his eyes with his hands, gesturing in the vague direction of the staircase at the back of the room. He needed to sit down.

                                                        How many lashes will I receive for failure this time? he asked himself unhappily. Taking the third step from the ground, Jhandel lowered himself with some semblance of grace, waving to the spot beside him for Becky to follow. None, if the purge is successful. The knight had no idea where the thought had come from, though he was aware of the dark amusement burning at the edges of his tainted scar. He hoped it didn't show on his face.

                                                        "Ms. Carver, please tell me what brings you here at this hour. I was not expecting guests." His tone was light, joking, friendly, though there was something unmistakably grim about the set line of his jaw. "Ah, you will have to pardon the poor hospitality. The castle hands are quite... occupied at the moment."

                                                        With luck Becky would not inquire as to why an able-bodied soldier such as himself was guarding a place that truly did not appear to need guarding. Jhandel had asked that of himself earlier, when Notras had given the command, and none of his answers were pleasant. He wanted to think it was because the prince wished to keep his Lord Knight's hands clean of this mess, to safeguard whatever shred of innocence he had left. He knew, however, that that was only a small part of it.
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THE FAMILY sat quietly and awkwardly as the Westrion carried out his work. Xanthia spent most of this time clutching the numb side of her face. It was probably bright red but nothing more. Thank Kol she hadn’t been actually hurt. Who knows what she could have suffered at the hands of that man. A black eye and a few broken bones would still be towards the generous end of things. Rape and murder was probably the norm for war. Like Kaiyan, she leaned on her mother in gesture of the unspoken thankfulness for her timely intervention. Xanthia’s pride felt thoroughly shaken. She couldn’t fight nor did she want to learn. But what would she do if this happened again? What if neither Abel nor Jhandel nor Nero were there? Wait…where was Nero? Wasn’t he supposed to be at the meeting? Blast, like she didn’t have enough things to worry about. Alas, war was like pouring wine into two glasses. The only way to make them equal without rudely pouring liquid back into the bottle was to pour more wine. Red wine, she thought. How tragic, how flawed it seemed. Maybe Abel was right all these years. The only way to avoid violence was to prepare for it and learn to fight your self.

Clapping the dust from his hand, the Westrion returned from the stairwell. Though the blood remained, a slight peek revealed the bodies to be gone. He had been surprisingly quick. The Westrion took up post at the window once again and leaned against the wall quite casually, taking a few curious glances at whatever troubles scattered the streets. Not a word was spoken as the flickering of distant fires seeped through the Westrion’s overwatch and through the cracks in the planks that covered the other windows. Whether it was the overcast clouds rolling in overhead or the smoke of the fires blocking out the moon, the city seemed to grow darker with each passing minute. Xanthia’s mother lifted Kaiyan off her knee and set him in the dark green chair of leather while she went to light more candles. The kid looked tired and scared but still an undying urge to impress the Westrion somehow shone through. He maneuvered his toy blade through the air several times in the air until the Westrion took notice.

“That’s a fine blade you’ve got there, Mr. Vetyz. Is it a Threshid?”

”Um…I don’t know”, Kaiyan spoke softly.

”Yeah it looks like it. They only make those kinds on the edges of Threshaldil, you know? You won’t find a more powerful blade anywhere else”, the Westrion said with a remarkably straight face. Kaiyan looked over and stroked the tiny wooden mock of a sword with a sudden admiration and curiosity. He looked up but didn’t have much to say.

”My grandfather once gifted me one of those.”

”Was it good?”, Kaiyan inquired.

”You bet it was. As long as the trunk of a redwood and as heavy as blackstone. It could strike with the crushing weight of a mountain. All beasts feared them. I guess that’s they make them there. The forest is a dangerous place.” Something caught the Westrion’s attention outside and he flicked his head towards the window again. Briefly he surveyed the situation before turning back to Kaiyan. ”I could never really wield it effectively. I guess I just don’t have the same kind of the strength that the forest people do”, he admitted with a small laugh. The Westrion pointed to the child’s biceps with approval. ”But you,” he remarked. ”You look like you might have what it takes.” There was a smile beneath the shroud of his hood and on Kaiyan’s face alike.

”Really?”, Kaiyan enthused.

”…or cast me to the fires of Paphos”, the Westrion confirmed. ”Here, hold it like this.”, he gestured with an empty hand.

The brief lesson in swordplay from a real Westrion was like a dream come true for Kaiyan and the excitement used up the last of his energy in minutes. It wasn’t long at all before he passed out deeply on his mother’s lap. By then Xanthia’s thoughts had moved on to other things. With each call of the dragon she turned her head to the ceiling as if looking for it overhead. Something in the air had changed. It wasn’t the fires or the smoke. Something about the dragon’s very presence altered the atmosphere and charged it with the smell of burnt metal. Xanthia didn’t even need to see the storm clouds looming in over the city to know that they were there. She could sense it in her gut, almost like the land was an extension of her body. It had always been that way. Finally, with Kai asleep and feeling in her cheek returning, she spoke to the Westrion.

“Is it a rebellion?”

The Westrion paused for a second then looked to Xanthia and nodded. She opened her mouth to ask what for but then stopped herself. What did they want? How did they get a dragon on their side? Dragons were solitary beings and that was no secret. To see one fighting for a rebellion was especially odd. And against the Rhakovans too, the name that all dragons both feared and respected. Or so she had learned. Was there others to whom the great beasts would submit? She asked but the Westrion could provide little more detail. His suspicions were much the same. If the rebels could field a dragon, then one of them must have a personal connection to the creatures.

“And you say my father will be safe?”

”Very safe, my lady”, he said in a no nonsense voice. As the Westrion returned to surveying the situation outside the window, Xanthia looked off into space, deep in thought. She ran over the events of the night in her mind and tried to imagine what her father was doing at this moment. The palace. How awful it must have been for him to look upon the city as it burned. The Westrion could guarantee his safety but what about theirs? Was he worried sick as he always was? Lost in her imagination and beginning to fall asleep, she saw her father look towards her and speak with a voice that was not his own, a terrible voice.

”Vetyz you supine mongrel! Where are those war documents?”

The sound sent Xanthia tumbling back into reality. The voice lingered and echoed in her ears a few times before all was quiet except for crackling fires and distant screams. The war documents? That wasn’t just the dream, the man who now lay dead somewhere out behind the shop had actually said that. If he was looking for war documents, why had he come here? Her father was a city planner, not a general. But then why was the Westrion protecting him? She asked the grey hooded man at the window.

”He’s a good friend of the prince….and no small acquaintance of Lord Jhandelis either, I believe.”

Xanthia grimaced with a bit of disappointment. Resting beside her in the dark leather chair with Kaiyan on her lap, she did not catch her mother pop open one eyelid. Surely it was more than that. Notras had lots of friends and surely there wasn’t enough Westrions to protect all of his advisors.

”Are they after him?”, she asked.

The Westrion pulled back from the window slightly and knelt towards her with an aura of comforting. ”Don’t you worry, Ms. Vetyz, the rebels aren’t after your father anymore than the other Counselors. It doesn’t matter what kind of empire they want to replace Tourmaline with, they’ll need infrastructure and for that reason alone they could never afford to harm your father. He’s the best in the business.”

Staring shyly towards the floor, Xanthia was about to accept his response. Several seconds passed and she remembered what the rebel had said. What were those war documents he spoke of? Xanthia pointed it out to the Westrion and he turned from his post at the window in surprise.

”So you heard that?”

”Xanthia! Don’t be so intrusive”, her mother snapped with what seemed like an unreasonable amount of irritability. Was she merely tired or was there something more?

”No, no. That’s a perfectly legitimate point that your keen daughter has made, Mrs. Vetyz.” The Westrion chuckled lightly as he gathered up his words. Meanwhile, Xanthia tilted her head in curious interest.

”You see, Xanthia, your father has been working with Notras to help him coordinate the development of towns near the Corbalich border. There’s been a few skirmishes around there and hence why they’ve tagged the word ‘war’ to his work.”

”Hmm…okay”, Xanthia replied. ”I didn’t know that.” His answer seemed to make a whole lot of sense too. Why else did her father seem to be working such long hours these days? But also, if actual war was involved, she was sure her father would tell her. The thought left her mind as soon as the Westrion nodded out the window.

”Someone’s here…it looks like the Quixote chef.

”Oh!”, Xanthia jumped. ”Let him in.” Bursting from her seat beside the green leather chair, she narrowly avoided the half-dry pool of blood at the top of the stairs and made her way downstairs. The destruction on the bottom floor of the shop left a sickening feeling in her stomach. It was almost surreal to see her life long home in such ruin. The door, of course, was long destroyed but the Westrion had taken the initiative to nail it back into its former place. Xanthia looked around for a hammer or crowbar to pry the nails off but the Westrion was soon at her side and did so for her. She gasped at the sight of the dry blood on Abel’s face and his white sleeve.

”Abel, what happened? Are you okay?”, she nervously asked. The Westrion immediately reached for some gaze and rubbing alcohol to treat the wound. Xanthia quickly replaced the broken door quite shoddily and rushed upstairs alongside Abel. The Westrion offered his assistance. It looked pretty bad, but so did every wound in Xanthia’s eyes. With some luck, the wound would be a tenth as bad as it looked.
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THE STREETS of Zenithis were absolute chaos. Abel was spending more time ducking in and out of alleyways to avoid an unnecessary confrontation than actually making any real progress towards Xanthia. And at times, he would simply move from his hiding place early just to press forward anyways, foolish as it may have been. Twice, his impatience forced him to defend his life. The first man he engaged was a younger individual, maybe only a few years his senior, and possibly the saddest excuse for a swordsman he had ever seen. The man came running at him with his sword above his head, actually screaming uncontrollably at the top of his lungs. If not for that instinct to survive that flowed through him, Abel probably would have been cut down from standing there with his mouth open. As he charged, though, he left himself wide open for Abel to push himself against the man, blocking the downwards strike of his sword with his shoulder. The weight of his body caught the screaming lunatic off balance and sent him tumbling back a bit. The impact, though, caused the man to drop his sword over Abel's side. Quickly grasping the weapon by its hilt, he swung the sword hard, the flat side of the blade smacking the man's face hard. He fell to the ground, unconscious. He wasn't dead, though Abel did stop to wonder for a brief moment if he would have died shortly from the head injury. He didn't dwell on it though and continued to make his way to his destination.

The second was a bit messier, though. Only two blocks from Xanthia's home, Abel was being impatient once again and rushed out a bit too early, colliding right into a young woman. Ordinarily, he would have politely bowed and apologized to her. What kept him from doing so was the knife that was immediately pulled on him. He wasn't accustomed to fighting against women, as it went against everything Marx had taught him. But he did what was necessary, much as his own father did back at Quixote not too long ago. He took the first cut, which left a small, bleeding gash against his left shoulder. Taking two quick steps back to keep some distance between them left the woman without much choice other than to thrust the knife at him. Perfect. Sidestepping, he grasped her wrist firmly with one hand and took a small step to her side and slightly behind her. He raised his foot off the ground and kicked hard at the back of her knee, dropping her towards the ground. And in another quick motion, he brought his free arm around, and with his full body weight, smashed it against the woman's now-locked elbow, breaking it. Marx had always taught him how to defend himself against someone coming at him with a knife. In all the fighting he did in his younger years, that had never happened beforehand. Now, he was thanking his father silently in prayer for actually having taught that to him. The woman began to wail, which would no doubt draw the attention of someone to their location. He acted quickly, much to his regret. Bringing his hand up from his side, he planted a swift chop against her throat. She was still breathing, but would probably be gasping for air for the next couple of minutes. That was good enough for him.

He continued through the quick back roads until he would pop out right near Xanthia's home and family shop. As he approached the end of the side yard of someone's home, a figure had moved from the shadows in front of him, forcing him to stop in his place. It was a man, scrawny as can be, holding a crossbow. There was no getting around him, though. This was the closest location to Xanthia's home. He had to keep going, which meant taking him out. As he took a few silent steps forward, Abel stopped to notice something. The crossbowman was gazing out from the corner of the house towards the east. Right towards Xanthia's home. He quickened his nearly silent steps until he was only a few feet away. As the crossbowman took a step out into the street to aim his weapon, Abel came up behind him and yanked him right back into the shadows, forcing the man to drop his weapon onto the ground. After a few quick blows to the face, the man lay motionless on the ground and didn't so much as mutter a word.

Abel wiped the blood from his face yet again, which had continued to bleed this whole time. Wounds right above the eye were an absolute pain to deal with. They continuously bled like nobody's business. He wiped the blood onto his white-stained-red sleeve once more and left the cover of shadows to Xanthia's home. The windows had all been covered, which wasn't much of a surprise. What caught him off guard was the door. It looked as though it had been kicked in and then repaired. The hinges, even from this side of the door, were busted. He raised his hand to knock when the door was suddenly pried open. And then, another shock. Standing next to Xanthia was a Westrion. He recognized the uniform from the times he caught Zanya wearing it.

”Abel, what happened? Are you okay?” Xanthia had asked, concern filling her eyes. Abel nodded and stepped inside as the Westrion rushed for some medical supplies and Xanthia fixed the door. As they ascended the stairs, Abel couldn't help but look back down at the terrible condition of the shop. They were broken into. But Xanthia appeared mostly unharmed, aside from the swollen spot on her cheek. Abel rose his hand to her cheek and looked at it closely. It must've still been stinging a bit. At least it looked like it.

"I wish I had gotten here sooner. The streets are a mess, and we had an incident at the restaurant. That's what this is from," he gestured to the wound that the Westrion was now tending to. He flinched from the addition of the rubbing alcohol to his wound, but kept silent until the man had finished. Thanking the Westrion, he took a seat next to Xanthia and glanced around once more. Xanthia's mother sat opposite them, with Kaiyan passed out on her lap. The boy was still clutching the toy blade in his hands. The poor thing must have been terrified. Off to the side, Abel noticed blood remained on the ground that he hadn't noticed beforehand. Obviously, the Westrion disposed of their attackers. He turned his attention to the Westrion and bowed his head. "Thank you for keeping them safe."

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