Saturday, July 18, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 25.4 - Survivors

The others were getting anxious as the sun sunk closer to the horizon. They had gathered provisions and anything that could be used for what lie ahead while Tagaern and I buried Duncan Tham.

"We can't get back to town." Floki said, "We'll have to find a place to camp and I definitely wouldn't suggest here. Even if there may be no reason for them to come back."

"We'll go and find the survivors." I said with a growl. "If Amalia and the others are out here, we need to find them."

It was as good of an idea as any. Too far to Hlofreden, whatever state that city was in, and too far to Dowry. I hoped that the princess's army would distract the forces that undoubtedly would rise up after the sun fell.

"The horses aren't going to do us any good in that overgrowth." Floki said with a grimace. "We should just let them go, they'll find their way home."

He said it with disdain. It became apparent that he wasn't too fond of riding. Just as they were likely not all too fond of having a wolf loping close by.

"I can take care of that." Sig said as he got close to the horses.

I wondered what special magic he could do to make the horses disappear or whatever he had planned, but he simply pulled a parchment, tore it into strips, and scratched a note on each one, tucking each into a saddlebag.

"We'll be back to get our twenty gold." He said frankly.

We shooed the horses out into the reddened plains. I hoped they had enough time to get where they were going before the enemy showed their faces.

Silah was uncomfortable, I could tell when she stood unnaturally still with only her eyes moving. She had become the wooden puppet as I had pushed her away. I felt unsure. Between my grief and my anger, I didn't know what she should participate in.

What side of me was Silah for? I had pondered mindfully while she stood a mere few paces behind me.

Right now, I felt the intense need to be alone; to deal with this pain by myself regardless of how I longed to share it. I longed to be comforted and be completely understood in a way that only Silah seemed capable of. Yet, I continued to isolated myself in my grief.

There was also anger. A burning anger had taken root and with it grew determination. Every head taken from Kellas House would be returned. The breach would be sealed in The Veil. And every last giant on this plane would fall, whether by my hand or by the army that stood nearby. Once that was done, I would make it my goal to root out and utterly decimate these orcs. The grasses and trees would thrive on their blood. It was my mission that they would not come hunting again.

Yet more senseless bloodshed. I bowed my head at the thought. But I would do it to protect my own.

Floki found the trail leading from the narrow window at the rear of Kellas House. The trail was reasonably worn to an overlook point. After that, it began to gather in overgrowth as we went on. I watched closely as Floki picked clues for the path until the darkness began to consume the trail. Once I had the advantage, we swapped places and I picked through those same markers.

The stars unrolled across the sky and the moon hung low to the west. I took only a moment to take it in. The path in front of me begin to decline toward the sea.

There was a shrill hiss in the trees that sent chills down my spine. I immediately called for a halt, freezing those on the trail. I waited, peering through the darkness and seeing the reflective eyes of an animal only a stone's throw away.

I stepped forward again and the hiss sounded again, feral and dangerous. I cleared my throat.

"We are friends of the survivors of Kellas House." I spoke low into the darkness. "We wish to see them."

I watched as gleaming eyes blinked from behind the bushes and loped noiselessly into view. These were the cat people, the Kellas. I thought, at first, that this was Leonid, but no. These were others from a dwindling race. I doubted outside eyes had been set upon them for years before now.

The creature waved at me, beckoning. It had an inhuman gait, loping down the trail on all fours standing on it's hind legs only for short periods while it waited for us to catch up. Leonid and Danja had behaved so differently for as otherworldly as their presence seemed. They had attempted to blend in, however, while these others did not. These, it struck me, had stayed in the wilds and lived their meager existence with whatever was left of their fading ways. It was a story I had been seeing play out repeatedly in my short life. Both here and where I called home to the far South.

Before long, I could hear voices, both talking and sobbing. Pain seemed to emanate from ahead and I felt tortured, knowing that grief. We moved into the camp circle and I saw Amalia, Keval, and Falk huddled together in the center of the camp. They looked afraid and alone.

"Amalia." I said with a hoarse whisper. "It's Hakaar."

I could see her stand, looking nearly blind in the darkness. I moved to her and embraced her. I could feel tears on her cheeks rub off on my bared arm as I clung to her.

It's now time for me to be strong. I am their assurance. I hardened at the thought, the deep wounds in my soul sealing up with fury and fire.

The others filed into the camp, Sig, Silah, and Floki looking just as blind with the thin light coming from the heavens. Strangely enough, I had just now realized that Bromm didn't have any trouble with seeing in this low light. A flameless fire was lit in a rocky circle by one of the Kellas for warmth.

"We buried Duncan." I felt a tug at the words, but my resolve had grown stronger with something to fight for. "He rests well, now, in the training yard."

She shook in my arms, her hands gripping tightly. She slumped with the effort, the last vestiges of energy slipping from her weary frame.

"He wouldn't fall back. He was determined that we left first and then..." she gulped with the memory and clung close again.

I stroked her hair, quietly. I thought of what I was doing; the comfort I gave. I wondered about Silah again, and how I turned her away. I forced the thought away as it began to take me to a place I was determined not to be.

Silah moved up as I moved on. She began speaking with Amalia, talking softly, almost apologetically. I was tempted to listen in, but I knew that this wasn't my business.

I looked on to Falk and Keval, who seemed listless. My bond with them wasn't as strong as with Amalia, but I felt their need. I stooped in front of them, resting on my ankles.

"I'll take care of this, but you must take care of each other. Take care of Amalia. We're all in this together." I said, attempting encourage them.

It was a strange turnabout as I had needed this same encouragement from Duncan just days earlier.

I caught sight of Leonid at the edge of the camp. His own feline face was distraught and anguished. He'd lost both a sister and a friend in this. I reached out a hand to him and bowed deeply, not knowing what customs there may be with his people.

"I am very, very sorry. I consider you a brother, too. I am pained deeply by the loss of Danja." I said evenly, my head hung as I said it, but his did, too.

We both looked up and I could see the pain in his eyes, feeling it to my core. He nodded slowly, accepting my words of sympathy.

"There will be vengeance?" He said quietly with his unusual accent.

"There will be vengeance. I and mine will set things right." I said, nodding.

I wondered if he knew that, after the battle, their heads had been taken as trophies. I was not inclined to ask.

"We'll need to sleep if we're going to be doing what you plan to do tomorrow." Sig said quietly over the flameless fire.

"They will watch over us." Amalia's voice cracked with the words. "They've kept us safe. This is their home, after all."

We spread out and began to settle in. Silah came close to me, as I busied myself. I could see through the darkness that her face was pained, like her heart had been broken. I gulped, realizing that my avoidance was distressing her, but I still held back.

"I am going to stay up with the others." She spoke low then added with a pained look in my direction, "They all need someone to talk to."

"Thank you." I said, the words rasping in my throat.

She turned away, moving toward the others by the flameless heat. I settled in with grief tugging at me. I looked toward Silah, whom I could see perfectly against the starlight, as she sat close to the survivors, bending an ear their way.

I will be back soon, my love. I thought, achingly.

There was a bluish haze covering the ground, limbs jutted through the mist, showing the absently tossed bodies littering the battlefield. I heard Amalia's sobs and moved toward them. I approached her and she looked up at me while she knelt by Duncan's body. I bent down to comfort her and my hands passed through her form. It was too late to react as I attempted to brace myself against the earth rushing upward. I fell through the ground into infinite blackness, feeling myself fade as I fell into nothingness.

I awoke with a start, sweating and panicked. I could hear soft sobbing a short distance away that was fueling the fire of my enigmatic dreams. I kept my eyes shut, not wanting to face the reality of it again. Not now. I needed to rest for what was to come.

I felt a gentle hand on my arm and a loving embrace entwined around me from within.

Silah. I thought.

I felt her response as a pacifying hush. I began to shake, wracked with quiet sobs, feeling her touch release this pent up anguish that had threatened to break me. After I time, I felt the grief start to subside and I began to drift again, but now toward a silent dreamless sleep. As I faded away, I reached one last thought out to her: I'm sorry.

Activity around the camp increased with the lightening of the sky. The Kellas retreated during the day, only coming when absolutely necessary. Leonid, who was used to the schedule of humans, lingered close for the mutual support. This small family was incredibly lucky to be alive. I was determined to do my best to keep them that way.

Amalia, Falk, and Keval were asleep as we quietly geared up to leave. Their grief having sapped whatever energy they had remaining. They would likely sleep well into the morning.

"Leonid. If I am not back in a few days, please take them to Dowry and put them up there. The Richter Holdings mining camp just North along the coast may be the safest way to get them there." I said, giving him a handful of gold coins, "If I don't come back, this terror might not end. And it'll consume Hlofreden and Dowry … and here before long."

He nodded his head somberly. His grief was still written clearly on his feline features. I shook his hand, then pulled him forward into a partial embrace. He resisted briefly, but then allowed it. His sadness had deepened momentarily, but he quickly righted himself.

"I will take care of them." He said in his peculiar accent, then nodded with eyes misting over.

I turned toward the others who were already speaking at a distance, allowing the camp to remain quiet. Silah was with them, looking back at me while I said my goodbyes and moved toward the group. She looked as if she'd meet me, but held back as I approached.

"... there's an Ether Tree shown here, but that was not the same direction that the original giants we fought came from. When we tracked them they ended up here," Floki spoke pointing to various locations on a map which was believed to be penned by his absent father, "But there is a symbol here which, I believe, was that of an Ether Tree."

"Do you trust it? The map, I mean?" Bromm asked with Sig nodding closeby, likely thinking the same thing.

"It hasn't steered me wrong so far. We intended to visit this place before but hadn't gotten around to it." he said tapping on the symbol on the map.

It looked as if it was about an hour or two hike off of the road from where the road to Kellas House met up with the main road between Dowry and Hlofreden. I nodded with the suggestion.

We made excellent time across the land. Floki picked the most efficient path quickly, keeping up with the rapid pace. We crested the road and Floki combed it for tracks before we proceeded.

"There's been no movement toward Hlofreden. They must be taking the threat of the princess's army seriously." He mused aloud while he read the dirt for signs.

"Or they're using a different approach." Bromm said with a grimace.

This seemed to raise Danin's hackles. His worry was justified. Rana was still close to Hlofreden and with the ranch just outside of the city still under threat, it was only a matter of time before the threat spread further.

We moved into the plains and Floki moved from hill to hill, holding the map high.

"It should be right here." Floki shouted back, looking frustrated.

He began to tromp back to join the rest of us.

"That ridge there," he pointed North and flattened his hand motioning to where we stood, "And these plains. I can see for miles in these rolling hills and not a thing is standing even half as high as the Ether Tree we saw on Sidhe Lara."

The sun was still at a remarkably low angle, but the heat was beginning to rise where we stood in the open fields.

I could see Floki walking off again, swearing under his breath, talking to the map, and rapping it with the backs of his fingers. The situation with his own father had left both him and his twin sister, Rana, to fend for themselves. From what I had learned from a short conversation with Bromm, he had explained that Floki's father disappeared some time ago with the promise of return. Now, I don't think Floki expected to find his father alive. And, honestly, it may be worse if he was alive, as it would bring it's own flavor of resentment and anger.

"So, we head to where we know the other tree is?" Tagaern said, his temperament had degraded with the milling about.

Surprisingly, Tagaern had been a quick study with all of this Ether Tree talk. However bizarre it seemed, he had seen stranger things, or so he'd said. He still wasn't used to the fact that each person had a say in what was to happen and his anger spurred every time action was required, but the group floundered with the decision.

"There are multiple trees." Sig offered. "We know exactly where the other Ether Tree is on the island. It may take take some time to get to, but it wouldn't be as guarded as this one."

My brow furrowed at the suggestion.

"How many days?" I asked, stunned, "From the sound of it, it'd take at least a handful of days to get there. We don't have that long."

"I didn't say it was the right answer, but I wanted to put that option out there." Sig said in his defense.

"And what of Hlofreden?" Danin said, "I promised Rana I would meet her."

"An army sits on your doorstep and you're worried about one soul?" Tagaern's face was red. "We stand between two armies in one of the greatest conflicts between gods and men in our time! We have the key to making sure this side can win that battle!"

Bromm looked uncertain, glancing at the others. I felt what his expression conveyed, it was a big assumption that this simple coin could stem the flow, regardless of what we expected it to do.

"When you come to your senses, you can find me moving toward the tree." Tagaern looked toward the ridge that and picked a cross-country path angling toward the Eastern edge of it.

"Tagaern!" Bromm called out. "Stay. We can resolve this here and now. We move together or not at all."

Tagaern stopped and turned slowly, his face was red with anger.

"Can we? How long do you think we have?" I could see the grizzled man's jaw rippling from biting his tongue, but he stood fast and watched, standing a few paces away.

Silah stepped forward.

"Your obligation will mean nothing if we don't take action." Her voice was steady and authoritative. "If the Bulwark has fallen, which we have reason to believe, that means the few giants you had seen are the first of a flood that will consume this land. Humanity will fall if the Bulwark is not restored."

She looked out over the others, but the eyes looked back with frustration and some with annoyance. It was clear she didn't expect that her words wouldn't find purchase.

"And you know this… how?" Bromm said. "Most times, you act like a petulant child, playing and taunting. Now, here you stand, serious as I've ever seen you, telling us what destruction will come if we choose against fighting a losing battle?"

Silah was flustered. I felt a need to defend, but I was at a loss. There was no way I could improve the situation so I stood and looked on as she gathered her words.

"I know because this is my purpose. I was … constructed to keep those beings from The Veil from encroaching on this plane." She said simply, but then her conviction ebbed as she spoke, "I have shirked my responsibilities, but it was due to your inexperience and my … own reasons and desires."

I felt my heart quicken as she glanced at me with her pause.

"And you just know all this now?" Bromm asked, his aggressive tone softening slightly.

"I've always known it. I've always been aware of my purpose and I've told you that before." She said quietly.

"You can't remember your experience with those you've bonded with and you can barely remember our names. Can you understand why I have good reason to question you?" Bromm said with renewed fire, "The only one talking is the one most likely to survive the ordeal."

"You heard me." Her face pulled into a snarl and her voice rose as she spoke, "If it isn't clear to you, perhaps I shouldn't mince my words. Plainly, I have an adoring host and, though I don’t remember my past bonds, I feel that our bond has been special, like no other. I cherish this, but the only thing that overrides this is this duty that I must fulfill."

"And I have a duty to perform as well," I stepped forward, adding my voice to the quandary, "I will avenge Duncan and I will help you, Bromm, to fulfill your oath to Kols."

Silah's face immediately softened with my words and she met my eyes. There was still an indescribable sadness there. Bromm looked warily around at the others.

"It feels a fool's errand." He gave a half smile and produced the coin, looking at it in the mid-morning light., "But I can't think of any other fools I'd rather take it up with."

"Then we are ready to stand together and finish this fight?" Tagaern said, still standing apart from the group.

There was reluctance from some, but each person nodded in turn.

"The quickest path back to where we were is from the road. The scrub and underbrush is too dense on this side of the road to make good time cross-country." Floki said, "From there I know the way to the tunnels by heart."

He struck a path, following the way back to the road from where stood. Silah seemed to think better of walking, now, seeing many small tears in her white dress. She stood sullenly and looked up at me with both affection and sadness as she offered her wrist. I nodded and took her arm. She melted into her sword form and I stowed her, twisting the sheath to stay connected.

She had appeared in my mind, framed in the darkness, sitting forward and mulling quietly in her chair. She resumed that wooden, unmoving appearance that she had earlier, unable to keep the illusion of flesh and blood going with too many other things on her mind.

"Thank you." Silah whispered quietly after a moment. "The way you've been. I didn't expected you to stand with me. To stand up for me."

She stood from the chair and approached.

"You do know that Bromm is right." She said quietly.

That you're erratic and forget people's names? I chuckled at the thought.

She furrowed her brow and jabbed me in the ribs with her visage. Surprisingly this hurt just like a real jab to the ribs.

"I'm serious. There may be no coming back from this. Not even for me. They could take me and find a way to destroy me." She looked anxious at the thought.

It's interesting—that feeling of being temporary—isn't it? I mused.

She looked crestfallen, and started to turn away.

No, I'm serious. I have felt temporary my whole life. I assumed that each day would be the day I would breathe my last. I echoed the thought in my mind, and the feeling of the words was strangely empowering. And while I've resented it, I've come to accept it.

You haven't. Believe me, I understand that fear. As I thought the words, I felt that mental weariness tricking back into my thoughts. I look forward to the time when my mind will just stop and I can find peace.

She nodded, but that thought seemed to pain her as well.

If you're worried. Help me keep us, and the others, alive. I thought as I took hold of her in the darkness of my mind and held her. While, in reality, I was navigating my way through the sun drenched plains.

We crested the desolate road and looked down where it stretched. The wind itself seemed to stand still, allowing the thick moist air to linger without the benefit of a cooling breeze. The entire land felt forsaken; both lifeless and empty. We began to see the small stone mounds with the bodies of those who had fallen. These weren't new, but it added to the feeling of isolation. We passed the road to Kellas and I remembered the cheer I felt when looking down this to the dark walls of Kellas. Now it filled me with aching regret.

We'll make it better and we'll make it untouchable. I thought, wiping the sweat from my eyes.

I felt Silah's presence holding me tightly, curled around my arm as she did in town. Ahead of us, streams of smoke wafted into the skies.

Floki paused at the roadside and waited for us to catch up.

"No sign of trouble for us, but," he nodded down toward Dowry, "it must have been an active night. Fresh pyres burning. There must have been another round of skirmishes. Hopefully they thinned the herd."

Floki looked out to where the ridge broke to the North.

"That way. We should be there just before noon." He said, looking to the sky then began picking the path again.

Floki slowed when he ran across the old trail of those that had returned from Kellas House assault. He picked out multiples of orcs and giants returning from the roadside Inn.

Perhaps our strength could have turned the battle in Duncan's favor? I mused in thought.

"There was no way to know that it had happened." Silah said, still lingering close, "And, by the time we knew, there was nothing that could be done. Remember his words: His fall is not your responsibility."

She held back what he'd said about how blaming myself was selfish and would tarnish his memory. She didn't need to speak it; I was already well aware.

As I nodded absently, I saw Tagaern looking at me sidelong with a bewildered look. I looked at him and looked over my shoulder and nodded toward the blade. He nodded with a grimace.

"Just one of those things I'll never understand." He muttered.

The pace was fervent until we reached a series of deep man-sized sinkholes that held water. As we progressed, the sinkholes became larger until we found one where the tracks walked right into. A stone's throw inside was a standing totem adorned with human skulls and bones.

"I assume we're here." I whispered to the others..

I pulled Silah from her sheath and readied myself for what lie ahead.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 25.3 - The Fall of Kellas House

I woke several times through the night, finding myself holding my breath, sweating profusely in the sheets of my borrowed bed. Silah lay next to me, running her fingers along my forehead and pressing her hand to the side of my face.

Each bleary time I fluttered to the surface, I could hear Silah's voice shimmer quietly in the distance.

"You are dreaming, my beast. It is only a dream."

I saw a great maul come crashing down on me, threatening to crush every bone and Duncan's voice calling for retreat.

Duncan had never called for retreat. I thought feverishly.

"Never." I could hear the words escape my lips.

I woke wide eyed, feeling parched and coughing from my closed throat. My head ached and blood churned thickly through my veins. Silah was bedside holding a cup and a pitcher of water.

"I thought you would need this when you stopped sweating last night." Worry marred her perfect face as she poured some water into the cup and handed it to me.

"I've not seen as an efficient a poison as your own mind." Silah said quietly.

I closed my eyes at her words as I felt the water begin to soak into me, working toward easing this pounding headache.

"It's still early, you should get some more rest." Silah said as I stood.

"I've got to do something. It's killing me, waiting to act." I said, clenching my teeth against the headache.

I gathered my things and looked on Silah, she was wearing the simple white dress now. She must have retrieved it herself sometime last night. The tussle of sweat soaked sheets on the floor spoke of the fitful night I'd just had.

"We have work to do." I said evenly to Silah as I held the door.

She nodded somberly and moved through the door, picking a path down the stairs.

The windows were dimly lit by the early morning sky. The Tavern was little more than a strumming heartbeat with the nearly empty tables and footsteps in the kitchen. Bromm was there, though, as if he had been there all night. Sitting at a circular table with the coin perfectly at it's center.

I pulled a chair for Silah and waited as she sat herself. Then I pulled a chair for myself, sitting directly across from Bromm.

He answered the question that didn't need answering.

"Couldn't sleep." He said shortly, prying his eyes away from the coin to glance at me.

"Me neither." I said, my eyes now captured by the coin. "Have you had breakfast?"

Bromm shook his head slowly swinging his head wide with each pass.

"I'll get it." Silah said, nodding.

She scooted from the table, wearing a weary expression while she had followed this drawn out conversation.

Silah returned and, shortly after, the meals arrived. I stared at the plate, weighing my appetite until the food had gone cold. Bromm had forked a sausage and gnawed on it absently. Silah's normally precocious behavior had been entirely subdued being highly aware of stewing going on at the table. Normally, there would be ribbing and debate, but now there was only silence and avoidant eyes.

We sat there listless for nearly an hour before the others began to show up. I had only recently started pawing at the dried out bread on my plate feeling that I would start to feel worse if I didn't give my stomach something to grind on besides itself.

Danin and Sig landed at the table first, followed by Tagaern who looked bleary eyed from whatever festivities he participated in last night. My lips raised barely above a grimace as a greeting as others began to settle in and order breakfast.

Surprisingly, Floki came from outside.

"We have some news. You're not going to like it." Floki's face looked ashen, I barely gave a thought to how he was already out and about this morning, but he may have stayed somewhere else, perhaps the temple? The thought was too hard to hold to, and I let the question go.

Sig and Danin had just finished their orders and turned to the weary looking ranger.

"There have been skirmishes all night. As soon as it gets light, they all pull back and disappear. No one has been on the road for some time because of the danger." Floki looked at me and my heart began to sink uncontrollably, "Smoke has been spotted rising from Kellas House."

I closed my eyes and leaned into the words, feeling chaos pressing in on me. I shook my head then looked up at Floki.

"They have a patrol going out there now." Floki said, now turning to Tagaern who's eyes turned down to look at the table, "They expect word from them around noon."

"Let's get our business done." Sig said, "Then we can check in on Duncan."

This elicited a sour look from Tagaern whose jaw was clenched and rippling with a pained grimace.

"How long before all this business is done." He muttered dangerously.

"We just have to bring in the first of the deliveries. This has been the plan for months now. A lot of hard work has gone into this happening and I'm not about to let that slip away." Sig said evenly.

I could tell that Sig knew that he was dealing with raw emotion now from Tagaern, but he looked determined to not let it affect his plans.

We met the wagon carrying the good and crossed over to Cennet. The princess' castle consumed a large part, while high end establishments rounded out the rest of the island. I'd been here maybe twice, but I didn't know if this latest trip would count; I was barely here. Silah stood close, but avoided contact; her concern apparent in her quiet temperament.

I stayed outside of the proceedings, just as I had when we approached for court so very long ago. This time, however, I didn't wander from the exit. I could see inside of the building where the exchange took place. Tagaern was pacing dramatically, his patience waning with each breath.

This is what we had been waiting for. I thought miserably. What we had been waiting to do for months now. And, right now, it has never meant so little to me.

Once the deal was done and we started toward the ferry.

"It'll be faster to take a water taxi." Sig said, the wagon and those men driving it were already on their way.

We moved to the edge of Cennet where the path led down to the docks. A small boat, powered by one of the same alchemical engines that the powered those beetle shaped coaches sat burbling in it's slip. The man looked at us with a little disdain. Sig approached the man, showing his refinement. It struck me that he was dressed in something new. He had taken some time to find new clothes in the last week.

He put coins in the man's hand and the man stepped aside, letting us aboard. For as small as it was it was a great round bottomed boat that sat heavily in the water. We chugged across toward the warehouses at Widdowborn, opposite of Cutridge Road, the exit of Dowry. This prompted some protest from Tagaern.

"I have one more thing to do." Sig said, putting aside his protest which set Tagaern fuming.

I should be angry, too. I thought, but all I felt was numb, being dragged along by another's whims. It seemed to be my way, lately. I looked on Silah, sitting close to me and slipped even further away.

We exited the water taxi and moved down Resistance Road. I had been told that this was named by the Widdowborn when they repelled an attack that threatened to consume the city. This road ran parallel to the wall, docks, and warehouses ending close to Hammer Gate. The pace was quick, but it didn't feel nearly quick enough. We turned down Hawthorne Street seeing the familiar faces, but not being in a mood to engage. We went to the far end of the street to a place I hadn't been before. We were tucked into the shadows of the tall buildings clustered against the bluff. Sig stopped and moved toward a door.

"Wait here a moment. This won't take long." He said tersely, moving under a signboard through a squat door. There was a pause after he disappeared and I looked around incredulous.

"Volker's Pub?" I read the signboard aloud, "What is this place?"

My own indignation started to rise at the delay. I glanced around at the nearly empty streets. The terror that had sent a large part of the populace packing and that had a clear effect on business in the area. It was certain that Làn-Mara would be a strangled cry that had gotten caught in the throat of a besieged Dowry.

As Sig pushed out, all eyes were on him.

"Are you done? Can we leave?" Tagaern's stance was rigid with anger.

"Unless you want to drop this off at the temple." Sig patted the haversack on his back.

I couldn't tell if Sig was posturing or if he intended to follow through with yet another stop.

"It can wait." Sig moved through the group, "Let's be on our way."

We'll be on the road soon. I should carry you. I thought as I put my hand on Silah's shoulder.

She looked up at nodded at me. She'd been respectfully silent. I took her arm and she diminished into her greatsword shape. I sheathed her then twisted the blade so the hilt pressed against my neck.I had kept her at arm's length, feeling ashamed at what darkness stirred inside of me. Afraid that my wrath would leak out and hurt her.

I can't do this alone. Whatever comes next, I need you with me. My heart heavy with the thought..

I felt her invisible embrace wrap around my shoulders and abdomen. I leaned into it, letting some of that ache through.

We moved to the base of Cutridge Road where we stopped at the horse ranch. High up the road we could see the banners flapping above a tent city that had absorbed the shanty's that had sprung up on the outskirts of Dowry.

"Horses'll be fifty, bring ‘em back and you'll get twenty back." The man said gruffly. "But only if you bring ‘em back in one piece."

There was a smirk with the horse rancher's words, but the look of worry shadowed his eyes like those waving banners that tried to blot out the sun.

These were riding horses akin to the horse that Silah pulled from thin air a week ago. Thankfully this horse was considerably more sturdy so I didn't feel like my weight could easily break the creature.

We were called to a halt as we moved to exit the tent city to the open plains.

"We haven't seen activity on the plains during the day, but they appear from nowhere at night." One of the knights said as we explained our plans. "You sure you want to go out there?"

"Any word from Kellas House?" Tagaern asked gruffly, ignoring the question.

The plate armored knight shook his head with a grim expression.

"We've been kept from the road for days. Only now have we been allowed to send scouts on ahead." The man said quietly. "I'm not sure what I expect."

I swallowed hard at the thought.

"We'll meet the scouts on the road." Tagaern said. "We should be on our way."

"Just don't be out there when it gets dark." The knight called out as he pressed on.

Our pace was quick as we moved overland. There were many pyres on the horizon, grease trails of smoke touching the sky where clean-up crews had dealt with the aftermath. There were many standing rock piles with weapons, clothes, and other descriptive symbols of the men buried under them. Unarmored men worked with a detail to dispose of the enemy and bury the deal. The looks of horror on the men made me realize that I recognized many of them as men who had looked for jobs in Hlofreden with Richter Holdings.

We were stopped again by another knight who was overseeing another detail. She looked nervous being this far away from the safety of Dowry.

"What's your purpose out here?" She said, her voice steely even with the anxiousness of her gaze.

"We're on our way to Kellas House." Floki said, he'd taken the lead and was able to show off his allegiance to Yollari to gain passage without many questions.

She nodded and looked on as the rest of us filed in to listen.

"The patrol hasn't returned and I and my men are the furthest detail out of Dowry." She looked at the men she was overseeing, some blood splattered from disposing bodies of both enemy and friend.

They looked haunted and her eyes painfully reflected that.

"Just tell them to get a move on. My men and I have had enough of this." She said quietly, her voice rasping with the words.

Floki nodded and we made our way past them.

It was some time longer when we saw a small column of dust forming ahead of us.

"Armored on horseback." Floki announced, "These men will probably have our answers."

The men slowed and approached cautiously. They were lightly armored and seemed more geared toward observation than engagement. Each ashen face wore a dismal expression, that made my very soul ache.

"What of Kellas House?" Tagaern had pushed ahead.

"Sir. Kellas House has fallen. We did not find survivors." The man speaking gulped with the admission, his eyes red.

Tagaern nodded. I couldn't see his expression, but I could feel the waves of anguish rushing over me.

Perhaps he's wrong? They could have made it out? Duncan's a tough bastard. I thought feverishly.

"Night will be falling soon." The scout said, "It's not safe out here at night."

"We're aware, son." Tagaern said, leaning forward rubbing at his face with both hands. "They're waiting for your word. Don't mind us."

There was a curt nod as the man took his reigns and clicked his tongue, setting his horse in motion.

In the distance, the thin trails of smoke rising from the direction Kellas House were barely visible.

We moved down the road to the front gates. The still smoldering barn had nearly burned to the ground. It was clear that the fire had been set from outside the walls. The front gate, itself, was smashed then trampled into fragments and slivers.

"I'm going to look around the outside." Floki said, dropping off his horse and moving quickly with his wolf around the perimeter.

I dismounted as well, removing Silah from her sheath and willing her to stand with us. I moved to the front gates and looked at the carnage beyond. Bodies, both human and orc were strewn over the courtyard. The first casualty I recognized was the form Harney laying just inside the gate. His head had been taken, but his pale and thin body with his gaudy clothing remained.

Danja was the next body I recognized. The dancing feline woman with her sinuous form. She lay stiffly near the tables in the courtyard. Her head had been removed like the others. I looked briefly for Leonid, her brother, expecting him to have been close, but I didn't see him.

Arrows filled the bodies on the balcony that lined the courtyard. I moved deeper in to see the a line of fallen guards. Opposite of them dozens of orc bodies lie at their feet along with a single giant. They had scaled the short wall that was shared with the training yard beyond. The short height of the walls had made this the weakest point of defense. Though, the guards had held their ground.

"Duncan. Please be alive." I whispered to myself.

Each human body's head had been removed, making the task of identifying more difficult. Duncan's darker skin in contrast to the others here would make him easy to recognize. So far, there was no sign of him or Amalia and her brothers.

Floki returned from his perimeter check.

"I can see where they got in." He nodded to the short wall and back at the gate. "There must have been survivors, though. There is a set of knotted sheets hanging out the back window. There's blood, but it wasn't enough to be mortal."

"They weren't followed?" Bromm asked.

"Not that I could see." Floki said with a shrug and looking over the scene, "And, with these sort, it'd be obvious."

My heart was beating out of my chest with the news.

I followed the scene into the dining area. Two hulking giant bodies obscured the room, legs of crushed orcs stuck from under them and caked dried blood ran in great pools over the entire the entire floor.

Duncan's form lay just beyond, partially obscured by a giant's toppled form. His head had been removed like the others, but his sword, shield and breastplate still shone bright on him.

"Tagaern!" I called out, but my voice caught and it came out as a raspy whisper. "Tagaern… He's..."

I clench my hands in front of me and roared at the ceiling. I looked down at his headless form and tears dropped from my eyes.

The others closed in and were looking on me. Silah moved up behind and rested her hand on my back.

I lifted a hand and waved her off angrily; she retreated. I couldn't bear to be comforted.

This man had saved me. From war. From myself. I owed beyond a life debt to him and here he sat in his own blood.

"I knew what was out here. I knew the old fool wouldn't back down, regardless of what he faced." I dragged my fist across my cheek. "Why did I leave? I should have stood by him. I should have been here, standing by him."

I looked around at the faces on me, suddenly angry at the petty tasks that I had filled my life with.

Oh, how we couldn't bear to let those things go and failed protect those we care about. I thought as I looked each one of them in the eye and spat on the ground. And I'm just as much at fault.

I kicked the head of the giant that lolled over on top of him. Then again, and again, until the metal shin guards split the dead skin and it began to crack the skull with the force of it. I yanked my campaigner blade from over my left shoulder and hacked it off with great angry strokes. Then began to dismember the giant so I could free my friend.

No. My father. I thought, correcting myself and clenching my jaw to hold back the torrent that lay just underneath.

Tagaern stood close watching quietly.

"Son." He said as I slowed my wrath, "Save your strength. We're going after them, we're getting his head back, and I need you to be your best with me."

I reached down and pulled Duncan's body free.

"Help me?" I looked at Tagaern, my face twisted with anguish, as my world slowly crumbled away, "Help me bury him?"

Tagaern nodded.

We carried Duncan's body to the training area just outside the walls of Kellas House next to the standing wooden log that I had been chopping at just a week earlier. I gathered rocks while Tagaern dug a shallow grave. After a complete sweep, Floki said that Leonid, Danja's brother, Amalia, and her brothers were not among the dead.

He saved his family. He sacrificed himself for his family. The thought burned in me.

"He'd want you to have it." Tagaern said as he handed me Duncan's breastplate.

I traced the Grasslion's symbol with my finger as a tear rolled down my face. I nodded at Tagaern.

"Just as he'd want you to have that sword and that shield." I shook my head.

"He'd never want to be buried with his things. He knew…" I stopped short of the thought, "He'd rather it found a purpose."

"Vengeance. That'll be a proper use." Tagaern said quietly.

It took a while to prepare the grave. The sun was reddening in its descent as we put the last rocks in place.

"I'm … no good at this." I looked down at my bloodied hands. "Could you speak for him?"

Tagaern nodded slowly, sweat rolled down his grizzled, crestfallen face.

"Duncan. You were a friend in life and a brother in battle. You stood your ground and fought for the safety of your family. Let the shield maidens bear you up, brother. Don't curse at them away like you'd want to. Let them take you to the halls of the other great warriors, so you can take your place among them."

Tagaern stood, tossing a handful of dirt that sifted through the rocks of the grave down to Duncan's remains.

"Farewell. Until we meet again." Tagaern whispered.

He turned towards me.

"Son, I'll let you have a moment for yourself." He patted me on the shoulder and began to walk away, "You don't need fancy words for something like this. It comes from the heart."

Silah had been at a distance this whole time, standing absolutely still just within the range of our bond. Her face wore a pained expression that I wasn't sure how to read. And, still, I couldn't bear to look her in the eye.

"What can I say?" I looked down at the grave, shaking with the weight of it, "What can I say that will bring you back? It's selfish, just as you said it was. I don't care. I need you here."

I bent down and took a handful of dirt.

"I don't see the point in all this talk of gods when they can't save someone as good as you?" I shook the dirt from my fist over the stones. "I'll watch after Amalia, Keval, and Falk. If I couldn't do right by you, at least I can do right by them."

I bent my head, tears rolled to the stones below.

"You find your way, Duncan. And I'll come find you again. Just like I did last time." I paused, gritting my teeth, "Keep a spot warm for me, because it might be soon. But not before I set things right."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Hakaar - Chronicle 25.2 - Exodus

The pirate captain, Garr Finlayson, had apparently been running this racket for a while. Fencing goods stolen from the well to do and the nobles in the upper bluffs of Dowry. He'd land in other cities to sell his wares; Pallidus, in particular, which was a good ways South. The loss of his men and his boat was, as he said, a minor setback for him, but with his experience helming a ship, Sig thought he might be able to give him a legitimate job with decent pay.

The now ex-pirate captain moved on with us for a time, but ended up paying a local farmer to lay low for a bit while we continued our journey back to Dowry.

The sun touched the horizon and the light was quickly fading.

"There's no point in continuing, we'll have to stay the night." Floki had slowed and allowed the group to catch up.

Tenner sat by his feet, sniffing at the air while listening to the evolving conversation.

"I can take first watch." Floki announced.

"Ooh, I can watch with him." Silah said, provoking an unmasked look of horror from Floki.

I shook my head. Silah's tirelessness was both a benefit and a curse. At this moment, it seemed to be a curse. The watches were eventually decided and we settled on the warm earth deciding to camp without a fire.

What felt like moments later, I was jostled awake by Floki. My eyes snapped open and I sat forward quickly as he shook his head at me.

"She. Doesn't. Stop. Talking." He whispered to me, drawing each word out deliberately. "I'm not sure if I should be angry or just feel sorry for you."

I rubbed my eyes, as I watched him curl up under his blanket. Just now catching on to what he was saying. I shook my head.

I'd understand both. I thought to myself.

I stood near the edge of the camp, looking over the moon and star lit plains. The terrain varied up and down, rocky at points but consistently thick with scrub. Tall standing trees were few and far between. It seemed the persistent wind would keep press on them, twisting them low to the ground.

Who knows, there may have been plentiful trees in the past. Leonid and Danja had alluded to such when their kin, the Kellas, had ruled the land East. Kellas House was named after them, but definitely not built for them.

"So, this is what it's like watching with you." Silah moved close, keeping her voice low.

I was surprised at her consideration, being normally completely unaware of the fact that others had to sleep.

"And what's that like?" I asked, running my hand along her shoulders and pulling her close.

She shrugged as she leaned into me, taking in the night sky flowing over the plains.

"Well, the first time, you offended me. Thereafter, you've put me away." She talked as she rested her head on me, "And this time? You've let me wander. This isn't very much like watching, though. This is quiet talking and staring off into space—which you're very good at, by the way."

I grimaced at her intentional backhanded compliment.

"Flek shushed me endlessly. But I had to ask why he was doing what he did." Silah said absently.

"See, that's what they call watching." I said simply, "Watching doesn't imply a lot of talking. I think we're safe enough out here, but that's usually when you should be most wary."

I continued, "Fortunately, I can see better than others, so I like to stay on my feet and keep moving to stay alert. But that means that I'm easier to see."

"We're going to walk for your watch?" She asked, looking up at me, a glint of the moon reflected in her eyes.

"We'll walk, you that way, me this way. Then come back and report everything, and I want detail." I smiled at her.

"Detail. Like what?" Her little brow furrowed.

"Anything and everything. I'm not going to tell you, just know that, for this first time around, I want to hear about everything." I said looking out of the landscape.

She humphed at the command as I moved away. She was confused at what I was looking for which was exactly what I was hoping for. There were some things you can't learn until you have some experience at trying.

I circled the camp easily, hearing little more than an animal scurrying through the bushes. I grinned as Silah had also gotten caught up in the underbrush and hissed out some words. Members of the group stirred with her commotion, but no one woke.

I moved back to the perch where we started. Silah showed up a short time later.

"So, first, what did you learn?" I asked, gazing out over the landscape toward where I assumed Dowry was.

"I don't like watching when I can't see." Silah muttered working a tangled twig roughly from her hair.

"Then, what's your report?" I asked quietly.

"There are trees over there that might eat you?" She looked off where she had gone. "Bugs are noisy? There's actually nothing out there. Not for miles."

I nodded with her words.

"But how do you know?" I asked.

She shrugged and thought to herself. I reached down and took her hand and pushed all of my senses to her and described everything I saw, the things that stood out, the things that weren't there, the sounds and how they changed as I turned my head, the smell of the ocean and the direction of the warm winds.

"Smell?" She looked bewildered.

"Yes, smell can let you know if something is close by. More for me than the others." I tapped on my nose with the pointer finger my free hand. "A gift from my ancestors."

"Do that again!" She asked, her eyes widening.

I looked at her, slowly raising my hand to tap my nose, giving her a bewildered look.

"No, not that! Smell!" Silah said fervently.

I breathed in, focused on the medley of the sweet smelling soil mixed with the brine of the sea. I could smell the others faintly in the camp beyond and scent that Sig still had the scent of pipeweed on his person. I could smell the vermin that had been shifting around in the bushes close by.

"That's what smell is?" She started drawing her breath in through her nose. "Why can't I do that?"

I grimaced.

"I'm not sure." I whispered. "But I'll gladly share the experience."

The remainder of the watch was between moving around in the darkness and having Silah hand me things that she wished to smell. At first, I thought she would resent her form because of this omission, but she seemed to find tremendous joy with experiencing something new.

I could feel sleep tugging at me and I jostled Tagaern from his rest. He awoke with a wide-eyed start. There was more panic in him than I expected. He had said in the past that his dreams sometimes got the better of him.

I curled up on the ground while Silah sidled up next to Tagaern and began to talk to him in a low voice. He glanced at her with a raised eyebrow.

"Now we watch." He said quietly, interrupting her talking.

There was a moment of silence then Silah began to draw breath to speak again.

"We don't talk during watch. We watch during watch." I heard him say.

Tagaern's response brought a strangled noise from Silah. I could imagine the look she was giving him, but she, surprisingly, held her peace. I closed my eyes and began to drift away, smiling to myself

The warmth of the sun woke me. Danin sat close by, unwrapping some trail rations as his breakfast. I rooted through my rucksack and pulled out my waterskin and Silah approached me and folded her legs under her as she sat next to me.

"Good morning." I said to her, leaning back to take a drink.

"Yes, it is." She said casually, looking toward the rising sun.

It was a curious response, but I shrugged it off. Perhaps an artifact of staying up all night?

I yawned, looking around at the others who were starting to go about their business. Some off into the bushes, others focused on a book. Tagaern still slept.

"You wore the poor man out," I gave a subtle elbow to Silah with the comment.

"He's a hard sort. I couldn't get any information out of him." She said with a furrowed brow.

"Not to diminish your abilities, but I think he's more apt to share with a fellow soldier over a drink." I said with a smile.

Silah frowned at the comment which widened my smile.

"What about the most gentlemanly man you've ever met?" I nodded to Danin with the words.

She looked at me, maintaining her frown.

"A girl doesn't kiss and tell." She said, incredulous.

I smirked, but felt a pang of jealousy at the same moment.

"We're breaking camp in a few moments, everyone." Floki announced after returning from a short walk, he leaned over the slumbering old soldier and raised his voice, "That means you, too, old man."

Tagaern barely stirred but to grab a handful of dirt and toss it blindly toward Floki.

After breaking camp, we settled into a rhythm that brought us to Pike's Pier as early evening set in. There was a tension in the air as we descended into the city as the dirt trail turned to cobblestone. Across the way there was a considerable amount of movement high on the bluff at the top of Cutridge Road.

I saw well-to-do families handing over bags of gold to anyone with a boat while personal goods, and luggage were pushed into every cranny of cargo space. My heart sunk as I saw the panic, but also the banners from standing forces that were moving their way up the road, the princesses banner hung among them.

My heart sunk with the implications.

"What's going on?" Sig pulled aside one of the dock workers.

"The princess and her men are standing against orcs and giants! Word is, they plan to attack the city!" The man bellowed over the chaos while carrying a crate to the boat. "I'm getting out of here as soon as we're loaded."

Sig nodded at the man as he continued his rush.

"I'm heading into Butterwicks." Bromm announced, "Whatever is ahead, we're going to need to be fresh for it."

His hand was tucked into an inside pocket in his dark longcoat. No doubt, the coin from Kols was likely between his fingers as he spoke.

I nodded, feeling my throat choke with anxiousness. I wasn't going to be sleeping well tonight, regardless.

Duncan was out there. I thought, fraught with worry.

I hoped the old fool was far enough away to be left alone, but the thought didn't resonate. They'd already attacked once before. I took a deep breath at the thought. Perhaps the massing of the princesses army would keep the enemy from exposing their flank.

I put a hand on Silah to steady myself.

Tagaern had a similar expression, but seemed to steel himself against it while it rolled over me readily.

"I need something to drink." I heard him mutter.

"I'm heading to Widdowborn in a bit." Sig said, looking around the group. "I'd rather not go alone."

Tagaern and Danin readily accepted and Floki followed suit.

"Let's get settled at Butterwicks, first. I bet we could get a good deal with everyone leaving." Sig said with a sly smile.

I leaned into walking, feeling my strength ebbing as worry consumed me. Silah looked at me with some scrutiny, sorting through what she was feeling from me. Her concern mixed readily with confusion as we moved toward the Inn.

"You feel wounded." Silah echoed in my head, appearing close and looking on me with her glowing eyes. "I'm not sure I understand. Everything hurts, but there's no physical reason why anything should?"

I sighed and pressed on, feeling that the effort to explain would be far too great a task.

I listened, feeling hollow, as Sig debated with the pale man at the counter. His normally cheery countenance sunk with the emerging situation and how it was affecting his bottom line. Sig remedied that, to a degree, filling the rooms at a lower price.

Sig and the others set out to Widdowborn and I looked on Bromm who returned the same pained expression I felt. I shook my head and swallowed hard, leaning on Silah.

"This isn't going to end well, is it?" I asked him, already knowing the answer.

Bromm's hand reached back into his pocket and he pulled out the coin.

"No. It isn't." He said grimly.

(Get to know Akeron.)

Hakaar - Chronicle 25.1 - Rain of Fire

Silah glided into Butterwicks slinking around the tables to approach the where Floki and Bromm sat. They had barely moved and their respective moods seemed to slowly diminish. Bromm's mug now held a light ale that he was nursing. This distraction was more than Silah could bear with the stunning finery she wore.

"You look nice." Bromm said, nodding.

"What is it with you men?" She looked incredulous at Bromm, who was now under scrutiny for the same passive reaction I had given her earlier.

"No, I mean it. You look very nice." Bromm said, taken back by her reaction.

She looked up and breathed a heavy sigh, she stood by a chair then glanced at me with a furrowed brow. I looked at her curiously.

"It just comes and goes with you, doesn't it?" She said, practically kicking the chair, not doing well at gauging her strength.

I realized that I was under threat of being in trouble for, yet again, being inattentive. I grimaced and pulled the chair out quickly, presenting the seat to her. She sat daintily in her stunning new evening gown that was far too glitzy for an afternoon in Butterwicks.

There was a plate from the kitchen in front of me by the time Danin and Sig walked back in. Silah was picking at parts of my meal, finding her previous experience making her suddenly picky about what she ate. The greasy residue from her previous meal prompted a look of disdain.

Danin approached the table first, being especially deft on his feet.

"The deed is done. The cargo is on it's way." He stated gruffly.

He seemed a little annoyed by the fact that he had to participate in the situation, but his voice did not belie those feelings. Sig pulled a seat sat down, looking at the faces that lined the table with nary a word.

Silah nodded, smiling at the report. She then tilted her gleaming smile to her new audience.

"Not bad, Silah." Sig said with a deserving nod.

"Not bad?" Her face fell yet again, "Not bad is barely good. I've failed somewhere. I can't even get a second look out of a bunch of country boys."

Eyes around the table glanced to each other and then to me. I shrugged. It seemed that the rest were flummoxed by her mood. I knew well enough, but held it to myself. I wasn't in the mood to fawn over her after the damage she'd done to my pocket book.

After Sig and Danin ordered, casual conversation sprang up about the table. They said that the guard presence on the street had been remarkably light and there seemed to be something stirring up the residents of Dowry.

It was apparent that Floki was tired of waiting. He stood as people were finishing their meals and looked disgruntled at the continuing conversations.

"Are we about ready?" He said after a moment..

He was packed for travel. In fact, he had been ready since early this morning when we first came down. I glanced over at Silah in her sleek black dress who sat quietly, musing to herself.

"We'll be back." I said standing quickly.

He huffed a sigh and sat back down. I looked toward the stairs, but, remembering Silah's mood, I extended a hand to her.

"My dear?" I said in an attempt to pull her back in.

She grimaced at my hand then looked up at me for a moment, then took it and stood. Her gait was especially slow, but I didn't rush her.

She looked through our borrowed accommodations as I scooped up all of our worldly belongings. I changed out of my finery and into my tattered undershirt then put on my well worn campaigner breastplate. Then I bundled all of our clothes neatly together and pressed into the bottom of the rucksack.

"Silah? You might want to put on a different dress for traveling."

She glanced at me with a fiery smolder in her eye, but then grimaced, gathering the dress up and pulling it over her head. She stood, naked, with the dress in her outstretched hand and looked at me.

"Have I just become familiar?" She said with her fiery gaze turning more earnest.

I grimaced at the question. There was no good answer, this I knew. I stepped toward her and took the shimmering dress from her hands carefully, rolling it as I did my own clothes, but being careful to avoid creases. I stooped over the rucksack and pulled out the most travel capable dress, the purple one we had originally purchased from Mont Brooks so very long ago.

"I don't think that's possible." I said with a smirk, "I've never felt so out of sorts as I do with you."

"And what does that mean?" She scrunched her face in an adorable expression of consternation.

"It means life will never be boring with you?" My smirk widened.

I moved forward and handed her the purple dress, pulling her in close. I caught her chin, leaned down, and kissed her gently.

"You are my only." I whispered, "Just be sure your expectations of who and what I am don't get the better of you."

As I pulled away, she wore a confused expression. I busied myself with packing the rucksack.

We need a more permanent place soon. I thought. I don't think I can carry much more of this.

"We best be on our way. I don't think I've seen Floki so bored." I said, pushing the last of my worldly goods into the bag.

She slipped the dress over her shoulders and it dropped into place. This purple dress, while still elegant, was of a much heartier construction than both the white and black dresses she now owned.

On the way out of town, it was apparent that something was going on out on the streets. The guard presence was nearly non-existent as we moved toward Pike's Pier. Just North was a road that ran along the rising cliffside out of town up to farmlands and a lake. Beyond that was the cape that Biedrick had to pass for each trip delivering both ale and gunpowder.

From what Sig and Bromm had said, there were smaller, faster ships pushed against the shoreline. And the threat of Biedrick being waylaid had gotten Sig's attention very quickly.

It was an incredible trek on foot, but beyond the scenery that unfolded, looking out over the seas for long periods of the walk, there was little more than wildlife visible. The lake itself was broad, with many smaller boats with fisherman bobbing gently in the water. Near the shores of the lake were small farms that dotted the landscape closeby.

Bromm pointed out that this was where the farmhands Finn and Tad had come from. Beidrick had rescued those boys from their increasingly dull lives as farmers, while also saving them from a wagon sized beetle. There were signs that those beetles were still burrowing around, from the massive holes they burrowed to their large carcasses discarded along the landscape.

The sun rose high as we hiked. The trail narrowed and then spread out to an overlook of the jagged cliffside. We were a dizzying height up, reminding me of standing on the edge of the great mining pit that Sig and Bromm had claimed. Floki moved along the cliffside, looking for signs along the beach. He ranged a good distance away from us then lifted a beckoning hand, calling us over.

The beach looked much like the sand bar where we had met the large crab. This place was clear of crabs, but the sandy shore was pockmarked with men's footprints. A boat had been pulled ashore, flipped over, and covered to disguise it.

"I saw a few men milling around. There were about ten at first, but I guarantee there's more." Floki spoke in a normal voice, not fearing that anyone could overhear us at this distance.

"What do we plan to do?" Tagaern was the first to respond.

I shrugged, looking on to Bromm and sig.

"I see some sails out there." Floki announced, hunkering down and shielding his eyes from the sun to focus better.

Voices floated up from below and a couple men walked out to the beach and looked out at the boat. Some time passed as the men scrutinized the sails.

"That's not the boat!" The man shouted back to others, his voice drifting up to us.

"There must be a cave below us." Sig said, "That accent. That sounds like the rough side of Dowry."

"Six Crates." Bromm said, "I've heard men—well boys—talk like that before."

Bromm shook his head and Floki smiled.

"Yep. That's Six Crates." Floki said, pulling an arrow and nocking it loosely in his bow, "But, if it changes anything, that boat out there? I swear it's Biedick's boat."

"Must be slow going with the winds out of the North," Sig grimaced.

"So, then, do we fight? Or do we leave?" I asked, feeling a bit exasperated at the time and effort spent getting out here.

"You can fight them if you want." Floki said, "Good luck getting down there in one piece."

"I didn't say I wanted to do either, but I'd rather do something than nothing." I said, gritting my teeth.

Floki looked at me sidelong with an annoyed expression.

"Let's wait a bit more." Floki said, "I think I see another set of sails on the horizon."

I slumped where I stood. Silah was close to my side.

"I have no idea why I'm even here," I whispered, turning to her. "I feel useless."

She slipped her small hand into mine and squeezed gently in response. I watched the shadows of the plants move around me. The sun had moved quite the distance before anyone said anything. There was the clang of pots and other noises stirring from the men below. Shortly after, the smell of food cooking rose and lingered. My stomach started to growl.

The other boat had been steadily approaching from the North, but only now did the men below see it and start to act. A burly man moved out to the overturned boat. He attempted to shield his eyes the best he could as he looked out over the water.

"That's the one. Boys, get ready!" The man called out, pointing toward the sails.

There was a slight buzz of anticipation around the group as we waiting on Floki's observations. He was crouched with one hand to the ground in front of the cliff's edge the other hand held his bow and arrow with a crosswise grip.

The men poured from the tunnel, fanning out on the shore, but making no move to right the boat and mount an assault.

Ah, they are receiving a shipment. I thought.

Silah appeared in my mind, resting her chin on my shoulder, entwining me with her arms as she looked out over the scene with me from my perspective. The men pulled the ship up on shore and began to move cargo around, pulling some off of the ship and tucking it into the caves and taking others of it out to the boats and strapping it into place. A balding man with a mustache jumped off the boat and started barking out orders.

"But there's more. Do you see it?" She whispered close. "Look further to the left."

I scanned briefly and Floki announced it just as I saw it.

"It looks like another boat is tracking toward them. They don't see it yet." Floki called out.

I nodded in response while feeling Silah's close embrace and reveling in it.

"Don't get distracted now." She said with a tinge of mirth. "We might finally get to do something."

There was some shouting below as the boat came closer.

"That's the princesses' boat and it's coming quickly." Bromm said, stepping forward. "We might be seeing a demonstration of the might of her navy very soon."

He was right. With its three full sails, it had grown from a small speck to a formidable looking boat in a frighteningly short time.

I wouldn't want to be a smuggler on those waters. I thought.

"It looks like they don't either." I felt her point towards the men on the shore who were beyond panicked and the mustached man was trying to bring them under control.

Typical Six Crates. I thought to Silah. No discipline, every man for himself.

"Not every man gets the opportunity to learn discipline from a master." Silah said with a touch of ridicule.

The frigate's sails dropped and it slowed with it's profile facing us. There were splashes around the water and smaller boats fell into the water. No more drills for these men, this was probably some of the only action most of them had seen. Puffs rose from the side of the ship.

"We should move back." Bromm announced quickly, stepping back from the edge.

Floki followed suit, quickly. I heard the cannon fire and took a step back, but was suddenly rocked forward when the blitz of cannonballs battered the cliff's edge. I felt the tickle of free fall as the ledge I stood on gave way. The wind was rushing around my ears as the rock plummeted toward the sandy beach. I looked quickly, seeing an adjacent solid ledge. I took a step and leaped, landing face down in the rocky ground, splitting skin and knocking the wind out of me. The taste of blood lined my mouth as I gasped. Righting myself, I rolled to the edge to watch as the rock sunk into the sandy beach and rolled away, crushing screaming men in its path.

I looked up at the edge and saw everyone looking down.

Not everyone. I panicked with the thought. Silah!

I looked back down, combing the beach with my eyes until I saw her. She was spread eagle, and sunk deep in the sandy surface. I held out my hand and I called her to me. She appeared in my hand in her sword form.

Can you speak? Are you whole? I thought fervently.

There were no words, but I felt an echoing ache roll from her, adding to my already pounding headache.

No sharing. I need to focus so we can both get out of here. I thought quickly, pressing a hand to my face.

"It's turning! They have to reload, but they're not waiting. They're getting the next shots in place." Bromm called out. "Move quickly!"

I stood and stumbled dizzily to the cliff's edge. Normally, I could cover the distance easily, but the stones were sharp and immediately crumbled when I took hold. Above me Tagaern had dropped his backpack and pulled a length of rope. He looked back and tossed the extra to others that were out of sight.

"I see two portholes on the back." Bromm called out. "They're almost in position."

I grabbed the rope and eased my weight into it. Tagaern grunted with the effort.

"Get a move on. I don't want to be joining you with that next round of shots." He's voice said under the strain.

I kicked against the wall and felt the strength from the others above pull me up as stepped over the sharp crags.

"Two up!" Bromm said, "Back up!"

The cannon fire echoed again but this round of shots were expertly trained on specific targets. Crates on the newly arrived boat exploded with the impact, sending fragments everywhere.

I moved away from the cliff face, inspecting my wounds which consisted of newly formed bruises and a few deep, but serviceable, gouges from the impact on the rocky face.

I pulled Silah from her sheath. The blade was covered in sand that resisted being brushed off. I thought of her in her human form and she reformed, covered in the selfsame sand.

She teetered unsteadily, and moved over to where Danin and Tagaern now sat taking a breather, at a good distance from the cliff face. Floki had moved well away with his wolf, watching the goings on from what he considered a safe distance.

I looked around, unable to see Sig.

"Where's Sig?" I said with a little panic.

"He's, uh, down there."

"Did he fall? I swore I saw him up there."

Bromm put out his arms and flapped.

"Ah." I said, then, taken back by the thought, I asked, "But why?"

Bromm shrugged then looked out to the water.

"They're lined up for the next round. We might want to stay a bit lower." He said, crouching against the cliff face.

Seven puffs of smoke dotted the side of the ship and began to rise as the sound thundered across the water with the resulting whirring sound of incoming devastation. The shots impacted well in front of the cliff face with mild secondary impact thudding into the cliff face.

I moved forward and saw that the devastating round of shots destroyed the boat and more goods were scattered along the beach. The was various finery, now devastated by the cannon fire. Golden candlesticks and silverware scattered far and wide while expensive cloth and torn clothes were fluttering in the air. There was a large specialized alchemical engine that had fallen from one of the crates. The curious device was likely broken beyond repair now, but would have fetched a high price somewhere, no doubt.

"Someone's calling those shots," Bromm said, "They're very good, whoever they are. It also means that they likely have a spotting glass and we're not very far away."

"What are you getting at?" Tagaern said, sounding worried.

Sig hovered to the edge of the cliff holding a block and a rope. He wore the dwarven mining mask we had found ages back. He shoved the block into a crevasse and turned a crank until it was stuck in place then looped the rope through.

"They've likely seen us and, possibly, well enough to identify us." Bromm said, now looking over at the masked Sig with concern. "It looks like Sig will be fine, at least."

"We're helping them?" I asked, Tagaern's expression echoed the sentiment.

Sig hovered close, overhearing the conversation.

"We're keeping our options open." He said, muffled by the mask.

Bromm nodded, but Tagaern's brow was furrowed.

The boat continued its pivot.

"I'll make you a bet, Sig." Bromm said, eyeing the boat on the horizon and watching the smaller craft approach the shore. "I will give you five gold for every man that makes it up alive, but you pay me five gold for each that doesn't."

Sig looked over the edge and looked back at Bromm with his eyes narrowed. Bromm looked down and counted it out.

"There are six men climbing up." Bromm said, "That's thirty gold, potentially."

"Fair enough. The bet's on." Sig nodded with a small smile.

Tagaern's eyes were getting wider through this whole conversation, looking between the two of them.

Bromm glanced out at sea and I followed his eyes as the boat pivoted into position and there was a moment of silence before a series of smoke clouds burst from the ship, followed by the report of cannon fire. I felt the cliff shudder with the impacts while a stray cannonball whirred overhead. The stray rocketed off, bounding through the dirt and bushes until thudding to a stop. Floki's head popped up from cover and glancing around.

"They're aiming higher, now." Bromm called out, "Stay low!"

A grimy hand crested the cliff wall. I prepared to call Silah and to take her into a fight while Sig pulled manacles from his haversack and held them loosely in his hand. Sig whispered, and the man's eyes went half-closed, operating in a daze. Sig offered one hand to pull him up and then gave him manacles with the other. The man took the manacles and put them on his wrists and feet and stood, seeming none the wiser for how he had just been captured.

I stood, bewildered, looking on. Tagaern looked just as shocked.

Bromm had backed away from the cliff with the barrage, but moved and looked down and shook his head.

"That's one." Bromm said, with a bit of a smile. "Out of five? That's twenty-five gold to me."

"Fine, I'll owe you." Sig said, furrowing his brow.

"What do ye plan to do with me?" The man said, suddenly realizing his situation.

"We're handing him in, right?" I said.

"Oh, I'll hang for sure." The mustached man looked pathetic and small. "Perhaps there's something I can do for you and you let me go? The name's Garr Finlayson, by the way."

I grimaced at the man. Still trying to look at him as a villainous sort, but his demeanor was so passive at the moment, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the man.

Perhaps I've never been a good judge of character. I thought mildly.

"If they've seen us," I said, looking out toward the boat, "We'd take the fall, too."

I looked down at my gouged and bloodied hands and wiped them under my breastplate.

"How close are the boats?" I asked Bromm.

"A ways out yet." He grimaced, looking out at the boats then looking over at the descending sun.

"Do you think they'd be able to recognize us?" I asked Bromm.

He looked worried, but shrugged at the question.

The boat continued to pivot.

"They're still gearing to fire at us." I said, with some wariness. "They wouldn't keep spinning the boat if they weren't, right?"

I looked at eyes on me and unslung my rucksack quickly. I pulled out Silah's white dress and unfurled it, waving it back and forth as a white flag. The boat completed it's turn, but remained silent. I sighed, rolling up the white dress and stowing it again.

Danin was dusting Silah off and I could hear her cooing. She started speaking louder until she knew I could hear her.

"You're such a gentleman. Taking care of me like this." She said to Danin, who was basking in the attention, "Simply a catch. It's a wonder a woman hasn't snatched you up already. Oh, that Reena, right? She's a lucky girl."

Silah looked my way and continued, "A lucky, lucky girl to have someone so attentive. And someone you can rely on, too. Someone who won't let you plummet off a cliff to certain doom."

I ground my teeth with the grating monolog and turned to her and lifted my hands wordlessly.

"See, even he is in awe of your greatness." Silah continued to eviscerate me with her words.

"Are you done?" I shouted, feeling the pulse in my temple.

"So dangerous. Well, sometimes he's dangerous." She pawed at Danin, "I can't help but worry at what else he may do to me. It's a long way down from all the way up here."

"Silah, stop it, or I'm putting you away." I growled at her.

She scoffed at the threat, but then leaned a little into Danin while looking at me. I hissed my breath out and walked back over to where Sig and Bromm stood.

"What's the plan? I think I'm pretty much done here." I rubbed my hands together and flexed them, wanting to hit something or someone.

A lot. I want to hit someone a lot. I thought with vivid detail.

"Shh, we've got this." Sig said.

I eyed him warily. I wasn't ready to be a fugitive just yet. I stepped back from the cliff edge and took a seat near Tagaern, shaking my head.

The boats landed and were pulled ashore. Then they began to comb the beach. The leader stepped forward and called up the cliff face. His voice wavering on the wind.

"Who goes there, by order of the princess?" His voice was sharp with self-assured authority.

The mustached man cowered further with our silence.

"I say again, who goes there?"

Bromm looked to Sig who seemed out of sorts, and Bromm stepped close to the cliff without showing his face and took a deep breath.

"Just travellers. Passing through." Bromm said, his voice wavering.

"I don't like being lied to." The man called up, he pointed to the rope and commanded one of his men to use it.

"Your name, man. What is your name?" The officer bellowed from below.

Bromm sighed, I could tell he was now totally invested. I grimaced as he braced himself and looked over the edge.

"Name's Bromm. Bromm go Brach. From Hlofreden." He moved to the edge, looking down at the man.

"We heard the cannon fire and wanted to see the show." Bromm said, with his lilting voice, "We were told that there were brigands about and we came to protect our own interests."

"Oh? What interests are those." The man was still not convinced, but with Bromm speaking plainly, he had settled back into his assertive and self-assured personality.

"That of Richter Holdings." He said loudly, "We'll be delivering the powder for those cannons of yours soon. Tomorrow, in fact. It's the best on the market."

The man nodded slowly. The two men who were climbing the rope were struggling and the officer waved them down, looking frustrated.

"One of them made it over the cliff edge." The man shouted, "We need you to send him down."

Bromm nodded, but Sig approached the edge.

"He bled out up here from that last cannon volley. We intend to give him a proper burial up here." Sig asserted.

"And who are you?" The man raised his hands in exasperation.

"I am Sig Richter, of Richter Holdings."

"How many of you are up there? I need all of your names."

"There are seven of us. We all work together and we'll be delivering powder to you tomorrow if you wish to see us." Sig said.

"Fine. Just toss the body down here and we'll take care of it." The man called up.

"He's dead. We're going to give him a proper burial." Sig repeated.

Danin looked flustered and walked to the edge.

"I am a cleric of Derum Ebbar. I will be performing services on this man." Danin boomed, his deep voice echoing down the cliff face.

The man looked aggravated and then waved a hand off.

"Take care of your business, cleric, and let the lot of your be on your way." He shook his head and immediately started barking orders at his men.

"You'll let me free, then?" Garr said with some hope lighting up his eyes.

"Shhh… let's make our way from the cliff edge." Sig said, unshackling the man and moving inland.

The group followed, gathering out of sight of the shore and menacing frigate.

"I think that not handing him over was the bigger bet than if they'd reached the top." I said, moving in close to Bromm, "We had far more to lose if that didn't go well."

(Get to know Akeron.)

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Hakaar - Chronicle 24.3 - Mulberry's

The group was stewing in the foyer as Silah and I descended. She led the way, walking a few paces in front of me as I hadn't quite recovered from waking up. From the looks of it, the course for today had been planned, debated, and eventually decided long before we had gotten here. Bromm was thumbing a coin in his hand, staring at it as if to ask it the innumerable questions that seemed to be floating through his eyes. On the coin was the Hammer of Kols, not Bromm's version of a pistol striking hammer, but the symbol of the hammer itself. The noise from the world quieted for a moment and I felt a tension rise in me with the burgeoning implications that this gift had meant.

We have to do something about that. I thought.

If it was up to Silah, we would likely have stormed off, but she had pushed it aside effectively enough that she allowed herself to enjoy these simple pleasures. I was aware how painfully serious this could be since after dispatching the enemies of Kols in his very temple.

"The hammer has fallen…" the old dwarf's voice echoed in my head.

I sighed, wondering if she'd see the symbol and adopt the same consternation that enveloped Bromm. Silah, however, seemed entirely unfazed, plopping down at the table with a smile.

"We were wondering when you'd show up." Sig said with a slight smirk. "We're about to deal with that cargo business, Danin and I."

"Then you don't need me for anything?" I nodded, pulling a half smile.

He shook his head. Bromm looked on toward one to the Butterwick serving girls. Blonde and well fleshed, but he seemed to be pining for water, not attention. He lifted his mug to see if she'd sway his way but he failed to catch her eye. He settled with a look of consternation seeming much less assertive than usual.

"A little before noon, we're going to meet back here and head to the beach on the cape to look into something Biedrick told us about yesterday." Floki said, picking something out of his fingernails with a metal fork, then putting the utensil back on the table.

"That means we have a little time?" Silah said to me, erupting with a glorious smile.

"I did say we'd go find you a dress, right?" I said, looking at her with adoration.

Her little hands clenched and her shoulders tucked in with the excitement. I had planned for this. I had even dressed in my best clothes from Mont Brooks, feeling it was a safe enough time to do so.

Such simple pleasures. I thought. I just wish they weren't all so expensive.

"You going anywhere, Bromm? Floki?" I asked the two who, knowing already that they were content to linger.

They both shook their heads in turn.

I ordered a light breakfast, which, to the Butterwick clan, was a grease slicked platter of lamb gut sausages, eggs, bread, and heaps of butter. I felt a little queasy midway through the meal and Silah looked at the remainder.

"It's not good?" She asked, looking at my expression.

"It's good. Just..." I held up the plate watching the pool of grease gather at the raised edges.

"So, that's not good?" She said, her inquisitive nature about it prompted me to furrow my brow and put the plate in front of her.

"Then you don't want it?" She glanced from me to the plate.

"It's all yours." I motioned to her.

I watched her unceremoniously upend the plate and catch the pool of grease in her mouth. I felt my own stomach lurch in response. She downed it quickly and her face came back spotless.

"Huh. Very … lubricating." She smacked her lips and visibly rubbed her teeth together.

I grimaced at her. While I still wasn't absolutely sure, I believed that she couldn't actually taste anything she put into her mouth. If she could, she'd likely be much more discerning about it. The thing she did recognize was texture. I watched her tilt her head back and forth, still experiencing the after effects of the grease she had guzzled.

"I don't think I like that, either." She mused as she looked to me.

I looked around the table and saw mixed expressions of somewhat veiled horror and disgust from Tagaern, Danin, Sig, and Floki. Bromm's expression didn't change. From the looks of him, he was was very far away from here.

"Shall we?" I said, standing then extending my hand toward Silah.

She smiled and took my hand gracefully, letting me lead her from the table until she had a clear path to the door. I followed close, moving forward and opening the door as we approached.

"Very much the gentleman, today." She said, nodding as she clasped my arm.

"I like that on you." Her whisper echoed in my head.

Her sleek form appeared against the darkness of my mind, standing my height, then leaned forward and kissed me deeply. I caught my foot on a rock and stumbled slightly, nearly losing my footing, confused by the conflicting realities. She steadied me easily from her position at my side.

"Careful now. I don't want you to bruised when I'm just getting to show you off." Her sleek form echoed as she smirked and kissed me again lulling me into a state of bliss.

We had been directed to Shadowridge, high on the bluffs behind Bowler's Green, where Butterwicks stood. The vertical climb was significant but I wasn't going to let Silah show me up with her tireless gait.

A sheen of sweat stood out on my arms and I slowed, dabbing at my forehead, as we approached the bend we were directed to. The clothes I had been wearing from Mont Brooks worked exactly as Denton had said they would. The fabric was cooling even as I heated up, it dried almost instantly leaving me comfortable. We rounded the bend and took in the sight of Mulberry's, the premier clothier in Dowry, outside of those on Cennet, of course.

There was a moment's hesitation as I hefted my coin purse. The place looked very expensive. It was considerably larger than Mont Brooks, back in Hlofreden, but it was also the mix of patrons that moved in and out of the place. Each one dripped with luxury: gold, jewelry, emblems, and buckles. I looked at Silah who beamed up at me, reading what was on my mind.

"Don't worry. We'll be fine." She patted the arm she clung to, reassuring me in a non-reassuring way.

Once inside, I sat down—straight backed and attentive—attempting to act the part, but after moments of her swirling away, laying dress after dress on the counter, I began to slouch further and further until, after I was bleary eyed, she began to ask my opinion.

"That looks good." I nodded with the comment, stirring briefly as I watched her approach with a dress.

"That's not very helpful." She said patronizing while leaning forward.

She held the dress to herself, draped crossways over her slight, but shapely, bust.

"What about this?" She asked, now holding up a black dress.

"It's very nice." I said, nodding.

She grimaced.

"This?" Now a shimmering purple.

I pursed my lips.

"Don't you already have a purple dress?" I asked.

"Not this purple. It's actually violet. And fantastic!" She exclaimed.

"It looks nice, but you already have a purple dress?" I shrugged.

"Not like this!" She exclaimed with annoyed disbelief, looking at me agape.

The assistant approached her and was now leaning around from behind her, looking at me with an expression of concern and then a subdued shock. His eyes fluttered between us. I recognized the look and smirked. He didn't like the idea that we were a pair.

Not. At. All. The thought shimmered loudly in my head as I watched him look on our interactions as scandalous.

"We should go somewhere else if you can't make a decision here." I said to her, then turning an intimidating gaze toward the man that flanked her.

"No no no." She said, shaking her head while lifting the dresses that were arranged on the table.

"Why not blue? Or green?" I suggested, now sitting forward, looking at the man with more scrutiny.

"I'll take this." She said pointing to one of the dresses out of my sight.

The sweating man who was now tugging at his fingers obliged, all the while, sending momentary glances my way.

"How much?" She asked.

There was a grumble from the back and a stout dwarf moved into sight. The talk of money brought out the proprietor. Silah grimaced at the sight of him.

Uh oh. I thought. She wasn't expecting this.

"One of our finest dresses, yes?" His deep voice rumbled, seeing both her disdain and approval.

The assistant seemed grateful to be relieved of duty and stood behind the mister who had taken center stage.

Silah walked to me with her palm out. I withdrew the pouch and opened it to begin counting.

"So, how much?" I asked.

She reached down and, slowly and deliberately, took the sack then turned back toward the dwarven clothier. I ran my hand over my face in exasperation then slouched even further.

Why? I thought. Why do I even allow this?

I waited as she slipped into the back with the covered bundle. She slunk out with a stunningly sleek black dress with a web of individual silver chains for shoulder straps. Silver clung to the neck and clasps pulled the dress neatly around her waist, accentuating her shape in a breathtaking display. The rear of the dress plunged to the small of her back held, again, by an asymmetrical criss-cross of glittering silver chain.

My body ached with her perfection.

"That is the reaction I've been looking for." She said with a devious grin.

The other patrons in the store looked on. Her sinuous frame trotted toward me then sat on my lap. The assistant wore a look of horror at her impropriety while the dwarf gave a subtle chuckle. She was entirely aware of the sweating man's disdain at our relationship.

She then stood and took my hand.

"Shall we?" She said silkily, giving me a wistful look.

I followed her lead, making out way out of the shop. As we exited, I took a deep breath, looking at the glorious vision on my arm.

"Oh, I almost forgot this." She said, handing me my greatly reduced money pouch.

I took it and deflated into a slump as we walked. She patted my back as a comforting gesture from the pain that she herself had induced.

"How much, then?" I asked.

"Only eighty gold pieces! Wasn't it a deal?" She said excitedly.

I slumped further, grimacing at her glittering smile.

(Get to know Akeron.)