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Tales of the Breach
#1
-The Fires of Liberation-




“Come nearer lad, the fire won’t scald you.”

Aunghar.

“Have they ever told you the tales of the motherland?”

In ancient times, its walls stretched as far as the eye could see. From the mouths of our kings spoke the voices of gods. We gazed out upon the sea of stars above us, and in the time when the sun did not sit and the skies were light at dusk and dawn, we thought our eyes could see the eternal.

“Long ago we did not wander these foreign forests as outcasts.” Began the oracle. We knew him as such, because his eyes were alight with what blessing the gods still saw fit to give him. From around the fire we swore that the echo of the divines was seen gracing his visage. “Look, east—east upon the shores from which we were all born. East where our rightful home lies.

Upon those banks lie echos of a time past. Look, and see how the crumbling spires rise. How they reach, yearning to touch the sky…” he said, voice full of reverence for what his aged eyes no longer could behold. His hand ran up, gesturing grandly towards the banks of the canal in the distance. “We, the Autohn… We once held the whole of the land past that battered coast in our iron grip. Great halls and palaces of stone rose up amongst its frozen hillsides.”

“Once.” Replied a firm voice from behind us. I turned quickly, scampering back at the familiar tone. My hair came on edge, and I stumbled in the snowy drift to gain my footing. My father stood in the entrance to the clearing, his face conveying nothing but contempt for what lay before him. “Once, old man. And once it shall always be.”

The oracle turned his gaze downward, crestfallen at my father’s words. “So easily you would give in to your masters, my child? The ones who have laid waste to our people, and brought us from our lands as slaves?”

“We were made slaves because of people such as you.” My father retorted. “Those who did not bow were made to bow. And when so many fought back, we all suffered. Now you and your kind who failed in your prime seek to put this… this destructive notion in the minds of the young.”

The others around me said nothing. I said nothing. My father was the captain of guard, and before us he stood, having found us consorting with a man speaking of rebellion. It was against the law. Mere weeks before we had seen men hanged in our town square, charged with inciting thoughts of rebellion against the grabarch crown. Our nerves were cold as ice. It was if we stared death in the face that night. For a time no one spoke. The snow bore down upon us, and I feared the worst if my father’s wrath was left unfettered. Finding courage I reached forth towards him, my voice stifled by the cold and my own fear. It didn’t matter what I said; as he looked down towards me I saw rage build in his glare. Anger fading to grief. With a grunt his leather boot struck out at me and sent me onto my back in the snow.

“Depart, children. And you as well, elder.” He spoke to us, voice impersonal and cold as the gale. He made to turn and leave, ceasing when he heard the confusion in the oracle’s voice.

“You… you will not-“

“I said depart, elder. And tell no more stories of the old lands.”

With that my father made his way down the trail. I heard the oracle mutter thanks to the gods of the sun and moon, and quickly he gestured us to leave. I remained on my back as the others departed, staring at where my father had stood moment ago. Unsteadily I rose, feeling along the forming bruise where his heel had struck me. Not giving further word to the elder I departed. He bid me to come another time, when my father was away for patrol in the woodlands.



I never did return to the elder. I know not what became of him. In the nights though, when the mist was clear, I would walk out along the edge of the forests which looked down upon the Futuro. Across its waters I cast my gaze, and searched for forms along that abandoned shore. In some nights I could see only the towers upon the wintry shore. On others, the visage of shattered walls which lurked behind it. When the light cast farther, in the distance I saw the echo of a city long abandoned, and a palace buried beneath the snow.

Perhaps it was but a distant vision made to memory.

In the coming days I heard so much of war. They said that the Grabarch marched to the coast, and were to sail across the sea. The elders bemoaned this, worrying for those of us who were spirited away into the fold of their armies. I was too young to join, but my those my senior worried each day that an official from the west came to our village. Hailark was no great city, simply a small burg upon the coast of the Futuro Canal. We hoped it would remain unnoticed by the others.

We were not so fortunate. In the month of the bear they came, a cadre of men in military dress. They were grabarch, such we could tell from their ruddy skin and their rounded ears. One by one they called all men of conscription into the square. When few came, all men were demanded. When even still they had not their full count, the men dispersed and ransacked the village until their quandary was out before the captain. They were made to sound off their names, one by one. I did not care at first, simply hiding from within the baker’s store with my other youths. Eventually I heard the name of my father called.

“Brecha Alkaev.”

He had not told me he would be sent. Though I contained myself behind the bakers window I watched with fear as he replied in unison with the others. Unlike his brothers forced onto the streets he saluted. I wished I could see his face, but not once did he divert his gaze away from the man standard bearer’s flag. In a swift motion they commanded a march. Most did… and some stood still, remaining at attention. The scene which played on before me haunts me still to this day.

“Why do you not march, soldier?” asked the grabarch as he approached one of the standing men. He was a small man, and before the mighty autohn he found a shadow cast upon him. He showed no fear. Instead he sought the fear in the autohn’s eyes. “Soldier, speak or I will speak for you.” He continued.

“I am no son of the grabarch. This battle is not mine.” Replied the man. He was the woodcutter’s son. He was a hardy man. A good man, if perhaps lacking in intelligence.

“You have been called. If you do not heed this call, you commit nothing less than treason.”

“Then let it be so.”

Without warning the man produced from his longcoat a pistol. With a crack of thunder the woodcutter was lain low upon the cobble streets. Gasps rose up from the crowd outside. The woodcutter, Saed, began to creep out towards his sons fallen body, but the elder was reined in by his daughter and wife. Without pause he turned the gun towards Boel, the local huntsman. Boel as well stood his ground. Boel as well fell to the captain’s shot. By now the townsfolk openly wept. Those who remained in the line faltered, and joined in line with the others departing from our town.

My father did not return from the war, nor did any who left from Hailark that day. We received no word of what became of them. Boel the huntsman and Vasya the woodcutter were buried quickly. They say that in the night chants of the old empire could be heard from the woods beyond our village, paying an hero’s homage to the fallen youths. Others say that they were demanding vengeance from the gods in angered prayer. I could care less what they demanded of the gods, for that day they died in my eyes. No god would damn his people in such suffering. To be exiles and slaves, to be slaughtered like cattle and forced to distant shores. Instead I sat alone in my home and though of Boel and Vasya. Though my father would damn me for my words, I cursed the gods. I cursed the grabarch. I cursed him, and all who were so weak to cower before them. If our people had risen up, more would have died— but it was better to resist as those two did than to resign ourselves to subjugation.



That night I left Hailark, the wind at my back, the chant of the old world heavy in the air. I left for the canal, and what lay beyond it. I would see the old kingdom for myself, and in time I would see it reclaimed or perish in my efforts.

I vowed that Aunghar would be born anew. If not by my hand, then those who would see my defiance and rise up in my wake. I would create an outcry so loud that it could not be silenced by the shot of a gun. So wide that it could not ignored, not in our homeland nor in the hearts of our oppressors.

The fires of liberation began that night.



-------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Just a snippet of stuff from a text RP setting I have going. I might post more, but iunno!
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#2
-The Journey to Home-




The fall had come and gone, and already there was a nip in the air. Across the ground the red and orange hues of color which had littered the dying grass were now turning to black and brown, and with them the mist began to roll in as well. Winter in the highlands were not kind, not to the hares which hid in their burrows against the icy gale nor the hearty humans of Roschel living in their wooden longhouses and stocking up wood for the nightly fires to keep themselves warm.

Nor for the darklings, and their tunnels beneath the frigid soil.

One in particular sat along her hovel, occasionally approaching one of the hard-packed dirt walls to check the turning temperature of the soil. It wasn't that bad yet, but the first cold snap would be along in due time. Already the others from the colony had begun to flee to the undercities of the east, where there was warmer ground and better walls to stave off the winter chill. She had waited behind however, gathering her belongings together...

Until they all lay in a large pile before her door, stacked up until they were about twice her height and five times her width. She was skilled at spiriting away the unwanted items discarded by humans above, and she was actually rather proud of it. She had one of the best troves in all of her colony, and now she seemed forced to leave it behind. She didn't have much hope of moving it, and some of these trinkets were far too heavy even if she could carry them all in a bundle. Sighing she approached the pile to pick through it one last time in search of some necessities.

The first object was some sort of golden circle. A chain was hooked through a little loop attached to it, and some sort of strange symbol adorned one side of it. She had wrestled with this little knicknack several times, and one time she even managed to pop it in half. At first it seemed like it was broken, but inside was a slowly spinning dial.

It probably meant something. She hadn't really bothered with it since then. She set it aside for now.

Next was a large box. A rattle let out the jingle of metal-- it was probably full of all sorts of shinies, but a box on the front seemed to keep it jammed shut. She had taken it to a few other darklings in her days, but so far nothing seemed to work. With a frown she tossed it aside, intent to just leave this one behind. It didn't seem to be worth much anyways.

There was another chest, but it was just full of tiny sticks, some with prongs, others with a dented circle, and some that she assumed to be the human version of a knife. It wasn't large or sharp enough to cut rope or cloth though, and only seemed to be of any use for slicing mushrooms. Useless! She would keep her own blade for the trip.

A few oversized rings, strangely scented candles, piles of strange disks and mugs without handles, and many large articles of clothing. One of them she did take to slice up for a cloak, enjoying the colorful patterns stitched into it. If she had time she might have been able to make it into a shawl. The rest were oddities she had yet to really investigate; a few strange knicknacks with lots of cogs, a few big hammers and clubs, some headwear with silly horns affixed to the sides-- in the end she ended up mournfully parting with the lot of it. Hopefully she could make it back before the thieves set in and made away with her trove.

In the end she decided it was best to travel light. She looped the golden circle around her neck with the chain it hung upon, and tugged her new cloak on. Looking about once more she adjusted the rope belt around her waist, checking her pockets for her usual stock of supplies. With a nod she set forward... and immediately toppled over.

As she pulled herself back upright and adjusted her glasses back she found a rectangular object lying at her feet. It had a little clasp across the front, and she was easily able to undo it and peer inside at the slightly aged pages.

Journal Wrote:My name is Jerard Hale, of the shining kingdom of Obrehn. I pen these words as I set out on my journey west, to the untamed highlands and forests which await me. Through this journal I shall chronicle the adventures I have for generations to come, so that all might bask in and be bettered by my struggles in these frigid lands. I shall—

Rrrrip.

The darkling shrugged, starting to tear out pages liberally. A journal? She had heard of one of the traders talk about keeping one. It sounded like such a novel idea, recording a day on paper. Novel and a bit silly. Who would want to read back on days of mining? 'Today I mined with the other dredges. I found ore. I ate mushrooms. I wrote in this journal. Now I will nap'. It all sounded rather silly to a darkling, but not often was there much variety in a week, much less from day to day.

She pondered over this knicknack for a time. While traveling she wouldn't have anything else to do, really. Maybe this could entertain her. And she could practice her common as well, which was rather lacking.

She picked the book up, clasping it shut and kicking aside the sheets of torn out paper which lay on the floor. The writing was too boring and flowery anyways. She approached the pile of knicknacks once more to extract a vial of ink and a feather for writing, and was finally out the door.


The colonies weren't as impressive as the undercities, not by any means. Much smaller, much less in them. And they almost never saw travelers! But it had a mine and a farm, and it was home. This was the first time in many years they were to leave because of the winter. Typically it was not this cold, or they had enough fuel to keep the passages warm. It seemed this year that the mine for coal had run dry.

By now it seemed almost everyone had left. Her eyes blinked from beneath the large spectacles she wore, peering up and down the trodden dirt passages. "Hullo?" she called, the echo of the darkling's chittering language reaching up through the halls of the now abandoned colony. She waited, but no answer came. It was rather unnerving being alone; not a sight nor sound of a friend. She wondered if maybe some were still waiting on her.

She certainly hoped so. Slinging the 'journal' into her knapsack she leaped down onto all fours and took off through the colony passage, her keen eyes spying out each twist and turn through the winding alleys of dirt and stone.

It was a long way to Home.
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#3
-The Journey to Home-




Journal Wrote:Hullo. This is my Journal. Tasha is a darkling, not a person though. So Journal will be different than others.

Tasha paused, rubbing the feather against her long ears as she tried to recall the common tongue.

Journal Wrote:Tasha is not sure what to put here, though. Because not much has happened. Tasha has been traveling from home to Home, where it is not cold. It is warm in Home, because there they have less snow, and have coalstones for fueling the heater. Tasha would live in Home normally if it were not so full. Many darklings is always good, but Home has very many, which is too much.

Tasha is now in fourth tunnel since home. Much more to go, but Tasha is not worried.

Now Tasha will sleep.




Tasha awoke to a tremor.

Her eyes winced, slowly craning open. Her ears quickly set upright, her whiskers raised on edge. Another tremor chased behind the last, and then another.

"Quake!" she cried out instinctively, leaping upright and skittishly leaping about the darkling tunnel she was in. The ground beneath her shook, the tremor slowly increasing from something only her ears could pick up, to a full-fledged shake of the earth beneath. Tasha cried out again, raising her alarm for dredges and villagers that weren't there. After a moment she stopped, hands held over her mouth as she watched the falling dust above...

And then it stopped.

Her heart was racing. For what seemed like an eternity she stared up to the roof of the tunnel, as if expecting it to cave in towards her at any moment. Slowly her alert ears began to lower, and her breathing returned to normal. Still she remained perched, until finally with a heaving sigh she set back down to the cavern floor.



She barely managed to get back to sleep, but eventually she had enough rest. As she carried on down the underground trail it seemed that there were more tremors. She stopped for them, her moment of shock and anticipation growing smaller and smaller, until it came to the point where she just carried on regardless.

"I do not like this ground." she said to herself. So familiar with speaking freely with the other dredges, it was second nature to raise her voice. "So loose. So shaky. Who would build tunnels here?"

Another tremor, this time stronger. And stronger. And then they faded once more.

Finally the tunnel opened up into a cavern. She saw the footfalls of other darklings-- smelled the scent of sauced mushrooms from their knapsacks, and the hint of ash from their coalstones. Her ears came upright, and for a moment she thought she could hear the familiar chirps and clicks of her native tongue above.

"Hullo?" she called out, cupping her clawed hands around her mouth as she raised up her voice towards the fleeting travelers.

She waited. Nothing. She waited longer, until with a sigh she readied to move on.

"Hullo!" called a voice in return. Quickly Tasha looked up, eyes homing in on a waving hand. Over the cavernous cliff above another darkling stood, the glint of another pair of spectacles visible behind him as well.

"Ah! You've no idea how silent this trail has been alone." said Tasha. "May I join you?"

"Yes, yes, of course. Be careful though. There have been quakes, and the trail is not as safe as it once was."

"Yes, yes. I imagine so. I will come then! Please, wait for me." she said in response, before sprinting onwards up the earthen path. The further she drew she could hear the sound of running water-- it seemed that in the quake the walls of this cavern were giving in, and below she could already see a forming stream. It was a lucky day to be on the high path, it seemed. She hoped none were caught below.

Another quake sent her off balance, the darkling quickly clinging to the ground. Above she heard the crumbling of stone, and the panicked voices of the other darklings. Redoubling her efforts she bounded onward, skidding to a halt only when she came to a break in the road. Here the carved trail had collapsed, leaving only perilous pillars of stone remaining to pass. She unsteadily made a leap onto one, scarcely able to grab hold and pull herself atop it. As she made to leap for the next though, once more a tremor ran through the earth.

Her hands clasped around stone, but it was too late to realize that the chunks of rock were falling with her.

Tumbling down to the water below she found herself clawing at the air, trying to gain footing on every scrap of debris that fell around her. It was no use-- after a moment of free-fall she landed into the deep water, thrashing about as she struggled to pull herself up for air. She let out a gasp as she managed to bring her head above water, only to plummet down back into the rushing stream a second later. All she could do was struggle and hold her breath.

Once more the world shook around her, and a blur of debris crashed down ahead. She found herself spinning, spinning, spinning into darkness.


When the darkling awoke, the air around her was bitter cold. She was cold as well, her soaked sweater collecting small glimmering flakes of white snow. She was quick to wake, struggling upright despite her exhausted body. Looking around, the cavern hardly looked the same; snow caked the floor, and the rushing water had been quenched to a pitiful stream no deeper than her feet.

"Hullo?" she called, hopeful still. This time there was no echo, nor a response. Instead a frigid gale bore down on her, causing her to bundle against her cloak. With hesitation she peered upwards. Where once the earthen roof of the cavern set, there was now a great abyss of white. It was blinding for the first moments, and even when the glare subsided she had to squint to fully view the opening. Through her struggling vision she made the barest image of a cloud out.

The Overland.

She stepped forward, glancing around once more. There was nowhere to go. The caverns had been sealed by the quake-- their reinforcements made to buckle to prevent greater damage to the system as a whole. The stone was too hardy to break through on her own, and she doubted any more would come this way with such a chill setting in. The only way out lay before her, the mound of rubble leading up to that glaring bright sky the only path she could see to take.

Unsteadily she stepped forth, and set a foot upon the pile of crumbled stone. She was bound upwards.
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#4
-The Journey to Home-




The overland was a strange place.

The overland was wide and open, and very bright. In the overland there was rain, snow, and sometimes light even shot down from the clouds. It was very loud, and sometimes the darklings could even hear it from below. Strangest of all were the people. They were tall creatures, who never walked on all fours. Their skin was of many colors; from light, to dark, to green-- and stranger yet, they were very peculiar about these differences. A tall person from the west was a 'roschel'. A smaller one from the east was an 'obrehn', unless they came from the coast. Then they were a 'trejan'. They were very angry whenever you mixed such words up, even when they looked the same.

Tasha had heard about the overland from her elders. When she was a pup they told her that the overland was a dangerous place to go-- that great beasts lurked above, and that only an experienced darkling could roam it safely. As she grew she saw the older darklings running above, and coming back with such wonderful treasures. Some of them they traded for other knicknacks, but most of them they kept. When she was of age she followed in their footsteps.

But, this was different. There was no hovel to return to this time. As Tasha climbed out from the caved in tunnel she found her eyes darting all about, trying to locate something to signal another hatch down towards a colony. Unfortunately it was dying fields of grass and snow as far as the eye could see, great graying trees standing up against the horizon.

She stopped a moment, holding her chest to ease her breath. She shook off the cold snow falling on her, and quickly bundled herself as much as she could in the damp blanket around her. The drop into the water helped her none. She had to find shelter, before the gale froze her in her tracks. She began running forward, but try as she might she found no direction more appealing than the other. The scents were strange, and the sights nothing but bleary images against that blinding white sun-lit sky above. The encroaching chill only made things worse. She ran until she seemed to be upon a forest, pausing as she grabbed along her arms for warmth. Here at least the trees broke the wind some. She once more held a hand to her chest, trying to calm her racing heart.

This wood was not one she had seen before. Definitely not. The trees grew so tall, until they obscured themselves amongst their own limbs in a canopy dense, even in winter. There were still some leaves upon these gargantuan trees-- they were black like ash, and pooled upon the forest floor in great amounts.

Worst of all, she felt as if something was watching her.

Onwards she continued, taking faint steps. She did not want to be heard, or seen, by whatever lurked in these woods. It wasn't as if she knew where she was going, though. All around, it was all the same. Towering trunks, and branches which reached out, their limbs like so many grasping claws. She shuddered at the thought. At any second it seemed like something might be upon her.

Then, she heard a snap. It was small. Faint. But close, and her large ears swung upwards immediately. With a exhausted gasp of fear the darkling took off, rushing forward despite her weary and cold body. She ran, quickly until everything became a blur around her. She ran until she felt the ground falling out from beneath her, and she came crashing to the ground, her body giving out to the chill as she collapsed onto a bed of leaves in the forest floor.




"Eliega auf."

One by one her senses returned to her. She felt... warmth. Her nose was greeted by the smell of burning timber. Her ears picked up the crackle of flame. Finally her eyes rested upon the campfire stoked nearby. She rose carefully, her body set just beside the flame for warmth. She looked about for the source of this flame, before her eyes settled on a tall figure, draped in a flowing quilted cloak. She was unable to even see the body beneath it, shrouded in the heavy drapery and hidden behind a cowl. She stared at the creature a long while, until slightly it shifted, taking notice of the rising darkling.

"Overlander!" she cried, bounding towards the towering figure. She heard him bidding her to silence herself many times, trying to shake her off as she hugged close to his leg. With an exasperated sigh he bent down, tugging the darkling off and setting her before him. She could slightly make out his face-- or at least, what was in sight. His skin had a pale tone as hers, and long tresses of golden hair draped down from within the flowing hood. She saw a slight red glint from beneath the shadow obscuring his face, but made little of it.

"Overlander! You saved me! Thank you, Ov-" she began anew, silenced as a hand clamped down over her mouth. The overlander leaned in, bringing a finger over his lips. Letting go of the now silent darkling he raised a hand, bidding her to listen-- in the far distance she could hear the faint stirring of drums.

Though she did not know what they meant, she understood. She nodded slightly, taking a step back and bringing herself to take a seat before the fire.

But, she had difficulty staying still in the same way this creature did.

Journal Wrote:Hullo. Tasha was worried at first, because journal had been wet. But seems to have dried now. The pages crinkle, and do not look so smooth. Tasha thinks it looks more interesting this way, yes.

Tasha is in the overland now. With an Overlander. Very strange times. Hope to go to Home soon, because the overland is cold and large. Thanks to Overlander though, we have fire. Not even using coalstones or heaters. Overlanders are very strange, but maybe very smart. Tasha did not know to make fire like this, after all.

Still cannot find scent of other colony or undercities. That is bad. But if Overlander will let Tasha follow, then may find. That is good. Overlander has not said anything yet, but seems nice to save from cold.

She stopped her writing for a moment, an ear lifting up as she heard the drums cease, fading into the distance. The night had grown silent at last. Slowly she approached the overlander, tugging on the hem of his cloak as not to alert him greatly. When his shrouded face turned to regard her own she nodded to him, speaking as quietly as she could manage.

"No more drums? Can talk, yes?" she asked in her broken tongue. It received a faint frown from the other creature, causing the darkling to step back.

"...Yes." spoke the man after a moment, turning his head back towards the bright hearth before them.

Tasha nodded, drumming her fingers along her lap as she took a seat beside him. "...You are afraid of those drums, Overlander?"

"I do not fear a drum. Only what it brings."

Once more there was a long silence, the darkling staring up to him for elaboration which he did not seem intent on bringing.

"...Why did you save Tasha?"

Once more he peered down towards her-- enough visible this time to make out the burning amber eyes which set upon her. He regarded her with curiosity for a moment, his expression granting nothing of a response. Again, he turned away to the fire.

"It seemed a poor death."

"Poor?" she quipped, an ear brought upright. "Death is always poor. Never good, yes."

The man shook his head. "Death is always something to be mourned. But it need not be poor."

Tasha furrowed her brow. Politely she bowed her head though, and returned to writing in her journal.

Journal Wrote:Overlander is so strange.
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#5
-The Fires of Liberation-




Many moons had passed since I first left Hailark. Though the tundrid fields I had trudged, seeking in vain for something of worth to me, or my people. By now I did not know what it was I sought, other than sustenance and rest. I thought myself such a fool. To leave the safety of the village with nary a bow to hunt; even with such a weapon, there was no creature in sight. I was alone in the snowfields, and it was not until now that I had come to realize it.

Or so I had thought. I set about making camp come nightfall. Though I had little to sustain me, I had the most important of needs; fire. Though starting a blaze in the bitter north wind was not done easily, eventually I was able to find a cavern to house myself in while I rested for the night. Weary and battered by the chill, I laid to sleep.

I awoke some time later to a fierce roar, and a blur of fang and claw barreling towards me. With what energy I could muster I threw myself upright, staggering just out of the way of the charge of a great bear. I turned quickly, reaching absently for my blade as I prepared to avoid another swing from the creature-- too late. A swipe from its great paw sent me tumbling back, chain links and blood crashing to the floor as I struggled to survive. With a threatening war cry I brandished my steel, the creature wary as it saw the glint of the nearby flame in my blade. Unsteadily I stepped backwards, eager to simply run and take my chances in the cold. But with a mighty roar it came for me once more. I swung, and struck-- but so did the bear. This time a deep gouge ran against my leg, and I nearly collapsed. I swung once more, and again drew blood-- now the creature backed away, snarling fiercly in return for the damage I had dealt.

I continued to back away, but now found myself cornered. This was my last stand. My hands were trembling, my legs unsteady-- but I was as ready as I could be. As the bear charged I drew my blade forth and pointed it true. The beast leaped, and my arms shot forth to meet it. I saw my life flash before my eyes... but it was not I who met my end.

I fell, and the beast fell as well. At first the sheer weight set down before me made me think I had been wounded. It was a brief pause before I found the will to force the creature off, and raise my weary body upright. My blade lay sunk fully into the creature, pierced through its heart. I had won.

And yet, now I found myself wounded. I was wounded, and my fire now crushed under the creature's paws. The cavern would turn to cold soon, and the scarce trees I had felled for timber were a long ways off. I resolved that I could continue my journey until the frost claimed me; it would be better to meet my end in my travel than to lie down and await death. Retrieving my blade I sheathed it, and stepped back out into the fields.

They call the snow-filled plains the frostfields, and one would be blind to ask why. So inhospitable a place is not found until you reach the burning sands of the western deserts. It was where I wandered now though; a plain shrouded in mist, with no trees to break the gale, for long had they been snuffed out by the cold. The storm raged unbound here, and at that time I knew my journey to be at its end. So dense was the fog that for a time, I expected I had not moved at all. Through my wounds and my aching bones, I was all but prepared for death.


Then, through the mist my dying embers of hope were stoked. As if parted by the heavens themselves I saw a great wall rising up in the distance, long-aged spires reaching up from each side of it. With my spirits relieved I rushed forth towards it, uncaring for my weary body. I drew near and fell down to my knees, staring up at the majesty of these ancient walls; they were echoes of the past, adorned with crests long unspoken of, of family lines long ago silenced. As I stepped within the shattered gate, memories of stories of old ran through my mind. I saw statues of the great Ivan Koening, Emperor of the Autohn. Statues of Achim and Mathaus, knights from of valor and courage. I saw the oracle Jevel upon the main terrace, his maniscripts and scepter in hand. In his eyes of stone I swear sorrow dwelled within. Jevel had been a man of great wisdom, but even he did not see the rise of the grabarch upon our lands.

Around them rose up a mighty palace. I could scarcely make out the insignias embroidered across the mighty arches of triumph which lay in the courtyard; though my knowledge of the ancient tongue was basic, I could clearly make out the words-- 'The Palace of the Sage's Moon'.

In my travels, I have not seen so wonderous a sight. Though aged and doused in so much snow, its magnificance shone through. Great pillars of stone rose along each wall, between them lying windows of stained glass. Exquisite stonework was inset along each wall and terrace; stories lost to ages past, though some were forever lost to time from the winds hateful scorn. As I drew nearer to the mighty castle I saw flickering lights within-- in my wounded state I feared bandits were upon the ruin. Quickly I drew my blade and made ready to fight.

Stepping within however, I found the source quickly. Braziers burned brightly, lighting the way down the ancient throne room. I found this strange. As I moved further inwards, a scent of freshly prepared food struck me-- stranger still. Until I came upon a banquet table, laid out before a throne hewn of stone, adorned for royalty. Beside myself, I ran to the banquet. I thought not that the food might be poisoned, or some deception of my mind-- like a rabid hound I seized handfuls of meat and bread, simply shoveling the meal into my mouth. It was indeed fresh-- warm as if it had come straight from the stove. Bewildered I looked about, but saw no one to be held responsible. Instead my eyes fell upon the walls of the room, adorned as they were with glyphs and runes detailing accounts of bygone eras-- their battles, their rulers, it seemed that all was laid bare in these halls. The signet of Jevel lay upon each glyphic mural; I knew then that I was treading upon the land of the oracle himself.

Seizing a haunch of meat I set myself along the floor, and poured over the murals with rapt attention. I read of how Boris the Blue brought philosophy from the northern kingdom. How Sigmund of the Green Vales educated his brethren of crops and agriculture from out of his home upon the coast. Of Tobias the Stoneweaver, Ulrich the Healer, and of course, Koening the Warrior. Heroes and men of brilliance from all across the old kingdom.

Then, I found myself stumble. A name was set upon these ancient walls that I did not know. He had no title nor surname to speak of. His name was Bilial, and the runes which described him were ones alien to me. Of all the stories of old I had been told, this one was alien to me. I pondered over it for some time-- perhaps the inscription was worn. Perhaps the word written poorly. But in the end I still could not recognize what phrase lay upon the stone before me.

I rose, defeated. Dragging my feet I continued to look about the aged ruin; though oddly while the main gate and door had been lain fully open, a strong lock was held upon the other chambers. Try as I might I was unable to force the doors apart, and finally I found myself sinking to the floor, reclining back against the locked chamber to rest. It would serve as good a place as any.


When I roused myself from my slumber I found the hall dimly lit. Though sunlight poured in through the stain glass windows, the great flames which lit my way before were extinguished. As I walked back into the main hall I found the banquet empty, the table cracked in half and collecting dust. Warily I drew out my sword and stepped further towards the exit of the palace.

Then, I caught sight of something in the courtyard. A horseman, with a cloak which flowed freely in the wind. The glint of his armor showed me that he was no man of grabarch, as well. With curiosity I held my blade at my side, exiting and calling out for the horseman. He did not reply, and stared onwards. Again I called, and again he ignored my order for attention. With a frustrated growl I began to approach him, my free hand forming a fist-- but, as I drew near he turned to face me. His eyes bore into my own, and for a moment I felt weak, and dropped back as if struck. A mighty towering figure stood before me, clad from head to toe in metal plate-- even his face seemed enveloped by a casque of iron, so that not his skin nor even his eyes could be seen. His cloak billowed wildly with each breeze, the ends seeming to simply fade into the mist which seemed to fill the ground around him.With the barest nod of recognition he drew his blade, a wicked shard of steel forged of the black of night, and set upon by runes as uncountable as the stars. The glint alone left a haze upon my eyes.

I stood in the presence of a god.
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#6
-Hearts of Stone-




The bells rang out over the city of Carmina Galbera, heralding the end of another day and the coming of night. Through the winding streets of the grand city lined many crowds of the diminutive selvic populace, heading home from work or to their nightly duties. In the eastern square's royal promenade a collection of armored gnomes stood, arms folded as they watched the procession of servants and dignitaries. Each wore a regal suit of plate, gilded with gold and painted with a dark blue hue. Cloaks lined with chain ran down their backs, inset with ornate designs and patterns. One of them stood out however, her horned and plumed helm held under her arm, a draping banner of white pulled around her shoulders in a sash to display her merit. Pinning the sash to one pauldron was a royal crest-- the insignia of a commander.

"Day's end, milady." spoke one of the guardsmen beside her. "Shall we retire?"

The woman rose a hand to silence him, bidding them both to stand at attention. Her golden eyes were cast up towards the royal castle, trained on one of the departing women. As she drew closer the others quickly drew upright and saluted.

"Grand Crusader!" exclaimed one in recognition. In an instant the trio were down on their knee, heads bowed in reverence to the elder who approached them. Though older than any of the assembled the crusader still held herself well. Her ceremonial halberd was upright beside her, her mane of white tied tight into a long tail.

"You may rise." she said, her voice crisp and curt. "Commander Seda, I would speak with you. Please, walk with me."

The commander nodded quickly, ushering her guardsmen away as she followed behind. "Of course, Your Eminence. Is something the matter?"

"You could say that, yes. The northern garrison is in need of your attention. I believe they will explain the situation in the cells when you arrive."

"The garrison? Of course, Your Eminence." she said, saluting and awaiting the crusader's departure.


The armor-clad gnome walked along with her head held high as she made her way to the northern quarter of the city. Though the day was coming to an end there still was a great many about, discussing the day or going about their duties before dispersing. She made her way through the great marble archways out from the royal's quarter, and into the cobbled lanes of the central city. Colorful awnings were hung all about, verdant floral displays littered about the sides of shops and homes alike. Grand banners of yellow and black hung aloft the streets, proudly displaying San Salvacion's colors for all to see. She took in a deep breath as she came to the end of the commercial rowe-- around this time she still could smell the wares from the baker's shop, even as they were closing down for the night.

However, as she came upon the northern garrison the clean marble structures and the ornately decorated walkways faded away. A cold stone gate met her eyes as she rounded the bridge from the commercial district. She cast her eyes down to the canals-- here the waterways ran deeper, a second barrier between the rest of the city and the Northpoint Garrison. As she came upon the great steel gate she gave a firm salute to the two guards on duty

"Lady Vittoria Seda." replied one soldier. "We were anticipating your arrival. You are requested in the lower sanctum."

Seda returned the guard a firm nod, lifting her axe over her shoulder. "I will not keep them waiting. As you were, legate.
"

She waited patiently as the gates rose, stepping inside. Despite her confident demeanor, even she stood cautious as she came into the shadow of the statue which towered over the main courtyard of the garrison. Upon a pedestal of stone stood an effigy of Gaspere Rossi, his countenance mournful, his shattered gavel set held low in his hands. She paused before the statue to give her respects to the fallen judge-- she was but a child when the garrison's defenses were breached and the prisoners took the fort by storm. She knew the judge's daughter Vitalia at a young age though, and the news after her father's fall in the ensuing riots simply broke her. It was commendable that she was so involved in the church these days; she had seen many more lose their way after such a disaster.

But, there was little time for reflection. She quickly made her way down into the stone-wrought walkways, towards the lower dungeon of the garrison. She took pause at first as she entered in, eyes peering about at the detainees-- as typical, they were other gnomes. Most simply had a shady look about them; no doubt pickpockets or other assorted wrongdoers. However, she took pause as she came to one cell.

Within sat a tall human. At first nothing seemed strange about the man, though on further inspection... he seemed entirely still. His skin seemed free of blemish, and his hair appeared to hang in one mass instead of single strands. Stranger still, his shadow seemed to twist and meld beneath him.

"...What is this foreigner doing in here?" asked Seda, speaking in her native tongue as not to alert the prisoner.

"Ah... milady. He is the cause of the disturbance here." spoke an approaching warden, the woman drawing her visor up as she came to bow before the commander.

"I see." she said curtly, peering in as she caught sight of the prisoner approaching the cell door. He walked with a stiff gait, a bit unnatural. He seemed far smaller in frame than the baggy sailor's outfit he wore, the trench grazing the ground past his legs in back.

"Well hello, little soldier. Are you here to help me out?" asked the prisoner, grinning wide.

"...Execute him." Seda replied in turn, turning to leave without further thought.

"W-we've tried already, milady. This is the result." the guard replied, holding out a few chips of stone towards the other gnome.

"I'd like those back, when you're done showing them off." said the man, leaned down against the bars to peer at the stone chips. The warden smacked the bars with her cudgel, causing him to leap back in a short display of fear. Though he quickly eased back into his calm demeanor his eyes remained on the mace.

"Turn around." the warden ordered, entering the cell with Seda in tow as she wrested the man about. She dragged him down from his draping golden hair, allowing the other gnome to view the nape of his neck. When she drew near, Seda was able to see the cause of alarm-- upon the back of his neck were a few gray streaks-- small crevices, were stone had been chipped away. Curiously Seda removed a gauntlet, reaching out her hand to feel along the back of the man's head-- solid, like stone.

"My, what soft hands you have!" he quipped, only to be booted forward by the gnome in return, landing with a solid thud of stone meeting stone.

"He's an aberration." replied Seda. "So the guillotine did not work-- he seems to break just as well as rock." she said, taking the chips from the warden and crushing them in her gauntlet, the prisoner making a sour face as he watched the dust which was once the nape of his neck fall to the floor of the prison cell. "Throw him from a watchtower, or bring forth a warhammer."

"It is not just his intrusion, m'lady. Did you not see his shadow?"

"Yes, and it seems only further evidence that he is an abomination before the gods. Shadowcrafters, consorts of demons-- they are all fit to perish in Arktramadia's holy flame."

"He claims to be an envoy, though. The... Deissa Arinae has asked that he be escorted to the priory in Heliger."

"...To Heliger. In Obrehn's lands, correct? And Her Eminence has approved this request?"

"You know the way of Her Majesty." replied the warden, stony expression faltering ever slightly. "She... is one to entertain such whims of the assembly."

Seda frowned, glancing back to the prisoner. The man now sat staring back to them, glancing between them as they spoke in their own tongue.

"Allow me but a short meeting with the assembly, then."





"What madness has overcome this council when they bend to a heretic's whims?" cried Seda. She stood atop a large stone dais, engravings of the divines along the platform below her. All around her ran an encircling procession of pews, upon which was a collection of priests and priestesses. Each wore different insignias-- each different representatives of another church among the nations. There were humans of all shapes and sizes to the western quarter of the court, but almost all were gnomish in origin. The temple forum was an impressive sight, if an imposing one.

"You ask me, a commanding officer of good standing, to accompany some human aberration on a journey into the heart of Obrehn? I have other duties to attend to in the capitol, much less some foreigner's nation!"

"The council would remind the good commander that this council is not solely the domain of the selvic." called an elderly human from amongst the council. His expression soured quickly, watching as some murmering ran across the gnomish population of the room.

"At ease!" called the presiding judge. "Lady Seda, your objection is recognized. But such a creature has not been known to us for countless years. Though he may appear unlawful to the faith, he may yet be a sign from the trinity. We implore you to entertain his request... for now. If you see that his demands show his true colors, we would not object to his execution at your hands."

"You would 'entertain' the demands of such a creature? Would we then entertain the requests of a demon if they came upon our walls? We've not seen those since the age of awakening either!" she retorted, voice remaining firm.

"The council has spoken, commander. You will follow the mandate of both our rulings and those of the High Templar, or you will be acknowledged as a traitor among our court." spoke the Grand Crusader from before, standing up from her seat amongst the center of the assembly.

Seda's gaze met the crusader's, the two glaring daggers back to one another. Finally though, the commander relented, bowing her head as she murmered a response.

"Speak clearly, commander."

"I will acknowledge your mandate, Grand Crusader. I am your faithful servant, as always." spoke Seda through clenched teeth. Slowly she bowed before the assembly, turning to depart.

"You will find your escort awaiting you in the western quarter, commander. I wish you the best on your voyage."

"...My thanks." came Seda's terse reply. Without another word she exited the temple forum, swinging the door back with a resounding crash.
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#7
-Hearts of Stone-




"Vittoria! Vittoria!"

Seda took pause on her way out from the city gates, biting her lip as her eyes set upon a rapidly approaching figure. Quickly another gnome made her way towards Seda, rushing to a stop so quickly that her hat ended up toppled off, her auburn hair spilling out. The freckled gnome parted her bangs, peering up to the other woman before her with a wide grin.

"Vittoria, were you going to leave without me seeing you off?" she asked, restraining a bit of enthusiasm as she smoothed out the luxurious gown draping over her form. Seda stared back blankly for a brief moment, running a hair through her own red tresses.

"...Tatiana." replied Seda after a moment, leaning forward to place a kiss upon the hand of the smaller gnome. "...Apologies. The court was firm in their request that I leave before daybreak."

"How long will you be gone, Vittoria?"

"As long as the council's requests demands." she replied, standing full upright. "I am a proper knight of the realm, remember?"

"Yes..." replied the woman, frowning ever slightly. "Though... you should try being a proper wife sometime as well. You'll be back for the festival, won't you?"

"I... Of course." she said, glancing back towards the waiting detail of guardsmen. "I'll be back early enough to help you with those cassatas you bake so well, alright?"

Tatiana answered with a awkward smile. "...Crostata." she corrected, her voice barely audible. Seda kept her unflinching smile in return, leaning in for a kiss before she began to draw away once more.

"I'll see you when I return, Tatiana."

With that the other gnome departed, making her way back towards the city with a parting glance back. Though Seda continued to smile and wave, as soon as the gates had shut behind her she let out a deep sigh, rubbing her hand along her face. She took out the golden medallion which hung around her neck, regarding the engraved shield mournfully for a moment. "Senischal, pardon your servant." she murmered, before turning to approach the other guardsmen.

She didn't hate Tatiana. No more than she hated the council or the Grand Crusader for sending her on this assignment. The girl was just a product of her status; a child who never grew up. Were their marriage not arranged by her family however, she would have remained just another soldier. A soldier with a relatively wealthy upbringing, but a soldier all the same. As nobility she was much more.

It was just a shame she could not grant the affection that Tatiana urged her for.


"Milady," spoke one of the guardsmen ahead, snapping Seda out from her moment of contemplation. "We have the prisoner prepared for escort. We wish you safe travels."

Seda saluted in return, motioning the 'human' to follow her. She didn't like his look-- he had a leering grin smeared across his face. It made her want to knock some of those stone teeth out from his mouth.

"So who was that?" he asked, looming in some as he trailed behind. He was not altogether free to roam; on his wrists lay a pair of sturdy cuffs-- the strongest the selvic smiths could furnish.

"Not of your concern, aberration."

"I have a name, you know." he mentioned, smirking some as he glanced back. After a short pause without response he continued. "It's Raphael. It's a pleasure to meet you too. Do you have a name, or should I just call you gnome?"

"Gnomes are the creatures from your human fairy tales. We are selvic. You would do well to remember that."

"Gnomes. Selvic. Darklings. You're all so small to me, it's hard to tell the difference." he answered teasingly, ducking back as the armor-plated woman took a free swing for his face. "Hey!"

"You will not compare us to those... beasts!" she shouted indignantly, causing a cry of pain from him as she managed to connect a foot with his leg. She immediately drew her heel back, rubbing it tenderly as she watched him collect the pieces of stone which dropped from the strike.

"Watch it. I still need to be able to walk to carry on with you."

"Really? I don't know how you creatures work, but if all you're delivering is a message I could deliver your head on a platter to Heliger's priests."

He stared at her a moment, as if contemplating her seriousness. After a moment he relented, bowing his head. "Alright, alright. I apologize."

"Good. Now, I'd prefer you were quiet during this... trip. Speaking in this tongue is offensive to the ears."

He rolled his eyes some, but was content to remain quiet for the moment. Seeming pleased with this the gnome led off once more, bound west towards the mountains and the human nation beyond. By the time they were clear of Carmina Galbera's outlying villages day had broke. Seda cast a rather plaintive look back, stopping to listen to the church bells ringing in the new day. Where she was bound there were bells-- but human crafts never sounded quite as good.

"They're lovely." Raphael said, glancing peering over his shoulder as well. "Lucilla Basso, isn't it?"

Seda peered back towards the man, a brow raised slightly in suspicion. "You know Basso?"

"Of course!" he said proudly. "I've been to concert halls before. She's a favored composer."

"Favored is almost too light a term. She's the greatest composer our nation has seen." replied the woman, motioning him to continue. "Not many know Basso made that chime though. It's surprising to hear from a human."

"Well I'm not exactly 'human', now am I? And I never forget a style." he said with a grin. "Basso, Dioli, Quaranta..."

"Quaranta?" she asked with a chuckle. "Surely you didn't hear that music in a concert hall."

"Bar." he replied. "I got around."

"Perhaps I misjudged you slightly then." Seda replied. "A cultured abomination, if nothing else."

Raphael returned her comment with another wry smile, deciding to return to silence for now. He cast his eyes off towards the mountains in the distance. Though Seda didn't take notice, his shadow's head seemed to be hung low.



[[Just a filler entry, since I had some off time.]]
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#8
-The Journey to Home-




"Overlander!"

Tasha frowned, bounding about the sleeping figure which lay near her. "Overlander!" she cried again, prodding him insistently when he failed to wake at first. With a stifled murmer and a weary groan the man roused himself, bringing his gloved hands up towards his eyes.

"...You wake early, little one." he told her, pushing himself aloft as he struggled to adjust to the rude awakening.

"Is not good to sleep so long, yes. Much to do in a day!" she replied, hopping up and down near him. Despite the circumstances her cheerful mood had swiftly returned. She continued to stare up to the man as he eased around the campfire, snuffing it out with a motion from his hand.

"...Oooh! How did you do that?" asked the darkling, trailing along behind him as he hefted up his staff to carry on his own way.

"It just comes naturally." he said. The darkling just raised a brow, not knowing what to make of such an answer.

"I see you're following me. I'm going home. Were you not bound somewhere before?"

"How did you know?" she asked in response, practically rushing about underfoot of the tall and narrow figure.

"I didn't. Only an assumption."

"Well... yes! Tasha was going to Home. But lost trail. Cave-in, forced Tasha up into the Overland."

The man only nodded. The darkling could only wait so long in the silence however, her ears flattening down against her head as she trailed along. "So... Overlander has name, yes?"

"Mehin. And I am an elf, little one."

"Elf! So not person either?" she asked. Mehin returned her an icy glare in return.

"Of course we're people. What else would we be?"

"Well, elf is an elf. Just like darkling is darkling. Darkling is not a person... but, they look much like elves. Tall. Very tall! Build strange things, like this!" she said, snatching the gold 'medallion' from around her neck to wave about for his observation.

"Ah... human. You mean human. No, I am not human. We're... quite distinct."

"Oh." she said, frowning some as she peered at him. "Perhaps cannot tell from behind big cloak then. Tasha has not heard of elf before. What is elf like?"

"We are more intelligent. More... resourceful. And we respect the land which grants us life."

"...And?"

He frowned once more, letting out an indignant huff. "Well. Do you think you could sum up your entire race with a single sentence?"

She thought a moment.

"Yes! Darklings dig and we are small." she said with a wide grin, as if she had beaten him at a puzzle of some sort.

"..."

"...Well that is what darklings are, yes."

With a shrug the man pulled his hood back. To her surprise she saw two tall ears standing up from the golden head of hair. Small spike-like studs ran along his scalp, neck and back; and she caught a full glimpse of his glowing amber eyes as he peered back to her. Though it took a moment to register, she eventually spotted strange scales along the nape of his neck, just barely in sight from beneath the hood and cloak. Tasha didn't think to even reply at first, just in awe of the novelty of the peculiar 'elf'.

"Scales? Oh, how strange!" she said aloud, silencing herself with her own hands as she clamped them over her mouth.

In one quick motion the elf had pulled his hood back up and his cloak taught. His tone was quite sour when he did reply. "...It's not strange."

"Am sorry. Tasha is not good with peoplespeak. Meant... interesting, yes."

For some reason that didn't seem to help his mood that much.


Journal Wrote:Tasha made Overlander mad, maybe.

Overlander is called Elf. But also Mehin. And maybe people. Like Tasha is darkling, but Tasha too. Will learn this learn this eventually, but for now will just call him Overlander. Is easy, yes.

Overlander is from woods. Many trees in woods, and many elf. Tasha asked Overlander if he could lead Tasha to Home, and Overlander said yes! Did not know that elfpeople knew about Home. But, did not know about darkling trail in woods either. Overlander must have met other darklings. Is very interesting, but Tasha is glad to have good trail to follow.

Tasha will write more later.



The trail through the forest was long. Mehin always replied the same when Tasha asked how much further to go; 'we'll be there soon'. It was a bothersome reply; soon didn't mean much to a darkling. She wanted minutes, or hours, but each time she asked it was always 'soon'.

The further they went into the forest, the darker it got. The elf lit a torch with his hand to see the way, but Tasha just found it an added comfort.

"Dark! Dark is good."

"I wouldn't be sure of that. These parts of the Eldenwood can be dangerous."

"Dangerous? How?" she asked, looking up to him. "Trees cannot cave in. And no water to flood. People are too big to hunt, too."

"...That's debatable." he said, shrugging his shoulders slightly. "There are some creatures which hunt us. We call them Skullions."

"Skull... ions." she repeated.

"The humans call them silverbacks. They're terrible creatures, preying on the weak... I doubt you or I could hold them back, should they find us."

"I see." she replied, ears up and alert. "Are... we almost to Home?"

"Just keep silent and we'll be there soon." he ordered her, drawing a blade from his hip as he walked on. His steps were cautious and measured, amber eyes veering about in the darkened wood to keep watch all around. Tasha just hung back, listening.


She heard a snap.

"Overlander!" she blurted out, quickly covering her mouth. "I hear something..." she continued, dropping her voice lower. The elf turned, letting out a sharp gasp of fear as a flash of silver ran by the two of them. For a split second Tasha caught sight of the creature in full. It was tall, taller than an elf or any overlander she had ever heard of. Its frame was narrow, bones clearly visible through its unnatural hide. As if it was starved. Even its limbs clung tight to the bone, hardly any measure of fat upon its writhing body at all. When it glared back towards them she saw only the silver glint of its mask, and a black abyss within its eyes.

"Run! This way!" cried Mehin, and already Tasha was charging off ahead. She glanced back, watching the two circle around one another. The skullion had drawn a crude blade, and Mehin's hand was alight in a blazing fire. The skeletal creature practically danced a dance of death around the elf, unable to be struck by any spell nor swing of blade; it was lithe, agile-- and while the elf was surely not clumsy, a warrior he was not. Tasha covered her eyes the first time she saw that blade dive into his body, and by the time the skullion had managed a second strike she had begun to approach them once more.

Mehin by now was hardly keeping his footing. The fight was hopeless, and even now the beast taunted him with its erratic leaps and bounds. Struggling to conjure another flash of flame Mehin looked aside, face contorting in a measure of anger as he saw the darkling returning to him. "Stop! Run, or you'll be next!" he cried out. She didn't seem to care, though.

Then, suddenly, the creature stopped. Its body suddenly convulsed, as if struck, and it fell flat onto its back, chest heaving.

"Now you run!" called Tasha, leaping up and down from her distance away. Mehin was quick to follow; by the time the skullion rose, its prey was long gone.




They didn't stop running until they reached the safety of the town. Mehin drew against one of the great trees supporting the village, looking towards the darkling who followed close behind.

"You work magic as well, do you?" he asked, an uneasy smile coming over his face.

"Magic?" she asked, tilting her head ever slightly. "Do not know magic. Tasha knows to yell, though. Older darklings teach us for if we are in the overland, yes?"

"...Yell?" he asked. "I didn't hear you yell."

"Yell with mind." she said, tapping her forehead with a proud smile on her face, content that she apparently was more educated in these matters than the elf. "Make for easy escape."

"...Mind. Psionics, then." he said. "How curious."

Tasha made to mouth the proper word, but quickly gave up as she caught sight of another approaching. It was another elf, but unlike Mehin she was quite normal in appearance. No scales, no studs, just those strange long ears. It was only when she looked behind this approaching elf that she caught sight of what lay beyond, though-- and with great haste she ran onwards into the village.

It was a strange sight for a darkling, to say the least. When she had seen human homes they were always quite large. She knew the ones that lived in the cold built theirs of wood, and made them quite large. She knew that those from the east built them of brick, and were a bit more modest. But these elves lived in tents, or at least that seemed the case. Large tents constructed against the trees, with ropes hung out in a web above to support many of them. It looked messy, and the cloths seemed to be flung together in such a strange blend of colors that for a moment it dazzled the eyes. Stranger still, there appeared to be walkways suspended above...

Just the idea of that alone was unsettling to her.

"Well, we're here." announced Mehin, approaching the darkling from behind. The other elf led him along, supporting his wounded body.

"We are...?" asked Tasha, peering back to him. "This is not Home."

"It's my home. Isn't that what you asked me?"

"No..." she frowned deeply. "No no no! This isn't right at all. Home, yes? Not a home, but Home!"

The elves both seemed puzzled in return.

"Is... is a big city." she said sheepishly. "Darkling city, in warmland."

"I'm... not sure what I can say, little one. But I know nothing of the 'home' you're speaking of. I'd bid you to stay and rest here, though. Perhaps someone can aid your return there." he said, already being ushered on by the woman alongside him.

"...Can Tasha stay with you for now, then?" she asked, still trailing behind. Hesitantly the man peered back, contemplating a moment.

"...It's the least I can do now, isn't it?" he said, managing a grin. "Please, come along. These wounds need tending."
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#9
-Hearts of Stone-




The town of Valias was the last stop before they fully had breached into human territory. To some, it was where the two lands mixed. Across the Aundine Mountains to the west lay the human city of Reinbek and its marshes. Though the selvic had always been on good terms with the Reinbek and to an extent most of humanity, Valias was perhaps the only true selvic town to embrace the culture of the human people and allow it to propagate amongst their people.

To Seda and many others of San Salvacion, it was detestable.

Seda remembered seeing the walls come up. Valias and its priesthood protested for weeks within the assembly, and some particularly treasonous individuals pushed for secession to Reinbek. The council was firm in its decision, however, and by the end of the year a wall stood between Aundine's great rocky inclines, barring Valias and the rest of the world off from entry into the selvic nation proper lest it be on the accord of the military itself. Valias had sense only degenerated further, seeing much of its faithful retreat behind the wall. Amongst the elegant domes and steeples of the original selvic foundation ran the crude brick hovels of the human peasantry. The walkways were long untended, weeds and dirt allowed to simply reduce the mosaic paths to so much as scarce stone cobble littered throughout the way. Most egregious yet were the people-- for not only had the humans saw fit to make a mockery of the city's facade alone, but they had taken wives and husbands within the city as well.

It was disgusting. And despite her hatred for this city, it was the last inn before the mountain pass across the Aundine. She was courageous, but it would take a fool to make that journey at night, and an even greater one to take it without rest.

"Well, isn't this a lovely little place?"

Seda cast her eyes back to Raphael, raising a brow slightly. "You talk about Basso and Dioli and you call this lovely?"

"It's homely." he said in return. "It looks like it's been inhabited, and not some fresh facade that they scrub clean each morning."

"It looks like a pig's stye." Seda grumbled in return, leading him into the inn. Within she instantly turned her head aside, her expression one of revulsion. Amongst the inn there was much celebration; with the coming of winter came the Festival of Frostfall, and it seemed to be commonplace that the merrymaking began early. All throughout the inn there was drinking and dancing-- gnomes and humans alike, to Seda's discontent. She quickly made to purchase a room, dragging Raphael along behind her by his shackles.

"Heading up already?" he asked her. "This looks like a shame to ignore."

"We're not on this journey for any measure of enjoyment."



Somehow, Seda managed to get to sleep. Between the rabble's noise downstairs and the visage of Raphael chained in the corner of the room, it was difficult to manage any rest. But, she rose in the morning as refreshed as she could be. She rose up from bed, a hand plunging into her mane of red hair as she smoothed out the forming curls... Then, she sat upright straight, staring towards the corner in which she had locked Raphael.

"...Mannaggia!" spat the gnome, leaping out from her bed and tearing her dagger off from her hip. "Where are you, scoundrel?"

"Reacting a bit strongly, aren't we?"

Seda paused-- the voice came from behind. Slowly she pulled herself around, her face flushed from anger and her blade-wielding hand trembling in anticipation. Much to her surprise she found the man just... sitting. Leaned back against the wall by the window.

"Do you think this is some sort of game?" she asked, marching up to Raphael with her dagger pulled back. He didn't seem too phased, just shrugging.

"Game? No, not at all. I just prefer to watch the stars. It's not like I'm going to -sleep-, now is it?"

"When I order something of you I expect that order to be followed."

The stone man sighed, rising up to his full height, looking down towards the gnome. "You're going to keep that tone without your advantage, are you?" he grinning, spreading his now free arms apart in a gesture. "Do you really think that dagger is going to do much good? If it had to, that is."

"I'll kill you with my hands if I need to." she replied, unfliching as the towering human stood up before her. "Understood?"

He chuckled, and her iron gaze only intensified.

"Well, I'll play along."



Seda was quick to leave the inn, taking from her rations rather than entertaining her escort with a time in the bar for dining. She was glad to be leaving this place; though they were only delving further into human lands, it was better to be there then in this... abominable blending of culture.

"Was there something wrong with that place?"

She laughed. "Wrong? So you noticed it as well?"

Raphael peered back, watching some of the passing villagers. "I didn't see anything wrong. I just heard you muttering."

Seda's expression quickly returned to her stoic frown. "Then you're blind. The selvic are not meant to... mingle in such a way with your people."

"How so?"

His prodding didn't please her. "Because it is an aberration. Nothing good may come of it. No happiness can be found in such a twisted partnership."

"Funny. You seemed pretty miserable when we departed."

"...I'll ignore that, for now."


Onwards rose the Aundine. Its icy peaks had long stood as the rim of selvic territory; however, in recent years the tides of war had ran to and fro to the west. The humans, content to embroil themselves in their bloody civil wars, had eventually turned to the gods and their servants for aid.

The selvic were all too eager to aid. If only they had realized what corrupting influence these outsiders had. Seda clasped her signet charm once more and continued on.

By now the gale of the great mountain was felt upon them. Raphael seemed undettered, but Seda's eyes winced through the western wind. Here the old trails of the selvic ran untended; where once lay the mosaic trails and imperial walkways were only rubble and gaps within the rocky road where the carved slabs of marble once lay. Ahead she could see the ruins of the first gate, built against the Aundine's pass to ward off any mongrels from entry into their holy land. Though it never saw battle, it still failed to protect its people from the influence of the west they so dreaded.

"Have you ever been to Reinbek?"

"I've never crossed the pass." Seda replied flatly.

"It's an interesting place. Built upon ancient walls, I think I've heard."

She rolled her eyes. "Built upon the stones lain by heretics. The 'stormcallers' and their gods of blood."

"I'm guessing you're going to keep at that, eh? Do you get along with anyone?"

"No selvic asked to be a part of your world. We were dragged into this companionship with your wars." she replied tersely. "...But, there are indeed few worthy of much consideration. Trejans are naught but slaves to greed. Obrehn, entrapped in their pride. At least Reinbek and Roschel are true to the faith."

"...And the rest?"

"The rest? I suppose you mean the wood dwellers and those of the mountains. They are heretics, and should be put to the sword."

He just shrugged. "...Right."

The mountain trail was but a short travel, in all actuality. It felt like a great struggle, with gale and snowfall battering the body. In this time of coming winter the chill was only greater, and at times it seemed as if the path would be wholly concealed by the dense downpour. There was a time when the selvic kept this trail clear, and shelters broke the relentless zephyr. No more. Those who wished to cross were to their own devices.

By the time they reached the peak of the trail the snowfall had subsided by some degree, and already they could see the evening sun above. Seda was quick to move along, but Raphael trailed slightly behind. From here the rolling plains of the Obrehn countryside could faintly be made out through the mist which engulfed the land, and Reinbek in all its glory was on display to the traveling duo.

For as much as the selvic decried its foundation, Reinbek stood a beacon of the ancient age. It was no mere fortress, a sight to be fully understood by the eyes alone. Rather, the entire kingdom itself seemed set upon the ancient walls. They say that once there were giants who roamed the land; and the grand terraces which Reinbek and its villages were constructed upon lay testament to these stoneworkers of years past.

"Stop gawking." Seda commanded. "We've much more travel ahead without slowing to stare at the scenery."

Raphael peered down the trail to the waiting gnome, then back up towards the spire which rose from Reinbek's grand cathedral. "Do you suppose they built that for myths alone?" he asked aloud. Seda raised a brow, following his gaze to the ancient cathedral along the horizon.

"There were many feats dedicated to scripture, be it truth or fraud."

He shrugged in response. "...Well. If that's what you think." he sighed, and began to continue down the trail. Seda watched him a moment before returning her eyes towards the temple in the distance and following behind.
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#10
-The Journey to Home-




Tasha could hardly sleep in the strange elven home. It felt so insecure; just a wooden floor with cloth draping over for roof and walls. It was all built against a large tree, propped up by wooden struts jutting across the top of the... room. That's really what it was; a single room, divided by the folding walls the elves seemed to move to and fro. Tasha didn't enjoy the spacious quarters at all. Each time the wind blew she could feel the home billow in the breeze, and feel some of the gale coming in from under the cloth. She stayed wrapped up against a makeshift corner where one of the folding screens met the tree trunk, idly peering about as Mehin and the other elf went about their business.

She just stayed there, staring about, until eventually she dozed off for her two hours of sleep. Eventually the elves rose up, Mehin walking about and lighting the dim flimsy lamps which hung from the struts. They seemed fairly content, but by this point Tasha was very ready to be on her way.

"So you never introduced us, Mehin." spoke the woman. She was seated on her knees at one of the tables in the room, a steaming cup of tea before her. Now that Tasha had a full look of her she seemed much alike Mehin; though her frame was much more delicate, and her golden hair was even lighter in hue.

"Who is your friend?"

"A darkling, apparently. I found her in the forest, passed out from the cold."

"Tasha." she blurted out, sheepishly making her way to the table. Though the elves seemed to sit she found herself having to stand to be on-level with the surface.

"Well, it's a pleasure to meet you. I am Aula."

"My sister." Mehin explained. "...I believe she had something that she wished to discuss with you. I'll leave you two be for the moment." he said, bowing slightly before removing himself from their presence. Aula bowed her head to the darkling, a soft smile gracing her face.

"My brother told me that you intended on travelling." she explained. "I... have long wished to travel away from this village. And if you are only bound for the human lands to the east, then it should be a travel we may both take safely."

Tasha tilted her head slightly. "You will come to Home with Tasha, then?"

"Perhaps. I've been meaning to take a journey east for some time; and we could both do with the company, yes?"

The darkling regarded her blankly for a moment. Aula's smile slowly faded, unable to comprehend much of a response from the little creature's vacant stare.

"Yes, that will work." Tasha said. "Much way to go to Home, it seems. Company is good. Strength in numbers, yes."

The elf grinned some, nodding excitedly. "Just give me a moment. I've not much to pack." she told her, rushing off into another 'chamber' of their home. Tasha watched the excitable elf rush off, casually sliding down the table and taking a sip from the mug which lay abandoned.



"Are you sure you will be alright on the road, Aula?" asked Mehin, following behind with a furrowed brow. "Humanity is not kind to us. Even in Obrehn."

"Well, there is little for me in the village." she replied, seated on her bed as she combed through her knapsack for her belongings. "What fate do I have here? To be a forager, or a hunter? A farmer? Brother, you may be content with yourself, but... I have not even mastered a single spell. I yearn for knowledge, and that knowledge will not come from these huntsmen and tailors."

Mehin's eyes turned down. "...I know. I told you and father the same when I first left, did I not?" he asked, forcing a nervous chuckle. Her eyes dimmed some at the mention.

Aula set down her belongings, looking back to her brother. She nodded slightly, voice firm. "I will return, brother. No beasts will make prey of me."

"...I thought the same of father."

Aula rose and walked to Mehin, embracing him briefly. "I-"

"We leave, yes? Much ground to travel."

The pair frowned, casting their eyes out to the room where the darkling waited. Aula drew away from Mehin, bowing slightly. "Have faith, brother. Keep well."



"So..."

"Yes?"

"Are you magic too?" Tasha asked, bounding behind Aula as they walked down the trail to the eastern edge of the forest. "Other overlander was magic, threw fire. Amazing!"

"I do not know magic like my brother, no..." she said, chuckling at the childish prodding. "Fire was not my interest, but water."

"Water?" asked Tasha, face showing her clear confusion. "...What use is water? Make things wet? ...Does not seem worth trouble."

"Water is a cleansing element." she said, unphased by the darkling's words. "Able to heal and purge wounds. To protect others."

"Healing?" she asked, brows perked. "...Oh! That is interesting, yes. Did not know magic could heal."

"I take it your kind do not know much of the arcane, then? Few do. The humans think it... evil. Why, I could not say."

"Evil? Magic seems useful, yes. Your magic sounds very nice!"

"Thank you." she said, bowing slightly. "I think so as well. Perhaps if I travel and show them, they will come to understand the arcane as I do."

"Maybe. Do not know much of humans. Or elves. Or... overland."

"Then perhaps we can teach one another something as we travel. I know little of your people as well, Tasha."

The darkling had by this point calmed herself, just walking alongside the tall elf with her head craned up to peer at her traveling companion. She nodded slightly, adjusting her glasses. "...Maybe. Yes. You seem good."

The two continued to chat, marching on down the forest trail. From behind Mehin watched from the edge of the village, until their forms had vanished in the morning fog and faded from sight.
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#11
-Hearts of Stone-




For all the kinship the selvic shared with Reinbek, it was truly a horrible place to be. While they may have eked out a merry existence atop those great stone walls to the eastern edge of the marsh, the rest of the land lay uncultivated and wild. A ramshackle wooden trail had been lain many ages ago, in the time of the great explorers-- but the aged trail was scarcely tended to. Rotten planks and ones completely degenerated to the earth lay beneath the traveling duo. And while Seda took each step laboriously, Raphael simply tromped along behind, only truly troubled by the heavy footfalls his stone feet took into the damp soil beneath.

"What's the matter up there? You sound like your dying." teased the man of stone, a wicked grin cast down to the heaving gnome. "Maybe if you had a bit less of that armor on you wouldn't be as taxed."

"My armor is... my strength." Seda managed through her pants of exertion. The heat of the marsh was smouldering to one used to the pleasant plains of the selvic fields. In this swamp it felt as if they were swimming, not walking. "Without it I would be as vulnerable as a child."

"Whatever you say." he said, rather easily tromping past the struggling gnome. She watched him silently, hand ready to draw back to her axe if need be. Thankfully he just kept in pace beside her, and seemed to have no mind to truly part ways... though, at present he certainly could.


"So if you needed to go to Heliger, why come to Carmina Galbera?" asked Seda. "We are somewhat out of the way of your destination, after all."

"Well, it just seemed like an easier way to do things."

"I don't suppose you'll tell me anything of this little forray of yours, now will you?" she asked, unbuckling her coif enough to let some more air into her armor.

"Nope. Secret. Very important that it stays that way." he said, smirking back to her.

"Seriously?" she said blankly, peering at the peculiar man. By now he had turned about and was just marching in step backwards, arms crossed behind his head.

"When am I ever not?"



Eventually the marsh began to clear into a dense forest. Seda by now was exhausted, though unwilling to make camp in this part of the wilds-- she had kept her guard up as they moved, occasionally taking a glance back at the surrounding woodland.

She could swear that something was out there.

"We can take a stop, if you'd like." Raphael commented. "Not all of us can be so perfect."

She shot a bitter glare back to the man, shaking her head. "This is... the territory of beasts. We'll not be caught off our guard here."

"I don't think you'd do much against one as you are, either way."

"Better as I am than asleep." she said through a strained grunt, drawing her axe upright as she struggled onward.

She glanced back, staring stony-eyed back to Raphael. He was standing still, arms crossed. "Take a rest. If something comes, I'll be awake." he frowned slightly as she failed to respond. "Trust me."

Against her better judgement, she relented to the demand. Once they found a suitable clearing off of the path she set up camp and practically fell down asleep within the tent. Raphael set himself against a tree outside in the meantime. His eyes were cast out about the forest, searching for something. After a time of silence he spread his arms, shattering the cuffs around them with a single pull. He dipped his arms slowly down towards his shadow, and from its depths pulled forth a pair of large blades, steeped in darkness.


Seda's sleep was fitful. In her dreams she found herself in a winding corridor, unsettling etchings spanning from floor, to roof, to wall. She was wholly immersed in darkness, struggling to fight her way out from grasping figures she could not see. Dark tendrils seeped out from around her, and a bitter wind bore into her very soul from the other end of the cavernous hall. She ran and ran, but still felt the grasping hands brushing against her, the wicked limps of black lashing her body as she ducked and weaved around them. Finally the gnome made her way out from the hall, and within a larger clearing...

It appeared to be a church. The isle was littered with petals long decayed, the pews rotten and out of order, shoved about haphazardly. She could see holy books lying in states of disuse and decay upon the altar in front-- and the tapestry which normally hung above lay torn to shreds, lain low atop the altar like some sort of funeral shroud.

It was a perversion. At the very least, the grasping hands no longer sought her. She walked forth, slowly making her way down the isle. The stained glass was nothing but erratic strikes of colors, cracked and bringing forth an unpleasant light within the room. The statues seemed to stare down upon her, their weapons crude and misshapen.

She heard a noise. A quick crack of stone. Swiftly she began to look about, reaching for weapons which were not there. She ran aside, grabbing a dull shield discarded upon the floor, raising it as she saw the light of the windows retreating and plunging her into darkness once more. Twisting shadows began to emerge-- one began to charge forward, barreling at her with an unnatural speed. Its body began to twist and shift, and the last thing she saw was its wretched claws reaching out to rend into her.


She awoke in a cold sweat to the clash of metal outside. Though unarmored save the light chain undershirt she wore she drew her axe from her pile of equipment and rushed out, ready for battle. Outside Raphael stood, two blades as black as the night sky above them clenched in both hands, drawn up to shield himself from the sword of a skullion which stood hunched before him. Another one stood crouched nearby, leaping at Seda the moment she left her tent.

Her eyes went wide, only able to react with a swift dodge aside. Her eyes took in the twisted figure for a moment, partially shocked at the sight of the unnatural form which stood before her. From under its mask she could see drops of blood dripping from its slathering maw-- still fresh from his last hunt.

"Back! You'll make no meal of me, monster!" she cried out with a furious growl. Her hand stretched forth, clasping tight as burning golden light engulfed it. She forced herself upright, waving the golden flame about to ward the beast back. It was repelled by the blaze, hissing lowly as it raised its shield defensively at the sight of the holy magic.

"Wretched creature..." hissed the skullion, twirling its blade in preparation. "I will enjoy carving your flesh."

It drew back from her strike, its agile body nearly bending back to avoid the axe, now blazing with holy fire. Again she swung, her slow heaving swings of her weapon far outpaced by her foe. The skullion seemed to be one step ahead each time. As she readied her axe again she felt a sharp pain from behind, the shadow of another skullion shifting about behind her. She let out a cry of pain, toppled over by the heavy blow. The skullion behind her lunged forward, the stench of carrion heavy upon it as it prepared to gorge itself on the gnome. Seda closed her eyes, summoning up the last of her strength to shield herself behind a shell of burning light.

With a roar of pain the skullion drew back, clutching its seared body. Though her vision was rapidly blurring she could see Raphael plunging his weapon through the stunned creature, the other one escaping into the night as it saw its comrade lain low. Unable to hold her consciousness any longer, Seda fell back into darkness once more.



When she awoke the forest around them was lit with daylight, now peaceful despite the night's fray. Though she was drowsy at first she soon managed upright, gasping for breath as she felt over her body.

Intact. Despite the wound on her back, she felt well once more. Her eyes quickly set upon Raphael, who lay against the tree nearby. He was largely silent, meticulously fitting stones into his arm where a cleave of discolored stone could be seen.

"Hey." she called over. He returned her stare, a grin spreading over his face.

"Yeeees?" he asked, drawing himself fully upright. "Come to give your thanks? It was nothing, really." he said, waving her off with a chuckle.

"I get it." she said, folding her arms as she peered up to him. "...Even if you're going to be insufferable about it, you have my thanks. Without your aid I would not have survived."

"Oh please. You flatter me!"

"Then again, without your insistence for a stop we might not have encountered those beasts at all." she said, jutting her hand upright. "...But, I was in need of the respite. I will admit that as well."

Raphael smirked some at her comment, shaking the smaller hand gently. He noted her reaction-- she seemed none too pleased by the feel of his stone palm. Regardless she remained quiet, drawing back as she began to lead on once more. "Heliger isn't far from here, is it?"

"...No, its not." she replied. "Thank the trinity, eh?"

"...Indeed."
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#12
-Hearts of Stone-




Vittoria scurried down the stairs towards her family parlor, nearly tripping over herself as she reached the last few steps. The young gnome braced herself against the banister, peering upwards cautiously at the gathering around the den's hearth. On each couch a man and woman sat, across from one another-- her own parents and those of one of the noble families of Carmena Galbera. Their daughter Tatiana awaited her at the foot of the stairwell, clad in one of her rich silken gowns as typical.

The smaller gnome made a motion of silence, taking Vittoria's hand and leading her out into the gardens. Vittoria didn't protest, following along behind the other gnome. They quietly made their way out of the parlor, Vittoria casting a parting glance back towards the speaking families as they closed the door behind them.

"...What's going on, Tiana?" she asked, directing her eyes back to the other gnome, who already was milling about the gardens idly. She frowned, rushing along to catch up with her. She frowned some, watching her friend as she looked through the array of flowers that her mother had planted over the grounds.

"Those are the same since last you saw them, silly." she told her, leaning on the stone walls around the planters and nudging the noblewoman slightly. "...Now c'mon. What's going on in there?"

Tatiana raised a brow, looking up to Seda as she pushed away from the planter. "...Well. It was my birthday only a week ago, Tori."

The woman smirked. "It was. Eighteen to my seventeen, and I still stand over you." she said, pulling herself upright and looming over the woman beside her. "Did my father get you something then? It's not like him to be late on a gift."

Her friend forced a smile in return. "Ah... no, not that. Do you remember what happened to Gallo and Elsa on their eighteenth?"

Vittoria frowned, rubbing her chin in thought for a moment. Gallo was the eldest of Tatiana's family, and Elsa the middle child. "I'm far too young to remember your brother's." she told her, sticking out her tongue childishly in retort. "But... Elsa? I remember Elsa was given that placement at the Illuminae." she paused, gasping a moment. "A-ha! Getting a post, are you? What are you going to be? Artificer? Philosopher? ...I should think not a Crusader." she said, snickering as she prodded the gnome once more.

"Seda..." she groaned in return, rubbing her forehead. "They were married!"

Vittoria's expression was completely blank at this, her eyes widening ever slightly. "But... my brother is already engaged."

"No, Vittoria." she said, setting her hands on the broader shoulders of her friend. "The arrangement is with you."

Vittoria shook the smaller gnome off of her, taking a step back. A weak laugh came from her, brushing her tangled mane of hair back. "...Funny, Tiana! Very funny."

"It's no jest, Tori." replied the smaller gnome, folding her hands before her. "My brother and sister are wed already; father doesn't care for more heirs. I thought..."

Seda frowned deeply, staring down her friend as she seemed to recoil from her reaction. A few times she attempted to summon up some kind of apology or word of acceptance, but she found the words caught in her throat, unable to escape. Instead she just watched, Tatiana turning away with a look of embarresment clear on her face. Quickly Vittoria stumbled forward, grabbing hold of the other gnome's arm and pulling her back towards her.

"...I would love to be your knight."




For some reason her thoughts had been stuck in the past since they departed Carmina Galbera. She wasn't sure if it was that brief talk with Tatiana, or just the shroud of guilt heavy upon her still. Seda shook her head some, rubbing her temples sorely as she trod on. Once out from that stifling bog they had quickly found themselves in a more agreeable, if more frigid climate. The forests of Obrehn were temperate, much like that of San Salvacion's; though here many of the greenery was turned to gray, bare limbs swaying about the dead trunks of the giant trees in the occasional gust of wind. Snow caked the ground, but at least most of the human trailblazers here had been courteous enough to lay cobble down and keep it tended to.

She was content enough in that they had yet to encounter any more of those monsters, though. One close encounter had been more than enough. Since then her traveling companion had remained uncharacteristically quiet, and it did rouse a bit of suspicioun from her. Occasionally she would glance back only to see his gaze cast idly out to the blanketed fields around them, seemingly lost in thought. She unwraveled her map-- by her count, it was just a day longer of travel to Heliger.

"So if you won't tell me why you're going there, at least tell me where you're coming from."

Raphael raised a brow, eying the gnome. "Oh? Interested in me, are you?"

"I'm trying to be amicable. Play along." she retorted, though her tone was all in good jest.

"Of course you are." he sighed, pulling his arms up behind his head. "Well if you must know, I'm from Treja. My family and village was taken from me in the middle of the night by those creatures from last night. I was the only survivor."

She peered back to him, her jovial expression deflated. "...I see."

"Then I ran off with a sailing crew to learn how to fight and avenge all my brothers and sisters. While on one of the boats I learned magic, got into some unsavory company, and was cursed into stone by an evil wizard."

"...Ah?"

"So, then I swore revenge and tamed a dragon to pursue the wiza-"

"Alright, enough of that." she groaned, shoving the man back some. "If you were just going to make up stories you could have told me no."

"And the wizard was my father -and- the warlord from the village!"

"Humans..." she grumbled, shaking her head slowly.

"Well if you ask me to tell a story, I'll tell you an interesting one at least. Reality is hardly entertaining gossip."

"Whatever you say. I could tell you many a tale of battle." she said proudly, folding her arms. "Like our march upon the human lands, when we brought an end to their civil war. Or the clearing of the seaboard from the natives and their cults."

"I don't think any plays were ever written about that sort of thing."

"What do you mean?"

"Legends are about heroes. Not armies. Protaginists, y'know?"

"I'm not a weaver of myth though. I'm a knight, and if you wish to hear of true glory then I will gladly oblige."

"Go on."

She tapped her chin, thinking silently for a moment. However, as she began to speak she heard a crack of thunder in the distance. She drew her axe, looking onwards-- to her surprise she could see smoke rising from the village down the hillside. The sound of cannonfire echoed through the winter forest, and the sound of bells and warhorns broke the peace of their evening walk.

"Heliger." Seda said, motioning Raphael to follow as she charged ahead. To her surprise he was already passing her by the time she signalled, blades of black night out and at the ready as he weaved down the trail towards the city.
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#13
-Hearts of Stone-

Finale




Heliger was not a place commonly spoken of, or visited. To the humans it was but a remote selvic abbey in the countryside, garrisoned by people of the selvic church in their goodwill to humanity. An old fortress made into a place of faith. To the selvic, it was the opposite. In the aftermath of the civil war, great evils rose to prominence, and were put down. They needed a place to go, and it couldn't be in the public eye.

A battle here could bring nothing but chaos. Seda was in awe as she approached-- the grand steeple of the selvic abbey lay in rubble, fallen upon the walls of the once mighty fortress. Smoke billowed up from many homes built within the fort's walls, the thatched roofs of the human homes ablaze in an inferno of twisting unnatural flame. Already Seda could tell-- this was not the work of rioters or any meager raiders. This was a different craft entirely.

"Halt! Halt by the name of the trinity, or meet your demise!" barked Seda, drawing her axe upright as she caught sight of a robed figure in the rubble. From the clearing dust a ghastly human rose out, his body clad in torn and ragged raiment, warpaint adorning him in skewed macabre patterns. His eyes held a certain absence that brought a sudden fear within the knight-- despite herself she took a step back, her eyes wide. With a roar of defiance she rushed forward, swinging her axe down as she caught the sight of sparks in his hands-- with one swing his spell was silenced, and the cultist lain low.

She stood heaving for a moment, holding her eyes-- there was something familiar within that vacant gaze, a darkness she could not wholly describe. She couldn't afford to sit and ruminate on this, though; she drew herself out of her daze, shaken awake by the sound of another cannon firing within the city. Faintly through the crowds of rushing men and women she could see Raphael's flowing coat.

"Hey! Wait!" she cried, rushing in, pushing and shoving her way through the crowd of escaping villagers. Looking about she could see that this town was finished. Not one building had escaped the infernal flame which rose up amongst the homes, and bodies were strewn all about; villager, guard, or cultist alike. It was nothing short of a massacre.

A glint of steel caught her eye-- quickly she drew back, a dagger narrowly missing her. She soon found herself entrenched amongst another approaching wave of guardsmen, joined in battle alongside them against the horde of cultists which drove against them. It was... almost unnerving to see them throw themselves against them. One after another, swept down into the masses before them with the swing of their blades. She saw friend and foe alike join the dead in a rapid flurry-- it was all she could manage to keep from being injured by the flames and blades which struck out at them.

"A spell! A spell!" cried one of the guardsmen-- she saw them begin to run, and to her surprise the cultists ceased their assault. They rose their hands up, chanting. She drew back, looking to the escaping soldiers.

"What spell? What are they doing?" she cried, voice cracking under the pressure.

She soon found her answer. A blinding flash of light rose up from the middle of the city. Screams rang out throughout the town, twisting and contorting as they were enveloped by the blinding flame. Swiftly the flare turned to darkness-- and for the brief moment she looked forth into that approaching wall of the void, it was if she were staring into the face of death itself.

A shield of golden light came up around her, and she braced with her weapon-- the force of the blow threw her from her feet, but still the shield held. She strained against the blast, until finally it dimmed away...

What lay before her was a haunting effigy of the power these vile wizards wielded. Across the ground, burning bodies lay where cultists and villagers once stood. Behind her guardsmen were all but welded against their armor, screams of agony placed on their withered faces. Worst of all were their eyes-- as black as that crawling void that had briefly surrounded her. She wrenched her eyes shut long enough to gain her footing, raising up and looking about in silence. No sound met her.

"...Hello?" she called out-- again, no response. She brought her axe at the ready, looking to the now charred fort. Last she saw, Raphael had fled into there. It was the only place she could think to check. She slowly made her way into the tattered abbey, and only saw more of the mangled bodies within. Once more she called out, and a clatter from the lower floor met her in return.

The prison.


All seemed to slow down for her-- as she ran towards the cells she was uncaring to the bodies littering the floor-- uncaring to the blackened wounds they held, just as those from outside held in their eyes. She didn't care that there were no signs of destruction apart from the bodies, and that they were cleaved through with blades and not seared by flame. She felt only fear for what lay ahead.


When she stormed into the dungeon she found Raphael, standing before a cell, a figure pulled up over his shoulder.

"What are you doing?!" she cried, resisting a charge directly at the man. "Traitor! You traitor!" she howled, voice growing shrill and hoarse.

He was silent for a moment, observing her as she stood with her axe ready and her face twisted in rage. His expression was blank, only letting out a grunt of exertion as he adjusted his grip on the figure. Slowly a smirk grew.

"How?" he asked, tilting his head ever slightly.

"That prisoner... set her back! No one from these cells should see the light of day!"

"How do you know that?"

"Nothing good comes from beneath Heliger. Now... set her back, or else!" she commanded, her axe drawn and ready to strike. Her eyes remained locked on him, ready for any movement. To her surprise his posture slackened, a sigh of resignation escaping his lips. Without a word he set the woman back down, her body simply falling flat against the floor of the dungeon.

He grinned. She raised a brow, stepping closer. "Look out." he said flatly.

The sound of a rushing blade met her ears, and with a cry of pain she felt a spear of black slam through her shoulder, armor splintered and cracked where the strike had set in. The blur of ebony steel shot towards Raphael's hand, forming into a keen blade, large in size. Another seemed to be produced from the shadows themselves as he leaned a hand back into it. Seda fell to the floor, grasping at the cold stone as she tried to overcome the stinging pain surging through her wounded arm.

"It's nothing personal."

She went rigidly still. Looking up she found Raphael standing right above her, his blade inches from her neck.

"I just want to be free. You'd understand it, if you knew." he said, smiling so innocuously as he drew back his sword.

She watched as that wicked black steels swung down towards her. Through the aching pain her eyes narrowed upon the blade, and her gauntleted hands clenched tight into angered fists. She wouldn't die here. Summoning up her strength she rose, a shield of golden light formed briefly before shattering from the statue's assault. In a flash Seda's axe was drawn, and already a heavy swing was sent into Raphael, missing by a hair's breadth. The two drew back, and without hesitation Seda charged.

She was outpaced, and she knew it. Her swings were slow and lumbering, and his own were swift and precise. One swing and miss-- two swings, and a pauldron was sent clattering to the floor. Though exposing her, the lack of armor did grant one single boon to the gnome-- speed. As he swung in for yet another assault her axe swung back, crashing into him with the sound of shattering stone and the crunch of yielding rock. With a frenzied war-cry the gnome sent the stone man flying back into the walls, landing with yet another heavy thud.

He didn't seem to move. Cautiously Seda approached, her axe reared back and ready. As she came nearer though he seemed to fade into the darkness, body lost in a blink of an eye.

Seda stood still-- waiting, listening. It was too late by the time she felt his blade strike through her armor. With her mouth agape in shock she turned her gaze down, a shaking hand resting upon the bloodied blade which now ran through the gnome's body.

"Such a shame." came his merry voice from above-- he continued to speak, but it was lost upon her. All was going dark; with a pained outcry she prepared to embrace the end.



She was falling. Her lifeless body plummeting down an abyss of black, rushing air the only sound to grace her ears. Her eyes strained to open, but in the wall of darkness there was no sign to show her where she was bound. Her body slowly regained feeling, as if rejuvenated by some greater power-- as she reached a hand towards her mortal wound a blinding light surged out from within the dark.

She awoke in a garden. Her mother's garden-- now, her own. It was not as she had left it, however. Tatiana's green thumb seemed to be long absent, the flowers dead and littering the cobble trail with their discolored petals. The small trees along the walls had either fallen or rose out of control, their grayed and dying branches a ghoulish sight from the former trimmed bushes and trees of the garden.

Facing about, the entire manor had changed for the worst. Its aged masonry showed breaks and cracks, and the finery was tattered as it devoured by vermin.Vines from the garden grew wild over the face of the home, and the stained glass of the parlor was dull, discolored, and cracked.

"Tatiana?" called Seda, her voice hoarse. As she rose she called out once more. "Tiana!"

She rushed into the manor, the doors opening with a groan of wood. Hurriedly she ran to and fro through the home; the den lay a wreck, the table shattered and books strewn from about the shelves. The bedrooms were covered with feathers of pillows and sheets, and a thick coat of dust covered all. Her voice called for her wife again and again, until she finally could not stand to cry out. Defeated she walked down to the stairs of the den, seating herself on the lowest step with a sigh.

In the distance she heard the bells of the church ringing out. The tones were off-- it lent a somber tone to the regularly welcoming melody.

More importantly, in the aftermath of the crying belfry she heard footsteps out along the city streets.

Without hesitation she charged outside, nearly ripping the door from its hinges as she shoved out and into the dirt-covered mosaic pathway of the residential district. She cared not for the state of abandonment around her-- in the distance her mind briefly registered the absence of the grand cathedral's steeple, but it was but a blur. A backdrop, as she ran towards the sound of the footsteps.

"Tiana!" she called out once more, and stopped her charge as the figure turned in recognition. A broad smile spread across Seda's face, closing the gap between them with a weary trot. The other gnome's face was one of confusion, however. Seda drew near, spreading her arms apart to gesture for an embrace; however, none came.

"...That's unlike you." Tatiana said, voice cold and sullen. "Is my father watching?"

Seda felt a chill run up her spine. "...Tiana! Tiana, this isn't the time. What's happening?"

The smaller woman stood silent for a moment, her expression unmoved. After a moment she turned, beginning to walk onwards. Seda followed along, rubbing down the back of her own head as she watched on.

"You're not coming back, are you Vittoria?"

She frowned deeply, peering about. "I... am back, Tiana. I just do not know what I've returned to."

"I suppose I should miss you... But you weren't there much before, either way."

Seda stopped in her tracks, fists clenching somewhat as frustration, anger and shame built up within her. She watched the other gnome move along the broken mosaics on the road, and finally rushed along behind, pulling her arms around Tatiana to embrace her.

"This... this is a vision, isn't it? Well it's not ending like this. I will return, Tatiana. I will fix this. We'll be--"

She found herself cut off, thrown off of the smaller gnome with a growl of anger. Her wife stood nearly a head lower than her, but at that moment she looked fierce. Her normally gentle demeanor was one of rage, and her hands once covered by those dainty white gloves were balled up in fists, ready to swing.

"You... you fool." spoke the woman, her voice distorted and whispering. "Hope is fleeting. Hope is faint. It is dying.. . ."

"...Tiana?"

"The die has already been cast for you. And fortune finds you unworthy." the voice continued, though now Tatiana seemed silent, as if frozen in time. The voice was not hers at all, but some murmering which itched at the back of Seda's mind. Though she looked about, she could not find a source.

The ground shook. It began to steadily quake, and Seda was thrown to her knees by the jarring motion. She quickly pushed herself upright, finding her eyes directed upwards-- the sun was but a faint light in some distant space now. Dark shadows weaved around her, and seemed to engulf all beyond her manor and the city walls.

At the end of the residential lane she saw a figure. It was a tall, unnatural figure, with body of black and a head of ghostly white. It did not move, and yet its stillness in and of itself unsettled her. Without thinking she drew near to the still unresponsive Tatiana, bringing her arms up to shield her as she grasped for an axe which seemed now absent. "Who's there!" she called out towards the figure.

It did not respond. She stared intently, and in the blink of an eye it was gone. Nothing but twisting shadows remained. She stepped forward, about to speak out once more... until she noticed a towering shadow cast over her.

She turned, and suddenly found herself ensnared. The figure now stood behind, where Tatiana had been-- there was no sight of her wife now, though the thoughts were nearly purged from her mind by the ghoulish creature standing before her. It... was human, or so it seemed to be in stature. Its body was sunken in, as if starving. Its black 'skin' clung tight to bones which seemed jagged and irregular, and as she found now its limbs seemed to stretch and bend. She found herself ensnared by multiple arms, rising up out of the shadow cast by the creature. Its featureless blank head was leering down towards her, drawing her nearer. She kicked, screamed, attempted to fight or flee-- but the grip of the creature was iron, and her protest seemed fruitless.

It said nothing. She could only return its silence, in rapt and fearful attention. Suddenly she heard a creaking sound-- the sound of straining wood, a groan of sorts. Upon its face two creases seemed to form, cracking and spreading with a sickening series of snaps and crunches. Two eyes became apparent underneath, a black 'ink' flowing freely from them as they were slowly revealed.

"Fade. . ."

All begin to fade to black; as she stared into the face of the creature though, she vividly thought; those eyes staring back towards her were her own.



She awoke in the dungeon of Heliger. Her vision was clouded, revealing nothing but shades of black and gray; bleary shadows which danced upon her line of sight. Echoing whispers came from all around-- some she could not understand. Others she wished she could not. Pain coursed throughout her body, and a strange black ichor seemed to seep from her wounds and run down her face. She struggled to stand, the agony of her wounds overpowering; instead she could only call out.

"Raphael..." she called, reaching for the axe which lay just out of reach. One end of the blade was shattered.

No reply came. From overhead she could hear the crack of thunder, and with a defeated groan she lay her head down upon the cold stone floor. She barely recognized at all when raindrops began to fall down upon her, closing her hollow eyes and seeking refuge in either sleep or death. Right now, she could not tell which one awaited her.
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#14
-Statuesque-




“Are you going to keep staring off like that? Don't tell me you're tired already.”

...Hmm?

Raphael glanced aside, perched on a wall alongside the cathedral walkway. Nearby a woman stood, an instrument case hung over her back as she awaited him.

Why, I didn't see you there!” he chimed merrily, vaulting off the wall only to land with a huff, straightening up quickly.

“Are you alright, Raphael? You look a bit... stiff. Sleep poorly last night?”

Something like that. Shall we then?” he asked, making a grand flourish with his arm to motion onwards. She offered her arm. He only walked past at his upbeat pace.

So, what shall we do today? The sonata? The waltz?” he asked, spinning about to speak as he walked on towards the grand music hall. He hummed idly to himself, pulling the door open for his companion as she entered in.

“Whatever you'd like, Raphael. But... we may want to take another piece now. You've become quite good at these already. Faster than I could have, even.”

Playing isn't always about progression.” he replied, bounding on behind to catch up with her, though his pace was still somewhat sedate. The performance hall was dimly lit, and as they walked in the sight of the open piano greeted them, a few other instruments tucked away just behind the curtains. He didn't pay them much mind, already leading up and onto the bench of the instrument, fingers fidgeting about as he pulled pieces about.

“Why don't we try this?” asked the woman, setting down a paper atop the other leather-bound books.

What's that?” he asked, quickly taking the sheet and peering intently at it. “...I don't see a name. And it doesn't look like any composer I've read from.

“Of course it doesn't. I wrote it.” she told him, smiling brightly. “...It may need some work, but my colleagues seemed to be fine with it.”

Raphael's expression was unreadable for a moment, eyes scanning over the piece. Gently he placed it back atop the piano, and with a nod he began to play.




As the night went on the woman began to pack up, walking over to the pianist as he continued. “It's been lovely as always, Raphael.” he told him, leaning along the piano slightly. “Shall we go?”

Already? The night is young.” he said with a wide, undeterred grin.

“And yet you're the one who looks tired. Get some rest-- maybe it will have your fingers slipping less next time we meet.” she says through a faint laugh.

...Right. Of course.

She stood, the pair walking on to the lobby of the concert hall. She was the first to pass through the doors, glancing back at Raphael as he eased against the arch of the entrance.

“...Are you not going home yet?” she asked him with a sigh.

No, no. Go on ahead of me.” he said with a brief wave. “I'll just stand here and look pretty.

He got a groan in return, the woman shaking her head slightly. “...Well, whatever makes you happy. I'll see you tomorrow, Raphael.”


-----------------------------------

“What.... are you?”

Don't touch me.
“But--”
Don't touch me again!

“Please, don't! I--”
Stop!



From the fields of the central wilderlands rose the tall figure of Raphael, another draped over his shoulder in fitful slumber. Slowly he marched forward, gait off and worn, his wicked blade of black clenched tightly in his hand. He brings his hand up along his brow, holding it there as his eyes lock upon a walled city in the distance.

"One step closer."
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#15
-Heart of Stone-





Seda tromped through the fields on the outskirts of Heliger, her helm pulled over her head and her axe ready in hand. Her gait had turned stiff and pained, her stance that of a weary warrior, bent forth and on the verge of collapse. She shuddered as she felt her senses deadening, a chill like the coldest winter settling into her bones and coursing further into her very soul. She was lethargic, and yet she managed strength to continue. Her axe was hauled over her shoulder, a cry of anger suppressed as she did so. Out before her the dying fields of Heliger lay, their orange hue fading to the gray of winter. To most there was nothing more to see-- the city lay in ruins behind her, bodies of soldiers drenching the cobbled paths with a macabre scene that... before, she had only heard stories of.

It didn't matter to her anymore. In what others would see as a dying field, she saw a trail. Through the graying crops many were bent under a heavy weight. A weight of stone. She drew a hand up along one of the wounds that had been dealt to her-- brushing upon the cleaved steel of her plate armor, where a gruesome gash lay within. Her fingers touched against the wound, and she immediately drew them back, nearly collapsing forward from the pain. Upon her fingers lay blood of black, muddled and unnatural. She was unnatural-- the beast had made her an aberration just as he was.

A whisper caught her attention briefly, but she made little of it. She continued on, dragging her weight through the field until she found herself coming upon a cavern. She stared long into the black abyss, dropping her axe as she realized the folly of her pursuit-- perhaps he left one trail, but could she truly follow him forever?

"There are. . .ways. . ."

She froze up. That whisper again. She meant to draw back as she saw it emerge-- even in her beaten and bruised state, what she saw within that chasm compelled her to flee. And yet, she could not. She could not move, even as she urged her body to do so.

"Who goes there!" barked the gnome, grasping aimlessly for her weapon.

From within the cavern drew the figure of a tall, towering creature. Its face she could not see, obscured by darkness as it was. It was almost human, but... wrong. Simply wrong. Its thin and bony limbs seemed still as the dead-- in fact it truly did not seem to move at all. Until she blinked, at which she found its pale head visible amongst the darkness, obscured slightly from behind an earthen crag. It... entranced her. Demanded her attention.

"Vengeance..." hissed the murmering voice. It seemed to echo all around her, encompassing her and forcing its way into her mind. Her hands clenched upon her axe, but before she could reply a figure came into view, clad in a flowing cloak, a wicked black blade held in hand.

She did not think. She struck. She rushed forward into the cavern, letting out a furious cry as she raised her axe upright, and swung it down with all of her might onto the form of her tormentor-- with a crash of stone the form vanished, melding into the black abyss which now seemed to churn around her.

"Vengeance. . .The warrior of the righteous lusts for vengeance. . ." continued the whispering man. She now could not see him, the faint glimpse of his thin tendril-like limbs caught out of the corner of her eye at best.

"I... no." she replied, throwing her axe down, turning about in a fruitless effort to face the one addressing her. "No, I... I want to be whole. I want to be done with this... madness. I wish to go home."

"He has taken something that cannot be replaced." stated the voice plainly.

"Then I will tear his head from his shoulders to reclaim it!"

There was nothing but silence for a brief moment, and suddenly after the cavern became filled with laughter. Melodic and merry at first, but quickly turning scornful, one of a mocking crowd.

"It will not be so. . .simple. . ."

"You are... you are no mere man. I understand that." replied Seda, drawing back as the darkness drew closer towards her. "Of what nature are you? The others... are you what they claim as a god?"

No response. The dark shroud only came nearer.

"I will do anything. Anything to return." pleaded the fallen knight, dropping to her knees. She removed her helm and held it against her chest, staring forth into the void with eyes which held only the same. She held her helm and waited, watching on as darkness came nearer and nearer, the jagged arms of this eldritch aberration rising up all along the cavern floor around her. They grasped towards her, skeletal hands coated in a creaking mass of black stretched and outreaching, their claws bared as if ready to tear into her prone form.

And suddenly, all was as it once was. The cavern was empty, the dim light from outside lighting the chamber around her.


"Hunt well. . ." spoke the voice, this time pointed and easily traced. When she looked to follow him she saw only one of the branches in the cavern trail, flickering shadows welling up about it. With this sign she rose and drew her axe, and began to follow once more.
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