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Thread: [M] Anima Mundi IC (Namingtoohard and Headwrapper)

  1. #481
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    "You have a good point," Godrich said, placing both elbows on the table as he laced his fingers. "Trying to brute force our way out of here might open us up to risk. But moving a letter might be much simpler... Although there is the risk that our messenger is not able to find Mec, and we run out of time." He shot a glance towards Clair, who was silently contemplating the presented options. "What do you think?"

    Clair was silent, staring down at the bowl of stew in front of her, casually swirling the liquid with a wooden spoon. She carefully ate a spoonful, before setting the spoon down. "A letter might be our only option, but of course we should keep our eyes and ears open for any better opportunities. Either way, we'll need to find ourselves a smuggler who might be willing to help out, for coin or otherwise..." She looked around the tavern before continuing. "We can come up with a few stories, mingle with some of the merchant types. I'm sure we will come across a few. Even if they're still here, they will have ways to move some of their wares- ways they deem trustworthy."

    Let's continue our discussion in private," she said, just before raising the bowl of stew to her lips and drinking the remaining liquid. She licked her lips before dabbing them dry with the sleeve of her cloak.

    The room that was allocated to them was quite small, only containing one bed and not much else. There, the trio fabricated a few characters to play, anecdotes and stories they would use to fit in with merchants they might come across, excuses for why it was important for them to hurry out of the city or at least get a letter out to their traveling companion. They also carefully crafted a letter to Jay Foxtrot, that if read by uninvited eyes would not raise suspicion, but would still alert Mec of the situation if he was to receive it. Given that they lacked the supplies, Godrich volunteered to find a scribe to write the letter and seal it, leaving Clair and Shallan at the inn. It was growing late, but he hoped to still find such a scribe before it was dark in hopes to save time the following day. If not, he would have try again the following day, before the market square was open. It would be imperative that they use that time to strike up conversation with merchants.


    ~~~~

    Both of the mage hunters twitched in unison when the onslaught began. They would like to say that their years of training, their experience with hunting down and occasionally fighting mages, is what aided them. In truth, they both had a knack for it, an inherent talent to detect when an unnatural power was being cast. They felt the tingle in their arms, and the hair raised on the back of their necks. Then, suddenly, the smell of ozone, and a flash of light. Gaxeel was quick to step forward, absorbing the bolt of lightning with his sword, which flashed and sparked for a few moments afterward. Behind him, he saw the hunter spin in a quick pirouette, shrinking down her size as she tried to avoid another attack that originated from the ground beneath them. Plant-matter and rock burst forth from the ground, forming a phalanx of spears.

    Gaxeel grunted upon feeling the impact of spear-like roots slamming into his armor. The properties of the white metal prevented the magical tips of the roots from making a dent or penetrating through, but Gaxeel's skeleton shook from the sudden impact, which knocked him to one knee. Through the sound of his rattling bones, Gaxeel heard Vanna cry out, followed by more unearthly noises. He stood, sparing a glance over his shoulder. The huntress had been impaled through one side of her body. Two sharp points of magical plant-matter had pierced through her right arm, and a third straight through the right side of her torso. Blood sputtered from her mouth and nose as she struggled to breath, and more blood soiled her clothes and the dirt beneath her. Her eyes stared at Gaxeel, wide and unyielding, and he could not quite tell if she was truly looking at him or through him. There was not enough time to tell, before the woman fell out of consciousness.

    Gaxeel felt the tug of magic being called upon again, and spun bag around, spinning his sword in a defensive motion. Vanna may have been doomed- but Gaxeel had seen others survive worse before. It would require a miracle... and a quick escape, before she lost too much blood or her lung completely collapsed. There was no guarantee that the latter would be possible. It would be long fight, and Gaxeel was at a disadvantage. Two mages stood before him, neither of them afraid to use lethal and sudden tactics. The forest was densely wooded, save for the occasional clearing. One poor swing of his sword and it may end up lodged in a tree, leaving him vulnerable. The horses were nearby, but if he gave away their location there was nothing preventing the mages from destroying them.

    He swiped away another attack with his sword, and used the brief moment it provided him to step forward. The scar on his face itched and burned, as if responding to the familiar figure of the wooden doll that had appeared and dispatched Vanna. "I wish I could say the gods have been kind to give me a chance to redeem myself after our last run-in. Though, they seem to have exacted their toll for this opportunity." He raised his sword, pointing it defensively towards the doll while keeping his eyes on the cocoon of roots and branches, which began to writhe and twist as it repaired itself. "This wooden abomination, weapon, has only showed itself once before. To defend you, Mec Fiska, who surely lies inside of there. What brings you here? Tell me, before I bring you to justice once and for all."

    Mec sat on his knees, breathing heavily, slowly, deeply. Thick, warm, blood trickled down his arm, dripping onto the mossy ground beneath him. With Olenna's timely arrival, there was hope for survival yet. Even so, his lips quivered as images flashed before him. The burnt body of a man, a wooden doll squeezing Shallan's throat. Was it all a misunderstanding? Was he wrong to challenge what he had known, what everyone had known, about those with abnormal and dark powers? There was nothing for it, nothing more he could do except for what he continued to promise himself and his friends. To live and to find purpose.

    In response to Gaxeel's question, Mec's cocoon continued to shift and writhe until a small opening formed. Through the window, Mec observed the situation around him. The unconscious huntress, impaled in three places, and the fierce visor of the knight brandishing a white sword. The young mage tasted blood and a sharp pang on his bottom lip, which he had been biting down on. "Go, I beseech you," Mec said through a coarse throat. "There is still time. Take your companion to the city, and save her. You have my word that we will not give chase."

    Gaxeel grunted loudly through his helmet. "The moment I turn my back, you will both destroy me. Besides, it is my sworn duty to defend this world from the likes of you, to give no room for you to sow your demonic influence. So I will face you, as a knight, till the end if I have to."

    Without fear, Gaxeel pressed forward.

    Fighting two versus one, he no longer used his sword to deflect magical attacks. Instead, he would swipe the spells away with a free arm as he continue to parry and strike with his sword in the other hand. The white armor and his gloves studded in the same silvery-white metal, provided plenty of protection. He waved away a lightning strike, performed a quick half turn to avoid another serpent of vines and branches, and quickly struck it with his sword. As the vines withered and faded to dust, he parried another strike, stepping again. Each movement he managed to perform put him closer and closer to Mec Fiska's cocoon- who he suspected the wooden doll refused to leave unprotected. As the fight continued, drawing the knight closer and closer, he realized the frequency of the attacks began to slow. In fact, the only attacks that he was defending from were those of the doll. The wooden serpents and the shifting of the cocoon had ceased.

  2. #482
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    Now that she’d voiced her thoughts on the matter, Shallan lapsed into a tense silence. Her gaze flickered back and forth between her two companions while they spoke, and she turned their opinions over in her mind. Unsurprisingly, the troupe’s former leader had the right of it. There was no point in committing themselves to a single course of action when they could cast a much wider net, and wait to see what opportunities presented themselves. Clair’s idle remark that they might have to pay the smugglers with something other than coin was enough to make Shallan pale a little, but she was quick to push such thoughts away.

    When Clair suggested they continue this discussion in private, Shallan hastily nodded her agreement. She rose from the table with the others, ignoring the way her chair scraped against the wooden floor, and followed them to their room. Once they’d finished their discussion, and Godrich had left to find a scribe, the aspiring performer was quick to retire. They were going to have a busy couple of days, and Shallan already knew that she was going to need all the energy she could get. She climbed into the bed, lay her head down atop the pillow, but sleep took a while to find her. After the constant stresses that today had brought, she found herself wondering how things had come to this, right up until the moment she ceased thinking at all.

    The next day, Shallan rose early. After conferring with both of her companions, and confirming that Godrich had accomplished last night’s task successfully, the aspiring performer was quick to put herself to work. Before the next bell, she’d used what little they had to dress herself like the daughter of a moderately wealthy merchant. With one of the stories they’d established last night held firmly in her mind, Shallan left their room behind, and struck out in search of information.

    Every inn or alehouse that Shallan tried was full to bursting, despite the early hour. Each one was filled with disgruntled travellers and merchants, with nothing to do but drink and pass the time until the city lifted its lockdown. It didn’t take her long to slip into the crowd, and integrate herself with some of the other dissenters. Most of the men were happy to have an attractive woman lingering at their table, even if they were relative strangers. She complained about her fabricated situation loudly, at length, to anyone who would listen, hoping to draw the sort of attention they needed. Despite her efforts, by the time the midday bell rang, she’d made little tangible progress.

    “I can’t just sit here and complain until the right type of person takes notice. We don’t have that sort of time, and I don’t want to gamble our survival on pure luck. There has to be a better way to go about this.”

    Shallan mused idly to herself as she sipped from her drink, courtesy of her current companion. She made sure to scan the crowd during the brief lull in their conversation, keeping an eye and ear out for…well, anything that might be of use. She could see several groups that she might try and speak with, but no clear indication of which one was ‘right’. Perhaps, once she was done speaking with present company, she’d need to try something a little more forward. If only she had any idea what that was.

    ~~~

    Olenna’s surprise attack proved more effective than she ever could’ve hoped. Two rapid-fire spells, and she’d taken one of the hunters out of the fight immediately. Despite her overwhelming success, the cabal leader felt no real satisfaction. Not yet, anyway. The mage hunters’ organization had taken so much from her, but she couldn’t celebrate while there was still work to do. Not while Gaxeel still lived, and Mec was still in danger. No. She’d revel in their deaths later, once the fight was over, and things calmed down again.

    As merciless and unrelenting as ever, Olenna had no intentions of letting Gaxeel catch his breath, or deal with his wounded comrade. She followed her first flurry of blows with another magical blast, while the knight was distracted by the abrupt shift in circumstances. Alas, this gambit proved much less successful. Gaxeel recovered in time to absorb this blow with his sword too, just as he had done the first time. Olenna prepared another attack as the knight stepped forward, only to hesitate when he began to speak.

    This was strange. Why would he stall, if every second brought his companion closer to death? The puppetmaster’s owl turned its attention beyond the clearing, while she herself began to examine the Anima more closely. Despite their combined efforts, they found nothing of interest. What purpose did the knight’s attempts at conversing serve, if he wasn’t waiting for reinforcements? Any information he gleamed would prove useless if he died here, killed by either of them. Still…if he insisted on stalling, then perhaps she could make use of the break, too. Spend the time coming up with plans, creating contingencies, and puzzling out a way to get past that infuriating armour he wore. If it gave Mec a chance to catch his breath too, then all the better. Olenna maintained a ready stance, just in case, but otherwise allowed Mec a chance to respond.

    When her young ward begged the knight to flee, Olenna couldn’t help but chuckle softly. If past experiences were anything to judge by, then the knight was too damn noble for his own good. He wouldn’t listen to reason, no matter how well Mec articulated his point.

    When Gaxeel began his charge towards the cocoon, Olenna was quick to intervene. She rained fire and fury down upon the encroaching knight, hoping that just one of her spells would slip past his seemingly infallible defence. She’d been hoping that the hunter would try and destroy her doll first, even if he knew it was just a simulacrum, because she was the more dangerous mage. As it was, she grew more desperate the closer he got. His armour absorbed blow after blow in a manner that was infuriating, if not surprising. She’d need to try something else, and getting between the two of them clearly wasn’t an option. Their past encounter had already proved that she couldn’t stand up to him in close quarters. Olenna needed to switch tactics, and fast.

    While she didn’t dare interfere with the cocoon directly, looking at it gave Olenna another idea. There was another way she could try and keep Mec safe. The puppetmaster flicked a wrist towards her young ward’s shield, directing the Anima’s power through her body and into the ground below. Roots and stone surged forth, flinging the cocoon off into the trees, and away from the encroaching knight. It wasn’t an elegant solution – Olenna simply didn’t have enough time to make the spell artful enough to ensure Mec had a smooth ride. She just had to hope that any turbulence wouldn’t exacerbate his existing injuries. Even if it did, a rough landing certainly couldn’t hurt Mec any more than Gaxeel’s sword would, if the knight successfully cleaved him in two.

    Once Mec was clear, the cabal’s leader quickly launched into her next attack. Flicking away the cocoon had given her a new idea, and she was eager to test it. With her owl watching from above, it only took her a brief moment to pick out the perfect spot. Olenna directed her next burst of magic not towards the knight itself, but at one of the trees, off to the side. Using the same sort of elemental magic that she’d used to manipulate the roots earlier, the puppetmaster seized the tree she’d chosen, and pulled it down. Magic and gravity worked together as one, tipping the ancient Oak over with an ear-splitting groan. Anti-magic armour wouldn’t save the knight from that much solid wood. If Gaxeel didn’t react fast enough, he’d be crushed beneath the gigantic trunk.

  3. #483
    The Moonlight Knight
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    "Make way! Make way!"

    Armed guards and a band of common men shouted as they split apart the crowd. The rabble attracted even more attention, inviting the entrapped travelers, merchants, and commoners to be onlookers on the charade. The throng was divided on either side of the main road, where a wagon was being drawn by a single horse. On the wagon, one man was knelt beside a body wrapped up in bandages, whispering as he gently waved his hand over bloodied wounds. In his other hand, he held a silvery white bow.

    The envoy passed through the streets with little delay, summoning onlookers from their homes, inns, taverns and shops as it did so. Two of those onlookers were Clair and Godrich, who had just finished their own conversation with a merchant who was just as clueless about smugglers as they were. "I'm telling you, going around a brothel in a town of mage hunters backing some kind of religious zealot is just asking for trouble," Godrich said as he and Clair stepped outside. "It reeks today, like smoke." Finally, he followed Clair's gaze, noticing the events unfold on the road. "What in the hells is going on there?"

    Clair pulled up the green hood of her cloak, her brown eyes transfixed on the wagon as it passed by. "Who knows?" she eventually sighed. "We'll surely hear about it soon enough. Let's find Sh-..." she paused, catching a gasp, before lurching forward and heaving dryly. "No... shit." She turned away, retreating towards the corner of a nearby building, before lurching again and emptying the contents of her stomach before her feet. Her hand reached outward, eventually clutching tightly to Godrich's tunic once he had approached.

    She couldn't hear what he asked her. The sounds around her all merged together into a horrible symphony, discombobulating her ear drums. Meanwhile, her skin grew pale, and she began to sweat profusely. It could not be happening, not again. It was something she had eaten, or some illness she picked up in the filthy jail cell. Maybe some bad water she had drank, hinted at by the pinch she felt in her belly before.

    The woman then groaned loudly, slumping to her knees before Godrich could catch her. She pulled her green cloak tightly around her, squeezing her eyes shut as she fought off the pain that began to spread throughout her body. Someone was saying something to her, but the voice grew more and more distant and distorted.

    "It's... happening..." Clair croaked through labored breaths. "Bring... him... Sarah... Sean... find him... please." She let out another cry, her fingernails growing pale as she clenched herself tighter. Her vision grew red, distorted by a familiar and detested malice. The affliction, the curse, was staking its claim far more aggressively than ever before. Was this retaliation for its extended suppression?

    The scourge continued to conquer Clair's body and mind, accelerating at an unprecedented pace. When it was done, Clair was no longer.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Godrich awoke, groaning loudly. His head throbbed wildly, and his vision was blurred. "What ish happening?" he said, slurring his words.

    "Ayee, don't move, don't move. Let me fix this up." A thin woman hurried to him, and began toying at something wrapped around his head with her thin, bony fingers. "Someone go get that girl who was asking for him. Oh she must be incredulous, but I couldn't bare to let her see him unless he awoke. "

    Godrich watched the woman tiredly. He felt nauseous, and confused. His lips grew wet with saliva as his jaw hinged open. Who was this woman? He did not recognize her, the apron around her waist and her hair tightly packed away in a bonnet. What had brought him here?

    When the woman stopped tugging at his head, Godrich leaned himself back where he had been laying before. Slowly, he tried to piece together his memories. Before, he had snuck Clair out of her jail cell. That was right. Then they were trying to sneak out of the city, but why couldn't they just leave regularly? Of course, it was the bells, and the city went on lock down. They were trying to find a smuggler, or a way to get a note to Mec. With a little bit of a struggle, Godrich reached his hand to his pocket, which luckily still contained the sealed parchment.

    Something must have happened to him, then. The woman had sent someone away to bring Clair. He would apologize for the trouble. Maybe she would need to find her own way, while he recovered.The thin woman wiped some saliva away from his lip, and a moment later the door to the small room opened. A girl with dark hair stepped in. He squeezed his eyes trying to remember who she was, her name. "Oh, Shallan... Oh, oh no."

    A memory returned to him, and he sat up rather suddenly, surprising the others in the room. It was a pair of eyes, a red, glowing pair of eyes, beneath a green cloak. When he had knelt beside Clair before, while she was in pain, he saw them. He watched as her skin turned grey and her lips became pale as ash. Her cropped blonde her became blood red, and feathers protruded from her neck, wrists, and ankles. When she turned her transformed face at him, she shrieked a horrible, terrifying, scream, striking him. Then he was weightless, flying through the air, before he awoke in this room.


    ~~~~~


    Gaxeel shielded his face as the ground burst open, scattering bits of rock all around as Mec's cocoon was sent flying into the treeline. The a frustrated yell echoed inside of the knight's helmet as his target was taken from his grasp once more. Before he could act further, another ear-splitting crack sounded nearby, chased by the creaking of a falling tree.The knight spun around, struggling to find the source of the sound through his helmet. When he finally did, he only had just enough time to move. He was forced to lunge backwards, putting himself even further away from the mages.

    This had been his fear all along: that the environment around him would make victory impossible for him. Each felled tree restricted where he could walk, pirouette, and lunge. Each standing tree restricted the way he could move his sword. It was only a matter of time before the mages would decide to fell the entire forest, or set it ablaze, or worse.

    Before that happened, there was something else he needed to do.

    Separated from the mages by the massive oak that had been felled, Gaxeel had enough time to hurry back to where Vanna had been impaled. Deftly, he cut away at the sharpened wood that had run through her, then lowered her gently. She still drew some breath, weakly, and obviously painfully. There was little chance that she could survive a ride on horseback, but that little chance was all she had. Gaxeel carried her, hurriedly, disguised amongst the trees and brush as he sought out the horses.

    "No," he heard Vanna gasp weakly as he secured her to one of the horses. "Please, don't. Just let me die. It will hurt."

    "It will, and you'll bear through it. You will send a search party from the city, be it with your final breath or not." Gaxeel secured the woman's bow to her horse. "By the Godess's blessing." He gave the horse a hard thump, sending it away, towards the city. He ground his teeth together as he looked at his own horse. She was a strong mare, and it would be a shame for her to die here. He untied her reigns, so that she could run if she chose to.

    The hair on the back of his neck tingled, signifying that his respite was over. He weaved his way through the trees, avoiding them as they fell. Another barrage of magical attacks slowed him down, making dodging the falling trees even more difficult. His enemy was nowhere to be seen, but Gaxeel began to piece together their location each time he sensed the use of magic or deflected an attack.

    The battle continued, and Gaxeel's movements began to slow. His breaths were heavy, and the hot breath clung to his face beneath his helmet. It had grown dark, and seeing through the visor of his helm became increasingly difficult. The doll was nowhere to be seen, only being detectable when the knight sensed its use of magic, hinting at a dreadful roulette of falling trees, lightning strikes, springing roots, or a combination of any of them. The only encouraging detail that Gaxeel had noticed was that there was nearly no activity coming from Mec's cocoon. Was he succumbing to his previous wounds from Vanna, or had he blacked out when he had been launched earlier? If only the knight could confirm the mage's death, and his score could be settled.

    A crackle of lightning flashed once again, and Gaxeel caught the attack with his sword, which sparkled and sizzled loudly while he avoided another onslaught of falling trees. Then, the knight spun the sword and flung away the remaining magical energy towards Mec's cocoon in the distance. It struck, but he was unsure if it hit the cocoon directly or a nearby tree. Regardless, it had the intended effect, one that the knight was hoping to avoid until he had grown desperate. An orange glow began to illuminate in the distance, followed by a crackling and the sounds of falling branches.

    Soon afterwards, the onslaught of magical attacks stopped. Gaxeel rested against the trunk of a tree, catching his breath. He was so close, but his body was beginning to fail him. Despite the destruction the fire would bring, he could use it as an opportunity to destroy the doll as it rushed to Mec's aid, and also kill the mage who alluded him once and for all. He tried walking forward, eventually stumbling and planting his sword into the ground to support himself. In that moment, his horse, which he had freed earlier, road to his side. It whinnied and bucked its head wildly while stamping its hooves. "This must be a sign," Gaxeel surmised. "From the gods, or the Goddess herself." With much effort, he clambered onto the horses back, and made his escape from the forest.

  4. #484
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    Shallan had a drink halfway to her lips, and was listening to her current companion with half an ear, when another stranger entered the tavern. She didn’t even notice the new arrival at first, and paid him no mind up until the moment he announced that everyone was required to follow him outside. The aspiring performer wasn’t sure what sort of authority the newcomer carried, but imagined that it must be significant if he was willing to risk pissing off an entire tavern’s worth of disgruntled, tipsy merchants. Shallan didn’t doubt that this was related to the ongoing mage hunt somehow, and while she had nothing to fear herself, she could only hope that both Clair and Godrich were safe. She shot her current companion an apologetic look, rose from her seat, and moved to join the rest of the grumbling crowd.

    It took a few moments for such a large group to filter through a single doorway. By the time Shallan reached the street beyond, it was overflowing with people of all shapes and sizes. She found herself stuck near the back of the crowd, unable to see anything of significance through the shifting mass of bodies. The singer spent a brief moment contemplating her situation, before deciding that she didn’t need to know the specifics. Finding Godrich and Clair was more important, just in case this development put them at risk. Shallan knew that her chances of picking them out in such a thick crowd were slim, but they’d likely come to the same conclusion. All she needed to do was head back to their room, and they’d likely meet her there as soon as they were able. She could always keep an eye out on the way too, just in case.

    Moving through the crowd laterally proved easier than trying to shove her way towards the front. Shallan pushed onward using her elbows and hips, muttering quick apologies to anyone she bumped or jostled excessively. She was getting close to the inn when the bells began to ring again, just as they had on the day of Clair’s escape, adding their song to the crowd’s overwhelming cacophony. Shallan paused, then. Craned her neck and tried to look around. She didn’t know if this was another alarm, or the bells served another purpose this time. Hopefully they weren’t singing doom for she and hers.

    Such hopes were dashed just a few seconds later, when the screaming started, and the crowd began to move.

    People began to move en masse, scrambling to get away from something at the far end of the street. They pressed against her with furious desperation, threatening to sweep Shallan away. She had to fight just to remain upright, lest she get trampled underfoot. The road emptied astonishingly quickly, given how many people had been here just a few moments ago, and when the crowd began to thin, Shallan got a glimpse of the monster they were running from. One with hideous grey skin, and hair the same deep crimson as fresh heart’s blood. One with rows of fresh plumage ripping themselves free from its skin. One that cut a familiar figure, wearing a familiar green cloak. The sight was enough to make Shallan’s stomach roll, and her heart seize in her chest.

    Oh, gods above…

    Shallan wanted to rush in and help. Knew that was the right thing to do. In that moment, though, she found herself unable to move. Caught in terror’s grip, the aspiring performer’s hands started shaking, even as her legs froze. And when the monster that had once been Clair lashed out and struck Godrich with sickening force, another scream clawed its way from Shallan’s throat.

    ~~~

    When one of the attendants finally ushered Shallan into the room, and she caught a glimpse of what lay within, her heart seemed to shatter in her chest. Puffy red eyes took in Godrich’s bandaged form, even as her hands clutched a half-used handkerchief to her chest. She would’ve burst into tears at the sight, if she hadn’t already spent the past few hours crying herself out. With nothing to do but ruminate on the fate of their little group, and wonder what might’ve happened to Mec by extension, the wait had been nothing short of torturous. Now, witnessing this immediately after, was almost too much for her to bear. The aspiring performer felt mentally exhausted in ways she hadn’t even known were possible just a day ago.

    She crossed the room in a few short strides, until she was standing bedside. Shallan reached out with one hand gingerly, as if she were about to take his hand, or stroke his cheek gently. She stopped halfway through the motion and pulled away again gently, having thought better of it. The last thing she wanted was to cause him any extra pain, or worse, extra harm. She opened her mouth to speak, only for the words she’d intended to say to die on her tongue. What was she supposed to say, in a situation such as this? Was she supposed to ask how he was feeling, or apologize for what had happened? How horribly redundant that would be. After a few moments of extended silence, she finally settled on the answer, and found her voice.

    “I’m so glad you’re okay, Godrich.” Even these words felt woefully inadequate, after what had happened, but they were earnest. Perhaps that would be enough. Shallan hesitated for a moment, then. Her eyes flickered towards the nurse, just briefly, as the woman went about her business. The aspiring performer wanted to say more, but she was wary of being overheard, even now. She wasn’t entirely sure how cognizant Godrich was feeling, either, or how much he remembered. Even so, she felt obligated to try.

    “I didn’t see everything that happened myself, but I‘ve heard plenty of rumors. After that monster attacked you, the watchmen swarmed it. They tried to put it down, with the church’s help, but it fled the city before they could finish the job.” With every word, the ones that followed seemed to flow more smoothly. It wasn’t long before they were practically pouring out, and Shallan felt unable to stop them. “I wanted to be here when you woke up, but the nurse wouldn’t let me inside at first. Said you needed to rest. She promised me you were alive, but until I saw you myself…”

    Shallan trailed off then. Took a brief moment to dab at her eyes and take a few deep breaths, before she could start crying again. She lowered herself into the seat beside the bed, and let out a soft sigh.

    “It doesn’t matter now. You’re okay. That’s what matters. The lockdown has been lifted, too, now that the guard has chased that thing away. As soon as you’ve recovered, we’ll be able to get out of this fucking city for good.”

    ~~~

    The fallen tree might’ve obscured the vision of a lesser mage, leaving the knight’s fate in doubt. With her owl acting as her eyes, watching from above, Olenna suffered no such restrictions. Still, while she could watch Gaxeel tend to his dying companion, threatening him was another matter entirely. Her magic wasn’t as restricted as her doll; attacking from the other side of the trunk with magic would’ve been easy, if she so wished it. Against another opponent, she might’ve continued with her onslaught, attacking without mercy. It was only the hunter’s damn armor that convinced Olenna that she was better served taking some time to recover her strength, and gather her thoughts.
    As soon as Olenna thought herself prepared, she began to move again. She took a circuitous route through the undergrowth, stalking the knight as a wolf stalks a hunter. With a whole litany of spells balanced in her mind, and magic crackling at her fingertips, she waited until Gaxeel came into sight again. Then, once she had him, she began her barrage anew.

    The battle dragged on until the sun had completed its descent, dipping below the horizon. As the world sunk into darkness, Olenna found herself on the verge of collapse. Her doll was incapable of feeling fatigue, but her mind was not, and such extensive manipulation of the Anima had left her exhausted. Her limits were significantly higher than most mages, given that she ‘practiced’ with her owl almost every waking moment, but the cabal’s leader was close to reaching them. She could feel her hold on the Anima slipping, and knew that when she returned to her own body, she’d find it drenched with sweat. If she pushed herself too much further, then her doll and owl would both collapse, inert. Still, there was nothing for it. Her enemy looked worse for wear, but they were still standing. All she could do was suck it up and try again.

    Her next magical salvo was met with different results, and not in a good way. Not only did the knight survive, but he deflected her power somehow. Used it to set the forest alight, right near Mec’s cocoon. For the first time since they’d begun, Olenna’s grim determination gave way. Her steely composure cracked, just a little. She’d intentionally refrained from using fire this entire time, specifically because she was afraid of what it might do to Mec. Her young ward hadn’t made a move in some time, so she’d assumed that he had passed out inside his wooden shell. Fire would spread quickly in an environment such as this, and if the flames or smoke had their way with him, he wouldn’t survive for long.

    To help, or to fight? It wasn’t really a question. She’d only come here to protect Mec in the first place, and now the knight was fleeing. If her young ward was still alive in there, then assisting him was more important than giving chase. The cabal leader pushed any lingering thoughts of the mage-hunter from her mind, turned towards the cocoon, and urged her fake body onward, one last time.

    It had only been a few seconds, but the flames were spreading at an incredible pace, consuming the greenery with all the ferocity of a rabid beast. The air was already thick with smoke, and Olenna knew that if she’d been wearing her real body, she would’ve been coughing and spluttering like crazy. As it was, the growing plumes were making it difficult for her owl to see. If the mage-haters in the nearby town hadn’t taken notice of their battle before, then they certainly would now. Olenna knew that she needed to get Mec out of his cocoon and away to safety, and she needed to do it fast. As soon as she reached the ball of roots, she laid a hand upon their surface. Then she reached for the Anima, flexed her will one last time, and urged them to part.

    Between the fading light and the growing smoke, Olenna found that she couldn’t see inside at first, even once the shell had parted. She urged her owl to take wing, and it swooped down to land on the edge of the rift she’d created. Then she had the construct lean forward and peer inside the wooden ball, dreading whatever it was she might find within.

  5. #485
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    A cacophony of songbirds sang out, announcing the arrival of the morning sun as its light cascaded between the wooden panels that sealed a nearby window. Mec stirred as he took in his new surroundings. As he shook off a few layers of blankets, he realized that the room was freezing cold, lacking much insulation from the air of the previous night. A sharp pain pounded from his shoulder, which he realized was bandaged tightly. The same arm was bound to him using a generous amount of cloth, probably to prevent him from moving it and further damaging the wound.

    With great effort, Mec managed to sit up on the edge of the bed, and began to recount the events of days passed. The wound that the archer left in Mec's shoulder had begun to take its toll while he and Olenna were fighting the knight, Gaxeel. Mec remembered his powers begin to slip, and he himself succumbing to an overwhelming fatigue. Soon after, his cocoon was launched far from the battle. The rest of his memories were mixed in between bouts of unconsciousness. The smell of smoke, the heat of flame. Olenna's doll catching him as he fell from the cocoon to make their escape.

    Olenna's doll. Did Olenna finally defeat Gaxeel? Mec was saddened by the prospect of more people having to die simply because of his existence as a mage, but perhaps it could not have been helped. He took stock of the room around him, confirming that he was alone. The walls, doors, floor, and ceiling above him were made out of a dark colored wood. This was no city apartment, he realized. Where am I?, he wondered. He tried to focus on the Anima in hopes of locating a familiar trace, but he was not able to command the essence of magic at all. Too fatigued from his wounds, he surmised.

    One of the doors slowly creaked open, letting more of the morning sun in. A short figure stepped inside, his blond mess of hair glowing in the sunlight. "Oh, you're awake," Cho exclaimed. "Are you hungry? I have some leftover cake somewhere."


    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    "She still has not stirred."

    "Her injuries are severe, yes. A trial, perhaps one that the goddess intended for her. And for you." The Silver Priestess's gaze was as cold as steel, betraying no emotion beyond the usual seriousness she conveyed. Even though Esbeth's frame was small, much smaller than the scarred knight standing beside her, her presence would have commanded the attention of anyone else who would have entered the room. "It has been seven days, and yet she still fights. The goddess has given her the tools, and it is up to her to use them."

    Gaxeel stirred slightly, his eyes looking over Vanna for what might have been the thousandth time. "You say she fights, but I only see an artificially living body. One we filled with pouches of blood, one whose last words to me were to let her die. Her spirit was unwilling to cling to this earth, yet we are shackling her here." He shook his head and tightly squeezed his temples with one hardened hand. "We are warriors. Soldiers. We fight and we die. We should at least be allowed to die gracefully."

    "If I recall," Esbeth's voice rang gently, "You are the one who spurred her horse towards our city." The skin on her face seemed to tighten as she glanced up towards the knight. "Do not look so defeated. Trust in the goddess, the one who blessed your armor, the sword you wield. If Vanna's struggle was not a part of her plans, then she would never have made it to the city. How many men, never mind that she has a woman's body, have you seen lose so much blood and stay alive? This..." She bent slightly, beginning to adjust a bandage on Vanna's shoulder before deciding to reach for fresh material to replace the bandage. "This is part of a divine fate."

    Gaxeel sigh heavily, looking around the room restlessly for a moment before stepping closer to lend a hand. The priestess's word did not provide him much assurance. In fact, they hardly did. Her devotion to the faith steeled her determination to a frightening degree, that most others could not relate to strong will. Most priests of the faith showed an overabundance of empathy for ones sorrows and miseries, but Esbeth's resolve got in the way of any empathy she may have.

    The knight carefully bundled the soiled bandages that Esbeth handed him and tossed them in a small tin bucket nearby. After rinsing his hands, he returned to help prepare strips of bandage, which Esbeth deftly used to cover Vanna's wounds once more. Gaxeel's eyebrows nearly touched as he saw the Vanna's wounds, which impressively had not started to fester or show signs of infection. "And what plans are there for Mec Fiska?" he asked, his voice deep and throaty.

    "The same as they were the last time you asked," the priestess responded coolly. "You will find him, and destroy him, along with the abomination that is seemingly protecting him. One mage is not enough to change the way of things."

    "He's escaped me, twice," Gaxeel growled. "And he has alluded Vanna also. That is two of the Sworn warriors, blessed with the goddess's gifts to humanity, that this dangerous mage managed to allude. You can not treat this the same way we treat woods witches avoided a couple amateur mage hunters."

    "And who said I was?" Esbeth turned to face the knight. "You alone possess the most of the blessed artifacts out of any of the Sworn, by number and by weight. You armor fully protects you, and your sword is true. I am sending our strongest justice-keeper after this mage, and his potential allies." Calmly, the priestess turned to begin exchanging another spoiled bandage. After the removed the cloth from around Vanna's collar bone, she paused. Esbeth's skin grew pale, as she looked down at the wound. Within seconds, beads of sweat began to form on her brow. "Leave us," she told Gaxeel. When the knight protested, she shot him a gaze that could cut through steel. "Leave. Us."

    Once she was alone with the unresponsive Vanna, Esbeth hurried to a nearby drawer, from which she acquired a small surgical knife. She hurried back to Vanna, muttering a prayer, and skillfully pressed the knife to the woman's skin to draw forth a gush of blood. She collected most of the blood in a clear, glass bowl, which she set aside before closing up the woman's wounds once again. The priestess's prayer grew more feverish, and she moved with an unnatural urgency. She grasped the bowl, and quickly knelt to the floor where she spread the crimson liquid.

    Esbeth's eyes wildly searched the liquid for something, scrutinizing each and every drop. When she did not find what she wanted, she began to spread the blood with her bare hands while resting on her knees. She spread it around in varying patterns, without any logical reason that would be recognized by anyone else. Yet eventually, she began to see what she was commanded to envision by her goddess. She saw it in the blood, in the reflective sheen that flickered with the torch lights. "It is him," she finally announced to herself, analyzing the bloody mural while on her hands and knees. "The demon lord, Goriathn."


    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Godrich stepped lightly down some block steps, before settling down next to Shallan on one of the final steps. "Well, you ready?" he said, trying to sound enthusiastic. It was hard, to say the least, but the pair needed to support each other after what they had been through. The Misfits were gone, continuing their traveling performances under Ella's leadership. It was too dangerous to join them, lest they suffer the risk of being implicated for conspiring with Clair and her crimes. She had caused harm and damage after her sudden transformation. An intolerable act, whether it had been intentional or not.

    For the last week, Godrich could tell that Shallan was beginning to grow restless regarding the fate of her own companion. Even still, she refused to leave Godrich behind while he was still recovering from his injuries. For that, he was thankful, and so as soon he felt fit enough to journey onward they prepared to leave the city once and for all.

    With what they could carry on their persons, they departed the city. It was a simpler process, especially considering the events of the previous week. The line at the gate was long, but it moved quickly and efficiently. The guards hardly batted an eye at travelers leaving the city- for now, the problems outside of the city's walls were not their problems at all. They clung to the main road, taking advantage of the protection it offered. Eventually, they happened upon the nearby forest, where Mec was supposed to be hidden. The evolution of the forest from the one they had passed almost a fortnight before was astounding. Where there was a woody forest dense with trees before, there was a large portion that was not burned away. The trees were no more, scattering ashes far and wide. Despite this, new grass and foliage was just beginning to grow again.

    "So it's true, there was a fire here," Godrich observed as he and Shallan grew closer to the woods. "Do you think..."

  6. #486
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    Olenna’s joints creaked unpleasantly as she lowered herself into one of the padded armchairs that filled her home. Not for the first time, she found herself wondering when she’d gotten so old. She might not look decrepit just yet, but she certainly felt the weight of her years. They hugged her bones and weighed down her shoulders, a subtle force that was always trying its hardest to overwhelm her. The mage had adapted to the loss of her eyesight years ago, but this was another matter. It felt as if she’d been flirting her way through her first summer romance just yesterday, when viewed through the lens of memory. How could she move past this loss, the betrayal of her own flesh, when she still remembered the time before it so vividly? When it kept growing alongside her, slowly increasing in intensity?

    Thankfully, the failings of her physical body mattered little, in the grand scheme of things. Over the course of her life, Olenna had weathered worse storms than this. She had the willpower to ignore this pain, and her effigies provided their own sort of relief. Frankly, any sort of physical suffering paled in comparison to the idea that her life’s work might go unfulfilled. Her children were all that mattered. Those who the rest of the world wanted to stamp out. They lived all across the globe, taking shelter in the homes that she’d helped build for them. She would see them freed, and when that moment finally came, all the pain she’d endured up to that moment would be quickly forgotten.

    Even so, she still found looking forward to the reprieve offered by her fake flesh.

    As her sightless eyes fluttered closed, Olenna found her thoughts drifting back to Mec Fiska. The last update she’d received said that the boy was still alive, but remained unconscious. After what they’d endured, one of those facts surprised her much more than the other. A part of her longed to visit, so that she might see for herself, but the cabal leader quickly squashed the urge. The boy was in good hands. She couldn’t neglect the rest of her children for the sake of one, no matter his abilities. Not when her presence would only soothe her own nerves, instead of serving the cabal as a whole. Emotion could not dictate the course of her work, or they would all suffer the consequences.

    Grasping the Anima was still a little tricky, even now, but Olenna persevered. She left her body behind, plunged herself into the golden river that made up her version of the Anima, and manipulated its current into carrying her where she wanted to go. Then, halfway across the world, another pair of eyes opened.

    Olenna pushed her consciousness into the body of the owl she had chosen. Cramming her mind into its tiny skull made for a strange sort of discomfort. When it – she – opened her eyes, she found herself nestled amongst the branches of a grafted fruit tree. Apples and oranges and pears hung alongside each other, partitioned into distinct sections by the same process that allowed them to grow side by side. After the stretch of blindness she’d just endured, the colours were impossibly, painfully vibrant. Olenna felt a small smile touch her real body at the sight, before she turned her attention outwards, beyond the confines of her resting place.

    The giant fruit tree dominated a small courtyard, which was surrounded on all sides by large stone buildings. Red, tiled paths wove through the private garden at regular intervals, curling around marble statues and water features that suggested an absurd amount of wealth. The air itself was heavy. Sticky. The gentle breeze that ruffled her feathers only served to usher in more heat, instead of bringing any welcome relief. Such humidity was to be expected, this far to the west, but that knowledge didn’t make it any more pleasant to endure. None of this surprised Olenna, given how often she found herself here these days.

    Down below, a middle-aged woman reclined between two of the tree’s gnarled, twisting roots. She was dressed servant’s garb, and cradled an open book in her lap. Olenna knew from experience, though, that the woman wasn’t actually reading. Mirel was a poor mage, but she was skilled in the arts of subterfuge. That was exactly why she’d been sent here to begin with. Olenna flitted across to one of the lower branches, just above the woman’s chosen seat, before informing Mirel of her presence with a single, quiet hoot. The spy didn’t flinch, or pause, or give any real sign that she’d heard. She just began to speak, offering up her report in a muted tone that only Olenna would begin to hear. To any bystanders, it’d just look like the old lady had started reading out loud.

    “Your alchemist does their work well. The lower districts are already abuzz with whispers, praising the kindness and generosity of the mage hiding amongst them. I’ve also managed to gain the Queen’s confidence, and will start planting seeds amongst the nobility soon. Our work has not gone unnoticed by the church, though. They’ve already burned one so-called heretic, and they’re hunting for more. I’ll have to move slowly, and your accomplice will need to treat lightly.”

    Olenna had always known that the church would catch on eventually, but she’d hoped for a little more time. Their vigilance would complicate matters, but it was a problem she could work around. That one little detail aside, Mirel’s report was wonderful news. She hooted softly again in response; both as thanks, and to inform her spy that she was leaving. She moved her host back into the tree’s upper branches, before she untethered herself again. Let her consciousness slip free of the owl’s body, and back into the Anima. She had another meeting to attend, and it wouldn’t do to be late.

    The next time she opened her eyes, Olenna found her former situation reversed. She was in an underground cellar, where the only visible light trickled in from between the floorboards above. The air was cool, but stagnant, and filled with no small amount of dust. Her owl was perched atop a keg of ale, and she knew that one of her dolls was tucked away nearby, hidden behind a row of barrelled preserves. She reached out with the Anima again and roused it, then settled down to wait.

    After a few minutes, Olenna heard the telltale sound of a key turning in an iron lock, followed by the creaking of rusty door hinges. A soft whistling filled the air, underlain by the steady thump of footsteps. The cabal leader readied herself for another confrontation, just in case, but her preparation proved unnecessary. The source of the noise stepped into view, and she found herself looking at another familiar face. The man started a little when he realised she was already present, but was quick to recover his composure.

    “Lady Olenna. You haven’t been waiting for too long, I hope.”

    With one of her dolls present, Olenna could speak this time. “Jerr. What news?”

    The portly innkeeper frowned, and the mage found his expression telling. “Nothing good this week, mistress. Keep hearing stories about some sort of monster that’s ravaging the countryside. Just rumors, but too many of ‘em to ignore. Thing’s supposed to be magical in nature, too.”

    That set Olenna’s mind to turning. She had a sneaking suspicion she knew what – or who – this thing was, but she wasn’t one to act on hunches. “This monster is humanoid in shape, yes?” Her knowledge seemed to surprise Jerr, but he quickly nodded his agreement.

    “Aye. Looks like a human from a distance, with red hair and pale skin that don’t appear off until it gets a little too close. Some accounts call it a traditional monster, but I suspect those are exaggerated, or the product of shock. I can start asking about locations, if it please you. See if I can’t find some sort of pattern to its movements. Figure out where its going.”

    “Thank you, Jerr. I’ll be in touch.”

    As Olenna slipped into the Anima again, she found her thoughts drifting back to Mec once more. She had no doubt that this information would upset him, and the last thing they needed was for him to try and chase after his former friend. That said, she had no desire to breed distrust amongst her own by lying. Just what would she tell him? There was still the mystery of the person who had cast the curse to begin with, too – a question that she’d made infuriatingly little progress on.

    She needed more information. Not a problem she encountered often, considering her vast network of resources. Still, Olenna would find a way. She’d play her pieces as best she could, and weave the strands together to find the truth at the heart of this mystery. That was what it meant to be the spider at the heart of this web.

    ~~~

    Seated on the lowest of the building’s steps, Shallan almost felt like a sentry of sorts, holding vigil at her post. She kept her gaze turned out towards the street, towards the crowds beyond, even as Godrich moved to join her. Such caution was probably unnecessary, she knew. Their transgressions had been quickly forgotten in the wake of Clair’s very public transformation. Hell, they’d spent a full week healing in the hands of city officials, and nobody had thought to question them on anything else. Even so, she couldn’t help but keep an eye out, just in case. Better safe than sorry and all that.

    When Godrich joined her, she threw a warm glance his way. When he spoke, she was quick to nod her agreement. “I’m ready. Maybe not prepared, exactly, but when has that ever stopped us before?” A wry smile flickered across Shallan’s features at her own little joke, before she rose. The girl took a moment to brush her clothes off with her hands, before she turned towards her companion and offered him a hand, so that she might help him to his feet. Not that he needed such help anymore, of course. Or so she hoped.

    The line at the city gates might’ve been long, it moved much faster than it had when they’d been trying to get into the city. Shallan should’ve been thankful for that fact, but she found herself mourning the lack of company nonetheless. The absence of the other Misfits was an empty hole in her chest, comparable only to her buried concerns about Mec’s fate. What would she do if they were both lost to her? It wasn’t like she could simply travel home, after the way she’d broken Mec out of his first prison. Perhaps she and Godrich would find another band of traveling performers to join, and eek out a living that way. She was almost grateful when they made it to the front of the line, and met with the guard on duty there. Despite the faint possibility they would be recognised, his attention made for a welcome break from such thoughts.

    When the guard waved them on without so much as a second glance, Shallan was quick to hurry onward. Once they had passed under the walls, through the gates and out into the open, the aspiring performer forced herself to take a deep breath. That was one big weight off her shoulders. Mec’s unknown fate remained a source of tension, but one that they’d hopefully resolve soon enough. Every footstep brought them closer as they slipped from the road, and struck out into the forest.

    When Godrich voiced his thoughts, let his unspoken doubt fill the air between them, Shallan pursed her lips. “I’m not sure yet.” Her response was plain, if only because she wasn’t yet willing to entertain the possibility that Mec was gone. She pushed onwards, determined to find something, anything, before even considering giving up.

    As they pushed deeper, Shallan found herself eyeing the ash-covered ground, and the scorched husks that had once been trees. She couldn’t help but wonder at how large the conflagration must’ve been, to reduce such a vast, rich swathe of landscape to charred wood. It was a wonder that the fire hadn’t consumed the entire forest, really. How had such a massive blaze even started? She knew that Mec’s magic was often elemental – had he been practicing with fire, only for it to grow beyond his control? If that were the case, then maybe he’d been able to escape before it had grown too large. If not…well, there probably wouldn’t be a body left for them to find.

    Shallan’s train of thought was interrupted when she accidentally inhaled a mote of floating ash, and began coughing and spluttering violently. She leaned forward, one hand on her chest, until she finally managed to catch her breath. Once the aspiring performer had recovered, she grabbed at her collar and pulled it up over her mouth, so that the fabric might serve as a makeshift mask. In that moment, she found herself less worried about what she might be breathing in, and more worried about who. After a moment of reflection, she turned her attention back to Godrich again.

    “Mec knew we’d come looking for him as soon as we left the city, right? If he’s still alive, then he wouldn’t have gone far. We should look around a little more.” \

    Maybe it was a foolish hope, but Shallan clung to it nonetheless. The fire had probably destroyed any sort of trail, so she started walking deeper into the forest, where Mec likely would’ve fled if anyone else had come poking around after the fire. The entire time, she kept her head on a swivel, searching for anything that might serve to guide them. A single footprint in the ash, or an owl lingering amongst the remaining branches. She saw nothing – not yet, anyway – but that alone wouldn’t be enough to stop her from trying.

  7. #487
    The Moonlight Knight
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    It was a shock to for Mec to find himself in the presence of Cho, the mysterious child mage that he and Shallan met back in Olenna's hideout. Even more surprising was the boy's mastery of first aid. Not long after Cho's return, he commanded Mec to sit still with his small, gentle voice. He wanted to change some of Mec's bandages and make sure the wounds were sealed properly. With deft, masterful movements, Cho began unraveling the material that was used to protect Mec's shoulder.

    The last bit of material clung slightly, causing Mec to clench his teeth as Cho gently peeled it away. Upon inspection, Mec's shoulder wound had been cleaned and sewn together. There was still some fresh blood that had seeped through after the stitching had been done, staining some of his skin red. Cho made a clicking noise with his teeth, hurriedly grabbed a few bottles and pieces of clean cloth from a nearby table, and returned to clean away the blood. When he was done, he inspected the wound once more, and finally began to replace the dressing.

    "Stubborn wound, that one," he sighed when he was done. "But it will heal. Will leave a scar though. Oh, but I'm sure it won't be that bad! An old friend of mine always used to tell the wounded she had cared for that scars are the sigils of survivors."

    Later that evening, they both sat near a fire on the small hearth of the cottage, where they freely talked about the events that lead to Mec's arrival. "It was quite lucky that Olenna was able to bring you here," Cho surmised. "If you recall, I was actually heading the opposite direction from you when we last spoke. But she has her ways of finding what she needs to find, as do I. She told me you were both in some altercation with a couple Justiciars. They're a real bunch of jerks, I think. Nothing good comes from confronting them with violence, though."

    Cho stirred his small body, inching away from the hearth's flames. "I can tell you're not able to draw power from the world since you've awakened. The Anima, I mean."

    "No, not at all. It's isn't possible that it's permanent, is it?" Mec shifted in his spot, careful to avoid unnecessary movement of his injured arm.

    "Magic does not leave anything so easily, I've learned."

    They sat in silence for a short while, before Cho rose to his feet. "Ah, I think dinner is here. Cake doesn't help with healing much." With no further explanation, he snatched up two large wooden bowls and hurried outside.

    Mec could hear the pattering of feet rushing to them. Intrigued by the sounds, he separated a few logs in the hearth to dull the flame, and followed Cho. Outside, Cho knelt down, surrounded by a pack of wolves, glowing with a gentle blue glow. A few of them carried carcasses from their hunt, which they deposited in the bowls that Cho had laid on the ground.

    "Thanks doggies," Cho exclaimed, giving each wolf a few pets on the head before they deconstructed into faint clouds of glittery dust before fully vanishing. "Got a few rabbits, just need to cook 'em," Cho explained as he picked up the bowls.

    Mec felt himself stepping back towards the cottage, and glanced around cautiously. "Aren't you afraid that someone might notice a pack of glowing wolves roaming around?"

    Cho chuckled. More accurately, he giggled playfully. "Mothers all over the continent tell their children about the ghostly wolves that come out after dark, and a few of the fathers claim to have seen them for themselves. One noble family in the far north incorporated them into their family crest, and many a mummer has spoken of wolf-wisps scouring the lands near the autumn harvests. Most people try to stay away from the pack of wolf ghosts, though."

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Ash and soot clung to Godrich like a plague, to his clothes, his boots, inside of his nostrils. Alongside Shallan, he scanned the area for any signs of their mutual acquaintance, but Godrich quickly began to realize none would be found. Even so, he searched, appearing to scan the area diligently, at least when Shallan was looking. It was growing more and more apparent that their search would be unfruitful. After all, it had been several days since the incidents that had transpired, and if Mec were to leave them any clues, they would have been more obvious.

    They then moved on from the scorched sections of the forest to the areas the fire did not reach and continued to scour the wooded land for any signs of Mec. They stayed close to each other, on the lookout for their friend, any wildlife that may be too dangerous, or any delinquents who would be suspicious enough to be hiding in a forest away from town. The constant vigilance began to bear down on Godrich, whose willingness to help search began to fade as their search continued to be a fruitless one.

    Eventually, enough time had passed that Shallan, too, must have grown tired from searching. Through her movements, Godrich sensed her frustration and restlessness grow. An occasional sigh, an uncharacteristic annoyance with the shrubbery that blocked their paths. When the the time to yield finally came, Godrich spoke.

    "I'm sorry," he said gently. "Maybe it's best we move onward. Better we keep putting distance and time between us and anyone who might report suspicious activity they witnessed that day. Mec is a smart lad, so I'm sure he's safe. More importantly, he adores you. I'm sure if he hears news that you or the Misfits have left town he will rushing to reunite with you. I do not know the extent of his abilities, but I'm sure he would employ them just to find you one second sooner if he could."

    When they were both ready, they did continue onward, returning to the main roads so that they could follow them to a nearby town before it grew dark. They would eventually retire to an inn, where, despite their burdens, they managed to exchange a few songs for some food and drink. They shared a table with chatty group of patrons. Godrich's expression was as rigid as stone as he listened in on the conversation.

    "Have you heard of any more monster attacks?" The first, a portly man with a moustache asked as he sifted through a small stack of cards.

    "Not since yesterday, no'm," the second, a woman with dark, curly hair, replied. Her accent suggested she came from a more rural area. Godrich thought it sounded similar to Mec and Shallan's accents, but thicker, like she had been speaking through a mouthful of porridge.

    "Me brother in law from Yarnsdale claims it took one of his goats. Full of shit, he is. It was jackal." The third, a skinnier man whose cheeks were prickly with stubble, spoke this time.

    "He'd have known it if it were the monster," the first responded. He counted out a hand of cards, and placed them in front of the other man. He then did the same for the woman beside him. "They say it lets out a horrible cry when it attacks, one so loud it'll deafen your unborn children. Like a, a banshee or something."

    "It is a harpy," the woman said passively as she organized her cards. "They say it looks like a woman whose arms were replaced with wings. They were called harpies in the Dark Days."

    "I'm no learned man, but I always thought the monsters and beasties from the Dark Days were long gone. Thought that was the whole point of uh, whatever. When they started the church and removed sorcerers from power and everything."

    "The learned people call it the Great Dawn," the woman observed her newly organized hand with a dull expression. "When the Sworn cut down the High Mages and purged the lands of magic and monsters."

    "Well I don't care much for what they call it. My point is, if these mage hunters from the big churches were worth anything, we wouldn't be hearing about no monsters flying about. Word they caught it before anyone knew about it and it still got away. Anyway, enough about that." The moustached man glanced towards Shallan and Godrich, and waved his deck of cards. "Care to join us, friends?"

  8. #488
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    Another choked breath. Another weary step. Another stain on her clothes. The moments all blended together now, each one indistinguishable from the last. Even so, Shallan pushed herself onward, relentless and determined. The idea of giving up her search seemed as impossible as reaching up and plucking the moon from the sky. Every time she found her body tiring, she just told herself that she only needed to make it to the next rock, or the next tree, before she could rest. Then, as soon as she got there, she’d pick a new goal, and continue to press onward.

    And yet, despite her best efforts, Shallan could only go so far on grit alone. Sooner or later, her petite body was bound to give out, no matter how hard she tried to make it move. As the hours slipped by, and her physical strength began to wane, doubt finally began to creep in. It sank its hollow claws into Shallan’s chest, her mind. Was she a fool for pushing herself this hard, when everything suggested there were no clues for her to find? If Mec was gone, then did she even want to find proof? What sort of monster was she for dragging Godrich out here, forcing him to go through this, so soon after he’d recovered from his injuries? He must resent her for it. He must.

    When Godrich finally broke the lingering silence, Shallan finally allowed herself to stop walking. It felt wrong, somehow. Like she’d been moving for so long that her body had forgotten to how to be still. Even so, she forced herself to endure it while she considered his words. His words seemed likely carefully chosen platitudes, but did they not contain a kernel of truth? Either way, Shallan wasn’t certain she could do this for much longer. At long last, she nodded her agreement, and allowed him to lead her out of the forest, away from its bones, and back towards civilization.

    Even once they’d found shelter, and taken care of their most immediate needs, Shallan’s mood failed to improve. While listening to the other patrons at their table speak about the enigmatic creature plaguing the countryside, she couldn’t help but clench her jaw. Her hand tightened around her drink, hard enough for her knuckles to turn white. Thankfully, the others were so caught up in their conversation that none of them seemed to notice. When talk turned to cards, and the strangers invited them to join in, Shallan threw a sideways glance at Godrich, searching his face for a hint as to his intentions, before offering up an answer of her own.

    “I need to speak to the barkeep about something first. Play a hand or two without me for now, and maybe I’ll join you when I get back.” Shallan imbued her voice with as much fake cheer as she could muster, before she rose from her seat. After awkwardly shuffling past the other patrons, she was quick to locate the man she was after. Since he was a little busy serving another group, Shallan found herself waiting by the bar for a few minutes, until the owner finished up his business and finally turned her way.

    “Can I help ya with something else, missus?”

    “Yes, actually. I’m looking for someone. We got separated during all the chaos of those monster attacks. I was wondering if you’d seen them.” The words rolled off Shallan’s tongue easily enough. It wasn’t exactly a lie, after all.

    “Nasty bit of business, that. What did they look like?”

    They spent a few moments going back and forth, swapping descriptions and details, until they were both confident that the Innkeeper hadn’t actually seen Mec lately. The man offered up an apology that sounded heartfelt, while Shallan drummed her fingers against the countertop idly. After spending a few moments pushing down her disappointment, the performer let out a soft sigh, and reluctantly turned her attention to other matters. She turned her gaze back to the man behind the counter, who was watching her idly, waiting for her to say more.

    “How many songs for a bath? Or a room for the night?”

    ~~~

    Normally, Shallan saw a hot bath as an opportunity to relax. She loved to soak up as much heat as she could, loved to let it slowly leech the tension from her muscles. Not in this instance, though. She’d spent much too long scrubbing the ash from her skin, and it had dyed the water a disgusting, sickly grey. Small clumps of ash floated on the surface, reminding her of the ruined forest. When she finally lifted herself out of the water, and stepped out of the tub, Shallan was almost surprised that she was actually clean. That the filthy water hadn’t just gotten her dirty again.

    After she had finished drying herself, Shallan stepped forward to examine her clothes, which were hanging in front of a small fireplace. She hadn’t wanted to clean herself off only to slip into dirty garments again, so she’d washed them before tending to herself. A probing touch was enough to confirm that they were still a little damp, despite the crackling flames. This news was disappointing, but not entirely surprising. No matter. She could stand a little waiting. Perhaps she’d use the time to warm up her singing voice a little. Shallan wasn’t really in the mood after what had happened, but she still owed the innkeeper, and the performer in her wouldn’t allow-

    A muffled hoot reached her ears, freezing the blood in her veins. After a brief moment of surprise, Shallan buried her squeamishness and rushed over to the window. Her eyes swept the shaded landscape, the trees, the fence, searching for the source of the noise. It took her a moment to locate the tawny barn owl, which was nestled amongst the limbs of a nearby tree.

    Was Olenna out there, watching her, or was it just an ordinary owl? Shallan pursed her lips as she considered both possibilities. No matter how long she spent agonizing over it, there was simply no way for her to know. Rushing out into the dark wearing damp clothes didn’t seem like the best idea, and she didn’t want to hunt Godrich down and bother him with a false alarm, but she just couldn’t let the possibility go. She had to try, just in case it really was Olenna, and she was here to lead her back to Mec. She’d have to confirm, and then come back to speak to him, and repay her debt to the Innkeeper.

    Now that she’d made up her mind, Shallan couldn’t move fast enough. She slipped into her damp clothes in record time, ignoring the way that they stuck to her skin, and undid all of the fire’s hard work. Shoved the window open, and climbed out onto the ledge. After a precursory glance, she dropped to the grass below, just narrowly avoiding landing on a collection of barrels that were positioned nearby. Pain flared up one of her ankles, and Shallan stumbled a little, but there was no time to stop and focus on either of those things. It didn’t hurt bad enough to be broken, and so long as her foot still worked, she could worry about it later.

    She hurdled the fence and rushed out into the night, towards the tree, and the owl perched within. She looked up at the bird, breath caught in her throat, and waited to see if it would react to her presence at all. If it would sit there, or fly off, or lead her somewhere. If one of Olenna’s dolls would emerge from the cold dark, and set everything to rights.

  9. #489
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    The scent of a fresh catch, roasting agreeably over an open flame, filled the air around the cottage. With a rehearsed deftness, Cho used a small knife to skin and butcher the rabbits that his loyal wolves had brought to him. The same small boy, who depended on magical, arguably corporeal, animals to help him groom and make camp, had no difficulty in preparing a couple carcasses to roast over a fire with a metal spit. The reflection of the flames sparkled and flickered off the surface of his bright, wide, blue eyes, as he cooked.

    "So," the small mage began calmly as he rotated the spit over the flames. "Aside from this minor setback of yours, has your magic improved? This interference between you and the Anima makes it hard to judge."

    Mec straightened in his seat on the bed. "Uhuh, I would say so, yes. I have learned a lot... I made some mistakes too. Midir taught me how to subtly influence the thoughts of others, although the technique is difficult to perform on complete strangers. I've gotten a lot better at using plants for different things, too. My powers came helpful when defending myself against the pair that attacked me and Olenna. Oh, and you know how I said I wanted to learn to master my magic to help people? I was able to use the Equinox for a long time to help someone... Oh, shit."

    A loud hissed pierced Cho's ears, prompting him to quickly stand on his feet to face Mec properly. "What is it?" he said with a gentle voice, hurrying to his guest's side. His wide, boyish eyes carefully inspected the bandages on Mec's shoulder, his face, everywhere, trying to find signs of a new injury, a new pain. The mage that he had taken into his care had grown unusually restless. Some intrusive thought, some dire realization, set the young man into tireless action. Mec's dark eyes darted around the room, seeking out an impossible answer. His face turned a bright red, he tireless shook one leg, his breathing was rushed and shallow. Eventually, he stood and began to pace the room. Growing anxious over the sudden change in energy, Cho finally called out. "Out with it! What is wrong, man?"

    The frantic pacing slowed to a halt when Mec stopped and placed his hand flat against the knobby wooden wall of the cottage. He cast a troubled glance towards Cho, and choked out his thoughts as he tried to process them. "I'm too far away. And, and, and, the Equinox might not even be active now, if I'm not able to tap into the Anima." Another moment passed, and Mec's hand left the wall so that the pacing may begin again. "I can't stay here, I need to hurry back. Maybe the curse hasn't taken effect yet. Maybe someone's found a way to do something. Shallan, maybe." The next frantic step was interrupted by a sudden tug on Mec's arm.

    Cho grabbed onto Mec's good arm, leaning back with as much weight his tiny body could offer. Once satisfied that his effort had stopped his manic and restless charge, he loosened his pull, but continued to grasp Mec's forearm with both hands. "You need to calm down," he said gently. "Whatever it is that concerns you, you aren't facing it alone. Now tell me, everything."

    Allowing himself to be guided by Cho, a hesitant Mec returned to his original seat. Cho's words of reassurance had an unusual weight to them, quenching the extreme panic in the mage's heart. There, he recounted his and Shallan's travels after Cho had separated from them. Mec's voice was quavery and difficult to control, strained by his emotions. He explained their long journey, their eventually association with the Misfits, the discovery of Clair's curse, and the events leading up to Mec's separation from the group.

    "So I guess I failed, didn't I?" Mec asked joylessly. He hunched forward, leaning his arms on his legs as he stared at the floor beneath him.

    They both sat in silence for a while. Then Cho stood, a quizzical look on his face, and he stepped closer to the fire. The food that was roasting inside was... salvageable. He took the overcooked remnants from the spit and set them aside. For a long while after, he simply stood by the fire, his small arms crossed over his small frame, and he watched the flames dance. "A creature with gray skin..." he pondered. His musings were cut short at the sound of creaking wood behind him. He turned his head "Where are you going, Mec?"

    "I can't stay here," Mec said bluntly. With his good arm, he reached for a few chunks of the roasted rabbit, and bit into a chewy chunk of meat. "I can't, it's not right. There's still a chance to protect Clair. I'm worried about Shallan, too. Who knows if that knight might recognize her if he saw her?"

    "It's growing dark, and you're in no condition to be traveling, Mec," Cho sighed softly. "And not that it's any of my business, but Olenna doesn't want you taking any unneeded risks either. I'm afraid joining her alliance means you should take her wishes quite seriously." He turned back towards the flames, his arms crossed all the while. The heat of the flames warmed his skin, and he even felt its warmth penetrate through his soft leather boots. "In fact, you can ask her what she thinks yourself, in a moment."

  10. #490
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    Hope and resignation warred against each other as Shallan stared up at the owl, and waited to see if it would react to her presence at all. The feathered beast held her within its gaze for a moment, before hooting once and immediately taking wing. She turned after it straight away, followed the animal with her gaze as it headed out into the night. It was the sort of gesture a real owl might make, but it also reminded Shallan of her past encounters with Olenna’s constructs. Was this actually the sign she’d been hoping for, or merely more wishful thinking? She hesitated again, just for the briefest of moments, before realising that she’d lose the thing if she wasn’t careful. Unwilling to take the risk, she took a deep breath, squashed down her tired body’s protests, and headed out into the dark.

    More weary steps. More ragged breaths. At least there was no ash this time.

    At some point after the sun had dipped below the horizon, Shallan realised that she had no idea how long she’d been following this damned owl for. That she had no idea how far she had come, and that she had no real idea how to get back to the inn. To make matters worse, the cold had started to seep in now. Her damp clothes seemed to amplify the evening chill, and it wasn’t long before Shallan was shivering, despite her forced march. Godrich and the Innkeeper had probably realised she was missing now, too. Would they try and search for her, or brush her off as a runaway? Just how much longer could she keep following this animal on blind faith alone, before logic and circumstance forced her to turn back?

    Just five more minutes. She’d push on for another five minutes, and then turn back.

    When Shallan finally stumbled upon the secluded cabin, she almost couldn’t believe her eyes. She stared at it vacantly for a moment, blinked at the familiar owl perched above the threshold, before breaking out into an awkward run. She closed the last few metres as quickly as her strained legs would allow, before any more doubt could creep into her mind, paralyse and delay her with indecision. Shallan reached out and laid one hand against the doorframe for support and dry-swallowed once, before rapping her knuckles against the wooden door several times in quick succession.

    When the door finally swung inwards, spilling firelight and warmth out over the threshold, Shallan couldn’t help but gawk at the familiar face waiting on the other side. She had expected one of Olenna’s dolls, and had hoped to find Mec, whole and healthy and safe. Not once during her march had she imagined that she’d find Cho waiting on the other side. It took the stunned woman a couple of seconds to find her voice.

    “Cho? Oh my god. I can’t believe you’re here. Do you…is…” Shallan’s tongue tripped over the multitude of sentiments she wanted to express, until her gaze slipped past him and moved further into the cabin. Shallan trailed off as she beheld what it was that lay within…or rather, who lay within.

    Shallan felt the warm prickle of tears in the corner of her eyes, and then her legs were moving of their own accord, and she was rushing towards him. She brushed past Cho without a second thought, crossed the cabin’s interior as quickly as her tired legs would carry her. Then she was throwing her arms around Mec as best as she could, burying her face in the crook of his neck, without stopping to consider the sort of pain that she might inadvertently cause him. The tears flowed freely now, her entire body shaking as every emotion that she’d been repressing for the last week flowed out in great big sobs.

    “You’re alive.” Two words. Insignificant, compared to the great wealth of things Shallan wanted to say to him, but they were enough for now. She repeated them over and over as she clung to her wounded friend, up until the moment that she managed to get over her shock, and regain some semblance of composure. Realised that she was hurting him with her overzealous embrace. Apologising profusely, Shallan finally withdrew her arms and straightened up, though she remained by Mec’s side.

    “Godrich and I spent all afternoon combing the forest, looking for you. When we saw how much fire the damage had done, I began to worry that you’d lost control while practicing, and…well, we feared the worst.” Shallan chuckled wryly then, at her own foolishness, and the benefits of hindsight, and her overwhelming relief, and a million other different things. She grabbed the collar of her shirt and tilted her head downwards, using the fabric to try and dry her eyes a little, now that she’d realised everything was okay.

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