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Thread: Round 2: Team 2

  1. #1
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    Round 2: Team 2

    Round Two will beginning 3/17/17 at 3PM EST. Good Luck!

    There are three paths to take.

    1) Corone’s Army, conscripted from the barons, has surrounded Akashima. Its navy has blockaded the sea. In your thread, determine the fate of Akashima. Will Senator Fordstein’s deceit prevail, resulting in him being named baron of Akashima, or will the plot be unraveled before the armies move on their hapless foes?

    2) Senator Fordstein and Ceidon Lore compete to obtain possession of the artifact discovered by Phyr, Leoric and Storm Veritas in the Jagged Mountains. In your thread, trace the fate of the artifact. Will it end up in Fordstein’s hands, will it end up in Ceidon’s hands, or will something completely different happen to it? To avoid an unfair advantage to those players, possession can be automatically assumed by any group.

    3) Ceidon Lore has assembled a rag tag group of diplomats in an attempt to right, what he believes was a wrong that stemmed far deeper than Akashiman independence. The group sails south, following what Ceidon believes is a map to a new world. What will they find, if anything? Will they be absolved of the slaughter of the cat people, or forced to endure a much worse fate?

    A good story will expand on one path. A great story will consolidate all three. In your thread, you must a) regardless of your alignment, work together with your partner overcome a major obstacle; b) somehow, beyond a mere reference, incorporate the Thayne Am'aleh into your story, and c) kill of a major player in the story (sans Ceidon).
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  2. #2
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    Les Misérables's Avatar

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    “Mister Sa'resh, mister Sa'resh! They've arrived!” The innkeeper's nervous voice, alongside her polite knock, permeated the door.

    “Erm, who's arrived, Ellenore?” Phyr Sa'resh stalled. The old one armed dark elf took a last look at the ancient artifact he'd been examining. It resembled an Akashiman puzzle box, only larger and heavier, the size of both his boots combined. He had discovered it in a cavernous temple in the Jagged Mountains, alongside his compatriots Storm and Leoric. The other lads had gone their separate ways, taking with them the strange cat-folk who had crashed their vessel along the cliffs of Gisela, as well as the linguist they'd picked up in Radasanth. Somewhere along the line the group had decided that Phyr should be entrusted with the Thunderbox, and the old elf wound up stuck in Underwood with a lone Ranger to assist him.

    “The silver-furred cat folk, you forgetful old elf!” The innkeeper's voice sounded shrill and insistent, “the scouts say they're making camp just a ways down the road, and the Captain of the Watch has asked after you specifically.”

    “I'll be right out, Ellenore!” Phyr called. He ran the fingers of his lone hand along the runic symbols carved in the Thunderbox's exterior. The pet name for the device arose from the arcane potential it had demonstrated back in the Jagged Mountains. According to the cat folk the artifact could be used to alter weather on a large scale, creating typhoon winds and tidal waves. All Phyr had seen it do was summon lightning and thunder to the sky, so the Thunderbox it had become.

    Hastily covering the artifact in a thick blanket, Phyr slid the metal box beneath his bed and straightened his sword belt. His flintlock cutlass swayed against his hip, loaded and primed. He could still hear the rain pattering steadily on the rooftop of the Last Night's Maiden, so he threw his plain brown traveler's cloak across his shoulders and unlocked the door.

    “I made them wait outside, seeing as how you had asked for privacy,” the innkeeper said as she led the way downstairs, “they did seem rather urgent though, mister Sa'resh.”

    “I should think so, with silver-furs at the gate,” Phyr shook his head, “but you really must call me Phyr, Ellenore. How long have we known each other?” Sa'resh had lived in the Last Night's Maiden for some time whilst serving as Captain of the Underwood Watch.

    “Not quite long enough, mister Sa'resh,” Ellenore said with a small smile as she held the front door for him, “now you go save our village again!”

    The wind drove the rain at an angle, creating a saturating force that soaked through Phyr's clothing in seconds. The old elf shuddered against the chill and pulled his cloak closer. A scout waited for him in the lee of the inn, and saluted with fist to chest as he sauntered up.

    “Good to have you with us, captain.” The scout said, gesturing for Phyr to follow and striding off toward the town's east wall.

    “I'm not your captain anymore,” Phyr reminded the youngling, “that honor lies with Fredrick Tomaine now.” Phyr sighed. Tomaine was little older than the boy-faced scout, and he had a feeling the guard captain would be asking for more than his advice.

    Sa'resh and the scout threaded between a bakery and a lumber mill, the smells of the two establishments intermingling pleasantly. They arrived at the wooden walls which surrounded the town and climbed a short staircase to the shaky ramparts. Another scout waited for them there, alongside the Ranger Leon Mortier and the guard captain Fredrick Tomaine.

    “They've set up camp perhaps a half-mile down the road,” Tomaine reported, nervously fingering the hilt of his longsword, “about sixty of the silver-furred bastards.”

    “According to the last report,” Mortier added, “the Giselaen Army is at least three days behind them. Surely we can last that long?” The green-cloaked Ranger carried his unstrung longbow, the waxed string hiding from the rain in his pocket.

    “Surely we could,” Phyr agreed, “but once the weather dries out, they'll be able to pepper us with their muskets from the safety of the trees. I'm afraid these wooden walls won't keep out their ball shot.” Sa'resh rapped his knuckles on the ramparts. And I can't afford the chance of them taking Underwood in that time, the elf realized, if the Thunderbox falls into their paws, it could spell the end of all Corone. Phyr's mind clicked and whirred like an Alerian clock. “But...”

    “But what?” Tomaine asked eagerly.

    “The silver furs will have been marching in the rain all day,” Sa'resh reasoned, “I got a good look at their muskets when we fought them along the shores of Gisela. They're not designed for wet weather. Even if the cats brought covers for their gunlocks, the moment they take them off to line up a shot, their priming powder will be soaked.” Phyr stroked his whiskered chin and shook out his long, wet gray ponytail.

    “Are you saying that we should...” Tomaine trailed off.

    “How many guardsmen do you have?” Phyr asked.

    “An even fifty,” Tomaine replied, “and I can rouse another score of volunteers from the mercenaries who call Underwood home.”

    “Well, we've got the numbers then,” Phyr said with a nod, his mouth set in a stern line, “the question remains, captain; would you prefer to hunker down and wait for rescue from the Corone Armed Forces, or strike now while the advantage is ours?”

    The wind whipped between them as a long moment passed. “We strike now,” Tomaine said at last.

    “Good,” Phyr replied, “rally the men and break open the armory. Here is what we will do...”

    ~*~

    Underwood's east gate creaked open against the furious wind, and a force of fighters seventy strong filed out. First marched a rank of footmen, half carrying heavy tower shields, the other half bearing long spears. Behind them came two ranks of archers, unstrung longbows clutched in their hands like staves, quivers of arrows bristling at their hips. Each footman had a shortsword on his belt, and each archer carried some sort of blade or axe on his back.

    “Forward, march!” Phyr called from his position at the middle of the pack. Tomaine strode at his side, having deferred command to the experienced old elf. Mortier was with the archers, prepared to take charge of the ranged combatants once the fighting started.

    After they had traveled a little less than a half mile the encampment of the silver furs came into sight. The cat folk had already begun assembling spiked palisades, and their guards spotted the force from Underwood immediately. Harsh, clicking cries erupted from the cat commander as he ordered his troops out into the road to set up musket blocks.

    “Shield wall!” Phyr cried, and the tower shields assembled into a strong barrier at the front of his force. “Archers, string bows!” The archers knelt like one body, swiftly preparing their weapons and then rising as they nocked arrows. “Fire at will! Footmen, advance at half speed!”

    Arrows arced over the shield wall and fell among the assembling cat folk. Phyr knew that the wind and rain would throw off the archers' aim, but a surprising number of the projectiles still struck true. Mortier was in his element, bellowing encouragement and advice to his comrades whilst firing at a faster rate than any of them could manage.

    A throaty explosion tore through the rain as the first rank of cat folk fired. Only one in four of their muskets actually worked, but the whizzing ball shot still caused devastation among the troops from Underwood, blowing chunks off the tower shields and felling several footmen.

    “Footmen, double time!” Phyr called, drawing his cutlass and slashing the air, “spears, forward!” The long polearms poked between the gaps in the shield wall, and the footmen charged. The archers followed closely behind, dropping bows and drawing melee weapons.

    The cat folk barely had time to assemble their second rank of musketeers. The wall of shields and spears crashed into them, the yells of men mingling with feline yowls. The cats attempted to fight back, stabbing with their bayonets, but they did not have the same range as the long spears Phyr had selected from the armory, nor the protection of the tall shields. The archers, bearing swords and axes, spilled around both sides of the shield wall, effectively surrounding the cat folk on three sides.

    The silver furs died in droves, while others broke and ran. Phyr found himself thrown to the ground in the frenzy, and struggled to find his feet as mud stained his clothing. By the time he stood, the battle had ended. A great many of the cat folk lay still on the ground, while perhaps a third of their number had escaped into the wilderness. A rousing cheer went up among the men from Underwood.

    “Another victory for the scourge of the silver furs, Phyr Sa'resh,” chuckled Mortier, flicking blood from his blade, “well planned and well executed, captain.”

    “I'm not the captain here,” Phyr reminded him, but as he looked over the fallen guardsmen and mercenaries, he could not shake the icy grip of responsibility.

  3. #3
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    Gum's Avatar

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    The proud face of Akashima's grand old clock tower wept down on its broken people; at thirteen minutes past midnight a Radasanthian trebuchet's payload had struck the south wall, shooting a hole in the tower and compromising the mechanism. The modern marvel had stood at the centre of business and life for the independent city of Akashima. Their success, alone and apart from the other states of Corone, had ticked along with time's hands; it moved in life, but it fell static in death. The combined forces of the feline invaders, Radasanth, Gisela, and Serenti had murdered all hope of independence.

    The clock would always read thirteen minutes past midnight.

    In a night that seemed timeless, Gum had joined up with the military forces of Fordstein's machinations. The old shaman cut through the morning's early hours, slashing down Akashiman defenders with his obsidian studded bough. He was flanked by the lion warriors, they were swift marauders whose visual majesty played out with bloodstained brutality. The pride of Gisela's longstanding regiments combined well with the salty grit of Serenti's sailors to fulfill the invasion's complement.

    On the whole, the invaders were behaving with good form: dispatching combatants only, leaving civilians to flee and hide without interruption. The Xangu Nation, Gum's distant homeland, was where the shaman had familiarised himself with wanton bloodshed; though, he had always been on the receiving end of aggressive expansionism. This time, he found himself on the other side. He was just the pawn of a terrible man, merely a tool of oppression. He knew, as he winced in the flash of gunpowder, when the enemy's soldiers were dead then the time for rape would begin. That's how it always happened; the chaos of a fallen city was a nightmare's perfect setting. Gum forced the tips of his fingers into the deep lines of his tired brow, reflecting on the cost of it all.

    I should not be doing this. How can I break away from Fordstein and still save my people?

    The shaman's thoughts were of his unfortunate agreement with the crafty senator. The deal demanded Gum work with the senator in exchange for the military support of a united Corone. The embryonic Xangu Nation needed help in their own struggle for independence against the might of a lusty empire. At first, the morality of putting his own people first seemed so simple, but when the middle-aged man came face-to-face with the sight of a nation's demise he struggled with the complexity of his actions. Watching the honourable Akashimans struggle in vain smothered him with a melancholy from which he could not escape.

    This is wrong. My people should stand with the Akashimans against these Imperialists... Not the other way around.

    The sacking of Akashima ran throughout the night, and when dawn came there were still some fighters holding out in small pockets of the city. The war was over, it had come to an end in a single night of overwhelming violence. The united forces were sweeping through the city, killing or capturing the last of the resistance. Gum, however, was not taking part; stamping out the last of their hope was not a tempting activity for him. As a shaman, he was a shepherd of the spirits, and so he couldn't hide from the spectres of the dead. His narrow eyes grew wide at the misty swell of ghosts languishing in the bitter glare of sunrise. The blood on his hands had long since dried, and it flaked away when he rubbed his palms together for warmth in the morning chill.

    "Aren't you going to help with this?" It was the voice of a Radasanthian captain, he had been watching Gum stand motionless amongst the corpses while the rest of his regiment were sweating profusely from the exertion of having to drag and pile the dead ready for burning.

    "Shells, they are empty. The crows will come for them," said Gum. Bones, tied to his scant clothing, rattled as he walked away. He was scouring the streets for peace, not from the dead, for they were his duty; he was fleeing the living – he owed them nothing. Solitude beckoned him away from the rabble and into the shadowy alleys and avenues lined with Akashima's tenements and workhouses.

    Gum's head cleared more and more the further he got from the bloodbath. Then, from nowhere, there was a sweaty lot disrupting the quiet. They were three grunts, and they were grunting dutifully. "Come here," slobbered a Serenti sailor. Gum hid in the open doorway of a ransacked home and peered out at the unfolding incident. Two of the punk troops were pulling an Akashiman woman out of her home, while the third was already fumbling with his belt and britches.

    The old shaman ignored the arthritis troubling his swollen knee joints and ran towards the woman.

    "Whoa, weirdo—back off!"

    Gum ignored their warnings and slid awkwardly past one of the first slobs who tried to tackle him. The second slugged the shaman in the kidney, but Gum stumbled forward anyway. By that point, the third man was flustered and trying put his prick away.

    From the dirt below, the woman tried to sit up and looked up at Gum like he was the divine intervention she had been praying for. Without hesitating, Gum took his axe and hacked twice at the woman's neck. He watched her eyes turn to glass as he killed her. Fresh blood, splattered over his forearm, would take an hour or two to dry and flake away.

    I have saved her from her suffering. If her own gods do not welcome her into their afterlife, then I will ask Oxxad to provide her a home in our Underworld.

    "What the fuck did you do that for?" The sputtering frustration of the lowly thugs came as a threat Gum was disinterested in. "We was going to have some fun, we was! You'll pay for this."

    Gum looked up from his victim's dead eyes and replied with confidence. "And if you make me pay for this, then Senator Fordstein will make you pay for the value he places on my life."
    Last edited by Gum; 03-20-17 at 03:51 PM.
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  4. #4
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    “Thank you for agreeing to see me, Mayor Aldebrand.” Phyr sat in the padded leather visitor's chair positioned in front of the mayor's long mahogany desk.

    “Of course, old friend, of course. But we must do away with this “mayor” nonsense. Call me Benjamin. It's not as though I go around calling you Captain Sa'resh!” The bearded man patted his barrel-belly and smiled over a mountain of paperwork.

    “That's because I'm not the cap-- oh very well then, Benjamin. It's good to see you again.” Phyr pulled at the collar of the fresh shirt he had donned. He'd scarcely gotten back to the Last Night's Maiden and changed out of his muddy garments when a raven had arrived for him, bearing a letter from his friend and ally, Terrence Edim.

    “Good to have you around, Phyr. Did you know the men of the watch have taken to calling you the scourge of the silver furs? Seems you made quite the impression with that little skirmish.” A somber expression swam across the mayor's face as he remembered the sons of Underwood who had perished in the battle.

    “The only victory worth grinning over is a bloodless victory,” Phyr said, paraphrasing from an old Alerian volume on the art of war. “Still, I suppose it's better than allowing the cat folk to besiege us for three days.”

    “Three days,” Aldebrand echoed in disbelief, “can you believe the Giselaen army would leave us at such odds?”

    “There is no end to what I'd believe, anymore,” Phyr sighed. He produced a folded piece of parchment – the letter he'd received from Edim – and handed it to the mayor. Aldebrand's eyebrows climbed up his bald pate as he scanned the page. Phyr had already committed it to memory.

    Dear Phyr, it read in Edim's educated hand, keeping track of the goings-on around Gisela has proven rather a full-time task, but I recently met up with that chap Ceidon Lore again, and he asked that I contact you regarding the Thunderbox. If you're wondering how he knows about the artifact, well, I told him... sorry old elf, slip of the tongue. In any case, Ceidon's motives seem sincere. He's asked that you entrust the device to me, here in Gisela, until he returns from a voyage at sea. I do hope you can make the trip, as the request was made in the baron's good name. Look for me at the Palace Gardens, one of Gisela's nicer inns.

    Oh, and I should warn you about those louts who were trying to buy the Thunderbox, the ones representing Senator Fordstein. Based on everything I've heard around here, it seems old Fordstein is a rather nefarious type. If his agents have failed to purchase the device from you, he may send others meant to take it by any means necessary. Be wary on the road, old elf, and don't trust anyone in the Giselaen army. Any one of those soldiers or officers might be taking Fordstein's coin. It'd be advisable for you to leave Underwood before they arrive, and bypass them on the road. They shouldn't be stopping to look for ancient artifacts while on the trail of the silver furs! Speaking of which, I do hope those cats aren't causing too much trouble for you. Knowing the way you dealt with them along the cliffs of Gisela, I should think you'll be just fine.

    Right! I’m running out of parchment. Travel safe and swift, there will be a pinch or two of fine pipe tobacco waiting upon your arrival. Regards, Edim.


    Aldebrand folded the parchment and returned it to Sa'resh. The dark elf pulled one of the candles that illuminated the mayor's desk closer and fed the letter into the flame, dropping it in the candle's dish as greedy fire converted it to ash.

    “This “Thunderbox”,” Benjamin queried, “it's the device you spoke of earlier? The one that controls the weather?”

    “So it would appear,” Phyr nodded, his damp ponytail dragging against his clean cloak.

    “Well, it certainly seems best to keep it out of Fordstein's hands,” Aldebrand advised, “I've had prior dealings with the senator, and he can be a tad... I don't know if “slimy” is too harsh a term.” The mayor stirred a finger in the pile of ashes the letter had become, the candle throwing flickering shadows across his lined face. “Will you depart shortly, then?”

    “I may wait a day or two,” Phyr said, thinking of his cozy feather bed at the Last Night's Maiden, “my old bones prefer the comforts of Underwood to the open road. But I do think I should take Edim's advice, and seek to pass the army on the road.”

    “That seems wise,” Aldebrand said with a sage nod, “if Fordstein does have agents in the army, the chaos they cause upon arrival will provide the perfect cover for them to search the town.” Ever since the civil war, in which Underwood had sided with the Rangers, most of the forest town's population had become rather wary of the Corone Armed Forces. “Will you travel in disguise?”

    “Not much you can do to disguise this,” Phyr chortled, wiggling the stump of his right arm, “but a little cover will be necessary. I had hoped that you might help me with that.”

    “Gladly,” Aldebrand replied, a gleam in his eye, “we've had quite a busy hunting season. I think I've got just the thing to get you past the army unsuspected.”

  5. #5
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    "Mama?"

    A child appeared in the doorway. Gum turned to look at the boy, but the boy only looked at his mother. The pool of blood spilled along the grooves in the pavement, dampening the boy's dinky toes. "Child," implored the shaman, but the boy remained still; even the sensation of a bloody puddle around his feet couldn't shake his focus. The boy was taken by his mother's dead eyes, the same way Gum had been. "Go back inside, boy," gasped the desperate shaman. "Stay quiet and hide." Instead, the boy bawled from the bottom of his lungs; his mother's life was over. The chilly daybreak of a fearful city was shattered by the orphan's bellowing grief.

    "Grab him. He needs to shut the fuck up before the captain comes looking!" The man's cheap chain mail jangled as he jerked the kid out of the doorway, tugging on his Akashiman robes and pulling him into the bloody street. "Hold him, hold him," said one of the others, trying to paw his grimy palm over the kid's crying mouth.

    Gum steadied himself, wondering if he should act. The threat of a child's death rattled him. Whether the soul anchored to the boy's body was young or old was immaterial, he was nevertheless saddened to see the potential of a young life cut short. It was a contradiction he spent little time questioning.

    The soldier whose dick was still half way hard drew his sword. "Just fucking kill him for fuck's sake," he said pulling back his little sword for a big swing.

    Spinning, Gum slashed at the sword-wielding soldier. The veteran's pirouette rolled out with a groan of arthritic agony. In spite of his rigid frame, the shaman's axe swing left the horny reprobate on the floor; the wounded soldier was squealing loader than the kid. The Xangu holy man looked down to see he had ripped open his target's thigh. The soldier's blood spilled into the lines between the cobbles, merging with the woman's.

    "Senator or no senator, you're fucking dead. Fucking dead."

    Gum felt the sharp pain of an iron boot striking his shin. He winced, clutching at the sensitive shinbone. Before he could react, a blunt thud came to the back of his head. He didn't know it, but it was the hilt of a sword busting open the thin layer of flesh covering his skull. The war paint on his cheeks smeared onto the uneven cobbles as he hit the deck. A sharp knee drove into Gum's spine, holding him down. "Got 'im!" It was the triumphant declaration of the shaman's assailant.

    Meanwhile, the kid continued to squirm and scream against the other soldier who was administering similar restraints. "Argh! Fuck!" The kid bit the guy's forearm, piercing the skin. That was enough for the imperial goon, and so he smashed the boy in the temple, knocking him out.

    "Whoa, shit. I don't know if he'll wake up from that one, fella!" That was the response of the man weighing Gum down, flush with the street. "Stay still," he insisted as he felt a sudden jolt of energy come from below. It surprised the soldier because the tired old man seemed to have given up the fight after he'd had his clock cleaned. "Where did you get all of this energy from, old timer?" he asked as the shaman bucked up with gusto.

    Then he looked down to see.

    To his amazement, he wasn't pinning an old Xangu native to the floor anymore. Instead he was straddling a vibrant beast; Gum had transformed into a jaguar. The big cat tossed the soldier off him and pounced on his prey's strewn torso. The roles had been reversed, now Gum was the one with the advantage. A savage snarl gave a moment's warning to the soldier that he was about to die. Gum sank his skull-piercing canines into the man's head, delivering a precise and fatal injury to the brain.

    The last of the three degenerates, the one who had been holding the boy, was stumbling down the street by the time Gum was ready to take him on. With the odds down to evens, the cowardly soldier had decided to flee the scene. Worried, the shaman looked down at the unconscious child and then back at the fleeing soldier as he rounded the corner headed for the city's central promenade.

    It is a shame to leave a witness alive.

    ~

    "Mama?"

    The Akashiman orphan woke up to the crackle of a camp fire; he sat up and looked around at the unfamiliar surroundings. Undergrowth was retaking the old trade route, concealing what it had once been; even the naive little boy knew he was on a path less well travelled. He rubbed his little fingers at the bruise on his temple, and the memory of what happened came back to him. Sorrow had a way of revisiting the recently bereaved with renewed vigour.

    "She died. I am sorry." Those were the even words of Gum, he had returned to his human form and was sitting on the opposite side of the fire. Gum's haunting omission was that it had been his axe that had delivered the final blow. That, though, was not what he felt guilt for. The fatal strike was just the river reaching the ocean; the shaman knew that the suffering of all of Akashima sprang from his decisions as much as anybody else's.

    "I know." The boy's concession came as his narrow Akashiman eyes bonded with Gum's similarly shaped Xangu eyes.

    It was then that Gum wondered if the boy had witnessed his mother's execution. "What is your name?"

    "Tosu. My name is Tosu," he whimpered into the woods.

    "Tosu, your mother is dead and your nation is occupied by a hostile empire." The tone with which the shaman spoke seemed apathetic, but his kind sentiment began to emerge as he continued. "Do you have family outside of Akashima?"

    "My aunt and uncle, they're in Gisela... They are Akashiman like me, but they left a long time ago."

    "Can you walk?"

    "I think so."

    "Then walk. I will take you to them and leave you in their care. We are going to Gisela."
    Last edited by Gum; 03-23-17 at 12:12 PM.
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    xangunationalist | fordsteinoperative

  6. #6
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    Les Misérables's Avatar

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    The following two days passed Phyr by in a blur. He visited with old friends, spent some more time planning with the mayor, and made preparations for his voyage. Aldebrand provided a horse and cart, the latter stacked high with pelts to camouflage the Thunderbox, and to give Phyr a plausible cover story. He and Mortier would be naught but a pair of fur-merchants on their way to the wealthy markets in Gisela. The day of their departure they donned plain brown travelers' cloaks and drove the cart out through the open gates.

    “Goodbye captain! Safe journey scourge!” Several of the young men of the watch called to the old elf as the cart trundled away. He gave them a tired wave with his lone arm, and then Mortier snapped the reins and the horse increased its pace to a trot.

    They passed the platoon from the Giselaen army on the road that first day, just shy of Concordia's great fringe. The commander stopped the cart briefly to ask after the silver furs, but they truthfully told the sweating man that the cat folk had never arrived at Underwood's gates. The officer barely glanced at the empty arm of Phyr's jacket, or the stack of pelts in the back which buried the Thunderbox. They camped overnight in the nape of a small hill just outside the forest and then continued along the muddy road the next day.

    “How did you lose your arm, Phyr?” Leon Mortier asked as the sun approached its zenith, “I'll admit I'm curious, and after all we've been through together, I feel I know just about everything else about you.”

    Sa'resh chuckled. The question always came up eventually, and he'd grown habituated to telling the story, despite the painful memories it tempted.

    “During my time in the Alerian military, I was framed for treason,” he said, noting the sudden flash of recognition in Mortier's eyes. During the civil war, the Rangers had been declared traitors by the Empire. “A major who desired my wife framed me in hopes that her affections would fall to him. I still don't know if he succeeded.” A long moment passed. The squeak and tumble of the cart wheels chattered back and forth with the moan of the wind in the trees.

    “I was sent to a prison in the northern reaches of Salvar, and remained there for many years. In the forges where we labored, I sustained an injury that proved too complex to heal properly. The worst surgeon I've ever laid eyes on amputated my right arm, with nothing but cheap grog to clean the wound and kill the pain.” Phyr let the partial story linger in the warm air, and then reached out and stayed Leon's hands on the reins as they rounded a short hill.

    An odd standoff greeted them. Two soldiers with weapons drawn menaced a man and a small boy. The man looked like some sort of Dheathic native, perhaps a shaman, judging by the shrunken heads and bones that adorned his piecemeal garments. The boy was Akashiman, garbed in traditional robes of the eastern nation. The soldiers wore leather armor. One of them held a dagger to the lad's throat while the other menaced the shaman with a longsword.

    “Keep going along your way, travelers.” The soldier with the sword called as the cart trundled to a stop, “this man is wanted for desertion from the battle for Akashima.”

    Phyr and Mortier climbed down from the cart slowly, hands on the hilts of their swords. They paced across the road to the patch of grass where the tense foursome stood in a rough square.

    “Desertion is a crime that must be punished,” Phyr said, and pursed his lips, “but I never trust the word of a man who would threaten a child.”

    The old dark elf drew his cutlass. Mortier leaped upon the soldier menacing the boy, bearing him to the ground. The swordsman cursed and swung his blade towards Phyr, but the sharp edge caught on something else; the Akashiman boy's arm. With a cry, the lad sat down, gripping the deep wound as a wave of crimson flooded out. Phyr ran the soldier through, a simple thrust that snuffed out the man's life. The elf turned, flicking blood from his blade with practiced ease.

    Leon Mortier lay dead in the grass, the soldier's dagger embedded in his chest.

    “Bastard!” Phyr growled, and pointed his weapon at the offender. He activated the flintlock mechanism, sending a shower of sparks into the priming powder packed fresh that morning. The firearm kicked and roared, and iron ball shot tore through the soldier's leather breastplate. He fell to the ground with a cry, life seeping rapidly from a sucking chest wound.

    “Leon!” Phyr exclaimed, sheathing his sword and falling to his knees beside his compatriot, “damn it, Ranger, I still need you!”

    “That one's soul has fled,” the shaman said in a deep, sorrowful voice, “help me save this one.” He clutched hopelessly at the gash in the young boy's arm, trying in vain to stem the bleeding. The lad whimpered softly, eyes rolling with terror and pain.

    “Hold him still,” Phyr commanded, and half-crawled to the unlikely pair's side, “remove your hand,” he added as he fished his powder horn out of a deep jacket pocket. He uncapped the container with his thumb and poured a few granules of gunpowder into the cut. Recapping the horn and stuffing it away, he produced a book of matches and expertly struck one with a flourish of his lone hand. “There will be great pain,” he advised, and then dropped the match into the wound.

    A puff of smoke and a soft sound escaped the gash as the powder ignited, burning the surrounding flesh and cauterizing the cut. The boy screamed and then fell slack in the shaman's arms, unconscious. Phyr's azure eyes met the shaman's brown ones.

    “That was well done,” the Dheathic man said with a nod of thanks, “quick thinking.”

    “I was well trained,” Phyr said, returning the nod. “Where are you bound? This boy will need proper care, and sound rest.”

    “We are going to Gisela,” the shaman explained, “Tosu is an orphan from the attack on Akashima. I am taking him to his remaining family.”

    “I am bound for Gisela as well,” Phyr said, “you are both welcome to travel with me. Lift the lad up among the furs in the back of the cart.” The old elf took a deep breath and then fetched Leon Mortier's green cloak from beneath the cart's seat. He spread it carefully over the Ranger's fallen form, taking the time to smooth out wrinkles and ensure it covered him from head to toe.

    “Sorry I can't afford the time for a proper burial,” he said to his fallen comrade, “may Trisgen lighten your path to the afterlife.”

  7. #7
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    The road drove disquiet into Gum's weary heart; what he left behind was the baying certainty of an army deserted, but ahead came the foolish destination of an enemy stronghold. Regardless the right thing was to safely deliver the child to family.

    Spirits in the trees bordering the carriageway kept him company; whether benevolent or otherwise, those souls would speak with the wind, acting as allies of varying degrees. While Phyr and his fallen friend had saved them from defeat, it was still too early to be sure of his intentions. So the shaman begged the heady chorus of the forest to answer his questions about the stranger, his saviour.

    Can I trust the elf? Was his arm taken as punishment for a crime? Did he lose it as a result of violent tendencies?

    Silence. The spirits had always spoken to Gum, but on that day, they were mute.

    Gum's bare foot came down on a sapling, it was a rare germination for the bitter season. He paused, pulled his heel back and knelt to check on the plant. Its stalk recoiled heartily, and so Gum smiled; life had broken through the ground in spite of the harsh conditions. That was his answer.

    Tosu was sleeping on the back of the cart and Phyr was looking ahead. Gum increased his pace to make up the distance to the cart and broke his sombre expression, hoping to warm the moment. "There is risk in helping us." The two men had exchanged names, but Gum's discomfort prevented him from addressing his new companion by his given name.

    "These are troubling times, was it necessary for a deserter of all people to be the one to accompany this orphan in his journey?" Phyr turned his head back to watch the Xangu native and gauge his response. "It seems to be an unnecessary complication, wouldn't you agree?"

    "I could not leave a child in Akashima now that it has fallen. He is a new orphan. I killed his mother." Gum's jowl lines ran long, into the tips of his deepening frown. It was a negotiation, and the shaman conceded the first valuable truth: his guilt.

    Pausing, the elf took a moment to swallow the shaman's admission. "Fordstein." Phyr tossed the next chip onto the pile, raising the stakes to see how big of a player the conspicuous foreigner really was. "He's making a number of moves in quick succession. Word is that he was the driving force behind the invasion. Are, or rather, were, you loyal to him?"

    "I was part of the conspiracy to overthrow Akashima, yes." His aging baritone cracked with regret. "The senator. I have been acting under his direct command for some months. I should have left this wet and cold island long ago."

    "Gum," the elf did not share the shaman's reluctance for familiarity, "your story is a troubling one. I am expected to believe that you abandoned your victorious invasion force on moral grounds only moments after murdering poor Tosu's mother?"

    "Death can save us." His retort was grim to those with uncertainty about the afterlife, or even any wonder for the nature thereof. "She was going to be raped. I saved her from that and sent her to the Underworld. She will be born again, or her soul will take its place in paradise."

    "And the boy, you didn't consider he would be better off dead than an orphan trapped on a warring island?"

    Gum hesitated, holding his breath in his tight old lungs. "No, not a child." He exhaled and his eyes narrowed against his will. "His soul is eternal and could start again, of course, but-"

    "But what?" To his frustration, the Xangu nationalist was unable to dismiss the flaw in his logic when pushed. "While you cannot explain it, I understand nonetheless." Having flustered his conversation partner, Phyr was free to ease the pressure.

    Gum clutched at the trio of shrunken heads dangling over his chest and conceded, "I have made many mistakes since coming here."

    With the upper hand, the one-armed elf began drip feeding information, "I too have been influenced by Senator Fordstein."

    Suddenly pumping, the shaman's heart beat out an uneasy rhythm. Is he an operative too? Am I being drawn into a trap? In spite of his panic, Gum was able to respond with resolute composure. "If I was to guess, the senator has caused you as much duress as he has caused me."

    "Quite."

    Gum kept walking, keeping pace with the horse and cart. "The senator's assassins will find me eventually."

    "I persist against similar odds, Gum," said the elf, smiling.

    The concession that Phyr was also an adversary of the senator put Gum at ease; he felt his faith in Phyr growing. "I am familiar with many of his assassins. Together, we can defeat any he sends after us." Thanks to amputee's candour, the shaman was no longer holding the weaker hand, and so he hurried on to an important question, "Why does the senator seek you?"

    "They say the walls have ears, but I find the open road is an even worse place to discuss sensitive information." Phyr looked left and right at the thick tree line. For Gum, the spirits were in the forest, but for Phyr, potential eavesdroppers were his concern. It wasn't wise to open up about the Thunderbox when anybody could be listening. "For the time being, let's just get dear Tosu to his family, shall we?"


    ~


    KNOCK!!! KNOCK!!! KNOCK!!!

    A wire-haired lady, silver with wisdom, creaked open the warped beams of her front door. Phyr and Gum were unusual bookends for a small boy. At first glance, their contrasting appearances gave no hint of any connection; kin to each other they certainly weren't. Phyr looked at Gum, Gum looked at Tosu, and Tosu looked at the woman. Tosu and the lady of the house were the only kin present, but neither recognised the other as such.

    "Ahm," she fumbled with a furrowed brow and polite smile, "can I help you?"

    "Perhaps." Phyr wasn't sure.

    "Tosu, is this your aunt?" asked Gum to the sheepish orphan.

    "I... maybe... I... think so..." the child mumbled, having not seen the woman in some years.

    Her eyes and mouth widened, but she said nothing before Gum could intervene. "Tosu's mother, I presume your sister." He stopped. "I am afraid to say." He stopped again. "That she died." And then the words flowed. "She died in the assault on Akashima. For that I am very sorry."

    For the second time, the brutal shaman witnessed the flush of grief his action had caused. Years spent ferrying the dead to the Underworld had rendered him numb to the broader consequences of death; for too long he had seen killing as merely facilitating a journey to the other side. The experience with Tosu and his mother cast it all in a stark light that was uncomfortable for a pious instrument of the gods.

    She thanked him, and did so profusely. "Thank you for bringing Tosu to me. Thank you. Thank you so much!" Her jarring emotions were impossible to avoid. She hugged the boy into the doorway of the house, ecstatic over her innocent nephew's safety; while at the same time, she wept with heartbreak for her sister's suffering.

    "No, please do not thank me."

    Gum couldn't look at the woman.
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    xangunationalist | fordsteinoperative

  8. #8
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    The cart full of furs which had gotten them through Gisela's gates waited in the alleyway beside Tosu's family's house. Phyr reluctantly left the Thunderbox unattended as the boy's aunt insisted they come inside.

    The kindly Akashiman woman informed them that her husband was out fishing the sea. She introduced herself as Haruhi and seated them in the house's humble dining room before bustling about preparing tea and biscuits. Gum attempted to protest, but Phyr accepted on behalf of both of them; he was weary from the road, his stomach empty, his mouth dry.

    “When we heard of the battle for Akashima, we feared for my sister and her family.” Haruhi said after they'd eaten, and Tosu had been put to bed with a clean dressing on his arm. “It is a gift that you brought Tosu to us safely. Please.” She stood up and gestured for them to follow. Phyr led the way down the wood-walled hallway, to a small room dominated by a shrine to the deity Am'aleh. Blue velvet draperies adorned the walls, and a dais stood at the far end in front of a wall of azure screens. A statue of a creature with the head of a lizard and the tail of a fish balanced on the dais, next to a glass pitcher of clear water.

    Phyr recognized the symbol of the sea goddess, for he had seen it often in the coastal city of Serenti where he worked as an advisor to the baron. It did not surprise him that a family that borrowed their living from the ocean should worship such a deity.

    Haruhi tucked her wiry hair back in a tight bun and picked up the pitcher of water. She carried it to where Phyr and Gum stood shoulder-to-shoulder and dipped her fingertips in the moisture.

    “Am'aleh blesses you,” she said, flicking beads of water in Phyr's face. The salt of it stung his eye; it was water from the sea. Haruhi repeated her words as she blessed Gum.

    “I deserve no such blessing,” Gum said.

    “We thank you,” Phyr cut in, “for the blessing, and the hospitality. But we must be on our way. We have business to attend.”

    “You are always welcome here,” Haruhi told them before seeing them out.

    Phyr gnawed his lip as he climbed up in the driver's seat of the cart. He had a decision to make, and suddenly little time to make it. He took a deep breath.

    “Ride with me,” the elf said to the shaman, nodding at the seat next to him.

    “I prefer the feel of my feet on the ground,” Gum replied, “even when it is covered by cobblestone.”

    “Ride with me just the same,” Phyr said, gathering the reins with his lone hand, “we have matters to speak of.”

    The shaman climbed up onto the passenger seat and Phyr got the horse moving down the lonely alley. The sun settled low in the sky, and most families in the residential neighborhood remained indoors, the small children already abed. They passed a guardsman lighting street lanterns with a long pole but otherwise saw not a soul.

    As the cart trundled along Phyr confided the secret of the Thunderbox to Gum, explaining how he had come to have it, where he desired to take it, and the other elements who sought it. The shaman listened impassively, the crinkles in his brow growing deeper by the moment.

    “Fordstein must not be allowed to possess such a relic,” he intoned in a near whisper, “it has been in the back of the cart this whole time? Why tell me now?”

    “I have come to trust you,” Phyr replied, “and in truth, I cannot move it on my own.” He shrugged his right shoulder expressively, and then gave the reins a whip with his left hand.

    The old elf employed the same methods he'd used to find Tosu's family in order to locate the Palace Gardens Inn. He stopped and spoke with people. It had taken some doing in order to locate the home of the Akashiman couple, but finding the Palace Gardens proved as easy as asking around at the nearest tavern.

    The expensive inn had a reputation for a reason. It occupied a full city block in the heart of Gisela, and the building only took up a third of the space. The rest was devoted to exceedingly well maintained gardens, featuring local flora as well as a variety of exotic plants. Pathways meandered through the pleasantly presented beds of flowers, small trees, and other green life.

    Phyr looked over the low fence surrounding the gardens as the cart trundled toward the front entrance. They had a stables, where for a fistful of silvers the horse was given a warm blanket, a feedbag, and a trough of clean water. Under Phyr's direction, Gum extracted the Thunderbox from the back of the cart, wrapping it in a deer hide and hefting the bundle easily.

    They stood out sorely inside the upper class inn. The woman behind the finely sanded reception counter looked down her nose at them, but relented and summoned a bellhop when Phyr's educated tongue asked after Edim. Before long the white-haired guardsman arrived in the lobby, leather boots slapping on the polished stone floor.

    “Phyr!” Edim cried, grasping the elf's shoulders, “it's good to see you old lad.”

    “Same to you, Terrence,” Phyr said with a nod and a wizened smile, “This is Gum. He bears the gift we spoke of.”

    “I see!” Edim stroked the silver hairs on his chin excitedly, his eyes lingering only a moment on the shaman's strange attire. “Well gentlemen, we must adjourn to my rooms.” He led them up a flight of stone stairs, down a carpet-lined hall, and through a heavy rywan door. Several lanterns blazed in the large main room, which led out to a balcony overlooking the gardens. Other doors along the side wall led to bedrooms and a water closet.

    Gum placed the wrapped artifact on a low table and the three of them took seats surrounding it. Edim fumbled his pipe out of his pocket and pinched tobacco into its trumpeted end. The smell of sulfur flared as he struck a match, quickly replaced by the soothing scent of fine tobacco as he expelled the first puff from his lungs. He passed the pipe to Phyr, who took a deep draw, enjoying the relaxing flavor. He offered the pipe to Gum as Edim leaned forward, rubbing his palms together eagerly.

    “Right,” said the guardsman from Serenti, “let's see this Thunderbox.”

  9. #9
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    Gum waved away the pipe, slicing through its thin smoke with his bony digits. The table's mysterious centrepiece was his only focus. He joined Edim in calling for its unveiling, pointing at it with his curved index finger. Phyr obliged their requests, pulling back the covering from the Thunderbox.

    Free to observe the object for the first time, the shaman was captured by its curious composition. It was metallic, but still had an inexplicably organic aura. The thing's scent filled him with primordial dread, it was as earthy as the trees and as fresh as the sky. "No artificial object should smell of the seas and rain, or wet soil and rotting mulch," he warned, invoking his authority as a steward of the distant Xangu forest.

    Edim and Phyr engaged in a series of questions and answers. Every detail of their entanglement with Fordstein's burgeoning tyranny came up during the conversation. Their unusual interplay of accents, Aleran and Serenti, faded into the clouded fringe of Gum's consciousness. The air in the room took on a thickness that distracted him. Memories of the Xangu Basin, his homeland, came with the unnaturally muggy air.

    A joist overhead creaked, breaking his reflections. Gum looked up at the ceiling, but there was nothing there. Extra moisture in the air provided a convenient explanation for the wood settling.

    "Possession of this box is dangerous." Gum made his declaration without doubt.

    "Agreed," conceded Phyr. He looked to Terrence Edim for a resolution.

    And the guardsman happily complied, "We are in luck! Ceidon Lore's expedition is expected to return soon. Placing this device in his impartial hands is probably best for all of us."

    Phyr cut in, "Absolutely. I would be surprised if Senator Fordstein had the gall to interfere with him."

    Again, the joist creaked.

    Gum suddenly kicked table's legs from under it, sending it toppling over. He shot out of his seat and leapt back, stumbling in the jumble of his chair's legs. A long narrow blade came down from above, sticking into the floorboard where he had been sat just a second ago.

    A lithe man with foggy eyes and dark skin fell from the ceiling, copying the path of the blade. He hit the floor with a cushioning crouch, before looking up with a mocking smile. "Cherub," said Gum, acknowledging the man as one his former colleagues, another of Fordstein's assassins.

    The Cherub produced a dagger for each hand and slashed out at Gum. Edim, his guardsman habits coming to the fore, jumped between Gum and his would-be assassin. In the chaos, the daggers fell to the side after missing the mark. For the first time, the Cherub opened his mouth, spitting a verdant mist in Edim's face.

    Proud to the last, the poisoned guardsman fell to the ground clutching his eyes with little more than a gasping grunt. It wasn't the first time that Gum had seen the Cherub use that blinding poison, but it was the first time that he had seen a victim endure it with such courage. Barely shaking his head, Gum signalled to Phyr that Edim was a lost cause.

    With the elf and the shaman left to dispatch, Fordstein's cruel operative pulled the katana out of the floorboard and made a move. There was no pathway to the door, the assassin had them where he wanted them. Gum, pulled Phyr back by his shoulder, lurching the aging elf away from a slice of the Cherub's weapon. Their backwards momentum carried them into the room's only window, they shattered the glass and broke the frame, toppling helplessly into the night.

    Left behind, the Thunderbox sat on the floor of the room. It was waiting for the Cherub's attention; he would surely deliver into the hands of his master.
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    xangunationalist | fordsteinoperative

  10. #10
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    Whump!

    Phyr landed on the broad leaves of ferns, set in a soft bed of soil. Winded by the fall and somewhat stunned, the old elf still scrambled to his feet. He'd missed impaling himself on his cutlass by a fraction of an inch, scabbard be damned. His azure eyes swept up to the broken window on the second story, where the assassin's face was framed by the glow of lanterns from the room. The Akashiman did not follow, however, choosing to stay with the Thunderbox.

    “We must run,” Gum said, and they ran, Phyr limping somewhat due to a leg that had twisted beneath him in the fall. They disappeared into the gathering darkness, flitting through the occasional pool of light cast by lantern-poles.

    “We must get off the streets,” Phyr puffed as they rounded the corner of a busy tavern, noise and light overflowing from the stone building.

    “Not here,” Gum said with a shake of his head, “we will be too obvious.”

    “You're right,” Phyr spat and wiped the corner of his mouth with his lone hand, fatigued from the running. “Come this way, I have another idea.” His tone became grim.

    Night lay sleepily over the city of Gisela by the time they made their way back to Haruhi's house. Gum was uncomfortable with the idea from the start, but he'd followed Phyr back to the friendly Akashiman's home just the same. The shaman shifted from one foot to the other as the dark elf rapped his knuckles on the time-worn door.

    Haruhi's husband answered the knock bearing a lantern, wrinkles and dark colors surrounding his tired eyes. At first the man was suspicious, but after a few minutes the silver-tongued Sa'resh convinced him to fetch his wife, and Haruhi ushered them inside immediately. She introduced her husband as Daichi, and the four of them sat in the familiar little dining room. The Akashiman couple wore sleeping linens; it was clear they'd been rousted from bed. Even so they offered the bruised and tired pair a tot of rum each, which Phyr gladly accepted. Gum, unsurprisingly, rejected the alcohol.

    With some friendly fire from the rum in his belly, Phyr explained their situation honestly. He told them of the Thunderbox, of Ceidon Lore, of Edim and the guardsman's sacrifice, and of Fordstein's assassins haunting them. With each word of the story the Akashimans became more awake, but Phyr felt exhaustion and shock driven into him like a long line of railroad spikes.

    Edim is gone.

    The thought flitted in and out of focus in his mind, at times too horrible to fully comprehend. His original compatriot in this great mess of politics and war. His friend from Serenti, whom he'd spent many a night sharing tobacco with while looking out over the city's pearl coasts. The one man he'd felt he could truly trust.

    “We know it is a great favor to ask,” Phyr said as he finished telling the story, “but if you could allow us to rest here for the night, and perhaps assist in smuggling us out of the city tomorrow, we would be most grateful.”

    The Akashiman couple looked at each other for a long moment, and then turned their kind eyes toward the old elf.

    “It sounds as though you have need to stay in the city for a time longer.” Daichi said in a strong, even voice. “You saved my nephew's life and brought him to us. You are welcome to stay with us until this Ceidon Lore returns.”

    “We could not ask that of you,” Phyr said quickly, “it is far too dangerous. The men who are after us would kill you for assisting us.”

    “The path Am'aleh sets out for us is not always safe, nor easy,” Daichi replied with a smile, “I face death at sea most days, but I have faith my deity will guide me home safely.” He reached out a callused sailor's hand to touch his wife's shoulder. “Your path has brought you to us, and you will remain with us until it is time for you to leave.”

    Phyr looked at Gum. The shaman kneaded his creased forehead and then nodded. Phyr took a deep breath. Staying in Gisela, hidden away in an anonymous household, would be an ideal strategic move in their game of cat-and-mouse. Fordstein's men would likely expect them to flee the city, and even if they searched the entire town, they'd be limited to inns and other public areas. Their attention would lay elsewhere in a few weeks when Ceidon's expedition returned, and that would allow Phyr and Gum to intercept whoever the scholar sent looking for Edim.

    Daichi led the old elf and the shaman upstairs, to a ladder hatch which brought them into the cramped attic. Despite the limited space and the omnipresent dust, there was a small cot and a musty old armchair. Phyr thanked the Akashiman and allowed the generous man to get back to his bed. Gum closed the trapdoor up behind him.

    “Now,” Phyr said, sitting carefully in the chair, “we practice our waiting skills.”

    The days passed agonizingly slowly at first, but soon bled into weeks. Phyr and Gum passed their time sitting and sleeping, swapping back and forth between bed and chair, or walking in circles in the limited space of the attic. They went downstairs only to use the water-closet or to take meals of bread, water, and fish stew. Phyr insisted on giving all the gold he had on him to Haruhi for the expense of their stay, and after a little hemming and hawing, the woman accepted.

    The time reminded Sa'resh of the years he'd spent in prison. He felt trapped with his thoughts of Edim in the dusty old attic. Ghostly memories of Leon Mortier crept in as well, and the other Rangers who had perished along the way to finding the Thunderbox. The man at the center of all the death seemed to be a certain senator.

    “After we communicate the loss of the Thunderbox to Ceidon,” Phyr said one lazy afternoon, “we should kill Fordstein.”

    At first Gum chuckled at the idea, but as the days wore on they kept coming back to it. So much could be remedied with a single death, and between the two of them they had all the knowledge and expertise required to bring it about.

    Three weeks into their stay, the trapdoor opened from beneath and Daichi climbed up into the attic.

    “Ceidon Lore's ship sailed into harbor at first light.” The Akashiman reported.

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