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The Hour of the Wolf -- House Arhakuyl 
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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Impressive fortifications—gates, towers, unscalable walls—rose from the mountainside, their shadow looming threateningly over the delegation standing in front of them. A calm but chilling breeze blew by, nudging Santhil's hair and sleeves. She barely noticed, her eyes scanning the battlements. Under normal circumstances, she would be counting people manning them, but right now, she wasn't counting them, she was searching for them.

“No-one home?” the sergeant to her left asked, the surprise and disbelief in his voice bursting through his otherwise flawless composure. He voiced the sentiments the entire delegation had.

Dwarfs were known to have their fortresses mostly hewn from rocks in mountains, creating grand passageways and heavy fortifications, highly defensible positions to fall back to in case any other layer was defeated. Where possible or needed, these fortifications extended to the outside, serving as an initial barrier and greeting for travellers; travellers who would be restricted from advancing far into the mountain. Attacking, sieging, invading a dwarven hold was about as straightforward as teaching your horse to voice-over a mime.

“Blow the horn again,” Santhil ordered, staring witlessly at the empty space flaunting itself glaringly at her. Dwarfs not at home? Had she hit her head somewhere on the way up here? Had the bread she ate turned bad? Was the Apocalypse raging on the other side of the mountain range? Had the garrison found a hidden stash of Bugman's?

Though the entire delegation knew that sounding the clarions again would accomplish exactly nothing, there was no protest: everyone shared the same disbelief at the seemingly impossible situation.

“Perhaps they have suffered many recent attacks,” Yalasmina ventured, “and have retreated to some inner circle of defence.”

“Attacked by whom?” Santhil pondered, stroking the soft leather of her glove past her chin. Sarthailarim? Possibly, but unlikely. Reiksmen? Why would they bother with the Dwarfs? Druchii? They were the first Druchii to get here. Chaos? Chaos was swarming over the lands to the east; they left everything west from Fauschlag entirely alone. She made a mental note to keep an eye on that.

“Plague?” the sergeant guessed. Normally, this kind of brainstorming was done behind council doors, but right now, anything went. “New races, new diseases...”

“Dwarfs are a pure race, very resistant to disease,” Yalasmina countered.

“Sergeant, take five men, get to the gates and see what information you can gather,” Santhil suggested more than ordered. She did recall hearing about some dwarven holds being almost deserted, but certainly, one so close to both the Reik as the Sarthailor lands would hold at least a trading community.

“What are you thinking?” Yalasmina probed her sister.

Santhil pushed on her saddle, leaning a little further towards the fortifications. “We can spend all day navel-gazing on the why of this... freak occurrence, but we have a horde of very angry people coming after us, and a perfectly good fortification in front of us. We can either put our backs to this wall and wait for the firing squad to arrive, or we can take our chances inside.”

“Do you believe this fortification will suffice to hold off the humans?”

“It's not Fauschlag, but I doubt our pursuers will have the stomach to siege a dwarven hold just to get even. They have Nuln back—that will still their frenzy enough to make them queasy about heavy losses for the sake of principle.”

°°°

Giant caverns and hallways had their walls and ceilings sporadically covered with crystals and mosses, glowing in soft hues, making the underground passages dark but manageable once the eyes adjusted to the low light conditions. The fresh, cold scent of water sources, the springs of many rivers, pervaded the tall hallways, driving away much of the stale, musty scent one would expect from rocks as old as the planet.

Corridors, constructions, staircases, pathways; they all went about themselves, following elaborate trails around impenetrable rock, with many descending into threateningly dark depths. With or without explicit gates, walls and fortifications, the dwarven settlement was divided into several layers, with the lower levels being reserved for mining, industry, forging, and the higher ones for trade and residence. A subtle amount of structure was on the outside of the mountain, most likely reserved for lodging foreign dignitaries and their retinues.

A laundry line carried its load wordlessly, swinging gently in the draft pulling through the underground complex. A bucket of water stood purposelessly next to a dead fire. There was no sign of a struggle, or of an organised effort to move out. It was as if the entire population had just vanished at the snap of a finger, disappeared like a bad dream at sunrise. Nothing pointing to a promise of return. As little as a signpost claiming they were closed for the winter would have sufficed.

Santhil looked about constantly, straining her senses to pick up... anything. While the army was slowly marching through the hallways, she tried to hear past the rhythmic beat of soldier feet, see past the gleam of light on their blades, smell past the sweaty scent the long march left on them. She was expecting an entire population of dwarfs to show up right in front of them in some obvious way.

“Stop that,” Lahnia said when a shiver ran over her back. “You look like you're expecting an ambush.”

“Aren't we?” No, dwarfs didn't do hiding or ambushes; they preferred you getting a good view down the barrel of their handcannon before blowing your brains out. Besides, they wouldn't have let the Druchii in anyway. Why set up an ambush in the softer, more vulnerable inside when you could have riddled the enemy from the battlements?

Lahnia rubbed a hand over her upper arm, staring at her sister. “They're not here,” she hoped to make it sink with Santhil as much as with herself. Bizarre as it was, it was the truth.

“They can't not be here,” Santhil countered, almost in a snap, stress and perhaps a hint of frustration showing on the surface. Her horse turned around, feeling the mood of its rider, and whinnied lamentingly. “War of the Beard. Druchii expedition tunnels into the dwarven holds. Every dwarf from miles around pours in, retaking it in a matter of weeks. And history repeats.”

“I know history repeats, hun, but this isn't the War of Vengeance. This isn't about the dwarfs. Just...” Lahnia reached out and laid a hand on Santhil's shoulder. “...relax, alright?”

Santhil laid her hand on Lahnia's, softly tapping her fingers on it, and finally nodded. “We'll take the upper and outer levels for lodging. We can explore the rest later, and find out what happened here.”

Lahnia's face suddenly brightened when she realised something, although she was obviously exaggerating to lighten the mood. “Dwarven holds are huge! We can each have... three rooms to our own. Oh, I want one with a view, and one that's bigger than yours!”

Santhil chuckled amusedly. Lahnia was one of those few people—and sorceresses all the fewer—who had grown up rather than grown old. Strong inner child. It made her so easy to get along with. She took one last look about, already goading her horse to follow Lahnia's.

But then, she held. A cavern to her far left, all the way across the inner plain, held an ominous darkness. She squinted her eyes, peering through her eyelashes as if she could intimidate the inky veil to part and reveal its contents. She wasn't sure why, but she felt uncomfortable. As if there was something in there. Staring back.

“Come on, Ari, you're giving me the creeps,” Lahnia almost whispered when she noticed her sister keeping perfectly still again. Realising Santhil wouldn't drop the issue readily, she took a deep breath, then rolled a teasing grin onto her lips. “Do you want me to leave the lights on?”

Santhil raised her index finger to her sister. “That's the best idea I've heard so far.”

Thaumaturgy, illusion, mysticism—Santhil was oblivious to the particulars, but only a moment passed while Lahnia focused her mind. Instantly, a bright, silent flash grew in the distant cavern, illuminating its insides before dying out in sparks of wasted energy. Santhil squinted her eyes, shielding them from the rays of pure light, trying to get a glimpse of what worried her.

A frightened rat squeaked and scurried out of the cave, finding itself another place to hide in. It wasn't every day his hiding spot was lit up like a garden party.

There was a long, awkward, but strangely comical silence following the dying out of panicky squeaks. Santhil was waiting for it to end, feeling silly in hindsight—spooked out by a rat. She could just feel the smile on Lahnia's lips, and she was starting to roll one onto her own.

“Good catch,” Lahnia finally teased. “I heard they spread plague.”

“Drachau Arhakuyl!”

The messenger was greeted with two sudden, similar yet distinct screams of fright and surprise. Santhil clutched her heart and angrily blew air out her nose while glaring at the messenger. “Cripes, man! Don't creep up on me like that!”

“Eh... apologies, Drachau.”

Santhil calmed herself down, nodding wordlessly to him. He had done nothing wrong.

“The entire army has arrived, and the outer sections are secured.”

“Excellent, thank you.” She beamed a smile at her sister. “Then we can pick our lodging.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Wed May 09, 2007 10:06 am
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Morathi's Best Friend
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“I hate it.” Jesamine's comment was about as subtle as it was intended to please, and it hit its mark well. “Next.” With a flawless smile belying a seriously dented ego, the engineer politely removed his original plan and laid down another.

The meeting room was large, ridiculously large, with an equally lengthy table running through the middle. The grandeur of this chamber humbled pretty much everyone who first stepped within. At first glance, it had fallen into a dusty disuse, but now it was serving as a meeting room for the leaders in the dwarven hold. And one of those leaders was Jesamine Cadsane.

“Two minutes before the Drachau arrives,” Jesamine commented while staring at the new plan, “and this is the best you have? A bad one and a worse one?”

The engineer opened his mouth but stayed silent. He knew better than to talk back, and had to trust that Jesamine knew he had been doing his best given the little time he had at hand. “With your permission, my lady, these are concepts,” he tried his luck anyway. “Time was short to further expand on the details.” He was going to relay any bit of verbal abuse directly to his apprentices, and Jesamine gave him plenty of inspiration.

“Identifying the weak points, details?”

The large doors to the council room opened far behind the engineer's back. He sighed quietly in relief when spared the full brunt of any potential verbal strike—very pointed ones, at that—but then realised that this also meant his time was up. Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl would inquire with Lady Jesamine Cadsane, and Lady Jesamine Cadsane hated his plans. His bad day just got worse.

“Lady Cadsane,” Santhil greeted her, followed by a retinue of generals, captains and lieutenants that had managed to free themselves for the upcoming meeting—considering the importance of the meeting, that would be just about everyone. “There are thousands of Reiksmen closing in on us. Please tell me you have good news.”

“If we have any good news, Drachau, I have yet to pry it free.” She explained while some were taking their seats and most remained standing: “Our engineers haven't had the time to study the defences for any structural weaknesses.”

“This is dwarven make,” Santhil raised with a mental frown. “It is supposed to be the best we can get.”

“Everything has a weakest link, and while the Reiksmen have lived near this fortress for centuries, we have been here for about,” and she threw a look at the standing clock to her right, “thirty hours. Chances are real they are aware of weak points while we are not.”

Eleven thousand Reiksmen advancing on their positions, and roughly two thousand Druchii—military and other—to hold them off with; a siege was going to take a heavy toll on both sides. But if they were going to make a stand, this was the place to do it. Not only was a dwarven hold the perfect defensive position; the fortress' extensive underground network tunnelled all the way to the other side of the mountain range, boasting perfect mobility, even if the current forces couldn't possibly occupy all of the fortress.

Santhil washed a hand over her face, taking a deep breath. “We'll have to play this by ear,” she said with a sigh, and took one of the plans the engineer had made, disregarding the actual plan and focusing on the layout instead.

°°°

Hundreds, thousands of troops marched into the spherical view the handheld telescope gave Santhil. The device had been dug up from a room devoted to science, and it was instantly seeing good use, even though Santhil hated to see what it showed her. She could count the amount of troops marching in on them by counting their banners: a banner per unit, a rough 20-50 people per unit, depending on purpose...

“Lana... rough estimate: 25 battle standards, 15 units per standard, 30 people per unit.” Santhil lowered the telescope and looked at her sister for a quick estimation. Sure, Santhil could count for herself, but she preferred double-checking with others nonetheless. Helped prevent embarrassing mistakes.

Lahnia rolled her eyes to her right, idly casting them over the battlements while the cold wind crept under her robe. After a quick head calculation, she wordlessly aimed her eyes back at Santhil.

“On second thought, I don't want to know.”

Dark clouds rumbled through the sky, bringing in a cutting wind from the north. An occasional burst of thunder rolled far in the distance, too far to notice the lightning. A few long dead leaves managed to pick up the height required to blow over the battlements while soldiers took their positions and sergeants barked their orders. It was a matter of an hour, maybe two, before the enemy would be within range.

“How many troops do we have?”

Santhil looked over her shoulder, scanning around for the banners of their own units, their own being both Arhakuyl's 4th—her personal army—and the rest of the battlegroup. “I'm not sure. I do know we haven't two thousand soldiers. Count the banners, get back to me?”

Lahnia nodded briefly. But then, out of the blue, a thought hit her, and her energy suddenly peaked. “Ari, you always hoped they wouldn't attack because they'd suffer too many casualties, right?”

Santhil didn't agree with the wordings, but she understood what her sister meant and nodded halfly. “In a sense.”

“We can see their army, but they can't see ours! They have to rely solely on our banners to see how many people we have.”

Santhil lowered the monocular again and looked at her sister with a slight frown, willing her to elaborate. “Are you suggesting we hide our banners?”

“What if we put up all the banners we have; everything that even looks like a regimental banner? We can make them believe we are more than a match for them!” Lahnia shook her head to herself. Why hadn't she thought of this before?

Thinking it through, Santhil caught on with the ruse. She nodded gently at first, her eyes aimed at the darkening sky. From that distance, and with the battlefield gently growing darker by the minute, they just might get away with it.

“Captain,” she suddenly said to an officer passing her, “find all the banners you possibly can and get them out here!” Santhil darted away to relay her orders to others and to help the search, but turned on her heel and gave her sister a big kiss on her cheek first. “Lana—I love you—you're a genius!”

Lahnia's cheeks flushed briefly at the heartfelt compliment while watching Santhil run across the battlements, relaying the new orders. There was no guarantee it was even going to work, but in this situation, any option was a good option.

°°°

Banners waved heavily in the strong wind. Santhil felt the strain the wind left on her arm, holding an army standard herself. Still, she kept rigidly still, aiming the standard fully in the air. Impressions were everything now.

An improbable tension had taken hold of the Druchii occupying forces. New banners were being brought up to and behind the battlements, trying to get them in view of their enemies. It was an impressive sight of runes foreign to the Reiksmen slowly encroaching outside the perimeter.

A shiver ran over Lahnia's body; the cold was getting to her. Clutching her arms around her, she looked at Santhil standing next to her. “Please don't let them be able to read Drukh-Eltharin. I really don't think 'Mess hall' is going to impress them.”

“Or 'Latrines' for that matter.”

“What do we do now?”

“We wait.” Santhil scanned over the enemy troops again. Without exception, that was the single largest concentration of forces she had ever seen, and she had spent her share of time at the military academy. A siege would be a slaughter to both sides.

Reiksmen ran left and right through their own ranks. Orders were carried around, logistical elements came to a halt. Their leaders were already convening to discuss the situation. Even if Santhil would use her telescope, she wouldn't be able to see what they were really doing.

The chilling breeze picked up strength while howling past the mountains. A speck of icy water landed on Lahnia's hand, but she was too absorbed with staring at the body of troops holding just outside of sieging range. She controlled her breath, keeping still, as if afraid to provoke a wolf whose territory she inadvertently violated.

A lieutenant walked past her, nodding briefly in acknowledgement of her presence and rank, and halted next to Santhil. “Drachau Arhakuyl, the enemy is within range of our Reapers. My commander is requesting permission to fire.”

Santhil shook her head thoughtfully. “As soon as we fire, they'll attack. We want to avoid an engagement.” Still, she beckoned for the lieutenant to stay near her. In case she changed her mind; in case the enemy advanced on them.

Movement. Santhil took a deep breath before raising the telescope back to her eye. A slight drizzle was pulling in from the north, casting a haze over the prospective battlefield. It made it difficult to make out the specifics, specifics that were very dear to her at the moment. It was only a small comfort to know the Reik would have similar difficulties to overcome.

Like a mass of worms bumping into the imaginary wall at the periphery of the Druchii archers, the Reik army turned and twisted with no clear sense of direction. Something was happening, but she couldn't be sure. They could be redeploying; they could be setting up camp to create siege weapons from the nearby forests; they could be bringing in the ones they made already. It was anyone's guess.

She lowered the telescope and checked with the other commanders standing on the battlement, throwing them a brief look. She saw faces both hopeful as skeptical, but it told her one thing: they were all seeing the same thing.

“Ari, come on, talk to me,” Lahnia whispered. “What's happening?”

Wordlessly, Santhil threw another look through the ocular. The teeming mass of Reiksmen wheeled slowly but disorderly, tunnelling through its own ranks and regiments. But at last, the general direction became clear.

Home.

“They're breaking off,” Santhil said in amazement, a drop of collected drizzle rolling from her brow. “I can't believe this. They're going home.” She lowered the scope again and turned to her sister with wide open eyes. “We scared them off without firing a single bolt.”

“You're pulling my leg, right?”

No, by now, the other commanders had gone through the same process of disbelief and informed their men of the good news: victory. Loud cheers of pure elation tore through the tension and filled the rumbling sky. There would be no fighting today, and there wouldn't be any fighting with mankind anymore—they had no stake in the dwarven holds the Druchii now occupied. New challenges would come in due time: from the Dwarven Empire, from the Sarthailor.

But for now, they were safe.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Mon May 14, 2007 1:48 pm
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Angel of Darkness
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Posts: 3455
Location: Australia
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WOOOO! score one for the druchii
Please make more and more and more and more.....and more!
Please great sory, i must find out more!!

_________________
Saldrimek Xenan - WS6 / S4 / T3 / D5 / I3

Equipment: Executioners Axe (Rune of Beastslaying - Heroic Killing Blow), 2 Scimitars (Rune of Speed - Always Strike First), Dagger, Rune Branded Leather Armour, Executioner Helm, Fine Set of Throwing Knives (x4)
Inventory: Amulet of Darkness, Poison Vials x7, Deadly Poison Vials x8
Mount: Dark Steed
Gold: 163
Skills: Ambidexterity, Frenzy, Two Weapon Fighting, Ride
Class: Khainite


Mon May 21, 2007 8:57 am
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Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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(Finally got around to this. I had some trouble putting everything in the correct flow this time around. Hopefully the delay for other pieces shan't be so obstructive.)


“Fortifying the outer perimeter should be our priority. Classic moats are difficult with terrain this rocky, and without easy access to large bodies of water, but it's not necessary to fill with water, or at all.”

Slanted sideways in her chair, Santhil listened to the expositions, impressions, reports, anything that was going on in the room with varying degrees of concentration. She would adore some time to rest in her new chamber—or chambers, rather—but this meeting was an absolute priority. No, actually, the last meeting was an absolute priority. This one was more of a relative priority.

“The large amounts of rock and dirt that we clear with digging out the moat can be used to increase the slope potential incursions must defeat, slowing their ascent and giving our archers more time to fire at them. It also makes it more difficult for them to bring up heavy siege weaponry such as battering rams or short-range catapults.”

Engineers had spent their time productively, analysing any and all weaknesses in the defence of their new base of operations. While the one in front of her was holding his exposition, explaining his intent and ideas, others were waiting in the relative gloom to her left for their turn and chance to impress. She took a deep breath and leaned on her other arm.

“To slow their advance, we can further add wooden pikes and other such thoroughly unpleasant items,” and he smiled at his perceived cleverness, “to the slope we would build. This will make it more difficult for cavalry to storm in, and near impossible for wagons and wheeled—”

“—I'm... familiar with the basics, master engineer.” As soon as Santhil broke the complete silence that came from her seat, the engineer dropped quiet, as if startled that she would speak. He wasn't used to his audience speaking. He wasn't used to his audience being pretty. He wasn't used to his audience being miles up the food chain.

“...Of course, I didn't mean to imply you weren't. That my Lady weren't,” he corrected himself to follow what he believed to be expected protocol. Santhil just nodded calmly, gesturing for him to carry on as he were. She meant to bring across that she took no offence, but it seemed to leave more of an impression that he was boring her. He was boring her, but she respected his work and knowledge too much to tell him.

“Ah... I, ah...” He cleared his throat. “Right, so I propose we dig a moat and use the free dirt to enhance the slope to the fort.”

When met with the one-phrase summary of the last twenty minutes, Santhil kept her eyes on the engineer. She was waiting to hear the rest of the summary, to make sure she hadn't missed anything important. The summary couldn't just end there, or it would be an oversimplification, wouldn't it?

“I'll... ehm... I'll just...” With a hint of defeat, the engineer collected his diagrams, working diligently to get out of her sight as quickly as possible, though he did have enough courage and dignity left to bow to her briefly before leaving.

Santhil wondered briefly about the engineer's sudden change of heart. First, he spent all of his time carefully detailing his plans and layout, and then he just packed and left. Had she said something?

Realising that these were scientists she was dealing with—and not necessarily the ones with social competence—she decided not to mull on it for long and aimed her eyes at the group standing in the gloom to her left, waiting uneasily for their turn. Suddenly the subject of her attention, the group's collective passiveness tore itself apart. A few looked at others with blank stares, guessing who should be next. One brave soul met Santhil's eyes and put his hand on his chest. Him?

Santhil nodded briefly, timely stopping herself from shrugging. She didn't much care who was going next; she was going to listen to all of them anyway. Her presence was already a distressing factor to them, one that grew alarmingly as they walked towards her.

This one's knees were shaking. Better handle with care.

°°°

Santhil grunted once while handling the ordered stack of reports that had been unloaded unto her. As varied as the messengers that brought them were the contents: scouting reports of both sides of the mountain range, logistical reports on the available room for supplies, superficial census reports on the surrounding villages and farmland, military reports on the amount of troops on guard and those in reserves and, last but not least, reports of how the other battle groups in the eastern colonies were progressing. She really hoped there were executive summaries in there.

A yip. Santhil frowned; she couldn't recall there being puppies in this hold, but perhaps one of the commanders' pets managed to break loose. She looked over her shoulder and dared with a smile that, in a sense, indeed a pet broke loose, albeit her sister, Lahnia, in this case.

Lahnia seemed very happy—overjoyed, even—to catch her sister standing alone in the corridor and leapt into her arms without any form of restraint. The fact that those arms were currently occupied was a minor inconvenience her consciousness readily glossed over.

Recognising a leap for her arms when she saw one, Santhil freed her hands in grown reflex and caught her sister full-on. She took one step back, then another, but finally fell flat on her back, staring straight up with Lahnia looking down on her. “You seem happy,” she greeted her with an amused smile.

“It worked! I can't believe it!” Lahnia tapped her palms onto Santhil's shoulders quickly. “It really worked!”

“Worked... what worked?” Was she referring to the ruse pulled the other day? Some deferred thrust of elation now that the surrounding stress had subsided?

Lahnia was about to explain fully what she was referring to, but stopped when suddenly, in the corner of her eyes and soon in plain view, paper sheets came twirling down like a private white Christmas. “Oh, what's this?”

“Those were very orderly stacks of reports,” Santhil replied, barely holding back a chuckle. The joy of seeing her sister so obviously happy defeated any prospect of reassembling those papers.

“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't mean to...” She wanted to get on her feet again, but Santhil shook her head and patted Lahnia's legs gently, offering her to stay put.

“Don't worry about it, honey, they won't go anywhere. What worked?”

“We're an item! Can you believe it? It actually—I don't know how to thank you!”

Aah, the nameless guy she was after. Santhil gently rolled her eyes up with a smile when remembering. “That stunt you pulled the other day pretty much repays any debt you ever had with me.” And then some.

“But... I just can't believe it! I never actually—I mean, it's my first... I never thought we'd actually... Yes! Thank you!”

“Ah, Drachau, eh...” A lieutenant passing by noted the rather odd distribution of paper across the floor, not to mention an overly excited sorceress sitting on his superior. “Everything in order, ma'am?”

“Perfect, thank you,” Santhil replied, conjuring a charming smile on her lips. She realised it must've looked a slight odd to the outside observer. “Excuse the mess.”

Lahnia wet her lips and kept her eyes on the lieutenant until he had resumed his walk and left them as much privacy as one could have in a corridor, barely waiting and instead whispering in Santhil's ear: “I kissed him and he just melted away and said I was the best thing he ever encountered.”

“Lana, as much as I'm enjoying the moment, I'm going to have to get these papers together and examine them in my room. You're welcome to come with?” she offered as a question.

“Yes, ah... let me help you with these first.”

°°°

Santhil's quarters, a small collection of chambers, were peacefully quiet. There was an ornate desk with comfortable chairs, exquisitely designed furniture all around. Lahnia was already trying out the large bed, sprawled across the length, arms wide open while staring at the ceiling. She had calmed down a bit, but not much more than that. “This is an awesome bed.”

“I hope your bed is equally comfortable,” Santhil replied from her desk, or what was now to be her desk. “Or I might be sharing more than I intended.”

“Dad taught us to share.”

Santhil chuckled while putting one report aside and reaching for the next. “Dad is a bit of a cheapskate.”

“I'm just so happy it's working out.” Lahnia sighed deeply and contently. She rolled onto her stomach, looking at Santhil, her feet hanging over her legs. “Doesn't kiss as good as you, though.”

Santhil snorted into a chuckle. “Why, thank you. Just don't tell him that.” She looked briefly at Lahnia's curious stare and broadened her smile while shaking her head dismissingly. “Male ego. Handle with care.”

“You know,” and Lahnia leaned on her elbows, “it wouldn't have worked if you hadn't helped. I really appreciate it.”

“Nah, I haven't taught you a thing. You just needed to believe you could do it. And you have, so there you go.” Hmm... this wasn't a report but a request and would require an answer of sorts. Santhil reached for an empty sheet of paper, double-checked it was indeed empty, and took her pen to hand.

“Yes, you have.” Lahnia slid off the bed and walked towards the desk, curiously touching it to feel the wood. “Have you heard from Irhuil yet?”

No, Santhil hadn't heard from her fiancé yet. It was starting to annoy her, since her parents were perfectly reachable. Either he was abroad somewhere—perhaps the western colonies, his family had some stake there—or he was for some reason not returning her letters. Was he hurt? Had something happened? “No,” Santhil finally said.

“But by now, you'd think at least one of your letters... Maybe something happened?”

“I don't know, hun, and I'd really rather not think about it at the moment. I'm getting swamped in work here; I don't need another worry on my mind.”

“Oh hey, I could help you with these.”

Santhil smiled, touched by the offer, but refused it. “No, Lana, I doubt you could. I just need to read through these and reply to those that need an answer.”

“Can't you get a secretary for that? You know, like the kind that polishes her nails all the time, has this really shrill voice and sits on your lap to take notes? Oh, I could do that!” Lahnia brushed her hand through the open space between Santhil and her desk, clearing herself some room, and sat down on her lap, chin raised.

“Lana, what are you... Look, I realise I've been neglecting you lately, but I really can't write like this.”

“No, but I can.” Lahnia took Santhil's pen and paper to hand and held ready to write. “Fire away.”

Santhil chuckled and sat back in her chair, staring at her sister. She would definitely be out on psych discharge if it weren't for her. A real bundle of energy. “Right then, ah... Start with—”

“Ornate scripture or will quick 'n dirty do?”

“As long as it's legible, Lana, anything will do. Anyway.” She took a deep breath, pondering what to say—better, how to word it—when she picked up a distinctly pleasant scent in the air. “You smell lovely.”

“Thanks, I tried something new.” Lahnia was almost proud of her achievement. “You're the only one to notice.”

“May I?” Santhil waited for some confirmation from Lahnia before sliding some of her hair aside and took in the perfume with a long, deep breath through her nose.

A quick knock on the open door. The messenger that came through was accustomed to being rushed in his duty, and today was no different: he walked straight in with a good amount of packages to drop off at earliest convenience. “I have mail for Arhakuyl: a few—Oh, apologies, I didn't mean to interrupt.” He cleared his throat when he looked at Santhil and Lahnia, and took a step back. “I'll, eh, come back some other time?”

Mail call? No, Santhil wouldn't pass over a chance to receive mail from her beloved. And from Lahnia's look, it appeared she was anxiously expecting a delivery as well, so Santhil shook her head and beckoned for the messenger to leave it on her desk. “How do you like my new secretary?” she joked with a grin.

“Very, ah, engaging... and talented, milady.” A careful reply that ebbed away while he regained confidence through the routine of his job. “This letter and these packages are for Lahnia Arhakuyl—if you'd sign here, please...”

Santhil pouted her lips briefly while Lahnia put down her name and signature. Another empty mail call. One would expect that a drachau would get overloaded with mail from various people if purely for administrative purposes, but most of that was handled by direct delivery. Why let mail take the scenic route when you could send a messenger?

“And I have a letter for Santhil Arhakuyl.”

Lahnia's face brightened even more than Santhil's, bordering on caricatural exaggeration. She was likewise happy to see Santhil got a letter; in the end, she got to read those too, which meant double mail for her, in a sense.

Santhil accepted the envelope and nodded once in polite gratitude before the messenger left. The quiet importance of his job was underestimated by many, silently slipping into the realm of the ubiquitous, but ever since Santhil had been so far from home, she had begun to foster appreciation for mail delivery.

“Come on, open up,” Lahnia urged Santhil, impatiently hopping up and down in her lap. “Open up.”

Santhil sighed deeply and flicked the envelope between her fingers, showing the sender for Lahnia to read: House Arhakuyl. “Mom.”

Lahnia bit her lip and silently rolled her eyes to the packages that were now neatly arranged on the desk. A sudden attraction to these packages drew her immediate and undivided attention. Embarrassing silences did that. “Oh hey, Ari, these are for you.”

“Weren't they sent to you?”

“I ordered them, but they're a gift for you.”

Santhil's eyebrows rose for a good moment, and stayed as if transfixed. “You bought me something?”

“I owed you beyond your imagination, and since you said you've smoked serious stuff, I went ahead and imported some more...” Lahnia started laughing, swinging her legs in joy. “No, I'm kidding. I did buy you something, though. If you're feeling up to it.” She cocked her head with a smile and looked her sister in the eye. “Are you alright?”

“Of course,” she lied, smiling briefly. “Let's get at it.”

°°°

Dear Santhil,

How have you been? We only hear sporadically about the happenings of the eastern colonies. Is it true that the fighting is intensifying? We often hear about Chaos rampaging around; are they any danger?

Thank you for your letter. There is no need to worry about us. Our family sides with Khaine just as it always has, but we don't believe it will come to a confrontation. Tensions have gone up in the past and they have always subsided again; even if they do not, your father is confident no-one would question our allegiance.

Yalasmina is worrying about you, though. Not as much where you stand in all of this, but how people look at you. She would like to see you take a firm stance for the sake of religious stability, but admits that she isn't sure whether it will soothe or escalate matters. I wish I could give you advice, but all I can say is to trust yourself.

Lahnia wrote us about a large battle against the Reik. But she also vigorously described some very dangerous things you did. Please do be careful, Santhil. Our family has a very morbid history when it comes to our military figures. We would never forgive ourselves were something to happen to you.

But I must know: are these large-scale clashes an exception rather than a rule? If these are a rule, is our king aware that you are at all-out war? People keep telling me the war in the east is simply finishing what we started a long time ago... but is there such a thing as 'simply' war?

We hear little of the eastern colonies, but every bit of news we hear is filled with reasons to be proud. The other day, your father strolled through the corridors so proudly—were he to broaden his chest any more, he would've toppled.

Miss all three of you,

Mother


PS: Your nephew wanted us to send you another one of his drawings. It should be enclosed within the envelope.


°°°

An annoying gloom hung in the makeshift council chamber. Located on the inside of the mountain, there was an unmistakable lack of good lighting that clearly inconvenienced the previous occupants less than it did the Druchii occupiers. Guards had carried in torches to help, but much would have to be done to procure such a simple necessity as good sight. They would make due. They had to.

While the Druchii currently held the definite advantage by taking the initiative, the theatre of war had remained virtually unchanged around them. An alliance between the Sarthailarim and Reik was apparent, giving them a military potential over twice the colonial forces. Unless reinforcements were going to come in from Ulthuan, this reduced the capabilities of the Druchii to cloak and dagger strategy.

A large force battled in the north, engaging a slightly larger 'Sarth' battle group on their own territory, across the sea. While securing a port there would be paramount to any future attacks, it wasn't the main reason the battle group was there. The task of the group in the north was to tie up forces, forces larger than itself. When being so grossly outnumbered, the only viable strategy Santhil could think of was to avoid engagements were possible, to have as many enemy troops in transit rather than committed. What choice did they have?

“Hang on, I want to be positive I have this right,” Santhil inadvertently cut through a discussion that had retreated between several generals so far to be almost private. “There is no sizeable battle group guarding Avalaer.”

The messenger nodded clearly, confident the message was correct. The look in his eyes gave away that was exactly the same question he had when he first received the message.

“So, what we have are two Druchii battle groups settled in the mountain range,” and Santhil laid her hand on the mountains drawn on the map, “and two capitals within striking distance, neither with a sizeable garrison?”

Blank, incredulous stares persisted at the map from most of the table; hesitant nods cautiously flew from those generals not in denial. This kept getting better and better. Santhil would've loved to believe her strategy so effective, but this was beyond credibility.

“There's a catch,” she said thoughtfully, almost mumbling her words while staring intensely at the map. Those others with a place of authority agreed silently, searching for a breach in their military situation with their perception, their point of view. It would be a long session, but Santhil—and all those with her, no doubt—would rather spend a sleepless night than risk the possibility of leading the collective colonial forces into a deathtrap.

Athel Loren was ill-scouted, being the impenetrable forest that it was. However, there was no clear infrastructure to support a large body of troops there, making the only likely defenders to be handful of skirmishers and guerilla. Other intelligence suggested that what forces the Alliance had in the south had progressed so far as to be unable to support either Avalaer or Athel Loren should either be threatened.

Avalaer was less of a secret, being the metropolis that it was. Not having a professional garrison did not imply that capturing Avalaer was a matter of walking right in like they had done with Nuln and its surrounding settlements. It merely meant that the local garrison would be militia: trained, motivated, but ill-experienced and underequipped. They would not be able to field anything but the most basic of forces and follow the most trite of tactics. They would still have more troops than the Druchii could throw against them, but attacking Avalaer suddenly had a good chance of success.

Santhil considered the implications of the fall of Avalaer. That city had been the bolster of resistance, the capital of Sarthailor, from long before Santhil had been appointed to the eastern colonies. Sieging it, assaulting it, capturing it or, who could tell, even razing it would be a serious blow to morale and could even lead to an internal power struggle if the leaders had proven ineffective—after all, losing the self-proclaimed jewel of the continent, even with grossly superior force to defend it? Unforgivable.

“Better think it through, Santhil Arhakuyl. The implications for your environment will be staggering.”

Santhil frowned; that was an peculiar expression—almost a challenge—to fall in the middle of a meeting. She looked up from the table to see who had been relying on mind-expanding pharmaceuticals for a tad too long, but found no-one.

Literally no-one.

Startled and alarmed, Santhil stood upright and looked about herself. She was still in the council chamber, the map was still in front of her, the torches were still burning. But she was starting to have an inkling of what was going on, she just wasn't clear on who. And then, she spotted, in the periphery of her sight, five creatures—five decidedly odd creatures—staring endearingly at her. Correction: four decidedly odd creatures staring endearingly at her, and one new aberration glaring at her.

Santhil's voice croaked unintelligibly while thinking of something to say, vaguely pointing at the map-bearing table in the meantime, until finally she managed to piece together something that wouldn't make her feel like a complete idiot. “I'm, ah, in the middle of something,” she told four—or possibly five—avatars of transdimensional beings. And instantly, irritation built up within her. Yes, she was in the middle of something before her mind was invaded.

The fifth entity appeared to be an animated suit of armour, a menacingly large animated suit of armour. Hollow eye sockets succeeded nonetheless in throwing a baleful, condescending gaze at her, radiating contempt. Given his posture, it assumed leadership over the other four, and perhaps over Santhil as well. Santhil thought it wise to greet it as she had the others, though she threw a brief, pointed glare at the mind-reader. She bowed politely, then introduced herself. “Greetings to you, may I—”

“—I have laid out what you must do to survive this war,” the alleged leader cut in, as a way of greeting her. Instantly, the telepath burst into an uncontrollable giggle, his light choking echoing through the chamber's acoustics. “They are written down,” and he pointed to a note appearing—as if dissolving the surrounding air to build itself—on the giant map sprawled over the centre table, “in a language you should be able to comprehend.”

Santhil raised an eyebrow briefly while that one creature slipped into a forgotten giggle of utter lunacy. She disregarded the overt lack of diplomacy, contributing it to a difference in culture, and walked over to the note, the sound of her steps battling the persistent giggle. She could, in some respect, imagine that beings used to competition and omnipotence had little use for or experience with anything resembling tact. Or sanity, for that matter.

She picked up the note and went over what was 'suggested' she do. Despite the straightforward nature of the orders, a frown ever grew on her brow. Druchii forces were meant to cut out a figurative corridor to Athel Loren for the Chaos forces. Apparently, they had changed strategy—this was a big change from their massed attacks in the east. They must've wanted Loren, and wanted it badly, with no mention of a reason.

“So, ah,” and Santhil checked the back of the paper to make sure she hadn't missed anything. “Why would we want to do this?”

“You need not bother with the details. You will do this for the better of all involved.”

Santhil took a deep breath, nodding gently to herself. “In that case, you are wasting my time,” and she held the note up to her supposed peer before discarding it. “Will there be anything else?” Figurative flames burst behind the empty eye sockets she felt burning on her person. It wasn't exactly tactful of herself, but she felt she needed to make a statement. Puppets belonged in theatre. This was war.

The leader stood fully upright, measuring quite a bit more than Santhil in terms of height. Admittedly scared beyond much that she had felt before, Santhil still crossed her arms and held her ground. This wasn't the time or place to give in to survival instincts.

“You will do this or you will perish.”

“Is that a personal or a genocidal threat?”

“Careful, gnat. Your king has unsettled accounts with the forces of Chaos.”

“And I do not. Your point?” Again, rampant giggles from her right side. That guy was getting really annoying. “You're no longer in the Void. Any time you spend here is borrowed.”

“Do not presume to insult Chaos.” The voice echoed through the armour as if everything but the helmet were a ghostly void. “Just as your wildest fantasies can become reality by following us, so can you suffer for irreverence. You will wish you never came across me.”

“I already do.” No love was lost between them. “Are we done here?”

A knock on her head, as if someone believed her mind a doorpost. A throbbing pain lodged itself in Santhil's head while she glanced about herself. She was still in the same chamber. She was still standing. Chaos had gone and her entourage had returned. As if it all had never happened.

“Drachau?”

The room was spinning, gently rolling left and right as if she was actually aboard a tiny vessel. Subtly, she changed her balance, leaning on the table while taking a deep breath and acting as casual as possible under the burning scrutiny of over a dozen eyes staring perceptively at her.

“Drachau, are you alright?”

“Hm? Oh no, it's nothing, my thoughts just, eh... I drifted off for a moment,” she attempted a bluff. “My apologies.” She aimed her eyes back at the map in front of them, observing the reactions in the periphery of her sight. The bluff wasn't holding with everyone, but it held with enough people to pass over it and end the interruption there. “Where were we?”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Thu Jun 21, 2007 11:41 am
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Woo! Good stuff! I was worried there. ;_; Still as good as ever. I again love the humanizing qualities you apply to your characters without making them overly ridiculous and unbelievable as Druchii.

I'm interested to see where the encounter with Chaos goes, especially after being villified.

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Dizaun Cadsane
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Thu Jun 21, 2007 3:41 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
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Yalasmina took a deep breath through her nose, mulling over what Santhil had told her and Lahnia. She wished to be sure to realise the potential gravity of the situation, and furthermore kept a respectful silence while Santhil worked out her frustrations on the punching bag hanging in front of her.

“I still can't believe you told Chaos to shove it,” Lahnia finally broke the verbal silence.

“Look, they wanted us to base our entire strategy on their fetish with Athel Loren,” Santhil's voice brushed through the air when she stopped for a moment, the adrenaline in her veins coercing her to sound harsher than she intended. “I don't know if these people realise, but they represent the end of the world!” She ended the phrase with another deep thud on the punching bag.

“No, no,” Lahnia trailed off, passing over the aggressive reaction. “I mean, I'm impressed. You told Chaos to shove it.”

“Lahnia,” Yalasmina stopped her with a gentle shake of her head. Now wasn't the time to talk; it was the time to listen. Still, she had a question that she surmised she knew the answer to: “Why haven't you told your generals?”

“Oh, that would be rich: tell them that at times I space out because I'm having a private conversation with Chaos? They'll believe I'm either possessed or completely off my nut.” She took a deep breath and started another barrage of violence on the poor bag hanging in front of her. “Lord knows how many of them believe so already.”

“But I sense that somehow this isn't what bothers you most. It's not that you fear a coup d'êtat; it's something else.” Yalasmina could understand: fearing for your life or good name was viable, but there hadn't been any signs of dissent at all.

Santhil stopped working out her frustration for a moment there—her fists were starting to hurt, anyway—and wiped some sweaty hair from her forehead. “I'm a public figure. People scrutinise how I walk, what I wear, how I speak, and I'm fine with all that; my thoughts—my mind remains private. And now, some transdimensional freaks waltz in and out like I'm a 7/11 store, ordering continental strategy in a gift wrapping! So yes,” and she lowered her voice when she noticed she was aiming her anger unduly, “I'm a little annoyed.”

Yalasmina observer Santhil a while longer and dared a guess. “Frightened?”

Frightened? Lahnia frowned. She had always known her sister as a wilful character with a sense of adventure, and she found it hard to marry that image with someone who was 'frightened'. 'Frightened' didn't lead a charge into a killing zone.

Santhil took a deep breath, stalling admitting what she hated to. “What if, some day, they barge in... and decide they're not leaving?”

Yalasmina nodded in quiet understanding. Santhil already felt violated; knowing that there was nothing she or anyone else could do—and that it could get much, much worse—would only add to the anxiety. “Khaine has watched over you so far.”

“What if I'm in over my head, Mina? What if... what if Khaine is in over his head?” A laugh, a sudden near-maniacal giggle at the periphery of her senses. Santhil turned sharply to the source of the sound... two guards slapping jokes onto eachother while walking through the corridor.

“Don't say such things, Ari,” Yalasmina cooed, shaking her head in disapproval nonetheless. “Give Khaine respect and dedication, and he will watch over you. For all you know, he already has intervened on your behalf. You have broken loose twice, haven't you?”

Santhil took another deep breath, not willing to buy into the divine intervention scenario just yet, and her lengthy, thoughtful gaze on Yalasmina showed every bit of it. “That's a serious leap of faith, there. There's no contingency.”

“There's no solution that we can conceive. If we need affairs handled that we can not, we must turn to Khaine for aid. If we could do what Khaine can, our worship of him would be mere charity, don't you think?”

“Ding ding,” Lahnia added softly with a smile, “donate to the poor and divine. Please, gentle folks, a coin, a prayer, anything you can spare. Will perform miracle for worship.”

Santhil stared witlessly at Lahnia for a moment, and finally shook her head with a lopsided chuckle. “That is so close to blasphemy.”

Lahnia lifted her shoulders lightly. “We all show our respect in different ways. Mina prays, I ponder, and you impale people's guts on your sword.”

Santhil gestured loosely at Lahnia, keeping her eyes on Yalasmina with a smile. “She makes it sound so romantic, doesn't she?”

“Like wax in her hands,” Yalasmina returned tonelessly.

°°°

“How common is this?” Santhil admitted readily she hadn't much experience in the field. Sure, in exercises, scout patrols would regularly fail to report in because the instructor wanted to simulate real battle conditions, but she wasn't at the academy any more.

“Not, Lady Arhakuyl,” the scout replied, unsure of proper protocol. “Our scout teams tend to be punctual to degrees possible.”

“With the risk of sounding disrespectful,” Jesamine introduced a potentially simple but accurate question: “How likely is it they got lost?”

There, the scout was willing to give a little more leeway, and he tilted his head, though he showed dismay in doing so. “The caves are extensive, Mistress Cadsane, but scouts should be better than that.”

Jesamine set a lengthy gaze on Santhil, offering her thoughts. “I believe we've both lived long enough to pick up the nuance between should and...”

Santhil nodded briefly, seeing where Jesamine was going. Dwarfs could make very extensive tunnels with intricate design and layout, their logic dictated by both paranoia as the materials found in the mountain. Perhaps the pattern would be clear to a master mining engineer, but even such a person would need months, if not years, to study the structure.

The scout looked uneasily at Santhil, waiting for orders in some direction or another—he didn't care what orders, just about anything that would kill the suspense he felt. Was he to be reprimanded for incompetence? Neglect?

“Give them another hour,” Santhil guessed with enough certainty in her voice to make it come off as a well-weighed decision given as an order. “If they're not back by then, send the previous teams in to find them.”

The scout bowed respectfully and took his leave, grateful to have gotten away with perceived incompetence. He, of course, knew there wasn't anything he could have done to prevent it, but that realisation was not always enough to superiors often looking for a scapegoat to blame failure on.

“Are you buying into the 'lost' explanation?” Jesamine asked Santhil when both turned away from the central square and walked alongside while their paths weren't diverging.

“If there really were dwarfs down there, we'd have seen them by now.”

“So you were thinking it?”

“I most certainly was thinking it.”

“Perhaps it isn't dwarfs?” Before Santhil well reacted to or considered the idea, she added: “Wild stab, just covering all the angles.”

“Clear angle.” Santhil nodded thoughtfully in consideration, finding their paths diverged there and then. “Good stab.”

Jesamine gracefully accepted the compliment. “I'm Druchii, after all.”

°°°

Warm sunlight pierced the cold, blue sky into the bedchamber, shedding beams of yellow hue onto the floor, into a mirror, over the bed. This room was located on the outside of the dwarven hold and had all the luxury the inside missed: a balcony, windows, anything and everything that had to do with the sun and wind.

Santhil turned comfortably in her bed when feeling the sun shine on her. It wasn't every day she could afford to sleep in for a bit, so when she did get the opportunity, she enjoyed it. Early to rise only worked when you had a choice. Oh, wait... meeting at eight. She sighed, turned on her back, and gently opened her eyes. Time to get up and be somebody.

After a tried and trained wash & dress, Santhil shook her shoulders comfortably while stepping downstairs. Here, too, sunlight had pervaded the chambers, filling them with a pleasant warmth. She could smell fresh breakfast, a treat she hadn't had in weeks. This was going to be a great day after all.

“Goodmorning, honey, you're up early.”

“'Morning, mom,” Santhil replied, and instantly froze in her tracks. Her mother was over a thousand miles from her. Santhil knew it was a small world, but this was stretching the imagination a little.

Santhil looked around and noticed she was... home. She had gotten out of bed, washed, dressed, and navigated her own home without even noticing she was, in fact, home. Talk about automated. But she didn't feel like thinking about it much: she was home; she was a bit homesick; she was where she wanted to be.

Her mother looked at Santhil and shook her head with a gentle smile. “You've hidden your grey under that hairband again? Why are you trying to hide it?”

“Because people stare at me,” came the fully automated reply. In truth, Santhil hadn't really considered it, seeing how she had dressed with her mind entirely elsewhere; it was a habit she picked up since childhood and only strayed from when other people dressed her. She pulled her hair over her shoulder and slid down the hairband to look at the colourless stroke running through her hair, her alleged destiny. She had been meaning to ask for so long but she always felt there would be time to do so later.

“Mother, why are we... 'grey'?”

“Some say it is an ancient curse once put on the women of our family, others say it is a remnant of a distant blessing.” She passed some tea to Santhil with a smile. “What do you believe, hun?”

Santhil stared at the off appearance, touching the grey in her hair. Other girls had been envious of such an exotic look. Some took it out on her, the manifestations of their frustration changing with age: from pulling her hair to excluding her from groups. Most others were simply envious and often very friendly. Santhil, herself? She had always considered it a... defect of sorts. “...I'm not sure. Is there even a reason?”

Santhil's mother didn't have the answer to that, but she kept a soft smile on her. “Time will tell, I suppose.”

Darkness. Chill. There was a cold draft pulling over Santhil's face while she opened her bleary eyes. Where she felt live and awake in her dream, she was tired and chilled now. She was considering pulling an extra blanket over when she noticed there was someone in her room.

“I, ah,...” Lahnia's voice gave away that, up until Santhil waking, she thought being here was a good idea. She held a pillow tightly to her chest, her body wrapped firmly in her bed robe to keep out the cold wind that haunted the outer structure. “I can't sleep.”

Santhil washed a hand over her face, took a deep breath and moved aside a symbolic little, given that there was plenty of room in the double bed anyway. “Sure,” she croakily replied.

°°°

It was quiet for a while. At least, as quiet as a bed could get with one occupant dead still, trying to sleep, and the other tossing around, also trying to sleep. The price to sharing misery was sharing misery, and said price was non-negotiable.

Lahnia finally kept still for a while. There was a deep, thoughtful, forlorn sigh that Santhil caught only vaguely, turned away from her sister and about as asleep as she was going to be.

“I want a baby.”

Santhil opened her eyes with a frown, then threw a lengthy look over her shoulder at her sister.

“Not with you, silly.”

She figured that already, but still, the notion came as a little strange a concept to bring up in the middle of the night. Probably the result of Lahnia's escapades with her mysterious Romeo. “You know you can't have them.” To be honest, Santhil felt like quashing any hope towards that angle quickly and expediently. A sorceress with child? Not very legal. Even just seeing someone was borderline, on the wrong side.

Lahnia sighed again, nodding vaguely in realisation. “I know. It's just... I don't really know why, it'd just be nice to have a child to call my own.”

“Life isn't fair that way, honey. I'm sorry.” Santhil gazed at the faint moonlight on her sister's face before snuggling into her pillow again. There was nothing she could do to help Lahnia.

“Is it illegal for me to have children, or just to give birth to them?”

Santhil took a deep breath through her nose, feeling she wasn't getting away with a succinct answer, and rolled on her back, staring at the ceiling, thinking it over. The whole concept around sorceresses was a little strange, and the law all the more. “I suppose that, strictly speaking, giving birth is illegal, but adopting isn't. Though that's probably the letter of the law rather than the spirit.” The spirit being: no male spellcasters. The purpose being: keep their king breathing.

Lahnia nodded wistfully to that. “And we wouldn't want to break the law, would we?”

“The law isn't fair that way either. But if it preserves our king—”

“Actually, I can have children, but only with him.”

Santhil's thoughts lingered for a while, thinking of sharing the bed with a spiky armour and mostly hollow eye sockets. It wasn't particularly appealing to her: the scrape of sharp metal across her skin, impliable plates and angles. Perhaps it was an acquired taste.

“Say,” Lahnia suddenly shot, “is it true that he and his mother—”

“Oh oh, oh hey, wow, Lana, honey!” With a sudden burst of energy, Santhil rose from her pillow and turned to her sister. “I'm having breakfast in a few hours, okay? I don't want my thoughts going to the icky place.” Not even a breath later, she closed her eyes, and sighed. “They went to the icky place.”

Lahnia giggled at the response, snuggling deeper under the covers. Regardless of whether her sister's antics were deliberate, she was starting to feel a bit better. Humour did that. “But hey, you can have children, right?”

Normally, that would've been a completely harmless and obvious statement, but given the conversation, Santhil couldn't help but curve a brow to that. “...Yes, and adding that I'm charged with 'preserving our bloodline', and that both you and Yalasmina can't, I'll be having quite a few, I gather. Why, you want my firstborn?” she added with a lopsided, almost sarcastic smile.

“You mean, from Irhuil? No, that'd be... Irhuil's child, I want it to be from my own lover. You know, my pick, 'my' child.”

“Ah... are you suggesting I conceive the child of your lover? I don't need to go over the steps involved in the conception of a child, right? I mean, hey, anything for my sister, and I'm pretty sure your Don Juan will be happy to cooperate there, but getting Irhuil to give his fiat is going to take some serious convincing.”

Lahnia giggled, looking at her sister before rolling on her back again with a smile. She was feeling better, and Santhil could see. “Thanks, Ari.” For everything: the company, the light exchange, the warmth of a shared bed.

“You're welcome, hun. Try and get some sleep, alright?” Santhil replied, fighting back a yawn while rolling back on her other side. While she had honest concern for her sister, she also had a long, early day ahead of her, as most of her days were. “Goodnight.” A soft pillow, a warm bed, a calming silence—for a while, at least.

“...Do you still think about—”

Goodnight, Lahnia.”

“Right.”

°°°

With hurried pace, Santhil walked to the central square inside the mountain, clipping on her weapons girdle. It was sheer habit, almost military protocol, to wear some kind of sword to any military meeting. Luckily, whether an issue was civilian or military was a distinction rarely made in Druchii society.

Along with Santhil came a number of priestesses, 'witch elves', acting as her personal guard. Yalasmina had insisted that Santhil take these along on her sortie into the mountain. As before, Santhil objected slightly, still not feeling comfortable around the scrutiny of a somewhat secretive body of which she had no intimate knowledge, but when given the honour of having the Temple's best act to your personal safety, any protest put up is merely social protocol.

While pulling on her gloves, Santhil went over the reason her presence was so urgently requested. The scout teams sent out earlier had finally reported back, with no trace of the vanished team, but they had reportedly found something else that Santhil would like to see with her own eyes, or so she was assured.

“Drachau,” one of the aspiring priestesses suddenly addressed Santhil, somewhat out of character. “May we have a moment?”

In truth, Santhil was surprised to be addressed by her bodyguard, although in hindsight it was rather absurd that she wouldn't expect people that stuck within a few yards of her to strike a conversation, no matter how... freestyle their wardrobe. “Of course,” she replied, and slightly lowered her pace. After all, she was assured she was in a hurry.

“Have we offended you?” The question sounded honest and non-vindictive.

“Offended?” Some amount of startle flew along with Santhil's voice, and she looked at the woman to her left briefly. “Heavens, no, not at all. Why?”

“Then... I don't understand. Are you disappointed with us, that you have not requested us lately?”

Santhil caught on what the topic was starting to be but, in truth, she felt it was hard to express her feelings on it, mainly because she wasn't sure what made her feel that way. “Not by far. I am genuinely honoured to be in your presence. It's just... I'm a military person, I'm used to military people rather than templars of a kind—or maybe the honour is just too great, I don't know. But disappointed? No, most certainly not. My apologies if I come off that way.”

The central square. It was much livelier than when Santhil first came across the deserted place, now busily trodden by wagons and dozens of feet to organise, supply, and explore. Laundry was hung outside, water was boiled in a kettle somewhere to the side; life had returned.

A scout was already—or still—waiting around to lead her through the tunnels into the murky, ill-explored depths of the mountain. He appeared impatient, and suddenly relieved when he spotted Santhil. “Lady Arhakuyl,” he opened, “follow me, please.” There was a brief look at the guard following her before he continued. “I see you are already informed?”

“I'm sorry?” Informed of what?

“Oh... never mind, it's best you see with your own eyes.”

°°°

It was a fairly long descend through tunnels both narrow and wide, high and low, slippery and sturdy. Torchlight reflected on smoothed rock and exposed crystals and other rich mineral deposits, flaunting their beauty. Occasionally, a local variety of moss gave off its own hue of vague, dim light. Santhil's appreciation of a scout's navigational skills had grown by the minute.

The chamber she finally entered was large, ridiculously large in all directions. Santhil could only wonder what a room of such dimension could be meant for. Perhaps this was the result of a very extensive excavation or perhaps the builders were compensating for something,

A number of elves were standing around, exploring and investigating the chamber, their steps echoing silently across the dark space. Standing torches were scattered intelligently, shedding light both direct as ambient for decent visibility. All in all, it was nice to see, but hardly worth an emergency. Then again, the scout was leading her to the centre of the room, where a number of people were standing or kneeling around, studiously observing their surroundings. Some of them moved aside to give them a respectful distance from Santhil when she arrived.

A strange symbol was painted on the floor, circular in design, some three yards across. It was intricate and detailed, though the strokes were thick, rough, as if painted with bad tools. Santhil cocked her head to one side, then to the other, trying to recognise what she was looking at, but quickly saw that this was outside her area of expertise. “What am I looking at?”

“We're not sure, my lady,” the nearest officer replied respectfully. “But you may want to take a look up as well.” A fine curve lined into Santhil's eyebrows before taking the officer up on his suggestion and looking up.

A large, almost gigantic, symbol was painted vaguely onto the ceiling, barely visible due to the summary lighting in the chamber, but visibility was enough for Santhil to make out the implication. Still, she rolled her eyes to the nearest aspiring priestess, looking for confirmation. She got it promptly. Slaanesh.

But what did that tell them about the symbol on the floor? Santhil gave the symbol a new, long, scrutinous stare, but even in its new context, she couldn't make it out. They were going to need a sorceress to figure it out.

“We'll need to consult a sorceress. In the meantime, limit the eyes that get to see this,” Santhil ordered the officer she found standing here. “We don't need gossip and rumour flying around.”

°°°

Silence had taken a hold of the four people in Lahnia's study, each for their own reasons. Yalasmina was going over the implications of the news, always having been one to weigh her words carefully before speaking, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed. Lahnia was still keeping a close eye on the drawing she had lying on her desk, trying to find some ulterior meaning to it. Jesamine was likewise studying the rough sketch, sitting on the desk—she was the one who had cautiously identified it as a summoning symbol—and she would hate to make a mistake. Santhil was leaning against the wall, one leg pulled up, dozens of mental threads running through her mind.

“I could be wrong, Lady Arhakuyl.” It almost sounded as if Jesamine was trying to comfort Santhil. “But my guess is that it is a summoning circle.”

“Summoning of what?” Yalasmina inquired, a rather astute question in hindsight. Chaos plus summoning did not necessarily imply daemonic summoning.

“That is mostly what I am unsure of,” Jesamine replied. “Summoning on this scale is different from the more instantaneous effects of common spellcasting, even if some of these spells entail daemons. There are overlapping concepts—obvious similarities—to summoning, but that's far from a guarantee.”

“Can you find out?” Santhil asked in turn. Of the four of them, she was the least knowledgeable on the subject; even Yalasmina would know more of this than her.

Lahnia raised her eyes up to Jesamine, who returned a similar but downward stare. “It... would require cross-referencing with our entire library,” she hesitatingly explained. It would not be impossible, but it would be implausible. “That's going to take a while. Especially if you don't want the word out, because that means it's just Jess and me.”

“A while...?”

“If we're lucky, two days. If not, who knows. I never counted all the books.” Lahnia's subtext was clear: they had a really, really big library.

“Also, it's not a simple index search,” Jesamine expanded. “This means going through the books to find any possibly obscure reference.”

Santhil nodded in understanding. Finding a needle in a haystack with no way to distinguish said needle from hay other than to prick yourself with it. “Is there anything Yalasmina or I can do?”

“Without drawing suspicion? Doubtful,” Lahnia answered, cocking her head with an unsure sigh. “Jess and I are sorceresses—people don't want to know what we're doing anyway. But a priestess and a drachau diving into the occult section of the library?”

“Point taken,” Santhil replied. She turned her head to Yalasmina as a final request for advice, and found it in a thoughtful nod. “See what you can find out. If there's any progress, or if there's really not, let me know. In the meantime, summoning circle it is.” She took a step away from the wall, beckoning for Yalasmina to follow her out of Lahnia's study, leaving Jesamine and Lahnia to figure out how to go about their new task.

A fresh wind blew in Yalasmina's face when she closed the door behind her. A quick, perceptive look at Santhil brought her to her following question. “There is something else?”

“I don't get it, Mina,” Santhil admitted quietly, and crossed her arms. “Chaos comes to me—threatens me—to leave the road to Athel Loren unobstructed. But they are already here.”

“Perhaps they were already here.”

Santhil held still, thinking it over. There was no evidence that the symbols were fresh by any means... it was very well possible that they were ancient, but that somehow didn't sound likely to her. “It feels recent.”

“It feels threatening,” Yalasmina stresslessly corrected Santhil. She knew her way around emotions and her sisters. “Just the way the lifeless skeleton of a dinosaur would.”

“Still, I feel there's something more going on here. Perhaps Chaos' followers aren't as comfortably far away as I'd like to think.” Santhil took another deep breath, mulling over her next topic. “Do you believe it's wise to keep this from our troops?”

Again, Yalasmina characteristically waited a spare moment before replying. “I believe there are a number of sound reasons for doing so.”

“But you do not believe it a wise decision.”

“I believe I often underestimate my faith in common rationality.”

Santhil nodded idly, letting Yalasmina's words sink with her. Almost cryptic, but always honest and thought-out. No wonder Santhil relied on her for advise on the most diverse of topics. “What would I ever do without you?”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sun Jul 08, 2007 9:06 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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It hadn't been long before the sturdy cells were tested for use. Being a freedom-loving person, Santhil had no particular like for bars, but she admitted that their application was necessary in some cases, when people went out of line. Unfortunately, those people were sometimes men and women from the military.

“Hold your tongue, heretic!”

“Read my lips: atheist!”

“If you don't serve Khaine, then who do you serve?”

“I serve the Drachau, you nut!”

Normally, Santhil wouldn't bother with people who apparently got in a dispute, but she was willing to make an exception in this case. She could hear the two agitated voices arguing before she even entered their cell block. They were put in separate cells in a block solely for them, given the sensitive nature of their dispute: allegiance. She had hoped it would never happen, but it seemed clear that the tensions in the homeland were blowing over to the colonies now.

“Wipe that smug grin off your face!”

“You're nuts, I'm telling you. Nuts!”

The warden escorting Santhil to the cells took a deep breath to call for silence, but Santhil cut him off with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I'll take it from here, warden, thank you,” she almost whispered.

“My lady,” he replied, bowed, and took his leave. Time and again, Santhil was reminded of how a title, an official recommendation of someone higher up the foodchain, could provoke such shows of respect. But she had a job to do.

“May I interrupt for a moment, gentlemen.” It wasn't a question. When both soldiers saw Santhil, they fell back into their roles and saluted her. This time, it was not returned—her hands were on her back. “I've been told you caused quite a stir.”

“We had a... dispute, ma'am. It got out of hand,” the alleged Khainist—Khainite, Khainian, whatever—replied.

Santhil skipped her eyes between one and the other, judging their initial reactions to her presence. Clearly, the sudden appearance of rank had cooled their heads instantly. Good, that was part of the effect she was hoping to achieve. “So I heard.” She took a deep breath before continuing, or rather, starting.

“I don't need to tell you that the military situation we are in is favourable, but only in comparison to what it could have been. We are in foreign territory, sorely outnumbered, and fighting a determined enemy simply because our mission is their swift suppression. The reason we got this far is because we did not lower ourselves to infighting.” Her voice did its utmost to stress the last phrase without straining itself. “If we are divided, we will be conquered. It's that simple.”

She was practising this speech. Sooner or later, she would have to make it sound like a spontaneous, motivating rant in the council chamber. It still needed work. “We don't have the luxury to question allegiances. Our enemies are out there, not in here.”

Santhil wasn't sure it had sunk with both of them. She kept a watchful eye on their body language—breath, gaze, hands—and ultimately felt that this was good enough. The more of a fuss she would make about it, the more the two of them had been in their right to do the same.

“Right,” she concluded as if she had only just considered it. “Back to your posts.”

°°°

The training mattress was dusty; unsurprising, given how long it had been since Santhil took the time to undergo some more training. She had been seeing these mattresses up close for the past two hours, and she grunted again when she pushed herself up on her arms, then took a deep breath. “There's a valuable lesson in this,” she told herself as much as Virtok, her more-or-less personal trainer.

“Your technique relies on strength and speed rather than skill, my Lady Arhakuyl. There are a few more basics you should master.” Virtok was old-school: even when barking orders and breaking Santhil's back, he would ever and always address her as his superior. Next to his skill and knowledge, this was another reason why he had her undivided respect.

“One of those basics being: don't do that.” In the hours before, Santhil had used her athletic build to flick back onto her feet after being floored, but after many intimate encounters with the thin, dusty mattresses, some of the zeal and energy was seeping away. Her ego was more bruised than her body. “Right, let's keep this going.”

“This tenacity of yours, my lady, would this be endurance or frustration?” Virtok resumed his fighting stance, hands wide open to Santhil, looking surprisingly non-threatening. Looks deceived, they so badly did.

“Frustration, all the way,” Santhil replied immediately, brushing a few sweaty strands of hair from her face. “Tenacity is already beaten out of me, thoroughly. Unfortunately, I don't feel I'm learning much.”

“But you have,” Virtok countered. “Your technique has bettered much since you walked into this room, Lady Arhakuyl.”

“I've yet to hit you once.”

“You're here to learn from me, not to hit me.” Virtok stared at Santhil while she dusted herself off and took a fighting stance of her own, albeit much less confident than the first few times.

He had a point there, Santhil admitted, but she mentally added that hitting him—even just once—would show herself that she would be making some sort of progress. But Virtok was the master here, and she would trust his judgement, no matter how many dents it would mean to mind and body.

“Now, come at me again, and focus on using your full body in the fight, not just your hands and feet.”

Santhil did as she was told, but it became abundantly clear that she would need a little more guidance than that, and then more practice to back it up. She noticed that when she hit the mattress again, one or two bruises the richer. She panted, blowing away some dust while trying to figure out what just happened. This was going to be a long training session.

“I'm surprised your expensive military training didn't include unarmed combat, Lady Arhakuyl. And if it did, then your thenwhile instructor is making a poor impression.”

“I suppose my instructors assumed I'd have enough money for a sword,” she groaned as she supported herself on her hands and knees, and finally sat upright. “Tell me again what we're doing here?”

“Many basics of unarmed combat are the same as armed combat. You have considerable skill with a weapon, and to broaden your horizon, you will require knowledge in other techniques, my lady. Now, come at me again and pay attention to your balance.”

°°°

A small bird hopped about happily on the windowsill, chirping as it went along, its small beak and throat flinging songy atmosphere into the adjacent chamber. The weather was excellent today, especially given the season, and it made the eastern colonies look a little more like home, or something that could become home.

“I'm sorry,” Lahnia scrounged her words from her mind, a frown set on her brows, “could you repeat that for me?” Her surprised, disbelieving tone said it all: what Yalasmina said just now sounded too strange for her to be what she heard it was. “Take it back from the start?”

Yalasmina took a deep breath and mentally reordered her words. She had been clear before, but she understood well enough that other people would want a recap. After all, she had to read it a few times herself for everything to sink. “You recall that there had been a war here before.”

Lahnia nodded. “The so-called War of the Beard, yes, I heard Santhil mention it before.” She took a seat on Yalasmina's bed and listened.

“Without going into the particulars, the success of the war was mixed. While our forces dealt a serious blow against both the rebels and the beardlings, they were eventually driven back.” This was fairly common knowledge, but she was about to spice it up with a more obfuscated truth. “Now, I found a few old records while perusing the history of the lands. It appears that our king was unhappy with the progress made.”

Lahnia snorted once while rolling her eyes, mentally challenging her liege to do better. She was met quickly with a disapproving stare from Yalasmina. As divided as opinions were on their king, Yalasmina found Lahnia sometimes took her criticism a little further than was justifiable. But she'd let it pass this time, especially since she had more to say.

“What is less known is that the leaders did not perish in the battle near the then-capital of the colonies. Our king executed them.”

“Executed.” Lahnia shook her head at herself when hearing those words. This was beyond her comprehension. “Why?”

Yalasmina lifted her shoulders in a brief sigh. “Perhaps something happened that was not in the history books. The actual event or reason may have been masked to spare the families. After all, as far as they knew, their kin fell valiantly in battle.”

Taking in the news, Lahnia took a deep breath and thought it over. Executed. She normally wouldn't care if it weren't for Santhil. “Have you told her yet?”

“No, and I shan't, either.”

“What? Santhil has the right to know this.”

“Santhil is stuffed to the nook with work and worry as it is. There is no reason to add to her burden.”

“But you can't just keep this from her. How can you not tell her?”

“Lahnia,” and Yalasmina paused while thinking her next words over. Her sister was staring at her, disbelief settled in her eyes. The two of them differed in so many ways, often leading to conflict in some way or another. “I do not wish to keep this from her. As you, I believe she has the right to know. But not now.”

“Then...” As much as she hated to admit it, she felt that Yalasmina, to some degree, had a point, even if she disagreed. “Then why tell me?” she asked when her voice gentled.

“Because I did not wish to make this decision on my own. If you believe that Santhil should now, then you should be able to make that choice. It would be presumptuous of me to decide on this matter alone.”

Lahnia nodded thoughtfully, thinking on Yalasmina's words and intention. While most threads and fibres in her soul urged her to tell—warn—Santhil right away, part of her begged her to trust Yalasmina's judgement on the matter. She finally nodded in obvious dismay, but she agreed. “I'll follow you in this, Mina, but when Santhil finds out we kept this from her, you can do the explaining.”

“Then we agree.”

°°°

Ever in a rush. In the past, Santhil would've sighed in irritation at being rushed from one activity to another, but she was growing accustomed to it. Not like she could sigh much while chowing down her sandwich, anyway. Yegh, tasted like dry, pickled fish they dredged from the sewer. The worst part was that it was in fact pork.

Santhil was on her way to collect Lahnia for the next strategy meeting on Athel Loren. Loren was a magical place, she was told, so she wanted an expert's opinion on what she could expect there. Few people, if any, had ever set foot there, but there had to be something Lahnia could share in the topic. Would it be magical as in Chaos Wastes magical—triple-mawed abominations soaring through the air with a gurgling giggle—or would there be faeries and blue leprechauns dancing big circles in a flower garden?

A closed door. Santhil knocked the door in a quick rap, waiting for an answer. In the meantime, she brushed a hand through her hair, still wet from recently bathing, stopping when she felt the hairband—almost a ribbon—that tied it into a loose tail. Dream or no, she felt her mother's imagery had a point in questioning her habit to hide her descent, her “grey”. She hadn't given it much thought before, but hiding her roots was probably about as close to insulting her entire bloodline as she was going to get.

In a sense, it was pointless of her to hide it, anyway; everyone who knew Arhakuyl knew that most of its females showed some kind of “grey”—that touch of the exotic even made them much sought after by parents seeking a wife for their son, or those in search of a mistress. Part of the reason Santhil hid that colourless stroke was because it made her feel like a scarce commodity more than a person.

She breathed deeply through her nose and, without giving it much more thought, pulled the ribbon from her hair and hung it around her neck. Still standing in front of a closed door; she knocked again, a bit louder. She knew Lahnia liked sleeping in, but this was ridiculous.

A brief rumble followed by a crash. Alarmed, Santhil opened the door, trying to find out what happened and whether anyone was hurt. “Lahnia, are you alri— Oh... my... god.”

Books were haphazardly sprawled over the desk, bed, and floor, some face down, some balancing on their covers, each scattered about as if trying to flee the chamber without moving. Shattered glass from a broken handmirror hugged the inner wall, shimmering faintly from a corner. Two of the candles had gotten a knock, their fire luckily failing in the process. “What on Khaine's...?” Then, the bizarrest thing flew into plain sight.

A tiny, luminescent creature—a radioactive fairy or sprite, or a glowing woman with wings—sat down on the rummaged desk, gleefully hopping around, a hint of mischief in its pitched, light giggle.

Santhil squeezed her eyelids together for a moment and refocused her eyes on her sandwich, throwing it under casual scrutiny. She knew that pork wasn't tasting right.

“Close the door!” Lahnia suddenly called, snapping Santhil's attention at her. She was holding a rather thick book in her hands, a wild look in her eyes, her otherwise neatly arranged hair now hanging as if it were pulled in a dozen directions and then let snapped back. “Ari, close the door!”

Surprised, Santhil acted on her sister's voice and closed the door behind her, silently hoping it would help her get an explanation quicker. “What's going on here? What is that?” she asked while pointing at the amused sprite prancing around the desk.

“Sprites, faeries, whatever you want to call them,” and Lahnia cut herself off when the sprite moved, her manner suggesting she was hunting it. “They feed on magic; you open a hole too big, they come riding the stream.”

Santhil wasn't sure what to make of it. She wasn't even sure she understood what Lahnia was saying. Magic was outside her area of expertise. “Are they dangerous?” They looked harmless.

Lahnia's voice shrunk to a whisper when she approached the oblivious dancing faerie, her book held as a big, blunt weapon of destruction. “They can be, if they get their hands on anything precious.” With a loud grunt, she slammed the book down on the desk, narrowly missing the creature. With a spin of energy and bright twinkling, the sprite flew away and circled around Santhil's head.

“Can't you just... ah... do the zapping thing on them?” No disrespect to Lahnia's lifetime art and profession meant.

“And bring out more?” Lahnia groaned when lifting the book again; she had to have been hunting this creature for a while. “This is the last one, just this one...”

With a light giggle, the sprite suddenly clenched itself into Santhil's hair, playing around with the hair loosely combed together. Santhil, herself, kept fairly still, rolling her eyes to their sides as if able to look at the back of her head. “H-Hey, get out of there!” Trying to pull it out would only cause her to lose plucks of hair.

Lahnia held one hand up to Santhil and approached quietly, a hunter stalking her prey. “Sshh, don't move, Ari. Just keep still.” Her weapon of pixie destruction was ready to strike again.

Santhil winced briefly when she felt repeated tugging on her hair, then opened her eyes widely at her sister and shifted her balance away from her. “Lahnia, what are you doing?”

“Sshhh,” Lahnia hushed her, holding her book in both hands, ready to swing.

Santhil raised both index fingers to Lahnia, her eyes and voice stressing caution. “Lana, honey, think this through.”

“Just keep still,” her sister whispered.

°°°

“The northern groups are reporting success in crossing the sea, but they haven't been able to secure any harbours. Supplies are still being brought in too small quantities to create any long-standing position there.”

The general speaking was an elder sort, a calm, calculated, but decisive and eloquent specimen. Whether you worked with him, listened to him, or simply looked at him, there was little else one could do than feel respectful. It was the diligence for his work, the unswerving respect for peers and superiors, the dignity in how he carried himself despite his age. People like him made Santhil feel slight shame at attaining almost full leadership by political—and significant financial—manoeuvring.

At the moment, however, Santhil had her head hanging back over her chair, holding a white cotton to her nose. She had already excused herself for the less than graceful sight. A bath too hot could in rare cases lead to a blood nose such as the one she had at the moment. She had joked to be more careful about steaming in the future.

Lahnia sat next to her, arms crossed, her face flushed in embarrassment. She hadn't said a word all session yet. That would change as soon as she would give her exposition.

“I told you to keep still,” Lahnia muttered, clenching her arms closer together.

“That, you did,” Santhil replied. She wasn't holding it against Lahnia. Her sister was feeling bad enough already. It wasn't every day you slammed a multi-pound hardcover into your drachau's face.

°°°

A heavily annotated map lied in between a set of candles on Santhil's desk. Even though she had a room on the outside of the mountain, with windows and much natural light, the sky had already darkened. It was early night.

One hand held over her lips, the other holding a pencil and rule between her fingers, Santhil glossed her eyes over the map repeatedly, focused on gaining an overview of the entire eastern colony, and determined to prepare strategically for the spearhead against the bolsters of resistance: Avalaer and Athel Loren.

Perhaps she was keeping an eye on Chaos as well; recent reports indicated that they had occasionally attacked human settlements rather than solely dwarven ones. It could be that the dwarfs had retreated and were no longer a threat to Chaos' plans, or it could be that they made a faint-hearted attempt to beat the Druchii to Athel Loren. Whatever their interest there, common knowledge led to believe that, if Chaos desired something, it meant bad business for everyone else on the planet.

Not only that, but from a strategic point of view, waiting for Chaos was entirely infeasible. It would take months for a sizeable Chaos force to reach Athel Loren; more than enough time to recall garrisons and mount a serious defence capable of repelling any assault, joint or separate. So no, idling around for Chaos to barge through was not an option.

Then there was the brief exposition Lahnia gave on what to expect in Athel Loren itself. Loren was a 'magical forest', but that was about as much as was known about it. Lahnia did warn for a few irregularities, however, and many possibilities and their consequences. For one, magic would be unstable, unreliable—when asked to explain what she meant, she admitted to be hesitant to conjure anything in the forest for fear of sorceresses meeting their ends, and very spectacularly at that.

WAZZUP?!

With an ear-piercing scream of fright, Santhil leapt against her desk, spinning around with questionable grace. Her eyes darted left and right while her heart throbbed in her throat, her breath fast and shallow. Seeing faintly familiar figures in the gloom, she closed her eyes and took deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself, her hand clutching for her heart.

“Forgive me,” the slick—both in tongue as shape—creature cooed at Santhil. “I saw you working so studiously and I simply couldn't resist the temptation anymore.”

Images of blood and violence pervaded Santhil's mind at her bidding. She wanted to inflict horrible pain, right now, and she had her target right in front of her. But she showed restraint, at least on some levels. “Son of a...” The last word was swallowed while she clenched her fist and breathed deeply once more.

“Oh, don't hold back on my account. Please, indulge yourself. Let it all out. You'll be amazed at the satisfaction.”

While her muscles tensed and her fist readied to plunge into what passed for a face in the strange being, she wasn't going to give in, even if just to deny it whatever pleasure it was drawing from the confrontation. But the sudden attack of fear ebbed into anger, and it was coming out one way or the other. “What on Khaine's green earth is your major malfunction?” she burst from her lungs.

“Our apologies for barging in so rudely,” it glossed over the to-be-expected outburst. “My colleagues, if you will, felt there was a matter urgent enough to allow such brute action. We won't take a moment, truly. How are you?”

“Eh... how am I?” Agitated. Homicidal Inkly psychotic. Foregoing an honest answer was the smart move here. At least Mister Personality didn't make it into the fantastic four. “Thank you, how are you?”

“Oh, we get by. A miracle here, a genocide there, you know how it goes,” it replied with a flawless smile while gracefully sliding closer, as if to observe the map alongside her. “A deity's work is never done.”

Recalling their previous meeting, Santhil cautiously shifted her balance away from the otherworldly, almost watery, creature, keeping a respecting distance. “Look, ah, take no offence, but the point of violating my mind this time is...?”

“We got off on a bit of a wrong foot last time. To be honest with you, I believe your intelligence is being underestimated. How you've handled that enormous amount of Reik soldiers is really to your credit, and I believe that we can be more open in our discussions with you than we've appeared to be in the past.”

Santhil raised an eyebrow at the unfounded flattery. She hadn't handled the thenwhile imminent invasion; Lahnia had. And she found it hard to imagine that a quartet capable of reading minds wouldn't be aware of the nuance.

“Oh, come now,” it chuckled amusedly. “Modesty being a virtue is one of those many misconceptions ingrained by fairy tales meant to brainwash toddlers into socially acceptable behaviour. By the way, you look astonishing in that new uniform—your sister has good taste; outfitting you is turning out to be a very fascinating new hobby, in my humble opinion. Gratitude in one of its many forms, isn't it?”

“Thank you,” Santhil replied, her voice flat and cool as her stare. It was referring to the extension of her wardrobe Lahnia gifted a while ago. Regardless, she would prefer her loved ones being kept out of this conversation that was seemingly going nowhere. “Are we done? My brand of miracles and genocide takes meticulous planning.”

A brief, polite but heartfelt chuckle sounded surprisingly less condescending as it would have coming from any other being. “We couldn't help but notice you were planning an attack on Athel Loren. We'd like to advise you not to go through with it and instead let us take care of it.”

Santhil kept a level stare into the lidless incarnation of a pair of eyes for a while. She wasn't sure herself whether she was building a better negotiating position or simply showing dislike. “Out of the goodness of your heart,” she put the unlikely assumption.

“Oh, no secrets from my end, Santhil Arhakuyl: we would obviously like to have a bit of our way with Athel Loren—you know we're quite the party animals—and we're willing to fairly exchange one favour for another.” A teasing grin formed on its face, a surprising feat for not truly having teeth—or a mouth, for that matter. “Any other favour.”

A trade with Chaos? Allow them free passage through Druchii strongholds and into Athel Loren? Anything that helped Chaos was to the detriment of the world, and anything to the detriment of the world was to the detriment of the Druchii.

“I sense you're not running hot for the idea.”

“Us being mortal/immortal enemies,” Santhil explained summarily, though she quickly added: “On the global, racial scale, that is—my personal experience on the matter is fairly limited.” Though she could imagine herself being comfortable with each of them dying a painful, horrible death.

“Santhil Arhakuyl, we realise there is a... certain stigma to consorting with us as such, but we're not discussing an alliance, rather than a one-shot trade. On the global, racial scale, we have had some sour experiences with each other, but you will recall that, as a rule, we have always upheld our end of the deal, so there really isn't a thing to fear for you.”

“That's very reassuring of you, but I still don't feel comfortable even discussing this. Khaine...”

The smooth creature frowned, throwing a vague thumb over its shoulder at one of the four others, the one Santhil recalled as occasionally dropping out of his anger management sessions. “You mean him?”

“What? No, no, I mean... Khaine.” She was at a loss on how to make it any clearer. How could it not know Khaine? “You know... Khaine.”

“Oh, right, 'Khaine'. Apologies, no disrespect meant. You know, red and black mix good on you.”

Santhil's stare was cool, level, unamused.

“Santhil Arhakuyl... Ari... The truth is that you haven't been in our way in the past and, in a sense, you achieving your goals makes it much easier for us to achieve ours. But don't make the mistake of thinking I'm just being sociable here. If you wish to play hardball, we can play hardball—it's really a fairly petty distinction from our point of view. Of course, petty to us generally means back to the drawing table for your cartographers. And experience teaches me mortals have a dear attachment to their continents.”

Santhil rolled her eyes to the map briefly. The realisation that she was talking to deities of a sort sank in with her again, and there was very little she could bring in against that. Her only hope was that her deity could beat them up.

“Personally, Santhil,” the creature continued now that he felt Santhil was catching on, “I am much intrigued by you and your surroundings—there is a lot of emotion going around lately—but there is only so much patience intrigue buys you. We're not asking you to go out of your way: we're telling you that your assault on Athel Loren will fail dramatically and that, for the sake of you and your men, you'd best leave it to us. After all, Avalaer is what you are truly after, isn't it?”

Santhil took a deep breath, considering their words. She imagined that Chaos wouldn't be without their lies, but still found it hard to believe that deities—or beings powerful enough to resemble them—would find it necessary to lie when they could use any of their oogly powers to ply, bend, or break people to do their bidding. But then again, perhaps they were already doing so.

“I'll consider it,” she replied truthfully. She wasn't expecting to actually give them what they wanted, but she was willing to give it all some thought. She had her suspicions about the favourable situation—a bit too favourable—the Druchii forces were in, and their words fed her fears like oil on flames. They knew it. She knew it. That didn't stop it from working. “That's the very best I can do.”

“The very best is all we ask.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Mon Jul 30, 2007 11:39 am
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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What a grand forest.

Santhil was looking around in awe when the Druchii armies set foot in the outskirts of Athel Loren. Trees of mystifying beauty and splendour surrounded her, their green leaves casting gently patterned shadows onto the grassy earth. A cool, soft breeze rolled through the forest, carrying the scent of tree bark and the song of birds. It was a quieting experience.

Not a single tinge of resistance had been waiting for them. Scouts had already reported that there was no organised defence in or around Athel Loren, but still, Santhil had expected some sort of objection to their presence. In hindsight, she wasn't sure what exactly she anticipated, but she had thought at least something would resent their trampling through the calming forest.

Athel Loren was home to the Asrai, colloquially called Wood Elves. They were part of the fraction of rebels that tore itself away from Ulthuan after the war of ascension—the civil war, the Sundering, whatever people preferred to call it. While the Asrai themselves had not explicitly allied with the Sarthailarim or pledged themselves against the Druchii cause, there was likely to be resentment as a result of propaganda.

In a sense, Druchii and Asrai were kin and, in another sense, they were enemies. Santhil had no love for genocide, suppression, all those things she was ordered to inflict on the lands they were now invading. Slaying her own race, however remote, still felt murder more than war. They were better than this, both Druchii and Asrai.

It wasn't clear to Santhil what exactly her king, Malekith of Ulthuan, wanted or expected of her. She had been told to put an end to the rebellion, but what did this entail? Were they to invade their lands and put them all to the slaughter, eradicating any who oppose his rule? Were they to annex their lands, adding them to Ulthuan in all but the geographical sense of the word? Would they become a colony? An extension of the eastern colony? A colony of a colony? It wasn't clear to Santhil, and she resolved to find the courage to write the court of Ulthuan and ask for clarification.

When seeing people ponder,
When seeing thoughts so deep,
I cannot help but wonder,
Why not for joy but ever for weep?


A smile conjured itself onto Santhil's lips when hearing Yalasmina recite a poem from long ago. “I was just admiring the view,” she waved it off. “Contemplating us sullying it with our hooves and boots and wagons.”

“Sullying it with the smell of war?”

“I'm just asking myself what we're doing here.”

Yalasmina nodded thoughtfully, observing her sister. “It is your duty. Our king rules all elvenkind, and either they reject his rule and we are at war, or they accept and we can leave peacefully. They choose to reject and even oppose. You can't expect that to end peacefully.”

“It's just...” Santhil trailed off, finding herself staring out into the grassy hills to her far left. “It's just that this place reminds me of home. And I'm trying to imagine how I would feel about a hostile force trudging through our home, our lands.”

“One of the requirements of leadership is finding a balance between your conscience and your duty, Santhil.” Normally, Yalasmina would be more philosophical on the subject, but she knew something Santhil did not: failure was not taken lightly by their king, and Santhil's predecessors were apparently executed. She still hadn't told Santhil, and she wasn't about to now. “You should do what is required of you.”

“But what is required of me? Subjugation? Oppression? Annihilation?”

“Loyalty and competence,” Yalasmina ended the discussion. “We should move back to the head of the column.”

Results, Santhil begged to differ in her thoughts. Perhaps her king simply wanted the rebellion taken care of, not really caring one way or the other for how it was done, as long as it would be a worry off his mind. Sounded rational, right?

°°°

The inner forest, or what was probably the outer periphery of the inner forest, was less picturesque than the outer reaches. Trees were uncomfortably closer together, even as tall as most of them still were, a thick cover of overgrowth and leaves blinded the sun. Almost no wind lived within this foreboding sanctum.

The Druchii forces were on the lookout for any trouble. If any a place existed to meet resistance, this would be ideal to their opponents: with territory uncharted, scouting gains negligible, and sight limited in the almost supernatural gloom, any attack was an ambush.

Santhil pondered what it was they were doing here in Athel Loren. Were they expecting to find a camp of druids and forest animals, gathered around the fire, plotting the demise of Ulthuan? Were they expecting a fortress of wood and clay, a bolster of resistance? Perhaps a grace of negotiation and etiquette would be shared? Wishful thinking, that. Besides, stomping all ahead full through a sacred forest with a fully equipped army was hardly the kind of gesture that provoked friendly chatting.

“Lahnia,” she beckoned for her sister—and personal sorceress—waiting for her horse to negotiate the unpleasant footing until she arrived. “Suppose we capture Athel Loren.” What followed was an unspoken question: what point was there to the Druchii holding the Asrai's sanctum, other than the obvious?

Lahnia took a deep, thoughtful breath, the expression in her eyes showing that the very best she—or most any sorceress—could do was make educated guesses. “In the long term, I suppose holding the forest could make for a great magical asset. Ulthuan is already a floating island of magic, but if this is different, then holding it paves the way to further research in magic. If anything, it means holding a pool of magic in the eastern colonies, far away from the homeland.”

“Holding a pool of magic, does that help us?” She turned to face her sister, sparing her a glance from the constant looking around for possible ambushes.

Lahnia lifted her shoulders mildly, not sure what Santhil was referring to; no issue, Santhil wasn't entirely sure either. “I suppose that there's a potential for ley-lining to other sites, sure. On a military note, it could enhance the defensibility of our nearby sites. And for anyone practicing sorcery, having such a vessel of magic virtually coming out of a water tap will be heaven.”

“There's a but?” Santhil inquired. Surely, there had to be a downside, or there would be more ley lines than cobblestone roads.

“Ley lines make a network of sorts, connecting sites. Theoretically, if a site is stormed by surprise and the assailants have sufficient talent and knowledge of magic, they could attempt to use it against other sites.” Lahnia didn't put much stock into the possibility, the lineaments on her face and her choice of words said as much. “But that would require that no-one be aware of such a site falling into enemy hands, or sorceresses could quickly sever the line and end any threat.”

A sudden thought struck Santhil. “Lana, that symbol down in the caves... leying?”

Lahnia's response was a confused frown, her lips frozen in place while staring over Santhil's shoulder. Her focus had left the conversation; puzzlement rather than curiosity settled in her eyes, a rare occasion given Lahnia's personality. “I'm... sorry,” she excused her silence, holding onto her intense staring. “I thought I saw a tree... ah... move.”

Santhil's brow curved and, despite the absurdity of the concept, her faith and confidence in her sister got the better of her, and she looked over her shoulder as well. While that part of the forest felt particularly haunting, there was no such thing as a moving tree.

“It's probably just my imagination,” Lahnia glossed over it, although neither of them took their eyes away. “I mean, moving trees, right?” She chuckled unconvincingly.

“Right,” Santhil muttered, her lips not even moving.

“What was it you asked again? Oh, I recall. No, not related to leying. At least, that's what I think; I'll check with Jess when I get back.”

“You mean Mistress Jesamine Cadsane,” Santhil teased with an amused smile, turning back to Lahnia.

“Details,” Lahnia waved the difference off. “We're colleagues. She doesn't have to call me Mistress Arhakuyl either.” She held for a moment, rolling those words through her mind again. “You know, that has a nice ring to it, don't you think? Rolls off the tongue.”

“That, and it summons all the wrong images.”

Lahnia raised her chin with a slight smile. “Who's saying they're wrong?”

Santhil's eyebrow curved with a lopsided chuckle. “Lahnia, is there a part of you I haven't seen yet?”

Lahnia's eyes skipped left and right while holding back an amused giggle, her posture otherwise motionless. “I'll let you rephrase that.”

“Something tells me I'd better take the opportunity to leave this conversation very well alone.”

°°°

A waist-high mist pulled a blanket over the fallen. A myriad of screams and shouts filled the large forest, dying out before straying into the sky. Leaders bellowed orders left to right in a vain attempt to rally their men; horses whinnied and pranced in panic; arcane chants hung in the air as abrupt bolts of light soared over the battlefield. Utter chaos overtook the armies as they were torn from formations and leadership, clotting together in disorderly plucks and ranks.

With a roar, a thick branch plunged through the nearby cavalry, swooping away a horse and a several riders in a single blow. The forest itself had come to life and took badly to the invading army of flesh and metal. Aberrations of wood and vine ploughed through the forest and the invading army with zeal and fury.

“Cavarly, rally!” Santhil shouted again, hoping that her voice could pierce the cacophony of battle. Art education had taught her to use her voice, but addressing an attentive audience compared badly to screaming through panic and death throes.

Eight, nine... that was as many as she could expect on short notice. There wasn't a lot of time to act; if they couldn't summon some kind of counterattack soon, they wouldn't need to bother with attacking at all. Santhil wasn't ready to accept defeat just yet. “We need an edge.” Against the eleven-feet trees, she meant.

“Bolt throwers?” a rider suggested.

Santhil shook her head. “Gone.”

“Fire?”

“Fire.” She only had a few seconds to think it over, already looking about for a source of fire. Most had dropped their torches when the attack had begun. Who else had fire? Sorceresses, artillery... Archers. “Find the archers; they have oil and torches.”

“Over there, ma'am, but they're in trouble.”

Everyone was in trouble. Santhil wondered briefly whether her sisters were well, but she couldn't spare the thought or time; those archers were indeed in danger of being attacked by one of those giant treemen or whatever the proper term for the monstrosities was.

“Right. You five, head over to the archers and oil and light your weapons, then come help us five. You four, with me, we're going after that thing.”

“Uhh... how are we supposed to kill it?”

“We're not—we distract it until the fire gets there.”

The rider whistled silently and closed his visor. He wasn't getting paid enough for this.

°°°

Magic here was strong, so very strong. Lahnia had to show many forms of restraint to keep herself from erupting into a ball of energy. She had always imagined restraint for self-preservation would be trivial, and she was proven horribly wrong today.

She let out a held breath, her mind still hazed over the sudden ambush. She had never been in a situation so chaotic that she couldn't find clear targets. She had also never seen trees uproot themselves in a sour mood. This gave a whole new perspective on the magical forest that was Athel Loren.

Almost without thought, white-hot energy built in the palm of her right hand and soon enveloped her arm. It was still controlled, but only barely so, and with a swing she launched the magical projectile at the treetops, its erratic shape an unintended insult to her instructors. It struck home and struck true: a powerful blast of sound and light torched one of the walking trees, fire rapidly searing across its upper branches. Perhaps not as effective as targetting the trunk, but this way, she stood little chance of striking friendlies.

A scream of pain tore through the air from her far left; Lahnia recognised it coming from one of her colleagues, a very recent addition. She spun about to find her, fearing she might've been struck or hurt. When she did find her, she saw that she hadn't been hurt, but rather something more omnious transpired.

“Lahnia, are you alr—” Yalasmina stopped herself short after leading what remained of her unit to Lahnia. The other sorceress standing a good ten yards away from them clenched her fists in pain while she rose gently into the air, beams of dark energy circling around her. “What, in the name of Khaine...?”

“Everybody down!” Lahnia screamed at the top of her voice, throwing herself to the grass, and Yalasmina and the others were quick to follow her lead.

A massive eruption of energy burst from the unfortunate sorceress, tearing herself and a good part of the foliage around her apart in a brief but bright and loud flash. The battle didn't seem to care much, her death passing into forgotten history the moment the flash had dissipated.

Yalasmina stared at Lahnia for a while before clambering onto her feet, gathering her bearings. “Those archers need guidance and support, Lahnia, follow me.”

“The—The battle is lost, Mina,” Lahnia protested even while following her sister. “We need to get everyone out of here, now!”

“Santhil decides when it's over, not you. Now hurry!” She pushed her sister in the back, goading her towards the needy archers making a stand.

A bars-off scream carrying equal parts of surprise, pain, and fright hung in the air. Yalasmina looked up sharply to catch the source of the sound and found Santhil, uncharacteristically airborne, her arms and legs flailing about in a vain effort to hold onto something in mid-air. There was no time to do anything but step aside. She flinched briefly when she heard the dull thud covered by metal clangs and a sudden grunt. Lahnia yipped briefly in surprise; she hadn't seen it coming.

“Khaine's gr— Santhil?” Still holding a hand to her chest, Lahnia was startled that Santhil would come flying in like that. “Santhil, are you alright?”

Santhil groaned pitifully while opening her defocused eyes again. She would need a moment.

“Santhil, can you breathe?” Yalasmina asked her, kneeling down. “Can you stand?”

“I can even make breakfast,” she replied in a mixture of jest and sneer; right now, she just needed a moment to recover, not to get bombarded with questions.

“She's fine,” Yalasmina told Lahnia. “Get her on her feet; we need her to give orders.”

Lahnia watched Yalasmina run off the slight slope to the archers while the rest of the armies was coming apart bit by bit. This had never been a fight they could win. It was absurd they had to wait for Santhil to make the call. But she didn't care at the moment. “Hey hun,” Lahnia almost cooed her sister. “Are you alright?”

Santhil nodded briefly, swallowing some saliva that rolled onto her tongue. “I'm fine, thanks. Sorry about that. I'm fine.”

“Are you sure? Because, ehm,” and an amused smile forced its way onto her lips even though it felt so wrong. “Because you just, ah, flew over that unit there.”

“I'm fine,” Santhil repeated, admittedly a smile of her own rising on her lips. It did sound a little absurd.

“We need you to call the retreat,” Lahnia suddenly threw at her. “Everything's gone into chaos, we're losing assets left and right. We can't win this.”

Santhil looked about herself. Even from the ground, it was clear that the battle was lost, and already had been for some time. There was no more lulling into the belief that this could be won; this was as clear and obvious a defeat as she was likely to see in her life.

“Call the retreat,” she groaned. “Asrai can keep their bloody forest.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Thu Aug 09, 2007 4:14 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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(I was torn between posting what I had as-is—saving me a lot of work—and rewriting it to be a bit more entertaining. In the end, it turned out to be a nearly total rewrite, so it took a little longer than expected. Sorry about that.)


“Let's see, that makes...”

The good doctor was keeping a list on his notepad. It appeared callous to everyone else present, but it was his job to make sure he didn't miss anything. An oversight on his part could mean an untimely death or permanent injury.

“One lightly fractured rib, three bruised ones, a dislocated shoulder, a mild concussion, a few minor internal injuries...” He hummed over the rest of the list. “Nothing a week's rest won't cure. You're lucky you're left-handed; your shield took most of the blow which, as I hear, is receiving proper burial at the moment.”

Santhil rubbed her painful shoulder with a sad, pitiful stare, sitting up in her bed. Setting a dislocated shoulder hurt a lot, however brief the act itself was. She was returned a sympathetic smile from her sisters.

“A day abed, and at least a week ban on straining physical activities, so no training or dancing or anything stressing. Check in again after a week. Chew some root and drink lots of milk and eat cheese for calcium to get those bones healed.”

Lahnia bit her lip gently while listening to the doctor's diagnosis and cure. It didn't sound so bad, all in all. She sat down on the bed next to Santhil and smiled softly at her while Yalasmina saw the doctor out of the chamber. “How are you feeling?”

Santhil took a deep breath. “One lightly fractured rib, three bruised ones, a dislocated shoulder, a mild concussion, a few minor internal injuries, but nothing a week's rest won't cure.” She smiled briefly, touched by the interest, and gave a more serious answer: “Lucky.”

Lahnia played with tucking Santhil's hair behind her ears, cocking her own head while observing her sister's. She giggled lightly and plucked some twigs and leaves from Santhil's hair. “You still have dead leaves in your hair. So, ah... did it—sorry, does it hurt?”

“Only when I laugh.”

Lahnia chuckled. “Be serious, Ari.”

“I am serious. It hurts when I laugh.” Or breathe deeply, for that matter.

“Oh, sorry. Can I get you anything? A pillow, a blanket, a drink?”

Santhil chuckled, then winced once. “Are you going to be my personal nurse now, too?”

Lahnia turned a grin on her lips and shook her shoulders teasingy. “Would you like me to? I could find a uniform.”

Santhil snickered, holding onto her ribs. “Oh-oh-oh, don't make me laugh, honey, don't.”

“If you're done trying to kill Santhil, Lahnia,” Yalasmina interjected lightly, “we should give her the rest she was prescribed. I'm sure she will appreciate some peace and quiet.”

“Alright,” Lahnia replied with a soft smile, keeping her eyes on Santhil. “I'm just glad you're alright. You scared us there for a moment.”

“You'll believe me when I tell you that it was out of my hands,” Santhil added.

“Laughing carries to other people, you know. Amuse me, amuse you.”

“Isn't that half the fun in fun?”

°°°

Santhil mumbled to herself as much as the pencil pinched between her lips allowed her while reading the title of the document pressed into her hands. During her absense a lot had happened, and people were sparing no effort to bring her up to speed again. Her fingers held onto sheets and rolls, each fivesome pertaining to some distinct event. She nodded off the messenger and walked back to her desk to drop the papers onto its surface; she'd sort it all out in a minute.

She took a deep breath through her nose and held a hand on her right ribs when she felt a sting. A hairline fracture, the doctor told her. It could easily have been worse.

A knock on the doorframe. Santhil looked over her shoulder to spot a young officer, standing with careful frame, helmet in his hand in respect. It was probably the first time they had met—even if they hadn't, Santhil saw so many faces on a daily basis that she wouldn't recall. “Come in,” she greeted him. At least he had bothered to knock.

The officer, a junior lieutenant at first glance, took a step into her office. There were no papers in his free hand, no work to unload onto her, only a companion standing behind him. There could still be a message he was sent to deliver, but supposedly it would require her immediate attention. “Drachau,” he greeted her, his demeanor suggesting he wasn't sure how to bring the news, or he would have done so with more confidence.

“How can I help you?” The circle of servitude.

“There was a murder while you were out, my lady. A serious one.”

There were non-serious murders? If eyebrows could speak, they would have done so.

“One of our priests was murdered, Drachau. By Slaaneshi cultists.”

Santhil blinked briefly, startled. “How do you know?” The question had left her lips before thinking it over.

“There was a mark, my lady. It's... you'd be better to see for yourself.”

Santhil looked at her desk and the papers that had sought out an order of their own. All of that could wait a few moments. She nodded once to the lieutenant. “Alright, lead on.”

The lieutenant briefly bit his lip, threw a look at his companion, and then took a deep breath. “There was one other thing, miss.”

Miss, milady, Drachau... Santhil'd have to settle on the protocol, some day. She glossed over it, standing still, willing the man to spit it out—she was too busy for a game of guess.

“There, eh... I—I mean, we, the two of us—saw your, eh, court sorceress.” There was an uncomfortable pause while he built the courage to say it all in once. “With a guy.”

In hindsight, it was silly to think the day would never come that someone would notice Lahnia was seeing someone. Hiding such a part of one's life required more than casual discretion. Santhil hadn't pressed for discretion, and now it was short of becoming public knowledge. If these two had seen and came to tell her, how many had seen and not told her?

“We felt you should know, Drachau. I'm sorry to tell you this.”

An uneven frown struck into Santhil's brow. Sorry? Why was he sorry?

“Well, with her being your... you know... mistress.”

Santhil kept silent, baffled. Her mistress. The man was obviously confused, either about the chain of command or about her blood relation. Both seemed pretty obvious to her.

“I know what it feels like to be cheated, so I thought... Well, I would like to know in your position.” A sympathetic smile came onto his lips, and he cut the awkward topic there. “If you'd follow me to the crime scene, please?”

Santhil snapped out of her startlement when she caught on. Did she just understand the misunderstanding? “Wh— You think I—” No, she hadn't shaken the startlement just yet. She forgave herself. “Lahnia Arhakuyl is my sister.” She walked past them with annoyed sigh, her stomach turning at the thought. Some people...

The lieutenant skipped eyes to his companion and rose his brow. “Her sister?” They shared a solemn silence, thinking it over.

“Kinky.”

°°°

Quite a few people were carefully walking around the late priest's chambers. Santhil had been told he had been quite the fanatic Khainite, spreading word and belief all over the place. And that was how he ended up: all over the place. If the previous conversation hadn't killed her appetite, this innovative still-life most certainly had.

Blood was splattered onto the walls and ceiling like the body exploded in several stages, marking big blots and splashes. The body itself was barely hanging together, bones broken into little pieces, bloody pieces scattered over the floor and furniture. The murder—or perhaps massacre was the better term—had been messy, very messy.

Santhil flicked out a kerchief and held it over her mouth. She had seen dead people before, just rarely in such excruciating detail. “What happened here?” she asked to get the attention of someone in authority.

“What hasn't?” the doctor who recently checked her injuries answered. “Good morning.”

“Good morning,” Santhil replied, unable to take her eyes off the sorry mess. She just hoped the priest had been dead before they started tearing pieces off. “Can you tell me anything about this murder?”

“I don't have an exact cause of death, but there are a few clear options.”

“You don't say.”

“I'll have to check a few samples, see if there's any poison in his blood. Apparently, nobody heard anything, so he could very well have been poisoned before he was murdered.”

“Paralysed?” Santhil guessed. She couldn't well see whether the priest had put up a fight before he went down.

“I can't tell at the moment. But there is something I would like you to see.” The doctor approached a part of the body—looked like it once belonged to the chest—and Santhil followed him cautiously.

The piece of flesh and blood had a mark carved deeply into the skin, with precision that belied the berserking rage that seemed to have transpired in the room they were standing in. The carving has been strong enough to cut into the ribs. Santhil recognised it; she had seen this before. Slaanesh. “Great,” she muttered sarcastically. “Just what we need.”

“The good captain is looking into any traces our perpetrators may have left behind. I'll try to salvage as much of the body as I can so I can run a few tests.”

“I'll leave this in your capable hands, and the captain's. Keep me posted on any news. Oh, and...” Santhil looked at the mark again, then at the blood blotched over the room like an overcharged paint bomb. “No tourists.”

°°°

The morning sun shone on Santhil's back while she observed the map in front of her. Messengers from other areas had reported to generals, and generals were now reporting to their colleagues and their drachau. Santhil still had to get used to being that drachau. After all, she did descend from a merchant family of no incredible importance. Her thoughts wondered only briefly how she managed to be appointed against the odds—her attention was needed in the meeting.

Things were looking grim. Not grim in the sense of impossible (or in the sense of more impossible) but grim in the sense of being dangerous. There were ever more players moving into the colonies; big players with big armies and large stakes.

First there was the Chaos horde. Chaos had managed to carve a war stage out most of what was once called Kislev and Prague. From there on, they had thrust everything south, throwing the entirety of their forces against the dwarfs native to the mountain range. Reports were that the battles were brutal, and that the dwarfs were on the losing side. While dwarfs would implicitly be enemies of the Druchii, the news was received with mixed feelings; after all, Chaos was hardly their ally.

Slowly, that Chaos horde was making a lateral move to the west, filtering through the dwarven mountain tunnels and sometimes appearing out into the open to terrorise a nearby human village or take advantage of an open road. They weren't an immediate threat yet, but they were driving dwarfs to the west as well, and they would be a threat.

The Reik was massing troops near Marienburg and Fauschlag, aiming to retake both from the Druchii occupiers. While Reiksdorf was never meant to be kept, Marienburg and Fauschlag both were of keen strategic value.

Marienburg was the largest port city that the Druchii had across the sea. It was a military foothold, supply point, and manufacturing base all in one. Losing it would mean supplies would have to cross the large sea again, with haphazard Sarthailarim blockades and skirmishers complicating matters. Yes, Ulthuan had a very significant navy that would clear this issue in a matter of weeks, but Santhil would rather not risk sending a request for aid just yet.

Fauschlag was a fortress in and on itself, overseeing (and overlording) the surrounding countryside and forcing enemy troops to take either the northern route or the southern one. Both were terrible choices: north would lead you to Marienburg, where Druchii garrisons and nearby battlegroups would intercept and destroy anything less than a full-scale invasion; south led you straight into the mountains, now Chaos territory.

Santhil stroked her chin in thought. They'd need to rid the colony of Chaos' presence sooner or later. She couldn't say she had bigger fish to catch—seriously, try explaining that a force embodying the end of the world is not a big fish—but the Druchii couldn't afford to fight on yet another front. They were already hideously outnumbered by the Reik soldiers, the Sarthailarim, and soon the Asrai (whenever those would choose to show up); picking fights with a raging apocalypse was not a smart move at this time.

On to the Sarthailor empire. Santhil admittedly knew fairly little of them, other than that they were the most apparent remnants of the losing faction in the civil war that raged across Ulthuan millenia ago. There were very persistent accounts of half-bloods—the result of elves mating with humans—but their actual society and its workings were a mystery to her.

Santhil lingered briefly on those half-bloods and wondered what could drive an elf to mate with a human. Severe cases of near-sightedness and loss of smell were possibilities. But then, surely, the poor creature that spawned from such questionable practices would be put out of its misery?

Almost all of the Sarthailor forces were committed to defending the northern ports. There was still no sizeable garrison in or near Avalaer, and Santhil aimed to use that to their advantage.

Taking and holding Avalaer was risky. The siege and invasion would take a toll on both sides, and it was unlikely that the remaining forces—especially with the losses suffered in Athel Loren—would be able to repulse the sheer numbers that would undoubtedly be thrown at them. However, their enemy didn't need to know this.

Santhil went over the very original plan again, seeing that it had the best chances of succeeding still. It had always been their intention to stage an attack on the capital of resistance, but never to take it instantly. The line of thought was to force the armies now committed to defending the ports to retreat to their capital, thus clearing the ports of significant resistance. Once the ports fell, the actual siege on Avalaer could commence. At the very least, the Druchii would have a very favourable negotiation position.

“There remains one thing,” a seasoned general raised. While clearly born of noble blood—you could tell from the angle at which she held her nose—she had seen a good deal of battle,with the muscle and a few scars to prove it. “Drachau, morale of our people is low, our troops in particular.”

Santhil cocked her head gently, willing the general to elaborate.

“If you will forgive me saying, we suffered a great defeat in Athel Loren. Our troops are not questioning our leadership but rather our chances and purpose here. I've heard that soldiers are considering desertion. Normally, I would put that with disobedience and cowardice, but I fear that the situation could become dire lest we act soon.”

“Right,” Santhil mumbled while nodding. “Good point. Any suggestions?”

“Ahm... a quick raid or easy battle,” a younger specimen to her right suggested. “Nothing raises a soldier's morale as quickly as the feeling that he can best his enemies.”

Santhil nodded in response. “Good suggestion. Anything else?” Her eyes rolled to her left momentarily; an idea struck her. What did she use to do when she was feeling down? “A party.”

“Drachau?”

“We have an immense hall we simply can't put to good use. We have supplies aplenty and no significant military threat to us. So let's let the soldiers live it up. And we deserve a little break from this all, too, don't you agree?” The more Santhil thought about it, the more she liked the idea. It saved them searching out an easy opponent. “Can we settle on that? Is there anything else we should discuss?”

“Ah, the logistics of the party?”

Santhil closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She needed a seneschal, a secretary, a scapegoat, whomever she could shove these responsibilities to. “Right. You are correct, thank you.”

°°°

What a dreary day. Clouds formed over the mountaneous area, covering vales and dales in a grey, murky gloom, the promise of rain dangling in the heavens. It couldn't be summer every day of the year, or that's what it looked like in the corridor with view on the forests below.

“How many barrels of wine would you like?” For the party, the helper meant, not for Santhil's personal consumption.

Santhil slowly blew some air from pouted lips. Now there was a number hard to pin down. A lot. “How much would be too much?”

“A hundred?”

“Then make it fifty. Wine keeps for a while.”

“Then there was one more question my lady had, drachau: what would the dress code be?”

For the officers, not the soldiers. “City dress. Evening wear. Pick one.”

“...Ma'am?”

“City wear,” Santhil waved it off; more secretaries and personal aides were pacing around to harass Santhil with the same questions.

“Will there be a formal announcement?”

“No, it's a party to have fun, not to show off.”

The helper—secretary, messenger, aide, whomever—nodded briefly, bowed in respect, and took her leave. The next one came at her already; her lips opening to ask her questions and waste as little of Santhil's time as possible. Strange as it was, Santhil appreciated that both glossed over unnecessary etiquette and cut straight to business—nobody really cared how Santhil was, what they wanted from her was an answer so everyone could go about their business again.

“Drachau, how much wine do we need to requisition?”

“Fifty barrels.” Santhil picked her name and title from the voices hanging in the corridor, and looked about to see Jesamine walking towards her. There was a pensive but content expression on her face; good news.

“What dress code—”

“—City wear,” Santhil interrupted the question, holding one hand up to signal to the aide, or everyone but Jesamine, that she was unavailable for a moment. It rarely helped, but it was the thought that mattered. “No formal announcements.”

“Drachau Arhakuyl, our scouts have reported back,” Jesamine started. It was a fairly empty phrase, serving its purpose to alert others that the conversation should not be interrupted lightly.

“Any luck?”

“They've found a small village on the outskirts. No garrison, no militia, no fortifications.”

Santhil nodded, thinking it over quickly. An unprotected settlement was just what they needed to make their presence known. “Good work.”

“I'll pass the compliments to the scouting teams. How are things here?”

“The empire nearly torn into civil war, our troops less than two-hundred miles from the capital of resistance, and yet I am asked the same things,” and Santhil cued to the aide that had approached her anyway: “Fifty barrels, city wear, no formal announcements.”

“It could be worse,” Jesamine chuckled. “They could ask what you were going to wear at the party.”

Silence. The aides in earshot threw eachother a brief, meaningful glance, and finally aimed them collectively at Santhil.

“The empire thanks you, mistress,” Santhil sighed through her lips.

“But for your grace, my lady.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Thu Sep 06, 2007 3:20 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Joined: Tue Oct 04, 2005 5:06 pm
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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(I used to collaborate with Sirist on this story, especially since her character was involved, but also on expressions and storyboard. In a sense, working on this story reminds me of the pleasant and helpful conversations I had with her, and it keeps her in my daily memory. Although I've decided to continue the story, I will miss our conversations.)


It was a soft bed. It was a comfortable bed. It was a bed that felt like it was actively trying to make you feel as comfortable as possible. You couldn't help but have an exaggerated, witless smile on your face while you dug it half into the pillow. She was looking forward to it.

Santhil sat upright in her bed, her back against the head, supported by pillows, her mind burning over the map laid out over her lap. She was sick of the map. She had been staring at it for too long. She had been mulling over the map with generals, logisticians, and enthusiasts for weeks, months and, by now, probably for over a year. And she was going to be looking at it for a long time to come.

Rain ticked on the balcony while the wind gently blew the soft curtains into the chamber. A fresh air swept in from the surrounding pine forests, carrying with them the cold, moist feel that a rainy night had. In the far, far distance, a wolf howled. It was probably wailing over being soaked wet. Served it right for howling at night.

There was a knock on her door. Santhil wasn't used to having visitors at night. Night was a time when people slept, assassins stalked, and soaked wolves caught pneumonia. She cast a brief glance at her appearance, wondering whether she should close another button on her blouse—you know, look presentable—but soon disregarded it and called out to enter; the worst that could happen was that people weren't looking her in the eye.

Carefully, the door opened, and Lahnia slid in as if afraid to be noticed. She probably felt bad over disturbing Santhil this deep into the night. She silently stood across the room, not sure whether she would be allowed to enter.

Santhil cocked her head gently, focusing her eyes on her sister. She was sad, she could tell as much from a first glance, but there was something else about her demeanor: her eyes were wet, her fist clenched, her lip trembling. She was also angry, but not at Santhil. Counting on her instincts and her own memories, she came to one conclusion: Lahnia's lover broke up with her.

Santhil put her pencil aside and stretched both arms to her sister, offering her to come over, an empathetic smile set on her lips.

Lahnia wet her lips, standing uneasily for a second, and finally launched herself at Santhil with full speed, leaping headfirst into her arms. She nestled her head into the nearest shoulder when the first tears came up.

Santhil would've liked a little less impact, and she held her breath for a moment, but decided not to say anything. Broken hearts had right of way on broken ribs. “I'm sorry, hun,” she sighed. “It happens.”

°°°

The sun had risen high into the heavenly blue, shedding a calming warmth that soothed the mind. A soft, cool breeze ristled through the leaves, alleviating some of the heat that rests on neck and shoulders. It was the perfect weather for sunburn, but few people standing outside actually cared. Yes, it was a beautiful day for everyone under the heavens.

Everyone? No, perhaps not everyone.

Screams hung in the air, anonymous voices shouting and yelling in non-sensical phrases. Women and their children ran away, crying and shrieking in panic as they were chased by a few riders to be hounded or captured. Anyone courageous (or brain-addled) enough to pick up a weapon was cut down where they stood. The invaders—that would be them, the Druchii—had no use for people who tried 'funny stuff'; they had use for obedient workers with the intelligence to understand terse orders.

Scouts had reported this village abandoned by the military; the garrison that once guarded this settlement was recently sent to the north to fight off the, quote, overwhelming horde of evil warriors, unquote. Anlarne was one of many, and that was also the message to be posted widely and clearly to the Sarthailor military: you can't be everywhere.

Santhil rolled her eyes halfly at the mention of her 'evil' forces. Evil would be clubbing the village elder to death with his cat; pointless, purposeless evil. It wasn't like she frotted her hands with a maniacal giggle at the thought of chaos and destruction. Oh yes, let's invade other realms for no reason at all, that sounds so eeeevil! No, she was pragmatic, practical, and determined.

But all the philosophical thinking almost made Santhil forget why she was there. No, not her forces, but she, herself, in particular. She could easily have left a raid like this to go without personal supervision, but she was looking for something.

This was Main Street, an unpaved, dirt-trodden, wide path corridored by several trading posts and shops, leading up to a circular plain centered around the village well. The village counted roughly two hundred souls, which was a cautious estimate.

One of the witches acting as her bodyguard pointed to a tailor's shop that was still unharmed. Santhil's head cocked briefly, considering what she could find in there, then pressed her lips. It was unlikely to have the craftsmanship she was looking for. “I'm not sure... Say, would they have a jeweler here?”

“In a village this size? Unlikely, milady.”

Perhaps jewelry wasn't really what she was looking for, either. A child, barely reaching up to her thighs, ran past, crying sadly at some injustice that it had suffered. Santhil followed it briefly with her eyes, trying to determine where it was going, then lost interest and focused back on the matter at hand.

The witch to her left took a deep breath and cast her look about. “Beg my pardon, drachau, but what are we looking for?”

Good question. “Something... She's had a really bad week, and I'd like something to cheer her up with. I'm not sure what; I'll know it when I see it.” Perhaps she needed to look at this differently, she mused as she rolled back her head to rest her neck, staring at the sky. Perhaps she needed something cute ... and fuzzy, something huddled in a little ball of smooth fur, with white paws and whiskers and green eyes staring into hers.

“There!” Santhil exclaimed, pointing at the kitten sitting helplessly on the rickety roof of a burning building. “It's perfect.”

There was a profound silence around her while bodyguard and haphazard soldiers stared witlessly at the dangerous construction that stood on the side of the street. The walls were tiredly leaning against eachother, kept together by rotten doors and probably the kitten's nails. Woodchips sailed firely out of the shattered windows, into the air, greedily tearing the building down bit by bit. A haunted creak seeped from the building, it's front door wide open like the gaping mouth of a death trap.

“Well, don't just stand there! Can't you see it's terrified?”

“It's... it's the, ah, it's on fire, ma'am,” one of the soldiers dared. “Maybe we can just poke a little until the cat comes down?”

“You want to poke at it with your spear?” Santhil's face contorted at the thought. “What kind of cruel monster are you?”

“I, ah... sorry. I'll just...” He pointed briefly at the building and then removed his cloak. “Sorry.” Together with his comrades, he moved to the side of the building were the kitten was sitting, opening the cloak to catch it when it jumped.

But the kitten did not jump. Instead, its helpless laments of fear tore the hearts and tears of the Druchii that were assembled below. The fire was gaining on it; surely it had to jump at some time?

“It's not going to jump,” the soldier remarked. He didn't need to think long on what needed to be done: he took a deep breath and pulled part of his vestments over his nose, preparing himself for the ordeal. “Take my spot; I'll get it to jump.”

The first few steps into the building showed the terrible state it was in. The wooden ceiling creaked under the flames that had passed from a neighbouring building that was on the verge of collapse. A thick cloud of smoke pulled through the claustrophobic rooms and out the broken, tastelessly small windows. Flames singed around him, heating the metal on his armour, but he pressed on and mounted the staircase, mindset on saving the kitten from a fiery death.

Once on the second floor, the soldier found himself with no means to actually access the roof that was already partly on fire. The tatchwork wouldn't hold for long; he had to hurry. He saw one way to the roof: through one of the small windows. He took a few deep, smokey breaths through his shirt, beat his fists against eachother, and move to one of the windows.

A long, hard crack sounded from behind him, and one of the beams holding up the roof came down, raining fiery death on the shadow he cast on the floor. Hurriedly, he swung himself onto the windowsill, holding onto the warm frame. He could see the others down in the dirt-trodden street; and quite a bit down, at that.

With a show of strength and souplesse, our nameless hero swung out of the window, barely but timely holding onto the tatching to support himself. The left part of the roof was already going up in flames; the right half—the one with the kitten—was going to follow soon.

“Here, kitty-kitty-kitty.” Effortfully, he pulled himself and his armour onto the roof, gaining footing on the beams and walls that held the roof together. “Heeere, kitty-kitty-kitty.”

A scared, panicky meow sounded from the very edge of the roof. The kitten had gone to the very edge that it could venture and now lamented loudly that it dared not jump to safety. Cautiously, but hurriedly, the soldier chimmeyed across the side of the roof, his heart throbbing up his throat as if it were equally terrified and wanted to nestle in with his brain for safety.

“Heeere, kitty-kitty-kitty,” he soothed from behind his shirt, leaning precariously far over the roof, reaching for the kitten. “Come here, you crazy furball.”

The kitten stared at the large, metal-clad creature approaching it and curled up in fright. With being stuck at this height and already threatened by flames, seeing a monster like that reaching out for it was not high on its wish-list. It hissed and bared its teeth threateningly.

“Oh, I know you did not just hiss at me. Com'ere!” With a quick snatch, he managed to snag the kitten by one of its paws. Instantly, it curled around his glove, holding on tightly, throwing its fate in with the tin man.

A long, lamenting, dying crack. The burning house was on its last legs—he needed to get out of there on the double. Jumping down two floors in full metal wasn't the smart thing to do (the kitten already had that figured out). The alternative didn't look much better: braving the now flaming remnants of architecture. He wasn't getting paid enough for this. One arm now occupied holding the terrified fuzzy cuteness, there was no time to consider his options, and he leapt through a hole in the roof, disappearing back into the flaming building.

Long, breathless seconds passed by while the building collapsed, one wooden beam at a time. The fiery roof landed on the second floor, bringing all the flammable material needed to tear down the construct entire. A deep groan sounded as the walls started coming down one by one, the sound of snapping wood filling the sky. But under those groans and snaps, something else could be heard.

With a bellow of courage, a soldier in red-hot armour—holding a little kitten in his arms—drop-kicked through the front door, splintering wood and shattering part of the portal when its door was bashed out of its hinges. He slid through the smooth, dry dirt, finally coming to a halt in front of Santhil and her entourage. A cloud of dust and sand followed in his wake, covering his approach if not for the kitten held up at periscope height. A quiet meow ignored the implosion of the condemned building. There was only one thing the bystanders could do.

“Awww!”

Santhil carefully cupped the kitten in her hands while the soldier's comrades helped him on his feet, commenting on the dimensions of his—in their opinion—metallic pair of testicles. He removed his helmet and saluted dutifully. “Drachau.”

Santhil was briefly lost for words, looking at the inverted image blackened onto the man's face. She leaned over to him and give him a kiss on his cheek. “Thank you. That was very brave of you.”

“Y-ah-I-y-uhm—...” A sheepish smile turned on his lips while his face turned the same colour as his armour.

“Right, we've gotten what we came for,” Santhil announced to the others, aiming her attention back at rounding up the raid. “Let's torch the other half of the village and call it a day.”

°°°

If Lahnia's hands would need to support her head any further, her cheeks would end up behind her ears. She sighed forlornly while staring listlessly into the ledger-sized book in front of her. She had been lying on her bed for the better part of the day, occasionally flipping back or forward in hopes of finding something that would catch her attention for more than a few seconds. Broken hearts did that.

There was a knock on her doorpost. As much as Lahnia felt alone, she wasn't in the mood for company. She sighed deeply, barely moving her lips when calling out: “What?”

“Hello, Lana,” Santhil greeted her when she walked in, bringing with her the freshness of a morning travel. “How are you feeling?”

“Cheated. You?”

Santhil smiled gently and sat next to her sister. “I have just the thing to cheer you up.”

Lahnia sincerely doubted that. At the moment, she felt like just not moving again, ever, and she found it hard to believe that her sister could cheer her up just like that. Nonetheless, she rolled on her other side, looking at her sister. And the cutest kitten she had ever seen meowed curiously at her.

“Awww! That's so cute!” She carefully lifted the kitten from Santhil's hands and looked at it. “Where did you find it?”

Santhil shrugged gently, not wishing to go into detail. “Finders' keepers. I'm just glad you like it.”

Lahnia stared at it a little longer, gazing back into the curious green eyes. Then she set it aside and gave Santhil a big kiss out of joy. “Thanks Ari. I love you—hey, what's this?” She looked down in Santhil's blouse, having spotted something that she found not to belong there. Was that an envelope?

“Oh, that. A letter from our King,” she replied while lying down next to her sister and reaching for the kitten that was skittering off the bed. “Or better, from the court of our—” She jerked briefly when she felt a hand reach for the letter. “Cold!”

Lahnia snorted once, now holding the letter in her hands. “Sorry. Hey, these letters really do say: 'From the court of our King'. I always thought you made that up.”

“Yes, it's a for-my-eyes-only letter,” Santhil explained, but she nodded soothingly; Lahnia could read it if she wished.

Lahnia fiddled with the envelope to open it. Sorceresses didn't receive a lot of mail, typically acting distant and recluse. “Is it good news?”

“Decidedly not.” Santhil sighed while thinking back of it, rolling her eyes to the window. “I mean, they could write to check up on me, be friendly. Hey, how're you doing? Great job on clearing the ports! Not getting too much resistance in the genocide? Need more troops? A gouvernment grant? But no... Oy, what's keeping you? You already took the ports; why isn't Avalaer in our hands yet?”

A frown rolled onto Lahnia's brow when she read the letter. “Eradicate all resistance, external as well as internal? Ari, does this mean what I fear it means?”

Santhil breathed deeply, thoughtfully, letting it sink with her. She wasn't really going to answer that, and instead offered the kitten back to her sister. “I should go, Lana.”

°°°

It was a private meeting, a high-ranking meeting, an unofficial meeting. Many things hinted to its characteristics: the fact that only the highest and closests ranks were present, the fact that the meeting was taking place in Santhil's office and, of course, the fact that it was almost midnight, a bit of a strange hour.

The topic of this meeting was as enigmatic as it was pressing: allegiance. The world was upside down: it weren't the leaders seeing traitors everywhere, but the soldiers and citizens themselves. Santhil wanted to see what the impressions of the others were without tying herself down to making an official judgement.

“Our people are polarising to the different factions,” the elder general shared. “Just the other day, some of my men harassed an artist because her paintings are... provocative. Needless to say, I had them disciplined, but more and more of these 'accidents' are happening.”

“Not only artists,” Yalasmina raised as the closest thing Santhil had to a religious advisor. “Though not an official or public stance, more scrutiny is going to sorceresses because they infuse themselves with powers similar to those wielded by the dark masters of Chaos. I fear it won't be long before we have to post guards and escorts with some of them.”

Jesamine snorted once, not in contempt, but in confidence. “Our soldiers know better than to assault a sorceress. We can, after all, kill them with the flick of a wrist.”

If you timely suspect you are in danger,” Yalasmina countered. “As powerful as most sorceresses are, with respect to us laymen and -women, you are not invulnerable.”

Santhil raised an eyebrow, sitting on her desk and listening. After all, that was why she called the meeting: to listen, not to talk.

“What I'm saying is...” Jesamine took a deep breath and crossed her legs, rearranging her words mentally. “There have been brawls, yes, there have been suspicions and slurs and accusations, yes, but it is a long way from there to assaulting a person. Even if the victim does not survive, the assailants will be executed.” She dared a glance at Santhil to gauge her reaction and found her venture acknowledged... partly.

“It would depend on the gravity of the offense,” Santhil brought up, “but I am in favour of zero tolerance on this issue. We can't have people go vigilante on us.”

Yalasmina pressed her lips. Of course, being a priestess of the Temple, she felt more or less comfortable with nudging elbows and making people realise Khaine was the deity of choice. Then again, she was no fanatic, and tolerated other people to hold their own beliefs.

“Is there... something you'd like to add, Yalasmina?” Santhil asked her when she caught the pensive look.

Yalasmina returned a confident if contemplating stare. “There are two sides to this problem. On the one side, we have—what you call—religious fanaticism; on the other, we have... controversial thinking bordering on outright provocation.” A brief look was aimed at—and picked up by—Jesamine, but the sorceress knew better than to start an argument that neither of them could win.

Santhil cocked her head, almost annoyed, but she did see the wisdom in Yalasmina's words. “I would like to advise caution to those with a more open-minded approach to religion, but I rather not to give the impression that I acknowledge this is a problem. This is not an issue until we recognise it as one.”

“Beg your pardon, drachau,” the general dared, “but it has already become a clear issue. We cannot afford to stick our heads in sand anymore.”

“I do not intend to stick our heads in sand,” Santhil argued. “What I meant to bring across is that, no matter which god you follow or which religion you adhere, obedience to the king and adherence to his—and my—rule are what I require. I do not have a mandate to impose religion.”

“Santhil, you are Drachau,” Yalasmina brought up. “You are the closest thing to a king—or queen—this colony has. If you have no such mandate, then who does?”

Santhil forwent on answering the question and instead reached for the letter from the king's court she had received earlier. She was still obviously displeased about it. “At any rate, general, your words may hold more truth than you originally intended. Our king has given orders to eliminate all threats to his rule.” She held the closed letter up between her fingers, as if to strengthen the impact of her words.

The obvious question hung unspoken in the air: were the current troubles perceived as a threat to the king's rule? Nobody but Santhil could say; after all, the letter was apparently meant for her eyes only. An uneasy silence settled while some mulled in their thoughts and others waited for anyone to say anything.

“Right,” Santhil finally opened again. “Who perceives the religious tumult as a threat to our king's rule?” She rolled her eyes from right to left, starting with: “Jesamine?”

Jesamine shook her head. “I am not worried. I believe this will blow over yet. Any overt action from our side is likely to make things worse.”

Santhil nodded briefly; she did not agree entirely, but she liked what she heard so far. Most others were undecided one way or the other: only the more seasoned leaders were sitting here; youthful zeal and ignorance were left to sleep soundly tonight. That made her eyes roll to Yalasmina, and she received the answer she expected from her sister:

“I do not share Mistress Cadsane's optimism. I believe this situation has a very real chance of spinning out of control, and it could do so quickly.”

Santhil accepted the answer and put both hands on her desk, looking over everyone assembled. “Suggestions, anyone?”

“We've all been under a lot of stress, lately,” Jesamine brought up. “Perhaps this planned party will take the pressure off?”

Boost morale, reduce friction. Santhil liked the idea, especially since it meant no extra work on anyone, but she scanned around for more, anyway. It never hurt to have a backup plan.

Some mumbling and murmuring rose while people thought to others and to themselves; a few halfbred ideas hung in the air, but ultimately the party was going to have to do.

“Alright, the party will suffice,” Santhil ended the discussion. “Before you leave...” She held up the letter again. “Officially, we are investigating methods to diffuse the situation.”

“And unofficially?” Jesamine probed.

“Unofficially, we have enough enemies without seeking amongst ourselves. Dismissed and goodnight.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Tue Sep 25, 2007 1:04 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Joined: Tue Oct 04, 2005 5:06 pm
Posts: 1202
Location: Flanders, Belgium
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(It's been a while. About half of my work is recycled, deleted, or edited so heavily that it is a new piece, and that bothers me at times, but that explains the pauses in posting. It's not that I've forgotten, it's that it's not getting along the way I hope.

On the story itself, the first part here really belongs with the last part of the previous post. It got missed in the last copy-paste from the master document. That being said, this entire piece was about twice as long before the cuts; hopefully some parts will make it into next pieces.

As ever, helpful comments/criticism are welcome. I'm not showing off; I'm practising, and I'll occasionally—or repeatedly—miss a swing.)



“I do not believe this course of action to be wise.”

Yalasmina had waited for everyone to leave Santhil's office before opening discussion with her sister. While she disagreed with ignoring the religious friction, she was not prepared to openly question and undermine authority.

Santhil laid a hand in her neck while staring idly in the mirror. “I'm open to suggestions, Mina.”

“Santhil, I realise you believe you haven't the manpower to allow division, but what if they are already divided? There is infighting, there are soldiers questioning the allegiance of their leaders...” But what really bothered Yalasmina was yet to follow: “You can not afford to disregard the king's orders.”

“I am not disregarding his orders. I'm keeping priorities.” Which, in a sense, meant disregarding issues in favour of what she considered more pressing issues.

A knock on the door. Santhil looked over her shoulder to see Lahnia stand in the doorway, holding an inquisitive spark in her eyes and her kitten in her hands. “You do meetings in your office now, too?”

“Keeping priorities is fine and well,” Yalasmina argued, “but you need to take at least some official action, even if half-hearted. There are eyes from above as well as below.”

“Oh hey, what's this about?” Lahnia asked Yalasmina, her head tilted in curiosity.

“Santhil would rather not go into the king's orders. And you know how the king appreciates his drachau follow orders.” Yalasmina winked her eyebrows to Lahnia without dropping a hint in her voice. She needed Lahnia's support in this.

“Right, ah, Santhil,” Lahnia caught on, “Mina has a point here.”

“I don't want to talk about it anymore,” Santhil dismissed the topic.

“Santhil, listen to me,” Yalasmina retried. “You must take some sort of official stance on this, soon.”

Lahnia tore her eyes off the cuteness in her hands and nodded in agreement. “Makes sense, Ari.”

Santhil cocked her head with a frown, looking at both her sisters. “This isn't right. The last time you two agreed on anything, I was still studying art.”

“Maybe it's a sign of how right we are,” Lahnia tried.

“Or maybe you know something I don't.” Insert scrutinous stare at both sisters. “Are you keeping something from me?”

“Me? Us?” Lahnia skipped her eyes at Yalasmina, who returned a cool gaze. Do not spill the beans. “Like what? I mean, no, we wouldn't.”

“Lana, honey, one of those many things that makes you loveable is that you are a terrible liar. You know something I do not, and you have the obligation to tell.”

“Ari...” Lahnia moaned, turning her head away uneasily. “...Come on, you don't really want to know.”

“Lahnia is correct,” Yalasmina backed her. “I did not want to know, and I am confident you do not want to, either.”

“You two have no right to make that call for me,” Santhil pressed. “If there's something I need to know, you have to tell me.”

“Ari, please,” Lana curled her lips down.

“Lana, don't make me pull rank.”

“You think you want to know, but you really don't.”

“Lahnia Arhakuyl, I am drachau, you will—”

“Executed,” Lahnia squeezed from her voice while her eyes rolled up. “They were executed.”

“Executed? Who?” This wasn't making any sense.

“The previous leaders of this eastern colony,” Yalasmina clarified. “Our king was displeased with their performance and executed them.”

“But... that doesn't make sense. They faced opposition beyond their powers and managed to hold; we studied their achievements, their strategies at the academy. And—and they died on the battlefield.” An important fact in this case.

“That's what the history books say,” Yalasmina explained softly. “The records of that time state they were recalled and summarily executed. Clearly, our king held their actions and results in different light than was ultimately recorded.”

Santhil rested a hand in her side and looked down for a moment, letting it sink it while slowly washing a hand over her face. “You're right; I didn't want to know.”

“Changes one's perspective on things, doesn't it?” Yalasmina steered the conversation back to the topic.

Santhil nodded in agreement and stared at the kitten staring back at her. “It most certainly does. At least, that explains why there were so few takers for my position. I felt so lucky, so clever—hey people, I made it and you didn't... This just keeps getting better, doesn't it?”

“I'm sorry for you, Ari,” Yalasmina offered her sympathies.

“Hey, there's a bright side,” Lahnia attempted to lift the mood. “Nobody'd ever want your job, so nobody's going to kill you for it, either.”

Yalasmina nodded gently. She wouldn't normally agree with Lahnia on such a blatant disregard for the gravity of the situation, but there was little that could be said. “There is that.”

Santhil returned a level stare that reflected the sarcasm in her voice. “Thanks. I am overwhelmed by a sudden sense of safety.” She sighed and washed her hands over her face. Executed? She wasn't looking for an easy job, but executed?

“Santhil,” Yalasmina probed briefly for her attention. “Do what you believe is best. I will consult with the Temple and see if there is anything we can do to calm the religious tempers flaring up. Anything other than inquisition, that is.”

“I'd appreciate that.” There was plenty of work for her to go around, anyway.

°°°

Outside, the cold wave bit into the mountains and forests while snow whirled down from the nightly skies. Inside, the burning fireplace and a few blankets kept the room's occupants comfortably warm.

Most troops were inside, shielding themselves from the bitter cold that had covered the land, with only the guardsmen staying dutifully, keeping an eye out for intrusion. Their work was appreciated.

“You need to teach me that trick some day.”

Lahnia's eyebrow rose at Santhil's comment. She had been sitting quietly for most of the time, huddled in a blanket, her book hovering soundlessly in front of her. Pages turned once she had finished them without her needing to lift a finger. Apparently, Santhil envied the ability. “Most people just think it's creepy.”

“It is creepy, but it's also very useful,” Santhil mumbled, pressing her pencil between her lips while scavenging the papers on her desk for the sheet she needed. “I mean, look at this. There could be a blatant security issue and I'd look right over it; the king could be dead and I wouldn't even know. People come into my office, unload some dump truck of paper unto my desk, and move off with some cryptic message about its contents: 'urgent', 'important' ...”

At the mention, the books and papers on her desk slid up into the air, hanging presentingly in much the same way you'd expect them not to. Santhil blinked briefly in surprise, then scanned over the scriptures in search of the sheet she needed. “Oh. Thank you. Thank you very much.”

“You're welcome.” Lahnia stared idly at her pages a while longer, trying to focus more than cursorily on the text she wished to read. Finally, hopelessly, she closed the book with a sigh and let it fall in her lap. “I can't focus.” Instantly followed by the soft cracks of paper and dull thuds on the desk next to her. She pressed her lips, not really daring to look at what would be a prime example of a orderly stack of chaos. “Sorry.”

Santhil simply snorted, almost amused. “Once again, spastic reflexes and prejudiced paranoia save my hands.” She wrapped an arm around Lahnia and gave her a kiss on her hair. “Don't worry about it, honey.”

Lahnia smiled warmly, sitting up a bit more in her chair, pulling her blanket higher. “Thanks for having me over.”

“Of course, you're my sister. My favourite one, at that.”

“Yes, but you're also drachau... and a general... and my boss...”

Santhil chuckled and shook her head. “Oh, if that's your game: you're my boss' wife. And the prettiest girl in the colony.”

Lahnia sighed forlornly, her eyes staring idly at the hard cover of her book. “No, I'm not. You have a personal bodyguard of witches, for Khaine's sake.”

“What... does my bodyguard have to do with this?”

“You've half a dozen bikini models parading around you, staring at your every move, creating some impermeable cordon around you.” Lahnia crossed her arms under her blanket and sunk deeper into her chair.

Santhil rolled her eyes to the left, thinking it over. When put that way, it did sound a little... hedonistic, perhaps? She still wasn't sure how it had anything to do with the topic at hand, but perhaps Lahnia was simply jealous. “Well, to me, you are the prettiest girl. And I am your drachau, your general, and your boss, so you will accept my word laid before you as law. There, that's about as pompous as I can sound on short notice.”

Lahnia rolled a smile on her lips, touched by the gesture. She felt a bit better. “Thanks, Ari.”

“Just the truth, Lana.”

A silence befell the chamber again, carried by a ristling of paper and the pen caressing it while notes were being made. An icy breeze carried underneath the curtains as if to remind that the only thing keeping the chamber from freezing was the fire crackling bravely on the other side of the room.

“Ari?”

Santhil hummed preoccupiedly, her attention only vaguely drawn by the call of her name. Her interest hovered expectingly over what at first appeared to be a in-depth report of the nearby terrain, but later turned out to be only the front page, a cover for contents lost in the blurp of telekinesis that haunted her desk earlier.

“Do you love me?”

“With mind and soul.”

“Really?” Lahnia rolled her eyes about, thinking on what her sister meant by that phrase. Whichever way it was interpreted, it was a nice way to put it. “Could you, ah... Can I have a kiss before we go to sleep?”

Santhil stopped momentarily and rose an eyebrow gently, her hands settled under the mysterious lack of order in front of her. The only reason Lahnia explicitly asked was if she meant: “A 'good' one.”

“A great one. If that's alright with you.”

“Ah, I...” Santhil thought it over—to her own surprise, no less; she had expected an expedient no from her side. But she also felt Lahnia deserved better than that. “If that... makes you feel better.”

“Wh— really? Wow. Thanks.”

Santhil chuckled at the surprised and relieved reaction. It probably took a lot of courage to ask. “For you, honey, anything.”

“Well, yes, but there's anything and there's anything. I mean, you won't catch me asking Yalasmina this.”

“I'd actually pay good money just to see her reaction.”

“Yes, because she's already so fond of me.” Lahnia rolled her eyes with an annoyed sigh. “Do this, don't do that, focus on this, get that out of your head, blah blah blih, blah blah blah. Arf, arf, arf!” Annoyed that she couldn't focus on getting any work done, she stood from her seat, idling around.

Santhil laughed at the spontaneous comment that did describe Yalasmina's face demeanor, even if it did so disrespectfully. “Mina loves you too, Lana, she really does. She just worries more about you than I do.”

“You know what I think? She just likes lording it over others. She even bosses you around—you're one step from the king himself, for Khaine's sake. It's like she gets her rocks off being in charge.”

Santhil nodded calmly, pretending to entertain the idea. In truth, she knew Yalasmina really was just worried about Lahnia, and she did love her even if they disagreed often. “I suppose that's normal. Most people want to be in charge—don't you?”

“Me? I wouldn't know. Nobody ever put me in charge. They hardly trust me with anything: even the coven mistress goes all preppy and discipline whenever she spots me.”

“Well, you did singe off her eyebrows,” and Santhil snorted when recalling the sight. That woman would be painting eyebrows on her face for a few weeks to come.

“Yes, and I told her to stay clear of the fire, just like I told everyone to keep their distance last time I practised. But no, it's just Lahnia, let's go lemming on the tidal wave she summoned!”

“In their defense, you were meant to practise your illusionary skills, not your tidal wave.”

“Regardless, if they had listened in the first place, they would have been dry instead of angry.” Lahnia sighed and shook her head, looking around for something to catch her attention, to entertain her with. She settled with Santhil's sword and drew it from its sheath, playing with its balance.

Santhil observed her sister for a while, judging her skill and talent. While she, herself, was not the pinnacle of swordfighting, she did know her way around weapons both in theory as in practise. And it appeared that Lahnia had no mean skill with a blade as well. “How does that feel, holding the drachau's sword?”

“Hm? Oh, sorry, I didn't mean to—”

“No, that's alright. I'm just curious. Do you like it?”

“What, holding this sword?”

“Holding that sword. Being the only one with a sword in the room. How does that feel?”

Lahnia considered it for a moment, looking at the blade and the symbol of authority that it was. Dozens of people had died to this blade, and realising that made holding it all the stranger. She couldn't really put her finger on how it felt to her: frightening on one side, and appealing on the other. “Power,” she finally said.

Santhil nodded thoughtfully. Perhaps there was no better word to describe what made swords such attractive things to hold to some.

“It's... strange. I never looked at a sword as anything other than a blade you could defend yourself with.”

“A lot of responsibility comes with it. Some whim on your end and I'm a dead woman.” Santhil chuckled at the futility of the phrase. “I tell the font of deadly magic.”

“That I would never turn on you.”

“For which I am eternally grateful.”

Lahnia giggled and stared at her reflection in the blade. It was a beautiful weapon. And everyone else would add it was a beautiful reflection, but Lahnia was slightly more modest (but not by much) than that. “It's kind of cool.”

“Makes you feel in charge?”

“In a sense.” A teasing grin rolled onto her lips when she pointed the sword over the desk and at Santhil. “Now I feel in charge.”

“Oh oh, hey, honey, ah...” Santhil chuckled, cocking her head gently. “Careful with that, alright?”

“Don't worry, I won't hurt you. Much.”

“You won't hurt me much,” Santhil willed her to elaborate.

“You're a soldier, you can take some.”

Santhil recognised her own words in that and nodded slowly at that. “Oookay, do you mind if I continue my work?”

Lahnia looked at the ceiling for a moment, pretending to think, then nodded. “Actually, I do. How does it feel not to be in charge for a change?”

“Different,” Santhil admitted. “Strangely relieved of the burden of responsibility.”

“Scared?”

“Scared? No, not scared. I trust you.” It was a symbolic thing to say, with Lahnia annoyed at not being trusted. It also happened to be true: Santhil did trust her sister implicitly, which set her apart from, say, the rest of the world. And having a sword pointed at her, she couldn't really blame them, either.

Lahnia's grin grew mischievous, and she set the tip of the sword against Santhil's throat, resting it on her sternum. “Still not scared?”

“Alarmed,” Santhil said, keeping perfectly still. It was something of a test. It was also something of an adrenaline rush, feeling the smooth, cold metal poke her skin. “You know I trust you, but you realise that if you or I as much as hiccup, I'm dead... right?”

“Hm... you're right.” Lahnia pressed her lips; she didn't want to take that risk. But she wouldn't be herself if she didn't find some serviceable substitute, so she slid the blade down the lapels of Santhil's blouse, moving to her chest.

“Oh, I like this blouse, watch the buttons.”

“Don't worry, I have a trick up my sleeve.”

Slowly, silently, one of the buttons moved, trying to undo itself as if on its own volition. Santhil stared in stupefaction while it stumbled around, then snorted inelegantly. “You know, your instructors would be proud of the creativity you show in your, ah, what's it called again?”

“Telekinesis. And don't laugh, this is delicate work and requires focus.”

“Well, ah, do you need a hand?” Santhil felt her attempt to help stopped instantly when the tip of the sword poked her skin again. “Right, okay, just offering.”

“Just keep your hands on the supports.” She smiled when the button finally gave. “There you go.”

“Ehhuh. While you disrobe me at swordpoint.”

“Don't worry, you'll stay covered.”

“Why, thank you, that's very generous.”

“Only a button or two so I have some room to poke.”

“Oh, so now it's two buttons?” Santhil shook her head with a laugh.

“Pft, play along a little. I'm not asking you to lapdance for me.”

“How does that—How do you even think of that? And why do you insist on taking my mind to icky places?”

A knock on the door that was instantly swung open. Lahnia timely stepped away even though she was in no danger of being hit, but she had every right to be surprised: it was midnight, and noone had given permission to enter. A messenger stepped in and halted instantly when he spotted Lahnia holding Santhil at swordpoint. “Ah, eh... Drachau, is everything in order?”

“Hm? Oh, this.” Santhil chuckled briefly and shook her head. “Everything's fine, we're just playing. A little experiment.”

“Is this urgent?” Lahnia asked, slightly annoyed but not showing it overtly. “We're kind of in the middle of something.” The night, for instance.

“Aahm... no.” The messenger held up a fake, surprised smile and quickly grabbed the door's handle again. “Scout report. Just in. Nothing that can't wait until tomorrow.”

“And you want to knock next time, I'm sure.”

“Yes, I'll... make sure to knock, next time. Pardon my intrusion.” The door closed as hurriedly as it was opened, leaving the chamber in a strangely comfortable silence.

Ultimately, Lahnia sighed and put the sword on the desk. “Great. The moment's gone.”

“Welcome to my life,” Santhil joked. “Come on, let's catch some sleep. I have a sortie tomorrow.”

“Alright. But I still get that kiss, right?”

“Yes, Lana,” Santhil laughed, rolling her eyes. “You still get that kiss.”

°°°

Shadows moved in the woods futher to the west. They had been ever since the army started moving north again. They were being watched, and watched closely. Undoubtedly, they had sent word to nearby garrisons that an enemy was approaching. Ransacking Anlarne had drawn some attention back to the southern border; or perhaps the correct phrase would be: had drawn some attention to the fact there now was a southern border.

Santhil looked about herself, glancing at the armies marching along. The nigh parade formation was as much of an insult as could be carried across on short notice. Drawing the attention was the idea, and provoking a hasty assault all the more. Their own scouts were scattered about, searching out hostile armies to engage. Minor as the skirmishes would be, their outcome was of paramount importance: defeating mobile garrisons would draw Sarthailirim troops from the north back to the south and lighten the noose around the port cities.

It was snowing again, filling the sky with a single shade of grey. The cold snap was no longer a snap (though it was most certainly cold); it had been holding on for a few days now. Luckily, the army was accustomed to and prepared for this kind of cold; as long as the snow wouldn't melt, the army's logistics or heavier assets such as the Reaper artillery wouldn't bog down.

Many commanders had volunteered to join this overt harrassment, hoping to bring their troops victory to boost their morale, to prove that they served the empire despite allegations of religion or allegiances flung about, or simply to stand out in the ranks of nobility and be noticed by the people that mattered. Santhil had left Jesamine Cadsane to oversee the further exploration (and exploitation) of the dwarven complex they now occupied. She still wanted to find out what had gotten into the dwarfs to leave unexpectedly and, perhaps more troubling, not to come back yet.

Scouts returned hurriedly, heading directly for their commanders. Opponents had been found; conflict wouldn't be far behind.

°°°

Sparks fountained off Santhil's shield when it deflected a heavy swing of a halberd, her saddle keeping her firmly horseback even though the blow jeopardised her balance. A quick swing of her own wounded her assailant, driving him back into his ranks before the regiment broke entirely and ran away as a disorderly mess parsing through and between other regiments. This was their chance.

“Pursue!” Santhil shouted over the deafening haze of battle tumult. “Charge their next line! Break their backs!” If they played their cards right, they could break the entire left flank and mop up to the center. There was the risk of being flanked; a risk she normally wouldn't take, if it weren't that her flanks were well-covered. “Charge!”

Her horse pranced violently when spurred, but threw itself back into the fight at moment's notice. Helms carried by men passed left and right like a fleeing flock of sheep while the horses ran through them to the next lines. Haphazard spats of blood squirted up when blades struck home through the lowered guards, massacring the terrified soldiers from above. The idea was not to have a high body count, but to lower the morale of any nearby troops. The screams of the dying did that.

The unsteady view from the gallop made it difficult to get a clear view of the next lines, but it seemed the gamble was paying off: fleeing troops broke through the ranks, defeating the formation of spears their sergeant hastily put together to stop the cavalry charging at them. A satisfied, almost savage grin rolled on Santhil's lips; decisive victory was only moments away.

Despite the disruption, a stronghearted man lunged his spear through the guard of the knight to her left, driving the tip through the armour with a sickening squish. The knight's hands clasped around the shaft before he fell lifelessly to the snowy floor, leaving his horse to whinny sadly at the loss of its rider. Every battle had its casualties; someone's parent, child, or sibling. But now was not the time to get philosophical about it.

“Break their ranks! Trample them!” She didn't need to tell the others: they were doing exactly that. Still, there was a clarion, one of their own, that caught her attention—but only briefly, a lightning reflex deflecting a jab on her breastplate. She needed to know what was going on and, more importantly, who was calling the retreat, but fighting for her life made that next to impossible. She'd have to risk it.

Straining her muscles, Santhil cleaved through a shoddy armour and the collarbone it protected, mortally wounding the most immediate threat to her safety, and then she scanned the battlefield, hearing that same clarion again, this time immediately followed by one of the enemy's. It seemed their opponents caught on with the idea and aimed for a quick lunge through Druchii ranks.

A cold wind chilled skin and bone, cutting the eyes. The snowing had intensified, misting the battlefield with a wealth of individual flakes. Santhil had difficulty making out the individual shapes and banners, but she did notice a new banner—heavy cavalry, hostile—near her and, when she heard their clarion again, she recognised it as a charge. An incoming one. She was struck with equal parts surprise and fright.

“Oh... my... —Retreat! Retreat! Get out of here!”

Uncomfortably loud clashes of horses and metal sung their cacaphony when the charge hit. Santhil's horse pranced in panic and caught a lance straight in its chest; the tip drilled through the saddle, narrowly chafing over her leg. Sheer impact shoved its hind legs through the snow and toppled it against another horse in the ranks before it fell, causing a complete mess. Secured firmly in her saddle, Santhil had no chance at a soft fall and was unelegantly smacked against the snowy ground with the same force her unfortunate horse did.

She needed a moment to recover. She needed longer than that, but she took a minimum to get the ringing out of her head; figuring out what had happened would have to wait. She was in a bad spot, she needed to get out, and that was all she needed to know.

With a grunt for strength, Santhil tried to clamber on her feet but felt she was hampered by something heavy. Her dead horse was lying over her left leg. She would need help or time to free herself, and she wasn't likely to receive either on short notice. Around her, the battle was still raging on, and the enemy infantry she had been happily hacking into only a moment ago was now returning the favour under cover of their own cavalry. Fate insisted on a little payback every now and then.

A nearby footfall. Santhil instinctively raised her shield and felt it take a heavy blow, the impact shuddering through her bones. Another followed quickly, suggesting a one-handed weapon. It would only be a matter of time before the man figured out she was almost entirely immobilised and, when he did, she would be dead. A quick lunge of her own sword struck past his leg, cutting open his ankles, buying her some time while she pushed her other leg against her horse, trying to lose the dead weight. It budged but did not move.

“Come on!” Santhil skirted from her throat. “Move that fat ass off me!” It didn't listen. Which made sense, with it being dead and all that. In the meantime, her opponent had recovered and reached for a halberd from one of his fallen comrades. Santhil's eyes opened widely in fright: a solid hit with that monster would cleave right through her shield, and probably half of her torso in the process. She kicked her dead horse once in frustration, still trying to shove it off. “Move!”

The man was taking his time, savouring the moment. There was no danger in it for him: with the decimation of the Druchii heavy cavalry, the battle line had moved past them again, and the halberd put him well out of Santhil's reach. Even if she managed to free herself, she'd never be on her feet and balanced before he could swing. He raised his halberd with a savage grin and held a moment before swooping it down on her.

In a flash of wit and intuition, Santhil swung up her shield at an arc, hitting the shaft and sliding against the blade with all her might. The sheer force still drove part of the blade through the shield, straining her bones and muscles, but she was still alive, and his weapon was stuck in her shield. She grit her teeth in effort and instantly gave the weapon a good yank, pulling the man along, and drove her sword through his stomach. There was an expression of surprise on his face when he felt the icy metal rip through flesh and organs, seeing his blood run down the blade and over Santhil's arm. He didn't understand what just happened and, quite frankly, Santhil wasn't sure she caught the whole thing either. Worries for later—she bought herself the seconds she needed to survive.

A sharp sting shuddered through her shield arm when she moved again. Surprised, Santhil stared at blood trickling over her armour and dripping on the stark white snow. The lower spike of the halberd's blade had driven through her shield and into her arm. Moving her fingers hurt like hell, but at least they could still move. She kept staring at the metallic monstrosity dug into her arm, her breath quick and shallow. It needed to go.

Pulling it out of the shield was impossible; she had to lose the shield. Santhil fiddled with the bands keeping the shield to her arm and carefully loosened them. She closed her eyes... and yanked her arm free. A yelp of pain drowned in the many screams and shouts chanting through the air. With both hands free, she gathered her might and managed to free her leg; it was still alright, not hurt much, and she managed to stand on her feet again, add one injury, drop one shield. In sheer automatism, she snatched her tiara from the snow and set it in her hair. That aside, she was still on a battlefield, she was still leading this attack, she needed to take a good look around.

The enemy cavalry had ploughed diligently through the Druchii ranks, drilling flank after flank and tearing the left part of the line entirely to shreds. A few haphazard regiments were still fighting, but they were likely covering the retreat. On the right side, Druchii artillery had succeeded in softening enemy ranks before subsequent charges broke through completely. The battle was swiveling, rotating around some imaginary axis, and Santhil found herself smack in the middle of the Sarthailarim lines.

It didn't take long for the human soldiers to notice the wounded officer (and 'officer' was all they could make out, being a stranger to the runes she wore) standing behind their lines. Many of them had seen comrades or relatives die near them with nary a chance to strike back, infusing them with rage and bloodlust, and the perfect opportunity presented itself on a silver plate—or with silver lining on her armour, close enough. Before more snow had a chance to settle on the frozen grass, a fivesome of warriors set up a circle around Santhil, eyes set on vengeance.

In hindsight, playing dead would have been the smart move.

Santhil glanced at the soldiers surrounding her. The thought of jackals crossed her mind; her best chance of survival lied in making them believe that, despite being hurt, she could still take them, and to cause them to drop their guard. Keeping that in mind, she turned a lopsided grin on her lips. Tauntingly slowly, she drew a circle in the snow with her sword, clearly stating its meaning: do not cross. Which was absurd, since their weapons could just jab her without them ever crossing the circle, but impressions were everything.

With a bellow of rage, one of the soldiers ran at her, his spear level to run her through. This was a textbook example of how not to enter combat, and Santhil made sure that message was clear. One step aside, one backswing of her sword, and a gust of sickly warm blood sprouted from his throat, covering her bossom and shoulder and part of his nearest comrade before he stumbled over his feet and dropped to the ground. He gurgled, holding his throat in vain while dying in the snow.

“Anyone else want to take a spin with me?” she taunted with a smug grin. Secretly, she thanked her lucky stars and prayed about as fast as her mind could carry, skipping some parts of no particular relevance.

As it happened, there was a new arrival who took Santhil up to the challenge. Brandishing a sword in each hand, he quickly showed off some of his skills, swinging sword from one hand to the other much in the way you'd expect experienced jugglers not to get away with unharmed. The problem was that he actually pulled it off.

Eep.

In the flash of a moment, a large, dark, scaly monster leapt onto the sword-wielding maniac; panicky screams hung idly in the air while sharp teeth and talons tore him to bloody shreds. A roar came from behind Santhil, and another creature barely missed her as it charged past her and trampled a hapless soldier underfoot.

Santhil blinked in surprise. That sure was a turn of events. And it put beyond all doubt that there was someone up there, in the heavens, who took kindly to her. That thought lingered until she was bashed in the back and roughly thrown into the snow.

Confused, she turned on her back and stared into lidless lizard eyes. A shred of flesh was still hanging from its teeth, a scent of blood pervading its terrible breath while it sniffed her roughly. Santhil kept very, very still, her eyes wide open in abject fright.

The wet, scaly nose rolled up over her blood-covered armour, razorsharp teeth showing when it passed her bossom. It growled threateningly and sniffed her throat and face. Santhil closed her eyes again, preparing for the worst. And then, it stopped.

“Ho there, boy. Have you found something?” The voice of an elf used to handling beasts. Santhil carefully opened one eye, not sure whether moving was a good idea, and looked at what had happened. The dinosaur sitting over her was staring intently at the tiara set in her hair, its head cocked in fascination.

From the snowy mist, an armoured elf approached, looking at what his charge had found. There was definite surprise in his voice. “Drachau?”

“Help,” Santhil yipped inaudibly.

“We have a survivor here! Drachau, are you alright?”

“No,” she replied tremblingly, pointing carefully at the Cold One staring motionlessly.

“Oh, don't worry about him; he's all bloodlust and killy talons until he sets his eyes on something shiny. You're lucky you're wearing your tiara.”

“Still, would it be, ah, much trouble? Please?”

“No-no, I'll take care of it. Come on, big guy, let's find something to eat.” With a few careful prods, the handler nudged the Cold One away to a barely living soldier trying to crawl away from the teethy maws homing in on him.

“Thank you,” Santhil offered with a relieved but wary voice while muffled screams came from her right. A big tail wagged vigorously over her.

“It's nothing. Drachau, this is a bit of a surprise: we thought you were a goner.”

Santhil nodded faintly, and held her hand on the amulet Lahnia gave her a long time ago, brandishing Khaine's symbol. “Me too,” she wheezed. “What are these creatures doing here?”

“W—... What do you mean? These are reinforcements; didn't you get the memo?”

“M-memo?” She shook her head confusedly. No more memos at the moment. “I'd like to go home, now.”

“Of course. Let me help you up.”

°°°

Finally home. Or the dwarven, fortified complex that had come to be the home away from home. Messengers were busily going about their business, informing their returning commanders of news while they were out. One of them scanned the returners vigorously, probably looking for Santhil. She wasn't in the mood to volunteer for the barrage of information, so she kept fairly still on the new horse.

Ultimately, the outcome of the battle had been victory. Santhil wasn't entirely sure what had happened, and she hadn't the focus to piece together the snips and bits of information her commanders had shared with her on the way back. Something about a sweeping maneouver or denied flank or somesuch. She didn't care much one way or the other; she just wanted peace, quiet, and a hot bath.

“Drachau!” The messenger had spotted her. Ah well, she might as well face the music with dignity. She pretended to have only just spotted him and beamed him a polite smile while he hastily accosted her. “Drachau, I was asked to deliver this message the instant you returned.”

Santhil nodded at him, too tired to do much else at the moment. “Alright, deliver the message.” She would've thought of something witty if she wasn't just looking forward to falling asleep.

“There was an incident while you were gone, Drachau. You should come to Mistress Cadsane's quarters immediately.”

“Is it urgen—” Santhil stopped herself mid-phrase. “What kind of incident?”

“I'm not at liberty to say, my lady. But I can assure you it demands your attention.”

“Alright, ah...” Her first stop would have been the infirmary, to stitch her arm back up, but it looked like today had something else in store for her. “Could you have a doctor meet me there? I need some stitching.”

“A doctor is already there, Drachau.”

Santhil stared at the messenger while it sank in. Immediately, she dismounted and followed the messenger's hasty pace.

What in the blazes was going on here?

°°°

The messenger respectfully stayed outside after opening the door for Santhil. She nodded briefly in recognition and entered hurriedly.

A doctor was cleaning his equipment in a small metal bowl. Jesamine lied motionlessly in bed, even paler than usual. Next to her, Lahnia sat on the bed, looking up sharply when Santhil entered, and greeting her with a warm smile. “Santhil, you're back.”

Santhil threw Lahnia a brief look, but decided not to discuss the battle at face value; she didn't need to know how close she got to being fertiliser. Instead, she approached, gave her a brief ksis on the forehead, and nodded once to Jesamine. “What happened?”

“They attacked her right outside the library. We... we heard a fight and screams, and when I got out, I found her lying there with a sword through her back. They must've gotten her by surprise, but she still managed to torch one.”

“They?” Santhil asked with a frown and set her hands on her knees, looking at Jesamine. But she forewent waiting for an answer. “How is she?”

“She's delicate,” the doctor answered tactfully. “The blade was poisoned professionally, but I've injected antitoxins that should help battle the fever.”

“But... she'll be alright?”

The doctor pressed his lips. She could be alright. “It could easily have been worse. The blade only narrowly missed her liver.” He nodded once to his patient. “She's asleep now; I gave her something for the pain.”

Santhil nodded; she caught what he meant to say. “Thank you, doctor.”

“I'll be around,” he said while taking his bag to hand and quietly leaving the bedchamber. Santhil pulled a chair to the bed and sat down, resting her muscles. “How long have you been here, Lana?”

“An hour or so,” Lahnia replied, half a smile on her lips. With her, the initial shock of the assault had subsided, and a comforting calm washed from her. “How was the— Oh my god, Ari, you're bleeding.”

“Oh, right, ah...” Santhil closed her eyes when recalling the doctor just leaving. Darn. “Ah, it's not much, I'll ask Mina to stitch me up again. Don't worry, most of this blood isn't mine.”

“I bet you're looking forward to a hot bath.”

“A hot bath, a hot meal, a hot bed... a hot doctor.”

Lahnia giggled at that, then threw her sister a teasing look. “Well, the doctor's gone. Will you settle for a hot nurse?”

“What, are you going to squeeze Mina in a nurse uniform?”

“Ari!” Lahnia slapped the back of her hand against Santhil's arm, and instantly pulled it back to her lips. “Oh, sorry, are you alright?”

“No problem, that one's more or less okay.”

“Let's get you that hot tub.”

“Right, I just post guards here and I'll be there in a minute.”

°°°

Santhil held her breath, clearing her throat suppressedly when she felt the hot spunge wash over her wounds. There was still something of a smile on her lips, though, and not solely because she finally got her warm bath to soak her muscles. No, she was thoroughly amused. “I can't believe you actually dug up a nurse outfit.” And a none-too-modest one, at that.

Lahnia giggled and squeezed the water out of the spunge before soaking it again. “I know this harem girl and she gave me a loaner.”

“You know this harem girl.”

“Coincidentally, yes. Friend of a friend. It's not what you think.”

“Don't worry, I'm not thinking much at all at the moment.”

“It has that kind of effect on people.” Lahnia laughed briefly and splashed some water on Santhil. “Glad you like it.”

“That's not what I—” Santhil sighed with a smile and shook her head. “Alright, you look... attractive, now can you please sow me up?”

“Oh no, I'm not going to poke needles into your skin. I'm not that kind of nurse. I'm the kind that takes pulse and blood pressure.”

“You mean raise pulse and blood pressure.”

A knock on the door. Lahnia instantly called out to enter; she was obviously expecting this. “Your nurse is here.”

Santhil turned to look at her other sister, Yalasmina, entering with a bag of equipment to tend wounds. They smiled at eachother, both happy to see eachother, though Santhil soon started to laugh intently. “I don't believe my eyes. Lahnia actually managed to pull it off. I can't believe she got you into that outfit.”

“I can't believe she got herself into that outfit,” Lahnia added. “It's a little tight around the chest.”

“Lahnia assured me you made a personal request,” Yalasmina said, her voice dripping with sarcasm.

“Oh, did she now?” Santhil rolled her eyes to Lahnia, who desperately pressed her lips to keep from snorting into a laugh. “I wonder where she got that from.”

“Regardless, she blackmailed me with an endless barrage of pleas,” Yalasmina sighed. “Lord knows I'd do anything to end that.”

“Hey, don't start,” Lahnia retorted. “It's for Santhil, not for me, so be nice.”

“Ah, Mina,” Santhil squeezed in, “would you believe me if I said I had nothing to do with this?”

“Knowing Lahnia? Yes.”

“Oh, come on, stop being grumpy!” Lahnia called out with half a smile. “Where's your sense of humour?”

“Out in recycling, together with my dignity. Alright, enough chatter,” Yalasmina fell back into her usual straightforward personality. “Where does it hurt?”

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SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Wed Oct 17, 2007 8:18 pm
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Hmm. A knife in the back for Jess? I'll be interested to see who stuck it there. :P

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Wed Oct 17, 2007 8:48 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
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You read all that, and typed your response, in half an hour? My god, man, how fast do you read? I spent two days typing that! :shock:

I believe you deserve a little extra for that. If anyone deserves the Lightning reader award...

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Fri Oct 19, 2007 10:57 am
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It's genetic. xD

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Fri Oct 19, 2007 5:46 pm
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Climbing hooks? Check. Tool belt? Check. Day's ration? Check. Truckload of gear that may or may not ever serve some purpose but sure weighed a ton? Check. Boy, did that check.

In truth, Santhil had probably better be listening to the scout leader of her group while he explained—or recapitulated—the particulars of spelunking. Santhil had done her share of mountaineering; she didn't expect spelunking to be much of a different experience. And if he was going to yap about the mission —and yap he did— well, she kind of assigned the mission, so that wouldn't be an issue, either.

Several groups were gathered on the main square of the underground dwarven settlement, or what used to be a dwarven settlement. For several weeks, their own forces had taken up lodging, following in the wake of what was a very mysterious abandoning by the original residents. The main question was now considered as good as solved: something or someone was attacking residents from the uncharted, cavernous depths pervading the understructure, and they did so in the name of the Chaotic deity Slaanesh.

But all the same, many questions remained unanswered. Why did these people attack residents? Why hadn't the dwarfs sought and destroyed them? How did they manage to infiltrate the expedition and leave again with the only hint of their presence the wanton slaughter left in their wake? Why did they strike at all things Khaine first and now suddenly at Mistress Jesamine Cadsane who, beyond the obvious, had no explicit connection to Khaine?

“Meow?”

Santhil frowned and looked down to her feet. A young kitten sat near her, eyes settled on hers. “Not now,” she told it. It wouldn’t listen. Cats were inconsiderate like that.

Santhil did understand why it was sitting next to her and not Lahnia. Lahnia kept the cat treats in a cupboard well out of reach of her cat. The cat knew where they were, Santhil knew where they were and, of course, Lahnia knew where they were, but asking Santhil carried one big advantage still.

She gave up sooner.

“Moow...”

“No. I’m not going to feed you.”

“Mew.” It was ready to lead her to the cupboard at the first sign of her moving.

“You’re Lahnia’s cat. Go pester her if you’re hungry.”

“Mow?”

“You heard me.” She looked ahead of her again. Her heart tore a very little.

“Drachau Santhil Arhakuyl.”

Santhil’s eyes opened wide in surprise, and she aimed them back down to the cat. It stared innocently, silently back at her. Did it just... No. No, impossible. Not only did cats, as a rule, not speak Drukh-Eltharin, it would not have deigned to name her by proper title.

Which brought her to the obvious question: who, then? As far as Santhil knew, she was indistinguishable from any other in her group, dressed and outfitted as anonymously as any other soldier. Standing at the back of the group, she gave the other soldiers a quick glance. Nobody had addressed her.

“Oh, gods, not again,” Santhil muttered annoyedly when the final option suddenly flashed into her mind. These jokers were getting on her nerves. Then again, she reminded herself, these jokers were transdimensional deities who got petty over the destruction of civilisations, so perhaps a modicum of protocol was required. She steeled herself mentally, then offered a polite “Can I help you?” to her side, brandishing a smile faker than her king in a Santa suit.

A woman stared nonplussed at her, not sure what to think or do. Santhil shared her inaction and mute surprise, though the smile remained as chiseled on her face.

“Is this a bad time?” the woman dared.

“Ah, no,” Santhil suddenly—but far too late—corrected herself. “No, I just...” She blinked momentarily. Who, how, and only then why.

“It is the grey in your hair, Drachau,” the woman chuckled amusedly when met with mute surprise. "It is very recognisable."

Of course, the grey. Ever the grey. “Ah, yes,” she said with a pause, buying herself some time while looking at the woman standing next to her. She was at a loss. “Can I help you?” she repeated more sincerely.

“You requested an escort with haste, the priestess told me?” she gently attempted to refresh Santhil's memories.

Right! Santhil nodded unnoticeably and wet her lips when the memory hit her. Right, she did ask for an escort but, and she voiced her apprehension: “Some nuance may have been lost in translation. I requested an escort, but what I meant was a bodyguard.”

The witch stared back at her in confusion.

“Nice outfit.”

“Oh,” she suddenly caught on. “It's not what you're thinking, Drachau. This is the standard—“

“Meow.”

“Go. Away.” Santhil tried to mouth as clearly as she could. It insisted on ignoring her protests.

“Is that... your cat?”

“No, it is my sister’s, and it should keep her company instead of begging for me to fetch it cat treats.”

“I don’t think it understands what you’re saying.”

The witch made a good point. Santhil stared at the cat eyes a while longer, then aimed them back at her bodyguard. She could not have been making a very coherent first impression. Or stable, for that matter.

“Listen, ah, why don’t you slip into something more practical?” Santhil subtly patted her own protectively padded clothes. "It's going to be a little rough, and you'll be more comfortable." And less attention-centric. "Go see the outfitter," she pointed her in the right direction. "She'll give you everything you need. Meet me back here."

The woman nodded gently. “I’ll do that.” She took two steps back, keeping her eyes on Santhil a while longer, before turning and heading for the outfitter.

“You know what?” Santhil told the cat at her feet. “I think you’re a natural black. You just dye your fur.”

°°°

“I don't have a problem with her going,” Lahnia differed. “It's just that she was so hung up on going. That surprises me.”

“It's personal to Santhil,” Yalasmina explained. “She did not take immediate action against these murders and, now that Jesamine was a target, she feels responsible. Which she is, in a sense.”

“Wait-wait-wait. Did you just say Santhil's responsible for the murder attempt?” A hint of indignance settled on Lahnia's face as if carved in stone. “If she did divert all resources to weeding out this quote-unquote infestation, we wouldn't be here. We'd be honoured guests of a Sarthailor dungeon party.” One of her eyes twitched. Now there was an image.

“Santhil made the call,” Yalasmina countered. “That makes her responsible for the outcome. She knew this was a risk.”

“How could she possibly—”

“I am not claiming she made a bad call. I believe she made the right choice. But she does carry, at least partly, responsibility for what happened.”

“Full responsibility lies with the murderers. Claiming anything else is laying blame with police detectives for not catching a criminal fast enough to prevent a murder.”

“And suppose these detectives were diverting their efforts to finding some kidnapped VIP, and because of that, someone murders Jesamine. Tell me again that there is not at least some responsibility there.”

“That's not the same thing.”

“It very much is. You just don’t like it to be.”

A silence fell. Lahnia pressed her lips and sighed through her nose. This was something they were never going to agree on. Yalasmina was up and prim on such concepts as law, tradition, duty, responsibility. Lahnia was more of an individualist, close to an anarchist; being able to bend the laws of physics gave unique perspectives into the ‘order’ people —lesser mortals— held dear.

“I hope she buries her blade in their guts,” she finally said.

“On that, we agree.”

°°°

Santhil looked over her shoulder as much as backpackus garguantis allowed and observed her bodyguard's progress in the marching line. Calling it 'keeping up' was stretching the truth a little. “How are you holding up?”

Zyln, as the witch tasked with her safety was called, looked up sharply, probably not used to being asked an empathic, if generic, question. She smiled graciously. “This backpack is weighing me down.”

“I'm sure it does,” Santhil replied thoughtfully. Witches weren't top-class in the encumbrance department; as far as Santhil knew, anything as heavy as a full set of clothes could slow them down, and the backpacks were, oh, about fifty pounds each. Nothing unusual for army people, but notably uncomfortable for civilians. To the degree that a witch could be called civilian. “Will you be alright?”

She nodded quietly. She'd tough it out. “How about you?”

“Me? Oh, I had this sarge at boot camp,” and Santhil smiled while rejoining the marching line. “He liked sending us all into the jungle with a pack full of rocks on our backs, slugging kneedeep through the swampy bogs in full armour. This pack sure brings back memories.” She breathed deeply through her nose, and added with a hint of sarcasm: “Fond, fond memories.”

“He sounds like a real charmer.”

“Yeah, we all pretty much hated his guts out. Come to think of it, I still do.”

Zyln nodded. “Are we ever going to need all of this stuff?”

“When the time comes you need some of it, you'll be glad you dragged it along all this time.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

“...Really.”

“No.”

°°°

“If you can just sign here, we can both go about our business again.” The man was annoyed to be busy and very busy being annoyed, so he waived proper protocol for a moment.

Lahnia pouted her lips gently at the rough brush. Yalasmina was not amused at the tone, herself, and she shook her head rigorously. “I will not impersonate the drachau. If you must have her signature, then you must wait for her to return. She is going about business at this time,” she stressed meaningfully.

“Look, lady, I've stuff to deliver. Any Arhakuyl will do. Like my boss is gonna check the name beyond Arha-something.”

“I would like a word with this boss of yours over your overt disrespect,” Yalasmina threatened. “You will address us by proper name and title.”

“Mina,” Lahnia inadvertedly snapped any form of authority her sister could summon, “Ari did order wine. Let's just sign for it and get this guy out of our sight. It's win-win.”

“We are not Santhil, hence we can not sign for her. It's not exactly rocket science, Lahnia.”

“Oh, shush! You always have to make an issue out of everything. Santhil's already on the verge of flipping out under work pressure. Lord knows how long she will be gone, and here we are, fiddling our thumbs and stacking more work on her desk? No, thank you, I choose sane Santhil.”

Yalasmina rose her hands with an annoyed sigh. She disagreed on principle, but if Lahnia wished to take responsibility, then that was her decision to make. “You're a grown woman.”

Lahnia halted right before signing the document the delivery man was holding impatiently—he seemed prepared to have any random passerby sign. “Santhil talked to you.”

“Santhil talked to me,” Yalasmina admitted. “Now, if you could just do your irresponsible thing?”

“Irrespon— It's a delivery! It won't go away if we don't sign.” Lahnia smiled in disbelief and signed elegantly. “There you go.”

“Thank you!” The man almost dropped to his knees in gratitude before speeding off on his other duties. “You're an angel!”

“My irresponsible thing,” Lahnia repeated. “Tsk tsk, Mina, you need to lighten up.” But she gave her sister a peck on the cheek anyway. “Come on, let's see how we can help Santhil while she's out.”

“Oh, it's we now?”

“Yes, because you wouldn't trust me enough to leave me out of your sight. Coming?”

°°°

“That is... quite high.” While stating the obvious, Zyln did manage to capture what others were thinking. Her eyes followed all the way up to their intended destination. The narrow path winded perilously along the edge of the cavern, occassional outcrops of handhold spread teasingly far from each other. Bits of rubble and loose pebbles lied scattered across the path.

“Oh, but heights are never a problem; it's depth that causes casualties,” the scout leader chuckled amusedly.

“It is also quite deep,” Santhil added while staring wide-eyedly over the end of comfortable footing and gazing directly into a black, aggressively gaping maw of impending doom. An icy cold, haunting draft howled silently from the hazy depths, a timeless, lonely lament fading before it reached the ears. This was what looking down from a mountain peak was like, in the pit of night.

“You're not afraid of heights, are you?” the scout grinned when observing Santhil's stare.

“I'm afraid of this height,” she replied, still impressed with how deep a hole could actually be.

“Buddy system,” he finally ordered. “Tag up with someone, hook up to each other's belts, and follow me. It looks like an easy climb, but let's be careful anyway: we're not in a rush.”

Leather and metal slid and clicked while people hooked up to partners, colleagues and strangers. When Santhil noticed her bodyguard seemed less than adamant to climb, she wordlessly offered the hook from her girdle. It was gratefully accepted.

“Are you an experienced explorer?” Zyln asked, probably not entirely out of casual interest.

“I’m not a professional, but I have some ex-boyfriend-related moutaineering experience. Enough to tell casual climbs from dangerous ones, and this one's casual,” she assured the nervous witch.

“Boyfriend?”

“Ex-boyfriend.”

“What happened?”

Santhil wasn't used to witches getting personal, and she honestly had no liking to it one single bit. And even if she did, she would not mention the reason of the break-up. While not always the sharpest tool on tact, even Santhil knew that mentioning fatal mountaineering accidents now was a no-no. “His sister was the antichrist.”

Santhil smiled gently and took hold of a sufficient outcrop, ready to lift herself up. But she held and observed Zyln a while longer. “You’re afraid of heights.”

“Is there a problem?” the scout of the group asked when checking on his charges.

“She’s, ah, not used to climbing like this,” Santhil parried the attention. “You go on ahead. I’ve got this.”

He nodded briefly. “Are you sure?”

“We’ll be fine.”

“Alright. See you on the other side.”

°°°

“What are we doing?” Yalasmina's question was of a more rethorical nature; her disapproving tone carried that across very nicely. “Moreover, why are we doing it in Santhil's office?”

“Curious wording of that question aside, I,” Lahnia raised while going through the drawers of Santhil's desk, “am looking for Santhil's schedule, while you are being grouchy. Do me a favour and look in her cupboard?”

“And how do we know that Santhil hasn't her schedule on her?”

“She doesn't if we find it in her office. Check the cupboard?”

Yalasmina pressed her lips and sighed through her nose. “Look, I appreciate you're trying to help her, and I'm confident Santhil would be touched, but we really shouldn't be—”

“I'll tell her you protested valiantly but futilely. Cupboard?”

“Alright, alright, I'll play your game. And now what do you say to me?”

“Hey, that's funny.”

Yalasmina frowned at what could have been the answer she expected the least—it wasn't even a snazzy retort—but quickly realised that her sister had done a stellar job of ignoring her. Which, in hindsight, was what she should have been expecting most. “What is?”

“I found some drawings in her drawer. I guess that's where you put drawings, eh? In the drawer.”

“Wonderful pun, honey, but please focus on the schedule. I'm certain Santhil would appreciate if you were selective in your search—”

“It looks like me. I had no idea she drew me.”

Yalasmina sighed, but still something of a smile rolled onto her lips. Often, she wondered how Santhil found the patience to deal with Lahnia for more than an hour. But she admitted the sorceress had something endearing. “Lahnia, the schedule?”

“Hm? Schedule? Oh, oh, right, right here. Or at least I think so.”

“Then check whether it's her schedule. It either is or it isn't.”

“Yes, thank you,” Lahnia snipped. “Please refrain from insulting my intelligence. It's not polite.” She muttered a vague curse under her breath, and flipped through the pages. “It looks like it. I see a lot of times, dates, and different handwritings. Funny how different people write in a personal schedule.”

“When you're a leader, Lahnia, little is personal anymore. Come, we have what you were looking for. We should limit our desecration of her privacy.”

“Coming from the woman who just said she doesn't have privacy.”

“Don't act smart; you know what I meant.”

“Then say what you mean,” Lahnia teased and poked her tongue at her sister while walking out. “Come on.”

°°°

Santhil wet her lips while pulling herself up on the tiny outcrop that was supposed to hold her entire weight. She tried not to think too much about how easy it would be to slip and drop down, to have to hastily claw about in desperate hopes of finding something, anything, that could save her from a killing plunge.

She cursed breathlessly. She thought about it.

“How are you holding up?” she asked Zyln, focusing on someone else’s misery to forget her own. She caught the witch staring down for the longest time. “Don't look for too long,” she added. “You'll get dizzy.”

Zyln took a deep breath and pressed herself closer to the mountain wall. She was not comfortable. Nobody would be. “Thank you,” she replied evasively, then aimed her eyes up again and followed in Santhil's steps.

The group shuffling along the cavern wall was not exactly an epitome of elegance; it was like a giant caterpillar, short only a few legs, that attempted to climb up without well knowing which way to go in order to advance. All it knew was it had to follow the trail, and it did so with varying degrees of confidence.

Zyln kept close to Santhil. She imagined the witch would be terrified right now, so she understood. It showed that, underneath the willfulness and confidence of faith, they really were just people like herself.

Well, okay, not really people like herself, but to some degree people nonetheless.

“We're almost there,” Santhil encouraged her companion as much as herself. “Just a few more, ah...” No, wait, they actually were not almost there. “Just a little further.”

“Do you hear that?” Zyln suddenly asked, her eyes alarmedly shooting about.

“That's just the wind,” Santhil replied while pulling herself up with a grunt.

“No, it isn't,” Zyln argued, and held still, staring at her charge.

Santhil didn't really like the teensy extra responsibility slapped onto her shoulders with that single stare, but she stopped and listened anyway. No, she didn't really hear anything. Or wait, perhaps she did; a deep, distant... rumbling noise? “I believe I do, yes.”

“And... is that natural?”

“Sure,” Santhil lied. “That's just ol' man mountain showing us who's boss.” She smiled encouragingly, then cast an annoyed gaze upwards. The lack of progress and the adversity of the steep climb were getting to her.

A pebble quietly ticked against Santhil’s jacket while it rolled off the wall, a few of its siblings in close pursuit. Her eyes followed them with determination.

“Everything alright?” Zyln asked when she stopped against Santhil.

“No. Ol' man mountain here is losing weight.”

“And that's bad.” Add question mark.

“He didn't get this big by losing weight.”

A deep, deafening rumble rose from the cavernous depths, a growling lament of a waking mountain god. The massive rock trembled, an incredible force rippling underneath the scalers’ hands and feet.

“Earthquake!” the leader yelled. “Hold on tight!”

The rumble grew heavier, the shaking became more intense. New four-letter words unknown to civilisation sped through Santhil's mind while she clamped herself against the rock as much as the shaking allowed.

“Go back!” the scout shouted at Santhil and Zyln. “The rock is coming loose; go back!”

“You heard the man,” Santhil raised alarmedly. “Move!”

A scream of surprise pierced the deafening thunder. Santhil looked to her side and saw Zyln lose her grip on the rumbling rock. Without thought, she clasped her hand around Zyln’s wrist and grunted painfully when she felt over a hundred pounds of bone, flesh, and gear hang from her shoulder. Instantly, a cold, sweaty palm panickily gripped her hand.

Sharp, protruding rocks jabbed, cut and kicked at Santhil, dragging her down like a majestic wave of water. Her right hand slipped from the only handhold she had left. Her stomach rose and churned when gravity took a hold of her and snatched her down. She tried desperately to hold on to an outcrop—a rock, a pebble, anything!—feeling her limbs strain and hurt while they worked to slow her descent over the steep slope. A sudden slam in the back thrust out any air still left in her lungs and set her rolling further down, kicking her on and off the slope. And then, the chasm steepened even more.

A chilling, breathless scream briefly pierced the settling rumble.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Thu Sep 23, 2010 5:56 pm
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“What was that?” Yalasmina looked about herself while the earthquake settled. Lahnia was still more or less under her in the doorway, after being snatched along roughly as soon as the shaking begun. “These mountains are not volcanoes.”

“Not physical ones, anyway,” Lahnia commented. She had a knowing, almost accepting ‘told you so’-look on her passive face.

“You know something I don’t,” Yalasmina inferred correctly.

“I told my coven not to do our magical gettogether because I've been getting some very strange magic surges around here and—hey, what a surprise—nobody listened.”

“The coven caused an earthquake.” That was more of a question she didn't really expect answered. “There doesn't seem to be any damage. It might have been harmless.”

“Or we might be seeing sprites for weeks.”

“What?”

“Nothing. I just hope Santhil's alright.”

“I'm sure she is,” Yalasmina assured her. “You know Santhil. She always stays on top of everything.”

“I guess. Oh, and, ah, thanks for the, ah...” Lahnia pointed up at the doorway.

Yalasmina smiled wordlessly and helped her on her feet again. “Let's get to your courageous schedule rescue attempt.”

°°°

Santhil sniffed quietly. It was dark in here, and kind of cold. She didn't care. She was alone.

Footsteps approached in the grassy field surrounding the old tree she hid under. She already knew who it was: her grandfather, the only person to really know her hideout.

A nearly elderly elf hunched next to the exit and only entrance of the hole in the dirt of the oak's roots. He cocked his head and threw a gently smile into the hidden cave. “Your mother is looking for you.”

Santhil kept quiet and stared at the dirt. She didn't feel like talking. Or doing anything else, for that matter. She just wanted to be left alone. But for her grandfather, she was willing to make an exception. She always did. “They pulled my hair again,” she sniffed sadly. “Called me a freak.”

Her grandfather nodded quietly. This happened. Children could be cruel in their honesty. People feared and despised what they didn't understand, and they didn't understand the colourless stroke through Santhil's hair, or most any female Arhakuyl's. He understood; his daughter had gone through some of the same back when he was a young father, though he had the impression it was... less, back then.

Mostly, Santhil just coped with the pestering and pulling on her hair, but there were days when everything got the better of her, and then she hid down there.

“Come on, soldier,” he offered. “Come sit in the light with me.”

She didn't really feel like coming out of that hole, ever, but she ultimately, slowly, crawled out and sat next to her grandfather. “Everybody hates me.”

“They're afraid of you,” he corrected her gently. “People are afraid because you, as an Arhakuyl, look a little different, and they just can't get their minds around that.”

“I don't like being an Arhakuyl. Why can't I be like everyone else?”

There was no good answer to that, at least not to a child. He knew that. “You know, your mother went through much the same back when she was a little girl. And you know what a strong, beautiful woman she is.”

“...Am I strong?”

“You take it better than she did. Your mother even cut off her hair once. Needless to say, it wasn't her best haircut.”

Santhil giggled and stared at the setting sun. She felt a bit better knowing she wasn't the only one to ever go through this.

“Be strong, soldier. It'll get better, and everyone will start to like you.”

“Really?”

“Mark my words, Santhil. Every boy, every girl bullying you right now, will be green with envy later on. Happens unfailingly with every Arhakuyl I've ever seen grow up. But come, it's getting cold out here, we should go to your parents.”

Santhil smiled until suddenly a sting of pain and cold rippled through her body. She groaned for a moment, trying to shake it off. Everything turned dark around her, the light and warmth torn away.

°°°

Darkness. Heavy clouds of gravel dust ristled quietly over the rocks and boulders littering the lowest bedrock. Uneven crags rose hostilely from the greyish fog, piercing the dark, empty air with dull tips and pikes. An eerie silence was occasionally broken by a pebble dropping from the endless, steep cliff that bordered it, thrill-riding down the express way to oblivion.

At the very bottom of the pit, in the small hills and irregularities of collapsed material brought down by the earthquake, a leg hung from a shallow pit filled to its rim with rubble.

Everything ached; her arms, her legs, her head, her back, even her eyebrows and ears. She remembered the fall. She remembered hitting the cliff time and again. She remembered falling to her death. She didn't expect the afterlife to feel like you were run over —and then backed over— by a chariot rally.

Slowly, Santhil opened her eyes and noticed someone near her, busy doing... something. She felt hands on her body, pressure on her chest. Someone was touching her. She blinked wearily, clearing her eyes and trying to get a hold of her surroundings. Was that Zyln sitting over to her? Yes... yes, it had to be. Suddenly, Zyln took a hold of Santhil's forehead and moved her lips to hers.

Santhil opened her eyes widely in surprise, instinctively moving her arms and legs what little she still could muster.

Zyln held a mere inch above her, looking down into the open eyes staring back at hers. “I... thought you were unconscious.”

“I bet you did,” Santhil said with raised eyebrows, otherwise keeping very, very still.

Zyln pulled back and sat upright, some confusion settled on her face. “You weren’t moving.”

In the meantime, Santhil pulled herself onto her elbows and looked herself over for obvious injuries. Nothing felt broken... okay, everything felt broken, but nothing felt broken. “Are you al—?” She coughed suddenly, and stared nonplussed at the little cloud of dust leaving her lips. “Are you alright?”

“I believe so. I can stand, I can walk.” Santhil was going to need a little bit more time than she did. “I've tried calling out, but all I hear is my own voice coming back. They probably moved on, thinking us dead.”

Santhil stared up at the steep slope, or cliff, they fell from, and followed it up... and up... and up. Some tiny pebbles rolled from her hair. “Can you blame them?”

“As much as I try to: no.”

°°°

“I'm late, I'm late,” Lahnia pressured herself while checking Santhil's schedule. “I'm not going to make the five o'clock.”

“Calm down,” Yalasmina urged her. “You're not going to make next morning if you have a heart attack.”

“Right, right, right, ah, delegate. Mina, you take the five o'clock, I'll take the six o'clock.”

“Look, Lahnia, I've been trying to help you, and it's been a... learning experience, but I have duties of my own. I must attend to my five o'clock.”

Lahnia opened her lips silently in indignant protest, staring at her sister for the longest time. “Does everybody have a five o'clock? But you can't go, I can't do this on my own. I mean, look at this!” Instantly, she held up the schedule, showing an impressive amount of organised scribbling spanning across the open pages. “This isn't a schedule. This is a time-space experiment.”

“Ari manages...”

“Ari doesn't manage. Have you seen the bags under her eyes? I want to keep her sane, and I'm going to need your help to do it.”

“Lahnia, I was against the idea in the first place, and I've indulged you long enough. I must attend to my duties, and I suggest you attend to yours. Promise me you will put that schedule back in her drawer and mind your business.”

“Mina,” Lahnia whined uneasily. “Come on. Why must you be the wrench in my machine?”

“This is not the way. If you wish to help Santhil, then... do your work. Find out what that cave symbol was. Figure out where the ley lines lie. Find out what that earthquake was about. But do not trespass her schedule any further. You may end up doing more harm than good.”

Lahnia pressed her lips while her sister walked off. She stared at the open schedule a while longer, then snapped it shut with a sigh. Fine. She wasn't happy about it, but fine.

°°°

Santhil grunted while she pulled herself onto the umpteenth ledge. This was the downside to falling down a bottomless pit of doom: once you were convinced that there was indeed a bottom, you had to climb up every inch that you fell. Santhil recalled falling quite a few inches, and she was reminded of it with every vertical step.

Scaling the cliff they fell from had proven to be outright impossible, leaving Zyln and Santhil with their only other option: wandering through the caves and hoping to find a way up again. Every step up was a step closer to returning home.

Time had passed, but how much? Time passed very strangely without the sun tracking across the sky; the only constant reminder of time was an appetite nagging distantly in the recesses of her mind.

Her fingers clawed on any nearby grip, probing the surface for outcrops sturdy enough to support her full weight. And then, she pulled again, forcing the utmost from her muscles while impliable rock chafed past her body. Gravity was not of a forgiving nature: defying it required constant strength, strength that was starting to fade.

“Drachau?”

Santhil forewent on answering, focusing instead on getting on that blasted ledge. With a final effort, she dragged her chest onto the nearest flat surface and felt her muscles tremble uncomfortably in her body. She had no more footing; the rest would come from her arms.

“Lady Arhakuyl?” Contrary to the usually articulate but cold voice of Khaine's adepts, Zyln's carried more care, and her every move suggested a nigh on reverence for Santhil. But Santhil was becoming used to being treated from a safe distance, given her station. “Do you need to rest?”

“I'm fine,” Santhil groaned effortfully while she pulled herself onto the ledge she had been struggling with. She clambered to her knees and looked up with deep breaths. Was it a bird? Was it a plane? No, it was a cliff several times the height of either of them, looming over her like a predator leaping for its prey, frozen in a timeless state. Santhil's eyes followed it up... and up... and up. She didn't notice she had toppled back until she hit the floor unelegantly.

With an exhausted grunt of her own, Zyln pulled herself up and crawled the few steps to Santhil, cocking her head over her superior's. “Are... you alright?”

“Rest,” Santhil wheezed, and she swallowed once. “Rest works for me.”

Few words were exchanged. Maibd weren't known for their pronounced social skills. But that was alright; Santhil couldn't spare much energy for small talk.

An icy draft pulled through the dark caves, chilling the pearls of sweat that rolled from foreheads and arms. It usually wouldn't be so bad, but being entirely depleted of any worthwhile energy made every chill one too many. She reached for her pocket watch. Seven hours.

“Drachau, may I ask you something?”

“Santhil,” she offered in return, and clicked the protective lid back on.

“I am... not at ease calling you by your first name. May I continue to call you Drachau?”

Santhil smiled gently and nodded as much as lying exhausted on the floor allowed her. “Of course. Whatever works for you.”

“I just wanted to say... Rather, I wished to ask...” She sighed briefly. “My apologies, I am unsure of how to ask without offending you.”

“I have a sister with the self-imposed duty of understanding the world, so I'm not a stranger to awkward questions,” Santhil chuckled amusedly. “Besides, I'm the reason you're in this mess in the first place.”

“If I had not fallen, neither would you have.”

“And if I had not insisted on going, you would not have volunteered.”

Zyln kept silent for a while. Santhil wasn't sure whether she was considering it, or simply unwilling to go in against someone a single step away from the king. Ultimately, it mattered little, and she posed what question she had: “Drachau, why are you here?”

Santhil stopped herself short of speed-answering. She fell. But then, she wasn't entirely sure what it was that Zyln meant. “Is that an existential or a topological question?”

“At these colonies.”

Santhil took a deep breath, going back to the deepest stashes of her memory. It wasn't all that long ago, but the barrage of recent events had done their part in suppressing her long-term memory. “There was an opening, my family wanted it, they came out on top.” The short version.

“But why you?”

“If I'm destined to continue the Arhakuyl lineage, I suppose I might as well do it off-shore. Keeps inbreeding to a minimum. It's so hard to find decent father material these days.”

Zyln blinked briefly, surprised by the answer. There was a silence to match.

“That was a joke.” In a sense.

“Oh. Oh, right, I see. My apologies.”

“But to answer your question: I'm probably the only one in the family with a decent military training. Only one alive, that is.”

“Your family does not have a strong military tradition?”

“The only strong military tradition my family carries, is to set out on an endeavour and, at the first hint of danger, get yourself cruelly eviscerated. Most of my relatives believe it's not all it's hyped up to be and, truthfully, I'm becoming sympathetic to their perspective.”

“Yet you've fought many battles and still live.” If there was a reason to this line of questioning, Santhil had yet to discover it. She knew witches better than to mistake this for smalltalk.

“Perhaps there is a divine wager on who can keep me alive the longest. Either that or I'm adopted.” Recalling the success of her previous attempt at humour, Santhil rolled her eyes to her companion before adding: “I'm not adopted.”

“Yes. The grey.”

“Right. The grey. Of course.”

°°°

“Decades spent mastering the arcane forces, seeking the Great Void, and all this time, it was right between his two ears!”

Dressed to the nines from the council meeting she had just left (and almost missed), Lahnia was showing a remarkable mix of beauty with a stark, hostile glare. Her curved moon-shaped earrings, though admittedly a bit tacky for a sorceress, made no qualms of swinging gently with every move.

Yalasmina considered urging Lahnia to calm, but stopped herself timely. The air was heavily charged with energy, she could feel, and she saw, for the first time in her life, by what sort of look one learns that Lahnia was capable of killing.

“What happened that upset you such?” Yalasmina took the wiser, more cautious course.

“What hap—?” Lahnia stopped herself short, took a deep, soothing breath, and a colossal effort at calming herself. A lengthy silence fell.

“They sent off half the army,” Lahnia finally said. “Or more than half, I'm not sure.”

“I'm not sure I follow. Who did?”

“Some commander, I don't know his name. The forces in the ports asked for reinforcements, and he sent everything and part of the kitchen sink.”

Yalasmina nodded calmly, but still pressed a little on the issue. “We are not in immediate danger. Why is this a concern to you?”

“Because Santhil needs those troops to siege Avalaer! Aren’t any of you people listening to what she is saying? To the whole point of us being stuck in this mountainous rut? How many times has she explained already?”

“And you told the commander this,” Yalasmina probed. She was sure he'd be disturbed to being told what to do by a sorceress, especially when using those words.

“He didn't listen. No, he had no heed to take from some girl whose obvious saving grace is her looks.” Lahnia grumbled and crossed her arms.

“I see.” Yalasmina bit her lip quietly and nodded just as much. There was little she could do to help Lahnia. “He did say you were pretty.”

“Don't... Look, I know you're trying to cheer me up but, please, you're terrible at it. I just... I wish Santhil were here.”

“Don't worry, she'll show up. And I'm confident she misses you, too.”

Lahnia pressed her lips, slowly blowing some air from her nose. She was calming down a bit. “Thanks, Mina.”

°°°

Narrow veins of gold and ore lined the sides of these tunnels. Excavation must have been in ardent progress when the colony was abandoned. Santhil still wasn't sure why the dwarfs had left, or what could have driven them to. If anyone, she would have expected beardlings to stand their ground to the last minute. These Slaaneshi cultists were her best gamble, but they were essentially still that: a gamble.

A sudden giggle sounded from behind her. Santhil looked over her shoulder with an amused smile of her own. “O-kay, coming from a Maibd, that creeps me out.”

“I... hadn't noticed, but you have gold in your hair.”

“I do— gold? In my hair?”

“It goes nicely with the grey,” Zyln managed to squeeze from her lips before succumbing to a strong but muffled giggle.

“My boyfriends do always call me expensive. I suppose they don't know the half of it, eh?” She chuckled at her own joke and observed the path ahead. Junction. A map would really do miracles in this godforsaken place. “Right, take a guess,” she put forth, glancing at the different options.

“Any way upwards,” Zyln answered, standing next to Santhil and wiping some dust off her sleeves.

Santhil nodded and put her hands in her sides. “Think we'll be paid overtime for this?”

“Doubtful. I volunteered, remember?”

“We need a labour union or something, because these terms plain suck.” Santhil took a deep breath through her nose, then retrieved a piece of lipstick cased in metal from her pocket. Quickly but clearly, she swiped an arrow onto the wall. “Lipstick. And to think I leave home without it sometimes.”

“Drachau, we... haven't been here before, have we?”

Santhil looked over her shoulder, then back at the walls for any previous markings, but found none whatsoever. “No, we haven't. Why?”

“Are those footprints?”

Her eyes followed where Zyln pointed to and, indeed, found footprints in the metallic dust ahead of them. “Yes, they are,” she agreed, and cast a pondering, meaningful gaze at her witch companion. “Recent ones.”

°°°

Dragging themselves on their elbows through a mixture of cheap dirt and ground precious metals, Zyln and Santhil slowly approached a well-lit, wide-open cavern. They could hear people up ahead, and they kept their heads low to stay undetected. Silently, they pulled themselves up to an outcrop, getting a better view.

Ahead of and about seven yards below them, hooded and robed cultists swung around incense burning in metal pots. An unintelligible chant filled their ears, a vague mockery of twisted or forgotten languages. This was no ritual Santhil was familiar with, but she could only assume that it had nothing good in store. It looked Chaotic, it felt Chaotic, and everything that was Chaotic was usually very bad for the rest of the planet.

“Of all the places,” she muttered, gazing into the giant ritual chamber they had stumbled upon.

“This cannot be mere coincidence,” Zyln raised.

“That's not my concern at the moment,” Santhil guided the imminent train of thought off track. She narrowed her eyes to look past the open fires that burned on well-picked spots throughout the ritual chamber. A huge symbol adorned the floor, similar to the one scouts had reported some time ago. And that bothered Santhil to no end. “We need to stop this.”

“There are only two of us,” Zyln clarified. She wasn't protesting to the suggested course of action as much as pointing out that the odds of stopping it with a frontal charge were not in their favour. “Do you... do you wish to wait for reinforcements?” She didn't like that idea, but she recognised Santhil's souvereignty in this.

Santhil sat up against a stalagmite and peered down over her shoulder, judging possible entry points and estimating the number of armed opponents. “By the time we get reinforcements down here, this ritual has gone and passed. Most of them haven't their weapons within reach; we can take down four, maybe five of them before we get into the fight.”

“We have battle drugs,” Zyln offered, and handed a capsule to Santhil.

“You took along battle drugs?”

“You took along lipstick?”

“Touché. So... how do these work? Sniff or drink or inject or...?” Her eyes skipped aside for a moment. “Not that I would, ah... I mean, I’m just guessing.”

“...Take half a dose. This is your first time; you don't want to overdose. It takes a minute to kick in, so you'd be best to sniff now.”

“Alright, thanks.” Santhil opened the capsule and stared at the powder for an instant. It had been a while since she had touched these, and it wasn't exactly routine to her either, but at least she could keep her hands steady. With a quick, deep draught through her nose, she warily sniffed the contents, and instantly felt a massive hit in her brain.

“Drachau?”

Santhil's eyes burned and watered at the same time, and she swallowed briefly before cocking her head to Zyln. Wow, that was... that was a firm dose of wickedly serious stuff. Not for recreational use. “Yep?” she squeezed from her throat.

Zyln wet her lips quickly, staring at Santhil. She was hesitating for some other reason than waiting for the drug hit to pass. “I... I wanted to say...”

Santhil breathed deeply through her nose and dried her eyes roughly with her gloves, then coughed quietly.

“...Good luck.”

“You too,” Santhil croaked, and clambered to her feet.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sun Oct 03, 2010 5:32 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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Blood spurt when the sword cleft into the skin and through half of the body. Muscles tore, nerves ripped, and a throe of pain twitched the body before it went down as lifeless fodder. Roughly, the blade was jerked free, only to tear straight into the next unarmed target with a powerful, ungainly swing. A hand pulled on Santhil's off arm while it went down; instantly and brutally, she kicked the owner down.

After the surprise attack had lost its effect, all finesse had gone right out the window. A few of the cowled figures had gone down in quick, efficient blows, but then, on command, the gang had hurled itself mindlessy against the two intruders while their masters were retrieving weapons. By now, the battle had devolved into a frenzied, wholesome slaughter of unprotected, unarmed cultists behind whom their masters hid.

Santhil was beyond caring about ethics. The battle drugs were doing their thing. Each swing of her blade served only to temper the overpowering bloodlust that pervaded her every muscle, an unstoppable killing urge that would frighten her if she weren't riding it through. She slammed her free fist into a nearby throat. Nothing personal.

Two wayward hands pulled on her blouse, bringing her close to her knees in a single jerk. Her balance wavered—her sword swung wide, slicing open a nearby face—but she regained her footing on the bleeding wound of an incapacitated victim. The bloodbath was culminating into a climatic do-or-die. Their masters were getting involved. They had collected their weapons, shamelessly waiting for a moment to jab past their lessers.

“Capture them!” a pitched, annoyingly shrill voice pierced through the fight. “The gods want them alive!”

Some other time, perhaps.

As a veritable whirlwind of destruction, Zyln drilled a line through the mob making mad attempts at laying a hand on her. She had her fair share of bruises and cuts—if Santhil could feel her own, she'd be sure to have quite a few as well—but that didn't stop her from leaving nothing but squirming, gurgling, bleeding corpses in her wake. She stopped only an instant to look at Santhil, gauging her condition, then returned to wildly but elegantly swinging her blades around. And she was really such a nice woman.

Santhil hastily wiped some blood from her face and felt a cut or two along the way. The drugs were starting to wear off. She had to capitalise on what invincibility she had left. Her opponents were not wasting any of her time and charged headlong for her. There weren't that many of them left. You'd believe they'd rethink their strategy at this point.

Despite the relative clumsiness of her adversaries, their sheer numbers forced Santhil to rely on instincts and trained reflexes. High, parry, low, strike. High, swing, swing, swipe. Elegance wasn't on her priority list at the moment.

A punch in her back pushed her ahead a step or two while another hand held firmly on the collar of her jacket. With a deft tug, it was yanked from her body, over her arms, slinging the sword from her hands and sliding it over the floor and direly out of reach. Santhil reacted quickly, pulling herself free, and reached out for her sword futilly. One of the cultists pulled a bloody, toothy grin while the rest circled around her, waiting for the right time to snatch her.

“You, eh... You wouldn't hurt an unarmed girl, would you?” Santhil chuckled uneasily.

“Seize her!” the alleged leader squealed. “Bring her to the sacrifice!”

An armed reached for her; instantly, she grabbed it, twisted it, punched the offender in the face a few times, then kicked him away against his associates. It didn't stop the others from launching themselves at her. “Zyln!” she screamed. “Help!”

Suddenly, two other arms wrapped themselves around her waist and lifted her an inch off the floor. “Wh-Hey!” she yelled, her legs swinging widely in an attempt to wrest loose. “Put me down! Put me down this instant!”

“Drachau, hang on!” Zyln caught up with the less than favourable situation. “I'll be there soon!” She sounded tired. Her drugs must've been wearing off as well.

Instantly, Santhil was thrown flatly onto the floor. She groaned under the painful landing and scrambled to her feet, but immediately a large, ritual dagger pressed threateningly against her throat. She wrestled still—or probably squirmed—but she was at the disadvantage. A quick prod of the dagger tamed her.

“Santhil Arhakuyl,” the leader claimed. He was the one holding her as a sacrificial hostage. “It will be my privilege to spill your cursed blood in honour of my master.”

“Zyln!” Santhil screamed again, some more panic in her voice. She was thrust down to her knees, her body bent over precariously, held back from toppling over only because she was firmly clasped by the hair. The ritual markings lay passively on the floor, staring her mockingly in the face. Her amulet dangled idly from her neck, the marking of Khaine subtly glinting in her eye. She sure could use a miracle right now.

“What's this?” The leader let go of Santhil's hair and snatched the amulet from her blouse, breaking the chain with a single rough jerk to take a good look. “How touching. Your god will not be here to save your wretched hide, Arhakuyl woman. Surrender your soul to the Master of Pain!”

A sudden surge of strength avalanched through Santhil's muscles, probably some latent kick-in from the drugs mixing in with the tension of the moment. She didn't care where it came from.

In a quick, fluid move, Santhil clasped her hand over her shoulder and around the leader's throat while her other held the knife, keeping it from slitting her own. With a scream for strength, she slammed her hips against his and threw him over her shoulder while standing on her feet. She twisted his wrist, broke it in the process, and snatched his knife from him. A quick swing cut through the throat of his nearby henchman, sending blood spurting over her arm out while he clumsily grabbed at his wound.

“No!” The ritual leader’s eyes were wide in fear as he held his broken wrist and made a vague attempt to clamber to his feet. “Master!”

“Khaela Mensha Khaine!” Santhil screamed angrily and drilled the dagger deeply through the cult leader's heart. “Pig.”

Silence. The body still squirmed with sickly coughs, and she heard a single pair of hurried steps rush at her, but all else was silent. Santhil looked over her shoulder and spotted Zyln, quite a few cuts and bruises richer, stop near her.

“Drachau, are you alright?”

Instantly, Santhil scrambled to her feet and to the cult leader’s body. “Ritual sacrifice!” She swung her leg widely and kicked the body in the ribs. “Cut her throat!” Another kick. “Please the master!” And again.

“Drachau, come. He has passed.” Zyln held her arm, pulling gently. She cast a silent gaze of realisation about herself while Santhil struggled out of her kicking spree and swiped the amulet from the dead man's hands, her muscles aching with every effort.

Bleeding bodies lied sprawled over the entire chamber, pieces of bone, flesh, and cut jugulars littering the floor. One of the open fires had spread to a now scorched corpse, burning intensely with a sickening stench. A single, trembling hand rose from a dying cultist, a scrambled gurgle rising from his slit throat before finally collapsing.

A deep, almost profound silence fell.

“We're good,” Zyln stated, her voice filled with both surprise as some pride while overseeing the carnage she helped cause.

“Yes, we are,” Santhil shared her sentiment with similar amazement. “I mean, we just stormed the place and took out, like, fifteen people.” She wiped the sweat from her throat, but hissed when she felt a sting. Disgruntled, she fingered the narrow cut the dagger left on the side of her throat and looked at the drop of blood on her finger. Close call.

“Are you alright?” Zyln asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Santhil muttered. “This is one Arhakuyl’s ‘cursed blood’ he won’t be having.” She growled annoyedly while she fingered her painful cut again, and swung the blood drops from her fingers. “Asshole.”

The drops landed on the floor with a soft splat and, slightly fizzling, were drawn into the ritual lines meticulously painted on the floor. A slight glow warmed from the nearest lines.

Santhil slowly rolled her eyes to Zyln. The witch returned a similar gaze. “Oops?”

Moments turned into seconds. An uneasy, anticipating silence hung unbroken in the cavernous chamber while both stared intensely at where the specks of blood had been.

Finally, suddenly, Santhil snorted into an intense laugh, doubling up on and immediately followed by her escort. They were exhausted, and any sense of inhibition had gone out the window.

“I thought we were goners,” Santhil managed to squeeze in breathlessly. “Oh god, that was stupid of me.”

Suddenly, spurious symbols lit up brightly on the floor, flashing themselves into sparkling existence at threatening speed.

“Oh, crud,” Santhil sighed tiredly, her lips still chiseled into a smile.

“Run!” Zyln yelled, and dashed for cover.

It was the split second that had made the difference. While Zyln was able to run to safety, Santhil stood still, her body forcefully paralysed, staring at the sunbright beams of light shining up through the ritual markings. She had missed the window, and now she was in the grasp of whatever powered this ritual.

A powerful, prickling sensation pervaded her skin and nerves while she felt herself be slowly lifted off the ground. Santhil vaguely heard Zyln call out her name. She sounded miles off. The sensation became intenser, even painful, while the light increased in intensity. She closed her eyes and hoped it wouldn’t hurt much.

In a sudden, shattering boost, the ritual reached its climax. Santhil was wide-armedly blown away through the air while the shockwave rippled through and over her. She landed hard against the nearby cave wall, bits of rock and grit following her.

A loud, distant ring in her ears drowned out the noise of falling pebbles. Tiny columns of smoke rose from her clothes where she wasn’t covered in grit and debris. Her head hurt. Her sight was blurry. She must’ve sat there for almost minutes while the magical energy subsided, her head slightly bobbing and waving, ready to be knocked down by anything as powerful as a stiff wind.

“Boom-boom. Boom-boom went here.”

Boom... boom? Santhil blinked vaguely. Had she just heard voices?

“Boom-boom!” Closer now. “Ears pointy! Die-die!”

Santhil could make out a blurry figure with a markedly long nose standing surprisingly close to her. He was holding something sharp and metal high above her.

“Wait! Grey-grey. Grey-grey!” Was that a... a rat? A... talking rat?

A loud growl came from the center of the ritual. The large, talking rats squeaked in panic and darted off with the speed of the wind. Santhil frowned confusedly and felt her heavy head suddenly become impossibly light... and land hard on the rocks.

°°°

Yalasmina hastily waved the match she had just lit the candles with. It had been a close call between lighting candles and burning her fingers, but she had come out on top. She smoothed her robes, gave the make-shift temple grounds a one-over with her eyes, and suddenly found herself eye to eye with someone familiar.

“Good morning, Lahnia. You’re up early,” she greeted her with a surprised smile. “What brings you here?”

“I woke up and felt ticklish,” Lahnia replied, her focus clearly in her own thoughts more than in the conversation. “Did you feel something?”

“Ticklish? No, nothing of the sort. Do you still—”

“The magical kind of ticklish,” Lahnia suddenly interjected.

Yalasmina smiled calmly. “I presumed. Is it cause for worry?”

“I don’t know,” Lahnia admitted, sounding almost interested at the thought. “I keep telling myself it is probably nothing, but I can’t stop thinking about it.”

Yalasmina chuckled. “Have you asked your coven?”

“No, ah, we are currently not really speaking. I expect that sentiment to last the day.”

Yalasmina nodded briefly with a mute ‘huh’. “You were very explicit in pointing out their mistake, I imagine.”

“No. No, I really was not,” Lahnia replied. “It was pretty much in their face, so I didn’t mention it, but it’s still a bigger than life, awkward topic that nobody speaks of, so...”

“I must be going,” Yalasmina raised.

“Oh hey, have you seen Santhil yet?”

“No but, then again, I don’t see her as often as you do.”

Lahnia nodded vaguely. Good point. “Seen my cat?”

“No, I have not seen— Do I look like a lost & found to you?”

“It’s his breakfast time, alright? I neglected him a bit yesterday, and I wanted to give him something nice to eat. I’d hate to have him go hungry.”

“Cats are hunters. He’ll find a mouse or some such to eat.”

°°°

Her face was wet. More correctly, her face was being wet. By a tongue. Santhil frowned, and felt it quickly roll over her painful brow.

“Meow.”

A tired cough rose from her throat, buried in haphazard heaps of loose debris, spurts of blood, shards of metal, and random tidbits of bone and flesh sprawled over the walls, floor, and what passed for a ceiling. A loose pebble finally found its way down to the floor and emphasised the relative silence after the hurricane of arcane energy that had blasted through the halls and tunnels.

“Mew.”

Santhil opened her eyes and found large, green eyes stare into hers. She tried to focus, and recognised the view from many early mornings. Lahnia’s cat.

“Mew?”

She pulled her head up a slight little, groaned deeply, then collapsed the half inch she managed to move. “Don’t tell me. You’re hungry.”

“Mow.”

“I’ll get up in a minute,” Santhil clicked open the protective lid of her pocket watch and stared at it for much longer than she really needed to. Today was Wednesday, but it sure felt like Monday.

“Meow.”

Santhil let out a deep sigh. Everything hurt, but nothing seemed really hurt. She could move. She could breathe. She could speak and think. Though she probably hit her head really hard. Did she recall talking rats?

“Mow.”

“When I’m ready...” She wasn’t going to let a cat push her around.

“Meeow. Meow. Môôw. Mew. Meeow. Mow. Meeeooow... Mooow...”

“I’m ready now,” Santhil suddenly said. “I’m ready.” She clambered dizzily onto her feet, pebbles and dust flowing from her clothes as she stood.

“Meow?”

Santhil patted down her body for something to share. Nothing. “Sorry there,” she said. “If you want food, you’ll have to beg with Lahnia.” She scanned her surroundings briefly. Where was Zyln—there she was. Santhil hurried over to her, her muscles aching from punishment and overuse.

“Drachau? You’re alright?”

“Surprisingly, yes.” Santhil hadn’t really given it much thought, but she suddenly felt lucky to be in one piece. Rightfully so, she mused. “How about you?”

Zyln, sitting halfway up against the wall, pointed down to her leg. Santhil pressed her lips when she saw the unprofessional but adequately applied bandage. Santhil nodded briefly and hunkered down. “That’ll get infected,” she said.

“Moow?”

“Your cat is back,” Zyln said with some surprise in her voice.

“It’s not mine, it’s my—” Santhil stopped mid-sentence, and slowly turned to stare at the cat that seemed to wait impatiently for her. “...sister’s. And it can lead us to my sister’s cupboard.”

Zyln blinked silently while looking at her charge. “...What?”

“My sister has cat treats in her cupboard, and her cat is trying to get me there so I can give a few.” The realisation was still hitting Santhil. “We have a way back.”

Zyln chuckled partly. “I’m afraid it’s a way you’ll have to take alone. I cannot walk. I tried.”

“You must try again, Zyln. I can’t just leave you here,” Santhil moaned.

“You can. And you should, before he turns tail and leaves,” Zyln said while nodding to Lahnia’s cat. “I can barely stand, let alone walk at its pace.”

Santhil pressed her lips. “I’ll come back for you.”

Zyln merely nodded with a smile. Santhil rose to her feet, looked at her new guide, and took a few steps in its direction. Eagerly, the cat jumped into action and led the way.

Halfway to the first corner, Santhil turned on her heel and hurried back to Zyln. “What are you doing?” the witch asked.

“I’m going to carry you,” Santhil said while taking her arms and pulling her on her good leg. “I don’t trust my memory enough to recall the way back to you.”

Zyln looked her in the eye for a while—making Santhil increasingly uncomfortable—and finally said: “Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet.” Santhil groaned while she pulled the witch—luckily light of frame—onto her back. “We might not make it past the first curve.”

°°°

Zyln’s forearms were soaked with the sweat dripping off Santhil’s forehead. She held still and quiet while her charge carried her on her back, feeling every slow step shudder slightly through her spine and legs while she heard the quick, exhausted panting underneath her. It would be funny if it wasn’t real.

Santhil swallowed and breathed deeply, trying to pump oxygen into her lungs. Every step took monumental effort to convince her muscles to move. The modest banner hanging outside the medic station was a welcome sight.

“Meow?”

Santhil ignored the cat rudely, instead fumbling into the station and only barely stopping herself against a padded table covered in a pristinely white cloth.

“What happened to you two?” It must have been early morning. The doctor appeared to only just have started his shift.

“Her leg,” Santhil squeezed from her voice while trying not to pass out. She helped Zyln onto the table, sitting her upright across herself. “It needs to be disinfected.”

The doctor looked over Zyln and nodded briefly. “And you?”

“I’m fine,” she wheezed, and leaned on the table for a moment. “Just a little tired.”

“Alright, have a seat over there.”

“Môw?”

“Actually, I’m with slave driver over here,” Santhil said while glancing at the cat sitting near but definitely not touching her dusty clothes. “I have to feed this cat. He told me he wants his treats. I know where the treats are.”

“He told you he wants his treats?”

“Well, he didn’t tell tell me, he told me.”

“I see,” the doctor said musingly, raising his brow. He held still for a few moments, trying to catch Santhil’s gaze. “You come and check in afterwards anyway.” He left, searching for his equipment and fetching what assistance was available this early in the morning.

“Mew.”

Santhil took a deep breath and raised herself when suddenly Zyln took her arm. “Please, Drachau, a moment,” she said.

“I’ll be back,” Santhil said. “I just have to—”

“A private moment, please, while we have it. I may not have this opportunity again, and... I would not forgive myself not taking it.”

Santhil held uncomfortably, skipping her eyes briefly to the witch sitting in front of her. She had a fair idea of where this was going, and threw a quick look over her shoulder. The medics were still preparing. “Quickly, then.”

“Drachau, I... my reasons for volunteering were not entirely altruistic. There was something I needed to say, needed to see, to do, that I wished to do in private.”

Santhil nodded faintly, not really looking Zyln in the eye while she spoke. This was a safari trip through Awkward-i-stan. She imagined Zyln would feel the same. Well, not exactly the same.

“I am afraid that what I feel, what I am about to do, amounts to blasphemy—”

“Zyln,” Santhil interrupted quietly, “do what you must; the doctor will return soon, and I may change my mind.” She did feel sympathetic, and tried not to sound rude.

Zyln stopped and nodded, taking a moment to steel herself. “Drachau, I believe...” She hesitated. Santhil understood. She would, too. She wet her dry lips quickly and moved them to Zyln’s.

“...You are an avatar of Khaine.”

Santhil hit every brake she had, brushing noses gently while staring slantedly, nonplussed into Zyln’s eyes. She needed a second to recover, and then only managed a toneless, level: “What?”

Before Zyln could well react, Santhil stood upright again. She turned a glowing red underneath the sweaty dust. In her personal history of embarrassing gaffes, this probably earned a spot on her mantlepiece for some time. “I, ah...”

“Could you give us some room?” the doctor, coming seemingly out of nowhere, suddenly said. Santhil jolted, focused for a moment, then picked up the cat and left the medic station.

°°°

Birds were singing in the full of sunrise. A fresh breeze flew in over the balcony and gently swung the transparent curtains open. Leaves and branches rustled along. The sky was a fuller blue than the ocean had ever been. Today had every making of being a perfect, perfect day.

Lahnia took a deep breath through her nose, pondering. She didn’t really feel ticklish anymore and, for a moment, she ventured that perhaps she had imagined everything. Even if she hadn’t imagined it, she was unlikely to ever uncover the cause of it. She hated the thought of remaining unknowing.

There was a knock on her door. It was still early morning. Only a few elves were up and about; enough for the halls not to be empty, but not enough to be crowded. It was almost as if life had decided to drive in the slow lane for a day or so, just to try it out. Still, Lahnia excitedly bolted from her seat. Perhaps Jesamine was feeling better. Perhaps someone had found her cat. Perhaps Santhil was back. She opened the door with a wide swing and an anticipating smile.

Instantly, Lahnia stood eye to eye with Santhil. Her hair and clothes were clammy, soaked with water and dried blood; her jacket and blouse were cut and torn; broad smudges of dust and a little gold stained her hair and body. “Oh... my... What happened to you?”

Santhil turned a tired smile on her dried lips and held her cat up for a moment. It had given up protesting against being carried, surrendering itself to a good cleaning of its fur after dinner. “Tada, I found your cat.”

“What, my... my cat did this?”

Santhil rose an eyebrow and stared levelly at Lahnia and her question. “Have you looked at me? How could a cat possibly do this? Are you crazy?”

Lahnia stared dumbfoundedly at Santhil, then shook her head quickly. “Are you alright? What happened? You look... terrible.”

“I'm fine, honey, I'm fine. I had a little tumble down a cliff, and things sort of happened from there. But we got them.”

“What? Who?” If Lahnia had thought for a moment, she would have known, but it was all going a bit fast for her. “You fell down a cliff?”

“Môw!” It was close and therefore impatient. Lahnia looked sharply at her cat and offered to take it off her sister, but Santhil gently refused. “I need to do this. I need to give your cat a treat. He’s been like this all morning.”

Lahnia took a single step back, staring at Santhil while she walked into her chambers and towards the cupboard holding the kitty treats. “I’ve just... never seen anybody this... crumpled before.”

“I feel exactly the way I look. So I’m going to feed your cat, then I'm going to take a hot bath, a hot meal, and finally I'm going to sleep 'till next week.” She sighed happily at the prospect. “Anything happen while I was gone?”

“Yes,” Lahnia instantly said, thinking back of her brush with Santhil’s staff. “No. Yes but, you know, I think it can wait.”

Santhil laughed. For some reason, even when exhausted, she felt her mood could not be destroyed. She was too happy to see her sister again. “Hit me anyway.”

“They, eh, just sent half your armed forces to the port cities.” It was out there before she really thought about it.

“Wait, who did what?” Santhil held still, the treat in her hand mere inches out of the cat’s reach. It meowed impatiently while clawing for it.

“I told them it wasn't what you wanted, I told them it was a stupid idea, but he wouldn't heed... window dressing.”

“Môôw!”

Santhil absently handed the cat its well-deserved treat, then turned to look at her sister. “Window dressing?”

“Look, I’m sorry I brought it up. They’re already gone, there’s nothing you can do. Can I... make you some coffee?”

Santhil frowned and nodded vaguely. It was a lot to take in. “Make it strong. Really strong.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sun Oct 17, 2010 4:24 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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“I’m sorry I couldn’t stop him,” Lahnia said. “I did try. He was really hung up on going.”

Santhil shook her head soothingly, once again clean and properly dressed, and continued pacing about. She had already told her story over several cups of very, very strong coffee. Hearing Lahnia’s version, especially when backed up by Yalasmina at key points, made her a little preoccupied. But the armies had already left. There was little she could do.

Yalasmina sat on the other side of the slightly uncomfortable couch Lahnia also occupied, her face strangely surprised through Santhil’s pensive pace. Suddenly, she spoke. “You kissed with a Maibd?”

“I didn’t—” Santhil took a deep breath, forcing herself to calm. “As I explained. We didn’t kiss. It was a misunderstanding. Let’s just...” Santhil dismissed it with a wave of her hand. “Let’s just drop it.”

“Are you sure?” Lahnia asked.

“What an absurd question to ask, Lahnia,” Santhil almost laughed. “Yes, I am sure.”

“Not for you, I meant her.” Immediately, Yalasmina threw Lahnia a hostile glare, driving her into the defensive. “She thinks Santhil is an incarnation of her god. Khaine in the flesh. Bride of Khaine?”

Santhil stopped dead in her tracks. Yalasmina sunk her head into her hand with a sigh. “So you think...?” Santhil dared.

“From her point of view, that makes sense. And you coming on to her probably just reinforced that sentiment,” Lahnia added just before sipping from her glass.

“That’s ridiculous,” Yalasmina raised with some irritation in her voice. “Santhil is a woman. It’s not possible for Khaine to incarnate as a woman.”

“You speak from extensive experience on the subject, of course,” Lahnia challenged her sister.

“I speak with more than a hint of understanding of my religion, and I have no lessons to take from someone whose powers come from the ruinous forces of Chaos, of all sources.”

Santhil clasped her hands over her face and breathed deeply. This was going to require a bit more patience than she had handy. “We didn’t kiss. We’re not going to kiss. I simply misinterpreted her religious reverence for something more mundane. Now, can we drop the subject, please?”

An uneasy silence fell. Lahnia silently poured Santhil a new cup of lukewarm coffee. Santhil nodded gratefully, though clearly she was preoccupied.

“So,” Lahnia finally cut into the silence. “You butchered an entire cult. I’m impressed.”

“Was it because she is pretty?” Yalasmina asked. “Are you attracted to—”

“Khaine’s Blood, Mina!” Santhil suddenly burst. “I do not make out with everything that is pretty! You are pretty! Lahnia is pretty! I am not making out—” She stopped herself short when catching Lahnia’s look, her arm still swinging gently in a non-existent metrum. Right. “And... stuff.”

“I didn’t mean to imply that you do,” Yalasmina offered calmly. “I simply want to understand. You are my sister, I care for you, and I wish to understand.”

Santhil closed her eyes and attempted to calm herself. It was difficult, with her veins pumped to the nook with caffeine, adrenaline and sugar, and her motives assailed at what seemed to be every opportunity, but she slowly regained some composure.

“I misjudged her intent. She volunteered for a dangerous quest for personal vengeance—my vengeance. She has risked her life and skin for me. For a moment, I believed it would be a kind show of my appreciation. I wasn’t thinking straight.”

Lahnia held back a snort and covered her lips with both hands. Yalasmina gave her a dismayed, indignant look. “Lahnia, please.”

“Sorry, I just...” She barely managed to keep her voice steady. “That was funny.” When she succumbed into laughter, Santhil couldn’t resist a smile of her own.

Yalasmina sighed. “I see you insist on not taking any of this seriously. Truthfully, I can not hold it against you, but I have things that better deserve my attention. Such as informing my superiors of your return and your victory.”

“Oh, Yalasmina, could you do me a favour, please?” Yalasmina stood and waited, peering slightly at her sister. It took Santhil a few seconds to find the right words. “Don’t tell them everything. Zyln deserves better.”

Yalasmina nodded thoughtfully, walked past Santhil, then held and looked at her. She gave her a peck on her cheek. “You’re a good person. It is good to have you back.”

Santhil smiled warmly at her and watched her leave, then took a good sip of her coffee. Her entire body was probably running on that liquid by now. She finished the cup and set it on the table. “Thank you for the coffee, Lahnia. Now, I am going to bring Jesamine the good news. Care to join me?”

“So, eh...” Lahnia wet her lips and smiled furtively. “You’ve been drawing me.”

Santhil played a frown on her face at the sudden change of subject. “You’ve been going through my drawers.”

“A little bit. We were looking for your schedule. Mina and I, I mean.” She paused for a while. “You don’t draw Mina.”

She chuckled. “No offense meant to Mina. I think she is stunningly beautiful.”

“You just think I’m... more stunningly beautiful?”

Santhil smiled admittingly and raised her hand. “Guilty as charged. Shall we go?”

°°°

Jesamine was looking paler than usual. The red bedsheets contrasted starkly with her seemingly lifeless face. The curtains were drawn, and a servant tirelessly dabbed her forehead with a wet cloth. Santhil kept a respectful silence when she approached the bed, Lahnia stayed back for the moment.

“Hey there,” Santhil almost whispered, and bent over to her, the decorative symbol of Khaine, now on a repaired chain, dangling idly from her neck. “How are you doing?”

Jesamine opened her eyes wearily. She was conscious, if barely, and clearly under the spell of a grave fever. Santhil pressed her lips, but smiled nonetheless. “I went down there. I found them. I killed them. All of them.” She widened her smile. “You’re safe.”

Jesamine blinked slowly once. Santhil wasn’t sure how much of it all came through. But then, an arm slowly lifted from the bed. Santhil kept still as a statue, following the arm, and then the hand, as it seemed to go for her face, but then lowered to her bossom and reached for the dangling trinket. But then she collapsed and rolled her head uncomfortably.

Santhil rolled her eyes back to Jesamine. She tried to tell her something. She looked over her shoulder, as if perhaps Jesamine was pointing through rather than at her, but found only a wall standing behind her. She stood and returned to her sister, pondering.

“What did she say?” Lahnia asked curiously, seeing her friend and colleague had stirred. “Is she better?”

Santhil looked over her shoulder at the motionless Jesamine, running her mind over what happened, and also making sure that she did indeed see her breathe. “I’m not sure. She seemed really interested in Khaine all of a sudden.”

“Jess? Khaine?”

“Perhaps she believed he helped.”

Lahnia lowered one brow and raised the other with a fine curve. “We are talking about Jesamine, aren’t we?”

Santhil nodded thoughtfully. Good point. “Let’s give her some rest.”

°°°

“That,” Santhil said while she stared at the immensely large and yet filled storage room, “are a lot of barrels.”

Santhil stared down into the distance of the massively long and broad but not tall room. Several columns supported the ceiling that carried other, similar storage rooms. But none where filled with that many barrels of wine.

“Eight hundred and eighty,” the stock manager repeated to her. “Signed off by a Lahnia Arhakuyl.”

“Who— What? Lahnia? Did you...?”

“Well, you ordered them.” Lahnia fidgetted uneasily. “Right?”

“Fifty barrels, not eight hundred and eighty. Fifty.”

“It says here,” the manager added, “that these are several orders collected from different sources. All addressed to Santhil Arhakuyl of a certain Expeditionary Force.”

Santhil let that sink in for a moment. That was her, alright. But how did all this... Finally but suddenly, she chuckled. “I don’t believe this. Each of those people actually ordered fifty barrels of wine.”

“Who?”

“All of those assistants bombarding me with questions about the party? They each ordered fifty barrels.” Santhil sighed with a disbelieving smile. That just figured.

“But that doesn’t make sense, does it?” Lahnia dared.

“I know. They should’ve realised it would sum up to be a staggering amount.”

“No, I mean, eight hundred and eighty isn’t even a multiple of fifty.”

Santhil nodded vaguely in realisation. “Ah.” She should’ve thought of that.

“Maybe it’s a loyalty bonus? For big buys?”

“Maybe. Anyway, we have to do... something with this.” Santhil blew some air out her nose, thinking, then looked at Lahnia. “Think we could turn a profit out of selling it?”

°°°

“Thank you for coming on such short notice,” Yalasmina’s superior—a high priestess, her sister introduced her—thanked Santhil. “Yalasmina has told us what has happened. We were impressed.”

Santhil smiled wordlessly while Yalasmina strapped her arm onto a smooth but ornately engraved, dark stone. She did cast an occasional glance on whatever the heck her sister was doing, but allowed it without protest. She was, after all, under the scrutiny of one of the Temple’s highest (local) officials, and she kept her attention on her.

“I have convened with my fellows, and we would offer you honorary membership.”

Santhil listened only halfly to what the high priestess was saying. Yalasmina had already explained the particulars to her: Yalasmina had explained to the higher echelons of the Temple that the cult Santhil attacked and destroyed was dedicated to Slaanesh, a very symbolic enemy to the Temple, and that she had done so against grave odds.

Her reward was honorary, non-committal membership. Santhil had seen the political benefits to both parties: the Temple got to flaunt with counting a drachau in its membership, with all that it entailed, and Santhil received more backing from a powerful faction in politics. Still, she felt apprehensive, and not just because Yalasmina pulled out a ritual blade.

“Of course, I couldn’t have done any of it without Zyln,” Santhil said. “She was a tremendous help all the way through. Could I ask you to look into a way to reward her?” A sharp, sudden pain rippled through her securely bound wrist. Santhil turned her head to Yalasmina and added an emotionless but intent: “Ouch.”

“Sorry about that,” Yalasmina lied silently with a strap held between her lips, tapping off some of her sister’s blood.

“A symbolic gesture,” the high priestess explained. “It represents blood spilled in the name of Khaine. I’m sure Yalasmina mentioned this important fact to you.”

“Yes,” Santhil lied in return. “Yes, she has.”

“As for Zyln, we do not want to blend material gains with dedication. Service to Khaine is its own goal.”

For a moment, and against her better judgment, Santhil wanted to comment on that, but felt Yalasmina purposefully, if painfully, tighten a strap on arm. “Of course,” she said, taking the hint her sister left her. “I meant no offense.”

The high priestess chuckled friendly. “None taken, Drachau. We do not all have the luxury of unquestioning dedication in those we lead.”

Dedication. That was one way to call it. Santhil felt her arm tingle and sting a bit, and rolled her fingers. She did not like the idea of bleeding for the Temple. While she was, to a degree, honoured to be accepted as an honorary member to the most powerful religious faction, dedicated to her religion of choice, she did not feel akin to its members, and she was happier for it.

“I must attend to other matters. We will contact you for the date of the actual ceremony, and to settle a preferential dress code.”

“Yes, of course.” Santhil nodded. “Thank you.”

“Drachau Arhakuyl.” The high priestess smiled politely and bowed gently before taking her leave. Santhil’s composure lasted until the official had left the room.

“You couldn’t warn me before cutting open my wrist?” Santhil suddenly attacked Yalasmina. “Are you trying to assist in involuntary suicide?”

“You wouldn’t have let me do it if I told you. You hate needles.”

“Damn right I do, and that is not even a needle!”

“It is a ritual knife,” Yalasmina explained calmly, tapping Santhil’s wrist for a few more drops. “Used for a ritual.”

“A ritual knife? Are you sure you didn’t leave out two vital adjectives like, say, huge and frigging?”

Yalasmina chuckled and dabbed a cotton with disinfectant against Santhil’s wound. “Even Lahnia is less squeamish about these things than you.”

“Well, perhaps she is. But you know what— Oh, no, you don’t, you do not— God, that’s so gross.” Santhil turned her eyes away for a moment. “What is it with you Temple people and licking my blood? That is not a condiment. That is my blood, that is my personal blood.”

“We’re sisters. We have the same blood.”

“No. No, we have similar blood. This is my blood. There is some other blood like it, but this blood is mine.”

Yalasmina shook her head with a vague laugh and bandaged Santhil’s wrist. “Would you feel better if Zyln did it?”

“Don’t go there. Don’t take my mind there. You’re the reason I don’t let my mind out alone after dark.”

“Well, you are definitely on a caffeine rush,” Yalasmina said while freeing Santhil’s arm. “I would suggest you find some rest, perhaps sleep, but good luck with that.”

°°°

As beautiful as the day had been, the evening was like a spell. Stars glittered fancily in the sky, dwarfed by the full moon slowly inching its way across the midnight blue blanket.

Santhil idly strolled into Lahnia’s chambers and beamed her a quiet smile. Her sugar, caffeine, and adrenaline rushes had all faded and gone, and now she simply dragged the shadow of her former self on. “Goodevening, Lahnia,” she said, and stopped briefly.

Lahnia’s desk was hidden under papers, scrolls, and open books, stacked unevenly to whatever heights seemed necessary at the time. The sorceress returned a hospitable but preoccupied smile, then returned to her work.

“Still looking for the symbol?” Santhil inquired. She put her fingertips on what she believed to be a free corner on the table.

“Among other things,” Lahnia replied, and looked up at her sister. “How are you holding up?”

Santhil nodded gently. “I just returned from my generals. They pretty much corroborated your story.” Santhil raised her hand anticipatingly, halting Lahnia’s reaction dead in its tracks. “Not that I doubted you; I simply felt you were entitled to know.”

“So... can it be fixed?”

Santhil washed her hands over her face and took a deep breath. “Somewhat. I can’t get the armies back without them running the risk of being ambushed. So I sent supplementary orders after your dearest lieutenant.”

Lahnia frowned. “You mean the commander?”

“Lieutenant,” Santhil repeated meaningfully.

“That’s a... steep drop.” Lahnia wet her lips and smiled shyly. “How many stars did he lose for insulting me?”

Santhil chuckled and shook her head. “I considered his transgressions on an aggregate scale.” She reached a hand for her painful neck and stretched it.

“What happened to your wrist?”

“Ritual blood drawing.” Santhil further pulled up the sleeve of her shiny, red silk blouse, showing her meticulously bandaged wrist. “It’s been a bull market for my blood, lately. People have been very keen to get their hands on it.” She slid her sleeve back into place and stretched her painful muscles; they were going to be sore in the morning. “I’m just going to crash here for a moment, if that’s alright.”

“Uhh... sure. Wherever you’re comfortable.”

Santhil took Lahnia’s offer and slowly, if a bit gracelessly, plunged down in the couch. She laid one arm on her forehead, and kept one foot set on the floor.

“Are you going to be able to sleep? You took a lot of caffeine.”

“I’ll be fine,” Santhil assured her, staring dead at the ceiling.

“I could warm you some milk and honey if—”

“Trust me. Five minutes and I’m just another piece of furniture.”

°°°

That was some fine masonry. The slabs were small and fine, yet sturdy and well-attached. Clearly, great workmanship that had gone into that ceiling. Santhil felt, to her dismay, that she had all the time in the world to admire it.

Lahnia’s head slowly pulled over hers, a pitying but curious look in her eyes while her dark hair hung over her shoulders.

“Any minute, now,” Santhil sighed.

“Sure you don’t want anything?”

“No, I’m good,” Santhil said soothingly. “I’ll just—”

“You said that two hours ago.”

“Really? What time is it?”

“Half past midnight. I’m wrapping up.”

“Ooo-kay,” Santhil wheezed surprisedly, and slowly sat upright. “Milk and honey sounds great.”

Lahnia smiled gently. “It’ll take just a minute.” She left for the next room. Santhil dragged herself out of the couch, forcing her eyes wide open for a moment before taking a look around.

The sky, and with it, the room, had become darker now that the moon had left sight, leaving the silent stars to shine through. A few more candles were lit, and the fireplace crackled softly. Santhil strolled over to the desk, focusing her mind away from her attempt at sleeping.

Some text could be deciphered. It wasn’t always that the markings were arcane, but rather that the language was old, dialectic and, indeed, sometimes just excessively cryptic. Santhil was entirely a laywoman when it came to magic, so she glossed over most of the text, and scanned her eyes over some of the drawings and symbols.

“I’m surprised you make sense of this,” she said, probably loud enough for her sister to hear in the dead of night. She was careful not to move anything; unable to discern any resemblance of order, Santhil mused it would be best not to stir much. She did lift a corner here and there, taking a peek underneath. “Any of this,” she murmuringly added.

“To each their profession,” she heard Lahnia reply from the other room. Santhil nodded in agreement. She imagined many administrative or mercantile terms would be lost on the sorceress though, perhaps, that knowledge ran in the family. She held that thought while her sister returned with a mug of steaming milk.

“This actually looks really familiar,” Santhil remarked while peeking in a book under several scraps of Lahnia’s notes. She tapped the book once and accepted the drink in both hands.

“That?” Lahnia shoved aside some materials with a much lesser reverence than Santhil had just shown.

“The spiral, there.”

“That’s not a spiral,” Lahnia commented off-hand. “It’s a set of interconnected concentric circles.”

“Of course,” Santhil said dryly. “How could I mix those up.”

“Look here, see? These vessels surround these marks, and these arcs ley magic through the circles.” Lahnia occasionally cast her eyes on her sister while she explained. “They meet here, in the conduits, and they channel through these subsidiary vessels to— You’re not following, are you?”

“At all.” She looked at it a while longer, then cocked her head. “I think I was... there.” She tapped the vague drawing.

“There?”

“Thereaways.”

Lahnia looked at the symbols a while longer, puzzled, then suddenly snapped her look on Santhil. “What, this? This is actually the symbol you were standing on down there? This one, here?”

“Somewhere there, yes,” Santhil answered evasively when she caught the sudden brunt of interest, and she leaned away subtly. “It was dark down there, you know.”

“But you’re absolutely sure these were the actual markings?”

“No, but... probably. Might be.”

Lahnia kept a puzzled stare. “These aren’t the same markings you found earlier.”

“I’m sure I’m just mistaken. I’m going to—”

“Wait-wait-wait,” Lahnia stopped her sister from moving away, as if overtaken by a surge of energy. “I got another one here somewhere.” She rummaged through the stacks, lifting and dropping seemingly random piles of books and papers. Santhil cautiously took a sip from her drink, then suddenly set two fingers on a very familiar drawing. “That’s the one,” she said instantly.

“What, this one?” Lahnia sounded stupefied. “That’s a channeling ritual, not a summoning ritual.”

“It didn’t summon anything, did it?” Santhil paused for a moment, staring off into the distance before looking back at her sister. “Did it?”

“I suppose you’d have seen something if it did... And you were there? Right there, when it powered?”

“That, I was.” Santhil chuckled at the recent memory. It was hard to believe it had only been just over a day ago. “Zyln got away in time. I hesitated for a moment, and then was... held immobile.”

“Ehhuh.” Lahnia narrowed her eyes while keeping them on Santhil. “And... then?”

“Boom?”

Lahnia nodded slowly and sized her sister up from head to toe. Santhil was not unaccustomed to sudden looks of interest or scrutiny, but she became curious. “What is it?”

“You’re not dead.” Lahnia crossed her arms and stared ponderingly at her.

Santhil gracefully underwent the scrutiny, but finally did break the silence. “Is there a secondary significance to that?”

“You were tested, right?”

She meant the test of sorcery, when the sorceresses came to a family and tested the young girls for magic aptitude. “Same time as you, remember? I was a dud.”

“...Do you want to redo that test? I could test you.”

“You know, I think it’s best if we just dropped the issue,” Santhil cautioned uneasily. “I don’t want to open that can of worms.”

“Come on, it’ll only take a moment,” Lahnia insisted, and she already started rummaging around in her desk. “It’ll be fun, you’ll see.”

Santhil finished her drink with a chuckle and set it down on the coffee table. “Alright, hit me.”

“Roll up your sleeve for me?”

Santhil raised a brow and slowly freed up her unharmed wrist. “You’re not going to— Holy crap.” She immediately retracted her arm when she glanced at the curved dagger Lahnia held in her hand.

“It’s just a cut. It won’t hurt much.”

Santhil considered it for a moment, gave her sister a long, steady look, and reluctantly presented her arm again. “You’ve done this before, right?”

“Of course,” Lahnia assured her. “Every sorceress should be able to test others’ potential.” She held the blade high and narrowed her eyes, staring down at Santhil’s wrist as if calculating the proper angle.

Santhil’s eyes, in contrast, were transfixed on the metal blade. “I mean, with the knife.”

“Oh, that? Well, I saw the coven mistress do it once and, really, how hard can it be?”

Instantly, Santhil pulled back her arm and covered it frantically with her other. “Is there another way?” she asked hurriedly.

“I suppose,” Lahnia considered. “It’s potentially more painful, though.”

Santhil nodded in vague disbelief. “More painful. More painful than ripping up my wrists?”

“Wrist. Singular. And I wasn’t going to rip up your wrists, I was going to make a cut.”

“You hold that knife like you do,” and Santhil pointed to the blade and followed with a pause. “Psycho ritual gangsta style? I won’t live long enough to get upset with you.”

“Anyway, ah, put your hands up against mine.” Lahnia stepped from behind her desk and next to her couch. She held both hands up to Santhil. “Come.”

Santhil warily approached the sorceress and slowly put both hands against hers. Nothing happened. That was, of course, because they hadn’t started yet.

“Now listen carefully,” Lahnia warned her. “I will channel raw magical power through you, and I will measure how much I get back. The more I get back, the more potential is in your blood. The more friction there is, the less I get back, and the less you actually channel and conduct.”

Santhil’s brows shot up into a fine curve. “I take it this friction is the pain you mentioned.”

Lahnia passed over that with a gentle smile. “I need you to stay in physical contact with me so that I can get a good reading. If you let go, I have to start over. Do you understand?”

“You know, ah, I’m tired and I don’t think I have the proper focus for—” Suddenly, Santhil let out a scream of pain and surprise and collapsed to the floor.

Lahnia looked down past her upheld hands, and smiled apologetically at her sister. “Oops, ah... are you okay?”

“Argh, son of a,” Santhil bit off the last word with a painfilled groan, still lying on the carpet, her body tensed up like a spring. She tried hard to regain control over her muscles and drag herself out of her almost fetal state. “Lana? What the hell?”

“Sorry, I’m, ah, I’m a little excited. It’s not every day I get to gauge someone’s magical potential.”

Santhil aimed herself up on her elbow and shook some residual, burning hurt from her muscles. “Christ, honey, you don’t have to jumpstart me.”

“It’s this place, it’s...” Lahnia sighed, annoyed. “There is something wrong with this place. I can’t properly control just how much power I want to summon. It’s like—” She stopped for a moment when Santhil reached up with her hand, and Lahnia helped her back on her feet. “It’s like every time I make a little hole, it rips open. And before you say it: no, it’s not me, it’s this place.”

“I wasn’t going to say anything,” Santhil replied, a little surprised. “If you say it’s this place, then it’s this place.”

“Oh? Oh. That’s... refreshing.” Lahnia blinked briefly, then wet her lips and held up her hands again. “Want to try again?”

“I don’t know,” Santhil stalled, her face lined with doubt and apprehension. “I just don’t think... I’m tired, I should probably get some sleep.”

“Come on, Ari. I never get to do this with anyone. Isn’t this exciting to you?”

Exciting? Well, in a sense, perhaps, the sense of being a bit terrifying. Santhil looked at Lahnia and her obvious passion for her work and life, and reconsidered. “Alright, take your reading off me,” she finally said with a smile. “Let it rip.”

“Alright, hands. There, and... ready?”

“Gently, now.”

“I will, I promise.”

°°°

“Do you do these night shifts often?” the guard asked his veteran colleague, leaning on his shield.

“Yeah, pretty often,” the soldier fifteen years his elder replied. “I volunteer for the job when it comes up. They need a graveyard shift, I fill it in.”

“Boring stuff, though. Especially because we’re on stationary guard duty. You know, watch that door. And I’m watching it, but it’s not doing anything.”

“Oh, it’s not that bad, really. It’s quiet, it’s calm, you get some time to really think things through. Like what you think about the political situation between the covens and the Temple, or how you are going to propose, stuff like that.”

“Huh. I guess I never thought of it like that.”

“You’ve got to keep your eyes and ears open, though,” the veteran barely whispered to his colleague, beckoning him closer, and he slowly turned his eyes back to the double door they were guarding. “Because any moment, a Sarthailor siege army could be knocking down that door, and we’d be the first line to hold off a counter-invasion.”

“Ehhuh.” The soldier followed his intent gaze, and nodded thoughtfully while observing the sturdy wood-and-metal construction. Finally, he turned his eyes back to his colleague. “You want to grab some coffee?”

“Yeah, I’m cool with that.”

°°°

“Stay relaxed,” Lahnia urged, otherwise not moving an inch.

Santhil kept her lips sealed while undergoing the torturous procedure of raw magic flowing through her body and back to the sorceress. It seemed to take impossibly long for Lahnia to get a good reading off her, and truthfully she felt like letting go and dropping the whole idea, but seeing her sister, eyes closed and in full focus, made her hold on longer.

Sorcery, she engraved into her mind, was a thoroughly unpleasant experience.

Then, finally, Lahnia looked her in the eye again, and the burning stream through her body stopped. Santhil felt instant relief wash over while her veins and muscles still simmered. She heard a mild chuckle. “Are you alright?”

Santhil forced her eyes wide open and blew out some air. “Cripes, that smarts. Does it always hurt this much? For you, I mean?”

Lahnia shrugged. “You get used to it. I hardly felt anything now.”

“I’ll think twice before asking you to zap anything again.” Santhil shook her head unelegantly, trying to regain her focus. “How did I do?”

“Eh,” Lahnia began uneasily. “I’m not really sure. I mean, there’s something coming back, but... It’s pretty easy to miss.”

“So I’m not a sorceress,” Santhil confirmed what she already knew and, in all honesty, really hoped to be the case. “What time is it?”

“It’s a little past two.”

Santhil nodded to herself. “Can I crash with you?”

“Ah, sure. I’ll just clear the bed a bit.”

°°°

Santhil threw a glance over her shoulder while holding the last lit candle. Lahnia was tucking herself in deeply under the thick covers with a content smile. The night would be too short, but at least she’d enjoy what part she had left. Santhil smiled inwardly, endeared by the sight. “Goodnight, Lana.” She pursed her lips to blow out the candle.

“Mistress!” A rapid, almost panicked battering on her door. “Mistress, please open the door!”

Santhil set the candle down with a sigh. Lahnia giggled and folded her hands over her lips. “No rest for the wicked.”

“I’ll answer that,” Santhil grumbled.

Santhil took the robe hanging from the closet door and dressed quickly while the banging on the door intensified. It was a nice robe, and she hurriedly kept herself from taking a moment to check herself in the mirror. She headed for the door and opened it with, as she surmised from the sudden change in voice of the midnight crasher, a pinch of dismay in her eyes.

“Drachau?” the guard blurted in surprise, and hesitated a moment before making a shaky salute. “Apologies, Drachau Arhakuyl, for waking you this late—”

“We weren’t sleeping,” Santhil corrected him with a clear hint of irritation. “What is it?”

“Oh. Oh, I really didn’t mean to inter—”

“Is this life-threateningly important or urgent, private?” Santhil cut in. She felt bringing her point across was more important than being kind and understanding.

Instantly, the guard seemed to snap out of his surprise and unceremoniously grabbed Santhil’s arm. “Come with me, you really need to see this. Or not see this.”

“Wh— Now?”

“Yes, now, really,” he added hurriedly. “Right now. Mistress Arhakuyl too. Hurry!”

°°°

Santhil carefully peeked over the masterfully carved stone. She was lying down on a fortified mezzanine overlooking the broadly paved plaza underneath. Her legs were cold. The robe might have been pretty, it was also very short, and altogether not warm. Lahnia seemed not to notice, mind, or care. Sorceresses were odd that way.

Two large, broad stairways flanked the mezzanine, making this position both defensible as accessible. The dwarves sure knew their stuff. They were also a bit paranoid, as could be judged by the heavily reinforced double door across the plaza they overlooked.

That was, of course, the heavily reinforced double door blown halfway out of its hinges. Yes, that very same heavily reinforced double door with a man-sized hole punched out of it.

“We just went for a coffee,” the soldier next to her whispered. “We were gone for maybe two minutes. When we came back: this.”

Santhil silently patted the man’s shoulder in understanding—she also felt bad over snapping at him earlier—and stared intently at the hole in the door. Bits of wood and strains of metal were bent away, as if something really heavy had smashed into it. But nothing had. At least, if it had, it was now gone.

“Why are we whispering?” Lahnia asked, her voice low.

“We heard something,” the veteran guard said. “And we saw... well... footprints.”

Santhil put her back against the low fortification and frowned. “Footprints? So someone got inside?” Altogether unsurprising, considering the effort they expended in forcing their way in.

“More like clawmarks, and I couldn’t see what made them. And they didn’t go all the way in.”

Santhil pondered on that for a moment, staring blankly ahead of her. What would punch in a door, leave clawmarks on the floor, walk in, and then walk right out again? “Well, whatever did this is long gone by now.”

“No-no,” the guard urged, and pushed down on Santhil’s shoulder just to keep her from standing. “It’s not that I didn’t see what made the marks; I couldn’t see what made them. The steps just appeared, out of thin air. Something is out there, something we can’t see.”

Santhil’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that even possible?” she asked Lahnia. But Lahnia helplessly lifted her shoulders as much as lying prone on the uncomfortably cold floor allowed her. Not a clue. Santhil took another peek over the bannister and stared on for a while. She frowned immediately. “That’s weird.”

“What is?” Lahnia asked, and dared a look for herself.

“I could’ve sworn I saw something move. There, see? Through the hole?”

Lahnia peered through her eyes and tried hard to discern anything. “I... think so.”

“Then you’re seeing more than I do,” the veteran guard remarked, peeking cautiously over the bannister alongside Santhil and Lahnia. “I got nothing.”

“There, in the distance,” Santhil whispered while she crawled up against him, aligning her eyes alongside his. “See?”

Now that Santhil had laid eyes on the strange, moving refraction of what little light there was, she found it hard not to notice it. Hence, she felt some frustration when the guard shook his head helplessly. “Come,” she beckoned him, and pulled him closer against herself, making sure that his eyes would go along her arm to where she pointed. “See that shade? The shimmering?”

“Honestly, Drachau, I—we—got nothing.” His look seemed bewildered, and his companion confirmed his inability to see it. Santhil frowned, moved to address Lahnia, then held, and threw the guard a mildly accusing look.

“W— You rub half a naked body up against mine; how did you expect it to react?” he explained quietly but intently. “Drachau,” he added quickly.

Santhil nodded with half a teasing, knowing smile on her lips, and turned to Lahnia. Explanation? But Lahnia lifted her shoulders helplessly. She could see it. Santhil could see it. The guards couldn’t.

“Alright. Where’s the captain on duty?” Santhil asked the guard closest to her.

“Oh, that asshole,” the younger guard blurted out, and instantly turned a delicate shade of white. “Apologies, Drachau.”

“Considering the circumstances,” the veteran said, “we believed the situation warranted a sorceress. And our dear and beloved captain carries certain... qualities that ill fit this particular situation.”

“What the hell is this?” a new, loud voice bellowed through the mezzanine. Santhil snapped her look at the source of the sudden noise, and looked, startled, at a high-ranking guard approaching. This man needed no additional introduction.

“You’re supposed to be on duty! On your feet, goddammit! And what are these two sleazes doing here?” He gave the robed—and only robed—women a quick look.

“Run,” Santhil ordered hurriedly, and clambered to her feet. The two guards hesitated for a moment, but when they heard a deep, low growl coming from the battered-down door, they followed without second thought.

“You two, in my office!” the captain shouted at the guards. “And you two, ah,” he hesitated while giving Santhil and Lahnia a once-over. “...in my office.”

Santhil slapped her hand onto his mouth and looked at him hard while the guards and her sister sped past her. “Seriously, Captain, shut it and run.”

“Whmt?” he tried to ask, his lips still covered, a bewildered look in his eyes.

“Come on!” Santhil yelled, and pulled painfully hard on his uniform to drag him along. Suddenly, a deep, bestial roar shook her nerves and muscles and, when she spun around to look, she saw a vague, almost incorporeal wash standing only a few feet from her. She made a snap decision, let go of the captain, and dove for the floor.

Instantly, she felt a cold draft pull overhead, followed by sickening cracks of bone splintering and wet, bloody tissue being ripped apart. There was no scream. Santhil didn’t stick around to find out more; she hastily scrambled to her feet and ran through the wide, long hallway while she heard the sound of wet punches slowly fade away behind her.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Thu Dec 23, 2010 5:31 pm
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love the story, you're a fantastic writer tarbo, keep it coming!!!

_________________
Veni, Vidi, Voro!!!

All things perish, this is the law of existence, accept your suffering and your mortality, only by using this truth, can you transcend it.


Thu Dec 23, 2010 11:53 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
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“The lower levels have been evacuated, milady,“ the messenger reported. “Extra guards have been assigned to cover all entrances. No sightings have been reported.”

Sightings. Curious wording. Santhil nodded briefly to the messenger while Virtok strapped her arm plates securely in place. She wasn’t entirely sure how much use these plates could be, given the impossible strength this creature seemed to have, but she felt better having them, nonetheless. “The captain?” She knew the answer, and the messenger confirmed her thoughts with a respectful silence. She dismissed him gratefully.

“This creature is not a swordfighter or armsman,” Virtok said, “but a cunning animal with supernatural strength. Do not engage it in single combat.”

Santhil smiled amiably, and nodded in agreement. “I understand.” Virtok was a veteran in the truest sense of the word, and he had seen and experienced more than anyone Santhil had met. And even though he was a demanding teacher, she never regretted asking him to be her personal trainer. Almost every training session had been both a backbreaker as an eye-opener.

“What do you worry about, Lady Arhakuyl?”

“Worry? What do you mean?” Santhil secured a large sword over her back and checked her armour quickly. Mobile, light, sturdy. She clenched her fist to test her gloves. Excellent.

“You are embarking on a dangerous mission,” Virtok clarified. “What are you preparing yourself to deal with? What are your concerns?”

She took a crossbow from the rack and looked it over. “You mean, other than the fact this thing drilled its fist through a steel reinforced door?” Her lack of experience with the somewhat iconic weapon left her dismayed, but she slung it on her back nonetheless.

“And frankly,” she continued with half a sigh, “I have no idea whether any of the weapons I’m taking along will do diddly squat against this thing. Perhaps I can put it down with a single bolt. Perhaps I’ll spend half an hour hacking on it with sticks and stones.”

“But you are bringing along a much more potent weapon than sticks and stones,” Virtok said.

“That, I am.”

°°°

Lahnia flipped through the impressively dimensioned book and pressed her lips. There were some interesting and perhaps useful things in there, but this... ledger was too large to bring along.

“Try this one,” the mistress of her coven said as she offered her a sheathed sword. Lahnia accepted it, drew the sword and gripped it. It was light, almost impossibly so, and had strange, almost invisible inscriptions on the blade. “A channel blade,” Lahnia recognised. She hadn’t seen one of those in a while. “Thank you.”

“Please try not to use it,” the mistress said, and instantly rephrased: “Try not to get into a mêlée fight.”

“I know,” Lahnia said quickly, sheathing the blade again and clipping it onto her hipbelt. “Big, angry daemon. Keep my distance. I’ve done this before.”

“I know, I know,” the mistress admitted. “But please, it’s the drachau. Leave a good impression. I mean, we’re very lucky she isn’t as distrustful of sorceresses and our covens...” She trailed off.

“Leave a good impression?” Lahnia made that sound like an honest question because, really, it was. She checked herself in the mirror quickly. Was something wrong with the way she looked?

“Listen to her, advise her...” Evidently, the mistress had lost some of her otherwise eloquent way with words. Or perhaps she was simply worried about Lahnia who, by most standards, was considered both prodiguous as problematic. “Try not to kill her?”

Lahnia frowned. “What makes you say that? She’s my sister; of course I’m not going to kill her.”

“It’s... You are very talented, and you can summon more energy than, well, than any of us, really. It’s just that, sometimes, you don’t really control just how much energy.” The mistress clenched her teeth. This was awkward. “Mind the blast radius?”

°°°

Yalasmina secured her weapons belt firmly and looked over the vials and herbs laid out in front of her. Lotus, rose and, of course, their signature, frenzy-inducing drug. She considered it could be hazardous to fly into a frenzy, and doubted their tactical use, but she took them along all the same. Not like they got in the way.

“Are you prepared?” The high priestess kept her hands folded together calmly. Yalasmina hadn’t even heard her enter.

“I am unsure for what I should prepare,” she admitted. “We have assumed that I could see this creature because I am related to Drachau Arhakuyl, and we assumed that Mistress Arhakuyl could see it because she is related as well. So it is possible that I might not be able to see it at all.”

“If that is a possibility, then why do you insist on going?” the priestess asked.

“We should make every effort to combat the forces of Chaos,” Yalasmina explained. “It would not do for the Temple to stand aside when the military and the covens engage daemons.” She took a deep breath. “Also, I can not stand aside while my sisters risk their lives. If I can be of assistance to them, I should be there to lend it.”

The high priestess nodded in understanding. “Blessings be on you and your journey.”

Yalasmina smiled gratefully, then suddenly thought of something. “May I make an unusual request?”

°°°

Santhil took a deep breath and nodded once to her sisters, both standing in front of her. She hadn’t ever seen them in full battle garb, or not standing next to each other, and she couldn’t even begin to sum the differences between them. “Is everyone ready?”

Yalasmina nodded slowly once. Lahnia seemed lost in thought for the moment. Yalasmina bumped her elbow discreetly, causing her to suddenly look Santhil in the eye. “I’m ready,” she said.

“Good. Now, before we go down there, I need to go over a couple of—” She stopped and pointed at Yalasmina’s waist. “What is that?”

“This? This is—”

“Why are you taking my blood with you?”

“Because this creature was summoned with your blood, and it may be relevant in fighting it,” Yalasmina explained. “Why are you so squeamish over your blood?”

“I am not being ‘squeamish.’ This is my life essence, not a commodity, not a mystical channel,” and she eyed Lahnia briefly after saying that, “and certainly not an improvised weapon.”

“Be that as it may, I believe it would be foolish to leave behind something that Lahnia could form into a potentially useful weapon.” Yalasmina gave Lahnia a quick look on that, who immediately returned a surprised keep-me-out-of-this-look. “Besides, you donated this blood to the Temple. It is not on loan.”

“It is not on lease, either.”

“You wanted to make an announcement, Santhil?” Lahnia intervened with a friendly smile.

Santhil rolled her eyes back and forth between Lahnia and Yalasmina a few times, then took a deep breath through her nose and straightened her back. “Right, ah...” She cleared her throat.

“Our forces have ascertained that the creature is indeed in the lower levels, and sorceresses have worked to ward off its possible escape routes. These wards also prevent us from entering or leaving the scene. We will be going in through a laundry chute. This means that we have no easy way back. I want to be sure we have everything we need.”

Quiet, reaffirming nods. Santhil looked at both her sisters for a while, then nodded to them as well. “Alright,” she finally said. “Are there any questions?”

“Dwarves have laundry?” Lahnia asked.

“Oh, Lahnia,” Yalasmina groaned, and sunk her face into her palm.

“Hey, this is new to me,” Lahnia reacted. “You ever smelled a dwarf?”

“Are there any relevant questions?” Santhil passed over Lahnia’s quip with an amused smile. Nothing. “Let’s go.”

°°°

Santhil bent through her knees when she quietly landed from her slide through the wooden chute. She stayed low and scanned her surroundings.

It was unusually dark and quiet; her eyes needed a moment to adjust to the darkness. She listened carefully, but heard only the flickering crackles of the two only burning torches in the room. No sign of the creature. Moments passed, and she heard Lahnia coming down the chute. She turned and helped her sister down gently. Not long after, she did the same for Yalasmina.

Lahnia silently dusted off her clothes and looked around. She felt suddenly heavy when Yalasmina touched the floor. That was it. They were now officially on a mission to kill an almost invisible, sour-tempered, mad-clawed daemon. She swallowed briefly, and gave a start when Santhil placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Are you alright?” Santhil asked. Lahnia smiled at her, almost embarrassed, then nodded. “It’s just,” she said, “it’s darker than I expected.”

Santhil chuckled warmly. “Don’t worry, Lana. We’re looking after you. Stay close to me. Yalasmina, keep an eye on our back. Lahnia, watch mine. I’ll take point. Stay quiet, stay low, stay close.” She looked her sisters in the eye for a moment, then nodded and turned. “Follow me.”

°°°

Yalasmina had already lost all sense of time. For all she knew, they could have been down in the darkness for over an hour, skulking from torch-thrown shadow to corner, peering cautiously to spot some irregularity in the lighting. Temple battle strategy, at least for the female division, was centered around achieving the best carnage-to-swing ratio in as little space as possible. Go in, butcher everyone, dodge their blows, be the last one standing when the bloody fog clears. Constantly surveilling her surroundings and minding her every step were stressful practices to her and, she imagined, Lahnia.

So why did Lahnia have a vague smile on her lips all this time? Ultimately, her curiosity won out on her, and she quietly tapped her sister’s arm and inquired wordlessly into her smile. Lahnia wet her lips and cocked her head to Yalasmina’s. “I just, you know... I’ve never been on a mission like this before. It’s kind of exciting.”

Santhil turned a smile on her lips as well, and threw a warm look over her shoulder. She was happy her sisters weren’t two nervous ballwrecks. She checked the corner and turned into it.

“And I think she looks really good in that. The torchlight brings out a beautiful shine on her hair, too.”

Yalasmina blinked, stunned, and stared nonplussed at Lahnia. “We are in a life or death situation,” she whispered, though her disbelief shone through. “And you are checking out your sister?”

“I’m not—” Lahnia almost clammed up, then turned to Yalasmina. “I’m not ‘checking her out’. It just jumped out to me.”

“All the same, could you put aside those silly romantic notions for a moment and focus on the task at hand?”

“That’s a mean thing to say, you know that? I’m stuck in a dark, dank hole with an invisible claw-wielding brute. The onus is on me to blast it into oblivion before it punches a trunk-sized hole through my face. So I try to think of something positive. Why do you have to get on my back for that?”

“Because you’re supposed to be watching hers,” Yalasmina retorted instantly. “And while I know Santhil will be pleased and flattered to hear that you think she looks pretty in battle gear, I know she would be even more pleased if you kept an eye on her.”

“Wait, you just said—”

“In the other sense, Lahnia. You know what I meant.”

“Argh!” Lahnia grunted frustratedly. “Why did you come? Why did you have to? We’re not even sure you can be of any help. Why couldn’t you just sit this one out?”

“Because I won’t let you risk your life—or Santhil’s—without doing the very best I can to help you. Even if I can’t see this beast then, at the very least, I’m an extra pair of ears, and I can carry equipment.”

“If you really, really want to help, Mina,” and Lahnia paused for a moment, so to stress every next word. “Stop stressing me out.” She clenched her fists and shook her hands in frustration. “I’m already tensed like a violin and I really don’t need you to pluck my snares.”

“Keep playing in tune with the rest of the orchestra, and you can scold anyone trying to pluck your snares,” Yalasmina told her. “But right now, we need your focus right here. Santhil needs us.”

“What the hell?” Santhil suddenly snapped, startling them both. “Have I just been crouching a hundred feet, across three different rooms, in the pitch of darkness, on my lonesome?” Her eyes were wide open, her chest heaving quickly while she panted, and she brushed a lock of hair from her face.

“She started it,” Lahnia snapped at Yalasmina, and crossed her arms, insulted. “She keeps getting on my back. I can’t focus like that.”

“What the—?” Santhil stared at her sisters, in turn, paralysed by surprise. “Are you people serious?”

“You weren’t focusing in the first place,” Yalasmina argued with Lahnia. “And this is exactly what happens to Santhil when you don’t pay attention.”

“What happens to Santhil?” Santhil said, clearly annoyed. “What happens to Santhil is she gets a bloody heart attack because she hears a scuff behind her, thinks it is her back cover, and a minute later finds out that there is no back cover.” She held a hand on her pounding chest and swallowed, calming herself down in the process. “Now could we please set aside our differences, and focus on the task at hand?”

Yalasmina bit back a comment, blew some air out her nose, and nodded. Agreed. Lahnia was more annoyed, but finally, reluctantly, nodded as well.

“Take five,” Santhil offered, and hunched down. She could sure use a moment to calm herself down. She rubbed her fingers over her temples and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she found an open hand with two white pills under her head. Caffeine pills. She smiled gratefully, even a bit amused, and accepted the pills. “You’re a life saver.”

“Not if you OD, I’m not,” Lahnia whispered with a chuckle.

“While we’re on that topic,” Yalasmina said, and reached down her belt pocket. She retrieved capsules containing the drug so iconic of the Temple. “Just in case.”

“Something tells me my wits will be more important than my bloodlust,” Santhil said, eyeing the pills with mixed emotions. They brought back recent, violent memories.

“Then don’t ingest them,” Yalasmina said gently. “You’ve proven to be able to handle a minor dose. Consider these a contingency in case things go south.”

“Hello, everyone,” Santhil said while accepting the drugs and slipping them into her breast pocket. “My name is Santhil, and my sisters drug me.”

Lahnia giggled quietly, sinking her face into her hands. Everything was funny right now. Santhil stroked Lahnia’s temple with her fingers, pulling some hair behind her ear. “Ready to move on?” she asked, and she received careful nods. “Alright, let’s go.”

°°°

Yalasmina peered intensely at the vague, transparent wash hanging in the air mere feet in front of her. She believed the creature had legs of some sort, judging by how it had just moved. She could only imagine what this creature would look like if fully visible. Luckily, it appeared to have its back towards them.

Santhil gestured quickly, silently, to her sisters. She handed Yalasmina her crossbow and told her to stay with Lahnia and keep their distance. Lahnia would need to find a good angle to blast the monstrosity without killing Santhil in the process. And she, herself, would attempt to keep the creature away from Lahnia, giving the sorceress the room and calm to focus properly on her spells. She nodded once to her sisters, silently drew a large sword from her back, and waited for their confirmation.

Lahnia threw Yalasmina a confused, desperate look after seeing Santhil swing her hands and fists as if in sign language. They both looked back at her and quickly shook their heads.

“You two, distance,” she mouthed and gestured. She pointed to her sword, and then to the creature.

Yalasmina carefully took Lahnia’s arm and guided her alongside the dark, long wall. They were standing in a long but altogether not large dining room. A long, sturdy, wooden table dominated the chamber, set with glasses, tankards, cuttlery and dishes. They heard a low, passive growl while they hurried to the far side of the room. Yalasmina took aim and nodded to Lahnia to prepare... whatever she needed to prepare. In the distance, she saw Santhil, sword in both hands, squeeze the grip tightly and prepare for a long, wide, powerful swing. Knowing her sister’s belying strength, she would probably cleave halfway through anything mortal.

She shouldered the crossbow... and pulled.

A twang, a cracking ping. Yalasmina had just enough time to raise her eyebrows at the odd, unexpected sound. Santhil didn’t hesitate a moment and swung hard, but was suddenly flung away with great force, toppling over the breadth of the table, breaking dishes and glasses, and crashed into something expensive-sounding in the darkness.

Before Yalasmina got a good look, however, she felt her skin tingle and warm. Lahnia kept her arms outstretched, intensely focused while the room darkened. When the creature roared, a black globe launched from her open hands and smashed itself into the washy form—Yalasmina dove for the ground and covered her head—and the magical blast snuffed the nearby torch instantly, and sent dust, grit, and broken pieces of a dish flying over. An angry, painful roar pierced through the settling wind, and heavy but quick steps gave away its retreat. Yalasmina scrambled to her feet to give chase, but already saw the shade disappear into the long corridor. She stared in wonder. Damn, that thing was fast.

Santhil blinked, and a blunt piece of glass slid from her brow. She heard the hurried steps of her sisters approaching, and tried to get up but immediately found out that she was not even lying the way she thought she was. She moved her arm, turned her head, and stared right at Lahnia’s boot.

Lahnia looked carefully, as if not truly daring to see, at the manhandled porcelain closet Santhil was thrown into, halfway through and upside down. The matted glass doors were torn and broken, with her sister’s foot on one of the cracked boards. A dull-looking dish slid down over her leg and bounced unelegantly off her shoulder. “Ah... are you okay?” Lahnia finally asked, looking at the devastation in disbelief.

“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Santhil wheezed with uneasy breath, only just realising she was lying upside down and on her shoulders. “Help me up?”

Yalasmina took one of Santhil’s arms and helped pull her up. Pieces of glass and porcelain fell on the floor and scattered. “Well, I’ve learned that crossbow bolts don’t seem to do much against it, and that it seems affected by magic.”

“It’s resistant, though,” Lahnia said. “A lot of energy went into that orbish manifestation. It may simply have been surprised because it was being attacked from two sides. Did you get a good look, Santhil?”

Santhil shook a few more tiny pieces of fragile debris from her hair, and only then noticed that she was, in fact, being addressed. “Who, me?”

“Did you learn anything?”

“Yeah, I learned that thing has lightning reflexes and a mean backhand.” She put both hands into her battered back and straightened it with a painful snap. “Okay, that’s the last time I take second strike on an angry daemon.”

“Why was there even a first time?” Yalasmina asked.

“You know, I’ve been asking myself that same question, Mina.” Santhil took a deep breath. “New plan. Lahnia nukes him until he glows, and we rip the bastard up in the dark. All agreed?” She looked her sisters in the eye for a moment, then nodded. “Good. Let’s go, and be careful; it knows we’re here now—”

“Wait, wait, wait,” Lahnia suddenly said, and reached into her shoulderbag. “I just thought of something.”

“Alright,” Santhil said. Yalasmina gave her an annoyed she-just-okayed-look, but Santhil waved it off with a gentle smile.

“It’s-it’s in my bag somewhere...”

“Take your time,” Santhil offered, and gestured for Yalasmina and herself to keep an eye on their surroundings. Just in case.

“Ah, got it!” Lahnia suddenly said, and opened a rather large book in her hands. Yalasmina wondered briefly how it could have taken so long to find it in a shoulderbag. She assumed it looked similar to other books she had along.

Lahnia struggled with the heavy book, flipping through the pages. After several seconds of tossing and trying, she pressed a hand down on Santhil’s shoulder. “Ari, can you bend over for a minute?” Santhil frowned, put her hands on her knees, and felt the book land unceremoniously on her back. “Thanks.”

“What are you looking for?” Yalasmina inquired.

“Santhil identified this summoning ritual—or channeling ritual, whichever it is—and I suddenly remember something about a blood ritual and a semi-corporeal sponge.”

“Sponge?”

“Ah, eh, something very resistant to magical effects.” She slid her fingers over the book, flipping through the pages quickly. “Ah, here it is.”

“Found it?” Yalasmina asked, and peeked over her sister’s shoulder.

“Yep,” Lahnia replied. “Could you get the accompanying guide from my bag? It should have a brown cover,” she added.

“It’s dark,” Yalasmina replied.

“And yet, still carrying a brown cover.”

Yalasmina growled quietly and looked through the bag’s contents carefully. Most of these things looked like they predated their family. Possibly even the continent. “Here you go.”

“Thanks,” Lahnia said, and opened it on Santhil’s shoulders. “Now, it should be somewhere...”

“I don’t mean to be difficult,” Santhil said. “But I’m looking at a fine table here.”

“Almost done, Ari,” Lahnia said. “Almost there... Ah, here we go.” She fell silent, her fingers slowly tracing over the ancient sigils that at one time must have been the base of their language.

“...And?” Yalasmina dared after a while.

“Give me a minute,” Lahnia said absent-mindedly. “It’s dark in here.”

“That didn’t stop you from pressuring me,” Yalasmina reminded her coolly.

“Then again,” Lahnia replied, and smiled fakely at her sister, “I wasn’t standing in your light.”

Yalasmina looked over her shoulder, saw that she was indeed covering part of the light shed by the single torch in the room, and stepped aside with an indignant grunt. She resumed focusing on her environment and made every effort to block out her sister.

“That was unkind of you,” Santhil remarked neutrally from underneath both books.

“You reap what you’ve sown. Alright, this confirms what I thought. The creature is seeking to return to its home plane in the Warp. Usually, the easiest way for daemons to do this is to meet his summoner’s demands as set out at the summoning.”

“But the man died before he made any demands, right?” Santhil guessed. “So how does that work?”

“This is where things get a bit ugly. When you bled, you opened the conduit that summoned this creature and bound him to our world. You are, in fact, the summoner. This is a pretty rare case: the summoner and the demander aren’t the same person.”

“So, are you telling me I can unsummon it?” Santhil ventured. She was way out of her knowledge zone here.

“If you were a sorceress, then yes, it could have been possible, but you’re not. However, the daemon will try to unsummon itself by reopening the conduit, wide enough so that the forces that bind it cannot hold it.”

“Lana?”

“Yes, Ari?”

“You lost me.”

“Your blood opens its conduit,” Yalasmina simplified, having moved back to attending the conversation. “It’ll try to kill you.”

“Well, that’s not really true,” Lahnia corrected Yalasmina. “It’s out for your blood, not your life.”

“To open a conduit, and I quote you, wide enough that the forces that bind it cannot hold it. That sounds like a lethal amount to me, and the daemon is unlikely to take chances there.”

“Remind me, when we get back, that I should incorporate my blood and go public on the stock markets,” Santhil said while washing her hands over her face. “Alright, so where does this leave us?”

°°°

“For the record,” Santhil said while she felt Yalasmina pour the flask with her heated blood over her body. “This is gross.”

“It’ll draw the daemon in and, hopefully, cause it to become reckless,” Yalasmina explained. “Now might be a good time to take your dose.”

“My dose?” Santhil frowned, then aha-ed in understanding. “Right. That dose.”

“You may want to take some more caffeine, too,” Yalasmina added, and beckoned Lahnia to give her some. “You look a little tired.”

“I don’t think a lack of caffeine is Santhil’s problem, right now,” Lahnia protested.

“She’ll need all the energy boosts she can get. Don’t forget that, while you try to annihilate this thing, Santhil will have to survive being in the same room. That means dodging its attempts to kill her and, equally important, dodging your attempts to kill it.”

“And going on a drug-induced, over-caffeinated frenzy is going to help her do that?”

“Yes, because she will have the strength of will and muscle to keep standing and keep fighting. And I’m not asking Santhil to take the whole dose, just half. She’s not a Maibd, after all, and she’s not accustomed to its effects.”

“Half, eh?” Santhil said, and snorted into a half-hearted laugh. “Boy, do I wish you brought that up earlier.”

“You what?” Yalasmina looked at her sister in shocked surprise. “You took the whole dose?”

“Well, I figured, if it was important I take only half, you would have made that obvious to me somehow. Also, since I’m going to get jumped by an angry, angry daemon within seconds, and you two seem destined to spend the evening arguing, I might as well feel better about it. And this is some... powerful stuff.” Santhil placed a hand on a nearby chair’s arm support, missed, and fell flat on her side. “I’m okay,” she immediately said.

“Oh, Khaine, please stand by us in these trying, trying times,” Yalasmina sighed while cupping her face in her hands. Focus, focus... She observed Santhil while Lahnia gave her sister a hand in getting up. “Give her the caffeine pills,” she ordered Lahnia. “They may steady her and help her regain lost focus.”

Lahnia rose an eyebrow while Santhil rose to her feet mostly on her own, but thanking her quietly for the offered help. She looked Santhil in the eye and couldn’t resist a smile at her sister’s bemused gaze. “What?”

“You have beautiful eyes,” Santhil said with a slight lack of focus in her own.

“Thanks, ah,” Lahnia said while her cheeks flushed mildly. “Mina, do you really think more drugs is a good idea?”

“Lahnia, don’t argue with me. I know what I’m doing. Give her the pills.”

“Because I’m thinking, when in a hole, do not dig.”

“Just do it, Lahnia!”

Lahnia muttered silently under her breath, and reluctantly handed Santhil two pills when she stood steady on her feet. Santhil observed the whole process with similar suspicion, then looked past Lahnia and gently but firmly pushed her aside. “There it is. Move!” She took the pills down in a single go.

Yalasmina took firm hold of Lahnia and pulled her away from Santhil. Santhil, in turn, looked at the vague, translucent form of the creature approaching from the other side of the chamber. She leapt onto the table, drew her sword, and approached. A deep, bestial growl culminated into a snarl and, for the first time, Santhil saw it fully upright.

It measured well a foot over herself, its dark lines accentuated by the flickering torch. Two narrow eyes glowed red when they set upon Santhil’s blood sticking to her clothes and skin. It opened its mouth, and she could only imagine what fangs were bared at her.

Santhil felt adrenaline pump through her veins and her heartbeat increase viciously. The drugs were kicking in. She briefly fingered the engraving of Khaine’s symbol on her necklace, then gripped her sword in both hands.

“Khaela Mensha Khaine!”

°°°

Santhil felt the claw brush her leg when she swung her own feetfrom under her body and narrowly avoided the low swipe. She made a hard but controlled landing on a broken dish and a piece of cutlery, and immediately rolled to her side. The giant table shook, splinters flying over her cheek when the daemon pounded into it. She fluently rose to her feet and swung hard with her blade; the blade connected, the shrill sound of metal striking something immovable filling the air while the blade bounced back. Instantly, she jerked herself aside, pulling back her waist and only barely avoiding having a huge, gashing wound there.

The air around her grew energetic and light. Santhil swung her blade in the creature’s general direction, driving it back a step, and dove behind the table. Instantly, the room filled with crimson light as a wide beam of energy erupted from Lahnia’s hands and snatched the creature from mid-air as it attempted to pounce down on Santhil. It shrieked in agony as it was slammed against the wall, its arms and legs writhing under the barrage of energy blasted into its chest.

Santhil swallowed and leaned on her battered sword to clamber to her feet. She brushed some wet hair from her face and considered the cuts and marks on her arm plates for the few seconds she had to recover. The creature was untenably fast, and she felt every dodge or parry demanded ever more from her wits and her body. Her head hurt. Her muscles hurt. Her heart ached. The battle was taking its toll.

The beam of magic lessened and disappeared as Lahnia was at the end of her barrage. This was as much as the sorceress could manage under the circumstances; she now needed to dissipate the energy that had built up in her body, recover her strength. She had injured the daemon and gave Santhil a precious few seconds to recuperate. As soon as the creature fell to the floor again, its body more visible now that it was still glowing with red-hot energy, it jumped to its strong legs, snarling threateningly at Lahnia. Before it could make a move towards the sorceress, Santhil lashed out with her sword and struck its back with a more satisfying crack; it howled in pain and slapped Santhil’s whole body aside with its long arm. She hit the wall powerfully with her back—some grit misted down over her face and shoulders—but she managed to pull herself together fast enough to avoid the next blow which, she took a moment to remind herself, nearly punched one of the slabs out of the wall.

The exchange, blow for blow, had been in her favour this time: each magical assault seemed to lessen its resistance to physical injury, if only for a while. It was important for her to stay on the offensive while the effect lasted.

She spotted an opportunity. The creature aimed itself up and drew back one long arm to bring its massive claw down on Santhil. Rather than backstepping in anticipation, Santhil instead thrust herself forward, bringing her body into a single line, and drilled her sword into the creature’s chest. With a subtle but audible crack, it was not the creature’s chest, but Santhil’s sword that snapped and fell to the table in three asymmetrical pieces. This, Santhil was quick to point out to herself, would pose serious problems in her very near future. A lightning reflex saved her from the razorsharp nails and allowed her the relative mercy of taking the blow bluntly. She grunted in surprise when the arm slammed into her body and lifted her a few inches off the floor. She broke a candelier as she crashed onto and slid over the table, then landed unceremoniously on the floor on the other side.

Bound by promise to watch the combat from the sideline as she guarded Lahnia as a lioness would her cubs, Yalasmina screamed Santhil’s name when she saw her lie but several feet from her. “Get up, Ari!” she yelled. “He’s coming! Get up!”

Santhil rolled away hurriedly and saw bits of stone fly overhead as the punch landed a mere inch from her face. She clambered to her feet hurriedly, barely keeping from slipping and falling flat onto her chest, and dove onto the table in an effort to lure the creature away from her sisters.

It had worked. The table shook heavily when the creature leapt on top of her, throwing her down onto her stomach. She heard it growl while she tried to crawl away over the chipped and battered wooden surface. Suddenly, a piercing shriek of pain and surprise sounded overhead, and she felt the hot beam of energy soaring mere inches over her back while it blasted the daemon off the table and off her back. She crawled away hurriedly, making sure not to get in the way of the magical vortex that saved her life, and scrambled to her feet the second she could. She needed a weapon. “Mina,” she shouted, and was surprised at how out-of-breath she sounded. “Sword!”

Yalasmina had been looking for a weapon that Santhil could use in the mere seconds she had. Her own blades were curved, short, specialty weapons that were unlikely to be of any use to a more conventional swordfighter like Santhil. Her eyes finally laid upon the sword hanging from Lahnia’s waist. Instantly, she put a hand on her sister’s hip and drew the sword. As soon as she did, the light in the room dimmed, and Lahnia looked around alarmedly. “What? Mina, no, not that sword!”

“Lana, she needs a sword!” Yalasmina said, and prepared to toss it, but Lahnia suddenly grabbed her sister’s arms and stopped her. “Lahnia!”

“That’s not a normal sword!”

A loud, threatening growl. Lahnia cast her eyes to her left and kept very still. Yalasmina followed her example and froze on the spot. The daemon, with glowing red vein-like lines drawn over its invisible features, stepped off the table and glared at them hostily.

“Give back the sword,” Lahnia whispered, and took a step back.

“Stay behind me, Lahnia,” Yalasmina said, holding the sword in front of her. The daemon roared aggressively and hunched forward, closing in on its prey.

“Really, the sword,” Lahnia whispered more insistingly. “I’m the only one that can use it.”

Suddenly, a porcelain dish shattered on the side of the creature’s head. It grunted once, pulling away its head, and looked to its side. Immediately, it caught a second plate in its face. It growled menacingly and leapt onto the table.

Santhil grabbed a large, dwarven tankard, and tossed it at the daemon. It glanced off the rocklike skin with a disappointingly dull thud. She kicked a candelier its way, but that was crushed underfoot. “Mina, I need a weapon! Right now!” She snatched some random silerware from the table and flung it as hard as she could.

Thock!

The daemon’s red eyes slowly faded into dullness while the butter knife shuddered briefly in between them. It stood as if paralysed for several long seconds, then careened forward and landed on the table with a loud, shaking thud.

“W—?” Santhil stared at her adversary, dumbstruck when, before her very eyes, it crumbled to a dark, heavy ash. An offended, indignant glare settled in her eyes, her sweaty chest moving quickly while she panted for fresh air. “Seriously!?”

“I...” Lahnia was at a loss for words, and managed only to vaguely shake her head. Yalasmina gave her a sharp glance, but was likewise stunned. This, she had not expected.

“I’ve been... It was... I mean...” Santhil looked around, her arms hanging unsteadily around her, then suddenly clenched her fists angrily. “Cutlery!?”

“Maybe it was the silver,” Lahnia dared, not sure what kind of a reaction she would get to that. Yalasmina groaned and turned her head away. “Well, how was I supposed to now?” Lahnia said defensively. “How could I possibly?”

“Oh, no,” Santhil said, and laughed malevolently. “No, no no no, it doesn’t end like this.” She swung her finger at the ashy remains, and took great strides towards it. “I’m going to whip your—”

It happened too quickly for Santhil. In a single, fluent move, her foot swung up, a silver plate went flying, and not a moment later, she landed hard and flat on the table and some broken pieces of tableware. She looked at the ceiling for a moment, then exhaled defeatedly and hung her arms off the table sides.

“Oh, my,” Lahnia said, and silently approached Santhil. “Are you alright?”

“No,” she croaked sadly. “I want to go home now.”

“We’re going home,” Yalasmina comforted her, and took her arm to help her up. “We’re going home.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Wed Jan 05, 2011 6:30 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Location: Flanders, Belgium
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Santhil waved off the troops while she walked to her quarters. Excited cheers and whistles still hung in the wide corridors. Witnessing the elatedness of her staff and troops upon her resurfacing had taken some of the sting out of her tired muscles. Morale was up again, she told herself.

And now, she was going to crash into her bed and sleep all day.

“Ari?” Santhil looked over her shoulder when she caught her name, and watched Lahnia catch up with her in a few hurried steps. “Ari, I’ve been thinking.”

“You always do,” Santhil said with a gentle smile. “And I can’t anymore. I have to crash.”

“But—”

“Lana, honey, my sweetest, dearest sister.” Santhil stopped, turned to her, and held both her hands. “I haven’t had a night’s sleep since I came back from the battlefield. Since Jesamine was attacked. Since I wandered through the caves. Since I hacked and slashed through over a dozen cultists—”

“I know, I know,” Lahnia said, and her voice told that indeed she knew. “But it’s about that. Somewhat.”

Santhil looked Lahnia in the eye for a while and, deep down in her heart, felt something melt. She smiled as warmly as the feeling hit her with. “Alright. What’s on your mind?”

“That daemon you just killed—”

“We killed,” Santhil corrected. “We killed it. You were terrific. I’m proud of you.”

“That, ah,” Lahnia cleared her throat while her cheeks flushed red. “That we killed, ah... These cultists summoned it, right? And, from the looks of it, this daemon is what killed the priest in his room.”

“And now we know how it got in and out, too,” Santhil added. “It’s invisible to others.”

“Right. It’s just, it doesn’t add up.”

“What do you mean? It all adds up perfectly, doesn’t it?”

“Jesamine wasn’t attacked by that daemon,” Lahnia said. “She was attacked by people. With swords.”

Santhil nodded to herself. “The cultists had swords,” she said. “I’m sure they crept up on Jess.”

“But there’s the rub, isn’t it?” Lahnia suddenly said, her face lined with thought. Apparently, this had been bothering her for a while, now. “I mean, no offense to you, I thought you were awesome. Really, you were just awesome down there.”

Santhil laughed briefly and cupped Lahnia’s hands together. “Thank you, Lana. Classical dance. It’ll save your life some day.”

“The way you swung and dodged, and left, and right, and... and... I mean, wow!”

“Anyway,” Santhil said with a smile, guiding Lahnia back to the topic at hand.

“Right, ah, so you killed—what?—fifteen of them?”

“I wasn’t alone,” Santhil reminded her. “And we had the element of surprise.”

“Still, fifteen to two are steep odds. I mean, even with all that, if these were people that could sneak through our guards, creep to the library, attack Jesamine and manage to get away...” She trailed off.

Santhil stared blankly ahead of herself. Lahnia made a very compelling point; the images of the sword-struggling cultists she fought with Zyln were hard to marry with the abilities needed to ambush and assault Jesamine in the middle of their encampment. Slowly, her tired brain cranked itself into motion again.

“I could be wrong,” Lahnia said. “I could just be seeing things or, I don’t know, misjudging the situation. It just doesn’t sit well with me. I mean, Jess was poisoned, and you had been cut up a bit, and you were fine.”

“I see your point, sweetheart,” Santhil said, lost in thought. “I agree, it doesn’t all add up the way I thought it did.” Then, she opened her eyes widely, and she looked at Lahnia with a sense of profound realisation in her eyes.

“What?” Lahnia asked. “What is it?”

“Jess pointed it out,” Santhil said in disbelief. “It’s been right under my nose all along.”

“What has? Wait, where are you going?” Lahnia called out, and followed her. “Santhil, wait up!”

°°°

“I know you did what you could,” the high priestess comforted Yalasmina. “You always do.”

“Thank you,” Yalasmina replied. “But I feel I was not as useful as I had hoped. In all honesty, I... I may have antagonized Mistress Arhakuyl and, in doing so, caused more harm than good.”

The priestess nodded, folding her hands into her tastefully decorated but sober sleeves. “You had a disagreement.”

“Several,” Yalasmina sighed, and put her blades aside on the table. “When do we not?”

“You no doubt had everyone’s best interests in mind, Yalasmina.”

“It’s...” Yalasmina took a deep breath, doubting whether she should continue or simply drop the issue.

“She is a sorceress, Yalasmina,” her superior said gently. “You cannot hope to reason with her the way we can with normal beings.”

“It is not her vocation,” Yalasmina argued. “It’s her personality.”

“You are correct; it is not her vocation. Being a sorceress is not a daytime job. It is her life, and it dictates everything she does.”

“I just... wish she would be more conscious about her power. There is more to being a sorceress than blowing holes in creatures.”

“And I am sure that, were she here with you, she would agree completely with you.”

Yalasmina frowned when she heard a voice calling out in the main room. She recognised that voice. “Santhil?” She wasn’t sure, but she believed she picked up a profanity, perhaps two.

“I will see to this,” the priestess said, unshaken but curious, and retreated from the chamber. “Please, take a moment to rest.”

°°°

“You!” Santhil burst when she saw the high priestess, and paced to her, arm outstretched. “You backstabbing, spineless reptile!”

The priestess held still, her eyes open in surprise. “Drachau? Is everything alright?”

“You venomous serpent!” Santhil’s voice carried excellently in the uncrowded halls, and she kept it at full volume while she closed in on the dignitary. “You know fully all is not well! You knew!” Lahnia walked in a few feet behind Santhil, her hand reaching for Santhil as if she could hold her shoulder.

“What did I know?” the priestess asked, puzzled.

“Don’t play innocent with me!” Santhil yelled and, now standing right in front of the priestess, swung her arm aside widely. “I should have you hanging from the nearest tree by your neck!” she screamed at full, military volume.

“Drachau, I...” The high priestess shook her head, and blinked in surprise. “You have me at a loss. Have I offended you?”

“You sent assassins after my staff, you treacherous rat! You sent your men against my administration!” Santhil bellowed, and stuck her finger under the priestess’ chin. “I trusted you!”

Yalasmina hurried down the stairs and ran over to Santhil in an effort to calm her. She caught Lahnia’s ambivalent look and quickly attempted to gauge the situation. “Santhil, what’s going on?”

“That snake sent assassins after Jesamine!” Santhil burst. “She was the cause! She knew all along!”

Catching on, the high priestess straightened herself with a slight frown. “With all due respect, Drachau, even if this were the case, the Temple would be within its right to do so.”

“Mistress, please accept my apologies,” Yalasmina told her superior, shaken by her sister’s outburst. “My sister is unaccustomed to our combat drugs. She is not herself right now.”

“Not myself!?” Santhil screamed. “I’ve been up and fighting for over seventy hours, for our race, for our empire, for the colonies!” She tapped her finger on the priestess’ chest. “And for the Temple! And this is how you repay me? You kill my advisors! You poison my staff!”

“By tradition,” the high priestess pressed calmly. “The Temple is entitled to accept payment for assassinations.”

“Oh, by tradition, is it? Well, I know something else that’s traditional,” Santhil grumbled loudly, and drew her new sword, holding it up to the priestess’ face. “Dueling, that’s very traditional.”

“Oh, oh, hey, Santhil!” Yalasmina urged, and forcefully pulled the sword from her sister’s hand. “You’re not thinking clearly.”

“Who’s next, huh?” Santhil asked, her face mere inches from the priestess’. “Are you after the sorceresses? Or just people you don’t like, hm? Have a nice little hit list stashed away somewhere?”

“Drachau, please,” the priestess pleaded, “compose yourself. Rest. You are exhausted.”

“Exhausted? Exhausted!?” Yalasmina stopped Santhil from making any sudden moves, and pulled her away from the religious official. “You and me, right here, right now! I’ll go medieval on your self-righteous ass!”

“Lahnia!” Yalasmina shouted, struggling to restrain Santhil. “I could use some help here!”

“Ari!” Lahnia suddenly exclaimed, and walked up next to her. “Santhil?”

“She knew, Lana! She knew!” Santhil steamed from clenched teeth, but stopped making attempts on the priestess’ wellbeing. Yalasmina held her arms around Santhil’s chest all the same.

“Come on, Ari,” Lahnia tried softly. “There’s nothing you can do here.”

“Oh, I can get even, I can do that right here.” She glared murderously at the high priestess.

“Drachau, I assure you—”

“Don’t you say a word!” Santhil snapped. “I am this close from setting the Black Guard on you!”

“Santhil?” Lahnia placed the palm of her hand on her sister’s cheek and hushed her.

“It’s treason, Lahnia,” Santhil croaked from her throat, suddenly sounding sad. “High treason.” She suddenly turned to the priestess again. “I have a mandate—an order!—from the king to exterminate all resistance! You hear me? Exterminate!”

“Oh, Ari,” Lahnia sighed, and felt her sister’s forehead. “You’re glowing hot. You need a doctor. Let’s get you out of this blood and armour.”

Santhil clenched her fist painfully hard, her leather gloves creaking under the strength of her fury. The temple hall fell quiet, until she finally pointed at the priestess, fuming. “Thin ice, Khainite,” she hissed angrily. “Thin ice.” She let Lahnia guide her away.

Yalasmina slowly blew some air from her lips and looked wide-eyed at her superior, her heart pounding from adrenaline. “That was... refreshing,” the high priestess quietly said and held a hand to her chest, taking a deep breath. “You know her best, Yalasmina. Should I take her seriously?”

“I’ve known Santhil to make a calculated bluff on occasion,” Yalasmina almost whispered, trying to make sure her sister wouldn’t hear her name. “But she did not appear calculated. She meant every word she said.”

“Am I at personal risk, then?”

“I... expect that you will hear from her again, when she has cooled. And I believe you, and we all, would do well not to catch her sight until she does.” Yalasmina frowned, and hesitated for a moment. “Did we send assassins after Mistress Cadsane?”

“You know better than to have me answer such questions, Yalasmina,” the high priestess reminded her.

“Of course. I meant no disrespect. I do, however, expect Drachau Arhakuyl to investigate this, and she will ask me. And I am at a loss what to tell her.”

“And by not knowing, all you can do is answer your sister’s questions faithfully and truthfully. I did notice Mistress Arhakuyl holds great sway over our drachau. How would you describe her disposition towards us?”

“Belligerent,” Yalasmina said carefully, adjusting to the stern change in topic.

“Belligerent. How so?”

“Mistress Arhakuyl is a very... secular woman. She takes offense to our religious traditions and reverence.” Yalasmina breathed deeply through her nose. “She is a good person.”

“So she struck me,” the high priestess said, thinking back of the brief encounter. “Tell me, Yalasmina, are there any other things about Drachau Arhakuyl that I should be aware of?”

°°°

The doctor chuckled good-naturedly while observing Santhil’s sour, level gaze. He retracted the syringe from her arm and put it away in his bag. “There you go,” he said. “You should be sleeping like a baby in a couple of minutes.”

Santhil stroked her recently punctured arm wistfully. She was lying in bed, washed and clean, her arms lying next to her on the covers. Lahnia sat next to her, and gave her shoulder a warm squeeze.

“Her body has been pushed to its limits,” the doctor cautioned. “I strictly forbid any strenuous activities.”

Lahnia nodded. “Thank you for coming, doctor.” He smiled friendly, bade Santhil goodbye, and left her bedroom.

Santhil exhaled deeply through her nose. She pressed her lips and growled throatily. She threw Lahnia a look and frowned when she saw her sister try to keep from laughing. “What?”

“I’ll go medieval on your self-righteous ass,” Lahnia quoted her, and snorted into a brief laugh. “That was rich.”

Santhil chuckled half-heartedly and rolled her eyes. “Yeah, well...”

“When you threatened to set the Black Guard on her? You should’ve seen her face. She turned white, I tell you.” She laughed into her hands, taking deep breaths. “I can’t believe you said all those things!”

“And I meant them, too,” Santhil added.

“You scared me for a moment, though. When you pulled out your sword?”

Santhil ignored that and felt the beautifully carved stone pendant lying on her chest. She picked up, lifting it by its fine chain and staring at the marking of Khaine engraved into the stone. There was an entrancing, subtle shine to it, accentuating the lines it took to form the symbol of her people’s deity of choice. She couldn’t stand the sight of it, for the moment. With a quick tug, she pulled loose the chain and put it on the nightstand.

Lahnia pressed her lips silently while Santhil washed her hands over her face with a deep, angry sigh. “I think that looks really good on you,” she said softly.

“When I told Yalasmina you gave that to me, she stared at me. Like I just said our king joined a choir.” She breathed deeply through her nose. “Why did you give me that?”

Lahnia lifted her shoulders with a smile. “I figured it would look good on you. I know you have a greater reverence for Khaine than I.” She kept her eyes on her sister, recalling the battle they had just fought, and the numerous ones she had fought before. She suddenly frowned. “Wow, yeah, you’ve been going for—what?—almost a week, now?”

Santhil waved it off. She didn’t even want to think about that anymore. She just wanted to sleep. No. No, what she wanted was to kill someone. What she needed was sleep.

“I should let you get some sleep,” Lahnia said softly, and rose from the bed. “I’ll check up on you tomorrow, okay?”

°°°

Santhil rolled over in her bed, again, and stayed put on her side. It was already dark outside but, with the heavy curtains closed and only the fire in the fireplace shedding warm, golden light with soft crackles, Santhil couldn’t really tell the difference anyway. She had no idea what time it was. She didn’t really care. She was thinking, pondering.

A warm, almost ticklish sensation pervaded her back. A subtle but content smile appeared on her lips, and she tucked herself in deeper. The comfortable feeling reached over her stomach, then her upper leg, and she rolled over on her back. Her eyes set on a subtle, viscous shape standing next to her bed. Santhil screamed in surprise, and leapt to the other side of the bed, hastily pulling the covers up to her shoulders. Two smooth tentacles pulled back from the bed.

“You!” Santhil shouted accusingly. “Have you no shame!”

There was a long, strange silence in her bedroom.

“Just forget I said that,” Santhil finally said, and stroked her brow. “What do you want?”

“We believed you would find us courteous, Santhil Arhakuyl, if we were to bring you the latest news on our progress,” the creature purred. “So you know when and where to stay away.”

“Really,” Santhil replied coolly. “How thoughtful of you.”

“We wish only the best for you and your kin,” it smoothly said.

“Funny,” she said, and turned half a smile on her lips. “I would have thought that you sending one of your daemons after me was for ill wishes. But, as you undoubtedly know, we’ve defeated it.”

“Hm? Oh, yes, that. Morbid, morbid business. A terrible setback on our end. It played such a pivotal role and, frankly, I...” It sniffled. “I don’t think I’ll ever recover emotionally. You monster.”

“I’m no stranger to sarcasm,” Santhil said levelly. “But really, a butterknife?”

As much as could be discerned in the shapeless figure, a smile settled on its facial features. “Surely, a race as frails as yours would not begrudge a daemon a simple weakness.”

Santhil tongued her cheek and nodded vaguely. “Anyway, you were saying?”

“You remember your... spectacular defeat at Athel Loren? That magical forest nearby that houses pixies and fairies and a number estranged from your race? The one we advised you not to invade—”

“I haven’t got all night,” Santhil cut in. “And even if I do, I don’t want to spend it with you.”

“We will be making a preliminary assault on the forest. I would like you to be prepared to provide support to our more... human forces.”

“And just what would make me—”

“In return,” the creature continued, “we will lend a hand with your battles in the northern parts. We’ve picked up there are certain issues considering the ports to the north, and we would like to offer our assistance. It is our understanding that so many of the races that dwell on this world require continued incentives to uphold any deals.”

“I don’t want any Chaos roots festering in my backyard,” Santhil refused, and attempted to ignore the sting.

“No roots,” the creature assured. “Simply a few... devastating attacks on your enemies. Enough to tip the scales decidedly in your favour again.”

Santhil had to admit that offer sounded very tempting. Hypothetically, if she could free up the ports, she could start harassing the surrounding countryside, and even bring in additional commerce to boost her coffres. It would free up forces for the siege of Avalaer, the rebels’ capital city and seat of gouvernment. It would also, however, mean striking a deal with forces bent on the destruction of her world.

“I’ll think about it,” Santhil stalled.

“Of course, we could pad with favours of a more... personal touch,” the creature added. “Should you decide our offer is not sufficiently generous.”

Santhil harshly slapped the tentacle that slowly slithered her way under the covers, and tucked her legs safely underneath her body. She gave the creature a curious but offended stare.

Suddenly, Santhil jerked awake. It was already dark outside but, with the heavy curtains closed and only the fire in the fireplace shedding warm, golden light with soft crackles, she couldn’t tell the time anyway.

“Hey, are you alright?” Santhil looked to her side and saw Lahnia hunched next to her, holding her arm. She must have woken her. “Nightmare?”

Santhil breathed deeply through her nose and washed her free hand over her face. “I’m... not sure.”

“Was it them?”

Santhil nodded, then turned to Lahnia. “What brings you here?” she asked to bridge the silence while she shook the strange experience from her mind and attempted to focus on reality. Or, well, current reality.

“Yeah, ah,” Lahnia started, and laid a hand in her neck. “I’ve been thinking about what happened today, about the Temple.” She cleared her throat, and continued uneasily. “I couldn’t sleep. Alone. In the dark. I, ah, see things in the shadows. That aren’t there when I check, obviously, but...”

Santhil looked at her sister while she went about her explanation, and beamed her an endearing smile; Lahnia’s straightforward, honest nature never ceased to touch Santhil. “I understand, honey,” she said. “There’s room for two.”

“Thanks. I, ah, I knew you needed to rest, so I thought about bunking up with Yalasmina instead.” She pressed her lips silently while Santhil gave her a long but thoughtful stare. “So yeah, here I am.”

Santhil chuckled, and made some room for her sister. She felt her tired bones and muscles protest painfully while moving to the colder side of the bed. She had tortured her body for a long time, and now it was taking it out on her every chance it got. The caffeine withdrawal didn’t help, either.

She felt the mattress sink a little when Lahnia slid under the covers and tucked herself in. With a slow gesture, Santhil turned on her side and wrapped her arm around her sister. “Come here,” she softly said.

Lahnia looked surprised at Santhil when she felt the warm arm pull her closer in halfway hug, and blinked with a vague smile. “Oh, does this bother you?” Santhil wondered.

“No,” Lahnia replied instantly. “I’ve... no-one’s ever done that with me, before.”

“I suppose you don’t share your bed often.” Such was the solitary nature of sorceresses. Well, that and being married to the king who, Santhil reminded herself, could be hostile towards transgressors. A warm fright overtook her, as if she was caught doing something illegal, but she shook the thought off with a chuckle.

“What?” Lahnia immediately inquired to her little injoke.

“I just imagined Malekith stepping in here and going off on a hair trigger.” She blinked, then rolled her eyes sideways in thought. “Thinking about it suddenly makes that seem less funny and more frightening.”

“I think he’d be really thrilled to see us,” Lahnia said, and looked at her surprised sister for a moment. “He’d swing his arms into the air and shout: ‘Threesome!’ ”

They snorted into a wild, uncontrollable laugh. Lahnia held her hands on her stomach, swinging her legs under the covers. Santhil buried her face into the pillow.

“Of course, then he realises he can’t get out of that armour, and he slumps his shoulders and drags his feet outside again,” Lahnia added when she finally caught her breath.

“Yeah, ah, thanks for that mental image. If I ever have an audience with him, I’ll be desperately trying not to think about threesomes,” Santhil said.

“Sorry about that,” Lahnia giggled. “But he’s not in your doorway, and his wife is in your bed, so... really, you could do anything you want.” Lahnia winked her eyebrows once. “Drachau.”

“Anything, eh?” Santhil said, thinking it over with a smile. “I... want to hold you while we sleep.”

“Sleep,” Lahnia said levelly. She blinked once. “Sleep is a... is a good idea.”

Santhil frowned gently at her sister’s sudden change in mood and cocked her head. “I’m sorry, hun, did you want to talk some more?”

“No, no no,” Lahnia said with a smile. “You’re right, we should get some sleep. I mean, doctor’s orders.”

“You sure?” Santhil asked.

“Yeah,” Lahnia replied. “I’m... I’m tired too. It’s late, I haven’t slept much, or at all. Shady shadows.”

Santhil smiled warmly and gave her sister a soft but long kiss on her lips. “Alright. Goodnight, honey.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Wed Feb 02, 2011 11:33 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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“Let’s move on,” Santhil said, and rested her pencil between her fingers. She suppressed a sigh, straightened her back, and tucked her legs under her chair. The resumé under her nose was turning out to be as generously padded as a lunatic’s cell. “Well, I see you’ve listed extensive strategy and combat experience. Could you... elaborate on that?”

“Yeah, ah,” the man said, as if thrilled to have finally reached that topic. That was good, Santhil told herself; being enthousiastic would certainly improve his odds of being selected for the job. Of course, she also reminded herself, she was looking for an administrative assistant, not a lieutenant.

“I read books,” he said, nodding with a wide smile. Santhil turned her lips into half a smile of her own. Given how the rest of the interview had been going, she wasn’t sure whether congratulations were in order. “What books have you read?” Santhil inquired, and tried to recall her own reading list from her time at the academy.

“You know, the standard fare,” he said. His fingers twitched, and he squeezed them nervously. “The usual.” He glanced at Santhil’s impassive (or perhaps incredulous) face, and quickly tried to come up with a plan B. “I, ah, I forgot the title, but there’s this, ah, this guy and he goes to the Chaos Wastes, and he finds a treasure there, and then he’s possessed by this daemon, and then there are big and huge, epic battles! I forgot the name, though.” He chuckled nervously. “Interviewing nerves, you know.”

Santhil nodded gently with a look of understanding. “Malus Darkblade?”

“Yeah, that’s him! Have you read them, too?”

“I have, I have,” Santhil admitted quietly. “I read some when I was... about your age. But you realise it is fiction, right?”

“What do you mean? I thought it was a biography?”

Santhil brought her pencil down to cross out the man’s name, but hesitated. That would be plain rude. She took a deep, calming breath, and looked him in the eye again. “The stories’ background is that the usurpers have won the civil war, and that the Sundering was the sinking of the province of Naggarythe.”

“Huh,” the young man said, and pulled his chin thoughtfully. “You know, I never thought about it that way. You’re good.”

Santhil smiled courteously and, for a few seconds, let her mind wander over whether she should use the straight, professional, forward stroke, or a fluent, classy, slightly curved backstroke. “Very well, I believe we are done. Unless there is anything you would like to ask me?”

“Yeah, actually, I kind of do. Do you, ah... do you want to grab some coffee? With me?”

Santhil smiled, taken off guard, then silently placed her thumb on her engagement ring and held up her hand to him. “Right, sorry,” the young man—or boy, really—said while getting up. “I should have known. Or noticed.”

“That’s okay,” Santhil said soothingly. “Thank you for asking. It was very kind of you.”

“Yeah, ah,” he said, blushing slightly. “I... I didn’t do well, did I?”

Santhil kept her gentle smile on her lips, but subtly shook her head. “I, ah,” he stuttered. “I... wasn’t really here for the job. I’ve just never, ah, met an Arhakuyl in the flesh.” Santhil nodded with a knowing expression. “Should I, ah, send in the next candidate?”

“If you please,” Santhil said.

°°°

The thick, grey cover of clouds had been hanging in the air all morning. It was chilly, even with barely any wind outside, and Lahnia was happy to be in, warming her hands on the mug of tea she was holding while walking through the corridors. She was curious how Santhil was holding up; she would have been doing interviews for two hours, now. Perhaps she had already selected someone. But, as she turned the corner, she quickly saw that was not the case.

Uneasily seated on chairs were seven more applicants, checking the time, reading their own resumé to themselves, or looking around curiously. One seemed soundly asleep. Lahnia frowned with an amused smile, and wondered fleetingly what it would feel like to have to apply for a job opening. The services that sorceresses provided were in such steep demand that it was more a matter of picking than applying.

“Excuse me,” one of the applicants suddenly accosted her, and stood from her seat. “Are you Mistress Lahnia Arhakuyl?”

“I am,” Lahnia replied, and looked at the young woman in wonder. She hadn’t expected to strike a conversation with an applicant. “Can I help you?”

“You are the Drachau’s sorceress, correct?”

Lahnia suppressed a smile at that. “Well, not really only the Drachau’s sorceress, but the court sorceress, yes. And you are applying for the opening?”

“I am. Could we...?” She motioned to move a bit further down the hall, and Lahnia politely followed her as requested. “My name is Avika, and if I’m made the Drachau’s personal assistant, you and I will be working together often.”

Lahnia instantly felt dismayed. This Avika implied that, were she selected for the job, Lahnia wouldn’t get to see Santhil as often as she did now. “I suppose that’s possible,” she replied non-commitedly.

“I’d like you to know that, if the Drachau were to select me, I would make sure our cooperations would be...” She stroked a finger over Lahnia’s sleeve. “...pleasant.”

Lahnia’s heart suddenly raced, and she held the mug even more firmly than she did before. “I-I, ah...”

“You see, I would really like to land this job, and if you could put in a good word for me, I would be grateful.” She slowly pulled a wavy lock of hair from Lahnia’s cheek. “I have a few minutes before I’m called in.”

Lahnia swallowed, trying to say something, anything, but at a complete loss as to what that would be. She uttered a vowel or two, then snapped her look to her side when she heard a woman weeping loudly while walking out the door, closely followed by Santhil. “Ari!” Lahnia called out to her, relieved, and even forgot to excuse herself before making a beeline for her sister.

“—just have a seat, come to a little,” Santhil softly urged the distressed woman. “We’ll try again after the others, alright?”

“Ari, hey!” Lahnia said when approaching hurriedly. “Hey, what happened?”

“Deep breaths,” Santhil told the woman. “Deep breaths, and—” She turned to Lahnia. “What’s that?”

“This? Eh, tea. I brought you some tea.” Before Santhil could frown as much as she meant to, Lahnia countered her. “No coffee for you.”

Santhil took the mug from Lahnia with a quick smile, and handed it over to the sniffling woman. “Have some warm tea, clear your head, and we’ll try again, alright?” Santhil waited for the woman to reply, even if just with a quick nod, then turned to Lahnia.

“What happened?” Lahnia asked.

“I swear,” Santhil whispered. “I just asked her name.”

“Not going so well, eh?”

Santhil replied with a deep, telling breath, then frowned curiously. “Are you alright? You look a little shaken.”

Lahnia cast a glance at Avika, who was now approaching, bearing a confident look, and then looked back at her sister. “Ari, ah, I...” She cleared her throat quickly, stalling. Santhil picked up on it and bade Avika to take a seat in her office while waiting.

“No,” Lahnia finally said. “It’s nothing. Good luck.”

“Thank you. Oh hey, honey, could you bring me a coffee?”

“No coffee,” Lahnia repeated. “You had enough to last you the month. I can get you tea.”

“Tea, Lahnia?” Santhil asked, slightly bewildered. “I don’t drink tea.”

“You will learn. I’ll bring you a new mug.”

“I already tried tea, and I didn’t like it. Decaf?” Santhil persisted.

“Tea is decaf. You will learn to like it.”

“Honey...”

“No. You’re done with coffee.”

“You can’t just pull the plug like that,” Santhil argued. “I can tone it down, drink less—”

“No coffee, and that’s final,” Lahnia stressed. “Until I say otherwise.”

“What? You can’t—” Santhil sighed annoyedly and looked at her sister but only found a convinced, serious gaze. She put a hand in her side, stroked her brow, and finally admitted defeat. “Fine,” she grumbled, barely audible.

Lahnia brightened visibly and gave her a peck on her cheek. “I’ll get you some tea you’ll like.”

Santhil cocked her head to and fro in dismay and looked to her side while Lahnia walked off. “Good luck with that,” she muttered under her breath, and blew some steam out her nose, then found one of the applicants was giving her a bewildered stare. “What are you looking at?” she snapped at her. The applicant immediately leaned back and looked away, raising her hands. Santhil shook her head, grumbling over the injustice while she walked back into her office.

°°°

“Well, everything seems to be in order,” Santhil said, looking over the resumé. She wasn’t really impressed with it, but this Avika appeared sharp, competent, and focused so far. Compared to the other candidates, she was the love child of Marie Curie and Thomas Edison. “Let’s move on to the exercise, shall we?

“I have on my desk fifteen files of varying importance and urgency. What I need you to do is to go over these files, find the ones that I need to handle today, and give me those.”

Avika gave her an unassuming look. “How much time do I have?”

“Ah, say, ten minutes.” Santhil checked her pocket watch—she was surprised to see it so battered and scratched, a bit out of place in her otherwise impeccable outfit—and closed the protective lid on it again. “I’ll be over at the window if you need me.” Not having coffee, Santhil reminded herself sourly.

“I could do that in five,” Avika said, and stood from her chair. “That leaves us five minutes for other things.”

Santhil raised both her eyebrows curiously. “Ah, I...” She eyed the candidate while she walked over and generously bent over towards to Santhil. “...suppose?”

“So, if there is anything else you need me to do, Drachau,” and she bent over to Santhil with a seductive smile, “anything else you would like to test or... find out about me, be sure to let me know.”

Santhil looked lengthily at Avika while she pressed her back uncomfortably hard into her chair’s back support. “Sorting out the files will do fine, thank you,” she finally said. “I’d like to keep everyone playing the same field.”

“Don’t hold back on my account, Drachau,” Avika said with a smile. “I can play two fields.”

“That certainly seems to be the case,” Santhil said convincedly, sinking an inch deeper into her chair while the immodestly deep cut in the candidate’s blouse stared at her. “The,” she cleared her throat and tried again, “the files are on my desk.” And carefully, with a quick smile, she slid out of her chair and fluently made her way past the candidate.

°°°

“What are the working hours?”

Santhil thought on that for a moment. That would be: “The same as my own, I suppose.”

“And what are yours?” the woman asked with an insistent gaze.

“...Highly variable.”

“I want a rule that it’s never more than eight hours a day, measured per day, not averaged out. With a respectable lunch break,” she demanded. “And no nitpicking.”

“That can be discussed once we’re done with the interview, ma’am,” Santhil assured her.

“What’s your policy about training? Will there be opportunities to take classes during working hours?”

“Madam, miss, please,” Santhil urged her. “I understand you have questions, but there will be an opportunity to ask them after the interview. Now, please, I am trying to interview your son.”

°°°

Lahnia picked a book she found lying around. She was unlikely to find what they were looking for in there but, out of sheer desperation, flipped through the pages anyway. Of course, nothing turned up. “But... how is that even possible?”

“Lahnia, honey,” Santhil said while going through the drawers in her desk. “I have learned there are secrets in this world I do not want to delve into.”

“But...” Lahnia lifted her shoulders helplessly and turned to Santhil. “How does somebody do this? How do you lose a file like that?”

“All I know,” Santhil replied, echoing curiously when she kneeled down under her desk, “is that I had fifteen files before she started, and now I am short one.”

Lahnia sighed, and lifted a rug to look underneath. Nothing but a load of dust. “Why did you use actual files, anyway?”

“Because I did not believe I would be interviewing the David Copperfield of the eastern colonies,” Santhil replied while she rose. Her desk rattled when she hit it hard with her head.

“Ari? Are you okay?” Lahnia put her hands on her knees and peeked under the desk. “That was... loud.”

Santhil screwed her eyelids shut for a moment while holding her painful head, then opened her eyes again without making a sound. Her eyes fell on a piece of paper sticking out from underneath the drawers; she snatched it up with a glint of victory in her eyes. “Ah, found it!” she exclaimed.

Thock!

Lahnia carefully went to her knees and looked her floored sister over before assembling the loose papers back into the whole file. “One of those days, eh?” she softly said.

Santhil stared blankly ahead of herself for a few moments, her nose resting on her forearm. “One of those days when I wonder why I got up in the morning.” She pulled herself together and carefully cleared herself from underneath her desk before rising to her feet. “So, ah,” her sister started while she dusted off her clothes. “Any serious candidates?”

“One, maybe,” Santhil said, thinking it over, and traced her fingers over the list of names. “Avika seemed competent.”

“Yeah, I, ah, spoke to her for a moment,” Lahnia said, and handed over the file once Santhil beckoned for it. “She seemed friendly.”

“I suppose that’s one way to call it,” Santhil replied non-committedly. “Halfway through the interview, she had me pinned in my chair.”

“Well, she did seem to have a... captivating personality,” Lahnia replied. “That’s a good thing, though.”

“I mean, physically pinned. As in, if she put her chest any closer, I’d have to breathe through a straw,” Santhil clarified while checking the recovered dossier for missing pages. “She really wants that job.”

“Say what?” Lahnia asked indignantly. “Then, that settles it, doesn’t it? She’s off the list.”

“I was thinking about it, but she’s the only reasonable candidate,” Santhil said, flipping through the pages quickly. Everything seemed to be in order. “I’ll put her on the shortlist and decide later. I’ve managed this long without an assistant; I’ll manage a while longer.”

Lahnia nodded, thinking it over, then offered, “you know, if you need help... Anything I can do. But no coffee,” she quickly added.

“Well, that puts a dent in ‘anything’, doesn’t it?” Santhil snapped.

Her office fell uncomfortably silent. Lahnia kept a cautious, distant gaze on her sister, as if watching a stray and possibly wild animal. Santhil scratched her forehead and stared at her desk. “Sorry,” she finally said. “That was wrong of me.”

“Is that... withdrawal?” Lahnia asked, equally curious as worried.

Santhil took a deep breath, and nodded subtly. “Yeah. Ugly, isn’t it?”

“I just never thought that...” Lahnia shook her head at herself, smiling. “I somehow just figured you wouldn’t be affected by that. I mean...” She motioned incoherently with her hands, as if they would better convey what she wanted to say. “You’re you. You—You fly over a regiment and you’re okay. You take a hit and you get up again, you know?”

“Arhakuyl women: business savvy, carrying exotic genetic defects, and highly impact-resistant.” Santhil sat down behind her desk and took the files to hand again. “Bring me some tea, hun?”

“I’ll get you something tasty,” Lahnia said, but stopped halfway to the door. She stroked her upper lip with her fingertips, casting an occasional glance at her sister. Santhil, in turn, looked up from the dossier she just opened. “Yes?” she answered the request for attention that was never asked.

“Do you have a minute?”

“Aah, I should be...” Santhil hesitated, flicking her pencil between her fingers. She was torn between her work and her sister. Both needed her attention. “Would it be really rude of me to continue in the meantime? I need to have looked these over by tomorrow morning.”

“Sure, that’s okay. I just... Have you ever...” Lahnia stopped and held her arms uneasily. “Have you ever been hit on by a woman?” When Santhil beamed her an amused smile and wanted to answer the obvious, Lahnia stopped her. “I mean, aside from Avika today.”

“Oh, yes,” Santhil chuckled and held her answer convincedly. “More than once. One of Irhuil’s more colourful friends once described me as catnip for lesbians.”

“Does that... bother you? Girls hitting on you, I mean.” Though she stored that other bit for later reference. She was a knowledge-thirsty, curious kitten.

“Ah, not really,” Santhil glossed with half a grin. “Sure, most of me is weirded out, but some of me is flattered, curious, maybe even intrigued. I suppose you could say I have a wide comfort zone.” She held back a laugh when she picked up Lahnia’s inquisitive gaze while turning a page. “Besides, Irhuil loves it when that happens.”

“He does?” Lahnia frowned. How could he be happy about someone hitting on his betrothed? “How does that work? I’d expect him to be angry.”

“It’s a guy thing,” Santhil temporarily dismissed the question. “I sort of indulge him sometimes.”

“What do you mean?” Lahnia cocked her head curiously. “You ‘indulge’ him?”

“Use your imagination,” Santhil said with a teasing smile, her thoughts fleeting into memories of what felt like a past life, and then looked up from her file. “Hun, where are you going with this?” Lahnia swung her body left to right gently, uneasily, not really finding the words to answer. “Did Avika make a pass at you?” Santhil guessed.

“How do you deal with that?” Lahnia asked immediately. “I mean, I was... I am so glad you came out of your office when you did. I had no idea what to do.”

“Easy. Just say no,” Santhil said, and turned her attention back to her text. She turned the page and laid a hand in her neck, stroking the painful muscles there. Picking up on the silence, she looked back at her sister, and was struck with realisation. “Oh, I see. You didn’t want to say no.”

“No-no! No, I mean, it’s... I’ve never, you know, not with anyone,” she stammered, turning around and gesturing confusedly with her hands, “and I was kind of—it was just out there, in the open, like that. It’s not that I really— but maybe I just— I don’t know. Should I?” she suddenly asked.

“Well, ah,” Santhil stalled, taking a deep breath and several moments. “Did she ask you to do something in return?”

“No.” Lahnia brought the memory of the brief conversation back to mind, and skimmed through it. “No, I don’t think so. You think maybe she just—”

“No,” Santhil said quickly and perhaps sternly. “Sweetheart, she is not after a deep, lasting, meaningful relationship with you. You have something she wants, and in return she offers something she believes you may want. It’s a trade. And, like in any trade, if you are not clear on the terms of the agreement before you enter it, you leave room to be exploited.”

Lahnia froze, only her eyes blinking while she stared at Santhil. “Wow. That was... ah...”

“Sobering?” Santhil offered with half a smile.

“Very.” Lahnia nodded subtly while letting the conversation sink with her. She hadn’t expected Santhil’s succinct explanation but, then again, she hadn’t really expected anything.

“Sorry to disappoint you, hon,” Santhil said. “There’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

“No, you’re right,” Lahnia said. “I mean, of course you are. I just feel I should have figured that out myself.” She kept a serious, thoughtful look in her eyes while looking at nowhere in particular, her thoughts racing around in her head. Seconds later, she snapped out of it. “I’ll get you that tea.”

“Thanks.”

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:02 pm
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Dark Rider

Joined: Sat Oct 25, 2003 6:22 pm
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You know, somehow the infrequent updates to this are a good thing. I keep thinking it is dead and then being very pleasantly surprised to get an D.net email and being able to read some more of your very entertaining story.

Excellent update as always and I look forward to the next part. That would be... July sometime?

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Thu Apr 28, 2011 6:12 pm
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Malekith's Best Friend
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Location: Calgary, Alberta
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Wow. I'm only just now really noticing this, no idea how I’ve missed it..... never the less, I can't wait to catch up!

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Oct 2013-Current: 3-2-0


Thu Apr 28, 2011 10:00 pm
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Morathi's Best Friend
Morathi's Best Friend
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Joined: Tue Oct 04, 2005 5:06 pm
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(Fashionably late, as always. And a bit earlier than planned just to spite LordAnubis. Always hear your fans! Thanks for the kind comments!)

The priestess was clearly ill at ease around Santhil. She was cautious to take a seat when offered one, and eyed Santhil’s body language warily. Santhil, upon noticing, kept her basic, if distant, psychology lessons in mind. She was well-prepared for the meeting which, at first to her own surprise, she hadn’t even called.

Across her desk, to her left, sat Lahnia’s coven mistress. Santhil met her rarely, and even then only cursorily. The Convent, and this coven in particular, had been helpful in Santhil’s military efforts and, in return, received what pittances they asked: private quarters, creature comforts, reliable personnel; their demands were easily met, and that was appreciated.

To her right, now, the high priestess. While not the highest authority in the colonies, she had joined the advance army and specifically Santhil when the war was officially taken to the next level. This woman, Santhil had seen more often, almost exclusively on amiable terms. It made her feel all the more betrayed. She cropped up those feelings and stowed them away in a cold, dark place in her heart.

Santhil’s preparation consisted mostly of appearance. She had made sure that her office held no familiar colours, no religious markings, no frivolities or personal effects. Her skirt suit had the same colour as her ebony desk, and sharply lined and curved over her body. Her jewelry was sober but elegant, with her family runes as earrings, though she did again wear the engraved stone Lahnia had gifted her. After all, she always did, and not wearing the symbol of Khaine to this meeting would bring across a vindictive, uncooperative signal; even if she felt vindictive and uncooperative. She also hoped combining the two symbols would bring across her dedication to both the mundane as the divine.

It was time. Santhil nodded politely to both political heavy-weights sitting across her desk and briefly reminded herself that, sitting both across as a bit in between them, her role as mediator had to prevail over that of concerned party, if she were to remain a credible political force. Not too long ago, she would only have been allowed in their presence if her nose was practically wiping the red carpet. Funny how the world worked, sometimes. “Thank you for coming.

“I have received an official inquiry from the Convent concerning the investigation on the attack on Mistress Jesamine Cadsane. The Convent now believes that the Temple of Khaine was responsible for the murder attempt, and has asked that we further explore that path.

“However, the Temple, as sole and only organisation,” and Santhil glanced at the high priestess, “has the privilege to decline answering official inquiries into their affairs; a privilege I am reluctant to overrule.”

The coven mistress gave Santhil an offended look, but otherwise did not immediately react. The high priestess remained calm and stoic. She could’ve been trying out for a statue. “Personally, I feel we’ve been working together really well,” Santhil continued. “The Temple and the Convent have been very supportive in these trying, wartorn times, and I have met...” Santhil chuckled as in realisation, then smiled again. “Well, I have met every request. So far, this has worked really well for us.”

“And it would have continued to work well,” the coven mistress said, “if my sorceresses weren’t on a hit list. We can live with the accusations and the rumours and the suspicions, but we have a right to operate here just as much as the Temple does. And we would like to do so without wanton assassination thinning our ranks.”

“I would like to add, if I may,” the high priestess replied, keeping her eyes on Santhil, “that under general auspices of the law, we are innocent until found guilty.”

“Are you really so bold to suggest you had nothing to do with this?”

“We rest in our privilege to refuse answering inquiries for information.”

“Now, I realise,” Santhil said, and waited a moment to make sure she had the attention of both officials. “I realise and understand that the Temple is protective of this privilege. I also believe that, ultimately, we are all on the same side.”

“Some more so than others,” the high priestess interjected. Santhil stopped, and gently cocked her head. “Pardon?” she asked.

“I have observed how coven sorceresses flaunt their powers; powers they use for personal gain,” the priestess said, to annoyed indignance of the coven mistress. “Powers that, I feel I should re-iterate, stem from the very essence of our most dangerous enemy.”

“Admittedly, that is true, Eminence,” Santhil attempted politely. “But if it were not for those sorcerous powers, Yalasmina, a trusted and respected member of your Temple, and I, would have died in the lower halls of this citadel yesterday.” She made sure to hint to the personal effort she had put into fighting threats that were directly linked to Chaos.

“And a proper and directed use of magic that was, I am sure. I am told that your court sorceress, also your sister, was instrumental in identifying and defeating the daemon. However, sorcery was also responsible for the earthquake that nearly killed you and a ‘witch’ while on your quest in the deepest bowels of these mountains. If I recall correctly.”

“So you do,” Santhil said and, with a sharp glance, made sure the coven mistress was aware that she held very few fond memories of the ordeal.

“With all due respect, Drachau,” the coven mistress protested. “There was no way we could have known that.”

Lahnia had protested at that time, Santhil recalled readily, and outright refused to attend the session for exactly that reason. “I would not presume to pass judgement over matters of sorcery, Mistress,” she replied coolly. “I leave that in the capable hands of my court sorceress.” Santhil made sure her stare brought across she was vividly aware of Lahnia’s refusal.

“We are still looking into the exact cause,” the coven mistress added discreetly, quieter than before.

“Attempting to tap into powers beyond your comprehension,” the high priestess added. “There is your cause.”

“As I was saying, however,” Santhil refused to further follow the tangent off the original discussion, “ideological differences aside, we have been doing very well in cooperation.”

“Until a certain overprivileged faction attempted to murder Mistress Cadsane,” the coven mistress reminded everyone. “Not pointing any fingers,” she lied to the high priestess.

“Of course,” the priestess replied with a fake smile. “But Drachau, I must beg your pardon. There is no evidence against us, and you graciously admitted that you will not press the issue. Is there a further purpose to this meeting?”

Did she truly admit not to press the issue? Santhil thought briefly about whether her reluctance to overrule imperial law should be interpretable as an inclination to let the investigation rest. She decided against correcting the high priestess. Already, the coven mistress seemed ready to lash out against Santhil were she to call the meeting to an unsatisfactory halt. She had a fine line to balance. “I will require your assistance in forming an appropriate response,” Santhil said, and looked both dignitaries in the eye, in turn.

“A response?” the coven mistress inquired, still undecided on whether Santhil agreed on the gravity of her complaint.

“House Arhakuyl is not a military family. Most of the assets at my disposal come from other houses or vassals. In particular, our fleet’s military prowess depends largely on House Cadsane. If I, Santhil Arhakuyl, do not respond to an attempt on Jesamine Cadsane’s life, then House Arhakuyl does not respond to an attack on House Cadsane, and our alliance is gone, and their fleet is gone.

“Also, Jesamine Cadsane is Mistress Jesamine Cadsane, an accomplished and known sorceress. An internal hit on her, on my watch, and no proper response? That won’t do.”

“So we are to lower ourselves to something as pedestrian as vengeance,” the high priestess summarised. “If history teaches us anything, it is that retaliation, as a rule, escalates. If containment is your goal, a ‘proper response’ will be unsatisfactory.”

“And if history is to be our teacher,” the coven mistress added, “we should heed its lesson that a lack of retaliation invites additional transgressions.”

“Such as continuing reverence for and worship of the ruinous forces of Chaos?”

“Now, we can settle this internally, in our own domain, by our own rules, and due respect for our own needs,” Santhil calmly but clearly cut short the growing belligerence in that offshoot of the topic. “Or I can defer to Queen Morathi for a ‘proper response’ to the attemped murder of one of her own. I believe she is the ultimate authority in both Temple as Convent matters, yes?”

Silence. Santhil aimed her eyes from the coven mistress to the high priestess and back. She had struck a chord. She held back the smile that would serve only to insult.

“Shall we, then?”

°°°

“They were palpably more cooperative after that,” Santhil said. She settled a little deeper under the thick, fluffy blanket she shared with her two sisters, and stared out to the large moon hanging over the snow-tipped, forested mountains. The wind was chilly in this clear-skied night.

“I believe you’ve done the right thing there,” Yalasmina considered, sitting to her left, gazing out into the same direction. “Appealing to a higher authority refrained you from making a call that would always be interpreted as partial by either side.”

“Just wait until I tell your mother,” Lahnia joked. She playfully tugged on the blanket, and shored up against Santhil’s right when a particularly freezing wind rolled over them. “Morathi’s going to be angry, though.”

Santhil nodded slowly in agreement, and wrapped her arm around Lahnia’s shoulders, pulling her close and warm. “She has reason. She won’t be happy with what the Temple did, and she won’t approve of Jesamine, either.”

“That last remains to be seen,” Yalasmina muttered. Santhil’s brow rose briefly, and she beamed her sister an amused smile, but didn’t press the issue.

“That, and Jess is like a daughter to her,” Lahnia added, and caught sight of a snowflake twirling in the wind. She followed the beautiful, tiny crystal with her eyes, watching it float gently through the nightsky before disappearing from sight. She pressed her lips; that was too short, to her taste. She looked back at her sisters and found them staring right back at her. “What?”

“What was that about Jesamine and Morathi?” Santhil asked.

“Well, Jess is like Morathi’s personal favourite, right?” Lahnia said smilingly, and felt that smile vanish while looking to her sisters in turn. “You didn’t know.”

Yalasmina seemed to consider the new information, and nodded slowly. “The arranged marriage, the privileged upbringing, the extensive influence,” she mused. “It explains a lot. Of course, that—” She turned to look at Santhil again, and found her sister stroking her brow with a blank, worried stare. “That complicates matters,” Yalasmina quietly finished.

“I am so screwed,” Santhil said.

“An... insightful perspective,” Yalasmina replied, but kept otherwise silent.

Lahnia skipped her look from Yalasmina to Santhil and back. Her sisters knew something she didn’t, and she hated that. Always had. “Maybe I’m just obtuse,” she tried with half a frown, “but why is this bad?”

“Because I really would have liked not to involve our queen,” Santhil sighed, and laid her head back, staring up at the stars. “I told them to sort it out, and sort it out fast, before I was due to report to Ulthuan. If the situation was resolved, I could have afforded to not even mention it while I’m there. But now that the queen has a personal stake in this,” and she took a deep breath. “Suddenly not that likely anymore.”

“If what Lahnia says is true, and we have no reason to doubt that,” Yalasmina said, “then chances are realistic she already knows. A woman with her extensive information network knows these things. Not mentioning it will fuel the feeling you have something to hide.”

“But it’s not like you could have done anything better,” Lahnia countered. “I mean, Jess’ business is Jess’ business, and the Temple acted completely and entirely on their own. The very worst Morathi can hold against you, Ari, is damage control. And I think Mina’s right: you handled that wonderfully.”

“You really think so?” Santhil looked at Lahnia, then to Yalasmina, and found affirming nods from the both of them. She felt better. “Ah, you’re probably right. I’m just fuzzing.”

A long, comfortable silence befell the three. They gazed in awe at the beauty of the moon as it inched its way across the dark sky. Time moved slowly, cautiously. No sound other than gently swaying trees or the wind blowing over the balcony could be heard. There were no crickets in the mountains, no birds twittering or dogs barking.

Peace.

_________________
SAU XV: Pawn of the Dead | SAU XVII: The Frosty Dozen | SAU XIX: On the Brink of Madministration | Running fiction: House Arhakuyl


Sun May 08, 2011 5:05 pm
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