Private Tales For Mankind

Madame Valkery

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They had survived. All of them had survived. The band of Idiots had entered the mists, traveled to Pandemonium and returned, and the only death was one of the four mages who they had met in the mist. Valkery was sure that if the mercenaries had not held their nerve so well and taken orders without question, the outcome would have been very different. Though all of them were exhausted, the air in Pandemonium had put a strain on all of them.

She looked around, the mist was gone, they were back in the fields of Elbion but everywhere the ground was destroyed and the plants were dead; a desolate wasteland. She looked around to see who had made it back, taking a mental note but not taking any action. Now that they were out she was content to step down from command, at least as far as the other idiots went. They seemed to be able to take care of themselves.

Instead, she assessed the state of the mercenaries, They had taken the brunt of the demon attack. Her eyes then fell on Trajan. She approached him "I am a doctor, if you or any of your men need healing I would be glad to help," She said.

Trajan Meng
 
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Trajan Meng

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Trajan stumbled and coughed. Bellowing out the foul and corrupted remnants of Pandemonium from his lungs. The sweet air of Arethil, made all the sweeter by its lack during their ordeal. He couldn't fill his chest with it fast enough.

Kneeling down, one hand on his knee and with the other leaning on his warhammer that he planted in the dead ground, Trajan glanced around. He made a quick headcount of the ad hoc group Mitsy had so-called the "Band of Idiots". And a relief, very much like the taste of the natural and wonderful air of home here on Arethil, that all who had entered had come back. Not one of their number had fallen. Not one! Even in the face of the cowardly tactics of the demons and the insidious plot to strangle the life from each of them with the abhorrent air, they prevailed. No, triumphed! A shining beacon of hope for all Mankind to see. An example had been set, and the humble farmers here had been avenged.

Yes. Mankind had a sacred right and a solemn duty to defend itself from encroachment. And all assembled had answered that holy call.

Trajan stood. Grit his teeth and stretched his back. Expelled the last wisps of that infernal air.

And he caught sight of Madame Valkery. Perhaps none had answered this holy call moreso than her. A sheer privilege to be in her presence, and an honor to have fought alongside her in defense of Arethil against the wicked. The pronouncement of such an accolade simply could not be said enough. The mercenaries were hardy men all, and combat experienced to a man, but what they faced this day they had never once before. And there was no fear that could match the fear of the unknown. Morale and faith were as important as the armor on their backs and the weapons in their hands.

And Valkery had stepped up to that most formidable of tasks, assuming the responsibility for the lives of others under one's own leadership. Had she not, this resounding and flawless victory they all now basked in would surely have been a tragedy measured in degrees of cascading misfortune. Perhaps they may have still accomplished their holy purpose, but at what cost? Trajan was loathe to think it. And indeed, because of Valkery's selfless efforts, he was spared the thought, let alone the reality.

She approached him. And still! Still she offered her service. If a more magnanimous soul yet walked upon Arethil Trajan had yet to meet the man or woman who was so blessed as to harbor it.

Trajan nodded. Said to her, "Your generosity knows no bounds. We would be grateful for your continued aid, sister."

And to the men, Trajan called, "Check yourselves! Check your fellows! Look for wounds. You may not have noticed in the heat of battle and peril, but I'll have no man die or fall ill on account of untreated injuries."

The twelve mercenaries gathered around in a loose circle, examining themselves and their nearby mates. Lots of armor and shield damage to go around, and six men had wounds where the claws of the demons had gotten through their leather or their mail. Gashes and cuts and scrapes. Some reported bruising. Indecent jokes were made about those with bruises, implying the bedding of the demons in the mist while no one was looking. Laughter. The crude banter of rough, fighting men.

Trajan spoke with Dio and told him to send word of their success with Kilo, whom Mitsy had expertly caught and saved, to Khadija. And with a quick enchantment Dio spoke quietly to Kilo and launched the bird from his hands and Kilo flew up and away.

Trajan looked from Valkery to the mercenaries and back to Valkery.

If he should be so lucky, all the men would be so inspired from this day such that they would decide to lend their swords to a far nobler cause than their own personal gain. Perhaps Valkery too would be interested in continuing her sterling service to Mankind in the Luminari. Perhaps. Trajan was starkly aware how little he knew of her outside of immediate battle and conflict. Though, even if she wasn't inclined to join, allies were always welcome. Their paths may yet cross again in the future, for the enemies of Mankind were many, and as such their goals were likely to align once more as they had here with the mists and inside Pandemonium itself.

Still, the subject would have to be broached carefully.
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery quickly evaluated the situation taking bandages and a needle and thread from the pouch at her side and moving to assist the most injured first. Using her aura she cleaned the wound and bosted their own natural immune system to prevent infection and stop the bleeding before she sewed the gash up and wrapped it in a bandage. The men threw about some crude banter joking with each other, just glad they were alive. The read head that had helped defend the center of the circle, laughed and made a joke about how he wished he had been injured more so he could have a pretty women fuss over him. Valkery finished up with the man she was working on before turning to the redhead and looking him up and down. He was on the younger side.

"Do you want to be injured," Valkery said simply, her expression unchanging. His eyes widened. The rest of the company had already accepted her as a good leader but the redhead was the only one of them who had seen just how easily Valkery had dispatched of the demons in close combat when she was pushed to it.

"No... I didn't mean. I- I would never," He stammered nervously. Valkery's expression relaxed and she actually smiled.

"Don't worry about it. You fought bravely out there, you have a lot of promise." She said patting him on the shoulder before moving on the help the rest of the injured. He just stared at her with a mixture of admiration and shock.
 
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Trajan Meng

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"Dio."

"Yes, boss."

"Check on our boat. I should hope that no thieves stole our provisions or the boat entire during our absence, but I want to make sure," Trajan said. "If we must requisition what crops yet live, I want to know sooner rather than later."

"On it, boss. At least the boat ride back will be nice and easy. Downstream."

Trajan let out a throaty hmph. "That it will be. Provided the boat is still there."

"Here's to hoping," Dio said before taking off at a brisk jog back toward the small, rickety docks far off in the distance.

Trajan turned back to the gathering of mercenaries and to Valkery tending to the wounded. Just smiled a little at the exchange between Valkery and the redhead mercenary. Such were the certain and inevitable follies of youth, particularly among men. That the sight of a pretty or handsome face might bring on a manner of blindness with regard to just who it was the young man or young woman was talking to. A lapse in rendering proper and due respect to be sure, but a lapse that was easily corrected, and Valkery handled the redhead with grace.

Trajan glanced up. The sky still gray and overcast, as if the sun scarcely believed that victory had been achieved over the demons. Though perhaps it was appropriate, a gesture of mourning, say, given the swath of death and desolation the foul mists had so scarred Arethil with. Trajan knew not if rain and nature alone could heal the wound, or even if magicks which drew upon the wilderness and natural bounty of Arethil itself, the so-called druidic magicks, could rejuvenate the infernal mark. Surely it would heal with enough time, the Laws of Magic being what they were, but Trajan could only hope it would be within his lifetime. To see the regrowth of the fertile farmland and the evacuated farmers returned and new farmers having come, the fruition of their struggle and their battle against the fiend and the mist. The very reason why they all fought made manifest. Goodness restored through bravery and steel.

The very reason for all save, perhaps, Mitsy. She seemed content solely to drink and fight for reasons mostly--if not entirely--rowdy and riotous. Some squandered potential there, and no mistake.

Trajan lifted the Emblazoned Sun and set the shaft of the warhammer on his shoulder. And he walked up to and alongside Valkery as she went from man to man seeing to their injuries.

He said, "My men and I will be departing for Elbion, Valkery. If such is your destination in whole or in part, you are more than welcome to join us. We've a boat and provisions..."

His eyes trailed up and to the corners of the sockets as he thought for a moment. "Provided, of course, that said boat and provisions are still here. We appear to be back on Arethil on the same day as when we left, but with infernal magic all things are uncertain and blasphemous. Dio will ascertain the status shortly."
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery stood up as she finished assisting the last of the mercenaries, wiping blood from her hands with a rag. Now that they were out of the mists her healing magic took much less energy and she was able to assist all of the mercenaries without much trouble. She listened to Trajan's musing about time differences. A very possible concern.

"Time shifting... Interesting, it could be possible," She said glancing up at the sun. If it was the same day it seemed to be only two hours since they entered the mist which lined up with their experience. Glancing around at the desolate feild she tried to see if she could identify the exact location where they had been taken from the mist. The land was flat and with the mist gone they could see a good distance in all directions. She could see the edge of the wasteland and not too far inside that the distant outline of the now dead tree they had passed before entering the mist.

"It seems that time has not been distorted in any way but I will be able to tell for sure if I can see a place any of us have been before being taken by the mist," She explained. "As for your offer I did come on a horse but I'm sure the mages would be grateful for a mount to help carry their fallen comrade back to the city. I accept."
 
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Trajan Meng

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Many were the tools and techniques at Madame Valkery's disposal.

Yes. Her capabilities served to further underscore the absolute necessity of bringing the College of Elbion to heel, such that its arcane teachings would belong to Mankind and Mankind alone. Trajan knew well that it was merely a fluke of luck that the demons within the otherworldly mists had protections against magic and not steel. Had it been the other way around, Trajan's efforts and the efforts of his men would have proved ineffective, and it would have fallen to Valkery, Faurosk, and Kalliana to banish the fiend.

And even on Arethil, an adept mage could easily best those who had no defense against his or her magic, a single one of them worth a squad of well-trained and experienced but mundane foot soldiers. Steel was plentiful and prolific to the point that even the most base and untrained brigand thug might pick up a sword and harbor a measure of menace, but magic...magic was a force on a scale wholly separated from steel.

It was all too apparent to Trajan that the Luminari lacked strong, dedicated mages. They'd enchanters like Khadija and Dio, yes, but those mages on the level of Valkery or Faurosk or Kalliana were difficult indeed to recruit into the fold, on account of no more complex a reason than their scarcity.

Perhaps it would be something his idea of 'Light' Operari might solve. Tales of the Luminari fighting undead, beasts, demons, insane mages, blight orcs, and all manner of foul creatures and sinister threats to innocent men and women might serve to persuade magic-users to the cause. And surely the Luminari would make for a more appealing option than the Templar with regard to mages, despite the obvious overlapping goals immediately springing to mind.

It would be seen.

Trajan nodded. "I am glad, and honored that you would join us. I've expressed some of my gratitude for your service already, but the point cannot be overstated. It is the least I can do to provide swift passage back to Elbion for you."

He took a moment to survey the wasteland, once bountiful fields teeming with life, and sighed. "As much as I would like to believe that we vanquished the evil which lurked in the mists, it is all too apparent that such malevolence never truly rests. They are sure to come again, or perhaps some similar threat will take their place. A boat ride back to Elbion should provide us ample opportunity to discuss such matters."

Trajan looked off in the direction of the docks and Dio, the young man having a considerable headstart on them now. He made a forward motion with his free hand to Valkery and the mercenaries alike. "Come." And specifically to Valkery, said, "We'll see a place we've been before entering the mists along the way." A single hmmm from his throat and a half-smile. "It would put my heart at ease to know that this is, in fact, Arethil at the appropriate and expected time. We've all suffered enough deceptions for a single day."
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery nodded, "If you would give me a moment," She said before moving away and going to speak to the group of mages. She told them that if her horse was still their it was at their service and that they return it to the stable she had rented it from when they were done, giving them enough money to tip the stable boy.

"Now lets head out," She said returning to Trajan and falling into stride beside him. Her composure and professionalism never seemed to crack or waver. Even now that the main threat was over she carried herself with an air of authority. And despite having just been through hell she still looked clean cut and respectable, the only thing marring this image was a small amount of black blood staining her boots.

"Now seeing as we have already fought beside each other and risked our lives for each other, it seems only fair that you tell me why you and your company came here in the first place?" She asked without taking her eyes off the road ahead or breaking stride. From his talk, she already knew he was of a mind that Humanity was superior to all races, and though she didn't fully agree with his position she did believe in the power of a united humanity. He had also brought with him a company of capable fighters so he had some influence. A person like that could be a powerful ally. With her current goals placing her between a void cult on one side and the undead hiding in the college of Elbion on the other, she would need some powerful allies. However, she would have to be careful how she presented her dilemma to Trajan. She needed to know more about him, what he had to offer and his own goals. If she could frame this in a way that lined up with what he most wanted she would be sure of his assistance.
 
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Trajan Meng

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And Trajan walked. Boots crunching on barren soil and shriveled grasses. The mercenaries following behind them.

It was good that she expressed interest in his motive. Like a convert seeking out a preacher, thought perhaps such a strong metaphor was a product of wishful thinking. But her curiosity was promising. For all he knew of Valkery, her valor and her steadfast resolve, he'd reason only to think her question one of genuine intrigue, born of the inherent and readily observed righteousness of her heart and of having recognized such in Trajan's own. For what he didn't know of her, her profession outside of this demonic ordeal with the mists, he could only hope that his words and his actions would so inspire her to consider the cause to which she had undeniably proven herself so adept.

Yes, it would be a boon if all twelve or even half that number of the mercenaries so answered the call, that much was true. But if a woman of Valkery's considerable and unique talents and caliber decided to further serve Mankind in the Luminari, or even as a reliable ally? A blessing unrivaled.

Trajan walked with his warhammer resting against his shoulder and a thumb hooked into a pants pocket and he said, "The very same reason for all that I do these days. The men, save Dio, have come for the coin I paid them, but I act solely for the defense and betterment of Mankind."

A rueful chuckle. "Many look upon me and my simply motive with bewilderment. As if it is unfathomable that a man may so love his kin such that they are all brother and sister to him, and that he might venture toward and combat evil without expectation of personal gain or glory. The layabouts and complacents of humanity are legion, and it saddens me to see my brothers and sisters languishing in so dreadful a state. And if I should be so fortunate as to inspire even one of these idlers to action, to awaken the latent spirit of camaraderie whose embers yearn to be stoked into a full and righteous flame, then my part in any undertaking to which I lend my hammer will be done. It is love for my fellow man and woman that compels me to fight in their defense against the terrors that so besiege them, and it is that same love which compels me to set a shining example to which my brothers and sisters--who merely lack the proper guidance--may strive toward and embody, should they only believe in the strength they've allowed to rest dormant within them."

A smile. Resolute. He looked forward as they walked. Said, "So it is with the farmers who've escaped this catastrophe, with the mercenaries at our backs, and with you, Madame Valkery. I am at your service, for I serve all Mankind, and I ask for nothing in return. And I shall continue to offer my service to the whole of humanity until my dying day. That is why I have come here."
 
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Madame Valkery

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A small smile broke her composure for a moment before her face returned to its usual stoic countenance. If he knew the truth, that she was half elf, would he be so quick to count her as his ally? Should she even seeking his help, it could be dangerous for her if he found out. She thought, her resolve wavering. No, she needed the assistance. From his words and the eagerness building up in his aura, he seemed ready to jump on anything she had to offer him. Still, she should be careful just the same.

"It is not something so unfathomable. I myself was raised to think much the same. I learned how to lead a company during the elf wars when I served on the front lines to defend my home village. Though currently, I am working as a monster hunter, defending mankind from the abominations of humanity such as vampirism, lycanthropy and other aspects of the occult." She paused as they neared the location where they had entered the mist. She could sense the residue of their aura they had left behind and with a quick assessment, she was able to determine how much decay had occurred since they had last been there. it indeed was two hours since they had entered the mist.

"hum, It is indeed the same day that we left" She added. From Trajan's perspective, it wouldn't have looked like she hadn't done anything to come to this conclusion. In fact, she had been able to do it while they were talking without a braking stride.
 
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Trajan Meng

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Trajan glanced to Valkery as she spoke. Regarded her.

A moment passed.

And he said, "I should have known."

Then, a warm smile.

"That you were not one of those many who delude themselves into thinking that the world turns on coin and selfish aggrandizement alone, yes sister, that much became evident by your demeanor once battle was joined inside the mists. I admit, I knew not what exactly to expect of your profession. Your talents being what they are, many pursuits seemed open to you. But your drive and your passion have guided you well. Occult hunter. Ha! Finally now, the wicked have someone to fear, and the taste of their own poison they've surely found bitter."

Trajan held a utilitarian view of dark magic and the occult. Products of the dark and the occult outside of the secure control of humanity were to be destroyed without question, yes, but dark magic was a weapon. And all weapons were dangerous, and as such commanded respect and care from the wielder. Folly, to disregard its use out of hand, what with the knowledge of it loose in the world and readily available to Mankind's enemies. It remained to be seen if dark magic would prove ultimately untenable, especially with the traitorous College's obstinate refusal for even the most careful and cautious of studies. He had more nuances and caveats to his opinion on the use of dark and occult magicks, but at present, it was neither here nor there.

He walked. Said, "And you should be commended, Madame Valkery. The elves are formidable foes indeed, their swiftness and grace unmatched, their skill daunting. It is no small act of courage to face them in battle, and while it must be said that they are seldom aggressive, their wrath once unleashed is not to be underestimated. My fallen comrades in the Anirian Guard, and surely the comrades you've lost in your own company, are testament enough to that."

And they walked, Valkery having made her assessment without breaking stride or even so much as performing any additional motions, and no telltale signs of magic were observable. True, that Trajan himself was among the lowest of novices in magical discipline and could not detect its presence if it did not appeal to one of his five natural senses. Perhaps it made her magic all the more suited to fighting beasts and fiends whose own senses were unnaturally heightened.

"Your magic must be potent against the manner of foes you hunt. Like an unseen hand, dispensing boon and bane alike. I wouldn't know what to call it, unversed in the wider varieties of arcane pursuits as I am."

Ahead, Dio reached the docks. And, at least from this distance, he seemed relieved and pleased.
 
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Madame Valkery

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The taste of their own poison... it was true, Her commanders had used her skills, both in magic and as a half-elf, to forge a powerful weapon. But that was all she had been to them, a weapon. If Trajan knew would he treat her the same? He praised her for her prowess on the battlefield and her skill in magic, but would her heritage blind him to her humanity? The amount of death she had delt out on the battlefield had been devastating. That kind of power could be addictive. If she chose she could promise Trajan the destruction of all his foes. There was a reason she had left the army. She questioned again whether it was worth getting involved with that kind of a person again. However, she also needed his assistance to save Eleanor. She couldn't face both the cult and the undead by herself. If she was to save her student she would need his assistance. And she wasn't the same person she had been all those years ago, she was stronger, she could leave whenever she wanted. Even if Trajan had influance she knew better than to let him treat her like a tool. She had nothing to be afraid of. A new resolve came into her eyes and she looked out across the field the dead landscape turning to green grass and fields.

"Actually, my particular discipline was self-taught. I designed the nuances myself." She explained "I have a skill for reading aura's and using them to fuel my magic. If I know how my target works I can either assist or hinder them by bolstering their own natural functioning. The more I know the more specific I can get. For example, because I am a doctor I know a lot about how humans function, hence how I was able to grant you a temporary boost in stamina and strength without the risk of damaging your body too much. It isn't so much the magic itself that is best suited for the job but the way I chose to wield it. You can give two people a sword and one may use wide heavy strokes to do as much damage as posible, while another may use precise strikes to hit vital points. I use precision and patience to gain the upper hand and fell my enemies." She found herself explaining how her magic worked, it was strange to talk about this with another. She hadn't talked about this with anyone in a long time. The last person she had talked about this with had been Eleanor, her former student. She had been trying to pass on some of her knowledge to her. However, it had not been enough to defend herself. Only enough to gain the attention of the cult. Valkery feared that the cult was trying to turn Eleanor into a weapon like she had been.

Valkery turned to look at Trajan, "I suppose it would be foolish to beat around the bush. If your goal is truly to defend mankind then I might have an opportunity for you. It has been some months under my awareness of a great evil rising up in Elbion. I have become aware of a group of Undead hiding in the Colege itself, passing as mortal they have been able to fool all they encounter to some vile purpose that is unknown to me."
 
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Trajan Meng

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She explained, and Trajan listened. As much as it felt like a teacher instructing a student in a lesson he was not quite prepared and ready for, he listened. Self-taught. He could only imagine having such an aptitude for the arcane. And her original discipline sounded, by her own description, like it leaned quite heavily on the bookish side of things. Which, calling honesty to the forefront, Trajan never truly took interest in. Perhaps it was the flat writing style of scholars or the particular subject matter in question itself, but it seemed the written word repelled his attention at every opportunity.

Good on her, for having the wherewithal to better herself in that manner. For Trajan simply could not, and had to seek other avenues to expand his knowledge of the world and its denizens.

Then, the tenor of the conversation changed. Severely.

It brought Trajan to a halt.

He stared down at the ground. The green grass. The uncorrupted land. A glance back. At the scar of death and defilement that the mist had left and that they had just trekked across.

Trajan spared no love for the traitorous College. For the sympathizers and the traitors among their number, he harbored anger and hatred respectively. For the misguided fools who did not spare a moment's thought to what it was they were ultimately doing there, he harbored pity. And he did not seek the outright destruction of the College, no, far from it. A simple change in attitude. In mission. To remake it into an institution in which the best and brightest men and women taught exclusively other men and women in the arcane arts. To willingly impart the raw power of magical learning upon the enemies and potential enemies of Mankind? It was as if Trajan himself would hand his warhammer to a xeno such that it might strike down his own mother or father or one of his sisters. Treason and betrayal, pure and simple.

But.

The idea of allowing the College, traitorous or no, to fall into the foul hands of the Undead, of all things? He'd heard of the Eternum, though he was unsure if they were the particular Undead that Valkery referred to. The perfect example of dark magic gone too far, and one of the strongest counterpoints that continuously gave Trajan pause in his own thoughts on the matter. Yes, dark magic was a weapon, and the members of the Eternum had all fallen upon it, skewering themselves upon the tainted blade. They made themselves servile to it, allowing their humanity to be sacrificed in the process. All this, and no mention of the xenos mingling in their midst.

Imagine. Imagine the Eternum gaining control of the College.

Whether they were truly responsible for this vile purpose Valkery had spoken of, it mattered not. Trajan could scarcely bring to mind a worse example. The perfect highlighting of all his fears, whoever the deceivers within the College turned out to be.

Ironic. Though perhaps fitting to an extent. That Trajan would aid in the saving the traitorous College from itself. A vindication of Trajan's stance on the institution's readily apparent faults.

And Trajan looked to Valkery. "I trust you, sister. And you have come to the right man with his revelation. I have many more like-minded fellows whom I can call upon, as needed. Brothers and sisters of conviction and faith, all. They too live only to serve and defend Mankind as I do. And there is perhaps no more abhorrent an encroachment than that of the Undead." A throaty hmph. "For all our disagreements and squabbles and differences, at the very least those who count themselves among the living all still breathe, and that is common enough ground to band together and vanquish the Undead wherever they may be found."
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkey nodded, conviction written across her face, "I am glad you think as I do. As things are, I have been stretched rather thin, and I would hate to leave such a threat to run freely in such a highly populated city, in such a place of power as the college itself. Your aid will ensure their fall." She nodded, reaching her hand out to shake on it. Having sealed the agreement she the glanced back at where Dio was waiting by the boat not too far off. " I suppose now that you have agreed to aid me in combatting this threat I should tell you what I know about them. I encountered them by chance while I was investigating another case. I was unable to decern their undead nature. They are not anything I have encountered before. Their shape and appearance were passingly human, with no signs of decay. However, their aura was distinctly undead, there is no doubt of that. It didn't feel quite like vampirism, perhaps Lich's, though it would be unusual to have more than one in any location. I know of at least three, there was a woman going by the title of Lady Alexis Armon, her guard, and her handmaid. They all carried the same undead aura." She explained.
 
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Trajan Meng

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Indeed.

The people of Elbion didn't deserve to suffer for the failings of the College. And though his and Valkery's more immediate foe happened to be the Undead infiltrators, the true foe were the collection of misguided and traitorous brothers and sisters who had allowed, through their negligence or their maliciousness, for the infiltration to occur in the first place. A sorry sight to see. No one of sound mind liked to see their kin fall, and it was the most solemn and grave task that could be borne to take care of one's own and to set them on the right path. And for those brothers and sister who had turned traitor, their allegiance forever foregone without hope of redemption, there was only one way to set them back upon the path.

It made Trajan sick to do it. But it was much like the Vel Anirian fairy tale of the father who had to kill his own beloved son, who had gone mad, such that he might save the rest of his family. The necessary at times demanded a strength too grim for most to bear.

Fortunately, in this immediate instance, there would be no such quandaries. No regret, no remorse, for slaying the Undead. The day may yet come when those of the College would be held to account for their crimes against humanity, but that day was far enough into the future to be of concern at present.

Trajan shook her hand, and it was decided. An easy choice to make.

He started to walk again as she explained what she knew. Not vampires. Possible Liches. Humans, possibly, who had feared death and made some manner of insidious arcane bargain to live well past their mortal lives. Extended youth and/or life always came at the highest of magical costs; other life. It was one reason why he found Khorvayne appalling to a certain degree. If she didn't insist on using elven blood to enhance her youth, he and her would have long ago had a problem that only his warhammer could solve. And still, he found her methods unsettling.

A thought.

"Forgive my ignorance, but did your magic tell you that they were, in fact, once human? Undead, yes, but...my concern is deception. These Undead seem powerful deceivers. If they were once human, then that is one circumstance. Likely well-versed mages, yes, bargaining against the inevitable, but a known quantity. If they are merely disguising themselves in the human form, they could be anything. Creatures hitherto unknown at worst, their capabilities uncertain. As you have said, this 'Alexis Armon' and her cohorts are not like anything you've encountered before, and I trust in your judgment of this."

Trajan sucked at his teeth while he thought some more.

"Perhaps it is best to prepare for anything, given what little we know and all that is possible."

A sudden chuckle.

"These deceivers. How they crave the human form. The envious yearning for that which they could never truly be. I'd not heard of such amorphous creatures assuming the form of an orc or a dwarf so regularly. Elves, perhaps. They've a beauty of their own that some of these deceivers might so fancy over the human form."

They neared the docks. The boat clearly visible.
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery nodded "It would be best to be prepared for the unknown in all circumstances. Assuming one knows everything of an enemy is weakness and will only lead to one's own destruction." She felt like she was still playing the roll of the teacher. In reality, she was probably only a few years younger than him, though in appearance she seemed much the younger. "I was unable to determine whether these beings were once human, if they once were it was centuries ago and all semblance of humanity has been lost to them. Even though they still appear as such. Though it is very possible they are of another nature entirely. Lady Armon at least is capable of a powerful magical discipline. She was practicing summoning some sort of winged sprint when I encountered her. The summons seemed mundane enough but that does not mean she is not capable of summoning things of more vile origin." Valkery explained.
 
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Trajan Meng

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A fair enough point.

But the preparation for all things required considerable resources. Coin, supplies, manpower, planning, intelligence gathering, and most of all, time. Trajan's rapid response to the mists had come with the tradeoff of limited manpower, no mages of his own, mundane weapons among his men, and an utter lack of knowledge of what he was up against. Hence bringing Dio along, such that if all ended in tragedy, then the next wave of humanity's defenders would be far better prepared. A blessing that it had not been so.

Yes. This venture would be costly in many ways. But if the foe was as formidable as Valkery let on, then the sheer amount of preparation to reach such a heightened state of combat readiness would be wise and well worth the expense.

Especially with the exact number of these infiltrators uncertain.

Dio walked back across the dock with a big smile on his face and said, "It's all still there."

And the mercenaries gave a small cheer.

"Fuckin' dinnertime, boys." "Hell yes." "No one touch my jerky." "Hungry as a horse over here."

The mercenaries filed past Trajan and Valkery. Made a line on the docks to board the twenty-man-capacity boat.

Trajan looked to Valkery. Said, "Surely, we will find out the extent of their unholy power ourselves. As much as I'd prefer that the creatures were capable of being felled in a singular, surprise strike, I doubt we will be so lucky. Hmph. Lady Armon. One wonders how long they have been at their deceptions, feigning goodness and innocence."

Trajan walked down the dock as the last few mercenaries boarded the boat.

Said, "It will take me some time to assemble the resources at my disposal. To put the call out to my brothers and sisters. To ensure that they are properly armed and armored. To requisition as many of the known tools and substances proven effective against the terrors of the night, and the reagents necessary for various enchantments. To retrain my fighting men and women as much as I can in combat against varieties of Undead, for many have battle experience, yes, but not against the Undead. It will take time."

The last of the mercenaries boarded the boat.

"What I lack are strong mages," he said. "I may be able to persuade with coin some who offer their services freelance, but such a thing is not guaranteed. Know that this is where my aid will be the weakest. I suspect that you do not have many peers in Elbion or otherwise, but if I am mistaken, then by all means call upon them. If they are of the freelancing sort then call upon me and I will gather the coin necessary, should it be so required."

Trajan motioned to the boat.

"After you, Madame Valkery."
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkary boarded the boat with ease and grace before taking her seat and crossing her legs, folding her hands in her lap. She waited for Trajan to join her in the boat before continuing their conversation. "One of the disadvantages of being self-taught means that I have few connections in the magical community. I mostly worked alone in the past. Though I will keep my eyes out for anyone of that caliber who might be of aid to us. I obviously will do everything in my power to see this operation through to the end. I can lend my experience in training the men, I can also assist in some of the more subtler tasks of information gathering. However, when it comes to actually taking them down, your assistance will be vital." She said. Valkery wasn't sure if the reality of this had fully sunk in yet. Just that morning she had been worrying about how she was to approach her various assorted problems, and now she had a man offering her the services of what amounted to a small army.

"What we need to be careful of is not to anger the college. We are sure to fail if we have to combat both the college and the undead. And if we run in making blind accusations with no evidance then we will only result in tipping our hand." She said.
 
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Trajan Meng

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Trajan stepped onto the boat and took a seat on the row opposite and in front of Valkery. Two mercenaries seated in the rear of the boat pulled the anchor back up and the men on one side took up their oars and paddled and the boat turned about and at last the current of the Cairou took it and they were off.

The men and Dio passed around their rations and waterskins and began eating and drinking as the boat had begun the waterborne journey back to Elbion.

Trajan nodded when Valkery mentioned she could help train the men. "Yes. Your experience would be a great boon."

And Trajan laid his warhammer across his lap and made a fist with his right hand and covered it with his left. Rested his elbows on his knees. Back hunched. Thinking.

Yes. Valkery was correct. He had momentarily forgotten the terrain of the upcoming battle. Not an empty and open field, such as it was with the red mists. No. A city, highly populated. Innocents abounding at every turn. Guards and oblivious College lackeys to worry about. The enemies they knew, and the enemies they knew not, among it all. Small villages were one thing. But a city the size of Elbion? He'd never before faced battle in such an enclosed and perilous environment. He would have to confer with Valkery as to the size of the force he should bring.

"It will be difficult, yes," he said. Then he straightened his back and sat upright. "Uncovering the truth of the matter will be a delicate procedure. This Alexis Armon and her cohorts, they've convinced all around them that they are something that they are not, and those deceived will be under their sway unless we remove all doubt of the Undead's true form and nature."

A moment of consideration. "I, perhaps, might have a way to expose them."

And Trajan patted his warhammer. "My weapon is enchanted. Though I am but a novice with magic, my warhammer affords me two spells I do not possess the capacity to cast on my own. One of which is called the Bulwark. A dome of protection against magic, deflecting arcane energies away, but, more importantly for this matter, it expels magic already within the dome once cast."

A glance back to Valkery. "This may yet serve as a means to unmask the fiends. Though I would need to be close, the Bulwark could strip their arcane deception from them, if it is indeed magical in nature. And, fortune forbid, that they are not powerful enough to resist the Bulwark's expulsion."
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery pressed a knuckle to her lips in thought. "It is a good idea. However, I fear in this situation it most likely would not be enough. When I met them I did not sense any kind of arcane shroud. Meaning their deception is either biological in nature, or they are powerful enough to deceive my senses. Either way, I fear your enchantment would be ineffective." She was silent for a thoughtful moment before continuing "I have an idea, though I fear it may be in poor taste, we can't deny that such a tactic may be necessary. If the rumor of corruption and undead in the college is seeded among the common people it may be enough to raise doubt. This would put our opponents on edge, perhaps causing them to grow careless, and may also grant us some credibility among the common people when we do reveal them. If we also seed the idea that the college is harboring this undead the college will be forced to expose the undead or else risk appearing guilty. However, we would need to know more about the exact nature of the undead before making such a move."
 
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Trajan Meng

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Unfortunate. But not altogether unexpected. The Bulwark was useful indeed versus illusions and other magicks cut from the same cloth, but not against the shapeshifters. The creatures whose power was granted on account of their very being. Yes, they were among the most powerful and most difficult foes to combat. Some were weak or not well-versed in melee combat, their prowess in deception having atrophied much of the skill they once may have had. The most pressing problem, of course, was actually exposing the shapeshifters and getting them into open combat. For as Valkery warned, their deceptions will have led many astray, and these cowardly Undead would very much hide behind the screen of the oblivious masses, using innocent men and women as disposable shields and weapons. Such as it was for all the wicked and sinister shapeshifters, Undead ones even more so.

Trajan listened to Valkery's suggestion.

A propaganda campaign.

"Yes," Trajan said, scratching his chin. "This may yet strike at their vanity. There is a certain complacency and arrogance that continued success untempered by humility often breeds. And it is likely that these Undead are intoxicated by it, if they have so been lurking amongst the College for however long it truly has been. Hmm. Yes. It may work. The forcing of one's opponent to commit a disastrous mistake is a tactic well honored by time."

The trees along the shoreline gliding by as the boat drifted down the Cairou River.

"Such a rumor would work well with a false flag. A staged and controlled action, something 'tangible' upon which the rumor is based. All there would need to be is a commotion, confusion, and a corpse whose Undead nature is without question and whose affiliation with the College is the same, and the citizenry of Elbion would do our work for us. The so-called 'rumor mill' will distort many of the details, but the core of the tale will be the same: Undead, under the guise of College Mages. Yes, hence the need to know more about these Undead, to be as accurate as possible and thereby increase the potency of the initial facade."

Some more quick thoughts on the matter.

"It would be a matter most delicate to get right, and the utmost care would have to be taken in both the planning and the execution. The ideal results would be potent for our ends, but the venture itself coming with substantial risk. A false flag may not even be the best tactic to pursue, despite the potential payoff. Your thoughts?"
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery nodded "Yes, if the risk it higher than the pay off it may be better to discard the idea. However, for now, it would be best if we kept this option on the table until we know more. The main issue at the moment is how to acquire this information. What resources do you have at your disposal as far as the art of subterfuge is concerned?" She asked. She considered doing it herself. However, the Armon's were already aware of her identity if they found her prying into their personal business they would get suspicious. She knew she could go directly to them under a guise of friendship but she doubted that they would let anything slip that easily. Then a thought occurred to her. She had been ignoring the involvement of Eleanor and the Cult in this matter. However, it was their attack on college grounds that had started this.

"If we go the route of a false flag, I may also be able to place pressure on the college. A former student of mine was attacked on the college grounds. I was hired by her family to resolve the issue. It would be within my authority to press charges on the college for their negligence to allow such a thing to happen. Then when rumors of undead in the college start to spread we can use it as a spearhead to force them to take action."
 
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Trajan Meng

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The mercenaries continued to eat around them as the boat was taken by the current of the river. Trajan did not yet reach for any of the provisions. Not until all the men under his command had their fill would he do so. There were many highborn military officers and captains of ships and such whose expectation it was to eat first and to eat meals more hearty than any afforded to their subordinates. And Trajan would never be among their number.

So he listened. Thought on Valkery's question and her potential avenue of applying pressure to the College.

"I confess that I do not know much of the intricacies of College policies, and that I have only a general and inexpert sense of them. If you are indeed able to press such charges against the College for the misfortune befallen upon your former student, then it should serve to make the College more pliable. More ready to respond to rumors of the Undead. They would already be made to look weak and ineffectual on account of your former student's plight, and they'd loathe to look as such yet again."

Subterfuge. Some options sprang to mind.

"As far as subterfuge is concerned, yes, I've some resources. A fellow of mine, Clarissa, is a skilled spy, though I fear the Undead may not be so susceptible to her...methods. She is, however, quite good at improvisation and acting. There is also Dio, whom you've met. He is a birdkeeper, and uses them to relay messages as you've seen. But his enchantments upon them also make them covert and serviceable eyes and ears, though their presence would be noticed quickly indoors. For that I've another fellow, Khadija, who is skilled in a wide variety of enchantments. She has in the past enchanted small objects such that they might act as independent ears, listening to voices and echoing back the spoken words in perfect clarity once retrieved and made to do so. Though it would require first planting the enchanted devices in ideal locations."
 
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"Most anything is possible if you have enough money to back it up. My student's family is very rich, they have afforded me access to a substantial amount of money to use in the matter. Though as par my contract I am only able to spend the money on personal living expenses and anything needed to retrieve Miss Eleanor. I can't use it to fund this Undead operation. But if my attempts to retrieve miss Eleanor also help us with our undead problem then who can argue." Valkery explained lacing her fingers together, determination hardening her features.

"Additional all of those infiltration strategies are quite impressive. It may be beneficial to infiltrate the maintenance staff. Staff can go about unnoticed and they usually hear more than they let one. Someone in that position could easily plant the bugs." She continued. but froze, her breath catching as she realized she might have just made a fatal mistake. How could she have been so careless? How loyal were these men? She had been assuming they were a regular force of Trajan's men. But what he had said about this effort being a last minute thrown together campaign. If these were mercenaries then many of them their morals would lie where their pockets were. It wouldn't take much for one of them to go to the Armon's and sell them the information.

Her eyes grew wide for a moment before regaining her composure and sitting up straight again her face as impassive as ever. "Though I think It might be best if we wait to discuss this further until I have met your associates and we can discuss this in a more privet setting," She said her mind racing, trying to find a way to cover for her mistake.
 
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Trajan Meng

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An interesting gambit. Valkery's former student, Eleanor by name, was attacked and, apparently, needed retrieval. Hmm. From whom? Valkery spoke as such to imply that it wasn't the Armon Undead. Lackeys of them, perhaps? Valkery knew all of the pertinent details, and if she believed that she could, as the phrase went, knock out two birds with one stone then by all means. Even if retrieving Eleanor served only to gain them another ally in their struggle against the Undead, a student of inimitable Madame Valkery would be formidable indeed. Very much welcome.

Then it seemed she was struck by a sudden remembrance. A sudden and dire one, as the subtle lapse in composure suggested. Trajan cocked his head a bit, puzzled. He could scarcely imagine what thought had seized her so.

A stay of their conversation. And a request that it continue in privacy.

And Trajan understood.

A vulnerability of his. One he was all too aware of, yet one which constantly hounded after him, nipping at his heels like some half-starved animal. He had a ready and opening willingness to trust his kin. Not so much that he believed the word of every stranger he met, despite his love for his fellow man and woman. But those with heart? Those of righteous action? Those who impressed him, whether or not it was their direct intention to do so? Yes, Trajan had a propensity to trust them unconditionally afterward. Khadija and the other founders of the Luminari often acted as counterbalances, and their caution had saved the Luminari from disaster with regard to misplaced trust on more than one occasion.

Yes. All the mercenaries present had earned Trajan's trust and respect. For daring to come with him into the unknown when no other mercenary band or company in Elbion at the time would do so. And what manner of misfortune would have befallen Mitsy's "Band of Idiots" had Trajan and his men not been there? They may very well have still found victory against the fiend, but it was dreadful to think that it might not have been so decisive, and that not all who entered the mist would have left alive in that circumstance. But the mercenaries did so dare, and because of their valor, Trajan did not need to wait for Luminari loyalists to be assembled, and so made haste to the mists, and all turned out as it did. All on account of the courage of each of the twelve men.

So Trajan trusted them. But he did not know very much of them. The same could very well be said of Valkery herself, frankly. But Trajan trusted her, too. For she, like them, had proven herself outstanding in his eyes. Never given, always earned, as the Luminari saying went, and Valkery had earned Trajan's trust and respect as well.

Still, Trajan understood Valkery's caution. A delicate matter, this Undead infiltration of the College. Trajan had a mind to simply hire all twelve of the men again once back in Elbion and he had paid out the rest of the contract to them. Perhaps there, with Khadija, would be the proper time to extend the offer of initiation into the Luminari to them. The band did seem predisposed to it, having a tight-knit relationship with one another, all having worked together formerly in a mercenary company before all quitting as one, fed up with the leadership. Perhaps they sought coin and riches mostly and at present, but underneath some embers seemed to be glowing.

Kha did make for a good partner during a speech. With luck, all of the men would join right then and there. With even more luck, they'd all then volunteer to be a part of this Undead operari. For that was how the Luminari functioned. All volunteer-based, funds and supplies earned through performance and readily observed dedication to the cause. A culture of merit.

It would be seen.

For now, Trajan nodded. Said, "We will be among friends soon enough."

A look of stalwart resolution. A promise in his eyes. That he would do everything he could to ensure the success of the task Valkery had put forth. The fall of the Armon Undead.

And the boat sailed down the Cairou River.
 
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Madame Valkery

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Valkery nodded in gratitude. The rations finally came around to them and Valkery took some gratefully. She hadn't eaten since that morning and she had chosen not to bring anything with her so as to reduce her load. They continued their boat ride in silence, Valkery was not one for small talk. Instead, she listened in on the banter of the mercenaries. They were all very glad to be alive and the recent dier circumstances worked to raise their spirits now that they had survived it. Valkery had always been an observer, it was what made her magic so potent, it had been how she had been able to take command so readily in the middle of a crisis, she had been able to learn what each person valued, what they needed, and what they feared, and then used that to help they all survive. So she observed.

She quickly learned that this was not this groups first rodeo together. They had fought as a group many times before. That was good. A lone mercenary was far more likely to be in it for the money than a group who often did it for the comradery, and less for the coin. However, all it took was one person. They would need to be careful.

The sun continued alone its arc as they floated down the river back to Elbion. Valkery only speaking when spoken to, though she was quite amiable when she did speak. Finally, they came to the port in at the city. Some of the mercenaries hopped out and tied the boat to the pier. One of them offered Valkery a hand, helping her out of the boat. She took it out of courtesy though she clearly didn't need the help as she nimbly climbed out of the boat and onto the pier. Closing her eyes she took in a long deep breath. It smelled like fish and damp wood and city grime, but it wasn't quite the smell she was looking for. She could feel the bustling auras of tones of people, people who were here now and those who had walked down this pier in the last 24 hours. She had used up most of her aura healing the mercenaries. Reaching out her senses she collected as much aura as she could. She was always stronger in the city where she had plenty of Aura to work with.
 
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