Quest The Ancient Dweller

Lazule

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((Mists of Rivendell by Enrico Fossati))​



His name was Zeng.

And he was a monster.

So Lazule chased after him. A beacon of light pursuing the fleeing dark.

* * * * *​

Another small village. Annihilated.

Fires burned around her. Pillars of black smoke rising up to the gray clouds above like some terrible offering. A reaching of the unjustly slain up toward an unseen judge in the sky for intervention. Only the ashes of their homes they had to bargain with.

No. There was nothing above that would deliver them retribution. Those whose feet were bound to Arethil would need to serve. A sacred duty. To avenge those slain by monsters.

Lazule collapsed to her knees in the central square of the village. Exhausted. The lightforged shiv disappearing from her hand. Sweat on her brow. The skin of her face and fingers reddened by extensive use of Luminomancy.

"Recompense...recompense..."

A half-circle of scalps and fingerbones and tongues of undead beasts about her. A horrid crescent. A reduction of the monsters that had plagued this village, Orenhaven, to mere trophies. Each a proof that the abhorrent and the wicked and the bloodthirsty could be felled. Each a proof that even terrors had something to fear.

Bodies and remains were strewn about the square. Some of the zombies and skeletons and undead beasts under Zeng's command, but most of the villagers themselves and the retinue of knights and some Templars of the Keepers of Oath. The undead under Zeng's command were frenzied, fought viciously and ceaselessly. It was only with Zeng's departure from Orenhaven during the battle that the remaining undead slowed and their ferocious prowess dwindled and the last men and women standing of the retinue of knights and Templars gained the upper hand.

But the cost was great. The victory hollow. Lazule and the knights and the Templars, all bound together through common cause in seeking the necromancer Zeng, had engaged and defeated only a fraction of his unholy force. And it left the whole of the village and the retinue slaughtered. Zeng had been cunning. Directing his minions to mercilessly push through the defenses of the knights and the Templars to attack and kill the few mages and Templars who displayed healing magic. In so doing, those knights and Templars who survived the actual battle perished shortly thereafter from the grievous wounds they had suffered.

All leaving Lazule alone. Around her nothing but the fires both calm and raging, homes burned out and smoldering and those still engulfed, the silence of the slain strewn about, the splatterings of blood in the square and in the road, the faint rush of the river weaving and meandering through this great green valley of the Spine, the towering mountains on either side whose peaks were veiled by the gray and lingering clouds bearing impassive witness.

She did not know Zeng's true aim. Why it was the necromancer was amassing such great quantities of the dead and energies of death. Where he was going. None of it.

She only knew one thing.

That she would pursue him.

And kill him.

Because his name was Zeng. But he was no longer a man.

He was a monster. And so it was demanded that he be destroyed.

Lazule sat on her heels there in the center of Orenhaven. Her arms limp at her sides. Head canted up to the sky choked with clouds. The sun above banished behind them. She breathed. Panting. Sore and aching.

And the fires of the homes around her burned and loose embers danced in the air.


Xyrdithas
 
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The sight of the town burning before him was indeed a terrible image, not one that any would like to have stumbled upon. But to him, to them, it was more than an omen of evil but rather a reward for their haste. They had moved quickly, and the wreckage before them was the freshest of any sign they had seen. Erën stood just meters away from the mangled gate which had pitifully tried to stave off the town’s earlier intruders, and he looked at its broken frame. They’d toppled it with the weight of their numbers it seemed and forced their way through the streets. It was an absolute disaster.

A soft voice, almost a whisper came from behind him.

“We’re not alone here,” she uttered.

Te’leis was not often wrong. Indeed, the was another here who still drew breath.

There were three of them standing together in silence, beholding the fiery destruction for yet another moment. Then, without so much as a glance the three of them scattered. Erën shot straight through the gates and into the streets toward the square some ways ahead. Te’leis had darted right, and the other, Aidathin had gone left. They moved swiftly and were relatively unhindered by the mess that lay all around them. They emerged into the square almost in unison, Erën first followed by the other two. Te’leis stood perched atop relatively intact dwelling, bow in hand, and Aidathin had made his way to the adjacent street and came forth from there. He brandished a great lance adorned with blue jewels.

Erën stood poised, one hand rested on the hilt of his sword at his left. He looked on at the person set amid the ruined town’s square curiously. It was difficult to tell at first given the smoke, but it quickly became evident she was the only life that remained. Or so it would seem.

So, this is it? Hmm…

With all the death left in the necromancer’s wake it was fortunate to find anyone alive, really. This foe had proven quite formidable: not only did he maintain a good lead on them; he also managed to make his… stops along the way. But perhaps he would soon be within reach, and maybe this individual knew where he was headed next – another thing that had eluded them until it was too late.

Erën cautiously approached, his eyes fixed on the woman set ahead of him. The other two waited patiently where they were, awaiting any signal to move. Without giving much thought he called out in Elven.

“O saesi, mael!” You there, speak! He did not consider if she spoke it or not.

He stopped several meters from her, sword still in sheath but grasped - held at the ready. But he could quickly tell she would likely not be looking for a fight with their sort, she looked exhausted anyway. Hopefully it was not some façade he’d been unknowingly lured into. But thankfully, he had two sets of eyes watching on should he require aid.

(Aidathin)
(Te'leis)
 
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For the past few weeks of following the trail of death and destruction, Aless Frostborn found herself facing the one foe who could cut her to the core and yet remain beyond retaliation: Memory. Seeing the spilled blood and carnage of the battlefield brought everything welling back. The black beast curled around her heart dug in its wicked spurs and her thoughts turned endlessly towards war and all its pleasures, its satisfactions. Once upon a time, she had been the cause of such sights.

It was hard for her heart to find her through the black ice, but it spoke to her of sorrow. The people who once lived in these burned homes, the children who played in the streets and the parents who scolded them for tramping in with muddy feet...they deserved better than this. The cosmos, however, seldom cared to intervene when the evil of the world put the innocent to the flame. It was left to people to stop it, and the slowly growing fury at the center of her chest, a bite of midwinter, drove her on despite all her promises that her days as a killer were behind her.

The half-elf sighed, brushing her hair back behind a pointed ear. She couldn’t quite pass as fully her mother’s daughter, but it was close. Her father’s brutality and discipline, if he was the man rumored to be, showed in her more human temperament. Her mother had tried to put a love of light and life into her, but those seeds had never taken root in a heart of steel and ice. She had come far in the years since she left Vel Anir, but its lessons still served her well.

Her armor was utterly unadorned, plain but excellent quality steel plate covered in scars beneath a plain grey surcoat bearing no markings. Her old colors had been black with a stylized weeping eye in red, but she had burned that hateful thing when she left that path.

Woe hung at her side as she rode. The sword had come with her through every battle since the first, decades of ceaseless combat giving it a surprisingly potent reputation among mercenaries, for being not even slightly enchanted, if expertly crafted. People had whispered about it eating the souls of those slain with it, but she very much doubted that was the case. She didn’t notice the weight of the blade after this long, but she was almost supernaturally aware of its presence at all times, ever ready to draw it if needed.

Her horse hesitated at the edge of this latest village, nostrils flaring as the dark destrier shifted under her. Aless patted his neck. “Easy,” she said, though she felt it too. This one was fresh and seemed to have been the focus of far more of a fight than the past ones. From the marks on the ground and the fallen bodies, it seemed this fight had been two-sided, defenders as well as an assaulting force.

She dismounted, leaving her shield and spear with Araxa. The warhorse was a cautious creature, but he would follow her to hell and back without flinching when his blood was up. She’d raised and trained him to be a fighter even among his kind.

She drew Woe once her feet hit the ground, hoping that she didn’t have to use it. She’d cut apart a few stragglers of the attacking force, their undead forms hinting at a more magical source than the average bandit lord: a necromancer. The only one of those she’d encountered was dead.

Is it always battle and killing and dying with you? a soft voice teased at the back of her thoughts. Phantom fingers brushed across her cheek. For all your complaints about my magic, at least I live. Feel alive with me, just for tonight, just you and I.

Aless’s jaw clenched and she shoved the thought away. Some things were better left dead.

The sound of voices caught her attention. This place was not abandoned, another difference. One called out in Elven. She could speak it, but her native accent made her no better than a schooled human and tended to conjure suspicion. Then again, even after a long, long time of being away from those forbidding walls, she carried her birthplace in her speech in every tongue.

She approached cautiously, her helm hooked to her belt, but made no move to charge in. It was entirely possible that the necromancer might still be here, and she knew from intimate experience that such magic was not to be taken lightly.
 

Lazule

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The thirst. Her throat parched.

She reached down for her canteen beside her and lifted it and drank from it and tilted it back to coax the last few drops of water from it. Her arm quivering and threatening to give out. A gasping. And she set it back down.

The meandering valley river was just outside the village. The sound of it beneath the crackling of burning wood and the howl of the most intense fires.

But the fallen knights and Templars would have their own canteens and flasks and waterskins. They would have their own traveling packs and supplies. The villagers. The copious dead. Things left behind. Things they might bequeath.

Lazule couldn't stand. Not yet. The spirit at the mercy of the body. And Zeng would be like her in that sole regard, requiring rest.

She would hunt him. No question. It was demanded. But the two dozen men and women comprising the combined force of the knights and Templars had all perished. And Zeng bothered not to stay and raise the dead of Orenhaven, the harvested energies of death itself enough; it spoke to the size of the undead force at his command.

It mattered not. She would hunt him. And she would kill him. Allies or no allies. It was demanded.

A voice then. Words she didn't understand. Breaking the spell of loneliness. Another yet living amidst the lovely song of fire.

Lazule looked up. The solemn expression on her face melting into an anxious one as she finally noticed. Her eye regarding the armored and hooded figure before her. A man. Not a monster.

She took hold of her canteen. The shaking of it in her grasp. She tried extending it toward the man but her hand and her arm failed and the canteen slipped and fell to the ground and the trophies in front of her and her arm dropped back to her side again.

"W-Water," she said. "Do you...do you have water?"
 
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Xyrdithas

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Erën’s suspicion seemed true, this woman was indeed no threat to them. Perhaps a friend instead. His posture eased, and he began forward. The elves of Aeraesar were a durable bunch, their need for water was far less than that of humankind. Still, the need was not foreign to them and Erën sympathized with her drought. But before he’d had the chance to move Aidathin had already begun. He was far more an empathic sort than Erën, and her seemingly honest plea had stirred him. The silent elf approached and knelt to Lazule’s side offering a half-emptied flask he’d procured on his way over, having already made sure it was suitable. Erën likewise moved forward, examining their surrounds with caution. He’d heard movement, but over the noise of the flames he could not be certain if it was deliberate.

Te’leis remained where she was, poised. She was not so hasty to relax, not yet. From where she was overhead, she had a clear view of where the three were now gathered close, but much else was skewed from her vision. She too had heard movement, all three had, but none were sure yet what was its cause. She was careful, and she listened close while the other two worried with the apparent sole survivor of this onslaught.

Erën let out a sorrowful sigh, and again addressed Lazule, this time more appropriately to her heritage and current state.

“And so, it seems you are all that remains of…” he looked down at the ruined corpses of some nearby knights, “…them.”

He’d hardly liked humans for many a year now, but even he could still feel remorse for them. The sight of a small child amid the bodies of soldiers pained him. Warriors were prepared to die, had faced many years of trial to accept their inevitable fate... but a child. Erën stepped close and knelt by the little girl’s frame, and he brushed locks of brown hair from her pale and lifeless face. He was thankful, her eyes were already closed. She had hopefully not seen the evil before it took her away.

“Is it you still draw breath, for now this evil is undone? Or is it you are just fortunate to have survived…”

He already knew the answer.
 
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There were a great many dead here, but it was proportional to the size of the town, without large groups missing. That meant the necromancer hadn’t bothered to raise them, which was more concerning than welcome news. Did he really have that many undead under his sway already? Probably, Aless reflected, thinking of at least one ghost town, filled with blood-soaked streets but no corpses.

She was careful around the bodies all the same. The former mercenary knew that at any point, it was possible for the dead awoken by dark magic to change their minds about sleeping in the grave. Her sword was lowered, tip towards the earth, but that could change in an instant. Aless was used to danger. In fact, being out of it was more jarring.

Silence like this and the roar of battle were both equally her home. It was the in-between that she struggled with.

She rounded a corner and found herself gazing through a crackling fire at a group of people. One was clearly in poor shape, that much she could tell through the low flames and smoke. She hadn’t encountered a survivor at any of the villages before, only scavengers.

If it weren’t for her own little village, she probably wouldn’t have come. It was cold, but she was still learning how to be warm after a lifetime of frostbite.

If she moved away from the fire and smoke, they would see her if they hadn’t already. Her mother’s people were not known for being oblivious, and the warriors even less so. She expected at least one archer somewhere above, but probably more. She didn’t know why they were here, but hunting the necromancer seemed as likely a reason as any. She doubted they had just bumbled into this by mistake.

Aless shrugged slightly. She wasn’t going to hide behind the obscuring fire like a coward. It wasn’t her way, even in more peaceful times. She sheathed Woe and whistled for Araxa. The warhorse approached as swiftly as a hound would run to its master, allowing her to pull her shield off her saddle. If she was going to have to contend with a potentially hostile archer, she wasn’t going to do it barehanded.

Now that she was prepared, she gestured for Araxa to stand at the ready and spoke a sharp command in her native tongue, no different than a cavalry officer in Vel Anir. The warhorse’s head lifted like he wanted to follow her as she stepped out, but his training was ironclad. He wouldn’t come until she either whistled or faltered.

At least her helm was off. Her pointed ears might buy her a chance to get a word or two out before arrows, though her past interactions with elves had been somewhat contentious. Their commentary on her nature, manners, and tongue had been a reminder to Aless that she was not human or an elf, and could not comfortably and wholly inhabit either world. Making her own way had always suited her best.

Let’s hope they aren’t with the necromancer, she reflected grimly. I’d rather not kill anything I don’t have to.

“Are you friends of the living or foes?” she called simply, measuring her strides and keeping her shield at the ready. She hadn’t reached her current age by being excessively stupid.
 

Lazule

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Another of their number approached. An elf. Not a monster. He had a flask in his hand and the other man stood his ground. Lazule regarded the kneeling elf, looking him up and down, and her eye rested on the flask. With both hands she carefully reached for the flask and nodded and gently took it and brought it to her mouth and drank it dry. A gasping for air as she finished, arms quivering again. And she passed the flask back to the elf.

The hooded man spoke.

"Yes," Lazule said. Watching him as he turned his attention from the body of a knight to the body of a child. "Kn-Knights from Crobhear Point, at the southernmost tip of Crobhear Lake. We were t-traveling north. Pursuing. We met them," she nodded her head at a fallen Templar, the armor distinct from the knights' own, "at c-camp. They joined us. They were hunting Zeng too. And now...now they're all dead. Just I. N-now."

Another question. A mention of the evil. The cause of all the wanton destruction and suffering and death. The black mark upon the idyllic landscape about them. The monster which left a dark scar amidst the vibrant green of the valley.

Lazule's brow narrowed just so.

"Yes. I am fortunate. I yet live. So that I may hunt and kill the monster named Zeng. There are many dead to be avenged, and they will be. Zeng continues north, and so shall I."

And her brow relaxed.

Another voice. A different one. Calling over the devouring flames and across the small village square. A woman. An elf woman. Short ears, but pointed. With a shield. Not a monster.

The retinue Lazule had come with had all perished. But a newer, smaller one seemed to be forming.

"Friends," Lazule said, trying to raise her weak voice up over the noise of the flames. Unsure if she was heard or not.

Still she sat, the zombie scalps and skeletal fingers and beastly tongues arranged and organized neatly about her. Her body cooling down. Exhaustion from overheating and extensive exertion during the battle rooting her in place.
 
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Erën knelt there for a moment, offering a silent prayer on the fallen girl’s behalf. Gazing upon the still child he could not help bit recall his home. Many years ago, the great city of his people had been marred by an unknown evil, and much death had been left in its wake – it too had felt fire. He felt a kindred spirit here, a similar remorse – they three all did.

He stood as he listened to Lazule's account, nodding at her proclamation of pursuit. She was a righteous sort. He could respect that. Her aim was to quell the fires of this madman's heresy and alleviate the worthlessness of these brutal and unprovoked killings, in at least some small way. Their motivations could very well have been worlds apart, but the goal was the same.

Zeng. So that is his name.

None of them had yet known. Indeed, they had taken up the challenge to seek out and end this aspiring menace, but at first it had been only Te'leis. She had found this Zeng's handiwork in much the same way they had today, but she had been wise. She knew she would be folly to pursue him alone and being unaware of Lazule's company and quest she instead had reached out for her brethren. It had taken some time, but they had come.

They were fewer now, so few and so far, that time did not allow for more to come. Only the two arrived, Aidathin and Erën, and so the three of them set out together some weeks ago, but the trail had gone quite cold for them. It had made their finding here bittersweet, but hopefully their delay would not be in vain.

A sound. A whistle. That tone reached their ears with ease.

In perfect synchrony all three reacted. Aidathin, dropping the flask at his side, put himself between the approaching newcomer and Lazule, brandished his lance. Erën also turned as he drew the sword at his left, an elegant sword, just over a meter long, which was forged from metals and glimmering blue gem, woven together to create brilliant patterns; and the pommel - a jagged gemstone of like colour, seemingly cast into the heart of its hilt. He grasped it with both hands and steadied himself, at first unable to see who came. Above, Te’leis turned sharply, ready with arrow nocked and bowstrung drawn, though she did not fully know where to aim.

Then she appeared to them, and with but a brief hesitation they relaxed. Aidathin offered an almost apologetic greeting, drawing his lance back to his side and placing one hand over his chest while bowing his head generously. Having lowered her bow Te’leis looked down upon her, almost endearingly. The three had perceived quite clearly the nature of her being, and in fact Te’leis had once cared for… another. She could not bring herself to feel any contempt, and likewise Aidathin was quite charitable. Erën however looked at her coldly, but in the presence of his companions he could not help but feel their compassion seeping into his mind.

He lowered his hood to expose himself as he sheathed his sword. Before he spoke his eyes were drawn to Te’leis, who glared down at him in an almost punitive way. He raised a brow at her expression, then he cast his eyes to the ground before looking up to half-elven woman with a faint smile.

“Friends indeed,” he agreed as he looked her up and down. She approached with confidence and seemingly no shame. If he had been solitary from his brethren, he may well have addressed her… misfortune, but instead he found he at least tried to offer the same cordiality as they, “it would seem we here seek to end this dark wizard’s reign. Are you here to do the same?”

Te’leis meanwhile descended the ruined home with natural elven grace and approached Lazule and Aidathin. She was not a fully-fledged healer, but she did possess some skills that would hopefully bring the exhausted slayer to her feet. She replaced Aidathin where he had knelt before and smiled to Lazule, offering her almost delicate hand out to her.
 
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Aless had spent an entire lifetime under judgment, so Erën’s look did nothing to unsettle her. It was expected. The superiority of many elves that she had met changed quickly from disheartening to nothing at all. In the moment, her face was not expressive, back in the comfortable old mask that hid whatever rare emotions did bubble up through ice and steel. She was not the type to smile even on a good day, her version often barely there and brief.

“Yes, I am here to put an end to this rampage,” she said firmly, voice precise as she talked around her accent. “I come from a village nearby. It needs protection from this chaos.”

She almost called it evil, but her history stopped her. The world was more complicated than some placed it, and she had spent her life in the dark part of the constellation of ways of being.

Despite their cordiality, Aless made certain she was very aware of where each of them stood and kept her shield one step short of ready. She fell into a comfortable stance, suitable for a right-handed fighter even though she truly favored her left, at least for the sword.

She cleared her throat. “Perhaps introductions are in order,” she said calmly. “My name is Aless. Who do I address, if I may?”
 

Lazule

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The man who had approached her turned to face the short-eared elf. Lowered his hood. Not a man, an elf himself. Hard to be certain. Of anything. At times. Hence all of the apprehension from the three elves toward her and the newcomer, and the newcomer's own apprehension toward them.

Things were simple. Once. Eyes alone served to identify monsters. Not anymore. Insight, awareness, perception, intuition. All were needed. Zeng was the proof. Him and the others before him. Him and the others after him.

And thus her purpose remained clear. Ongoing.

She looked down and at the half-circle of trophies around her. Counted meticulously under her breath. All present. Recompense for the fallen. Taken from each of the slain monsters in the village. And there would be many more to gather. Little shrines of them to build in the memory of the unknown fallen. For Zeng's amassed force of the dead was large, the necromancer himself powerful enough to command such a legion, and their violence indiscriminate. Horrid massacres all along the river valley.

They were few, these elves and Lazule. But they could travel quick and light. Could catch up to Zeng before he reached the next village. Yes.

A noticing. Of something.

Lazule looked up. The female elf. The one with the trio. Longer ears. Kneeling where once the other elf had been and extending her hand.

Lazule regarded it. Blinked. Slowly and carefully reached out and took hold of it. The slight shaking of her hand. An anxious tremble. A thing which could hardly be helped.

She heard others saying their names. Aless, was one. So she looked right at the long-eared female elf and said, "M-My name is Lazule."
 
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Erën’s back stiffened with Aless' tone, not so much from offense but rather a comfort. He preferred more straight forward communication like she’d given, offering no obligation to be what he would call trivial, so he lifted his chin to regard her with some more respect.

“Te'leis,” she spoke softly and kind, regarding Aless with a nod while she grasped Lazule's hand, “this will only take a moment.” She said, turning back to the wearied warrior.

With a blink her sapphire eyes displayed a blue luminosity that was mimicked by sea—stone gems embedded within the ornate, though weathered vambraces she wore. She offered forth her Seil, her energy which was intricately woven into her life-force. This would give Lazule the strength to stand again, but it would not mend any wound and would prove short-lived with any fatal infliction.

Erën’s eyes did not waver to witness Te'leis' display, instead he continued where she left off without pause.

“I am Erën'thiel,” and he gestured to the final of their gathering, “and Aidathin. We are… of the eastern Falwoods.”

He inhaled sharply and beheld once again the dreary and morose state of this ill-fated village. As the fires burned on and black smoke continued to rise the ashes fell around them like snow, slowly covering the ruined corpses of once valiant soldiers and grotesque monster alike.

“Well met, Aless. It is a shame you and we were not but a bit sooner…” he breathed.

Aidathin had remained quiet, instead his attention was upon Lazule's strange trinkets. He would wait for her to again have some strength before he'd inquire, but the expression of curiosity could not be hidden from his face as he examined them.
 
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“Indeed,” Aless said, looking down at the wreckage of people. Many were burned and maimed, signs of a death beyond normal combat. It deepened the midwinter at the center of her chest. “I have no doubt that we could have given the necromancer something to draw his attention and allow for the survival of others if nothing else.”

She looked up at the elves and gave them a small bow, fighting the urge to salute. “Well met,” she said simply. “We should take your friend away from here, to rest properly. She could pass for a corpse herself.”

Aless felt that altogether too familiar sensation shiver through her body. Through magical means, they were being watched by someone, for good or ill. She assumed ill. It was better to be right or pleasantly surprised than to delve too deeply into optimism and find hopes crushed. If she could feel it, the others would absolutely. She didn’t touch magic, an attitude strengthened by the loss of the one she once considered her better half. It had soured her on magic and its practitioners, at least to a degree.

Necromancy she hated above all other strains. How could she not after everything? That too was motivation for the hunt.

“We would be wise to conduct our business swiftly and depart,” Aless said. While she wanted to search the field of battle in case the necromancer had overlooked something, she didn’t much care for scrying spells. It was probably linked to some object in town or an undead yet wandering, which meant it could be evaded. “Someone or something knows that we are here.”
 

Lazule

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Healing magic. The power of restoration instead of destruction. The rare and the prolific. Those valiant few who sought to mend the wounds of the world. Lazule had no such gift. A quiet admiration. The gruesome examples of the sole manner of her salvation organized about her. All that she had to give.

Te'leis. The long-eared elf with the healing magic. Aidathin. The elf who had given her water. And Erën'thiel. The hooded one. The three of them, Aless, and Lazule had no choice now. They were all that could possibly stop Zeng's wake of death.

It was the nature of the predator and the prey. The predator always sought to kill the weakest prey. And so it was with Zeng. Staying to the remote reaches of the Spine. Avoiding the fortified strength of places like Crobhear Point or Belgrath or Bhathairk. The difference. That the behavior of a wolf or a falcon or a lion was innate. Natural. Part of the order of Arethil.

And lacking cruelty.

Cruelty infected only those who thought. For cruelty is a vain demon; it craves being known by name.

Men and women were meant to be better.

Lazule tentatively raised her body up and off her heels and shifted her leg and planted her left foot on the ground. The soreness of fatigue had gone. The embers in her stomach still smoldered, her skin was still reddened, but time and abstaining from use of Luminomancy would heal both. Invigoration would serve for now.

Hands on her left knee, she pushed up and stood all the way from the ground. A look to Te'leis. Her voice quiet and nearly overpowered by the flames of Orenhaven. "Thank you."

And Aless said something disconcerting. Someone or something knowing that they were here. Lazule knew not if it was Zeng, some hitherto unknown servant or comrade of Zeng's, or someone else entirely. Lazule couldn't sense such scrying, if that is what Aless alluded to. Only the choking and stifling traces of potent necromancy.

Conduct business. Yes. The grim task of collecting things of use from the dead. Contributions from the fallen to the cause of their own avenging.

"I shall collect what I c-can for travel," Lazule said. Spoken in general, to no one in particular. "I won't be long."

Lazule set about it then. She walked among the corpses of her fallen band and soon enough found a knight with an undamaged leather traveling pack on the ground beside him. She crouched down and apologized quietly and laid her hand on the knight's battered helm and lowered her head and after a moment took the pack and began rummaging through it, checking its contents and discarding what she would not need.
 
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Xyrdithas

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“Hmm…”

It was true, what the effectiveness of their effort would be was yet unknown to these elves. They had felt confident at first, but after many failures to attain their goal they’d questioned this sorcerer’s strength. Perhaps they would not have been enough, even if they had appeared together with Aless to come to the slayer’s aid. Though while some doubted, Erën was confident still.

At the mention of Lazule’s condition he turned to see Te’leis rise to stand with her. The elf was paler now, and her skin glistened in the flickering lights. While one had increased, the other the opposite. They would both now require rest, albeit Lazule less so now than before. Te’leis wearily nodded her acknowledgement to Lazule’s gratitude, and then with a bit of a shake regained some of her former vigor.

Aidathin meanwhile was once again forced to wait before satiating his curiosity, the danger of prying eyes causing him far too much worry. He readied himself, grasping his lance with both hands. Te’leis laid a comforting hand on his shoulder and looked around to see what Aless may have been speaking of.

“I don’t see anything…” her voice trailed off, and she began to listen closely.

Erën frowned as he too looked, and then abruptly his eyes darted back to Aidathin and Te’leis.

“Enough of this, quickly, gather what you can.”

Placing his hand close to his mouth he formed a tunnel through his fingers and through it, let out a sharp whistle. The sounds of horses drawing near at a fair pace filled the air.

“Aless is right we cannot delay for long.”

As three horses appeared through the smoke and slowed near Erën’s side, he turned his gaze back to the small child from before.

She was gone.
 
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“Does your friend have a horse?” Aless asked. “If not, she may ride with me. Araxa is strong enough to bear barding with an armored, geared body on his back. She would be nothing.”

Araxa strode around the fire. The warhorse was indeed powerful, on the big side for a destrier. He wasn’t wearing armor and the gear in his saddlebags was relatively light. His cinnamon colored coat was well-groomed, a sign that he was cared for with diligence.

She slung her shield across her back and sheathed Woe. Aless put a hand on her horse’s neck. “Will you mind another, handsome?” The tongue of Vel Anir rolled smoothly to her horse’s ears, both her native language and the language she had trained him in.

The warhorse butted her shoulder with his nose. He could be quite genteel when he was not lashing out in battle.
 

Lazule

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From one to the next. Knight to Templar to knight. Checking their packs and taking rations and potions and salves and other such things. Checking their waterskins, and filling her own canteen with the water remaining among them.

Yes. It was true. They could not delay for long, threat of being watched or no. Zeng moved like a grievous plague borne on the wind, the death he brought with him quick and horrific. Whatever village lay to the north of Orenhaven would be in dire peril. And it was likely that they would not know what terrors were coming their way until it was already upon them.

Lazule gave her traveling pack a good shake. The items within settling. This would do. It must. She had not taken a long look at the potions and salves the Templars had on their persons, but with good fortune they might accelerate her body's recovery. She would be blessed to be at full strength for the next confrontation with Zeng. With greater fortune and concentration, she would have clear line of sight to him and her aim would be true.

Their horses came forth. Even better.

"N-No. I do not have a horse. We were dismounted. The knights and T-Templars and I."

Lazule shouldered the straps of the pack. Prompted by Aless' offering she walked, weaving her way around the bodies of the slain and the stepping over the half-circle of trophies and around yet more bodies, toward her and her warhorse.

She stood beside Aless and her horse. A slight twitch of her mouth. A meager attempt at a smile. There and gone. She would wait until Aless mounted, then climb up behind her on the saddlebag. Aless' horse and the horses of the three elves all seemed calm enough around the dead and the burning. Hopefully none of them would be overly frightened by the undead, driven by primal fear into throwing their riders and running away.

Glances to the other elves as she waited.

Her eye falling to Erën. Following his gaze down.

The slain child. Gone.
 
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Xyrdithas

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At his word, the elves moved quickly to scour over the nearby dead with Lazule. They had yet many of their own belongings and needed little, but did acquire a few useful items. As they carried about their rummaging, Erën’s stare could not be broken. He stood as still as stone as his mind raced with an unusual confusion. The sound of sliding steel slowly drew through the air as his sword once again was brought forth, and then stepped forward.

He smacked his tongue. His mouth was dry.

These fires, this damn heat. He began to sweat.

He took another step, this one more laboured. Then his eyes darted right and he swung around, the torn royal blue whipping about him. He laid his eyes upon her again, set across the square surrounded by fire and smoke. She stood with her eyes yet closed, her head leaned off the side and her jaw broken and slack. Erën raised his sword in ochs stance, but here remained still.

With the billowing sound of Erën’s cloak Te’leis and Aidathin turned to observe, seeing Erën preparing with his blade. They looked where his attention was, but with a turn in the wind the smoke whirled and masked their sight. But when it eased and the smoke rose up unhindered, the girl was again gone. Erën remained still for another moment, unsure of whether some strange magic had played tricks on him. He turned his head one way and then the other looking for this creature, but to no avail. His frown deepened, and he turned back to the others.

“It is time, we must leave,” he said, his sword returning back into its resting place.

He looked to his initial companions who looked back worriedly and confused, but complied. They mounted their horses, lighter coloured and also smaller than Aless’ war horse, but stout, nonetheless. As Erën approached his own horse and prepared to mount he turned to Aless and Lazule with a look of concern. He was unsure of what this omen meant, but he had the inclination that their presence here would soon prove even more troublesome.

“A darkness indeed lingers, perhaps to bar our way.”
 
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Aless helped Lazule up onto Araxa’s back, allowing the worn woman to enjoy the comfort of the saddle. There was no way that Aless would put someone so ravaged behind her, even if they seemed like they wouldn’t fall. The saddle was well broken in and comfortable from hundreds of miles worth of traveling. Aless could see over her passenger’s shoulder easily, so visibility wasn’t an issue. It did mean she had her arms around Lazule, but she kept her distance as much as she could. Her seat behind was much less comfortable without stirrups to compensate for shocks. The blanket and leather beneath her added some padding, thankfully.

“Go careful, handsome,” Aless ordered her horse. It was a command she seldom used when compared to charges or running, but it was trained into him all the same. She whistled and tapped her heels gently on his side, urging the warhorse into motion.

She kept one hand on the reins and turned to face the elves as they mounted and started to move. “Do you have a camp or a place in mind?” she asked. Aless was not afraid to defer to others, though she drew the line at being treated as a simpleton or commanded to act.

It was a good thing she was an experienced rider, as otherwise she’d have had sore, sore thighs. This she could handle for a long time, fortunately.
 

Lazule

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A courtesy. A kindness. Things humane, elevating one above the bestial.

Lazule had not asked and not had expected it, but Aless helped her up onto the saddle regardless, taking up residence behind her. A nervous bristling as Aless by necessity had to put her arms around her to hold the reins. The shakes. Prevalent in the face of people. Absent in the face of monsters. And so it was now.

She gripped the saddle horn with both hands. Made a conscious effort to quell her shakes. Still, her hands quivered upon the saddle horn.

"Thank you," she said. Not looking back. Keeping her eye down on her hands.

Noise and movement.

Lazule looked up then. Erën. He stood with a ready stance, his weapon out. Glances about. Whatever he had seen and reacted to, Lazule had missed it. Only the smoldering ruins and burning infernos of the homes that had once made Orenhaven. Thick and choking smoke from the latter, twisting and writhing on the whim of the wind.

But Erën sheathed his weapon. A thing of little immediate consequence, then. If it was some minion under Zeng's command, then it would fall with the death of the necromancer himself. Yes. A small reminder. That the slaying of Zeng remained paramount.

"We sh-should head north, along the road," Lazule said. Fleeting glances to Erën and Aidathin and Te'leis. A quick turn of her head and flick of her eye back to Aless and then away. "We've still some hours of light left. We can m-make good time."
 
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Xyrdithas

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Erën pulled himself atop his mount and gestured for the elves to follow the destier ahead of him. They stayed close enough that their words would not needlessly carry far but maintained a single file. Te’leis followed closest to the dually mounted horse.

“We have not a camp, nor a firm grasp of the land,”

It was not common for elves of Mal’Esia Aeraesar to travel into the Spine. These lands had been deemed the property of dwarves by their Order long ago, and despite the presence of more contemporary inhabitants, and as such is treated with due respect and rarely trespassed on. Only occasions such as these granted exemption from these unspoken laws.

“We would concede to Lazule’s council.”

After a time, finally the question would be asked.

“We are curious,” Te’leis again, “the manner in which we found you. Those strange trinkets you had round about you, what was their purpose?”

It would likely seem strange. Not a one of the elves but Aidathin had expressed any interest in her ritual, and without having spoken had apparently shared his curiosity with the she-elf. And still, Aidathin maintained his silence and relatively stoic demeanour. Erën likewise was quiet, keeping a watchful eye on the surround.
 
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While the elves were speaking with Lazule, Aless kept her eyes scanning the road and terrain to either side. In situations like these, the importance of alertness could not be overstated. She appreciated when she glanced his way and saw Erën doing the same. Perhaps there was hope for this unlikely alliance yet. She saw no sign of an ambush, at least yet.

She was under no illusion that it would last, of course.

She wanted to put at least a couple of miles between them and the village, however long Lazule could tolerate riding after her ordeal. Aless was tolerating the shift well, though it meant holding on more tightly with her legs. Her horse kept at a stride that was most conducive to her not falling off, mercifully.

“We need a hollow or sheltered area near a lookout point,”Aless said after a good twenty minutes of quiet on her part. “It will be easier to keep watch and harder for an enemy to see the fire. If they track by smell...” She shrugged. Not much could be done there.
 

Rekh KaHarut

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The Strigi Raaka sat perched on the cliff side overlooking the path. The band had moved north, away from the scene of destruction at the village. Rekh had seen the smoke from afar, and had watched the aftermath from a distance. A handful of Elves and a Human. Were he younger, he would've taken it as a bad sign that Elves were involved. Now? Now he was glad to see at least one survivor. The slaughter seemed almost complete from his cursory fly over. It was no doubt as the goddess had shown him: a necromancer in the region.

The group leaving the village was well-armed, save for the one that survived. They had taken the road North, in the wake of the necromancer. But he knew these hills and mountains, and he knew they were blind to their forward path. They would need his help if they were to survive, assuming this necromancer was clever. So, Rekh decided to reveal himself, praying that he was not wrong in assuming their interest in the necromancer's destruction.
______________________________​

Before the group, there landed a Strigi Raaka, or birdman. His landing was neither loud nor fast, great wings slowing his descent onto the path. He wore plate that seemed of truly unique design, allowing for his wings. He kept his blade in scabbard, but instead watched as all gathered contemplated weapons. He gauged each of the members according to what it seemed their specialization was. They were warriors, there was no doubt; and none bore any signs of the Dark Arts having taken hold. He knew now their purpose: vengeance and protection. Once the general mood had settled to cautious, he introduced himself.

"Hail friends! I am called Rekh, Ka-Harut, and I believe that we seek the same end: that of a necromancer. I must warn you, your road will leave you blind to your front and back soon enough. In that I am happy to help."
 

Lazule

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Those strange trinkets. Te'leis was talking to her. A glance back, past Aless.

"Recompense. F-For the fallen," Lazule said. "It is all that I h-have to give back."

Yes. For each of the fallen a debt of blood or bone. The monsters that stalked Arethil stole away much more than those from the innocent. Brothers. Sisters. Sons and daughters. Mothers and fathers. Wives and husbands. Friends old and friends new. Things of value immeasurable. Things irreplaceable. Things no magic could bring back.

So her offerings were meager. Paling in comparison to what was once had. Ghastly talismans of vengeance fulfilled. Proofs of a duty upheld.

Her elaboration she kept to herself. Her eye drifted to the ground, then back up to Te'leis, then she turned her head forward again.

A tactical suggestion from Aless. An astute one. If Zeng suspected that he was being followed, he might have the cunning to send a detachment of undead back. Surprise attack at night. A general ambush along the road. Something of the sort. Wise, then, to find a suitable shelter.

And, in a curious turn of timing, a winged knight descended down to the road ahead of them. A Raaka. Rare birdfolk. Not a monster. He introduced himself. Rekh Ka-Harut. And he sought the very same monster that she and the elves did. A heartening thing to hear.

Lazule spoke first. Said, "My n-name is Lazule. You are welcome to j-join us."

A steadying.

"For we do seek the monster named Zeng."

The clouds moving about the steep mountains to the east and west. The retreat of the sun veiled behind that screen of white and gray.
 

Xyrdithas

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Recompense.

Only Te'leis' eyes would convey her understanding, solemn and sincere. She, as with the others could relate to this well. They too had suffered the pains of fallen friends and innocence quite intimately. It was not uncommon in life it seemed: a nagging malevolence; an incessant tragedy onset by the very act of living. Ever had it been since as far as could be remembered did these plights strike out into the world with seemingly no reprieve.

If small trinkets were all that could be offered, then that would have to do. Even if only for a moment and in only a small way. If the utter pointlessness of such foul ends could be alleviated with some meaning, then at least there would be that remembrance.

So, the elves hailing from the eastern Falwoods offered their own silent respect in honour of her ritual while they rode. Their silence was broken by the half-elf’s assessment, one which they would likely all agree with. Te'leis’ was growing more tired, and of the three she was best equipped to operate in the night, the sharpness of her eyes surpassing the other two greatly. Unfortunately, this night she would be of little aid.

Then a sound, faintly drawing near. Erën’s eyes rose to the almost startling appearance of the birdman. He caught sight of him only moments before landing, which troubled the elf. Had it not been for the quiet whistling of wind across steel… these creatures had proven to be troublesome in the past, but this one made no move of hostility and instead revealed himself plainly before them.

Despite the Raaka's demeanour, his descent did not go unanswered. A silent whisper left Erën’s lips, and quickly Aidathin and he took up positions on either side of Araxa. Te'leis laboured her bow to the ready, remaining behind. They halted; weapons not yet drawn but held within grasp.

But perhaps their fortunes had grown, albeit with no lack of reluctance on one's part. A scowl again set firmly upon Erën’s face, but he remained silent. As words of companionship were shared, they eased, and their stern rank fell loose as Aidathin’s horse turned back and near to Te'leis.

Erën stayed at Aless and Lazule's side. There he would remain, hand still rested upon his swords hilt, until they resumed their journey when he would again fall back to the rear.
 
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Aless’s eyes narrowed, though more at the light of the setting sun than at the sudden arrival of a raaka. She’d crossed paths with a few in the course of her brutal campaigns. One matching this one’s coloration had met a particularly gruesome end at the hands of her men, admittedly without consulting her. The fury that perceived lack of respect conjured up had struck those men like a midwinter gale, a twisted frozen fate that warned any and all that the ultimate power over life and death was the Frostborn’s alone.

If the creature attacked, she couldn’t draw Woe with Lazule between her arms. She’d be relying on the shortsword she wore currently across her back, angled and placed so she could draw with her swordhand. It was far from ideal, particularly given if Araxa reared, she’d have to lose her seat and let go of Lazule so the poor woman could stay in the safest place for her: on back of the best trained, most fearsome warhorse Aless had ever worked with.

She could feel the muscles in his flanks tensing ever so slowly as he felt her adjust herself closer behind the saddle. It was horse and rider preparing for a charge.

Lazule’s invitation was not hers to rescind, but Aless’s muscles settled comfortably into battle-readiness inside her armor, though she was still and calm enough in her appearance that her steel defenses made no showing of it. She didn’t know how to feel about this one, just as she was still reserving some judgment for the elves.

“Well met, Rekh Ka-Harut,” Aless greeted, tone serious, not that this was any change from her norm. “You are volunteering to scout the terrain, I take it? If this is so, how charitable of you.”

If the path was truly that twisting and turning, it would drastically slow their progress and potentially make a camp harder to find. Neither were complications Aless might have preferred, but the universe did not make exceptions for preferences, in her experience.
 
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