Quest The Battle of The Blades: The Parade

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Duresh

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"Can't sleep?"

"Not a wink," Duresh said. A lie.

"What is it?"

"Big." A glance across the light of the candle. "Something big."

Elan sat opposite to him at the table. The small hours of the morning, when all the taverngoers had gone home or to their rooms. Day had yet to break outside. The darkness, awaiting dawn.

Just them in the main room of the Silver and Steel inn/tavern. Even the husband and wife innkeeper and barkeep had gone to bed. The tables and chairs all empty. The bar abandoned. The quiet. The single light of the candle between them.

She was a good friend. An independent sellsword. Duresh hadn't worked with her before. But they often met and shared drinks with one another. Each telling the other of their own exploits. Some details pruned, in Duresh's case. Likely in her case too, but he'd no way to know. Not without being...impolite. And he liked her company. And she his. For a native Vel Anirian, she wasn't very judgmental. Yes, a good friend, and an early riser. He woke himself earlier to meet her here. To give her a chance. To maybe save her from what was coming.

Elan propped her elbows up on the table. She had a small and demure smile. Hard to notice. But he saw it there. Now. "Lots of coin?" she asked.

"Yes." Another lie. "Quite a lot."

"Important contractor, eh?"

"Naturally."

Her fingers entwined. Drumming them gently against the backs of her hands. "Be a sweetheart and send me a tip first, yeah? I've finished my last job seven days ago. Keeping an eye out."

Duresh stared across the candlelight. His gaze unbroken. He said, "I urge you not to take any jobs in Vel Anir for a while."

A slight narrowing of her eye. "Why's that?"

The flame of the candle danced softly. A bead of wax slowly running down the side.

"A variety of things I've heard," Duresh said. Bending the truth. "All of it more substantial than mere rumors. Something will happen, and it will happen soon. And I will tell you here and now: you do not want any part of it."

Elan wasn't very much swayed by his warning. "I'm a sellsword for a reason."

"Of course." Duresh stood and placed his chair properly under the table. "But still I urge you, as a friend. And I should hope that you take my words into consideration. Farewell, Elan."

And Duresh turned and walked to the door of the Silver and Steel and stepped outside into the gloom of the night's dying hour. Unsure if he would see his friend Elan again.

* * * * *​

Today was the day of the Homeland Parade.

A day for the extolling of the Anirian Guard and for the further instillment of an esprit de corps among the citizenry. And for those non-humans in the city during the festivities, perhaps a tacit show of intimidation. Though still a new event, a rare occurrence happening once every few years, it had proven massively popular within Vel Anir the first and subsequent times. Merchants and traders and showmen of all stripes flocked to the city and Anir Square was bursting at the seams with activity. Goods from all across Arethil were bought and sold, wonderful shows put on throughout the city in addition to the main parade, and coin flowed with all the vigor of the Baal-Asha River. Even recruitment from non-native humans into the Anirian Guard spiked, as well as retention among those already serving.

Perhaps it brought hope to those who believed in a future of continued peace for Vel Anir. Perhaps they hoped it was an attempt for Vel Anir to forge itself anew, into a city focused moreso on trade, much like Alliria or Elbion. A hope that the Anirian Guard might live up to their namesake and 'guard' rather than conquer.

They hoped in vain.

And Duresh knew it. Though the Homeland Parade was ostensibly about the whole of Vel Anir and the supposed peace enjoyed through the tireless efforts of the brave fighting men and women of the Guard, and that it was one of the few days in which the Seven Houses would put aside their differences to partake in the spirit of togetherness of the festival, it was a thin veneer. Eventually, one House would use the day to make a daring political move.

Yes. And today was that day. The House in question? Banick.

* * * * *​

Clear skies above. Sunlight gracing the whole of Vel Anir.

Duresh walked through Anir Square. The open market areas were all packed with people, foreign and domestic. Plenty of humans, of course, but elves and dwarves and orcs and others too in smaller numbers. They all gathered around on the flats of the open plazas and hung out from windows of inns and taverns and some even were allowed to sit on the edges of rooftops, their feet dangling. The constant din of talking and laughing and singing and merriment. Displays of the arcane from magicians and merchants pushing their carts loaded with food and water and ale through and matches of bareknuckle brawling and other fights upon which people placed their bets and cheered and there were live demonstrations of art and performances from bards and sword-swallowers and bold shows of non-magical fire-breathing and all manner of entertainment one could imagine.

The parade proper had yet to reach this portion of the Square. But it was due soon enough, as it marched through the main thoroughfares of Vel Anir. Guardsmen and women stood at distanced intervals alongside the wide road through, keeping it clear and indeed it was the only stretch of space not packed with people.

Duresh walked to and stood beside the door of a particular shop, out of the way of the majority of the revelers in the open plaza. Grayson's Tapestries. He held his hands behind his back and waited, his right palm open and ready, his left shoulder leaning lightly against the building. As per his orders from his handler, which had come from the Crentor family, and which in turn had come ultimately from House Banick.

He knew the signal. The placing of a single Elbion zoldo into his palm. If it didn't happen, the Banicks had decided against their ploy, and nothing would come of this day. But if it did, then all the pieces would be in place, and he would then need to move into position.

And Duresh would capture the darling daughter of a rival House. Kristen Pirian.

And she would be delivered right into the hands of a growing threat to Vel Anir itself.

The self-styled 'Master of The Blades'.
 

Selene Avar

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Selene hated parades.

She had absolutely no idea what she was doing here or why House Virak had requested her presence upon their observers balcony. It seemed to be an utter waste of her time and energy, both of which could have been better expended in a number of different areas.

It wasn't like she was just some Captain of the Guard or a lowly third level. No, she was of the second. Meant to lead battalions into battle, hunt down errant apprentices, and conduct the...darker of the House's political machinations. She wasn't of the First Rank, not yet, but a parade?

She felt practically insulted.

Still, one did not refuse a direct request from their Patron. Especially when they sent their daughter to deliver it. Sitting mere feet from where she stood on the balcony were Elise Virak and her father Sarkus. Both of them radiated power, their backs straight, eyes fixed, and expressions hard enough to cut stone.

Selene couldn't help but feel envy.

She knew their strength of course, knew the secret that many did not, but it wasn't the reason for her envy.

No, the reason for that was more obvious. Those two were free, more so than anyone else in this city. They controlled House Virak, not within the leading Alliance, but a House that controlled a substantial bulk of Vel Anir's military force. With a single word they could start a Civil War.

They could do as they pleased, whenever, however.

Selene envied that to her core.

If she had her say she would not be standing on this balcony. She would not be watching and waiting for lines of guardsmen. She would most certainly not be attending a parade.
 
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Ahh, the Homeland Parade a time of celebration and joy a time where humans and non-humans of Vel Anir (mostly) set aside their differences and focus on what matters most to Vel Anir: War and Destruction! Richard Henry the Eighth adjusted his shield that was strapped to his back watching the festivities transpire in the Human Fortress of Vel Anir. The city was quite dreary really, the so-called greatest human city's architecture is nothing more than just bland as crackers.

Cities such as Falwood or Elbion were a marvel to gaze upon. The Dwarves too were master craftsmen with the breathtaking landscapes such as Kal Palthras. Of course, the citizens of Vel Anir would sneer at those structures especially Elbion for committing the horrible crime of allowing Non-humans to integrate. Richard Henry frowned witnessing the Vel Anir guard march past him, he was on the road for about two years now. The runaway knight from Elbion that who Richard was, a man whose family has been placed in the wrong city something Richard was thankful for.

Elbion had no standing army relying heavily on sellswords and sell sails and city guard. There were nobility with their own standing army but their numbers were small. However, the Henries possesses the largest and most disciplined army in Elbion. They were famed for their martial prowess along with their cunning intellect though now and days it's martial prowess. Richard's father: Richard Henry the Seventh or The Dragonknight for allegedly slaying an Ancient Red Dragon (he was rather dodgy when Richard questioned him on that) wanted Richard to be the best knight in the land. While he eventually became a knight and one a few jousting tourneys, Richard had other ambitions.

Richard was more interested in song and art attending the College of Elbion before moving to the Bard's College to become a bard and travel the world. This was a point of contention between him and his father that eventually accumulated with Richard leaving when he found out that he was put in a forced marriage. Richard didn't see the woman he wanted to marry and he didn't care despite receiving letters from his sister that his wife is eager to meet. Richard ignored his sister as much as it pained him he missed everyone in his family even his father but the Bard Knight has pleasures that he wants to pursue.

He began walking through the crowd smiling a bit as he bought out his oak Lute and began to play a song. "Time for the Bard Knight to stop brooding and start making coin yes?" he mumbled.

 
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Xyrdithas

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Whatever had drawn him to Vel Anir, he was quite certain it was anything but this. The bustle of the city was far more encroaching than he had ever remembered it being, and there was talk in the air of festivity and delight.

A parade? That’s new. Well, to someone his age perhaps even something that had carried on for a half a century or more could be considered new.

He waded through the crowds for what seemed like forever, finally making his way to the square without incident. He wanted to find himself a suitable inn, but at this rate it looked like he’d be out of luck – at least for now. He found a clear in the crowd and allowed himself a moment to think, concluding it best to wait until later given how busy apparently everything was. As he stood and pondered, swinging gently overhead hung a sign which read The Journey's Respite. He cast a glance inside as the door swung open with someone’s departure and saw he would be hard pressed to find his way through. Perhaps he would return there later.

He carried on, again swallowed up into the crowd while he his way forward. Contrary to his norm he found that with all the music and brilliant displays of skill he was actually enjoying himself, at least somewhat – a feat he never imagined Vel Anir accomplishing.

As Erën drew near to the parade's cordoned path, he lifted his hood from his head and craned his neck above the crowd. He may as well see what all this carrying on was about while he's here.
 

Duresh

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Elan navigated through the crowds. Bumped into a younger man, likely the son of a merchant, with a big basket of grapes in his hands. She smiled, apologized, and bought a handful. Munched on them as she continued on. In places walking freely, in other places having to slip past people.

She passed some drunks spilling out of the open door of a nearby tavern. Made her way more into the open plaza. A ring of people formed around ten or so pairs of men and women dancing, the crowd clapping along with the beat of a musician's tune. She stopped for a moment to watch a particularly showy mage make a spectacle of cooking venison and steak with his fire magic. And she continued.

Walked past a collection of mothers and fathers hoisting their children up onto their shoulders and facing the open street in preparation for the coming of the Guard parade. Walked past a bard striking up a tune, singing, "He rode through the streets of the city, down from his hill on high..."

Elan had been living in Vel Anir all her life. And through mishaps of timing and circumstance, she always missed the days of the Homeland Parade. A new event, certainly, but one she had never managed to actually see with her own eyes before. Anir Square normally had a lively air about it, but today was different. Not an air of simple liveliness, but one of celebration and joy.

A thick slam. Impact on wood, and a rattling of metal.

Elan glanced to her right, away from the open street. A small, raucous gathering around a table. And there sat a recently defeated man, his arm pinned down, and a woman whose arms looked as thick as Elan's own legs. Her manner of hairstyle and dress evocative of the far north, from the tales of the Norden Elan had heard.

The defeated man cursed and stood and walked off, leaving an empty chair across from the huge woman. And the Norden woman grinned and made an inviting gesture with her arms. "Who's next? Come, come! If you men of Vel Anir think yourselves strong!"

Nervous laughter and glances among those gathered around the table. Seemed the recently defeated man was one of many.

So Elan stepped forward. Approached the table. Said, "I'll have a go."

Cheers and playful whistling from the crowd, now that none of them need worry about being the next challenger. The Norden woman grinned as Elan sat down. Took a drink from her tankard and set it back down on the table. Said, "Now that's the spirit! What's your name?"

"Elan."

"Agatha."

And Agatha readied her right arm. Elbow on the table. Elan leaned forward and gripped Agatha's hand, her own elbow on the table. Gods, the woman had a bloody grip on her, didn't she?

"Ready?" said Agatha.

"Ready."

And they arm wrestled. Elan immediately on the losing end. Gritting her teeth and struggling to keep her arm up and in the fight.

* * * * *​

Duresh felt something in the palm of his hand. And he clasped his fingers over it. Brought his hand in front of him. Looked.

An Elbion zoldo. Today was the day.

Whoever had placed the coin in his hand had casually slipped away. The movements of him and Duresh hardly worth any note. It was how Banick, and likely the other Houses, operated. Degrees of separation. Plans untraceable, ultimately deniable. Tiny actions like the placing of a coin into someone's hand; things so ordinary and routine that no significance could be ascribed to them by those who were not aware.

But Duresh was aware. He knew what the coin in his hand represented. Banick's move to humiliate a rival. A vendetta to be settled. Vengeance to be enacted.

And Duresh walked. Moved through the crowds of the revelers and the merchants and the merrymakers and the onlookers and all else. He would need to cross the open street, to reach the Square Embassy on the other side.

It was where many an outsider, diplomat and guild liaison and high-tier merchant and others, all went if they so had business with one of the Houses of Vel Anir. The first stop, usually, before they would be invited back into the more secluded and secure confines of the appropriate House in the central city.

A massive building, imposing even from his current distance from it across the open street and across the crowded plaza. A miniature Vel Aerelos, in some respects. But of course, the Embassy paled in comparison. The mere entree to a feast. But it was here that some members of the Houses liked to watch the parade, up above on one of the observer's balconies. And it was there that he could faintly make out some members of House Pirian on one such balcony.

Kristen Pirian would be among them.

Duresh continued through the crowds. He already knew the spot in which he would covertly fade into Invisibility.

* * * * *​

Three members of House Pirian on the balcony adjacent to House Virak's own balcony.

Kristen Pirian, a girl of nine years. Her mother, and her older brother. A retinue of six elite guards on the wide balcony with them.

The sounds of marching in the distance. Around the corners of the building and the open street below.

thump - THUMP - thump - THUMP - thump - THUMP

The parade approaching, but not yet visible.

And Kristen Pirian squirmed in her seat and got up and went to her mother's seat and tugged on her dress and her mother leaned in to hear what she had to say over the varied sounds of celebration below. And Kristen shifted her weight from one leg to the other, looking uncomfortable.
 

Selene Avar

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The parade began, much to her dismay. Lips thinned at the thunderous sound of marching and Selene did her best to block out all the noise.

Arms crossed beneath her breasts, fingers tightening slightly as her discomfort grew. She truly did not like being here, neither did she understand why they had wanted her. Still, she could at the very least do her job while she remained on the balcony.

Thus her eyes began to scan the crowd.

Bright red iris' shifted from place to place, moving across balconies, roof-tops, and of course the parade ground itself. There were more people than she would have thought, most of them human of course but more than a few other species. Selene herself had never clung to the xenophobia of most Anirians, at least not in the same way.

She believed in her superiority of her nation, rather than that of her species. After all most of Elbion was Human, and that city was a specter of Vel Anir's greatness.

Still, she knew that most of the Guard captains considered other races a particular security threat. Their treatment inside the walls of the city and general distaste meant they were often vilified before they even opened their mouths. That sort of treatment tended to raise ire.

The Dreadlord frowned, glancing down onto the parade ground before catching sight of movement out of the corner of her eye.

She looked over towards the Balcony of House Pirian, noting the guards and lack of a Dreadlord at their side. Curious.

Not to mention annoying. Was she the only one who had been summoned?
 

Xyrdithas

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His eyes peered down the way through the crowd. Where he stood, he was among the taller persons, but there were still many on par with him and taller to obscure his view. He could not see the parade, but he heard it’s coming and strained to catch a glimpse. While failing to lay eyes on that, he did notice a strange individual make his way across the street. He watched him go, but before he could look at him more carefully his attention was stolen by a loud crash nearby and resolving that the parade would arrive soon enough, he turned to see its cause, forgetting about the shadowy character he’d briefly witnessed.

Unable to see yet again, he frustratingly squeezed himself away from the street back into the pedestrian traffic and moved toward the sound. He joined with a gathering set around a table, where the Nordenfiir woman had claimed territory for today’s event. He arrived in time see Elan take the challengers seat and was surprised to see her exhibit the strength she did – he would have imagined a much swifter end to this match.

He watched with enthusiasm, finding himself enthralled by the friendly competition. He looked around and caught in his eye a bard man, toting his lute and singing out over the incoherent noise of the festival.

“You there!” Erën shouted pleasantly - forgoing his usual reservation in places like this - and flashed one of his few remaining gold coins, “perhaps a song of beauty and honor!”
 

Duresh

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Lienhard Mason hurried up a street leading to Anir Square.

He'd only just arrived in Vel Anir. And damn if it wasn't a sight. He'd left his small village of Ared'luin years back. Tried his hand at the adventuring life. Found it to his liking. The travel and the danger. It was in his blood.

And he'd seen Elbion. Alliria. Impressive cities both. But Vel Anir, even with just his short time here now, something about it struck him more. Some measure of grandeur that the other two big cities of the Triangle lacked.

He wanted to see the Homeland Parade. See all the fighting men marching. Hell, likely was that many Ared'luin's worth of people only made up some portion of the Anirian Guard. And many more would be here watching. Several guards had given him directions to the Square, and to the first plaza the Parade would be marching through.

Follow the sound of magic and thunder, they said. Lienhard didn't know what to make of their words.

Until he did.

* * * * *​

Elan lost.

Put up a good fight. But lost.

The back of her hand hitting the table as a loud bursting sound came from above. Flashes of brilliant light in the sky.

Elan looked up. Gasped with wonder along with most of the crowd of the open plaza.

Streaks of magic zoomed up into the air high above the plaza and the buildings surrounding it. Launched from several different locations about the plaza. Crackling designs made from arcane lightning, forming the crests of certain Vel Anirian Houses. Bursts of fire, forming yet more crests. Sparks of mana scattering above and coming together and dissipating like a flock of ephemeral birds. Explosions of light and energy swirling about in a whimsical dance and coalescing into intricate patterns before fading and disappearing.

And still more streaks of magic. The show above heralding the arrival of the marching Guard.

thump - THUMP - thump - THUMP - thump - THUMP

Elan stood up on top of the chair she had been sitting in; Agatha merely standing and looking over the heads of others, such was the Norden woman's height.

And Elan couldn't help but to grin as she saw the lead company of Guard coming into view.

* * * * *​

Duresh was invisible. The shopkeeper of the butcher shop close the open street holding the door open for him. And Duresh stepped outside and weaved between two of the guards lining the street.

The display of magic above was well-timed. A new addition this year. Good for the show, yes, but also to flood the plaza with dozens of arcane signatures. Those with a keen sense for detecting the presence of magic always proved to be a problem for Duresh in the past. The gaudy display above would serve to at least dilute his Invisibility amidst all else going on. Ideally leaving him only to worry about those with keen eyes.

Duresh walked invisible across the open street. The parade distant to his left but marching his way.

He walked and he moved between two other guards on the opposite side of the street and he approached the entrance to the Square Embassy. Two more guards standing on either side of the double doors.

And, right on time, a Banick man came out from inside the Embassy. Standing with the door open and his arms crossed and gazing off toward the oncoming parade. His impressed expression may have actually been honest.

Duresh stepped up the few stairs and slipped past the Banick man and into the Embassy proper. The same amount of guards would be present inside, concentrated up by balconies naturally, but normal business would not be conducted today on account of the festivities. No chance of being bothered by wandering merchants and the like.

And he moved to the ambush spot. Waited. The strain of his Invisibility eating away at the edges of his vision.

* * * * *​

Kristen's mother gestured up toward the display of magic in the air above. Said something to her daughter.

Kristen shook her head. Still rocking side-to-side on her heels. Her lips pursed.

And her mother motioned to two of her elite guards and said something and they nodded and Kristen hurried back into the Embassy from the balcony and the elites followed after her.
 

Selene Avar

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Out of the corner of her eye Selene watched as the sion of House Pirian left the neighboring balcony along with two guards.

A small frown touched her lips.

Neither House Pirian nor House Virak were part of the ruling Alliance that currently guided Vel Anir's path. In theory both of the Houses opposed this Parade, calling it a waste of time and resources. The fact of it was there were politics afoot, there always was in Vel Anir.

It didn't make much sense though for Kirsten to just up and leave the celebration, especially in full view of every single other House. They were watched, they were always watched, and rumor of this would quickly fly through the other Houses.

This might turn into a minor scandal.

Selene thinned her lips, considering for a second before she took a tentative step forward and whispered into Elise Virak's ear. "Mistress, Kirsten Pirian just left the Balcony."

There was a moment of silence as the woman glanced over, her own expression completely unreadable.

"I suggest I follow." It was a gambit to get the hell out of this parade. She preferred politics to mindless chattel running through the streets, and as she waited for an answer she held her breath. Eventually Elise nodded curtly, waving the Dreadlord away.

Letting out a sigh of relief Selene turned on her heel and headed into the building.
 

Xyrdithas

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A frown came across his lips, and he tucked his gold back away. Whether the bard hadn’t heard him, or ignored him, he felt he'd been snubbed. He glared for a moment, and turned back to the match. He’d waited too long, and barely managed to catch the finish. But at least he did, and as he watched the clasped hands fall a great sound came forth and with brilliant light his eyes were drawn to the display above.

It was remarkable.

He pushed his way almost anxiously back to the forefront, or rather as close to it as he was able. He was impressed with these people today, their celebration was certainly as sight to behold, and so he watched on. But his mind still rolled around the frustration of having been ignored. It was not that he really expected anything else – more that he had allowed himself that opportunity. He felt it foolish to think he’d receive unbiased consideration here. Even in something so small.

Perhaps the ears were a little much. They were a bit… long.

With a grunt he removed it from his mind, and did his best to enjoy the show which for the most part - he did. Their magics and their control reminded him of the worship that would take place in the temple at Sharyrdaes. True, his people had never paraded about the holy city in a manner quite like this or with these exuberant festivities, but he felt that in some ways their celebration was not unlike the devotion his people offered to their gods. Only, he did see great difference in praising the divine as opposed to the mortal. But after all, they are only human.

He glanced over to Elan and the Norden woman to see if any trouble had come from their match, but kept his attention primarily on the parade.

He forgot his earlier frustration surprisingly quick.

Did he actually like this festival?

No, of course not. Right?
 

Duresh

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Their standards rose high and proud. Banners designating company, battalion, brigade. The triumphant display of magic overhead. The unison of the quick time march of all the soldiers who now stepped as one through the blocked off street beyond the crowd of revelers and festival-goers. The drumbeat of their combined steps a declaration to all of Arethil that this, these gathered men and women, armed and armored with and in the finest steel Vel Anir had to offer, trained to the towering pinnacle of their trade, these gathered men and women, this united force was and would be the envy of those militaries present and those militaries which might come after it.

The Anirian Guard.

And Elan never felt such a stirring sense of home. Of belonging. Of pride. The mere witnessing of such a sight bringing about this rare and unique euphoria.

She hopped down from the chair upon which she stood and tried pushing her way through the crowd of onlookers. Some success. She managed to get somewhat closer before she couldn't budge a collection of men in front of her. She stood now next to an elf. Much taller than her. Long ears, very long ears. On the tips of her toes she could see over the shoulders of those in front of her.

The lead company of Guardsmen marched by. The tail end of their current cadence booming. The sergeant to the left of the formation calling the verse, and the whole of the company repeating each line, each beginning on a step of the left foot.

"With Ventor's mighty sword,
he cleaved his foe in twain!"

"With Ventor's mighty sword,
he cleaved his foe in twain!"


"Upon that bloody ground,
the Guardsmen yelled 'Hurrah!'"

"Upon that bloody ground,
the Guardsmen yelled 'Hurrah!'"


"The vengeance duly sated,
the sergeant said 'At Ease!'"

"The vengeance duly sated,
the sergeant said 'At Ease!'"


"For Ventor earned his keep,
and now had earned his rest!"

"For Ventor earned his keep,
and now had earned his rest!"


The sergeant keep the pace of the march with calls of 'Hu-rrah!' on each step of his left foot, the company repeating it on their left steps. An intermission between cadences. But some in the crowd of onlookers started to yell 'Hurrah!' as well, joining in.

As did Elan. Thrusting a fist into the air and shouting 'Hurrah!' along with the rest.

* * * * *​

Duresh waited in the latrine hallway.

Built into the back corner of the Embassy, with thick walls and hard right-angle turns for odor and privacy concerns, it was the perfect place for the ambush. Three separate latrines along the hallway with painted wooden doors, and slanted windows utilizing mirrors for light; again, all for privacy.

And Kristen came around the corner, flanked by two of her guards. She walked right by Duresh. Didn't bump into him as he was pressed up against the wall.

And he struck. His body and the dagger in his hand invisible. An unnatural bending of light as he moved, like the sudden appearance of an apparition.

His dagger thrust into the eyeslit of the helm of one of the guards. A horrid shattering of bone, and a relenting of flesh beneath the point of the blade. The guard dropped instantly. Kristen turned and saw and seized up at once, frozen solid. The other guard gave a short yell that was cut off as Duresh ducked past a swing of his shortsword and slammed his armored head into the wall. A disorienting. Duresh stabbed him a myriad of times in each armpit and between the small gaps in his armor with the dagger. A persisting; kicks and elbows finding Duresh. But the guard gave in to bloodloss and collapsed.

Duresh banished his Invisibility and reappeared standing before the girl.

And he punched her square in the jaw. The light of consciousness immediately vanished from her eyes and her body tumbling to the floor. A moment spared to look down at her. She had urinated in her dress.

A hardening of heart. The task at hand to be done.

Duresh took off his black cloak and crouched down and set about wrapping the girl up in it, such was the size of the cloak and minute stature of the girl that she would be completely enveloped.

The games the Great Houses played with one another. The casualties ignored with callous disregard.
 

Owen Mason

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Hell, now this was a celebration.

Owen Mason was among the crowd in the plaza. Watching the parading soldiers and hearing them sing their cadences and the magical bursts of magnificent color in the sky above catching the corner of his eye.

He'd been in Vel Anir for a few weeks now. Joined up with some adventurin' types some ways back in one of the smaller towns along the Falwood-Savannah edge. Ragtag bunch, prone to flights of fancy chasin' after this rumor and that job and what not. All but one of their little misadventures turned out to be chasing ghosts. Bandits. Hard lot. Rightly took the small band of unseasoned adventurers as easy pickings. Why wouldn't they be. A College of Elbion dropout mage, an untrained sorcerer, two young men who could hardly swing a sword right. Owen couldn't either, but he'd seen more experienced fighters do so and he knew by that what right looked like.

They'd have been lost without Owen's help. His aid during the fight and his healing thereafter. Felt good. Looking after them. Even if he wouldn't engage directly in violence, he'd helped in his own way.

After that, their travels led them here to Vel Anir. And while the band's stay was brief, Owen heard of the Homeland Parade and figured, hell, why not stay and see it? The scope of Vel Anir on an otherwise normal day had proven beyond Owen's reckoning and small village sensibilities. This ought to be somethin' to see, alright.

Plenty of pushy people. Folks workin' their way through the crowd. But one. One caught him completely by surprise.

A bump. Owen looked. Saw who it was.

"Lienhard?" he yelled over the marching and the cadences.

"Owen?"

They each grinned and threw their arms about one another.

Brothers. Having met again after some years apart.
 

Selene Avar

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Selene stepped out into the hallway with her famed lack of expression observing every corner around her.

The girl had hurried away somewhere.

A sigh escaped the Dreadlord quietly. She wondered why the Sion of a Great House was being so illusive. Generally speaking that group enjoyed as much pomp and ceremony as the parade on the streets below. There was something to the idea of one of them sneaking around that...unsettled her.

Slowly Selene moved forward. Her ears twitched slightly at the sound of movement, following the clacking of heels on a polished marble floor.

There was a clattering of sound, someone hitting the ground.

For a moment Selene stopped, her lips thinning as he head perked to the side. Was that?

No. It couldn't possibly be.

The Dreadlord frowned and then broke her walk into a brisk jog, heading towards the sound she had heard and quickly making her way through the palace.
 

Xyrdithas

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His eyes had found Elan standing next to him now, having also tried to find her way to the front. Quite frankly it wouldn’t really matter much where they’d have found themselves standing, there was as much going on overhead as there was on the ground. But still, he of course noticed her straining to see.

As her fist was driven high into the air, he looked back to see the ranks marching by in perfect form. They truly were impressive.

He had a better view, his height not withstanding.

He looked again to Elan, and raised his brow inquisitively, “perhaps you would be better here?”

He gestured for her to take his place, meanwhile forcing a little more room for himself to move around to her place where he would still see just fine. He continued to watch the parade for a time, but his eyes eventually chose to wander across the crowd. It was almost dizzying how much activity there was, and the magical displays added another hinderance. The longer he lingered the more uncomfortable it became, albeit only mildly.

He still enjoyed the celebration. It was certainly excessive but a fine demonstration, nonetheless.
 

Duresh

The Asset
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Duresh lifted the girl wrapped in his black cloak. The sagging of her limp body as he hefted her to his shoulder. Carrying her as someone might a sack of grain. For she was less than a person now, wasn't she. A piece on the board. A means to an end. A resource.

An asset. Much like Duresh himself. If only differing in particular circumstance.

Duresh turned and walked and rounded the sharp corner and stepped out of the latrine. Immediately outside the latrine area was a vestibule. The door to his right leading out into the slosh alley behind the Embassy, the door to his left leading back into the main foyer.

And two guards were posted there. One at each door.

They looked to Duresh. The black bundle of cloth over his shoulder wherein Kristen Pirian was concealed.

A moment passed.

And they each nodded. The one by the slosh alley door unlocking and opening it and both taking their leave. Duresh followed after them. He did not know the affiliation of these guards nor how it was that House Banick or some other associated entity had convinced or coerced them into playing their part in the kidnapping. But such a thing was not Duresh's to know. Visibility of the greater plan at work was the purview of the players, not the pieces.

Duresh shut the slosh alley door behind himself. He could not lock it from the outside but it hardly mattered, what with the bodies in the latrine itself and the conspicuous lack of guards, the two men briskly walking through the dirty alleyway.

Duresh took out his grappling hook and tossed it to the top of the building behind the Embassy. Tested it. Secure. And with strenuous effort began to walk up the wall while holding the rope and keeping Kristen's body balanced. Eyes would be diverted to the Parade and the explosive show of magic behind him and to the Embassy's front. All he needed now was to quickly get some distance from the Square, drop back down to street level, and get Kristen to the Master of The Blades' men. They were waiting. And as far as they knew, Duresh had been hired by their Master to kidnap Kristen. A masterstroke of Banick and their allied Houses. To entangle the web of intrigue such that it was a maze of dead ends to those who did not know the full scope of it.

And the Master's men would take Kristen to the island home of the same.

And the true game would begin.

Duresh reached the rooftop and collected his grappling hook and stayed low and faded to obscurity.

The celebration continuing.
 

Owen Mason

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Elan looked to the tall elf. Smiled. Said over the roar of the crowd and the cadences of the marching Guardsmen, "Thank you! I'm Elan, by the way."

She moved forward. Just that tiny bit. Some shorter fellows in front of her now as opposed to where she had been standing before the elf relinquished his spot. And that was awfully fine of him to do. She didn't quite get the misgivings of her fellow Vel Anirians. Never bought into them. But then, she'd never served in the Guard either. Perhaps the military skewed one's worldview.

Regardless, she cheered with the rest. Shouting herself hoarse as finally the last company marched by and the last bursting of celebratory magic dissipated overhead.

She wasn't about to leave Vel Anir to look for jobs elsewhere. Not now. Not after the rousing feeling of home and kin the Parade inspired in her. Certainly there was freelance work elsewhere, in the surrounding settlements near the city itself.

But Duresh was probably wrong. Whatever rumors he heard.

* * * * *​

"What the hell are you doin' here?" Owen said.

"Shit, tryna find you, brother," Lienhard said.

They had to talk loudly. Speak over the loud singing and cheering and marching and the bursting of magic above. What a time for a reunion. Hard to catch up with all the commotion. Surely, though, the hell were the chances of this happening? Of all the places and all the times to meet up again with Lienhard. God damn, imagine the payout on a bet like that. Owen'd retire a rich and happy man. For about one day, before taking some good chunk of that coin off to the next card table and the next dice game and all else.

"Hey," Owen said. "I know a place we can talk."

"Yeah. After."

"After's good."

"Don't see this many people in one place often." Lienhard elbowed Owen and glanced out past the crowd and to the marching soldiers. "Didn't much think it possible."

"Make that two of us."

"Hey."

"What?"

"It's good to see you."

"I'll drink to that." And Owen grinned. "Won't cost me much to get drunk."

"Figured you'd be a lightweight." Lienhard laughed.

"Not as lightweight as Cecilia."

"Shit. I'd reckon that remains to be seen, Owen."

And they watched the last company of soldiers march off together. The general commotion of the Parade's arrival dying back down now to that of the festival before it had come. A dispersing of the crowd back to the activities in which they were previously engaged or witnessing.

And Owen led Lienhard through the square. He'd a place in mind. Might even make a bet he know he'd lose with against his brother, little drinking game. All in good spirit.
 

Selene Avar

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Selene lurked behind a small pillar, her lips thin and her eyes focused on the figure that went dashing through the dark.

The Dreadlord had never much held any talent in the way of magics for stealth. She could barely cloak her presence, and attempting to turn invisible or even cloak herself in darkness had always gone...poorly. Yet it seemed that had not been necessary.

Whoever had taken the girl hadn't noticed her, and prudently Selene's choice not to interfere had gone well enough.

For a brief moment she lingered in the hallway.

She supposed that this was likely part of some game, though who was playing it she did not know. Selene guessed that House Virak had no hand in whatever she had just seen, if only because Elise would not have allowed her to leave the balcony. Unless she was being set up...

A frown touched her lips, and then slowly shook her head.

No. There would be easier ways. No point in setting up your own Dreadlord, House Virak could get rid of her in a dozen other ways.

This was another House.

The question was why?

She supposed there would be no answer, not until the girl was recovered. There, of course, was the opportunity she had seen. Someone had taken the girl, and now someone had to bring her back. It just had to be the right person.

First, though. "ALARM!"

She screamed at the top of her lungs.

"SOMEONE HAS TAKEN THE DAUGHTER OF HOUSE PIRIAN." Her voice boomed on waves of magic woven into her throat, echoing through the halls as bells of alarm began to ring.
 

Xyrdithas

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Erën did not cheer as most others around him did, but he remained in the crowd by Elan the whole while until the parade carried on passed them. As the people around them dispersed, he turned back to her.

“Greetings, Elan. I am Erën.” He bowed his head to her, “you seem quite familiar with this city, tell me. Does this happen often now?”

It was hard to imagine such extravagance and even slight acceptance to be the norm here. It had always been a cold place in the past, at least in his experience. But maybe things were changing Vel Anir, or maybe it was just more filler fed to the masses to keep them docile.

Who was to say?
 
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Owen Mason

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The alarms had been raised. A general search conducted throughout the city, delayed to varying degrees by miscommunication--both intentional and unintentional--and the festivities of the Homeland Parade.

Kristen Pirian was not found. The following night, riders approached the gates of Vel Anir. There they threw a sack weighted with a rock at the feet of the guards on duty and rode off and disappeared into the gloom. Within the sack a lock of Kristen's hair and a note which read simply:

Kristen Pirian is at The Blades.
Come and get her.

And thus the wrath of Vel Anir had been awakened.

* * * * *​

It would have been simple to blockade the island Dominic Foresend--known more commonly now as "The Master of The Blades"--had recently chosen to make his base. Starve him out. He had won small hit-and-run victories that had garnered him fame on the seas, but against the concentrated might of the Navy he stood no chance. But a blockade, however strategically sound, was unacceptable. For the Master held Kristen Pirian hostage, and that was an insult of the highest order.

And this insult demanded unquestioned force in response.

So it was decided. That the Anirian Guard be deployed into an amphibious assault upon the fortified island home of the Master. And despite the perilous and unprecedented nature of the task at hand, nothing short of another chapter written in the annals of victory for the Guard would suffice. The Master and his forces were to be utterly crushed, and Kristen Pirian rescued. Period.

House Pirian, naturally, spearheaded the effort, and they called on the aid of their allied Houses of Virak and Weiroon. An invitation from Pirian was even sent to the opposing alliance of Houses. An invitation which was 'respectfully' declined. With sincerity hardly distinguishable from poison, the House of Banick and the others wished Pirian luck in their endeavor, but choose to stay out of it.

And, in the comfort and privacy of their manors, the House of Banick quietly celebrated the success of their machinations. And they wallowed in the tears shed by Kristen's mother and siblings. The insult had been delivered, and now came the injury, and it promised to be quite the show.

The commanders of the Guard and admirals of the Navy, unaware of the shadow war between House Banick and House Pirian being waged behind the forthcoming Battle, dutifully set about planning the assault upon the island known as The Blades. They knew very well why the Master had so chosen it. Dark and jagged rocks proved a hazard all about the island, jutting up from the ocean waters and forming the island's namesake, ringed all save a narrow band on the western coast. It would be the only viable landing area. And it was sure to be as fortified as possible.

The problem was speed. The landing skiffs which would carry the Guardsmen to the beach would be incredibly vulnerable if the men and women aboard were made to row, and such an effort would leave them horribly fatigued before the battle had even begun. Unacceptable. The Dreadlords of House Banick, Virak, and Weiroon were all consulted, and a solution was struck upon. A magical one.

Each skiff to be used in the assault would be retrofitted with a large and enchanted metal hoop to the back. The enchantment was one of wind, designed by the coalition of Dreadlords to be simple enough for a mundane line sergeant to use. Upon the placing of a hand on a plate at the base of the hoop, a powerful gale of wind would be expelled from the back of the hoop, thus propelling the skiff forward through the waters at a swift speed.

And thus the forging of these hoops and their enchanting and their transporting down to port town of Ostia Anir--southwest of Vel Anir and on the Cortosi Coast--and their fitting to the skiffs of the Navy's larger vessels there became a vast undertaking. One to which a legion of blacksmiths and mages and apprentices of both and merchant caravans were all tapped to accomplish in record time.

And all the while, the battalion of Guardsmen assembled at Ostia Anir--the unit called upon by House Pirian and their allies--trained and trained and trained some more. They trained in mock landings and they trained assaulting mock fortifications along the coast adjacent to Ostia Anir. Among their number were Guardsmen new and Guardsmen old, those freshly recruited and those veterans of past battles. All were made to march in the sand of the beaches, in the rain and in the sun, in full battle armor and without. They spilled their sweat in the days of anticipation in the hope that they would not spill their blood on the day of the Battle.

None among their number, should he or she fall in Battle, would lament in the afterlife: "Had I only been trained!"

They were the greatest fighting force in the world. And those who had yet seen combat were eager to prove it, those who had eager to reaffirm it.

The Guard would not be alone. For the commanders of the Guard knew that the first wave of boats to reach the beach, those therefore tasked with establishing a beachhead, would be in the gravest danger, and they wanted to reserve their most valuable troops for the subsequent waves. And so a general call was issued forth from Vel Anir for mercenaries far and wide to come. Lavish payments on offer to attract solo freelancers and perhaps even whole companies of them. Many would be needed to fill the ranks of the Auxiliaries, they who would land first.

Their job would be simple. Land. Form the wall. Hold. All Auxiliaries would be issued special pavise shields with pointed bottoms which they would drive into the sand of the beach like a spade and thereby form a wall of protection. Cover for themselves and the subsequent waves. The line sergeants of the Guard overseeing each twenty-man unit of Auxiliaries would keep them in line, while sharpshooters and mages would fire back at the Master's forces. But they needed to hold. Hold. Hold long enough for the waves of actual Guardsmen to land and form up and for the Dreadlords to destroy what fortifications protected the Master's forces and 'soften them up'. And then the Guard would close in and engage the enemy and to a man slaughter them. The Master would be found in whatever hole he so chose to hide in and Kristen Pirian would be liberated from him and he then would be brought to Vel Anir, if possible, for a public execution.

That was the plan. And the Auxiliaries were crucial to it.

As it turned out, there would be no shortage of them.

* * * * *​



Dominic Foresend, the Master of The Blades, surveyed the men and women at work on the beach. Yes, the free men and women! They who lived their lives unshackled by the laws and self-proclaimed authority of kings and nobles. They who spit in the face of the very same! He had been preparing for this for a long time, and now this great alliance of the free numbered a thousand strong. Capable pirates and sailors and warriors and mages and fighters and brawlers and outlaws and bandits and mercenaries and more. They flocked to the Master's banner because he stood defiant against the iron grip of Vel Anir upon the seas of the Cortosi Coast. Perhaps they simply hated Vel Anir for their own reasons, perhaps they saw business opportunities, whatever their reason for joining him, they were all here now and each of their own volition.

They craved it. To be part of the greatest military loss Vel Anir would suffer in recent, perhaps even all, history. Yes. They dared fight giants.

He watched as they built and erected the spiked wooden barricades among the tropical trees just before the dirt turned to the sands of the beach. He watched as they built the towers in which the most skilled archers and mages among them would rain hell upon the foolish Guard. He watched as they buried the enchanted traps all along the beach in random locations, explosive traps of primal arcane fire that would shatter the morale of the so-called unbreakable once they feared the very ground they tread upon.

Let them come. Let them come for the girl.

Let the seas and the beaches be awash in the blood of the Anirians.

The Master would show all of Arethil that, yes, the mighty juggernaut of Vel Anir could indeed be made to bleed.
 
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Owen Mason

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Elan volunteered to become an Auxiliary the very first day that the call for such had gone out. Perhaps this was what Duresh had warned her about, perhaps not. But she couldn't say no to it. Not after the Homeland Parade. This man who called himself 'The Master' dared to strike her home. And it boiled her blood that he had so fiendishly chosen to do so by abducting an innocent child and holding her hostage.

She couldn't stand idle. The money was nice, of course, but secondary. This was something beyond simply herself. Something grand to which she would gladly lend her sword and be a part.

And Elan along with several others comprised the first few Auxiliaries sent to Ostia Anir to prepare.

* * * * *​

Owen Mason and his brother Lienhard approached the Embassy in Anir Square. The same building that stood across from the plaza they had been in during the Homeland Parade a few days ago. There'd been some kind of commotion after the marching soldiers had passed by the plaza, but they never did find out what exactly it was. Come to find out in the days following from a tavernkeeper that a call for fighting men and women had been put out. Big military undertaking by the Anirian Guard to rescue a kidnapped girl. So that was it.

"You sure 'bout this?" said Lienhard.

"Pretty damn sure," said Owen.

They walked. The plaza was as busy as markets tended to be, but no where near the level it had been during the festivities of the Parade.

Lienhard looked to him. "'Cause this is battle. Hell, this is war from the sound of it."

"I know what it is."

"And you of all people ain't got no problem with that?"

"I got a problem with it, alright. Wish it wasn't bein' done." Owen shrugged. "Caint change that, now can I? So I aim to do the next best thing. Help the wounded. Save who I can. Reckon I can make a notable difference that way."

"Well." Lienhard grinned. "Someone gotta watch your back. Keep your dumb ass from gettin' stabbed."

"Stabbed? Heh, that's your purview. Do me the favor so I can get some good practice in on ya."

And they walked into the Embassy and stated their business to the attendant there and were directed to the chambers of House Pirian on the third floor. And they ascended the lavish staircase of the magnificent foyer and found the chambers and there they volunteered to become Auxiliaries.

The woman recorded their names and smiled and wished them luck.

And she said a caravan would be departing for Ostia Anir tomorrow. Be on it.
 
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Faerlin

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The wrath of Vel Anir had been awakened, and with it, Faerlin’s fury.

She’d been there that day—the day pirates had struck at the very heart of the city and kidnapped one of their own—uselessly standing guard outside the building where the representatives from House Weiroon had been watching that stupid, stupid parade. The whole festivities had sickened Faerlin. As a trained soldier, she should be out on the field of battle, not trotted out to play honor guard to a bunch of noble brats. But even though House Weiroon protested this extravagance as unnecessary (they opposed the current ruling coalition), they had still attended the festivities.

Of course, they were separated from the other Houses that were their nominal allies, Houses Virak and Pirian. Otherwise, Kristen Pirian might never have been abducted to begin with. Whoever had carried out that plot still must have fairly extensive resources, given the defenses surrounding Vel Anir; no doubt the proper authorities were already addressing the breach. Faerlin, however, had other, more pressing issues to worry about: namely, rescuing the missing girl and, more importantly, delivering a swift and brutal justice to those who had carried out this attack.

Of course, she wasn’t alone in this endeavor. The forces of Houses Pirian, Virak, and Weiroon were all fully committed to this course—though the other four seemed reluctant to pledge, a fact that infuriated the paladin—and had sprung into the efficient and immediate action that was the hallmark of the Anirian Guard. Seeing as the full might couldn’t be brought to bear, and that this was a dangerous assault, the Houses were supplementing their troops with mercenaries.

Faerlin didn’t support this decision, but she wasn’t in charge, and she also knew it was a necessity. Mercenaries simply didn’t have the training or the skills needed to keep up with the Guard. Granted, the paladin had never participated in an amphibious assault, but at least she knew how to survive the brutal training of Vel Anir’s military.

She’d been shipped off to Ostia Anir, where they’d immediately begun preparations for the upcoming battle. Again and again they trained, landing, establishing forward camps, assaulting fortified positions. Each time there was a marked improvement, at least among the Guard. She wasn’t sure how the so-called Auxiliaries were faring, nor was that her problem at the moment. Instead, she was getting ready for the most important fight of her life. Indeed, she’d never participated in a campaign of this size before, and she was eager to prove her worth. That would no doubt require establishing herself during this training, so she could be given the best assignments and win the most glory for herself. And, of course, for Vel Anir and her patron god Nykios.

She prayed every day for the chance to prove herself and test her mettle against the most dangerous foes she had yet to meet. Her prayers grew more and more fervent: she promised to dedicate the victory to the god, to tell all who watched her that day that her prowess was his, and that she’d be a living demonstration of his will. It was a show of devotion that unnerved even her fellow acolytes, for she truly believed in the teachings of Nykios.

The drumbeat of war had finally come back to Vel Anir, and it matched the beating of her heart, wild and fierce and impossible to ignore, a promise of blood and vengeance.
 

Xyrdithas

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It hadn’t been long after the parade had traveled out of sight and the alarm had been sounded. The city had been turned completely upside down in a matter of hours, even with the parade’s interference they operated with relative efficiency, albeit fruitlessly. Erën had even found himself the target of some particularly unfriendly guardsmen. Had it not been for Elan’s advocacy, the Elf may have found himself in a rather precarious situation. And shortly before they were to be parted, she had told him of whom it was who had been snatched. A child.

Erën could not simply allow such barbarity to go unanswered by the Order. Instead he took up the call as Elan did, and traveled with her to Ostia Anir.

In truth, he was less than excited to be fighting alongside the Anirian Guard. He’d even raised his blade to some in the distant past, but today he would stand with them. Their cause was just, and their determination was admirable. There was at least the search for order here, to undo the chaos of involving an innocent child in such paltry games. Who did these bandits think they were?

He’d heard of the note left at the gate. The taunt.

It had sparked a rage in him he preferred to keep dormant, but this time to no avail. Imaginations of his past failings crashed into his mind, and wrecked havoc on his emotions. He could never make up for those mistakes. But, perhaps in this way he could at least spare himself the torment of leaving another child alone to die. And so he decided.

He would crush them. With only his hate if he must.



The plan was simple: get on the beach, and get on it good; then, establish the wall. And don’t fucking move! He said.

Yeah yeah.
 
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Owen Mason

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Owen and Lienhard made the journey to Ostia Anir with a large band of other Auxiliaries. A mercenary company, led by a man named Batten. The arrival of his sellswords filled a great many slots in the ranks. They didn't much care for the particular reason for Vel Anir's feud with The Master, and most of them didn't even know who they would be fighting. They cared for coin above all, and that was that.

The caravan with Owen and Lienhard and Batten's company and a few Guardsmen and a transport wagon of some more enchanted hoops ready to be attached to the skiffs at port arrived. A small collection of Guardsmen and civilians stood by the road and diligently catalogued to arrival of each Auxiliary. All of Batten's company went first. A slow process.

But then it was Owen and Lienhard's turn.

"Name?" said the scribe. She didn't look up from her board and her parchment.

"Owen Mason."

"Lienhard Mason."

"One at a time, please."

"Owen Mason, ma'am."

She snickered. "I'm no noble. Have you brought a serviceable weapon and a shield or shall you be issued one or both?"

"I don't carry much in the way of weaponry, ma'am."

A little glance at the sheathed shortsword on his belt. "Is that sword not serviceable?"

"It's dull."

"Dull."

"Yes, ma'am."

"Are you a mage or do you have any notable magical talents?"

"Yes, ma'am, I do. I'm from Ared'luin, and my home village is indeed known for a particular thing. I'm a healer."

One of the Guardsmen immediately snapped his head over toward the scribe and Owen. He hurried over with a big, inviting grin on his face and said, "This one's coming with me, Ana. Go ahead and write it down." Then to Owen specifically he said, "Healer, huh. Line Sergeant Damacline. You take good care of me and I'll take good care of you. You're on the Braun Virak, Boat One, with me and my other Auxiliaries. Welcome aboard."

"My brother Lienhard," Owen nodded to the same. He actually had armor, chain and padded underneath, and an arming sword. "We aim to be together in this."

Damacline gestured openly. "Sure. He's coming too then. Needed to fill a few more seats, anyway."

* * * * *​

A windy day. Clouds rolling in from the Coast. An excellent day to train.

Elan sat next to Erën in one of the skiffs that was not yet fitted with the enchanted metal hoop necessary for the assault. Eighteen others in the twenty-man boat. A few other boats with Auxiliaries training as well, Guardsman sergeants standing knee-deep in the shallow water of the beach. Ostia Anir itself a fifteen-minute walk from where they were training. All the assembled vessels and warships of the Navy visible in the waters at a distance.

Elan and Erën had heard of Kristen Pirian's kidnapping and the open call for mercenaries at the same time. Both had been made furious at the news, but perhaps Erën more so. Elan had been angry that her home had been so brazenly attacked, and Erën appalled at the lack of morality shown by The Master in callously using a child to further his ends.

And now they were going in together. Same vessel, same boat, first wave.

The sergeant standing in the water whistled and shouted, "Go! Go! Go!"

Elan, the heavy and bulky pavise shield issued to her in one arm, used her other to vault over the side of the boat. As did all the other Auxiliaries. Water splashing up in a fury. Every part of her body soaked through. She trudged through the shallow waters as quickly as she could, holding up her shield as the sergeants yelled at other Auxiliaries to do the same.

Her feet found the wet sand. Unsteady ground. The sinking and sucking and slipping of it. She had to struggle to maintain her balance in such unsure footing. Sergeants yelled for the Auxiliaries to get on that beach. Move. Move! Get on line. Pavise. Pavise! Slam that shield into the ground like you mean it. If it isn't secure, brace it and hold it in place.

Elan drove her pavise into the sand as hard as she could. The massive shield stood on its own. This time. She didn't know if it would when the assault came. She'd have to be ready.

But for now, she unslung the bow on her back. She was a good enough shot to be issued a bow from the Guard armory. And it would fall to her and the other sharpshooters to prioritize slaying The Master's mages on the beach, lest their magic sweep away all the cover provided by the line of shields.

Elan practiced popping up from behind cover. Arrows nocked and loosed against the training dummies erected in the treeline and taking care not to stay standing for long. She scored a decent amount of direct hits.

And when the sergeant whistled again for the exercise to end and for the Auxiliaries to drink water and rest, she looked Erën, an elated grin of accomplishment spreading across her face.

* * * * *​

A man approached Faerlin in Ostia Anir. One of the many Guardsmen that were a common sight in the port town currently. But he approached her directly. Stood before her rigidly.

"Paladin Faerlin. Line Sergeant Keller," he said. "I've been instructed to deliver a message and take your response to my commander. A line sergeant for the Braun Virak, Boat Three, has fallen ill. He's been removed from the town lest he bring sickness to other troops. The attending healer said he'll recover but perhaps not in time for the assault. So there is a vacancy that needs to be filled."

Keller inhaled through his nose. "All those assigned to the Braun Virak are Auxiliaries. And that means first wave. And, frankly Paladin, I myself would not trust in the mettle of them over that of my fellows in the Guard, and I am glad that I am second wave for it."

A pause. "But the decision is yours, Paladin. Whether it is you if you so choose, or if a field promotion for a promising Guardsman is in order, someone must lead that rabble of freelancers and keep them in line on that godsforsaken beach. Nykios guide your judgment."

Faerlin Xyrdithas
 
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Xyrdithas

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That first moment was strange, almost surreal.

With the weight of his armor and the shield he’d been “gifted,” the water was given no choice but to rise around him with a tremendous splash. Within he imagined the shouting, the screams of terror and pain. He imagined the reality of what they were to face, and the troubles that were lying in wait for them. In the coming battle the beaches would turn red would blood, and it was his duty to ensure whose blood that would be.

As quickly as he’d dropped, he rushed forth from the shimmering burst with a fierce vigor. He’d gone without his cloak to reduce his waterlog, and though later he’d wear a helmet he remained without one for now. He pitted himself against the weight of the tide and strove to split the waves in his path, keeping the shield before him as he imagined the onslaught of arrows and otherwise. He moved with Elan and a group of several others who had huddled in an appropriate formation, and even he found it difficult to traverse the sopping sand. But still he managed himself quite well.

Dryer now.

Drop it!

In tandem with Elan, he and the others drove their shields also into the ground. Erën drove his deep and huddled himself close to it while he readied his volley. His aim was in fact poorer than Elan’s, which was perhaps odd for an elf. But once the time was right, he’d found the chance to hurl a spear – and it found its mark with tremendous force. His arm would prove useful enough, given the proper opportunity.

But on that day when those who were set ahead of him were truly his enemy, he would rely of far more than his aim with a spear.

Ah, a reprieve.

They had trained hard, and a rest would be welcome. He was not fond of the beating sun reflecting off the water, he found it hardest on his eyes, and would appreciate getting into some shade if only for a short while. He nodded to Elan approvingly, offering his own wry smile. He was pleased that she would be fighting at his side when the time would come and thought their chances quite good of achieving the goal they’d set.

“Come, some rest is in order. You’ve earned it,” he said, nodding to one practice dummy in particular – peppered with arrows.
 
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Selene Avar

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Selene stood patiently within a small tent, her face neutral as she surveyed the map in the middle of the room. There was no one else in the tent, not right now anyway, but it belonged to one of the Captains of the House Garrison that the Virak family had sent to this little endeavor.

The man was nice enough, though a fool like the rest of them.

If course, unlike most people on this beach Selene knew the truth behind this situation, or rather, close to it anyway. Most of this had been orchestrated, by whom she was not yet sure, but it was all part of the game of Houses. Noble dealings, as always.

Part of her felt annoyed by that, but she knew the opportunity that was presented to he here.

If Selene played her cards right she could come out looking very well from all of this, she just had to make sure to play a central part. Her fingers tapped gently against the top side of the table, rapping there for just a few seconds until they slid free and she moved one of the miniature pieces representing the Anirian Guardsmen. A sigh escaped her, and then she turned to leave the tent.

There was much to do.