Private Tales Verhandeln

A private roleplay only for those invited by the first writer

Szesh

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At the mouth of the Sayve river, at the eastern edge of Allir Reach. Szesh followed Captain Bronmarch's directions, and true to his word, Reikhurst was easily found. It was much, much larger than Szesh had anticipated. High walls surrounded what was once surely a glittering city, but that was now a blackened shroud of civilization. The starkness of the Spine beyond was a suitable frame for the scene, and Szesh descended on calm winds as he crossed the threshold.

Even flying low above the rooftops he could smell the lingering scents of charred wood and ash. What had not burnt had begun to either rot or crumble, and it was eerily quiet. He touched down near the center of the ghost kingdom, where two wide roads intersected and made a natural landing spot. The cobblestone was rough with years of windblown debris, but the roads themselves were remarkably undamaged.

Szesh gazed up at the large arch that dominated the intersection. He could not read the words that were inscribed... or where those simply smudges of soot? What did this signify, he wondered, to the people who had lived here? To Heike?

He felt a sadness as he pictured the vampire. He tried to remember her as she was when they walked the woods, or when they flew, but he could not remove the pained fury from her face. He could not forget her burning eyes turned against him. Looking around, he thought perhaps he could understand why she had so desperately clung to her old code... it was all that was left.

Reikhurst was ruined. He knew it would be, she had said it was... but witnessing it was different. The blackened buildings were dramatic but it was the silence that gave him shivers. It was seeing hundreds upon hundreds of buildings, burnt and intact, without a soul amongst them. Where had the people gone? Surely a city this size could not have been slaughtered to the last man.

Surely.

 
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Heike Eisen

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The ashes were almost all gone. Blown away by winds both gentle and fierce, and washed away by both drizzles and downpours. Yet an eerie stillness pervaded the intersection of King's Avenue and Harbor Road, and indeed permeated all throughout the city. The sort of stillness (and its accomplice of deafening silence) that just should not be in a place such as this, a place where the bustle and commotion of civilized life ought to be a constant--a fluctuating constant, but inescapably a constant. Now there was not a single shred of evidence thereof. No more parades down King's Avenue, no more Inaugurations of the newly elected King here at the Victory Arch, not even the sound of distant laughter or talk carried on the wind.

This was Reikhurst today. The mighty city-state, the seat of a Kingdom over the surrounding vassalized villages and towns, diminished to all that Szesh could see now. The over one hundred thousand people who once lived here gone, in one form or another.

Over five years, going now on six, since the city had been sacked by a horde of vampires. Who--perhaps befitting such creatures--seemingly vanished into the night, once their terrible deed was done.

* * * * *​

King's Avenue was wide. As wide as four or five normal streets, and could leave an impressive (if also intimidating) feeling. The Harbor Road was not as wide, but was larger than normal nonetheless. These two streets intersected and formed Victory Plaza (renamed from "Crown" Plaza by the Tenth King in honor of his predecessor). In the center of Victory Plaza, appropriately enough, stood the massive monument whose name was unbeknownst to Szesh: The Victory Arch of the Ninth King.

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To the east, if the eye followed along the King's Avenue, the Citadel of the First King loomed large in the distance.

The trees of the plaza, without proper care since the sacking of Reikhurst, had grown tall and wild. Their leaves littered the smooth paved surface of the Plaza, adding to the layer of roughness left by debris too heavy to bend to the whims of the wind and rain, and by debris settled here in the moment by such currents of nature.

The burning of the surrounding buildings seemed to have the peculiar quality of selection that a tornado might. Some buildings were wholly collapsed, some still standing skeletons of their former selves, some destroyed only partially (why not in whole remaining a mystery), and a perhaps surprising number of them were not touched at all--like the two bell towers and the building they were attached to, just beyond the Victory Arch.

The sun in the blue sky above showed all of this in stark relief.

* * * * *​

A small pack of deer were down the western end of King's Avenue, grazing at some of the grasses that had poked through at the edges of buildings both burned and intact. They snapped their heads up once the sound of Szesh's landing reached them. Froze for a second. Then all starting bounding away, heading west along the Avenue.

Faintly on the breeze: the sound of the Sayve River to the north, beyond the section of the city known as Little Belgrath and the harbor. The sound of the river so faint from Victory Plaza that it could be mistaken for a trick of the mind, a memory of such a sound impressed upon the waking world.

Also available to be heard, from somewhere to the south along Harbor Road but as yet unseen: a horse. The distinctive sound of its flapping lips in a powerful exhale, the relaxed clopping of horseshoed hooves on the cobblestone road.

At the south edge of the Victory Arch, and in fact propped up against the monument, waiting to be seen, its noticing only a glimmer of reflected light from the sun away: an insignia of the Golden Blade. Purposely laid against the side of the monument, and untarnished by age or weather. Recently placed. A name would be inscribed upon it.

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* * * * *​

All the while, and like so many other visitors to the abandoned city of Reikhurst, unseen eyes were upon Szesh.

Watching.

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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Arethil was reclaiming this place. It was less obvious from the skies but here on the ground the roots cut through stone and leaves shaded the hollowed-out homes. Though the cobblestone streets were undisturbed in many places, grass sprung from between the cracks and even a flower bloomed here and there.

Poets could make use of such a setting, writing such and such about life emerging from death or destruction being necessary for the birth of new life. Szesh was no poet, and he observed the encroaching wildlife as a matter of fact. Perhaps it was best, that something find use for the space. Perhaps it was best that Reikhurst be forgotten.

For better or worse, he could not afford to ignore the city. While he ultimately desired to repair a friendship, the only true friendship he had known for a long time, it was an undeniable truth that an extraordinarily dangerous foe sought his death. He had been lucky in the forest, lucky that the rune mage and her followers had reached them when they did, lucky that Ferelith had caught up to them mad and screaming. He could not expect to be so fortunate a second time, and so he had come seeking insurance.

Heike Eisen, a Golden Blade of Reikhurst, serving her oath long past her death. Szesh knew that if he sought a bargain, the only thing he could offer would be revenge. It had been the driving force behind Heike's cursed survival, and he hoped it could outweigh whatever justice she wished to exact upon him.

A glimmer caught his eye from the base of the arch. Being a bounty hunter had forced him to pay attention to detail, and a bit of shimmering gold amidst ruins was unusual indeed. Reflection meant clean, and clean meant new.

He looked around, there was no one here he was quite sure. A few long stride took him to the arch where he bent down to examine the bit of metal, picking it up gingerly between claws. He looked around again. Someone must have left this here recently... where had they gone? He kept the insignia, stepping around the arch and looking for anything else that might indicate the presence of others.

He heard the noise of the horse and its hooves upon the ground. Was there a rider? He walked towards the sound.
 
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Heike Eisen

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The name inscribed on the insignia, in tiny and neat script:

Herr Elias Schulze

Citizen and Warrior

* * * * *​

A short distance down the Harbor Road stood the horse, simply milling about in the street. A saddled horse, with a loaded saddle bag as well, yet one with no rider. It swished its tail side-to-side. There was fresh manure on the street, but some droppings in this area were dried out and days old. The horse was not rattled by Szesh's approach.

With the slight breeze came the swaying of a sign on the western side of Harbor Road. A hanging sign above the ajar door of an inn, the Silver and Gold Inn so the sign said, a picture of a silver pickaxe and a golden flagon behind the words. This building one among the number of the partially burned, with a large portion of its third floor destroyed and skeletonized.

But the horse's attention was suddenly focused opposite of the Silver and Gold, to the eastern side of the road. It stood much like the deer had earlier, staring at the second house down a side street branching off from the Harbor Road. The house prior to it was naught but old rubble and debris, so this second house was clear to see. The horse flicked one of its ears. Snorted warily.

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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The same bore a mundane similarity to Heike's, something about the order or letters, more s's and sharp sounds, that made the words a little easier on his reptilian tongue.

It was curious to see the horse on its own, but Szesh had seen no evidence of human life on his flight in and he did not see any now. He approached warily, as horses never seemed to like him, but it didn't seem to mind. Perhaps, he thought, it had seen far worse horrors than him.

He noted the Silver and Gold inn, and though he might have a look inside. What did the people of this city do when they went to relax? What did they drink? He wouldn't have particularly cared were he not here seeking any information at all that might help him understand Heike and what she needed. He was about to step through the tilted door when he noticed that the horse hadn't moved.

He followed its gaze to the intact house, and wondered why it was so interested. Maybe its rider was in there, or maybe something so frightening that the beast dared not move. Szesh moved behind the horse, keeping his distance, and aligning himself with its viewpoint. He couldn't see anything remarkable about the building.

He ran his hand over the handle of the heavy warhammer that hung at his belt. He had secured it so that the head was on his hip and did not swing precariously when he walked or flew, but he had fasioned a sort of leather holster over the top of it. He'd had enough accidents with the blasted thing, but he could not deny its utility. He undid the leather to expose the gleaming metal, and kept his hand ready should he be greeted with an arrow.

He approached the house, and attempted to open the door as gently as he could.
 
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Heike Eisen

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The house once belonged to the Himmel family. To Isaac and Gertrude Himmel, to their sons Ben and Tobias Himmel.

And to their daughter Maria.

Dust and ash had settled in through a window left open for nearly six years now. Water stains, mold, mildew around this window as well, on the walls and floor where the rain had likewise come in and dried, come in and dried. Faded paintings (Ben had been quite the artist) adorned the walls; some were clearly missing, having been plucked from their spots by bold scavengers that had risked coming into Reikhurst over the years.

There, standing before a portrait of Maria in the main room, was Heike Eisen. Her right hand over her chest and her head canted up to regard the woman in the painting, taking in the way Ben had captured his sister's visage and trying earnestly to burn away the memory of the monster at the cabin.

Heike's back was to the opening door.

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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The door swung slowly, but the creaking of its worn and battered hinges was inevitable. A silver snout preceeded the inky eyes as Szesh peered cautiously around, before moving his massive body across the threshold.

He had gone blind to the scents of ash and dust after landing in the town, but the new aromas of damp mold and mildew hit him easily. The floorboards protested beneath his weight as he took a few steps inside, and froze.

Even from the back, Heike was unmistakable. The clothing, the hair, the terrible claws. He felt that cold, grasping hand over his heart, but part of him was glad at the familiarity of the sensation. The greater part of him, however, recognized the danger he was in.

In the back of his mind he had always hoped he might find her here. Reikhurst had been her home, and she still protected it fiercely. He had wished to learn more before encountering her, though, had wanted to present a deal to her. At the moment he knew nothing more than what she had already told him.

He hesitated, not wishing to alarm her, but then decided that an introduction would be less hostile than simply standing behind her. Besides, she had surely already noticed him.

”Heike,” he said as kindly as his rasping, growling voice could manage. His hand hovered over the head of the warhammer. ”Wait,” already expecting an attack, he hoped he could ask for a moment of her time.
 
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Heike Eisen

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Heike half-turned her head. Stopped. Then committed to looking back and over her shoulder.

And she saw him. Her pupils constricted by a sudden and intense duality.

"Szesh?" His name, spoken in a taut whisper.





Szesh
 
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Szesh

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He stood tense. He couldn't help it. Although he attempted to remain as unthreatening as possible his muscles would not relax, and his hand still hovered over the hammer. She spoke his name. As a question? Under different circumstances he might have laughed. He was not the someone who got mistaken for others.

Neither was the woman before him. Physically twisted by a dark curse, but within remaining as true and devout as ever. It was a thing he admired. It was a thing that might get him killed.

He was very relieved that she hadn't attacked him on sight, but he knew his time was now measured in seconds, so he spoke. "I know I... wronged," well that was clumsy. No matter. "I spoke to Bronmarch, the catalysts are returned."

Was this supposed to appease her? He was not ready for this conversation, had not expected to find her so soon. How had Bronmarch phrased it? A deal? That didn't seem right... not for Heike.

"I wish... a pact." Yes, that felt better. "For my life, I would help you." He made a sweeping gesture with his free hand as if to indicate everything around them. "I would help you find revenge."

He spoke the last word with a bit more fire than the rest. It was a concept he knew most intimately. It had consumed him, eluded him, worn him down, and almost destroyed him... but like an unkillable drug he knew how satisfying it could be to pursue. He knew that sometimes people didn't want to be the better man, and he was certainly not someone to judge that.

Reikhurst almost made the destruction of his own village seem paltry. Hardly a hundred draconians had lived there, and while Szesh would grieve for them eternally, the Spine itself had barely noticed the rockslide. The cool stones didn't even look out of place, unless one stepped closer and saw the crumbled, carved structures at their edges.

They two of them stood within true decimation. A city that could consume Halzeth fifty times over had been razed into a blackened scar, and the world hadn't had the decency to cover it in stone.

Revenge would not bury grief. He doubted Heike cared.
 
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Heike Eisen

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It was a long time in coming.

For years Heike had thought the slaughter of Reikhurst complete: the massacre of every man, woman, and child down to the last with no survivors. And how could she not? She witnessed a legion of vampires, having clearly planned their attack down to meticulous detail under the traitorous guidance of The Third King, rampage through her beloved home, their killing indiscriminate and their destruction wanton. She was taken into the Citadel of the First King, taken up to the Throne Room, and there she witnessed the regicide of King Rommel at the hands of Jürgen Kaiser (whose identity was obscured to her at the time). And she was turned by one of the Slaughterns, a vampire whose identity was likewise unknown to her but who was nonetheless Lucius Reik, Jürgen's Lord Commander of the Golden Blade during his reign in life. She was turned cruelly and left naked and for dead at the foot of the Victory Arch of the Ninth King. Waking under the gray sky of the morning, waking as some of the fires had yet to burn out and ash still fell like a hideous snow, alone in that terrible hellscape her home was diminished to, how could she not think herself the sole survivor?

But she had been wrong. They were not all dead. Not all of the citizenry of Reikhurst, not all of her fellow Knights of the Golden Blade. Through her travels and ordeals suffering under her affliction, she had come to learn of the diaspora of Reikhurstans. They were out there, doing the only thing that they could do: living new lives, and trying as best they could to put the tragedy behind them. Perhaps some had given up hope entirely. But the truth of the matter was, that they were out there. That there was still some tattered vestiges of hope.

A tragedy had driven Heike from her home, and so it was that a tragedy had driven her back. Yes, not all Reikhurstans were dead. But...it would have been better in Maria's case if she was. For when Heike recently came across her, she saw what Maria had become. A vampire, like her. But a monster who had killed a Knight of the Golden Blade, a Knight who had survived the sacking of Reikhurst only to have his trust betrayed by someone he recognized and tried to help. Maria had allowed herself to become what Heike would never: a killer of the innocent.

And fate had a wry sense of humor. For here now was Szesh, present at this crossroads of time and place.

Heike had with the help of others slain Maria. Killed her, even as Maria refused to strike Heike and in her dying moments still proclaimed her love. Some quiet and secret part of Heike knew full well that she still loved Maria too, but this dark star amidst the night sky of her mind went unseen and unheeded. Maria needed to face justice for what she had done, for what she was. And so she had.

The murdered Knight's insignia Heike had resolved to take back to Reikhurst, to give him the final honor of having his insignia returned to the Old Gold Mine, from whence came the metal of its forging. Yet while she was here, having at last arrived back in the stillness and the silence that was Reikhurst today, as overwhelmed as she was to be once again walking down familiar (albeit terribly disfigured) streets, Heike felt an unconscious tug. A subtle thing that led her inevitably back to the Himmel house, where she had shared many pleasant dinners with Maria and her family.

And so here she was. Having only so recently killed one friend (friend and lover, in Maria's case), and staring at another. Another friend that she was Oathbound to bring to justice. It was...almost too much. Too much, too quickly. Yet, even so, this too was a long time in coming.

I wish...a pact. For my life, I would help you. I would help you find revenge.

Heike made no outward reaction to this. But she likewise did not charge toward him.

A quiet moment. Perhaps of hesitation. Perhaps of consideration.

"She was an innocent woman, Szesh."

Another such moment.

And Heike asked, "Why were you exiled from your kin?"

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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"She was an innocent woman, Szesh."

The words, the judgement within them, they hit him full on. He had been expecting this, of course, and it was good that she had decided to at least humor him with conversation. Innocent, that was what she had said. Guilty, those she was meant to pursue and bring to justice. For just a second, just a second, Szesh felt a familiar bubble of defiant anger rise just above the surface. The kind of anger that a creature resorts to when cornered, or that a man uses when his beliefs are threatened.

Innocent, guilty, these were false dichotomies. Who among them was truly without sin? What guilty person was wholly evil? Who was she, of all people, to make such judgements?

He quelled these thoughts. It was likely he and Heike would never see eye-to-eye on this subject, not completely, but he could admire her commitment to law and order. He could admire her intentions to keep the world a just and good place. And he could envy her ability to think in black and white simplicity.

And so he answered in the way he had practiced, over and over in his head. "Yes, she was. I should not have killed her." His stance relaxed bit, and he lowered his free hand to his side. "I cannot undo this. I only ask that you let me atone through service. Service to you."

It was not something he had ever imagined himself saying before a few months ago. Of all the things he valued in his post-exile life, his freedom was chief among them. Swearing himself in service to anyone, anything was surprising, even for a single task. He could not fully explain it, but Heike had stirred something in him. She had reminded him of duty, reminded him of honor beyond the fact that he had lost his. She had given him a brief hope that maybe such a thing could be reacquired.

As if reading his thoughts, Heike's next question came forth like a knife. If her appearance had been an icy chill on his heart, the question had strangled it completely. His face, though incapable of detailed expression, was obviously surprised.

But she deserved an answer. He looked at the floor as he spoke.

"I murdered a fellow soldier." It felt very strange saying the words out loud. He had not spoken of this to anyone in thirty years... or was it forty? How long had he been on his own?

This would surely not help his case with Heike, but what was he to do? He would not lie to her. Not now.

"There is no excuse for what I did, and I accept my punishment. The banishment... the scar... they are what I deserve." He continued to look at the floor.

"...but..."

But. A powerful word. A word he hadn't dared to append to his acceptance of guilt before now. A word that frightened him in its suggestion that perhaps his crimes could be explained, if not excused. Exile was easy if he hated himself. Hating himself was easy if he believed in absolutes. But... that was not the true world.

"...the one I killed... he threatened someone I..." another pause, and he felt he might retch. Did he really dare reveal this after so long?

"...someone I cared about very much."
 
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Heike Eisen

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Heike listened. From his reply to her statement and through the answer to her question. Still she made no aggressive move toward Szesh. Merely, she faced about, turning her body such that she could face him properly instead of looking over her shoulder. Her clawed hands remained at her sides.

Motes of dust hung in the air, catching the illumination of the day through the door, through the open window, these motes seeming to appear once crossing into these shafts of light and disappearing once free of them.

And Heike said, her tone still quiet and tense, "I suppose that it could be said that I am exiled from my kin. Not for a deed done prior, yet..."

She swallowed, but did not blink.

"Yet in the wake of my failure to Reikhurst I have done that which is worthy of it. Broken not the letter of my Oaths, but tortured the spirit of each. Had I struggled more against my captors, I would not be standing here today...and I would be better for it. For I have stolen the blood of innocents whose true number I have lost count of. All to satiate this abhorrent thirst. All to perhaps purchase enough time to fulfill my duty to Reikhurst, and see to its restoration."

Slowly, she raised up her right hand and placed it over her heart. The ends of her claws spreading from her shoulders like small wings.

"I do not condone what you did to your fellow soldier, Szesh, but I understand it. Perhaps...perhaps you might say the same about me. About my horrid thirst, and my decision to cling to this wretched life and thus...do what vampires do."

Her eyes had narrowed some when she said the word vampires. As if it was physically painful, like the sharp sting of a needle in sensitive flesh, to include herself in such loathsome company, despite its truthfulness.

"I admire you, Szesh," she said, her tone less tense. Warmer, more receptive, but these beneath a sorrow presiding over them. "I admire what you have done in coming here. In seeking me out. It is a Reikhurstan virtue to admit one's faults, one's failures, one's crimes, to not run from the just consequences thereof. And in this you are more Reikhurstan than some citizens I could name."

Heike let the hand over her heart glide back down to her side.

"This is why I must see to the restoration of Reikhurst. This is my own personal stake in so grand an endeavor. I must be judged for my faults. I must be judged for my failures. And I must be judged for my crimes. You faced the judgment of your people, and I must face the judgment of mine. Whether it is the gallows or a sentence short of that, I will accept the judgment passed upon me with honor."

Heike walked slowly around the table in the main room of the Himmel house and toward Szesh at the door. Extended a clawed hand once close. And said with clear emotion swimming in her eyes but with a firm and level voice:

"I accept your decision of compelled service to the Kingdom of Reikhurst as punishment for the murder of the unknown woman. Clasp my hand and it shall be. Through your honoring of this accordance and the sacrifices you will make, may her death not be in vain."

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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He could feel the tension in his body ease as Heike spoke. The longer she did, the more clear it became that she was not his enemy. He let his hand fall from the head of the hammer, and his wings folded more closely to his body. To hear that she admired him brought a surprising flare of warmth and pride to him, although her desire to see herself judged, and harshly at that, were less reassuring.

There were things about Heike he would never understand, but that was alright. She held the strongest sense of duty and honor he had ever encountered. Since his exile Szesh had learned the benefits of living outside of such a rigid code, and while there was a comforting familiarity and purpose in it, he now thought more critically of such things. He reserved the right to disagree.

But he was not Heike, had not endured what she endured, and now she was giving him a second chance. He took it, reaching out and taking her contorted hand. He took care not to squeeze too harshly, but knew that she could endure more than any mortal man or woman.

The cold stillness of her hand was as he'd remembered. "Thank you," he rumbled.

He looked around the house now, no longer raptly focused on the woman before him. He finally noticed the painting. "Did you know them?" It must be painful for her to be here, but maybe it was the good sort of pain that he had often sought himself, before the creeping tendrils of forgiveness had started to take root in the very recent past. The kind of pain that felt right, felt deserved, and that paradoxically calmed and focused.
 
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Heike Eisen

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Clawed hand in clawed hand, and the accordance was struck. Szesh the bounty hunter, the free roaming warrior, now pledging himself in service to the grand cause of restoring Reikhurst where he otherwise might not have. Here the essence of compelled service as an alternative to execution, to public lashings, as a form of sentencing--and especially so in times of great need. The practice of compelled service helped build the Citadel of the First King, the new walls of the Sixteenth, and helped defend Reikhurst during August Schulze's reign. So would it be in this endeavor, the most devastating that Reikhurst has ever had to face.

Heike clasped Szesh's wrist as well during their shake, a gesture of deep camaraderie. And she said in a tone far less formal and more like that of a warm confession, "It is good to have you back, Szesh."

She took a step back once the handshake was done. Blinked. Blinked several more times. Yet a small tear of joy did escape her right eye. She wiped at it with the back of her gloved hand in a way seemingly absentminded. Downplaying, and trying hard not to draw attention to it. In matters of justice and honor her feelings were irrelevant, she knew, but...but she still felt them all the same.

Szesh's attention fell on the painting that Heike had been looking upon herself moments ago, and she gave a half-turn to regard it herself.

"Yes. Yes, I knew her," she said. "Her name was Maria Himmel, and she..."

Hesitation and a drifting down of her gaze here.

"...she was a woman that I had fallen in love with. And only a matter of days ago I found out what became of her. She too had become afflicted in the wake of Reikhurst's sacking. And she had become as the vampires who wrought this slaughter and devastation: a monster. She had killed a man, and likely many more."

Heike looked back up. Looked to Szesh. Her face was as hard as iron, and yet her voice was not so adamant. A touch of wistfulness lay in the undercurrent of it.

"And so I saw to it that she was slain. As was right."

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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Szesh did not smile, moreso as a limitation of his anatomy, but he did bow his head gently as Heike‘s tone warmed, and rumbled a low hum of agreement. He brought his other hand overtop of their clasped claws and held it for a beat before letting go.

And they were comrades again. Perhaps a little shaky at first, but the sense of comradery was coming back with eagerness.

Her story was sad. Perhaps that description was inadequate, but few things evoked sympathy from the jaded draconian. Heike had endured enough, in his opinion, and finding out that yet another treasured friend had been lost was cruel.

He wondered, again, if Heike might not be happier if she relaxed her code of ethics. It would have made their own problems much easier to deal with, and perhaps she wouldn’t have needed to kill Maria, perhaps she could have found common ground in their shared affliction. Of course, he also knew that it was useless to speculate. Heike’s duty, he suspected, was how she defined herself. Identities did not shift quickly.

”It was,” he said in agreement that the action was right. He didn’t actually know if it was, but he wished to reassure Heike if he could. ”But that does not make it easy.”

He looked at the vampire, small by comparison, and in the dim lighting of the broken home appearing even smaller. They had defeated the wizard in the tower, exacted justice for the theft of the catalysts... and still she did not stop. Perhaps, if the destruction of her city could be avenged, she could rest.

”Have you been... well?” he asked, feeling foolish for a second time. He wasn’t used to caring. An unfortunate side-effect of fondness.
 
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That does not make it easy, he said, and he had spoken true. Perhaps Szesh knew the Draconian soldier who had threatened the person he cared about, or perhaps he knew well the punishment of exile and this was seared into his thoughts in the moment before he was set on his course, before he did what he did anyway. Heike had no doubt that Szesh knew the true weight of such choices, for was this burden not readily evident in the brand upon his scales? He knew. It was awful that he knew, that she knew, but they both nevertheless did.

Have you been...well?

Heike was taken aback. Unguarded against so simple a question and surprised--albeit pleasantly. This was again one of those rarities swept away in the gale of her affliction. She thought (noting this grimly) that it might have been Maria who last asked her directly about her well-being. The Maria of nearly six years ago, it should be said; the Maria who was human, who was kind, who was removed entirely from the monster Heike had encountered in recent times.

She glanced down toward the floor. Considered the question. Raised her eyes back up to Szesh's own.

And told him the truth: "No. I have not been well. And yet I persevere, as I must do."

The tiny weight of the murdered Knight's insignia in her pocket. This one small reason among many that she did as she must, with relentless and iron determination.

"And you, Szesh? How have you fared in the time since...?"

Out of politeness, she did not finish her sentence. He'd well enough understand.

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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Heike‘s answer described what Szesh’s existence had been for quite some time. He wasn’t sure he really remembered what actual happiness felt like. Was it the relief when Heike had accepted his service? Was it the lightness that came when her expression had warmed? He wasn’t certain.

He remembered that he had felt happiness, but the sensation itself had dulled in his memory over the years. Anger had replaced it at first, accompanied by shame. Being the more tolerable of the two, anger was what he turned to for solace. It had been very useful in his acquired profession, paired with little regard for his own comfort.

Even fury runs cold after a while, and it gave way to a low and simmering indifference. A stubbornness born from the remains of shattered pride that fueled a paradox: to simultaneously believe he was irredeemable, but that survival alone may somehow prove his worth.

Somewhere from beneath all of this and creeping thought had taken root. A seed, planted ages ago, that had been biding its time and waiting for the hate and the misery to lower its guard. A notion of acceptance. A tiny, fragile thought that he could both acknowledge his wrongs and live beyond them. It had waited for foreign soils to finally peak into the light, where Draco‘s eyes hung so low in the sky that maybe they wouldn’t see.

It was a small thing. Quiet and often unheard. And yet, he persevered, as he must do.

”I have travelled,” he answered and stepped further into the home. He looked more closely at the painting, noting the flaking paint and the fine frame. He had never really appreciated art, but it was easier to think when he looked at it.

He had not come directly to Reikhurst since speaking to Captain Bronmarch. He had been afraid, he would admit. Afraid of Heike’s strength, but moreso of her judgement. He had felt the fury in her eyes last time... he did not wish to feel it again. And so he had taken a scenic path, allowing himself time to just... exist. Even half the bounty was more than enough to keep him fed as he mustered his courage.

In that time his village had been destroyed, and he had entered and fled the Shattered City. How could so much have transpired in what now felt like an instant?

”I am sorry for your home,” he turned back to her. ”Halzeth, my... what was my village. An avalanche took it.“

A long pause. He remembered the cold mounds of stone, the broken shells dusted in snow, and the threats he received from those who had survived.

”I cannot take revenge on a mountain, nor would my people wish me to. I was already lost to them. But your enemies have a face, and lives that can be taken.”
 
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Heike Eisen

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Heike stood and watched Szesh come further inside the Himmel home. Watched as he gazed upon the painting of Maria. And she wondered briefly of something. If Szesh could take it all back, undo the murder of his fellow soldier, would he? As it was with Maria...no, Heike would not undo her slaying, if given some divine chance to do so. Not after what she had become. And she suspected that Szesh was much the same with regard to his fellow soldier.

Halzeth, my... what was my village. An avalanche took it.

Heike bowed her head. Looked to the floor.

"That is a terrible thing to hear, Szesh. Terrible indeed."

Arethil was a place of love and wonder. And it was also a place of loss and cruelty.

But your enemies have a face, and lives that can be taken.

A slow rising of Heike's head. Hard yellow eyes meeting Szesh's own again, and in them a hatred not for the Draconian but for they of whom he spoke. "Yes. In such a comparison it is fortunate that I have a foe to fight. And this I intend to do, until my duty is fulfilled. One way, or the other."

The intensity in her gaze subsided as a new item of interest gained precedence in her mind. She reached into her pants pocket and produced a tarnished insignia of the Golden Blade, very much like her own that dangled from her belt (and the one Szesh himself had collected by the Victory Arch). She held it up for Szesh to see.

"I came back to Reikhurst to honor the man whom Maria murdered. He was a Knight like myself, and I have resolved to return his insignia to the Old Gold Mine. It is as close to the old custom of retiring an insignia as I can feasibly do."

She turned her head as if to look back over her shoulder, but her eyes did not leave Szesh's.

"I would leverage your compelled service in this matter, Szesh. For the Slaughtern host currently infests Reikhurst--they may be in hiding from the sun now, but I have seen them about during the night. And the mine will be plenty dark, down where there is still gold."

And, less formally, she added, "I wish...I wish also to see your redemption in action."

Such that it might give me hope for mine.

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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Szesh looked down at the glinting gold of the insignia, and he, too, retrieved the one he had found at the arch. ”So that is what this is. This was by the arch. Perhaps he should go to the mine as well?” He offered it to Heike, surely she would know better what to do with it than him. He hoped he had not made a mistake in removing it from the arch.

His lip curled back just bit as she mentioned the vampires in the mines. It felt good to be fighting by her side again. After traveling for so long it would be good to have a proper fight, that part of him would never change.

”Are they all...” Like you? The words caught in his throat, it seemed indelicate so ask it that way, but he couldn’t think of another method, so he let the words hand in the air while he looked to her with depthless eyes.

The thought of fighting alongside Heike was invigorating, but the thought of fighting against scores of her kind was more than a little nerve-wracking. He could see the small bits of sun sneaking through the blinds, and realized how comforting the light was.
 
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Heike Eisen

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Heike's eyebrows perked up in an inquisitive manner when Szesh revealed that he, too, had an insignia. She plucked it from Szesh's grasp once offered and turned it around to look at the back.

She read the name inscribed upon it.

And her eyes went hollow with horror. She spoke in low disbelief, "Szesh...I know this man. Herr Elias. He was one of my knight-superiors during my initiation into the Order. I know him to be alive. And you just found this by the Arch? Why...I don't understand why he would do this."

She knew both Herr Elias and Herr Dieter to be alive still--Captain Bronmarch had come through with an incredible stroke of opportunity and luck on information about them. Surely Herr Elias had not perished in the intervening time from when Bronmarch had told her until now? Surely. But if Herr Elias had not died, then that meant he would have came back to Reikhurst himself to lay his insignia at the foot of the Victory Arch. Why?

Heike shook her head, dispelling unpleasant thoughts. Placed both insignias back into her pocket. Said, "Thank you for retrieving it, Szesh. I shall keep possession of it, and, when at last I see Herr Elias again, I will ask him."

She stood by the window with the collected ash and stains of mildew, her back to the light and her front therefore cast in shadow.

And she answered his question. "No. Not all of them. I had thought previously that it was only vampires of my strain, the Slaughtern strain, but I observed others before I came into Reikhurst proper. Some that could become as mist and fly about in the night. I should hope that these of the unknown strain are as equally vulnerable to fire as the Slaughterns."

Heike glanced around the main room of the Himmel home. Spotted a small end table whose legs would be quite suitable for a pair of torches for each of them. She went to the table and swiped its contents to the floor with her forearm. Then she turned the table upside down and set about breaking the legs off.

"Your fire breath will be a powerful weapon," she said as she worked. "For how long can you maintain it? Once started, can you stop it easily, as in it being easy to control? Forgive me, for I am ignorant of these characteristics that have surely come to you through experience."

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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He watched her as she debated Herr Elias' motives, and it was again clear how little he knew of Heike and her past life. He could remember the bond felt between warriors, especially between teacher and student, and could tell that this man must have been close to her, or at least influential.

Thoughts flickered back briefly to his own former comrades. Most of their faces had been blurred in his memory, as though his mind were attempting to protect him from the pain of seeing them clearly. It worked, to a degree, and he was able to shut it all away before regret could consume him. There were only two faces he had been unable to erase: the one he murdered, and the one he had murdered for.

He felt comfortable enough around Heike to voice his curiosity. This was rare, and more impressive given the hostility of their last encounter. "Insignia by the Arch... what does it mean?" Clearly this action had rattled the knight, but the symbolism was unknown to him.

Initially he felt relief when learning that not all of their foes would be version of herself, but this relief was short lived. Beings that turned to mist and flew through the air did not seem much better, even with the fire he called upon.

Her question was prudent, but it was one that Szesh had never had to answer before. No one had been curious enough about the details, at least not for the purposes of tactics. He was quite sure a merchant in Amol Kalit had asked him about it only to see whether or not he could harvest the power from him, and had been left disappointed. Szesh considered before answering, finding himself pleased at Heike's curiosity in him.

"It is easy to control, like breathing, but it takes energy." It was a difficult thing to quantify absolutely, so he thought back to the times he had most needed to rely on it. The tower was one instance, but he had been tired and hungry then. Instead he reached far into the past to an all out conflict with a wandering tribe of barbarians that had been poaching from their hunting lands. The men were huge and well armed, so fire had been the draconian's greatest advantage.

"If rested and well fed... it could be used regularly for a few hours. Like a... very heavy weapon." It was the best analogy he could think of. Ideally fire was used situationally and in short bursts, giving time to recover in between. Fighting a horde of vampires with it would be like trying to stretch a sprint into a marathon.
 
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Heike Eisen

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Insignia by the Arch... what does it mean?

Heike continued to work on snapping the table legs free as she said, "By itself, nothing. It is the fact that Herr Elias parted with his insignia that is disturbing. Losing it is for a Knight of the Golden Blade very much like a military unit losing its colors in battle--a kind of deep shame and defeat that may only be rectified by its recovery. But there is much that I do not know about how and why Herr Elias's insignia ended up at the Victory Arch."

She could speculate until the sun sank and the stars of night rolling across the sky and the sun rose again to its exact position now. It would not do her any good. The question would claw at her in ceaseless bids for her attention, but the true answer she sought would only come at another time.

Szesh described the capabilities of his fire breath. Heike had witnessed (and felt) some of it before, back in the wizard's tower during the Catalyst recovery bounty. She saw the damage it had done to the men they had fought against and the damage to the upper level of the tower itself--likely it was only stopped by interference from the wizard, else the apex of tower would have continued to burn like a lit torch.

Heike set the four broken table legs next to one another neatly on the floor. Stood up straight. Said to Szesh, "Good. That's quite good." She thought of the narrow corridors of the mine, and how advantageous Szesh's breath would be to completely shut down approaches from their enemy.

Heike went from the main room into one of the bedrooms of the house. Not Maria's and her siblings' room, no. Her parents. This she could stand to do.

And she called to Szesh from there, "Should I be bold enough to hope that you are rested and well fed, then?"

There came the sound of sheets being torn from the bedroom. Heike, collecting the second part of the makeshift torches.

Szesh
 
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Szesh

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Draconians did not bear colors into battle, nor did they regularly wear identifying sigils or utilize flags. Their villages were too small and too wide spread for that, and despite the opinions of outsiders they were actually quite good at distinguishing individuals. Szesh had known his allies faces by heart, and telling friend from foe was never difficult. Obviously, this was even less of a concern if your enemies were not 7-foot-tall fire-breathing monsters.

Despite this, it was not a stretch to imagine what losing a sigil would mean for a knight. Perhaps he did not have a physical symbol of his rank, but if it was anything like being stripped of his ranks and honor, he could not think why someone would do so voluntarily.

The house's halls were a bit cramped for him, so he remained in the foyer as Heike scavenged the bedsheets from within. His felt a strain in his chest when she asked if he was, in fact, rested and well fed, like the ache in a runner's legs in anticipation of a marathon.

"Well enough," he replied. Lucky for them, the day's air had been calm and easy, and his recent payout had ensured that he had a full belly for the past few days. Lucky, because he hadn't seen anything except sparse wildlife that would serve as food in this ghost town. A deer, and even the horse out front maybe...

He had completely forgotten about that horse until now. He had forgotten how odd it was, and how intently it had been looking at the house. "Was that your horse outside?" he asked her, hoping that it was. Otherwise they may not need to wait for full night to get into trouble.
 
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Heike Eisen

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"Horse?" Heike called back. A last couple tears of fabric from the bedroom, and Heike emerged and returned to the main room with long strips of cloth in one hand.

She hadn't even known that there was a horse. She had come to Maria's home from a different route than Szesh, clearly, and had not yet stepped outside the front door. Had the horse been making any noise? Did she not notice? Worrisome. To be so vigilant while outside the city and then to have a lapse, even an understandable one, when she had come across Maria's painting.

Heike shook her head for added emphasis as she stood by the broken table legs. "It is no horse of mine. Most shy away from me."

She crouched down. Started wrapping the cloths around the broken table legs, a somewhat tricky task with her claws. "Someone else has come to Reikhurst, then. Who it might be I cannot say. I entered Reikhurst via the Southern Gate, and I did not see any rider."

But there was still the Western Gate. Heike doubted that the person overnighted in Reikhurst. If the horse had been here for more than a day than its rider was surely dead. The Slaughterns, despite elusively occupying Reikhurst in the years since sacking it and making it seem as though the city were abandoned, were quite active yesterday night. For whatever nefarious reason.

"It may amount to nothing, but perhaps we could see if the rider left anything of note with the horse. In the saddle bag or maybe in a traveling pack. That, and then proceed to the Mine." Heike stopped for a moment in her wrapping. Looked back and up to Szesh. Said, "Horses do not shy away from you as well, do they? I don't mean to offend, but..."

He was an intimidating figure, Szesh. Him and likely all of his Draconian kin, and it was even more likely that Draconians did not interact with horses at all in their society. Heike honestly did not know.

"...it is a matter of practicality," she finished, with a small note of apology in her tone.

Szesh
 

Szesh

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Szesh gave a short snort. ”They are fearful creatures. This one did not, though.” It had been odd, now that he thought about it, but the horse hadn’t seemed to pay much attention to him. Heike’s assessment was spot on for the most part: horses were not fond of him, and he had never bothered to attempt to ride one.

He stepped forwards and began wrapping the second torch with little more grace that Heike’s own clawed hands. ”I did not see anyone else when flying in,” he added. It would of course be impossible for him to say for certain, the city was massive, but every street he had soared over had been empty. The city’s stillness had been disquieting. If there was someone else here, they were keeping to themselves.

He set the finished torch down and glanced out the window. The sunlight was waning, but it still had a weak presence. ”I will check the horse.”

He was careful not to let too much of the dusk’s light in as he moved through the door. The street was washed in shadow, and he cast his dark eyes down either end. The horse was still milling about at the intersection, and it stared him down as he approached. He did his best to move quietly and slowly. He wondered what sort of monsters this horse had seen if it did not fear him.

Should it allow him to approach, he would check the saddle bags for anything of use or value. He couldn’t think what would help them against a vampire hoard, but he was used to surprises by now.
 
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