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Kreed · 59 · 3756

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Offline Jabbathejack

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Joe frowned at Quicksilver's apology, but it was not a hostile expression, more of one of genuine confusion.
"You don't need to apologise for anything. It wasn't exactly the easiest of times for any of us. More so for you. It ain't a situation that I can even imagine being in. Not really."

He set down the blood stained rag, looking at the demon steadily.
"I hope we can both put our differences behind us." He smiled thinly. "We both need all the allies that we can get."

Yet Joe knew that he meant himself more than anything. Quicksilver had allies aplenty, but Joe had only one person that knew the truth of what he was. He could not afford to have that person against him.

"I'm sorry." He spoke softly words that he had often been taught were signs of weakness that could be exploited by others.
"I should have chosen my words better. They were insensitive."


Offline Kreed

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Akuma wasn't sure what sort of response he was expecting from Fulbeck - resistance, perhaps, or an argument in his defense - but an apology wasn't it. Even more shockingly, he seemed to express genuine sympathy for the demon's situation, and a true understanding that he'd never had the personal experience of being in his place. He made no attempt to hide his surprise, brows raising for a split second before he cleared his throat and glanced away, thoughtful as he chewed over Joe's words and considered his response.

"I..."

He paused, feeling himself become a bit frayed at the edges under the earnest, unwavering gaze of the human. It was rare that Joe had allowed himself to be so open, and Akuma found he wasn't wholly prepared for the intensity of his candor.

"You are forgiven." It was difficult at first, but each word came more easily than the last until the acceptance poured out in something too-smoothly delivered to be a crash.

"I must learn to put aside my feelings. I'm not happy about the way our trip to Nambu went, but I suspect King Andrean will be very pleased. For now, I've taken up his flag, and if he is satisfied by my effort, then I suppose I should be as well."

He shook his head. "That has nothing to do with you, of course, this is...a personal matter. I should know better than to try and get you involved as a punching bag. It's poor leadership...and poor friendship." He forced himself to pull his gaze back to Joe, jaw setting not with annoyance, but with a shaky determination when faced with obvious uncertainty.

"That is, assuming we are friends."


Offline Jabbathejack

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"Aye." Joe nodded. "The king has his allies. He'll be pleased all right."

He gave Quicksilver a sidelong glance.
"I bet you thought you'd never return there. This cannot have been easy."

"Course we're friends." Joe confirmed it with a nod. Truth be told, he felt more than a little awkward at the entire situation. He turned away, hoping to brush aside his vulnerabilities.

Joe paused, glancing around the room to see who was in earshot before he continued, no elves, fortunately. Even so, he lowered his voice to a whisper.
"So what if they find out? You know what I mean." He grimaced. "You won't be able to hide it forever. All it takes is a stray blade on the field, another fight breaking out down the Frog. Is it really going to be that big of a deal to them?"

"Listen to you, whispering sweet nothings to each other."

To Joe's surprise, it was their patient who spoke up, leering at them with a grin. Ordinarily, he would have told the bastard to take a dive, but, given the circumstances Joe let it slide. He picked up the bucket of dirty, blood soaked water and carried it up onto the deck to tip it over the side.


Offline Kreed

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Akuma couldn’t readily respond to the comment about his homecoming; he was thrown by this change in behaviour. To an outside observer, this small comment would have been unremarkable, but the reality was that it held a deceptive amount of weight, and begged the demon to respond with a degree of vulnerability that - until that point - had not been eagerly presented. After a moment’s deliberation, of course the shift made sense; if Joe was truly choosing to betray Deorsa, there was no longer a reason to assume that any attempt at friendship was a futility. If they were now firmly established allies, the barricade intentionally erected between them could begin to come down.

“I did,” Akuma admitted haltingly. “It’s my home. Banishment can’t take it from here.” With a closed fist, he lightly pounded his breast above his heart. “I knew I’d return, but...not so soon.” He lowered his hand once more. By his expression - of what could be read - he was conflicted over his emotional response to the whole thing. He’d only just left Nambu the first time; the wounds were barely scabs when they’d been ripped open and bleeding again, and now ... the king was here. A frown played at his lips. He was a cur on a leash, his captor a taunting mere inches away from his vengeful fangs.

His eyes met Joe’s as the man leaned in and spoke softly. He told the truth, no doubt. They would find out eventually. What the human failed to understand were the consequences. He shook his head lightly.

“It’s not that simple,” he murmured back, “It’s—“

Their patient spoke and the words died on his lips. Akuma swallowed hard, glancing from the wounded soldier back toward Joe, colour rising in his face and darkening his cheeks to a dusty blue-grey. He cleared his throat and stepped aside, allowing Joe to pass. Perhaps this wasn’t a conversation best had among others. As the man passed, the demon looked toward their patient with a scowl.

“Some stones you’ve got on you, teasing the ones keeping you alive.” He was half joking, but the heat of his tone betrayed his embarrassment.
« Last Edit: July 29, 2020, 01:05:13 PM by Kreed »


Offline Jabbathejack

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For the rest of the voyage, Joe spent his time working below decks. Perhaps it was a way of making up for where he had come from, without telling anyone else. Perhaps it didn't matter why he did it, just that he did it. He shrugged off any praise that he received from Mara, feeling deep down that he did not deserve it.

He slept when he could, curling up in whatever space he could find on the overcrowded ship. Fortunately, they were not far away from the shores of Rothrim. There were birds in the sky that normally nested on land; their presence alone was enough to lift the spirits of the men. When the call came from the crow's nest that land had been sighted, there was a resounding cry across the deck; men cheering for a land that, at times, they weren't sure if they would ever see again.

Joe stood up on the deck, watching the small dark line on the horizon get steadily larger. He wasn't sure if he could share the feeling of the rest of the crew; once they were on land, he would have to face his actions and his decisions.

Elves stood amongst the humans, eager to get their first glimpse of this strange land. Joe was reminded of how it had felt to be the strangers, sailing to a new land. A few hours later and they were pulling into the docks, men throwing lines to those on the shore and pulling the ship fast.

A crowd had gathered as they disembarked, women and children ready to greet their husbands. Shouldering his pack, Joe headed down the gangway along with the others. In the crowd, he recognised a young woman, looking hopefully up at them. Sara, the poor girl who had fallen for Madigan.

Joe stopped beside her and with his heart in his mouth, he shook his head.
"I'm sorry."


Offline Kreed

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One-Who-Is-Stable descended from the dock, a female elf with thick black plaits over her shoulders who stood, broad-shouldered and well muscled, between her king and the rest of the crowd. Her round, olive face was etched with a small, discerning scowl, bright honey-colored eyes scanning the faces of the pale humans that awaited them. No exceptional announcement or ceremony was made for the arrival of the king - at least, not yet. As the monarch's shield-kin, she would wait until the all-clear to make his presence known. For now, for all the Thrains knew, he was merely another face in the crowd.

"Do all humans look the same?" she muttered over her shoulder before glancing toward the king. "They're all so...pale, and dirty."

"It's a group of mercenaries, Is-Stable," Umi replied, just as discretely through the corner of his mouth. As his eyes scanned their waiting allies, he smiled. "Nothing wrong with a man with a little bit of dirt on his boots."

"But is it wise to throw in our allegiance with them?"

"Probably not from a strategic standpoint. Not remotely." He turned his head to look at his taller companion, who put her hand on the handle of her mace and shifted her weight to one side, eyes narrowing in silent judgment. The king's smile widened. "The right thing isn't always the easiest, Is-Stable."

Whatever response she might have had died on her lips, as she turned and focused on the families which came to greet the Thrain soldiers. Most peculiarly, it seemed many of the folk they now supported were poor and downtrodden, if the appearances of their few welcomers were any indication. It seemed that the war thus far had been unkind to them, or perhaps the unkindness was what brought about the conflict to begin with. It was hard to say, from her limited perspective.

Akuma passed the pair, quietly descending down the ramp with their back laden with heavier supplies which they lifted by makeshift rope straps over either shoulder. Whatever was in the two large wooden crates they hefted easily down from the ship, it was certainly no large effort for them.

As they crossed one another, Umi turned and looked toward the demon, shifting his weight so that his lips met their ear with an ease that detracted from the weight of his question.

"Do you remember when you waited for me to return from my campaigns up north, just like that?"

"I'm sorry, I seem to have forgotten in my grief of being banished from my homeland." They gave the king a chilly sidelong glance and did not slow as they passed. Their words had come far too easily. It stunned Umi, and he cleared his throat as a retort stumbled loosely around on his tongue.

Before he could reply, a woman's cry rose softly above the rumble of passing soldiers. A few heads turned to watch, but many continued about their way, as surely it would not be the first distraught sob they would hear that morning. Many had gone to Nambu. Few had returned.

Tawny, however, was one of the onlookers that recognized the crier. Trained marksman's eyes sought out the source of the sound and found Sarah before an uncomfortable Joe, and the ranger's chest fell in a quiet, pained sigh of sympathy. She pulled her eyes away and sought out Hao Yan; she knew the elf had grabbed Madigan's helmet when he'd fallen. She knew precisely who was meant to have it.

She weaved back up to the ship, where she saw the woman quietly organizing a rack of ingredients before sending it down with the small group of alchemists which were to supply the king's men with potions.

"Do you still have Madigan's helmet?" Tawny asked.

Hao Yan did not immediately respond, carefully placing a glass vial of some dried, indiscernible plant matter into its place with a faded label before she drew to her full height, calm eyes falling on the human.

"Of course," she said.

"I know who it goes to."

The elf, ever organized, took but a moment to locate the man's dented helm among her modest collection of items before following Tawny down the ramp. The pair quietly made their way over to Joe and Sarah, not wishing to make a scene, but wanting to make haste.

"Sarah", Tawny spoke up. Her voice was hard to hear above the noise of the crowd around them, but she maintained a gentleness to her tone with a sisterliness that could likely not be delivered by many other soldiers present.

"...We thought... you might want this."

Hao Yan was silent as she offered forth the helmet, eyes downcast and arms outstretched as she lowered herself in a slight bow. Losing her Ack-Tor was an immense loss for her, but she could not dare to compare it to the loss of a partner. It was a deep sadness that she did not know, except that which was on display for her to see when it could no longer be contained.

Tawny reached out, gently touching the woman's arm. "I know you are hurting... You are welcome to remain with me. We will see to it you are safe."


Offline Jabbathejack

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Joe stepped aside, giving Browne and Hao Yan room to talk to Sara. He nodded gravely as she took the helmet; his eyes focused on the dent in the side of the metal. It did not look like much, but it had been the blow that had knocked Madigan to the ground.

Sara looked up at Browne, the tears already beginning to flow. She pulled back, suddenly fearful, her lips trembling. Joe realised that without Madigan, the mercenaries around her were suddenly a fearful crowd.

"No, wait. It's not what you think." Joe reached out, hoping to catch her by the hand, but he was too late. Still clutching Madigan's helm, Sara ran through the crowd disappearing in the ever expanding throng.


Offline Kreed

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Without the cultural understanding of her fellow humans, Hao Yan moved forward to pursue the fleeing woman, but Tawny lightly took her wrist and held her in place. Hao Yan froze in shock, turning to stare in disbelief toward the human woman who dared to touch her, though she didn't seem angered in the slightest.

"Sorry", Tawny said as she released her. "Best not go chasing her now; she's got a lot to think about, and a place like this - for a Thrain woman - it's a very dangerous and often unforgiving place."

"How so?"

"Thrain is...particular about the roles filled by its men and women", Akuma said as they approached. Their voice as quite, and their expression somber. It was a sad thing to admit, but best to let the foreigner know what she was likely in for. If Akuma was right, many soldiers would be undergoing a serious adjustment period. "A mercenary camp... it's not a safe place for a lady."

"I think she suspected I was a man", Tawny added. "Which... I could see the issue there."


Offline Jabbathejack

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Joe watched Sara flee through the crowd, clutching the last memory of Madigan with her.
"Poor girl."

He turned back, catching the intensity between Hao Yan and Browne as the human let go of the elf's wrist. He frowned, wondering what had just go on between the two.

"Quicksilver is right." Joe grimaced still further as the demon spoke up. "Mad was respected enough to mean that no one tried anything against her, but now, well, she's in a pretty bad situation. She can't go back to her family, but she sure as hell can't stay on the camp by herself."

"I'll go check on her."
He shifted his pack into a more comfortable position and he headed out towards the mercenary camp.


Offline Kreed

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The small group was quiet as Joe departed, their eyes following him while all feet stayed firmly planted where they stood. When the blond disappeared into the crowd, Hao Yan slowly turn and bounced her gaze back and forth between Akuma and Tawny with visible confusion -- visible for an elf, in any case.

"I don't understand", she said, as though it weren't clear to see, "That woman ran from us because she thought Tawny was a man. But Joe is most certainly a man, and he chose to pursue her. How is this not counterproductive?"

"Joe is familiar to her as a friend," Akuma answered. Their eyes briefly met Hao Yan's, but primarily focused on where Joe had disappeared. Their expression was unreadable. "He and Madigan, her lover, they were teammates and decent friends as I understand. She would not percieve him readily as a threat."

"A wise woman might still", Tawny countered. She shifted the weight of her bag onto her hip and adjusted the strap around her shoulder. "It's the men that are closest to you that tend to take advantage. They know your vulnerability. Know they've gained your trust. If Sarah is smart, she would remain guarded even if she welcomed the comfort of a friend."

Akuma frowned lightly. She made a fair point. "You don't think--?"

"Fulbeck isn't that sort of man."

"That was the furthest thing from my mind," Akuma nodded lightly before briefly looking a final time after where their comrade had disappeared, "It wasn't that. I..."

"Ah, you wonder if he fancies her." Tawny snorted.

"No", Akuma said, too quickly. He grunted and shook his head. "It doesn't matter what I wonder anyhow. He'll take care of her." He looked between his two female companions, human and elf, and gave a decisive nod. "Let's go set our cargo aside for the crew to handle and seek out Mara. I suspect the court will want a report, and Andrean is unlikely to know that the Sun-Prince has decided to join us."

"Aye. Fair enough," Tawny said. And so, they set about finishing their current tasks before seeking out the mage and leader of their expedition.


Offline Jabbathejack

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Mara approached the elven king, smiling.
"Your Highness, welcome to Rothstone, the largest city in Rothrim."

She gestured to the town beyond and the quickly gathering crowd.
"Come this way, please. I'll show you to the castle where you will be staying. I've sent word to inform King Andrean of our arrival. I am sure he will want to meet you once you are settled in."

She spotted Browne approaching.
"Mr Browne, go find General Jorritsma. Make sure he knows we've returned."

Jorritsma would have to find space for the elves to set up a camp of their own, without infringing on either the mercenaries or the town.

***

Little seemed to have changed in the town since they'd been away; there was still the fish market and the well shrine and Joe made a note to go back and give thanks for their safe return, if Balzerma decided to accept it or not.

A few of the mercenaries had emerged from their tents and stood waiting to greet Joe and the others as they climbed the hill. Eldritch pushed his way to their fore, a big grin on his face. He clapped Joe on the shoulder, but Joe could not find it in him to celebrate his return. Feeling somewhat empty inside, he merely nodded.

Sara was nowhere to be seen, not even hiding around Madigan's tent. Joe grimaced, but he could not blame her. The poor girl had nowhere to go; she could hardly go home, but without Madigan, she would be in danger the longer she remained here. Unless she chose another mercenary with enough rank and standing to hold back the others. Joe grimaced at the thought, but it was the practical answer.


Offline Kreed

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Umi turned to Mara with visible surprise. For an elf, that said a lot. "You mean there is more than one city?" Beside him, Is-Stable uttered a hybrid between a cough and snicker. The king shook his head and quietly proceeded down the ramp.

"No need to settle right away. I would rather get pleasantries out of the way."

The elf fell in line beside the mage, with his shield-kin closely behind. "Between you and me, once I get comfortable, it takes a village to get me back out of my room. Best we handle all formalities now. ...He was not aware I was coming, was he? I...realize that was very short notice."



Tawny made her way through the crowd and on to the path toward Jorritsma's tent. She found it somewhat difficult, given that she was moving against the current, but her arrival was overall uneventful. Fortunately, she found the man halfway down the trail, and she knew that he would know at the sight of her that they had returned.

"General!" Browne greeted the man. "We have brought troops. ...The elf King is among them."


Offline Jabbathejack

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"Yes." Mara kept her voice calm and level as she tried to ignore the obvious slight from the king's bodyguard; they obviously had a lot of work ahead of them.

"They are much smaller towns, but still of some note." Mara continued as she led the way down to the quay. "Glenweald to the north and Bordertown to the east, although Bordertown's allegiances are somewhat mixed."

It felt strange to be on dry land after spending so long at sea. Mara felt as if the ground was still rising and falling gently just as the ship had done. It was most peculiar.

"I had no way of warning them of our return and of how successful we were. For all they know, we might have returned alone."

***

"Mr Browne." Jorritsma's smile was genuine as he saw the young man approach. "It's good to see you."

His smiled broadened at the news.
"Thank Balzerma." He clapped Browne firmly on the shoulder. "We had fears that you might not return at all. She did it."

"We'll be having a feast tonight, no doubt. Celebrations in honour of our visitors."

He headed down towards the dock, ready to meet their guests.
"Come on, lad, fill me in then?"


Offline Kreed

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"Given the short notice, I'm not particularly surprised." Umi said. "Even with magic, summoning a letter over a distance that great wasn't feasible. Notifying him was out of the question."

"Is that any cause for concern?" Is-Stable questioned. "Some might see a king arriving personally to be an imposition."



Tawny's shoulders instinctively jumped as the general brought his weight down on her with a firm hand, but she smiled nevertheless.

"You had me at feast, Sir."

She turned to fall in line beside Jorritsma, keeping an eye out over the crowds for signs of the elvish king. She hadn't anticipated the difficulty of doing so with the presence of so many other elves. It was difficult to comprehend, but Umi was quite short among his people, even as he towered over many men.

"We were ambushed by a tribe. We lost many of our men. Few of us escaped with our lives." She paused in her search to look at the man's face, removing her cap in respect for those that had met their tragic end. "The king gave us sanctuary and healed our wounds. We were treated most graciously."

"We encountered an enemy ship on the way home, full of prisoners. We overtook them, and rescued who we could. For a few, the prognosis is not great, but we have many, many healers now at our disposal. I think the outcome is promising."