Act One: Fragile Peace
Almost a week has passed since the siege on Morningveil, quite literally miraculously repelled by the handful of defenders alerted to it. Six days and four burials have come and gone, and for the moment, something approximating peace remains in its wake, brought about by divine intervention and the threat of its absence in equal measure. While the current situation is an alliance in name, grudges are slow to change, and it will no doubt take some time for the people of the two cities to see each other in a different light.
Over the past six days, in the absence of any place for him in the negotiations, the two razed buildings and partially destroyed wall have been rebuilt almost completely, largely by Malcharion, leaving almost no traces of the attack save for a few scorch marks on the ground here and there.
As part of the agreement, Willow Glen's meager military has largely been disbanded, the remainder of it joining with that of Morningveil, which will, in return, protect and provide for it as necessary. An arrangement out of necessity, in part, given Willow Glen's chances of caring for itself in this state. The remainder of the terms involves the Willow Glen shaman's relocation and nominal shift in allegiance between cities, though they are, of course, now largely the same for many purposes.
To this end, the shamans of Morningveil - including, however ill-advised this may be, Malcharion - have been sent to bring the new arrival from her home to their own city, where a new room, still under construction to some degree, has hastily been added to the barracks. To some extent, the benefit of keeping more experienced members of the profession present is quite clear to both sides in any case: Willow Glen's shaman, after all, has only completed her training in full yesterday.
Entering the city proves quite unnecessary; she can be found, albeit barely recognizable, waiting directly outside the city gates. "Elizabeth Ashcombe," she says by way of introduction, voice muffled through a scarf. In spite of the relatively temperate October air, she is completely covered in thick winter clothing, shivering every now and then even with this, when the wind blows. Dealing with cold, however mild, is clearly not her strong suit. She carries an oversized backpack, with a number of objects strapped to it, and a hawk - a pet, by the look of it - perched on her shoulder. Among other things, the pack has a number of long, collapsible wooden poles and a large roll of cloth attached to it; all the parts needed, at a glance, for a tent.
Besides this, she carries a decently sized sheathed battleaxe, not slung across her back as one might expect, but instead carefully wrapped in brown paper and cradled in both hands as if it were some sort of precious and fragile possession rather than a weapon. Despite only being a year or two older - if not much taller - than Lucia, she is evidently a good deal stronger, as the rather unreasonable weight does not seem to concern her much at all.
"You must be here to bring me to Morningveil. I apologize for the... inconvenience; there was really no need for this. Just tell me where to look for in the city, and I will find my way there myself." Though Elizabeth's face might be largely hidden between hat and scarf, it still does nothing to disguise the frequent stares in Malcharion's direction, nor her expression, however carefully suppressed, which makes it abundantly clear that she would prefer to be anywhere but here.
Lucia averted her gaze for one moment when she saw the shaman waiting by the gate. Obviously it wasn't going to be Silas, but her standing alone like this only drove the implication of his fate even further. Perhaps she was too quick to judge him, even if he chose to attack her city in such a cowardly manner. Still, after everything that she had said to the late shaman in that fit of anger, she wondered if he managed to spend his last moments with his successor.
"Lucretia," she returned her introduction, fixing the hem of her robe for emphasis. "Our families are consecrated to the spirits." Not that she had to explain her lack of a last name, though - her priestly garb should made her position clear. "And this doesn't inconvenience us at all. We're all too happy to provide an escort - after all, it's unbecoming to just sit around and wait for you to appear in our town on your own. Taking us by surprise."
Her stare to the taller girl was almost too icy to be polite.
Tobias hadn't had much sleep the last week, evident by the slight dark rings under his eyes. He'd returned to his parents forge for a day, having told them all that had happened, and worked himself to the bone for almost a whole day, in complete silence. The cuts he wore into his palms forced him to wear thick bandages around them.
The lad spent much of the rest of his time, admittedly, away from his companions, in front of the two temples, of all places - the last place anyone would expect him to be, even as a shaman. Finding a nice place to sit, all Tobias would do is... Stare at the faces of the buildings - sometimes for so long he'd have to bring lunch.
Also, without a reason or word to why, Tobias was specifically quite deadpan and soulless when speaking to Vivian, as if he wanted to avoid her. This, however, grew better as the week passed on, until it was nothing but an unexplained memory.
Up to the task of collecting the Willow Glen shaman, however, Tobias banded together with his fellow shamans, and set off to see her, packed with not much more than he normally would carry. Keeping his bandaged hands to himself as much as possible, hidden in pockets or folded where need be, the lad made no real effort to hold a conversation.
Finally arriving, Tobias wasn't surprised at all to see the young shaman standing outside the gates, awaiting them. As Lucretia introduced herself, the young lad's head idly cocked to one side, an eyebrow slightly raised as he scanned the new woman thoroughly.
Elizabeth, huh?... The thought passed through his mind at a snail's pace, lingering even as the priestess took a cheap shot. As soon as she did, however, Tobias' elbow darted out, gently nudging her in the arm with a loud AHURGH cough. Taking a step forward, the young soldier-shaman extended his bandaged hand to the young, wintery-bundled woman before them. Briefly, he hesitated, gazing at his bandaged hand. He could see a very small amount of dried blood on it, but he decided formalities were more important, and he'd already extended the hand - no backing out.
"She's right, it's not an inconvenience to us in the slightest, and we're more than happy to assist." He strongly emphasized choice words, not so much as vague potshots back at the priestess, but more directly to Elizabeth, attempting to be reassuring as ever.
"I'm Tobias Hearthfire, y-you can call me Toby." Damnit, really? Did you just give her permission to call you Toby? Feeling absolutely stupid for a brief moment, Tobias was unaware that he was grinning a little, stammering unexpectedly.
"D-Do you need any help there? It's not exactly a long trip, but we can carry some things for you? Your backpack maybe? If you're cold, we can help with that too!" Spying Elizabeth's grip on the battleaxe in her arms, Tobias knew she wouldn't relinquish it on request, and the weight of it seemed to matter little - a thought that made his grin grow just a fraction.
The wake of death is never particularly happy. Though Vivian was not required to attend minor funerals like those that were held in those few long days, she did - it had become habit of sorts. She wasn't always certain she was welcome; in fact, sometimes she was sure that her presence was simply a reminder that death was absolute. It was probably mixed; if anyone was proof that death was something one could move on from, it was her, after all. Or perhaps she could be a symbol of death as rebirth. Something like that.
She had quite a lot of time to think at funerals, rarely knowing the deceased well enough to reminisce.
The rest of the days had been full of politics; as Madrich's shaman, she was of course present for the bulk of it, and for a number of his arguments. Though not as influential a voice, she was all too happy to chime in on behalf of Morningveil's shamans. Perhaps more importantly, it gave her the chance to offer an olive branch herself, as a member of the military, as a scourge of the mudmen's nation. She could show good faith just as strongly as the city's leaders could, or so she hoped.
Briefly she had met with her compatriots over the week. Mal was hard at work, putting in more effort than any of them would ever expect from a traveler. The golem was someone who, despite his curtness, Vivian was rapidly growing rather fond of; he seemed a homunculus of surprising wisdom, despite his curt speech and his unusual, occasionaly destructive directness, and it would hardly have offended her if he settled in Morningveil. In fact, a shaman that would never tire and a Forge Spirit were some of the most powerful allies she could think of (aside Madrich, of course).
Lucretia's childishness was surprisingly subdued day-to-day, she was starting to discover. The young woman was easily the most devoted person she'd had the pleasure of meeting, despite her abrasive nature. Given some time, she would make for a great leader, someone worthy of the people's adoration and most certainly a worthy vessel for Eos. More than a few young men seemed to be enamored with her, too, one in particular.
Tobias...well. He treated her no differently than most did, and she saw no reason to push the poor boy. There was something about him that didn't sit right with her, hadn't since he'd returned not-so-long ago with a Spirit in tow. But he was a good lad. The Hearthfires were honest and strong, and their son had proven thusfar to be no different.
Why, if she were just a few years younger, she might be rather jealous of Lucia.
The new addition to their ranks, Elizabeth Ashcombe, apparently, was met with a warm smile, and just as Tobias had all but placed a large, flaming sign over Lucia's head pointing out that she was being terribly rude, Vivian clamped a hand on each of the younger shamans' shoulders and squeezed as Toby babbled on.
"Priestess. That matter is settled. And Hearthfire, I understand you prefer your women a bit...aggressive, but there's no need for boot-licking. Please excuse them, Miss Ashcombe, they're as nervous about this ordeal as you are." The omissions there were equal parts chastising the two, of course, and asserting that neither she nor Mal were particularly nervous. They were prepared and as welcoming as either was capable of. And possibly ready to abscond with a skull if necessary.
"And do forgive our unnecessary formality. Certainly you can find the city on your own, but consider this an opportunity to get to know your comrades. My name is Vivian Callahan, feel free to use it as you wish, and the chatty gent looming behind us is Malcharion. He's wonderful at parties." The pale, tired-looking woman chuckled at her own dry joke - likely the only one who would, as was sadly often the case.
The thing about dealing with golems is that it's easy enough to forget that they actually move. Have them stand still in your line of vision long enough, and one's mind simply glosses over them as mere background art, a statue or fixture to be summarily ignored. It is easy to forget that a piece of the architecture or the scenery actually has sentience and mobility, especially when said piece of the background is built out of raw material - like clods of earth, for instance. Or a huge slab of rock.
The same is true with Malcharion, and at the same time, it is not. At first look, the ordinary mind would register Malcharion as a creation of some artistic genius who's a few bricks short of a kiln. After all, looking at the golem, it is impossible, even inconceivable, that someone in their right mind would forge a being of such a size, of such mass, of such brutish make - and deem it as something that should have a mind of its own, able to move on its own will. The normal, the ordinary, the rational being would take Malcharion's bellicose appearance as an artist's flight of fancy and summarily dismiss the sheer ludicrousness of such a thing being...alive. For to even consider it is to consider that monsters do walk this earth, to consider thoughts of madness and insanity as sane.
It would come to pass, then, that Malcharion himself would move at that moment of denial - move, or breathe, or simply ignite the crimson fire burning behind his tusked helm, the light blazing through the angled eye slits. And it would invariably result in sheer shock, disbelief, or outright capitulation of the observer, fear giving them wings.
It was due to this that the golem of Vulkan had chosen to adopt a more sedentary approach when it came to conversations, or generally everything else that did not require him to work with steel, stone and fire. Completely still, the giant would show practically no signs of life unless directly asked or referred to, or when he felt it was necessary. It made it easier, he found, for those conversing with the shamans he had found himself associated with. People seem to be much more comfortable with conversing when subjected to the deception that the huge tower of spikes and skulls at the back is simply decoration rather than a monster from their nightmares.
Unfortunately, it does not work all the time. Like right now, for instance. Even when Malcharion himself had tried his best not to loom so much at the poor young woman. Or glower. Or menace.
Still, his fellow shamans seem to be doing just fine in trying to make the apprentice feel...welcome. Well, Vivian had, at least. Lucia's frigid countenance, while completely understandable given past events, would certainly not help in forging a stronger sense of unity between cities. Tobias' craven friendliness and awkward eggshell-treading would probably have the same effect, if not worse. Vivian struck the balance between them - casual, but not informal. Respectful, but not stiff. She even made the attempt to present the frightening golem in a less intimidating light. Whatever its outcome, that simple act made Malcharion respect her all the more - much more than he already did, owing to her rank as Commander.
Of course, the Hammer of Vulkan was no judge about human interaction or the dealings involved thereof. He was a golem when all was said and done, and he knew that the extent of his duty. He desired not to be more than what he thought of himself. The city's repairs had been a pleasant distraction, at the very least. If he was to be honest - and golems are naught but VERY honest - he felt proud of the repairs, and felt an unusual twinge of regret when he realized that there was no other work to be done.
Part of the reason why he was here, after all, to escort Willow Glen's new shaman to Morningveil.
[NO. INCONVENIENCE.] The eyeslits of Malcharion's tusked helm flared crimson as it turns to glower at Elizabeth - but not before nodding to acknowledge Vivian's introduction. [DUTY. NEVER. INCONVENIENCES.]
Any barbs Lucia might direct at Elizabeth are, unsurprisingly, ignored; nothing more than she expected, after all. Tobias is similarly dismissed, though this, at least, gets a few words. "That won't be necessary," she replies quickly. "I can carry this myself. As for the cold..." she looks rather annoyed for a moment, though not, surprisingly, at anyone who is present at the moment. "Call it a curse of sorts. Useful enough in summer, at least."
Her expression, or what can be seen of it, grows rather more surprised as Vivian talks. The look she returns is a strange one, as if she herself has no idea what to make of the pale shaman. Between her reputation over the years and her actions in the past few days, not to mention right this moment, there is no surprise in that. For the moment, her opinion of Vivian seems to have shifted to the more favourable side of 'butcher', if nothing else.
"Understood, miss Callahan," she replies eventually, still seeming a little perplexed as she looks towards Tobias, then Malcharion - a little while longer here, though there is no fear in her eyes - and finally back again. "I admit, I was expecting to be tolerated at best. Certainly not welcomed." A moment more, and she grudgingly mutters "Thank you. As long as I don't make the mistake of hoping for a similar reception from anyone else, this should be better than I-"
At that point, her words are abruptly cut off by the thunderous rumbling of Malcharion's brief speech (however lengthy it might be by his standards). She flinches for a moment, if only from surprise and the sheer noise, but a moment later, there is no fear in her; in fact, her eyes contain no small amount of wonder and amazement as she watches at the golem, as well as the definite look of one taking mental notes of all she sees. An artisan's stare. "Ah, so you can talk. I mean... yes, of course you can. Malcharion, yes?"
A burning, spectral hammer appears in the air beside the massive automaton, ember swirling around it as it hovers in place. "Visitors in Morningveil, nothing more. I am Vulkan, the golem's forger." Elizabeth offers a deep bow to the spirit at this, momentarily looking abandoning the task of analyzing the steel titan. "Oh, so now we get to introduce ourselves too, do we?" A moment later, Madrich steps out of thin air, giving a small wave. If the nonstop negotiations of the past few days have tired him out in the slightest, he does nothing to show it.
"Madrich. Big scary skeleton, at your service. If a ghost would make you more comfortable, don't hesitate to ask, I can probably do that too." At some point in all this, a field of light, considerably brighter than the air around it, has manifested itself around Lucretia: Nothing particularly ostentatious, only a golden glow.
"Eos. Morningveil's dawn." A brief introduction, as if to say that one should already know everything that could be said on the subject. Unlike the others, Eos has no patience for sound, speaking directly to the mind. Somewhat uncomfortable, if not overly so. "Try to show a little more courtesy, priestess, and less hostility. This hardly reflects well on you or the priesthood." The admonishment, though it is evidently meant for Lucretia, is heard by all, in what is undoubtedly an intentional gesture.
"Real ray of sunshine, as long as you're being literal about it," the skeleton explains wearily, "but you'll go mad if you listen to every little thing she says, so don't you worry about that. As for the fourth..." He glances over to Tobias, then shakes his head wearily. "Quiet one. Never mind that. And the one with you?" It was, most likely, an unnecessary question, given that most spirits seemed to recognize each other immediately. Clearly for the benefit of conversation in this case.
"Emesh," Elizabeth answers, pointing to the ground. There is nothing visible there, as such, save for growth: Flowers and grass growing quite rapidly from the ground, seeds bursting into sprouts, and something in the air that seems to sap any exhaustion away. "Again, not one for words, I'm afraid." She takes another quick look at the small crowd in front of her, then nods slightly to herself. "Shall we go, then?"
A girl of Lucia's stature could only strike fear into so many hearts with her glare, but there was one way that seldom failed for her to cause - at the very least - mild unease. She would simply look at you for the longest time, her face almost expressionless if not for the intense disapproval in her eyes. It might seem as if she was perfectly calm, but when her narrowed, unblinking stare is focused on you, you couldn't help but realize that she was simmering underneath.
The lucky recipient of this gaze this time was, of course, Tobias.
Her opinion of him had only slightly improved through the week, such that she bothered to know his name, but she tried not to think too much of him. He was practically a lowborn, she thought, with a strange attitude to match. It seemed that he wasn't refused by the spirits at all, and he would at least think of others - of his betters before himself, but that was all. There was no need to waste more thoughts on him, and she had told herself that for quite a number of times.
This time, though, he deserved all disapproval she could spare. What was with this fawning attitude?
"...What a gentleman you are, Mister Hearthfire," she began, her tone as cold as the northern mountains, but Vivian managed to stop her before she could put in any more words. The commander certainly deserved more respect if only due to her experience, but even though she sometimes seemed too laid-back to be the hero told in those stories, Lucia knew that she really was capable. Probably.
At any rate, that didn't prevent her from letting out a quiet grumble in protest, although she seemed unsure whether to keep her vitriol toward Tobias or shifting it back to Elizabeth, who started to speak again until Malcharion said his own piece.
She could sympathize with her for being surprised by him, at least. Lucia still wasn't sure on what to feel about the golem, although someone who helped repairing and defending her city could not be that bad. Still, with an appearance that was so purposely intimidating... Perhaps it would be better for her to keep some distance from him, both literally and metaphorically.
Then the spirits came, and Lucia moved into a more respectful pose. That still didn't prepare her for Lady Eos' rebuke, though, and she visibly flinched under Vivian's grip. She had disappointed her spirit with that sort of conduct, she realized. How could she?
Her face was lowered for a while, but when she finally raised it back toward Elizabeth, it was tinged red. "F-forgive me," she muttered. "And yes... We should go."
Tobias was completely unaware of the barrage, the assault of quips and unspoken marks against his name that the young lad was about to receive.
The first, of all, began with being completely cold-shouldered by Elizabeth, almost literally. Retracting his hand quickly, the soldier left it hanging by his side, the cut burning a little deeper than it should. He took a step back and fell silent, even as Vivian stepped up.
After the commander had spoken, Tobias briefly considered the ramifications of elbowing his fellow shaman in the stomach. He seriously considered it for a good moment, before opting to simply take another small step back, clasping his hands in front of him, eyes locked to the ground. After the week everyone had experienced, he really wasn't feeling up to retorting to accusations. Lick my boot... He couldn't help but a mental retort, letting it slip by silently.
Finally, Malcharion had the first speech Tobias had ever heard the golem give, despite that it consisted of five words. The urge to applaud the quality of the stagnant tower's speech in sheer sarcasm was held at bay only by the fact that the golem was the only one who hadn't given him a hard time recently.
Suddenly, the young, momentarily meek lad realised he was receiving the biggest death stare from Lucretia that had ever existed. He was already fully ready to go home, and intended to keep his eyes roadward the entire trip. Without even turning his head, Lucia's complete, simmering stare was met with not a blank face, persay, but a smile-less one; more accurately, a drained expression. Tobias locked his gaze with hers, and stared back at the priestess with a complete disregard for what seemed like everything about her - he stared through her glare, and then just turned his gaze back to the ground, unazed.
Already feeling small enough, he certainly didn't need the final stroke to come. The spirits of all of his companions began to manifest around him, and suddenly the lad snapped his gaze up, taking a step back as the area filled with inhuman beings - and of course, they began to introduce themselves.
Tobias gave a very, very small, polite bow toward the towering hammer of fire, Vulkan, and another to Eos. Turning finally, he eyed Madrich with a confusing glance, a mixture of suspicion and acknowledgement. He simply nodded toward the skeleton, a silent 'thank you' - because, of course, Tempus hadn't shown, and rightly so.
Feeling like a mouse among gods and vessels, with no vast, powerful presence backing him, Tobias turned on his heels, back to all of the shamans present, new and old, and began to walk off, down the road and toward to
"Let's not waste time then..." He muttered, without any intent for anyone to have heard him. He wasn't dejected, so much as just feeling very small. Preferably, he would stay a few dozen paces ahead of his companions for the return journey; he had nothing to say to Lucretia, seeing as she was seething with inexplicable anger at him.
Equally, he had nothing for Vivian - a quip between companions is fine at times, but saying that kind of thing in front of another official when on city-to-city business, especially with such fragile peace going on, was not okay with Tobias. She may be good with soldiers, and so he saw, diplomatic situations, she hadn't earned any points with him today. Though he didn't say so, the lad put a small chunk of his personal respect for Vivian on hold.
It wasn't easy even for the Commander, holding a calm demeanor as the Spirits each of them represented - well, most of them, anyway - lined up for introductions. One never quite gets used to that feeling, after all, and Lady Eos in particular always had a certain air to her that made Vivian feel just a bit uncomfortable during the scant few times they'd shared a space.
"Yes, yes. No point in hanging around here, staring at one another." It seemed that both of the younger shamans - both of the young ones that came with her that day, anyway - had been sufficiently cowed. That was fine. Good, even - neither seemed to understand the situation terribly well. Addressing their new allies with bitterness and blind self-righteousness would only make them seem all the more abrasive, and while the Hearthfire lad was a gentleman to be sure, bowing and scraping would do no wonders for anyone's ego. Miss Ashcombe didn't strike Vivian as the type of woman to appreciate that sort of awkward servitude. She wouldn't have been either, at that age.
The pale soldier made no particular attempt to chase after Tobias, he could quietly lead all he liked. He was quick to turn his back to Elizabeth, something that spoke well of him, at least in regards to diplomacy. She herself would be somewhat less swift, preferring to walk alongside the life shaman instead. Cursed with perpetual cold...perhaps the two of them were more alike than she'd expected, though she wouldn't call herself 'cursed', exactly.
And it really must have been nice during the warmer months. It reminded her (though she thought it best to keep quiet for now, in case it was a bit of a sensitive subject) of old Smoke-Eyes Jim, who'd put out the wrong fire with the worst kind of water and ever since gave everyone he looked too hard at a coughing fit the likes of which they'd never felt before.
Maybe she'd find a bit of time to check on the old guard after they'd gotten Miss Ashcombe settled in. She could use a good laugh, after all this peace business. Which was, admittedly, still much better than the war business.
The journey back to Morningveil is, by and large, uneventful. Certainly, not much is said on the road, and even less of consequence. The soldiers at the gates seem somewhat reluctant to allow the new shaman entry, but if nothing else, it only shows in their eyes and movement, not their words: They would not, after all, ever consider arguing with this decision, whatever their thoughts on the matter.
The wind abates a good deal within the walls, naturally, giving way instead to the endless ambient noise of thirty-thousand people living out their lives. The fields, for one of the few times in the year, are largely bare, sleeping in preparation for the year to come. The harvest, however, is everywhere, its results - or rather, what has been processed of it - sold from no end of stands and stalls all across the streets.
The din only intensifies as the five approach their barracks, in large part thanks to the proximity to the temples. The smell of curry and freshly-baked bread drifts through the air, though this stems more from shops dealing with visitors to the temples, rather than anything to do with their destination. Ironically, being burned to the ground has, in the long run, served their second home quite well: The new building, after all, lacks most of the flaws and gradual deterioration that plagued the old one.
Only moments after arriving, Elizabeth proceeds to ignore the building entirely, instead searching around it for a little while, quickly finding a sizable patch of earth some distance to its left. With this done, she drops her luggage in a small heap on the ground and removes both poles and cloth from her pack, immediately setting about pitching a tent. Either she is quite unaware that some space has been set aside for her - quite likely, depending on how much she has been told of the arrangement - or perhaps she has chosen to ignore that particular fact.
"Miss Lucretia, you said you were part of the priesthood of this city? I will need your help for the next few days." Some of the edge in her voice is now gone, at least, though whether this is simply because she needs Lucretia's assistance or not is another question. For that matter, the question itself may be more of a peace-making gesture than anything done out of necessity. "I am not familiar with your city in the least. If there are any particular customs I should be aware of, please tell me now. The same goes for any work you might need me to do. Speaking of which..."
She cuts off briefly, putting the roll of cloth down for now and looking to the smith. "Tobias. Injured, yes? Can't do much of anything useful with clumsy, bandaged hands. Come over here and I'll deal with it; might as well, only takes a second."
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