02 - Necessary Evil

Kadal watchs his friends fall asleep before drifting off himself. He is transported back to a time of happiness in his life, the sun is shining and his muscles are glistening with sweat as he works on restoring an old building. Before long however, the sky darkens and a giant pair of fangs race out at him. He awakes stifling a scream and in a cold sweat.

Unable to sleep after than, he watches everyone have their own fitfull sleep. When Willow stirs. he pretends to be fast asleep, as he was enjoying a bit of the solitude. He ponders their actions on the island, wondering if everyone will smile and laugh just a little less know, then remembers he needs to smile more anyhow.

His mind drifts off to wonder what Ajoah has in store for them. Like a mouse before a cat he looks for avenues of escape, trying to find a scenario where the party escaples the island but is unable too.

Finally, when the sun starts to rise, he strains to feel Fartha's warming rays and is overcome by sadness that he is imprisoned in a cold dark cave while the sun warms the rest of the world.

Ashara puts off her rest as long as possible. She eats, cleans and dresses her wounds, inventories her pack, and fusses over Samm. She can feel Samm's irritation at her overly careful treatment, but bullies him into submission. She insists he sit and have his wounds seen to, not allowing him to get his own food or water, she brings it to him like a nursemaid. While he eats she checks with the other members of her party, notably avoiding even glancing at Willow.

The usually cheerful young woman is noticeably quiet and somber, not even able to muster a real smile when Thorn tries to cheer her with his antics. She does show her appreciation of his efforts with a kiss on the cheek and a fierce hug that lasts much longer than usual, before she shuffles back to sit next to Samm and annoy him further with her nursing.

When Ashara finally runs out of excuses to avoid sleep she lays down on her makeshift bed, having moved it as close to Samm as possible without lying directly in his own bed. She lays in such a way that she can easily see Samm and Thorn, keeping tabs on the two men she considers family, before closing her eyes and using an old habit to try and relax herself.

In her mind she runs the streets of home. Mentally, she traverses every back alley, side street, dark corner, rooftop and secret passageway in the under city. Her muscles tense and relax as she imagines climbing the rough walls and leaping from rooftop to rooftop. After a long while she drifts into an uneasy sleep, the comforting streets of home slowly morphing into a dark maze as a nightmare takes over. Anyone watching her closely would notice shadows moving over her features, more than could be contributed to the flickering of the fire. As the night progresses her features begin to subtly shift, melting, becoming indistinct, blurring together. Her skin becomes ashen, then darkening until it could be seen as bruising. A thin sheen of sweat develops and under her blanket her hands curl into tight fists, her muscles clenching painfully. Her breathing becomes shallow and rapid, no sound escapes her, but if one were standing close enough, they would hear her teeth grinding together.

Ashara turns a corner and stops short. A moment of confusion sweeps over her as she looks down an unfamiliar street. She looks behind her to see the usual row of closed up fruit vendors that normally line the street behind her home. But again, as she turns forward the street before her is unfamiliar. It is darker, the stones rougher beneath her feet. Deciding that she must be losing her mind Ashara turns around again to head back down the street she came up, only to find it has been replaced by another mysterious street. The unfamiliar feeling of fear sinks into the pit of her stomach as she realizes she recognizes nothing. Impossible.

Ashara back tracks her steps and the feeling of fear intensifies as she stops where the door to her home should stand, but instead there is only cold stone wall. In fact, there are no doors anywhere. Ashara moves towards the other end of the street, her steps quicker, and her muscles tight. Nothing. The street which should lead out onto a broad thoroughfare, into the market place, leads nowhere. A tall stone wall hulking out of the darkness blocks her path, and Ashara begins to feel the cold fingers of fear trace along her skin. Goosebumps rise on her flesh and she rubs her arms. She can clearly hear the sound of her glove over her shirt, which makes her notice the silence.

Her city is never quiet, even in the dead of night there is noise. The sounds the city makes have always comforted her, the dripping water, cats and dogs, even rats shuffling, scratching. The occasional shout from a drunk, the hushed flap of wings as the birds that scavenge at night make their rounds. Those sounds are ever present, but now... silence. It’s unnerving, unnatural. The chills move from her skin inwards, trailing up the back of her neck and down to settle in an icy ball in her stomach.

Ashara knows that staying put is almost never a good idea, so even though she has no idea where to head, she turns and begins moving back up the street. She keeps to the shadows along the side of the street and stops frequently to listen, but the only sounds she hears are her own rapid breathing and her heartbeat.

As she gets to the end of the street, she makes the decision and turns to her right. The moment her foot hits the stones of the cross street the screams begin. The first was startling, after so many minutes of silence. It cut through the night, slicing into her like a physical blow. The scream is loud, far too loud to be natural. Even if the volume had been normal the sound was inhuman. Dozens of tones all blend together to offer a discordant chorus of terror and pain, as though a million voices all cry their horrific lament at once. The sound reverberates off the high stone walls and Ashara is forced to press her hands to her ears to try and muffle it. As abruptly as the scream began, it ends. The silence following it is deafening, leaving her disoriented with the lingering hum of the scream ringing in her ears.

Although the sound was unearthly, Ashara knew in her heart it was Samm. How she knew she couldn't say, but she knew with the same certainty that allowed her to find him no matter where he hid in the city. The scream leaves her feeling numb, her fingers frozen, her breath ghosting out into the frigid air. Samm. She takes a step, then steps back. Wrong way. She closes her eyes, reaching inside to find the connection. Samm. A step, yes. Not Samm. Two more steps. She opens her eyes and begins to walk. Her heartbeat matching her feet, each soft footfall completed by the words. Not. Samm. Left and right. Not Samm. Not Samm. Again. Again. Faster. Push. Ashara closes her eyes, the city around her keeps shifting, changing, throwing dead ends and blocked roads in her way but her feet lead her. Not Samm. Not. Samm.

Ashara is unaware of how long she runs, eyes closed she runs as fast as she can. Her breath burns in her throat and tears stream down her cheeks. Hold on Samm. she thinks to herself. The road she's following begins to slope down, the cobbles slick underfoot. Ashara keeps her eyes down, focusing on her footing, on her breathing, on her mantra. Not. Samm. Not. Samm. Not. Samm. The road continues to slope steeper, and Ashara begins to lose her footing, slipping a little with each pounding step, running a little too fast to keep her feet under her. Water begins to rush over her feet and within seconds she is sliding more than running, barely keeping her balance. When the scream comes again she is caught off guard and she falls to the cobbles, sliding down the near vertical slope, the scream surrounding her, pushing her until. Silence. The road falls away under her and the sound chokes off until all she can hear is the pounding of her own heart. Free fall. Nothing below her but darkness and Ashara fills the silence with her own scream of terror as she falls.

Ashara hits bottom with a sickening crunch. She feels bones shatter, feels her joints grind together, feels her head snap back and crack against the stones. For an instant the world is white as she lays still, assessing the damage. After a long moment, Ashara opens her eyes and turns her head. What she sees stops her heart for an instant before it begins to thunder.

"Samm." She meant it to be a shout but the meekness in her own voice brings tears to her eyes. He's there. Right there. The sight of him makes bile rise in her throat. He's in a cell, the only thing separating the two of then is a barred door. He's strapped to a chair, his skin flayed, blood running in crimson sheets down his front to puddle on the floor. His head lolls to one side, but his eyes seek hers. The look in them makes her veins turn to ice. Gone is the warmth, the gentleness, the fond amusement that has always resided in his gaze. In it's place is anger, betrayal, disappointment, condemnation. His lips do not move but she can hear his voice in her head. "Your mother was right. Useless." she shakes her head to tell him he's wrong and begins to crawl towards him. She reaches the door and pulls herself up, inch by inch, gritting her teeth against the pain. The door is locked, she has no tools, no strength. Tears fill her eyes as she realizes she cannot get to him. That he's right.

Movement from behind him makes her jump as the pack of Vampires melts out of the shadows to surround him. Ajoh looks him over impassively, before turning to Ashara. "What a shame." she says.
"Please, don't hurt him. Let him go. Take me instead." Her voice is small, no echo returning to her as though there are no walls.

"Oh don't worry little one. We have no intention of doing anymore harm to him. That's her job." Ajoh inclines her head elegantly and Ashara sees Willow standing in the shadows. The shifter's snout is elongated, her canines extended, as she slips forward with a growl. Ashara's mouth goes dry and her hands curl painfully into fists. This is why he's here. Willow gave him up, served him up like dinner to serve her own selfish ends.

Willow leans in, and without warning, rips out Samm's throat. Her teeth dig ruthlessly into the soft flesh and tear it viciously. Hot blood splashes across her face as Ashara stares. Her heart goes numb, no sound escapes her, she simply crumples to the floor. No will to fight any more, even as the Vampires move to her side and one of them rips out her own throat.

Ashara starts awake without a sound. Her muscles burn, aching from hours spent tense. Her eyes instinctively seek Samm, and she can take her first breath only when she sees his chest rising and falling. Before she can second guess herself she crawls over to him, she lays herself down as close to him as she can, pressing her body close against his. She tucks her face against him and cries. It's the first time in as long as she can remember that she has allowed her feelings to spill over like this, but for now she simply needs to be next to him. To feel that the only person she truly considers family is warm and breathing and here. As always, Samm is there, and Ashara sips back into a mercifully dreamless sleep.

Samm tried to put up a resistance to being coddled, but when he saw it was a futile effort he gave in to Ashara's tendings. Instead he satisfied himself with telling her what she should be doing to the wound, or that she shouldn't be doing it like that, or that that stung like the blazes - it had no bearing on the girl's actions, but it at least gave him the illusion that he was still in control.

Once Ashara was satisfied with her work Samm propped himself up against the cave wall, his feet running down his bed. He ran his eyes over their ragged band as they each tried to find rest, much needed following the trials fate had bestowed for them, but likely to remain elusive as ever. As he watched it struck him, as if for the first time, exactly how makeshift their little band was - a real tinkers army. They stood in stark contrast to the elite squad of long-trained soldiers that were Ajaoh's Loyalists, each so clearly filling another required role with as little wastage as possible. "And what do we have to match that," he thought to himself, "a worn-out mercenary ready for the knackers, a drunken conjurer with no apparent regard for adversity, a muscle-bound mungo who displayed all the legendary loquaciousness of his race, two young girls leaving home for the first time, so different but so alike, and a misfit teenage witch, thrown together by nothing but circumstance. Who the hell thought this would be a good idea, eh?"

His already throaty chuckle quickly turned to a cough, although reassuringly only a few small flecks of clot came up. Nevertheless it caught Ashara's attention and he had to spend the next few minutes suffering further coddling and remonstrations for not trying to get to sleep. "God, it's like being at home again."

"Yeah, that may be, but you knew this when you took on the job, and you still signed up to protect them," his irritatingly honest half piped up. "Well, they would have still gone without me, and might not have even got this far then..." he replied, trying to construct an argument solid enough to convince his internal inquisitor, and failing miserably. His personal auditor was not happy with such a broad admission of culpability however, one so easy to dismiss as a moment of self doubt, and began to present the earlier battle as evidence. "Come on, learning from your mistakes is one thing, but beating yourself up over what you can't change is another," he appealed, but even he was half-hearted on that one. So, step-by-step, his mind dragged him through the battle. What could he have done differently? There: was he just too slow? did he need to train more? There: What if he had feinted left instead of right, why a baby could have read that coming blow. But no matter how he played it the unavoidable truth was that they had never stood a chance. A temporary reprieve was the best they could have hoped for. He flung this bitter conclusion at his interrogator, a pyrrhic victory, hoping it would miss the obvious point that this was just further evidence they should never have signed up to something so beyond their depth. Thankfully he was met with only silence from his conscience, apparently happy for now.

Glancing round he noticed that, finally, his charges had all managed to at least start sleeping; as his eyes finished their sweep they locked with Ajaoh standing guard by the entrance, who was just beginning hers. She nodded toward him, and his took this as his cue to join his compatriots. It wasn't like they were in any condition to even try an escape, never-mind what they could do even if they got out the cave.

Thankfully he discovered that Lady Luck's continuing rebuffs had not dented his much envied ability to catch a catnap whenever he so chose, and he rapidly slipped into his usual deep and dreamless sleep.

As morning finds you, having endured varying nights of restfulness, you find only Ajaoh and Kaiyurn present, the former crouching by the fire, preparing roasted chunks of meat, the latter standing at the cave entrance with his back to you, arms crossed, outside snow falling in big, fluffy flakes. The cave is surprisingly warm, a cozy temperature you'd expect to find in a tavern or farmhouse and even from several feet away, the smell of the sizzling elk is almost entrancing. Corvana, however, is nowhere to be seen.

Ajaoh notices as you stir and walks over, her bare feet navigating the rocky, uneven stone floor easily, naturally. She begins to distribute the cooked meat before finding a place she can sit, cross-legged, where she can see each of you as you eat. She watches you in silence, her expression neutral, until you are almost done. "I hope you rested well," she finally offers, "and that if you are still hungry, you will speak up. We have much work to do and I cannot have you at anything less than your best."

She pauses for a moment, waiting to see if any of you speak up, before continuing. "I do not know if any of you embrace the philosophy that the ends justify the means, but in the Black Isles, that is almost a religion. You are going to be asked to do things that will likely weigh heavy on your souls and there is not much I can do to help you there. But you are strong for humans, and I am sure you will find ways to make your peace. And normally, I would loathe to be so blunt but circumstances have forced my hand so do not forget, at any time, that we have Corvana."

She smiles slightly as though something amusing has occurred to her, before going on. "When you are asked to do these things we ask, perhaps that can be your motivation then. I know some of you are more than willing to give your lives for what you believe in," and she looks directly at Willow with this statement, "but are you willing to give the lives of others? Because understand this: if you try to double-cross or undermine me, or refuse a given task, the witch will die. And then, I will give another of you to my pack, and I will give the order again."

She stands effortlessly, smoothly and looks down at each of you. "You have one-hour to prepare yourselves and then we head out. Spend it how you will, pray to whichever gods will listen, and then get ready to fight as a Loyalist." She gives you a cheeky smirk at the last sentence and walks back over to sit before the fire.

Willow takes the proferred meat, puts it in her mouth and changes to the she wolf, charging out of the cave towards the forest ... ... she returns about 30 minutes later still in she wolf form before sitting down in the warmth of the cave and returning to her normal form.

After watching willow run off with her meat, Thorn looks around at his companions, seeing the wear the journey has brought on them, forgetting what ever was haunting the night before, takes a big bite outta the meat before saying " You know a touch of herbs on the meat, and a good ale would make this a meal that's better than many others I've overpaid for in inn's over the years. Maybe some roast potato's, vegetables, too, maybe next time, hey Samm, perhaps would should find out if any vampires around wanna settle down, think about what that could do for business have a vampire roasting and cooking meat over an open flame in front of everyone? " laughing at the ridiculousness of the statement and idea thorn continues. " Now which god to pray to today, I don't think any of them are listening, Ajaoh! " Thorn shouts to her with a sly grin on his face and a twinkle in his eye " All the gods that I know either abandoned or started ignoring me long ago, any suggestions? Well other than worshipping you as a goddess, but that'd something best saved for another time, and I'm guessing by how much your devoted to this cause, attempting to make myself into a well watered god probably isn't a good idea for once eh? " with that thorn gets a friendly laugh and starts entertaining himself, by seeing if he can get some better control of that lightening he zapped himself with earlier, by attempting to blast snow flakes with small applications of that power, needless to say he zaps himself a few times doing that, and by the time its time to go, he has to smooth his hair as its standing on end.

Ashara eats quietly until Ajaoh mentions being willing to sacrifice someone else's life then she mutters just loud enough for Willow to hear "Well some of us were clearly willing to do just that not long ago. Just look at who came out of the tussle untouched." Ashara falls silent again, listening to Ajaoh outline the orders. When Willow shifts and runs off yet again, Ashara shakes her head. "Typical. Here's hoping she never comes back." Her expression is dark, her voice hard. No one who hears her questions for a second that she means every word.

An hour later, Ajaoh approaches you, her face still neutral, expressionless. "I hope you are ready. We have a long walk ahead of us." Exiting the cave, the snow is still falling and you cannot see far in any direction, but Ajaoh begins to head in a direction you will later discover is north, Kaiyurn falling in to walk behind you. The pace is swift without being grueling, although walking in the deepening snow has you sweating twenty minutes into the walk, a sensation that does not change for the next two and a half hours.

The grey sky overhead seems like an empty void, no shape, indiscernible and indistinct. No wind stirs, leaving the flakes to fall more or less straight down, drifting and frolicking as they descend to the frozen ground. Ajaoh strides with confidence, her legs and bare feet moving through the snow effortlessly, her posture never changing as she walks unerringly forward. Roughly three hours after leaving the cave, you arrive at the shores of a large lake.

"You can rest for twenty minutes. Eat lightly, drink, rest. You." Ajaoh says, pointing at Ashara. "Come here. I need to feed." As Ashara hesitantly walks over to alpha, Ajaoh remains impassive, neutral as she walks behind the rogue and sweeps her hair aside, tilting her head. "It only hurts at first." She says softly before leaning down, sinking her teeth into Ashara's neck. From the outside, you see a wince that quickly turns to a glassy eyed look and a faint smile. On the inside, Ashara feels two sharp pinches in her neck before a warm euphoria spreads through her body, leaving the world hazy, a relaxing sensation of pleasure spreading through her body, a sensation that renders time meaningless.

As Ajaoh feeds, Kaiyurn stands near the rest of you, his hand on the hilt of his katana, an expression of 'try me' bold upon his face. The feeding only lasts minutes before Ajaoh withdraws, licking the two wound slowly, sensually, sealing them as though they had never existed. She then turns her back to you and says nothing, waiting for you to attend to your early lunch.

Day 5 upon NethicarFost 21st, 292 AS; around 1 in the afternoon

Twenty minutes after stopping, you are walking again, the snow still falling, slowly but steadily. After another hour, the horizon changes, great plumes of dark smoke rising in the distance, consistent, controlled. "Galena," Ajaoh says off-hand and over her shoulder. "One of the Baron's many mining towns and one of his few refineries." She says nothing more on the subject until you are with several hundred yards of the town, it's large smoke stacks, paved streets, copper statues and phologiston lamps clearly visible.

"This way," is all she offers as you detour up a nearby path, heading into that curve up and behind the town until you stand on a bluff overlooking the town. There is a heavy, wooden door in mountain facing behind you, old and ragged, its hinges rusted, the small overhang protecting it from the elements rotted and partially collapsed. Kaiyurn walks over and pulls the door open, gently, and you can see the interior is lit and seems well maintained, a mining tunnel with sturdy looking supports and lanterns.

Ajaoh gestures for you to stand with her at the bluff's edge. Standing beside her, she points to several structures: the large refinery that dominates the town, residing along the entire lake edge; a large cathedral bearing a copper statue, at least twenty feet tall, of a man holding the world above his head; a large, long warehouse along the far side, standing between the mountain the town; finally, a four-story brick tavern and inn at the mouth of the town. "Study them well, childer," she states, matter of fact. "Those are your targets. We will rest for one hour and then you will perform your first task as an honorary Black Isle Loyalist: You will plant charges, you will detonate them, and you will watch Galena burn."

That said, she turns and beckons you to follow her into the bolt-hole in the side of the mountain. While the mine shaft continues on into darkness, you only follow it for 100 feet or so before a small side tunnel opens into a small room with several bunk beds, various crates, chests and barrels and a central table, at which sits Tahlisha, a bored expression upon her face that turns to a smile as you enter. "Did you stop for a nap?" she teases, a comment which elicits a smile from Ajaoh, but little more.

She leans against a counter against the back, crossing her arms. The playful, coy vampiress you met in Baron Sorrowind's dungeon is clearly gone, replaced by a professional mercenary, goal-oriented and uninterested in small talk or games. "There is food in the crates and barrels. Help yourself, as you may not have a chance to eat or find food for some time after this. Once you've eaten, we'll go over the details."

Standing at the edge of the bluff, listening to Ajaoh, Thorns eyes get a bit glazed over as memories and the chaos pull at him. Taking all his effort he holds it a bay for the short bit it takes everyone to follow Ajaoh, before letting it come, bringing a tight smile to his face, feeling the chaos pull at him, as images of towns burning super-impose on top of the city. The rush using his power that way before, and the amount of power he had at his finger tips call to him, teasing and tantalizing him, as he hears a voice in the back of his head quietly say "Never Again." Pausing another moment, Thorn comes back the world when the screams in memories, mix with the voice in his head. Staring a moment at the cathedral and the statue, Thorn says quietly to himself "Again, and again you stood by and flaunted your power and control over mine, silently judging me false; this time mage, if you or your kind are here your going to find out what real magic is." Joining everyone inside, Thorn is strangely focused, grabbing some food, before sitting back and relaxing a moment, waiting to hear what the plan is.

On waking Samm immediately noticed that one of his flock was missing, but he held his tongue. He had a pretty good idea of why she was gone - given the lack of a rude awakening and frantic activity chances were it wasn't because she had escaped. Besides, it was clear that Ajaoh was about to explain the state of the game to them and outline exactly what they had bargained away for their lives. He resisted rolling his eyes as she began her justifications. Several of his past employers had done similar things, made a whole song and dance about how what they were about to do was righteous or fair. The only idea ever sparked off in his head was a worry that it was all leading up to something like "so the gold doesn't really matter when you put it like that." Oh, he was fine with inspiring speeches, they did a wonderful job for the new recruits, but he'd seen it before, and at the end of the day it was still that sack of gold he found most inspiring. The rest just cut into his nap time.

He looked up again as Ajoah came to the end of her explanations, and got to the only relevant piece of information as far as Samm was concerned. As she stood he replied "Right. One hour. Got it." It was easier for him to treat this as just another job he'd signed up for - the familiar role comforting - and he tossed back the food rapidly.

He settled into the forced march fairly easily. The terrain was difficult, but the actions were the same, and he knew how to pace himself. It would have been nicer had he known exactly how far they needed to go, and had he known a lunch stop was in the offing he wouldn't have conserved as much strength over the morning, but the journey was delightfully uneventful in his mind. The weather appealed to him, too, aside from the snow. You wanted a nice grey day for an operation, else it got far too hot, and there was far too great a risk of someone spotting a flash of metal on the hillside.

As Ajoah pointed out the various targets Samm marked them in his head. "Refinery. Cathedral. Warehouse. Inn. All in all, could be worse, not likely to be many casualties aside from that inn, and I might be able to clear it out prior to blowing it." Clearly these Loyalists were more interested in interrupting production than wholesale slaughter for its own sake, and that was much easier to stomach. Thorn's comment earned him a sideways glance of suspicion from Samm and the thought "Oh I hope he hasn't cracked. That is not something I can deal with right now.".

Climbing down the tunnel to the bolt-hole however was not something Samm enjoyed. It was underground, and their last trip into a cave hadn't done anything to alleviate his dislike of cramped dank tunnels. He saw it as a perfect justification as to why you should always make sure you could see the sky in fact. Nothing good ever happened in tunnels. But despite developing a low grade grumble, peaking whenever he caught his foot or head, he continued on without complaint.

Tahlisha's joke failed to elicit any response from Samm as they finally entered, although it wasn't tight-lipped anger or intentional disregard, it was simply that now the vampire was an Employer, and you didn't fraternise with officers. You just weren't on the same level, and it made everyone uncomfortable. He helped himself to the food readily again, packing away as much as he could and secreting several pieces of more durable foodstuff around his person. Much like his chances to sleep, he treated every meal he got as the last one he could expect for a while when working - sure he might not need all the food he took, but it was better than going hungry. You could always tell the novices, just eating a light meal because they didn't want to get a stitch, laughing about the greedy old guy who apparently couldn't go 5 minutes without a snack and weighing himself down with all that extra grub, but when they were huddled in a ditch for 3 days in the pouring rain because people were still hunting them then their tune changed, and greedy old Samm didn't look like such a fool after all.

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