Prologue: Morningveil

 
Immediately, Tobias raised a finger to Vivian, ready to retort, mouth open and all. Before he could even get a word out, she had stepped off down the road. He was left hanging, and felt his cheeks burn ever so slightly. With a gruff cough, he watched the pale soldier run off down the road with curiosity. Seeing her lurch into the air, contort and snap about, before being completely engulfed in dread-oozing shadow certainly put a knot in his stomach, however. Watching with a somewhat mortified stare, the lad stepped forward unconsciously, concerned for Vivian - he had no idea what was happening.

When the shadow had completed forming, it lingered for a moment. In his heart, Tobias felt something terrifying building from inside the mass; without warning, it was expelled, an invisible wall of dread and terror across the land. Instinctively, the young soldier spun on his heels, wrapping his arms around the Priestess protectively. Despite his effort, however, it felt as if the wave passed straight through him, cutting to the bone like a bitter winter wind, and all the dread that a cold winter's night would bring.

When it had passed, Tobias slowly relinquished his grip, leaving his hands on Lucretia's shoulders as his head pivoted slowly, gazing at what the shadow's dark wave had wrought with wide eyes. Turning back finally, he gazed at Lucia for a moment, staring straight into her eyes with a concerned 'Are you alright' look.

The moment didn't last, however, as he leapt back, relinquishing all of the light feathered touch he had on the Priestess, his face flaring red, visible even in the crimson glow of the flames. As he stammered to find words, the wall of the barracks suddenly exploded outward with some great force, and a black tower of spikes and flame emerged from the inferno of barracks.

Without a second thought, Tobias' hands went to his hips, to draw a sword that wasn't there. He gawked at his lack of blade, and eyes shot skyward at the massive figure that turned its fiery gaze toward him. With a weary sigh, the lad realised it was only Malcharion as he began to approach, holding something gingerly in one hand. The dark tower placed the bundle of cloth in his arms, and Tobias could only stare at it, a pit quickly growing in his stomach - it was about the right shape and weight to be something he desperately hoped it wasn't.

Shooting Lucia a concerned glance, Tobias gently shifted the balance of the bundle into one arm, letting the far end touch the ground as he removed the fabrics from one end. As they fell away, his heart dropped; he could almost feel the splash in his stomach where it landed.

For a brief moment, Tobias stared in absolute horror at the dirtied, but pale face of the shaman of Anshar in his arms. He observed the completely twisted features of the poor soul's neck, and began to softly shake; a shake that soon became almost violently uncontrollable.

"NOOO!" He howled suddenly, his raging cry piercing even the cacophony of chaos going on around them, echoing into the black, smoky night. He bit his tongue to stifle the howl, clenching the body in his arms. Each breath quickly became ragged; head bowed shoulders hunched as he fought back the tears. His whole body shook only once, rattling the banded mail he wore. With a deep, slow breath, he caught himself, and ceased the shake. The tears were held at bay before they began; he knew deep down there wasn't time for tears, that there was never time for tears.

Gingerly, he covered the face up, hopefully before Lucia could see the shaman's neck, and looked skyward to Malcharion, whose hollow, flaming eyes admittedly provided him with no comfort; he knew why the golem had brought the shaman.

"Thank you." He croaked up at the helmet, clearing his throat. With the care of a father and infant son, Tobias placed the body to the pavement, a little further away from the burning barracks, where he thought it would be safe.

He stood, for a moment, and took a shaky breath, before turning to the two; his eyes, however, were glued to the barracks beyond.

"We'll give him proper rights when this is done." He spat the words as he took off, striding at a meaningful pace. He spoke to and moved directly toward Lucretia, only to breeze straight by her as he finished talking. Without blinking or even, seemingly, thinking, he marched straight into the crumbling barracks, the flames licking him the entire way. In only a handful of seconds, he emerged at the same brisk, uncaring pace, but with something new - a longsword in his right hand, charred but otherwise fine. Attached to his left forearm was a similarly charred heater shield, the paint having long since boiled away from the surface. Both felt extremely hot against his leather, but he didn't care.

"Malcharion." Striding up next to the Priestess and the Tower, Tobias extended his shield to point off into the distance, at the neat, gaping hole in the city's wall.

"Seal the wall. Make sure nothing can enter through it again, and while you're there, see if you can spy who or what sent this attack, but do not engage. Once the wall is sealed, regroup at the city heart!" It was a bit of a shame Tobias hadn't accepted a leadership position in the Militia - with the way he dished orders, he'd have made a fine captain. His tone alone told volumes of the new sense of faith he had in the golem visitor, and he had no doubt in his mind that the black iron beast could more than manage the task.

"Lucretia." He started, identifying that he did indeed know her name properly as he turned to face the young woman. With a slight gulp, Tobias set his jaw and locked gazes with her. "You're a big powerful Priestess, right? Can you contact Anshar? The fires are getting out of control, and we don't have the manpower right now to put them out." He stepped forward, placing his left hand gingerly on her upper arm, close to her shoulder.

"We need support here. I need you to make it rain. Hard." The lad had clearly discarded all beef and gruff he held for the Priestess, at least for now. His voice, filled with a strange authority, yet also belied the need for her help - in fact, he made no effort to hide it. They needed to work together, and Tobias knew it.

"I'm going to defend the city heart. If they break it, the whole city will alight." He briefly gazed down across the city, toward its pulsing, flaming heart, and bit his tongue for a moment. Vivian may have dealt with the ground troops, but Tobias needed to figure out a way to deal with the air support, but they would be a real problem indeed - shooting them down was certainly not the answer, but he knew of other possibilities...

Turning back to the Priestess, he gazed at her again, but this time his brow knit with concern.

"Stay safe, and regroup at the heart when you summon Anshar, alright?"

Vivian's spell achieves the end meant for it but, thankfully, holds short of any overwhelming 'success'. A large portion - more than three quarters - of the golems on the ground, including those clustered around the central bonfire, sway slightly in place, then cease. Not one of them falls or crumbles to the ground; they simply fall quiet and still, returning to the earth they were dragged from and nothing more, still standing their ground as if they were weathered statues or a child's sculptures.

The wave continues past them, of course: Magic of this magnitude is not easily controlled. Though Vivian's caution restrains the damage as best she can, no such spell is ever truly harmless. In some, it might mean only fatigue and weakness for a few days to come. For others, sickness. For the weakest of its victims, it could sap several years of their life away. The cost, however great or small, remains hidden. No one, including the commander herself, will know, nor will her victims suspect anything. Even Madrich can scarcely measure the effects over such an area.



In answer to Tobias's call, a faint cloud of mist appears beside him. Anshar, no doubt alerted by the death of his shaman. It would hardly be the first time, as spirits are often aware of such events, should they be absent from the scene for whatever reason. The spirit, mute as ever, radiates a brief blast of cold to call attention to its presence. With this done, it begins to trace words in the air from thin trails of frost, somehow surviving the furnace-like heat of the nearby fire.

Present, it announces tersely. I will require a vessel for rain of any significance. A small blob in the centre of the fog, hovering water in the approximate shape of an eye, spins in place to stare at Tobias, then looks away, moving between Lucia and Malcharion. Priestess. Golem. If either of you are able to dismiss your spirits and serve as a host temporarily, I will attempt to deal with the fires.

The last of its words might go unnoticed, however, as yet another newcomer interrupts with a quiet cough that, somehow, cuts through the roar of the nearby inferno. An unfamiliar figure stands in the firelight, clearly a shaman judging by their unusual appearance. Brown eyes stare out from a face marked with no end of lines and wrinkles, ancient in comparison to one who otherwise could not possibly be past their late twenties. Whatever his armour or priestly robes might be, they are covered over, now, with a thick blanket of leaves, branches and vines, all of it seeming oddly fresh, as if it had not existed for more than an hour at most, grown into its current position.

"Silas Coalfield," he says in answer to the unspoken question, with a slight bow to show his respect. "Shaman of Willow Glen. My apologies for the death of your comrade, his abilities were... much too dangerous. Circumstance forced my hand." Somewhat unexpectedly, his words seem to be sincere. "I am responsible for this attack, as you may have guessed. The golems were delaying the city's ignition on my orders. Your attacks on Willow Glen have continued for long enough, and faced with collapse, I have little choice."

He makes a brief motion towards the houses in the distance, then looks between the three who still remained in human - or roughly human - form. He does not bother to address Vivian, assuming, presumably, that she is in no state to speak. "Surrender, disarm your army, relinquish your spirits on the spot, and your city will be welcomed as another part of our own. You have my word that not a soul within these walls will be harmed. Resist, and I will be forced to set the city alight, save for the temples. I will send what remains of my creations to escort as many civilians as possible to safety, but there will not be enough time for all of them."

He does not address the ultimatum to any shaman in particular: Anything but a unanimous decision on the matter would be meaningless. It only takes a moment more for his voice to lose whatever edge of command it had, taking on an almost pleading tone.

"Make your choice, and please, choose well."

What Madrich said was true, of course - she was pushing herself enough as it was, doing this at all. She had done enough. She had protected the city's heart, and it would be better to deal with the rest of the mudmen with a sword. Between the five of them, that oughtn't have been a problem, even with Anshar's lad handling the more delicate work of the sky creatures. The corpse at the center of Madrich's avatar fell to the ground, darkness dissolving from around it, then coughed violently, falling to a knee.

Overall, she actually felt rather good - the coughing streak was barely debilitating, and she was scarcely shaking. Short bursts like this weren't so bad. Now, how were the others...

"For the Spirits'-" Cough. "For the Spirits' sake, why are you just standing there?" Vivian called weakly out to the others. She thought for a moment Anshar's boy had joined them, but no, this man looked older. And somewhat damper. Not the comfortable kind of fresh rain damp, but the 'ew, I'd best get my boots if I'm going to go out walking' muddy sort of damp, with tiny bugs and worms and such. Altogether unpleasant.

As she approached them again, she swayed and shook for a few steps, but the closer she got, the firmer her stride became, for the closer she got, the more it occurred to her that this old man was rather important. She only caught the very end of his introduction, but it made her blood freeze and her face harden, her fists clenching at her sides.

It was the thrice-damned mudman shaman. Naturally. She began to speak immediately, but was cut off just as immediately by another round of coughing; the poor girl was getting entirely too excited right after a strain like that.

Lucia wasn't aware that she could experience such a wide range of emotions in that short a time.

When the shaman lad suddenly wrapped his arms around her, she grew stiff as a board while blood rushed to her face, and remained that way the entire time he embraced her. She wasn't even sure on the exact time Vivian and Madrich unleashed their wave of dread. As far as she knew, she only felt the heat of embarrassment the entire time - although some of that warmth could come from his touch as well, when she thought about it...

The girl tried to mouth a response when he stared at her, once again too close for comfort, but she could only open and close her mouth and tremble on where she stood. Why is he getting embarrassed as well?!

The sudden explosion from the barracks almost came as a moment of relief for her, although she still recoiled in surprise. What came next was much less welcome, though, as Malcharion succinctly delivered the news of the death of one of their own. Lucia bit her lips, glancing at the bundle on What's--on his arms. She could only vaguely recall Lord Anshar's shaman, but he didn't seem to be a bad person - a little lacking on confidence, but diligent in his own way. He wasn't even with them for that long.

Lucia's train of thoughts was stopped when he called her name, and gave her some orders. She narrowed her eyes in annoyance. Just who does he think he is?

It was then that Lord Anshar chose to reveal himself, and she bowed her head to him. His rain might be able to help them, but she felt some reluctance in dismissing her spirit. What would Lady Eos say? This wasn't even counting the fact that with this much oil, a rain might cause the flame to spread wider before it could finally be extinguished...

When the Willow Glen's shaman made his appearance, though, Lucia steeled herself. Murderer, she thought. Still, if he took such an extreme measure to prevent the rain, perhaps she could intimidate him. The priestess stepped forward and nodded to the rain spirit. She would be his vessel - temporarily.

Forgive me, Lady Eos, she thought, as she clasped the sphere of water to her heart. It didn't take too long before she managed to attune herself with the rain, but summoning one was an entirely different matter. As she closed her eyes and focused her mind to the sky, channeling Lord Anshar's power to gather the clouds... Nothing happened. She felt no power coursing through her body - this brand of magic was too different from the one she was accustomed to, apparently.

Lord Anshar, lend me your strength, she thought, as she prepared herself to try again.

Tobias was more than shocked when Anshar appeared behind him, turning with blade raised, only to relax slowly as its words appeared. He suddenly froze, a shiver running up his spine as Anshar indicated it needed a vessel, and someone to detach from their spirit. Horror crept into his heart as it laid eyes on him, before turning away to Lucia and Malcharion. Before he could exhale what would have been the biggest sigh of relief he had ever made, the shamans were all cut off by the sudden appearance of the Willow Glen intruder.

Gripping his sword tight, Tobias watched the shaman appear from a haze of smoke and dust. He grimaced at the man, and bit his tongue as the dark one spoke. After he delivered his ultimatum, the young lad instinctively sidestepped Anshar as Lucia contracted with it, and he briefly turned to watch, with a raised eyebrow. She clasped her hands and took in the spirit, and watched... As she did nothing. Seeing her try concerned the soldier, and he raised his shield hand to her, a gentle 'stop'.

"Lucretia. It's okay." Tobias said, his brow unknitting into a much softer look. He wasn't sure why he cared enough to attempt to reassure her, but when he did, he put his heart into his words, and, without noticing, it showed. Turning back to Silas, the lad took a considering breath, and a heavy sigh follow.

"Silas, is it?" He began, eyeing the shaman with a heavy gaze.

"You bring your golems into our city. Raze our home, try to kill us. You threaten our people with what they would see as slavery, or death!" Going from a conversational tone, to a loud growl toward the end, Tobias spoke.

"And-... You know what?" Suddenly pausing in the middle of what was clearly going to be a speech, Tobias raised a finger to the shaman, as if to say 'hold on.'

"I know you. You're Willow Glen's sole shaman, and, if I'm not mistaken, responsible for the city's survival to this point. Raises an interesting question." Lowering his hand, Tobias fell silent for a moment.

Tempus Fugit, I need your help. Can you make yourself known? The thought passed through his mind.

BOOOOOOOONG.

Cutting the crackling pandemonium of the city's sounds was a noise akin to a very loud gong, ringing as if it were just next to Tobias; the lad didn't even flinch at the sound.

A giant, brass disk sat next to him. It had always been next to him. It sat there, a few feet off the ground with nothing to support it, perfectly motionless, angled slightly between Tobias and the Willow Glen shaman. The face of the disk was white, and numbered one to thirteen along the inner rim, with thirteen aligned at the top. There were three brass arms on the front, of varying length; the longest pointed to the twelve, the middle length to the one, and the shortest to the thirteen.

As the bong faded, even Tobias' own awareness registered the appearance of his spirit.

"Did you bother to come all the way down here in person? Or are we talking to more earth and stone?"

Without another word, Tobias waved an open, palm-up hand in toward Tempus' face. Necessary, or overly dramatic? He'd never tell.

Can you che- Tobias intended to ask Tempus though his thoughts, to check and see if the figure before him was indeed the real Willow Glen shaman, and not a golem; Tempus, however, had already checked the moment Tobias had extended his arm.

The longest brass arm on the face of Tempus jumped forward a small unit; a loud, resonating metallic tick followed the sudden move. However, upon inspecting the face, the arm hadn't moved at all - it remained pointing at the twelve. Tobias furrowed his brow, and his eyes met the ground for a moment. His brow furrowed further.

"So... At least you've the guts to come to us in person. I can respect that." He finally spoke, nodding as he looked up. Without a sound, or any indication that it had never been there before, Tempus now sat directly behind Tobias, framing him neatly in front of the face.

"Very well then." He nodded, letting his head bow slightly. "You say you come to take us - to merge us into Willow Glen unharmed, and that if we act, you'll set us alight. That's the offer, and you give us the choice at the tip of a sword." His head bobbed as he nodded. Suddenly, the edges of Tempus' brass shape began to fade into... Nothing, encroaching ever inward until the spirit vanished.

SHOOM.

It a split second, happening all at once - Tobias moved, but it was unlike any move he had ever made, and, most likely, unlike a move any had really seen before. The young man seemed to 'fritz' on the spot, becoming transparent and sketch-like, and in that same instant, vanish altogether.

Or so it would seem. He may have vanished from where he stood, but the lad reappeared a few feet ahead, as if he were mid-step, and then vanished again. Tobias flitted in and out of sight, a different phase of a walking pose each time he reappeared for only a fraction of an instant - covering the entire twenty or so feet between Silas and himself in roughly a second. A rush of wind, dust and even the licks of the barracks' fire heavily trailed in his wake, bombarding the life shaman with air for a brief moment.

There, he stood, sword drawn, pressed against Silas' throat, the other hand gripping whatever could be grabbed with fire in his eyes. Somehow, in all of a second, Tobias had gone from where he stood, straight up to Silas - and yet, Tempus Fugit was nowhere to be seen...

"Let me make you a counter offer, then." The first few words out of his mouth... Resonated in a very strange, unnatural way, but before even he could determine what or why, the lad's voice returned to normal in the same sentence.

"Same conditions, different sword. See through our eyes if you've the heart." He growled.

"You have two options. Leave, and I will personally guarantee your safe exit - alone." Tobias began, the pressure on the sword against Silas' throat easing, somewhat. He added the final word with a quick snap of his gaze over his shoulder at his gathered peers.

"Stay, light the oil, speak an ill word of my friends, or injure one more citizen, and the consequences will be far worse than a city on fire." Slowly, Tobias shifted closer, until he stood dead eyed with the life shaman.

"You think that we would give up our home, that the people would? To threat of fire, of pain, of death? You're wrong. Would YOU DO THE SAME? Would your people?" Growling and yelling, Tobias continued his speech, but shifted back slightly. "I thought not." He hissed.

"You think you hold us so easily at the sword's tip - and you may indeed! But in the end it won't matter." Surprisingly, the lad took the blade away from the shaman's throat, and relinquished his grip. Having made his point, he let the tip of the blade touch the ground and took a step back, a sign of ease. "All that will come of this is death."

"If you burn our homes and our people, you won't return to Willow Glen alive - and you know the price of your death as well as the people of your city do." Tobias almost seemed to be calming down, his tone dropping slowly into less growly ranges, and more... Diplomatic chords.

"Your city, your people, will wither and die without you, as ours burn; that is, if the shamans of Morningveil don't slaughter it first - and I promise you, they will." He nodded, briefly darkening his voice.

"I can see it in your eyes, hear it in your voice; you don't want to do this - to risk these innocent lives. You've cornered the beasts - and if you strike, they will bite back, even if you raze every home to the ground, they will bite, hard." Grimacing, Tobias pushed on, his tone shifting slowly toward a very peculiar one - pleading.

"You wish to end this war, just as I do, but you do it with the stick. I'm only trying to stay your hand from so much death, for the sakes of both our cities." His shield hand extended from his chest toward Silas.

"So I turn the question onto you. Stay, burn us, die, and know that you will be responsible for your own city withering away, or burning to the ground; be responsible for the deaths of so many, so many of your own, and so many of ours. Or leave, with me; take your golems and go home. Then maybe one day, one day soon, you and I can look to peace, rather than death..." Tobias finished, raising his shield-hand to wave slowly over the city, exaggerating his point.

And with that, he fell silent, less than a few feet in front of the man, staring back at him with the same vague sense of pleading desperation the man had shown them.

Tobias hoped, deep down, that he could strike a chord with the man's good nature...

Even with the blacksmith suddenly face to face with him, Silas does not react in the slightest, utterly unfazed. His focus remains unbroken, as the automatons above, instead of holding still, continue their rounds, each moving to assume their positions. Two eyes, like beads of wood, stare impassively at Tobias as he makes his case. Even the appearance of the hovering clock seems to make no particular impression - simply another unexpected but irrelevant element, like Malcharion's presence.

"Yes," he responds calmly, though not entirely without some regret. "I am guilty of each of those acts, by my own choice - I would prefer not to do anything so indefensible, to go through my life without harming a single soul, to find peace and never set foot in your city on such a mission. I would rather do what is right, but we both know what our work means, don't we? Abandoning these luxuries, and instead doing what is necessary: What no other can or will do."

Lucia's attempt at channeling Anshar does not go unnoticed, eliciting a brief glance and a nod from him. "A good effort; a little more practice and you'll have the gist of it, but I wouldn't advise a second attempt just yet." The shaman then turns his attention to Vivian, now returned to a more human shape. "Your last attack, in case your memory has failed you - I would hardly expect you to keep track of so many - was just over two months past. The defense force was largely my own creations, but even so, you managed to cause seventy-two casualties. Commendable work, no doubt."

There is, as he speaks, no anger in his voice. That may only be through an effort to suppress it on his part, but nonetheless, it is absent against all the odds. "I knew every single one of them. Take one, for example, who I saw killed by an arrow in the neck. He was a medic on the fields, a carpenter at home, and not once had he ever harmed another. He was, at every moment in battle, unarmed." For a moment, the look he gives Vivian draws closer to a glare, but the aging shaman holds it back soon enough.

"His name was William. You couldn't have known that, of course. He was the faceless enemy, a target like any other. I would never expect you to know or care. You had a job to do, and as much as I wish I could, I will not fault you for that. I only want you to understand that he was not alone: There were many like him in Willow Glen, once, but you've seen to that by now. No doubt there were a handful like him here, too. These losses are never forgotten; should you attack, the people of Willow Glen, however ill-advised, will fight to the last. Your people are no different: Retreat today, and I only pave the way for an invasion following it, the end of my home in a month's time at most."

Silas lets out a heavy sigh, looking away from the commander and back to Tobias, casting a strangely unconcerned glance towards the soldier's sword as he continues to orchestrate the movements of the fliers above.

"And there you have it. Hold my ground in the city walls, and we fall. Retreat now, and you will destroy us - it may not be your wish, but your opinion on the matter is not as relevant as you seem to believe. War, after as much time as this one, carries a momentum of its own. But this? This could end it all: A unanimous decision by the city's shamans, as well as the dismantling of Morningveil's army, will force the city's hand. Tonight, there is some hope of change, and for that, I will do what I must."

A slight note of accusation creeps into his voice at last, as he locks eyes with Tobias. "Make a simple, heartless monster of me if you must - I would never think to denying the claim, but I am more than that as well. I make this offer at swordpoint because there is no other way you would accept it. You never wished for peace: You dream of it, and I, as much as I would rather keep your optimism, know that there are places where dreams cannot follow."

What few golems survive on the ground begin to back away, perhaps as a gesture of good faith, clearing away from both the city's heart and the crowd of shamans outside the smouldering barracks. "See through my eyes," he echoes, "if you've the heart."

An abrupt shrug follows this, with the rustle of leaves and crackle of snapping bark in its wake. "Or run me through on the spot, if you would prefer that. Risks aside, I could hardly blame you for that. You seem to be counting on the fact that the people of Willow Glen rely on me. Heartening, I suppose, that we are still allowed to hold a few secrets." A small, grim smile creeps across his face at this, not a touch of mirth in it. "There is another," he continues. "A second vessel. Her apprenticeship is not entirely completed yet, but given a few more days... well, it's little more than a matter of formality at this point. If I fall, there will finally be another to take my place."

Soon, the smile is gone, leaving only a stare from eyes that seem almost empty. "And that, in turn, means that I am no longer needed. I am free to do what I must." A brief pause, then once again, the same demand. "Make your choice, and quickly; I suspect I have less time to waste than any of you."

As the Glenner spoke, Vivian drew closer. They were not hurried steps, she just watched and listened quietly, her expression hardening, then softening again as he spoke to her. There was little anger, only a great sort of sadness that, gaunt as her face had become, looked unfortunately at home on her. Even as accusations were...admittedly rather politely...hurled, she did nothing but shake her head.

"...Tell me, can you say you knew the names of the men your creations killed? Certainly you don't believe yourself free of guilt in that regard. I've seen more than a few boys barely of age broken and crushed by them, and I often wished I had the luxury of sending those...things out instead of soldiers. Do you understand how fortunate you are? Do you know how many men we lost in that last attack?"

"It was more than seventy. I saw to their burials myself. I met with their grieving families. Do you believe, somehow, that you've any high ground between us? We're the same. We both live for our cities, for our people. Everyone here does."

The woman paused for a moment, nibbling at her lip.

"To agree to your terms is to spit on the brave men and women who died doing what they thought was right, who died for this city. You've already slain the watchmen on the walls, haven't you? What could we say to them? 'Because you died, the city was taken'? 'Because you died, Morningveil was broken and everything you ever fought for became worthless'?"

Another pause, and another shake of her head.

"What you're asking of us is no peace. We both know that. But if you truly think this is the only solution, then I pity you and your broken hope. Peace - true peace, true brotherhood between men - is not something you can achieve with anger and fire. If...my compatriots agree, then I wish you to leave this place, and end this bloodshed. No more fighting. No unnecessary war. We can speak another time as fellows. Our cities can become one, and we can extend Lady Eos and Lord Anshar's blessings to you, as well. ...And if still you refuse...if still you carry this...atrocity out..."

Her posture straightened and her expression hardened in an instant, soft, caring eyes turning to ice. "We will run you through, and the fire your creatures rain down will fuel our anger. Your flames will be naught but Lady Eos's brilliant light given form to us, a mere signal to take up arms and rid ourselves of your people. We will have your apprentice's head, and the head of everyone in your city, just as we have always done to those who would endanger us."

The woman speaking now neither shook nor coughed; there was no hint of her more typical motherly smile. This was a woman who had led men, who had seen death enough to greet its representatives with a gentle bow and an inquiry about the wife. Her gaze could pierce steel, and the idle flames of the city reflected in her eyes the Eosian fire that blazed in her heart.

Lucia visibly flinched at Silas' comment. He obviously knew what she was trying to do. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate harder. Lord Anshar, she thought, please.

His touch jolted her back to reality, though, and she knew that it was too late to call a rain. She had failed. Lucia looked away from his eyes, quietly separating herself from the rain spirit. Forgive me, she thought.

She could feel Lady Eos returning to her as she watched what happened next. That was actually a bit surprising, to see him finally unleashing his power like that, but what really stunned her was Silas' calm response at swordpoint. She listened on, right until his very last point.

And then she snapped. He had a successor, and this is what he was trying to do?!

"You," Lucia shivered with anger. Was that really all that she was feeling, though...? She wasn't sure, but she clenched her fists and took a step closer to where Silas stood. "You dare throw your life - a shaman's life - because of that?!"

"This! This is the life cycle of the mudmen's shaman!" She was screaming by now. "Either you're so... so deluded to think that we would agree to your stupid demand in this amateurish attempt at diplomacy, you shambling nitwit, or you're trying to throw your own life away, right this moment! And we all know that's what you're aiming for, you inconsiderate, short-sighted martyr wannabe!"

She channeled her spirit. A bright light radiated from her body, and it was as if she literally glowed from her rage. Even as it grew dimmer, something emerged from her figure - a pair of wings, unfolding themselves and flapping once to launch her into the heavens. Encased in her armor of light, she looked at the flying globs of earth floating before her.

Perish.

From her body, a ring of light grew and spread itself to engulf the sky of Morningveil. The city itself was untouched, but the globs were burnt right where they flew, leaving nothing - and for a moment, it was as if the day had come early.

Just as soon as she did that, Lucia returned back to her mundane form, and plummeted back to the earth. She could hardly know what happened next, her head pounding and her eyes seeing nothing but white, but she knew she was screaming and thrashing about when she had finished falling.

"You! You came to die here so that your successor would - so that your half-baked successor might be driven by vengeance?!" She spat. She probably looked crazy at this moment, a part of her mind idly noted, and was promptly ignored. "Curse you! Curse you and curse her too, if you think you could die and let her do the same thing as you did today, to have us slaughter all the mudmen's shamans and their pathetic city too!"

"No! You go home! You go home and try to at least think more about your responsibilities, you halfwiiiiit!"

Silent, monolithic in his stillness, the Golem stood and listened to his fellow shamans talk.

No one would ever get Malcharion to admit it, but the monstrous golem counted this particular activity as somewhat of a hobby. Of course, the obsidian machine had emotions, felt the need to put himself across to better facilitate communication - but he soon found that it was much more interesting, much more entertaining, to simply listen to those currently around him, silently marveling at how mere spoken words could mean so much more than their prosaic definitions. How the slightest inflection, the smallest twitch of the face, the tiniest tic in body language - could make one utterance of a single word mean something completely different from another.

And this particular bunch - fellow shamans, at that - amused him a great deal, for they gave him more than enough to listen to. An ultimatum, delivered with quiet dignity. Disbelief and desperation, delivered with equal amounts of righteous indignation and foolhardy heroic. A silken threat laced with hatred and polished with a cold fury. And - as Lucia fell from the sky - barely-coherent rage sprinkled with offended aristocracy.

It is then that Malcharion stops listening. He grinds into motion, joints rumbling, crunching as they move in concert - the massive warhammer in his hands being spun once, before being planted right into the ground in front of him, haft first. His brutish, harshly-armored hands now empty, they lift slightly upwards in concert, palms facing the freshly-ravaged sky.

He does not make the slightest sound as the soft, frilled form of the Shaman of Light plummets right into his grasp, saving her from a rather undignified reunion with the hard-packed ground. The shrieking bundle of indignation and sheer nightgown material thrust rather gently back into Tobias' arms a moment later. He is already moving forward even before Tobias' arms had closed around the still-enraged Lucia's form.

He is moving towards the Shaman of Willow Glen. And it's then that they hear it, even above his earth-shaking, thunderous footsteps. Even through the teeth-itching roar of his joints grinding, sparking as they move in concert. His hammer back in his hands, clutched below the breaking-maul with an undeniable purpose.

They hear the golem breathing. Each one a raking, rasping breath, turned into the guttural growl of a predatory beast skulking in the shadows. Reverberating from the dense metal of his tusked helm, each one seemingly making the fire glowing behind the elephantine maw's eye slits burn ever brighter.

Malcharion stops directly in front of the shaman, and even with his natural hunched form, he towers above Willow Glen's protector like a mountain towers over a hill. It is here, in such close proximity and direct comparison, that the differences between the chosen of the Forge and of the Forest are shown in stark relief. One is diminutive, yet bristling with life, lush with nature's bounty. The other as far removed from actual living as it could be - its appearance brutish, warlike, bellicose. Its singular purpose for death and destruction undeniable. Also, very huge.

[LEAVE.] The single word leaves his helm in an almost predatory purr - but it could have been a frightful wall of sound, one that crashes right into the pitiful shaman, to smash right through his mental defenses and cripple his resolve, the way it is uttered. The fact that it is the equivalent to a verbal threat from a nine-foot tall obsidian machine helps that.

Helpfully, Malcharion lifts a brutishly-gauntleted arm to point his warhammer at the gap in the city's defenses.

[NEVER. RETURN.]

Slowly, Tobias realised a terrible truth as Silas continued to speak. Above the din, and his words, anger boiled inside the young soldier, a crock pot of unvented rage. The worst possible outcome had occurred, in his mind. The Willow Glen shaman had not only understood every concept Tobias put forward, he had a single reason to bat them aside.

He was expendable. A martyr, for his people. The fury, but a kernel inside the deepest pit of his stomach, began to blossom into hideous, contained anger - threatening to burst its confines and maul any poor creature within range.

"You..." Through gritted teeth, Tobias' knuckles whitened as he desperately tried to crush the grip on his sword. His armour rattled softly as he shook, and stared unholy death at the shaman before him.

A MARTYR. YOU USELESS, PATHETIC, FUC- Internally, he began screaming, but it was for naught. Tobias despised the concept. If you're going to die, die defending your loved ones, not SIEGING A CITY! This had to end. Even with Vivian's backing, it wasn't enough - he drew back his blade, lashing out to grab the shaman's neck in a vice like grip, and as he put his heart and soul into driving the blade home, he heard a soft voice from behind that stayed his hand, inches from the shaman's ribcage.

Barely containing his rage, rattling like an erupting volcano, his head craned slowly around, and as he laid eyes on Lucretia, seething with the very same rage, the violent storm inside him almost flat-lined. He could only watch as the young priestess boiled over, and with some 'choice' eloquence, began to verbally decimate the shaman. It was a pointless endeavour, but in the back of his mind, Tobias admired Lucia's ability to avoid using some of the preferable words he would have loved to use.

Then, she began to glow. The tiny grin that had appeared on his face vanished, and his brow knitted, eyes peeling wide despite the rapidly scaling intensity of the light. His mind felt clouded - split between the gut-driven urge to run the shaman through, and spiking concern for the Priestess. Again, he didn't understand what was happening - powers were being displayed by his companions that he had never seen before, and he was completely stunned to respond.

Wings of light burst from her form, and Tobias involuntarily released Silas' neck, turning with a hand half-raised toward the ball of light and rage.

"Priestess?..." He murmured, taking a half step forward; suddenly buffeted by the surprise of the take off, the young woman being launched high into the ash-stained night sky. "Priestess?!" He called in vain, taking two further steps forward, all but dropping his blade.

All he could do was watch, and listen, staring wide eyed at the blinding light that had enveloped the young priestess. Briefly, a stray thought wandered into his mind - Such amazing power, from all these shamans... Why do I lack? Have I missed something? Or... Can Tempus not risk lending me this power?... Can I not handle it in my... State? With this brief thought, he would have felt slightly crestfallen - were it not for all the other things crowding his emotions. His situation was unique, he knew that, but had he really damaged his contract beyond repair? Was he too far... Gone?

As his mind reeled back to reality, and the ring of light blasted from the priestess' glowing form, Tobias found himself doing something he thought he wouldn't do: "LUCRETIA!!" He howled - but his call was, he hoped, drowned out by the light wave. With fear piling into his heart, the ring of pure, awesome light incinerated the air forces of the Willow Glen shaman to nothing - and for one, brief moment - it was daylight, and Tobias could see the priestess, so high above.

A sudden crunch from behind sounded as the world darkened again, his eyes unadjusted to the dim once more; Tobias only glimpsed the dark silhouette of a behemoth, impaling the earth with his mighty weapon, and raising his hands to the sky. His jaw, admittedly, had gone just a fraction slack at this point, and he watched, in amazement, as Lucia plummeted from the sky, politely cursing up a storm.

Before he realised - which, to him, was a bigger surprise than he would expect - Malcharion's form was visible in the crimson glow of the burning barracks, approaching the young, stunned soldier with something in his hand. For the second time tonight, the metal giant placed a body into his arms; Tobias was thankful this one was alive.

His attention locked to Malcharion approaching the shaman didn't last, as Lucretia began thrashing about in his arms, cursing and hurling insults in blind rage. With a furrowed brow, Tobias strode away from the life shaman and the iron golem, and when he had reached his intended destination, looked down at Lucia in his arms. Briefly, he paused, a chill running up and down his spine as Malcharion spoke - it wasn't the sound, but the words themselves, a threat he would be ludicrous not to take seriously...

"Priestess? Priestess..." Pulling the priestess gently against his chest, Tobias tried, with a feathered touch, to hold her still as she fought. Frankly, he was more nervous than he would care to admit, but his concern grew above petty fears.

"Lucretia!" He called, suddenly and shockingly, desperate to have the creature of rage's attention. "Lucretia..." He repeated - the third time he had said her name, to his memory. Bending down gingerly on the spot, and with careful balancing, Tobias scooped up a bundle of fabric off the ground, where the girl had been standing.

"You did great." What. The first thought to rocket through Tobias' mind as the most unexpected words left his lips - but apparently, his instinct had completely disregarded his mind's confusion. "You did it, Lucretia... You wiped them all out. All he's got left is the city heart, and few forces left to assault it - we can defend that - there's nothing he can do now. You did it. You did it..." His voice dropped further and further as he spoke, focusing less on the words and more on the tone, slowly shifting to a cooing reassurance.

Dropping to a knee, he rested the young woman's legs on his bent knee; with a flick of his wrist, trying not to 'bounce' the poor woman in his arms, Tobias opened up the clothing he'd taken out of the barracks - what felt like a day ago - and draped it somewhat roughly around her shoulders. She still wasn't dressed, try as he might not to notice, and such magical displays were incredibly draining, if Vivian's spell was anything to go by; the priestess still seemed to have a hell of a lot of fight in her, a thought which gave the young soldier a moment's peace.

Finally, he tried to make eye-contact with the fiery young woman in his arms, rubbing his free hand over the fabric he'd laid on her shoulders, pulling it around to cover her more.

"You did great..."




 

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