Act One: Fragile Peace

 
Elizabeth remains absolutely silent as Tobias speaks, and the spirits, too, never say a word; perhaps some, if not all of them already knew. At the smith's request, she walks off and quickly returns with the backpack, placing it with a somewhat puzzled expression by his side as it tips over, emptying out its only contents: A collection of thin wafers in a paper bag. With that done, she looks over at Lucretia, then back to Tobias, shaking her head slightly: As if to deny something now, rather than being a gesture out of exasperation.

"Alright, I suppose I could've been less harsh," she mutters after a few moments. "Now, I hate to say it, but we could all be dead in a month, theoretically. Could even be tomorrow. You're on a clock and you can't see how long the water's been flowing for. I can understand that, but the rest of us aren't too different. You just work a little differently, by the sound of it. But I don't believe in that, so let's move on for a moment." The shaman glances over to Lucretia again, sighing slightly.

"I know you meant well, priestess - fairly sure you did, at least - but I think he might be worried about a few things besides how much use we can get out of him before he dies. Still, you know him better than me." She looks back to Tobias again, pausing to catch her breath for a moment before continuing. "Could tell you there's plenty you can do in the time you have. Won't help. Not that there's much a stranger can say to help with this, so I'll just stick to what I can promise."

Her next words contain none of the uncertainty or doubt that one might expect from such a claim; to her, it is no speculation, no claim, but an absolute certainty, with nothing but iron confidence underlining each word. "Not on my watch. I'm not seeing you or anyone else here dying. And yes, before you tell me off, I heard every word of what you said. Trust me on this. Relax a little; you can afford it."

Tobias said nothing as Lucretia spoke, and his gaze dropped to one side - given the spat of emotion he had run through, it was difficult to read his face for the time being, but the way his eyes wandered away from Lucia... Was that guilt?

"E-Elizabeth-" The lad stammered as the young woman re-entered placed his backpack precariously, causing it to tip over; as it did, he sighed, and scooped the beat up old leather bag from the floor. As he reached for the other bag, the paper one, he paused, hesitating with a twitch of his fingers, before gingerly taking the bag.

Briefly, a pit formed in his stomach as he wondered where the rest of the contents of the bag were - before it quickly vanished, as he remembered he had distributed them around his barracks room. That'll have to change... He thought idly, intensely disliking the feeling of having his knapsack being empty.

Inside were a bunch of bread-like, wafer-like objects, a couple centimetres thick at most. Despite their thin profile, bland, square shape and simple golden brown colouring, the foodstuffs Tobias held looked... Dense, as if there were hidden mass to them, where a single bite was a mouthful when it reached your stomach - or so it looked.

While he listened to Elizabeth, the lad's eyes, and some of his focus, were on the bag and the food. His movements, a feathered touch and a slow hand, were filled with some strange reverence, as if touching ancient relics or beloved treasures, despite simply being a somewhat ratty leather bag and a paper bag full of breadsquares.

After placing the knapsack softly onto the table, Tobias gingerly opened the bag, looking up to Elizabeth every few moments to confirm to her that she still held his attention. A breadsquare, one of four, was removed carefully, and the bag was placed on the table, next to the leather pack.

Holding the breadsquare in both hands, shoulders slumped and eyes fixated on the food, Tobias stared at it with glazed eyes for a moment, before taking what may have been the world's smallest nibble from one corner. A mouse would envy his rationing skills. He kept the corner at his mouth, and continued to nibble for a moment, letting one hand fall to his leg as he consumed vastly small amounts of breadsquare.

When Elizabeth gave Tobias her word, her promise to him, he silently placed the breadsquare down on top of the paper bag, as gently and neatly as he could. He looked back to the young shaman, and smiled. It was the first genuine smile, not ear to ear, but broad none the less, that he had given in quite some time. In the back of his mind, the young smithy wondered something about what Elizabeth had said, but it was something of no use mentioning, nor giving much thought to.

"Whatever you say, Elizabeth." The young man rose from the chair, armour rattling softly, and stepped forward, his eyes briefly flicking to Lucretia. He paused, standing side-on next to Elizabeth, and gently placed his free hand onto the Willow Glen shaman's shoulder.

"I... I trust you to try your hardest for us - With us." He turned his gaze to the lass, locking eyes with the same, broad smile, so blatantly natural one would ask if it were real simply on its overbearingly real appearance. It was fairly obvious, however, that Tobias had avoided having to say that he trusted she would succeed - he believed quite the opposite, but the determination and certainty he heard in Elizabeth's voice gave him some measure of comfort, no matter how small; at times like this, he would cling to any measure of comfort he got, and his smile showed his appreciation to the young shaman, with a soft squeeze of her shoulder.

As he turned away, Tobias paced silently across the room, directly to Lucretia, making no indication he was heading anywhere else. His eyes locked with hers, and his smile faded to a very flat, neutral gaze.

"Don't worry about the council or the temples, Lucretia." Speaking with a surprising calm, Tobias waved his hand and smiled softly at the young priestess, but he made no effort to hide the smile was slightly forced - whether it was forced for Lucretia's words, or for the notion of contacting the councils and temples, wasn't apparent.

All indication of smile suddenly dropped away. Tobias stepped straight up to Lucretia, meeting her with less than a foot of space between them. He stood, eye to eye, in what would be considered an 'uncomfortably close' position, but neither had time to register it - all in one motion, the lad gently placed his free hand on her shoulder, and leaned in to her. It was a slow, deliberate move, and his touch was a gentle as ever...

His head passed straight by hers, and his lips paused an inch from her ear. His strangely cool breath brushed Lucia's ear softly - unexpected, to be sure, more so as he began to whisper something to the priestess, something he clearly took with with a weighty sense of seriousness.

Tobias, his body mere inches from Lucretia's, showed no hesitation, fear or doubt. A peculiar comfort lingered around him, in his form and stance, and the way he stood so close to Lucretia and yet felt so natural, his hand gently on her shoulder not in grasp but in perplexing reassurance, whispering softly in her ear; it spoke volumes of what the lad thought, and felt, of the young priestess. Suddenly, the lad seemed to hesitate, biting his lip and turning his head ever so slightly away as he thought over his next words.

He pulled away, finally, locking his amber gaze down into the Priestess' eyes, scouring them for some hint of comprehension, a sign that she understood what he said. Oddly, he seemed to care a great deal that she would understand; more than he had, at times, let on...

Lucia had already opened her mouth, a protest forming in her mind. What sort of other things did the Ashcombe girl thought he could worry about, anyway? Even if there were any, the priestess thought that she had addressed the most urgent concern a shaman could have. Still, she thought better and stayed quiet; she shouldn't keep sliding into a confrontational mood, after all.

Seeing that Elizabeth's words seemed to have made Tobias feel a bit better, she decided to let the two talk among themselves. If they can get along with each other, good for them, she thought, trying to dismiss from her mind the sight of his hand on her shoulder with a light shrug. Just as she did that, though, she noticed that she was being stared at. "Well," she tried to say something, "We will have to fight them sooner or later, and--" but her words trailed off as he walked to her and touched her shoulder.

She tensed up. What was he going to do? It was probably the worst time to get flustered, but all that Lucia could do was to hold her breath and listen to his whisper, what with him being so close to her.

HIS FACE IS TOO CLOSE

Despite her thoughts locking up on the slight embarrassment of it all, she could somehow still gather enough attention to discern what he was saying. It was so strange and cryptic, and Lucia wasn't sure on what Tobias was trying to tell her - she thought she knew what had happened to him at one moment, but it would elude her at the next. Regardless, she still gave him a solemn nod, her face turning slight red under his gaze, and stuttered, "I... I think I understand."

She stared back at him for a while with a mixture of concern and curiosity until realization crept in. "Um. A-at any rate," she muttered, her eyes darting away to break the awkward contact, "Don't... don't eat too much of your bread yet, Hearthfire. You'll ruin your appetite for lunch, it's almost ready."

It was a really weak attempt at changing the topic, but she added, quietly, before she turned back to the stove. "Please... feel better."

My. It seemed like Mal showed a new layer every time they spent more than a few minutes together; already he seemed deeper and more thoughtful than most soldiers Vivian had met. Theatrics as a dissuasive tactic was not a new concept, no, but coming from a terrible giant made of metal spikes, fire, and skulls, that sort of subtlety was even more appreciable. The commander nodded lightly as Mal boomed.

"He's a young man. They're all like that, and he'll grow out of it, given a little time." She smiled vaguely, finding something to lean on. The building, for now. Often it was her sword, but there was no need to wave that around today. She'd thought about getting a cane, but the very idea made her feel...well, a good deal older than she liked. The aches and pains she felt day-to-day weren't so bad as that just yet. Once again, Mal woke her from a reverie by speaking, though this time, her smile brightened and she looked up at him.

"I've seen better days, but that isn't likely to change anytime soon. It's certainly nice to see things so peaceful. ...The questionable activities of the young aside." Vivian let out a soft chuckle. She really needed to stop thinking of them as kids, but time after time they proved it to be the most accurate description, from Hearthfire's brash carelessness to the priestess's childish pouting. Elizabeth, she supposed, oughtn't be lumped in there, either.

"And you?" It was a bit awkward for her to exchange pleasantries with Mal - and it showed - but stranger things had happened. "You don't talk about yourself much, maybe I ought to worry more." There was a light, teasing tone in her voice, as there often was, though it was gilded with a certain gentle sincerity. She couldn't rightly imagine any reason to worry about Mal, in a physical sense, but he seemed to have his own hidden depths.

Tobias hadn't moved, and he never once broke his line of sight with the young, flustered priestess. As she turned, muttering something, he almost missed every word. She understood... At least, partly... The lad sighed through his nose quietly, his brow knitting ever so slightly; it was a challenge to not let the smallest of smiles pass his face. His hand had slipped away from her shoulder as she turned back to the stove, hanging at his side with an odd tenseness.

She asked something of him - catching the young soldier by surprise, though he didn't show it. Reaching out again, his hand hesitated this time, lingering in the empty space between them. Slowly, it gained the courage to shift, resting on her shoulder again. As it moved, so did he, shifting forward ever so slightly, to stand with no space between them, yet he endeavoured that they didn't touch, bar his hand. It didn't pull, or squeeze or tug. It simply rested there, in what could only be described as a silent 'thank you.'

"Only because you asked..." He murmured directly to the young woman before him.

In a blink, he was gone, along with his thankfully still-attached hands. He was already sitting at the table, in a flurry of near-silent motion that seemed neither rushed nor leisurely, yet inexplicably fast. It wasn't a speed for fear of rebuttal, nor one of rushing; he simply... Moved fast, and moved silently - though only Elizabeth would even be aware. He eyed the Willow Glen shaman silently from his seat, staring into her eyes, yet making no contact; staring as if he were trying to read a message, or scry some information only he could read.

Idly, the lad reached for his breadsquare, bringing it to his mouth unconsciously. As soon as it touched his lips, he paused, and tore his gaze from Elizabeth, down to the foodstuff. With a flickered gaze to Lucretia's back, as she finalised the food she had been cooking, Tobias took the paper bag from the table, and placed the breadsquare gently back into it. He sealed it and stored it away in his backpack, which he then placed gingerly on the ground, with that same, strange reverence. There, the soldier quietly awaited the lunch he had almost been forever banned from...

That thought actually scared him more than the fact that he nearly had lost his hand...

After Tobias's assurances - or if nothing else, acceptance - Elizabeth largely quiets down, pacing about her corner of the room for the most part. She meets Tobias's stare with a quizzical look and raised eyebrow, before shrugging and eventually answering him. "Well, now that that's over with, here's what I can tell. You're not injured. You're not sick. I'm going to assume you're not bluffing, either. No point. I can tell you'd rather not talk about it, but I'll need to know what's going on sooner or later, if I'm supposed to help you."

She picks up a water flask from the side of the pack she had left in the preceding corridor, opening it, then shaking it a little and muttering something incomprehensible. "Right. Empty. Of course it is." Dropping it into one of many pockets, she looks over at Lucia. "Priestess - or Lucretia, I don't really know what I'm supposed to call you - while I'm looking for a well, are there any, say, sacred ones I should be avoiding? Oh, and pass me anything else you need refilled too, while I'm at it; I'll try not to take too long being lost."

Lucia didn't dare looking backward, but she nodded as Tobias touched his shoulder nonetheless.

"Whichever makes you feel at ease, Ashcombe," she replied to her, shrugging lightly. As much her position mattered, a fellow shaman could probably be allowed some leeway. "The wells... None of them are especially forbidden, but if you're going to the one near the Water Temple you should ask the priests there first." She tilted her head toward a jug at the corner. "That one's for everyone staying here. You might as well fill that up, if you please."

"Well, the meal's about to be ready. I'm going to be very annoyed if we have to look for you until the meal's cold, so maybe you should ask someone to accompany you." She took a glance at the pan, and then at Tobias. She'd tell him to go with her, but maybe he was still getting a hold of himself...

"Just go to the Ashnar temple. It's the quickest and closest. Ask, but I don't think they'll mind, given it's taken by a shaman, for the shamans." Tobias added quietly on the end of Lucretia's words. "Besides, I doubt you'll get lost - I'm sure your spirit can help you find your way back. I'd imagine it knows the lay of the lands here by now." Somehow, the young, now tired-looking smithy managed to avoid taking a stab at Elizabeth's spirit - or so he hoped. He didn't want to remind everyone of the presence of the same spirit who had accompanied the previous Willow Glen shaman to enter the city's walls.

Giving Lucia one final, brief glance, Tobias sat in silence, and pondered something, his mind briefly slipping far off. With his head tilted slightly to one side, arms limp on his lap and shoulders slumping somewhat, at a glance to his glazed and unfocused eyes, one would briefly wonder if he were still conscious.

A clash that echoes against the invisible barriers, like the thousand before it, and the thousand more to come. Chanting, a whirling of magic, cut short by a sudden blast of rage and power, soaring back and forth again and again. The endless crash of steel on steel, or something stronger still.

The lad blinked, but his blank state hadn't shifted.

Howling, screaming, agony on all sides, and none would relent. An endless black void, pocked only by tiny stars, and something darker. The tireless, rhythmic singing of metal blades rustling against each other, shifting only to the beat of something far, far greater. Another blast cut across the ravaged landscape, scouring clean a hole in everything, and everyone, it passed. The screaming returned. The earth beneath it withered away to dust.

Unmoving, Tobias sat and stared into space; only the tiniest furrow of his brow, the smallest sharpening of his eyes, indicated he was still in his own mind.

And then, nothing. A barren field; seeds sown that were watered only with blood. Cradled in arms that shouldn't exist. Laid at feet that were not there. Haggard breath, a hitch of blood in the throat, choked words, spoken only in defiance to the bell's toll. Seconds slipped away, and everything grows darker still.

Finally, the lad's gaze began to drift downward, still deep in thought was he. A riddle, he pondered, that he could not decipher - not yet, at least, plagued the lad's mind.

Suddenly, he was standing, on feet that were his, and a heart that still beat. Cold winds bit at open wounds, keeping his mind from totally succumbing to darkness. A giant latch clicked, and the gates gave way. Roaring filled his blank mind. Figures assaulted his cold form. Hands, eyes, words, all grabbing endlessly for their answers - but he had none. He had none he wanted to give; none he could give...

And there he sat, rapt in his own thought. Slowly, Tobias sat forward, his pauldrons shifting quietly as he rested his elbows gently on the table; the rough-beaten metal caps that covered his joints sounding off softly as they touched on the wooden tabletop. Weaving his gloved fingers, the now tired-eyed lad rested his weaved hands against his lips, and continued to bore a hole into space with his blank, amber eyes.

The tall, silent hunk of armor that was Vulkan's own creation turned, once more, to glance towards the swordswoman it was addressing - and seemed to grow even more quiet, even more still, at the bright smile she was flashing at him. A strange occurrence for the golem, to be sure - most of those he came across would almost always have one of two expressions frozen on their faces, namely fear and awe (and sometimes, a frantic combination of both). It was yet another of the Commander's strange quirks that made the golem prefer her company than anyone else's - not that he always had a choice about the matter, anyway.

Oh, and Lucia didn't count. Lucia always scowled at everyone, and everything. Including him.

A clunking, ponderous grind from somewhere deep inside of Malcharion's armor followed the snarling of gears, pistons and oiled joints as the heavily-armored form faced forward again. To anyone else, it would've been another unexplained noise, another unknowable sound that came from whatever gave the brutish golem life, whatever gave it sentience.

To Malcharion himself, though, it was the odd way that his form translated an awkward chuckle.

[MY. APOLOGIES. COMMANDER.] The harsh growling of the golem's speech is a bit softer, now, so as not to frighten the townfolk walking past them, to avoid startling those that were still giving them strange looks as they continued with their mundane lives. [SILENCE. IS. A. HABIT. GOLEMS. ARE. AN. INTROSPECTIVE. LOT. AS. YOU. HAVE. NOTICED.] A waspish roar, like the buzz of a thousand angry bees storming into a tin can - and the grinding, clunking noise sounds again. [YOUR. CONCERN. IS. APPRECIATED. THANK. YOU.]

A moment of silence, pregnant of hesitation.

[I. WISH. I. COULD. HELP. THE. COMMANDER.]

Malcharion was still young, after all, despite his appearance. Despite his seeming wisdom, buried under a harshly-tusked elephantine helm, encased in armor made for demons and monsters.

Vivian wasn't entirely certain what to make of these sounds yet. Something didn't appear to be wrong; Mal - and more to the point, Vulkan - was more careful than that. She wasn't entirely sure he needed to be maintained, anyway. Everything wears down, of course, she reminded herself. In this case, it was just more accurate to liken Mal's maintenance to the dulling and chipping of a blade than the slow rot that she and his other fleshy companions suffered.

That noise, though, didn't seem pained. Could it be something of a laugh? Could Mal laugh? The commander's gaze fixed on him for a long moment as she chewed on this train of thought, but her smile hardly faded. Yes. That must be it, it must be a laugh. Mal seemed like someone who would laugh. And so, she chuckled with him.

Really, Vivian couldn't think of a soul that would agree with her. Except maybe Madrich. Which was the case unsurprisingly often. Even if she was wrong, though, she felt it was easier and quite possibly less rude to laugh a little when you weren't sure what to do. At worst, she figured, he'll think I'm a bit off. And who's to say I'm not?

At any rate, he didn't seem put off by it (though it was hard to tell with Mal). The next part was more difficult, though. It was...a sweet sentiment, one she hadn't really expected. One she didn't expect from anyone, anymore.

"...You're doing quite enough already. Just do what you're doing now. Be kind, and make sure whatever you're doing it, you're doing it for the good of as many people as you can manage. Beyond that, well..." Vivian laughed. It wasn't cold, precisely; maybe there was a hint of bitterness to it, but still. It was a sincere enough laugh. "Death is natural, and it's silly to fear it. I only hope I can do enough...at least, set enough in motion...that when Madrich comes for our final dance together, I can sleep peacefully. ...But knowing you'll still be around is already quite a comfort." Awkwardly, she reached over to squeeze...well. As much of Malcharion's hand as she could manage. In it, even her armored, battle-worn hand was frail, and it seemed all the more obvious that Vivian shook terribly when she wasn't making every attempt not to.

Could he even feel it? Golems were certainly odd.




 

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